I forgot a likely development when I made some forecasts about ’04 Best Picture Oscar nominations a couple of days ago. I guess I didn’t want to consider it.
Almost every year there has to be one semi-awful, vaguely embarrassing Best Picture nominee. You know…a flick that people like me tend to despise or worse but the Academy tends to (a) emotionally support despite overwhelming taste considerations to the contrary and (b) is more than willing to risk tarnishing the Academy’s reputation in history books by actually giving it the Best Picture Oscar.
I’m talking about nominees like Chicago, Ghost, Babe, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Chocolat, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Mission or The Color Purple.
(Let’s acknowledge upfront that my including Return of the King on this list will provoke a torrent of letters calling me a rash and injudicious Peter Jackson hater. Okay? Now you don’t have to write them.)

If there’s a contender of this sort this year, it’ll most likely be Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera.
It may turn out to be wonderful, devastating, heart-palpitating, etc. But with Schumacher at the helm the odds favor the likelihood of something overwrought and oppressive.
I know it’s imprudent to stick my neck out like this, but I feel I’ve come to know Joel, and I’m convinced that his directorial hand is generally something to be wary of.
I became a surprised Joel fan after Falling Down and The Client , but then he did A Time to Kill (an all-time Otto Preminger film from hell) and his two nipple ring-and-codpiece Batman movies (both awful) and I was off the boat.
Okay, Tigerland was a decent bounce-back effort and Phone Booth was a solid urban thriller with a good Colin Farrell performance, but Flawless was a wash and Veronica Guerin missed it big-time.
Phantom‘s chances may be upped by acting and tech credit noms. I was told last night that Emmy Rossum, who plays the lead Phantom role of Christine, will emerge with an enhanced rep…assuming she scores. She was last in Dan Ireland and Jim Jermanok’s Passionada, which I’d now like to finally sit down and watch just to see how she is.

Once Again

So figure the five finalists will probably be selected from the following nine movies:
(1) Sideways, (2) The Aviator (although I’m starting to feel a little bit twitchy about this one), (3) possibly Alexander, (4) quite possibly Spanglish, (5) The Motorcycle Diaries (an increasingly big maybe, like I said two days ago), (6) probably Hotel Rwanda as a liberal guilt-trip nominee, (7) probably Closer if the alleged “plays a little cold” factor doesn’t overwhelm the content, (8) The Phantom of the Opera, and (9) if Bush loses (and we all know the odds at this stage), Fahrenheit 9/11.

I think it’ll be criminal if Sideways and The Motorcycle Diaries are left out, but that’s me.
If it was me alone choosing from the films released so far I’d make it these two plus Collateral and Touching the Void.
And oh, yeah…I haven’t even considered John Madden’s Proof (Miramax, 12.25), but the Broadway play was awfully good and playwright David Aubrey wrote the screenplay, so who knows?
There’s a concern in that Proof has the slight Gwynneth Paltrow curse factor to contend with. (Everything she’s done since The Talented Mr. Ripley five years ago has been mediocre, with the significant exception of The Royal Tenenbaums). On the other hand, one should never dismiss an end-of-the-year film starring the great Anthony Hopkins.


I Heart Huckabees (Fox Searchlight, 10.1) shot right through my skull on Wednesday night and came out like some cosmic effusion and just sort of hung there above my head like a low-altitude cloud, sprinkling gentle misty rain.
No, that sounds too tranquil. A movie this funny and frantic and this totally off-the-planet (and yet strangely inside the whole universal anxiety syndrome that we all live with day to day) can’t be that cosmically soothing. That’s not the idea.
But it is soothing… that’s the weird thing. Huckabees makes you laugh fairly uproariously, but it leaves you in a spiritual place that feels settled and well-nourished. Variety‘s David Rooney said it was “largely an intellectual pleasure with a hollow core.” Rooney has probably never been wronger in his life. Not because he isn’t smart or perceptive, but because he failed to do a very important thing.
He didn’t see Huckabees twice.

This is one of those rare movies in which you have to double-dip it. You obviously don’t have to take my advice. Go ahead and just see it once and then say to yourself, “Well, that happened!” Just understand that Huckabees is, I feel, too dense and arch with too much going on to fully get it in one sitting.
On one level it’s a kind of psychobabble satire; on another it’s the most profoundly spiritual Hollywood film since Groundhog Day. And the amazing-ness of it may not come together in your head…if at all.
That’s how the first viewing happened with me, at least. I was initially into it on a “whoa…what was that?” level and for the antsy, pedal-to-the-metal pacing …but it goes beyond that. The first time is the eye-opener, the water-in-the-face, the violent lapel-grabbing; the second time is da bomb.
There’s something else that Rooney probably couldn’t help when he wrote his review. I’m guessing he’s not really a “blanket” kind of guy. Blanket acceptance is what this film is about (and is what passing through the doors of illumination usually entails…you can’t reason your way into a Godhead realization).
Huckabees is about the blanket, and you either get this and it makes you laugh and turns you on at the same time…or it doesn’t and you don’t.

Imagine sitting in a theatre and laughing in a half-chuckling, half-hysterical way. And mulling over some basic tenets of eastern mysticism at the same time. And also feeling amazed and throttled by the most relentlessly verbal machine-gun Hollywood comedy since His Girl Friday. And also doing that outboard-motor thing against your lower lip with your right index and middle fingers and going, “Bee, bee, bee, bee, bee…”
(Recognize that graph? I just plagiarized my own WIRED item.)
Huckabees is about movie stars and laughs and hyper-energy, but boiled down to basics it’s essentially about a philosophical feud between two schools of thought — one that says life is perfect, harmonious and essentially divine, and one that says that life is merely a series of random and disconnected occurrences that are more often than not painful, and sometimes much worse.
The more positive alpha view is articulated and passed along by an existential detective agency run by Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffma, Lily Tomlin). The darker, more nihilist approach is espoused by Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban, a former colleague of the Jaffes who’s crossed over to the dark side like Annakin Skywalker.
The guy in the middle of these two factions is an environmental activist named Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman). First he goes to the Jaffe’s for help in sorting out his life, then he takes up with Huppert (an alliance that carries a side benefit of great mud sex), and then….I’m not spilling the ending.

The Jaffes quickly discover that Albert’s troubles are mainly stemming from a rivalry with a shithead executive named Brad Stand (Jude Law) who works for a retail chain store called Huckabees. Albert is pissed at Brad for challenging his authority as the head of an envuronmental actiivst outfit called the Open Spaces Coalition group. Albert is fervently anti-development when it concerns marshlands and whatnot while dickhead Brad is pro-development and pro-greed.
Then, weirdly, Brad hires the Jaffes to look into his own life. This in turn leads to his girlfriend Dawn (Naomi Watts), Huckabees’ sexy spokesperson/model, to hire the Jaffes to look into her life, which leads to her refusing to play the sexpot and to exploring her inner infinite self, an exercise that involves shunning makeup and wearing an Amish bonnet.
Albert eventually becomes disillusioned with the Jaffes and hooks up with a philosophically-driven firefighter named Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), another client of the Jaffes who’s drifted over to Vauban’s way of thinking. For a while they’re a kind of threesome, but then Tommy gets cut out of the equation. He rebounds when he couples with Dawn during a rescue mission at her home. For him (and unlike Law), her bonnet is totally cool.
Does I heart Huckabees get you emotionally? No…and yet, the more you let it in and the longer you think about it, yeah.
Wahlberg gives my favorite Huckabees performance (he’s really good as conveying that frenzied-spiritual-seeker quality), but the entire cast is fairly killer. They all do amazing stuff, and there are all kinds of fine actors (the great Richard Jenkins, for one) giving great supporting perfs.
Schwartzman has finally tied into a role as good as “Max” in Rushmore, and hail to that. Jason’s a very spirited and likable fellow. I’ve been running into him at parties and restaurants and whatnot going back to the Rushmore days.

Law is seven or eight times more intriguing here than he was in Cold Mountain . I love his unsuppressable vomiting in the Huckabees boardroom scene. There’s another bit in which he sticks his tongue out while looking in a bathroom mirror that’s oddly classic. I’m predicting right now it’ll be used for a Jude Law tribute reel when he’s in his late 60s or early 70s and being honored by the AFI or the American Cinematheque.
Tomlin’s performance is the best she’s given in years on-screen. Hoffman is mostly hilarious. Watts is tonally on-target in every scene she’s in. Huckabees allows everyone to stretch and wig out in such unusual ways it’s almost like a theatre high. It’s an unleash-your-inner-nutbag thing for everyone involved.
I might as well borrow from another WIRED graph for a wind-up…
Russell told the New York Times that I Heart Huckabees is “all an existential meditation.” You will go into this movie as one person, and come out a little less regimented, a little more free. In the final analysis any film that makes you want to find spiritual clarity or satori is, I think, a good thing. Or don’t you agree?


I went to the I Heart Huckabees premiere and after-party at the Grove the night before last (9.22). It happened inside a two-story retail space normally inhabited at the Grove by…I forget.
Like all parties, it got better the more everyone had to drink. There weren’t too many people, which was nice. All kinds of great food was served, most of it prepared in thematic harmony with the film.
I worked my way past the goons in the roped-off area and had friendly chats with David O. Russell, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert and Naomi Watts.

(l. to r.) Huckabees theme song composer Jon Brion, writer-director David O. Russell, unidentified brunette posing for photographers at end of Wednesday night’s Huckabees shindig

I especially enjoyed meeting songwriter-singer Jon Brion, who performed the Huckabees theme song “Knock Yourself Out” in front of the crowd before the screening began. I love this song. Hearing it made me want to badger the Searchlight publicists for a free Huckabees soundtrack. I’ve been told I should buy Brion’s CD “Meaningless.” If you’re in L.A. he performs at Largo on Friday nights.

Aspect Ratios

I asked two or three publicists at a recent press junket whether the film being promoted had been shot in Scope or widescreen (2.35 to 1) or standard Academy ratio (1.85 to 1), and nobody could answer. Two of them said words to the effect of “I’m not up on the technical side of things.” The aspect ratio of a film is pretty basic stuff. Why did I need to ask? Good question. I guess the movie was so absorbing for its inward elements that I simply didn’t notice.

Two New Columns

There’s a new front-page column starting today called “What Lies Beneath,” written by Dezhda Mountz. The focus is more or less the social-political issues that are highlighted by this or that film. It’s located just below the VERBATIM column on the lower right. Dezhda’s a good spirited writer, so please give her a read. There’s no e-mail link for her presently, but I guess we’ll fix that soon enough.

There’s also a new Hollywood Elsewhere DVD column debuting on the front page, on the left just under the navigation bar. It’s called DISCLAND: DVDs Are Crack. It’ll be up and running no later than Friday, October 1.
DISCLAND will be co-authored by myself and Hollywood Elsewhere columnist Kim Morgan on a weekly…I was going to say a weekly basis but we’ll probably bang it out as often as the passion strikes.
The deadlines and writing load will probably get overwhelming from time to time, so if anyone wants to submit a review of any upcoming or just-out disc, or if they have a think piece or investigative inquiry of any kind, send it on.


New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd during a discussion of her book, Bushworld, at L.A.’s Skirball Center on Thursday, 9.23. I arrived late and there were no seats, so I sat on the floor right in front of the stage. Dowd’s book is a brilliant Dubya dissection and well worth reading, and she’s a fascinating off-the-cuff speaker. However, she was a bit on the guarded, circumspect side when it came to probing questions from the audience. Dowd was interviewed for roughly 100 minutes by fellow Times columnist Alessandra Stanley

Sideways and Under 25s

“I have to disagree that adolescents will line up with anticipation for Sideways even if the buzz is outstanding. There is no chance teenagers and young adults will be able to relate to a wine tasting journey taken by two middle-aged men who are are coping with personal issues, etc.
“It doesn’t matter how much of a genius Paul Giamatti is — they still will not be persuaded. The majority of adolescents are not looking for a sophisticated, thoughtful, critically acclaimed film. They’re into cheap, easy-to-swallow crap.
“Hopefully the movie will be lucky and make as much as About Schmidt at the box office but that will only happen if Sideways gets substantial Oscar heat and word-of -mouth. Sideways should not rely or count on loyalty or support from the majority of the under 25 crowd.
“Since Payne’s Election was set in a high school and had teenage characters (okay, 25 year-olds pretending to be that age) in lead and supporting roles, and was conspicuously produced by MTV Films, it should have almost been a decentp-sized success at the box office. The movie regretfully turned out to be a flop. I went to see it in an almost completely empty theater on opening weekend.
“The sad reality is that if adolescents want to witness `guy rage’ on screen they’re going to go and seek out the latest Adam Sandler movie.
“For the record I can’t wait to see Sideways since I trust Alexander Payne to be immensely talented and skilled at his craft. I regard him as a truly exceptional director who consistently produces quality. From what I have read about Sideways I am sure it will be an incredible and [thing] and well worth waiting for. I’ve never been let down by Payne and I hope he this will continue.” — Laurence Price , Toronto, Canada.

Howling Man

“I have a friend who is a struggling film maker who certainly agrees with you that George Lucas is the devil incarnate, but I have a tough time agreeing with that. He’s just doing what he wants to do. I’m not saying that his recent stuff has been good, but its his dollar so he can make whatever he wants.
“The real blame has to fall on the viewing public. They’re the ones who pony up the cash to watch mind-numbing garbage like Van Helsing or The Day After Tomorrow. The fact that both Aliens vs. Predator and Resident Evil 2 opened up at number one says all that needs to be said.
“One other big point on George Lucas, I absolutely love both Empire and Raiders, and the fact that he produced those two films atones for all the other junk that he’s kicked out.
“By the way I was pretty impressed by your political analysis last week. You made me realize that Republicans and Democrats can agree on one thing — our candidates both suck! It also showed me how desperately we need a true third party in our election system.” — Jeff Horst

“Don’t think the irony of the Star Wars plot is lost on George Lucas either. He conveys this in a documentary called “Empire of Dreams” that’s included in the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set. (A one-hour version of the doc was aired on A&E before the DVDs came out, which has a two-hour cut). It has footage of Lucas ruminating on becoming the corporate empire he was trying to destroy, and a lot more.
“I guess you had to get a new George Lucas rant in on the new site (nice job, btw), but just let go of your hate. Or when Episode III: Revenge of the Sith comes out in May ’05, just run the same stuff you have up to now with a disclaimer at the top that this is a reprinting. It will save a lot of time for everyone. ” — Dave Murdock
“There is a tendency to look upon great artists the same way one looks upon one’s parents, which is that they have to be perfect. Any slight shortcoming is magnified as a horrendous flaw, and any mistep in motivation seems utterly evil.
“You can’t call George Lucas evil, though. He hasn’t done that kind of bad thing.
“Lucas’ only real mistake of late is to not bring in outside screenwriters to subdue the flaws in his more recent screenplays, thus disappointing millions of fans who expect to relive that moment of spellbinding trasfixtion with which the greeted the first Star Wars movie with every new one. But that’s not evil.
“Microsoft is evil. Their monopoly is so pervasive that word processing programs are no longer being improved through competition.
“Lucas, however, is working to expand the technology of filmmaking and share that expansion with his fellow artists. He has never tried to suppress a technological innovation, or prevented its development. You could make a case that by initiating Pixar he is responsible for the eventual death of traditional animation, at least on a feature scale, but that would be stretching things given the progress of technology outside of his control.
“It was the development of television, not Lucas, that brought forth the death of gradual roll-outs. While it took Hollywood a little bit to pick up on the trick, it has long been a staple of entertainment flim-flam that you try to fool as great a potential audience as possible before word gets out, and with network commercial buys and saturation bookings, any decent movie that receives that kind of treatment is going to get the blame for the turkeys that follow.

“‘Idiotic high concept movie formulas’ have been around since the 1910s. Any time there is a hit film, greedy movie companies try to get out their cookie cutters and profit from the scraps. They have also been dumbing movies down for just as long.
“How has Lucas possibly `maligned the idea that the making of quality movies had value in the Hollywood marketplace’? Not counting Howard the Duck and Radioland Murders, even his failures have been quality productions, and he has lent his support and reputation to numerous artists from Akira Kurosawa to B.W.L. Norton. He’s led the development of improved quality in sound systems and mixes in motion picture theaters and in home theaters, and he has hastened the development of the integration of animation and live action, opening a vast array of subject material to be tackled by the motion picture industry that has been beyond their grasp in the past, such as the outstanding Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“Nope, George Lucas’ supremely evil act was to make Star Wars in the first place, because it is such a good, wholesome, exhilirating and satisfying film that it made almost all other movies, including many of his own, seem inadequate; just as the supremely evil act parents make is to conceive the individual who then blames them for the disappointements brought on by life.” — Doug Pratt, editor, DVD Newsletter.
Wells to Pratt: “Outstanding” Lord of the Rings trilogy? You don’t have to say this stuff any more, Doug. Jackson has his Oscars and all you Rings lovers can come clean now and admit to the world what agony these films have always been to sit through. C’mon, man…you’ll feel better. Spill it.