Tom Wolfe‘s “The Pirate Pose,” a Conde Nast Portfolio piece about the coarse (and in some cases appalling) social profiles of hedge-fund multi-millionaires, the 21st Century masters of the universe, is an amusing, well-composed read. It was clear two years ago that the hedge-funders were the eager-beavers one needed to talk to about independent movie financing, website-purchasing and any other mode of financial entertainment-industry investment, but I wonder what the very latest tea-leaf reading may be in this realm.
“The collision of new money and old money or, to be more accurate in our American context, slightly older money, has been a recurring drama,” Wolfe notes early on. “At the turn of the 20th century, Edith Wharton established herself as perhaps America’s greatest female novelist by focusing on precisely that. But the current new breed stands apart from all the rest for two reasons.
“First, they have more money, infinitely more, than any of the various waves of new money that preceded them, with the possible exception of robber barons on the order of John D. Rockefeller, who, incidentally, was regarded as a rude Pocantico hillbilly Baptist by society in New York a hundred years ago. Second, hedge fund managers are possessed by a previously unheard-of status fixation.”
And I love this graph about a certain coloration of hedge-fund multi-millionaire trophy wives, whom Wolfe describes in aggregate terms as “Twinkies”:
“The twinkies who have their eggs fertilized by their husbands’ sperm in a laboratory, creating embryos for implantation in the wombs of surrogate mothers who are paid to manufacture children for delivery in nine months, since why on earth should any wife whose husband is worth a billion or even $500 million have to endure the distended belly, bilious mornings, back cramps, not to mention a cramped social life, to end up with her perfect personal-trainer-sculpted boy-with-breasts body she has spent thousands of sweaty hours attaining, ruined… tempting her husband to survey all the little man-eaters out there, including those former wives who used to meet regularly at the Boxing Cat Grill until it burned down, whereas the current wives leave their husbands catatonic before the plasma TV and meet three or four times a week at one local bar or another and drive home in their Hummers and bobtail Mercedes S.U.V.’s, bombed out of their minds, while waiting for the baby to come from the factory…”
I’m now searching around for two or three easy-reading columnists who’ve been keeping tabs on hedge-fund investment activity in the entertainment industry and reporting about it in layman’s terms, and if anyone has any tips…
Right off the bat, a line in Michael Fleming‘s story about Gus Van Sant‘s yet-to-be-written adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test gives pause. I’m speaking of the Variety columnist writing that “it’s likely Wolfe will not be a major character in the film, which will focus on Kesey and include events that occurred after the road trip.”
Sorry, but this falls under the heading of a Big Mistake. If you’re going to make a film that’s mainly about a bunch of visionary free spirits ripped on acid and driving a psychedelic bus around the country, you need an against-the-flow punctuation character — a dispassionate overview guy wearing a suit and taking notes and not dropping tabs. Obviously! Anyone who knows the first thing about writing ensemble pieces will tell you this.
Because the entire universe is contained in every blade of grass, I’m afraid the Wolfe deletion is a serious stopper for Van Sant’s Kool-Aid project. Without a Wolfe character the film will be a little too Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. Too crazy-60s monotonous, too indulgent-flamboyant. Ken Kesey this, Neil Casady that, etc. Bring in Wolfe and we’ll talk but without him, forget it.
In anticipation of Neil LaBute‘s The Wicker Man (Warner Bros., 9.1), yesterday I rented a DVD of Robin Hardy‘s ’73 classic of the same name. (The extended version, of course.) Sharply written by playwright Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), it has a reputation of being an exceptionally creepy piece. Which it is, although it contains only one big jaw-dropper at the finale. Which there’s no forgetting. And yet it’s far from a horror film.
Boiled down, Shaffer and Hardy’s Wicker Man is a correctly mannered, somewhat dry parlor drama with an undercurrent of female eroticism and faint malice. It’s pretty much all talk and inference, but in the service of something quite strange.
Nicolas Cage, director-writer Neil LaBute during filming of The Wicker Man (Warner Bros., 9.1)
It’s about a rigid, devout, clearly uptight Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) visiting a pagan society on an island off the Scottish coast in search of a missing girl, and his being constantly deceived by the locals in a strangely uniform way. Every last islander is either blank-faced or oddly cheerful, which seems especially weird in view of what they’re all planning. Lo, how righteousness spirals upward to the heavens, contained in a twisting plume.
The Wicker Man wouldn’t work nearly as well without the hammer-like energy and fierce conviction that Woodward brings to his role of Sgt. Howie. There’s no ques- tioning this cop’s intense Christian convictions — he’s all about discipline, rectitude and butt-plug righteousness. And, of course, sexual repression.
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What happens to Howie at the end is what The Wicker man is all about — a metaphor about the fast-eroding influence of traditional Christianity in the face of the newborn spiritual currents of the late ’60s and early ’70s (LSD mysticism, Bhagavad Gita, Tom Wolfe‘s “third great awakening”) and the general shirking of tradition.
What will the metaphor of the new Wicker Man be? Labute wrote the script (naturally), and one of his changes is that the remote island society is now matriarchal instead of patriarchal, as it was in the ’73 film. (In this light, Ellen Burstyn is the new Christopher Lee.) LaBute said at Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago that the film is at least partly about the fact that “women scare me more than men,” or words to that effect.
With men’s social dominance eroding over the last 35 or 40 years, their powers increasingly diluted and on the downswing and guys feeling less and less vital, it seems reasonable to assume that LaBute has made tthe growing stength and independence of women (and the way this has made some guys feel) the focus of his film.
What’s for sure is that LaBute hasn’t made a standard-issue Lionsgate shocker. More assaultive than the ’73 film, but relatively restrained by the standards of 21st Century jolts and gore. And however it turns out, something his and is alone.
In a piece by Charles Lyons in today’s , LaBute says, “Even if there are a few people who are pushing you in saying, `We would love it if this movie was Saw for the first weekend, and it was The Sixth Sense for the next five weeks, you ultimately have just one film that you can create.”
The Wicker Man “probably has a number of scenes that are bloodier than anything in the original,” Lyons reports, adding that LaBute “deliberately exercised restraint in using special effects that, as he put it, provide only a ‘moment’s pleasure.'”
LaBute’s film, says Lyons, “will echo its forebear’s intelligence, even if that means making the contemporary audience work a little harder than usual. ‘If The Wicker Man is a thinking person’s horror film,” says LaBute, ‘that’s great.'”
Like Sgt. Howie, Cage’s cop — called Edward Maulis in Labute’s film — is conservative-minded but more “suave” than Woodward’s character, or so Lyons reports.
This lewd and leering shot is from a scene always mentioned in any discussion of the ’73 Wicker Man — a musical number (yes, a musical number) featuring Britt Eklund, whose singing voice was dubbed by either Annie Ross or Rachel Verney.
One curious thing: Lyon’s article devotes five paragraphs to the fragile ego of Hardy, the original Wicker Man‘s director, specifically his conviction that he was slighted by the producers of the new version when they failed to show him a copy of LaBute’s script and/or declined to let him see the film. Five paragraphs out of 22 — more than 20% of the piece.
The point, I guess, isn’t that Hardy’s feelings are hurt as much as the Wicker Man team doesn’t want anyone knowing what they’re up to.
This seems to be so. The Warner Bros. marketing plan doesn’t seem to include letting guys like me see The Wicker Man early and possibly writing about it. I’ve been trying to get an early peek since early July, but the word all along has been, “We know that you’re a Labute fan but not yet…we’ll let you know.”
I wrote a column last July complaining about Fox Home Video having failed to put out a DVD of Lamont Johnson‘s near-great, largely unsung The Last American Hero, a moonshine-smuggling and race-car movie with Jeff Bridges, out on DVD. And now, almost seven months later, Fox Home Video has put it out on DVD. Pauline Kael loved this film, and Johnson (whom I called last summer) is alive and well and with a lot of stories to tell, so of course, naturally, FHV has put out a bare-bones DVD without any kind of making-of doc or a commentary track from Johnson or Bridges. (I told Bridges about the release of the Hero DVD last weekend prior to the screening of the Harry Nilsson doc, and he didn’t even know about it.) The Last American Hero “was the only high-velocity ’70s redneck film that was any good, and it wasn’t even a redneck film,” I wrote on 7.15. “It was a scrappy piece of backwoods Americana about a young guy on the wrong side of the law who went on to become a famous stock-car racer, a movie that was actually loved by critics and was also an unfortunate financial disaster. For me, this is the super-daddy of redneck movies, the one that got it right with unaffected realism and a kind of dignity by not dealing in the usual cliches and showing respect for its characters, and by being intelligent and tough and vivid with fine acting. Hero was loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson. Wolfe’s piece was called “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” As movies steeped in rural southern culture go, The Last American Hero had roughly the same levels of honesty and sincerity as Coal Miner’s Daughter, which came out in 1980.” Read the Wolfe article, and please, please buy or rent the DVD. (I’m more than a little surprised that none of the leading DVD sites and columnists are even mentioning it, much less reviewing or recommending it. The New York Times‘ usually on-top-of-it DVD columnist Dave Kehr has ignored it entirely, or did in today’s column at least. And you can’t even find the Hero DVD when you do a search on www.dvdtalk.com)
Last July 15th I ran a column piece about a very tangy and well-respected redneck race-car movie called The Last American Hero (1973), which was directed and co-written by Lamont Johnson. Hero didn’t do much business and kind of sank beneath the waves after its initial release, and it hadn’t been seen on laser disc or DVD since, and I was pushing for Fox Home Video to think about releasing a DVD now. Hero was loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson. Wolfe’s piece was called “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” The movie is about a guy named Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who’s more or less content to smuggle illegal hooch until he gets pinched and his soul-weary dad (Art Lund) persuades him to think twice, and he eventually uses his car-racing skills to break into stock-car racing. Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ed Lauter, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine were among the costars.
There’s no question that Johnson’s film was widely admired (nearly all the serious film critics got behind it, especially Pauline Kael). And its influence in Hollywood circles seems hard to deny, its commercial failure aside, for the simple fact that it was the only backwoods-moon- shine movie at the time that was seriously respected for what it was, as opposed to being (nominally) respected for what it earned. When I called Fox Home Video’s public-relations guy on 7.14 to ask about potential DVD plans for Hero, he asked, “This is ours? It’s a Fox movie?” Yeah, it’s a Fox movie, I said. Fox has the rights. “We produced it?” Yeah, Fox produced it in ’73, I said, and Fox Home Video put it out as a VHS in ’97. Anyway, it’s a little more than four months later, and coincidentally or not, Fox Home Video has just announced that The Last American Hero will come out on DVD on Feburary 7.
There’s an atmospheric gloominess in Joseph Castelo’s just-opened The War Within (Magnolia/HD Net). Almost all the scenes are darkly lit, and the lead character of Hassan (Ayad Akhtar), a Pakistani student who comes to New York to carry out a terrorist bombing, wears a glum, vaguely irritated, don’t-be-trivial-with me expression the whole time.
Knowing as little I do about Islamic martyr types, gloominess seems appropriate. These guys are furious about American aggression in the Middle East and they don’t really see life as something to be lived and savored with any joy. To them it’s all about the payoff in the afterlife, a reward for having fulfilled their spiritual-political mission.
The War Within star and co-writer Ayad Akhtar at Le Meridien hotel — Monday, 10.3, 2:35 pm.
Like Warner Independent’s Paradise Now (10.28), The War Within is about a would-be martyr nursing doubts and second thoughts.
The script, written by Akhtar and Castelo, was inspired by a news story about a Palestinian suicide bomber who was supposed to blow up an Israel bus (or do some kind of public damage), but instead got up and announced who he was, got off the bus, walked over to a nearby field and blew himself up.
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Anyway, it was a vaguely surprising and agreeable thing to discover that Akhbar, whom I met for an interview earlier this week at L.A.’s Meridien hotel, has a buoyant attitude, beaming eyes and gleaming white teeth. In short, Hassan’s opposite number.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Akhtar graduated from Brown and then became part of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program, and it was during this phase when he met and becames friends with Castelo and Tom Glynn, the co-founders of Coalition Films, which produced The War Within.
Akhbar is quite bright, clearly focused and articulate…although he speaks in the somewhat formal, carefully regulated way of someone who doesn’t wish to make a conversational error of any kind.
His personality nonetheless undermined a certain prejudicial notion I’ve had in my head for a long time, which is that guys of Middle- Eastern extraction are spiritually devout and self-restrictive to a fault. They don’t want to know about being a vaguely vulgar American and having a beer at a baseball game and all that assimilation stuff. They just want to be serious and tend to their community and marry a virgin, etc.
Akhtar as Hassan, contemplating passage from this mortal coil into a rhapsodic, grape-eating, virgin-ravaging Islamic after-world paradise
One especially ardent outgrowth of this mentality is to become a martyr and leave the earth in a spiritually pure and glorified way.
A lot of people are interested in Islamic terrorism and the general post-9/11, will- it-happen-again?, why-did-it-happen-before? nightmare vibe.
Marc Levin’s Protocols of Zion, a documentary that played at the Sundance Film Festival last January, burrows into the heads of anti-Zionists who believe the Jews were responsible for 9-11.
Jeff Stanzler’s Sorry, Haters, a InDigEnt-funded film that I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, is about an Arab cab driver dealing with a manic type-A woman (Robin Wright Penn) who’s grappling with a bizarre fixation on 9/11.
There’s John Carter’s Fatwa, about alegislator named Maggie Davidson (Lauren Holly) who believes she’s the subject of a terrorist plot.
No one will argue that Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds isn’t 9/11-influenced.
There’s a Showtime movie called Sleeper Cell, directed by Nick Gomez, about an American Muslim who infiltrates a terrorist cell.
There’s David Mamet’s Romance, a new play that’s roughly about long-standing hatred between Islam and western culture, and between Israelis and Palestinians.
Albert Brooks in Warner Independent’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
From England there’s another play called Talking to Terrorists, written by Robin Soans and is about some 29 characters, all of whom are in some way involved in terrorism.
I discussed the emergence of all these 9/11-influenced works with Akhbar. We reasoned they’re all coming out now because art always follows a malaise or catastrophe, but it always takes a while for this to happen.
I asked him what he thinks of Albert Brooks’ forthcoming Looking for Humor in the Muslim World. What do Middle Eastern guys laugh about? How many stand-up comics are there who hail from a Pakistani, Palestinian, Saudi Arabian, Iraqi or Iranian background? Akhbar went blank on me. He smiled and said he’s heard of a stand-up comic who fills the bill, but otherwise said, “Sorry,”
I think you have to be a little corrupt, or at least aware of your potential for fallible or foolish behavior, to laugh. It has never seemed to me that Middle-Eastern guys are very accepting of these foibles.
There is something in the delicate alchemy of Mark Isham’s In Her Shoes score that really makes it. But what is that exactly?
The right music can sell the emotion in a scene, but it can’t create feelings that aren’t there to begin with. It can only embroider or emphasize. But lay the music on too thick or make it too loud and movie music can feel gross and intrusive.
I don’t know how much of the music for Two For the Money was written by com- poser Christophe Beck and how much of it is previously recorded, but it nearly murders the film during the first ten or twenty minutes. It’s awful wah-wah stuff …early `70s Curtis Mayfield street-funk, and played so loud it makes you wonder what the post-production guys were sniffing.
In Her Shoes composer Mark Isham
The word is obnoxious. It told me right off, “You’re going to hate this film”…and it made good on that.
The opposite happened when I heard Isham‘s music. It turned me on to the undercurrent in Curtis Hanson’s girl film…an ever-so-slight nudge.
The word is delicacy. If Isham and director Curtis Hanson had pushed it a tad more, if they’d tried to sprinkle more feeling in, audiences would sense the over- sell and pull back.
What’s interesting is that Isham didn’t write a “score” for In Her Shoes — he wrote a series of small moments. You could call him a kind of colorist. He’s written full- out scores for other films, but not here.
More music for In Her Shoes might have tipped it over. The movie runs on its own karma, but it’s fascinating how Isham’s music fine-tunes the emotional stuff in just the right way.
Here are three samples, heard when (1) Maggie (Cameron Diaz) finds a batch of letters written to her by her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine), (2) when Norman Lloyd’s retired professor character compliments Maggie for being insightful, and (3) when Toni Collette is doing her dog-walking on the streets of Philadelphia.
In Her Shoes director Curtis Hanson
A flavoring here and there…a few dabs of paint.
I happen to really like Isham’s Crash score, and this passage in particular.
“Every one of us” — film music composers — “has a style that we’ve honed over the years,” Isham told me over the phone. “I work in a fairly wide area….from In Her Shoes to Blade to Spartan to Miracle, and I guess I’m thought of as a colorist.
“Crash is the most interesting thing I’ve done recently,” he says. “For me it was a real return to electronic music…all of it done by myself. I’m probably the most proud of that score.”
Isham is now scoring Running Scared, the new film by Wayne Kramer ( The Cooler) that he calls “a very dark adventure…a grown-up nightmare.”
New Line is releasing it in early January. Paul Walker, Vera Farmiga, Cameron Bright and Chazz Palmintieri costar.
I think Isham did a fantastic job with Miracle, the Kurt Russell Olympic hockey movie. “I also have a reputation of being able to write a melody,” he says, “and Miracle is big thematic score.”
Isham was born in New York, grew up in San Francisco, and played trumpet in the San Francisco Opera orchestra. Then he played with a rock band called Sons of Champlin, which did pretty well and toured the globe with The Beach Boys and Van Morrison.
In ’79 Isham formed Group 87, a progressive jazz ensemble and in ’83 began a parallel career as a soloist.
His first movie-composing gig was in 1983 for Carroll Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf. I remember being moved by his score for the Oscar-winning doc The Times of Harvey Milk, which came out the following year; ditto his scores for Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind, The Moderns and Love at Large.
“I was always a huge fan of Nino Rota and his Godfather scores, for the way it’s heart wrenching without being maudlin. There’s a real restraint in that.”
The biggest difference between film scoring now and how it was 20 or 30 years ago “is that we have the craft and the tools to put our temporary scores onto the film’s temp soundtrack and preview everything. We can work fast and get it right before it leaves the house.”
Terrence Howard in Crash
Isham’s music editor is a guy named Tom Carlson, with whom he’s worked on “maybe 20 or 30 movies.” A music editor’s job is to help with the synchronization and put it exactly where it should be, at exactly the right moment.”
The In Her Shoes score was played by two guitars, a bass, percussion, drums, harp, cello, two keyboards and strings.
Isham originally wrote about an hour’s worth of music for /In Her Shoes, but only about 20 minutes worth made it into the film.
“I try to find the voice for every picture. I think that’s what composers strive for. You don’t want to hit people over the head. If you do, you pull them right out of the movie. It’s all in the rightness and the timing of it.”
The Squid and the Whale star Jesse Eisenberg at Le Meridien hotel — 10.7, 12:15 pm.
Noah Baumbach, director-writer of the mostly autobiographical The Squid and the Whale at same hotel — 10.7, 12:35 pm.
Don’t, He Says
“I saw your item about George Clooney planning to remake (i.e., fuck with) Network, one of my five favorites of all time. Really. No hyperbole here. Hypnotizes me every time I watch it.
“Listen to this clip of Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall together….when was the last time you’ve heard dialogue of this calibre, with this kind of energy?
“It seems obvious that the reason Clooney is doing this is that’s he’s bored stiff.
“There is such an abysmal lack of good scripts out there that these actors are just plain sick of playing crappy roles with no balls attached to them, no substance or ambiguities, no depth. Same action hero, same romantic comedy, same Big Shot Behind a Big Desk Role. Zzzzzzzzz…these actors are ready to kill themselves.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah: cars, mansions, money, pussy, personal trainers, these- people-have-nothing-to-complain-about blah, blah, blah. Maybe so, but you put anyone in a creative rut and you’ll bring them to their knees. So it’s a problem. Not only for them, but for us, the viewers.
“This creative bankruptcy is crippling Hollywood’s output right now. Combine the Not-Enough-Good-Scripts Problem with the Studios-Have-No-Guts Problem (which ensures that any bold new script — should it actually find its way onto the desk of a studio executive — will be treated as if it were a coiled, frothing swamp adder: beaten to death in a terrified frenzy by the exec’s assistant and scraped into the shitcan) and you have peace of mind that there will be very few classics in the years to come.
“Clooney is a smart guy, and he knows that he’s in a position to do pretty much anything. I admire that he’s actually attempting to do so. Between his work with Soderbergh and doing stuff on his own like the Murrow film, he’s at least trying. But NO ONE is gonna go see the Murrow movie. And NO ONE is gonna see the Syriana thing, either. (Just being realistic here…)
“So we have a genuine Movie Star with no Star Vehicle. A king without a kingdom. So he’s doing what lots of these actors do: they pine for the good ol’ days.
“And so one night, some actor, like Clooney, is watching some classic on TV late at night and says to himself…
“God, I wish I could have played that role. But I
can’t do that role…that’s been done, it’s BOGART for fuck’s sake. I can’t fuck with that. I’ll just continue reading this new script my agent gave to me today. He said it was by some new hotshot who just directed that Britney Spears video.
“Let’s see…I play a wise-cracking, judo-chopping, pussy-sniffing, seen-it-all, fucked-it-twice cop on the edge who has to bring down a gang of drug-smuggling, glock-blasting, tattoo-covered Hispanic ninjas, all the while showing my new rookie partner the ropes. Christ, where’s the Vicodin? Oh, wait, this is my favorite part of the movie…
“God, I wish I could have played that role.
“An actor knows he/she can always end up playing Willy Loman or Juliet on the stage, but classic movie roles are sealed forever. Right? Would anyone dare to try and redo Rick Blaine? Margo Channing? Bonnie Parker? Benjamin Braddock? Popeye Doyle? Norman Bates?
“Ah, see…all been done. Albeit badly, but it has been done. And an actor knows that, too.
“And the next day the actor slips that thought in oh-so-casually to their agent at lunch (“Hey, you know what movie I was watching last night?”), and it suddenly becomes Something.
“And it’s only a month or so later you read in Variety that So-And-So is slated to play This Classic Role in the upcoming remake of They’re Fucking With My Favorite Old Movie, Those Fuckers.
“Clooney should back off. Remaing Network is a stupid idea tailored for someone much more desperate.” — Mark Smith, PhD hailing from the 718 area code.
“Point #1: It’s heartening to know that films The War Within are attempting to explain what we’re up against in the war against Mideastern terrorists. My sister-in-law is a Saudi, and I have found her cohorts in the main to be humorless and self-absorbed. The fundamentalist Muslim is indoctrinated and imbued with a sense of superiority. Then they encounter a higher western world run on science, business, and free thinking. Dissonance festers in their souls when they cannot reconcile their place in the world. Their personal war within thus manifests with acts of terror.
“Point #2: The piece on Mark Isham reminds that music is such and integral and underrated thing in a good film. You called Isham a ‘colorist.’ That’s an excellent way to describe bits and pieces of music that enhance a film, but do not reach the magnitude of a score. ‘Color’ or ‘colorist’ are terms which could be used in film credits, especially those where original music augments a soundtrack that is mainly a pastiche of pop music hits.
“Point #3: how do films with quality akin to canned ravioli, such as Two for the Money, get made? Its all such a cliche: Al Pacino’s avuncular-guttural utterances, Matthew McConaughey’s 80’s greaser look, the Superfly-derivative soundtrack. And if McConaughey’s character is such a wiz prognosticator, why didn’t he just cut out the middleman and bet the games himself in Vegas? Duhh.” — Arizona Joe
See It Now
Good Night, and Good Luck deserves a pat on the back and then some for doing a reasonably good job, but before you see it (and I’m recommending that you do) you have to understand why it feels a little bit constrained and hemmed in.
Director, cowriter and costar George Clooney didn’t make it this way accidentally, and I’ll explain why I think he chose this approach in just a second…but there’s a theory at work here.
David Straitharn (l.), George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck
GNAGL tells the story of how CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, in the space of a single broadcast, struck the first meaningful blow against that heartless Wisconsin ratfucker Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who helped destroy I don’t know how many lives in the early 1950s by casting doubts about people’s loyalty to the U.S.
Murrow was the only big-time media guy with the guts to spear McCarthy, which he did by simply standing up (or sitting down, rather, in front of a TV camera) and calling him a questionable loose-cannon.
So here’s to Clooney for doing a better-than-reasonably good job, all things considered.
The film feels authentic. The atmopsheric elements seem right. The script is focused and pared down and thematically lucid. And Clooney deserves some of the credit, naturally, for David Straitharn’s enthralling Murrow performance.
He doesn’t quite give you goosebumps like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, but Straitharn perfectly captures the Murrow that I’ve seen on kinescopes of those `50s broadcast. The portrayal of Murrow on the pages of Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script may seem overly spare, but Straitharn more than holds up his end.
These fine things aside, GNAGL is not, despite what those editors and copywriters on the Newsweek/MSNBC site are saying, a “hot must-see” film. It’s decent and smart…a kind-of message movie (as in, “hey, TV newscasters of today…you’re gutless!”)…a salute to backbone… a nostalgia film for thinking-persons-over-40…a dip in the pool.
The truth is that everybody I’ve spoken to seems a bit muted about it. They’re all saying “yeah, pretty good” but nobody’s hopping up and down. It gives you what it gives you, they’re saying, but this doesn’t seem like enough.
And yet — here’s the thing I spoke of earlier — this shortfall feeling disappears if you accept that Clooney didn’t make a movie for our time or sensibility. He’s made, very conscientiously, a film that apes the look and feel of black-and-white live TV drama — an NBC Playhouse movie with only six or seven indoor sets. He’s made it as if Good Night, and Good Luck is being performed live on a New York TV sound- stage in, say, 1955 or ’56…a year or so after the Murrow-McCarthy showdown.
See it with this in mind and it’s a very good film. Like Hilton Kramer explained in that famous early `70s N.Y. Times piece that inspired Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, unless you understand the theory behind this or that vein of art, you can’t really “see” it.
If I were Warner Independent, I would hand out leaflets that explain Clooney’s method. It might not make a big difference in how they respond to the film, or what they tell their friends (especially with under-30 viewers, who couldn’t care less about the glory days of live TV drama) but at least they’d “know.”
I would have added more period atmosphere if I’d directed. I would have thrown in footage of Straitharn and his CBS cohorts walking the streets of New York circa 1954, with fast glimpses of Studebakers and Hudsons and theatres playing On The Waterfront and Executive Suite. This would have been a snap with today’s CG.
I would have added more shading to Murrow. He’s just a rock-ribbed man of virtue here. He needs some ticks and peculiarities. Men of consequence are usually driven by more than what they believe in and are willing to fight for. If he had a thing for butter pecan ice cream, let’s say. Or if he lost it every time he heard Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine.
The character of news anchor Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise), who committed suicide over being attacked as a “red” by New York columnist Jack O’Brian, feels a bit sketchy. He seems never-wracked for some other reason…money, booze. I just know the “whoa” effect doesn’t kick in when his death occurs.
Robert Downey and Patty Clarkson’s secretly-married characters are intended as a kind of Greek chorus, giving us a ground-level idea of what it was like to work for CBS in those days when everyone was on edge and worried about who would next be accused of being a closet commie.
Thing is, there’s a scene near the end between these two and Jeff Daniels’ upper- management prick Sig Mickelson that doesn’t seem to make sense. Daniels tells them that their secret (CBS policy forbids married couples from working in the same environment) is out and they should probably think about tendering their resignations, or at least one of them should. I’ve thought and thought about this scene, and I still don’t understand why it’s in the film.
(CBS went along with pressure to blacklist several performers and writers during this period. Murrow must have personally known some of the victims. Why didn’t GNAGL dramatize one of them being put through it?)
There’s also the cigarette smoke, which turns the movie into a kind of death trip. Murrow-Straitharn smokes so much you feel like you’re going to end up in intensive care from just watching him. (Murrow died from lung cancer in ’65.) Being an ex- smoker, I was half-focused on the film and half on the cost of medical insurance.
I loved Frank Langella’s performance as CBS chairman Bill Paley. I know very little about Paley’s personality, but he seems to get it just right.
And while it was a good idea to show the real McCarthy with old newsreels rather than cast an actor to play him, Clooney should have cleaned up the McCarthy footage so it looks as fresh as it did in ’54. It looks way too withered and scratchy as is.
I’ve been told that in GNAGL’s footage of the interrogators at McCarthy’s table during a Congressional hearing, that one can glimpse a very young Robert F. Kennedy sitting far to the left of McCarthy and his henchman Roy Cohn. I’ve seen the film twice and missed this both times…if Kennedy is there. Anyone?
Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek nailed it when she said the film is “basically [about] watching a bunch of white guys getting together in a room, talking (and smoking) a lot, and then one of them, Murrow, writes something and goes before the camera.”
That really is it, but GNAGL does this contained but gripping white-guys-in-a- smoky-room thing quite well. Just remember to remember the theory.
Edward R. Murrow during his March 1954 broadcast in which he castigated Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Never Got `Em
The Dukes of Hazzard (Warner Bros., 8.5), a ’70s retro redneck fast-car thrillbillie movie that looks like a lotta fun…the kind of fun that comes from sticking needles in your eyes…will be upon us three weeks from today.
I think it’s entirely fair to assume the worst with films of this type. I mean, look at the trailer already. Get out the chewing tobacco and clothes pins.
Johnny Knoxville, Jessica Simpson, Sean William Scott in The Dukes of Hazzard.
Does anyone see any indications that this might be Starsky and Hutch, a ’70s TV series film that was smartly written and better-than-tolerable for the Ben Stiller- Owen Wilson repartee? Dukes looks common, crude…or am I leaning too much on impressions?
The director is Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers, Club Dread); the costars are Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Burt Reynolds, Joe Don Baker and Willie Nelson.
I’ll be there because of Simpson’s skimpy outfits but gimme a break with the General Lee flying through the air and all the other crap. And I’m not a reflexive hater of hot-car movies. I loved Gone in 60 Seconds (guiltily) and I bought into The Fast and the Furious.
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I’m encouraged by the tracking reports that a high percentage of urban respondents are marking this one down as a must-to-avoid. Revolt! Go blues!
Reynolds needs the money, I suppose, but it’s a tiny bit ironic he’s in this thing, which is a kind of salute to the redneck films of the mid ’70s to early `80s. Ironic because Reynolds killed his career by making too many of these films with Hal Needham directing.
I don’t remember Joseph Sargent’s White Lightning (’73) as being too bad, but the rest — Stroker Ace, Gator, the three Smokey and the Bandit‘s — were on the painful side.
Redneck movies were born in the early `70s (’72 and ’73, to be exact). They got rolling in the mid `70s, peaked in the late `70s and early `80s, and were pretty much over by ’84.
That was the year when Reynolds burned his once-loyal fans for the last time (i.e., those who were still with him after two previous Needham pics) with a farewell performance as J.J. McLure in The Cannonball Run II. Nobody was better than Reynolds at being smug.
There were two kinds of ’70s redneck films — the high-speed, action-packed, stupid-ass variety about sexy-macho moonshine smugglers always being chased by the fuzz and always with a Daisy Mae girlfriend or two, along with the creepy-pervy ones about city folk running into toothless inbreds in overalls with all kinds of foul things happening, including outdoor pig-squealing anal sex.
The fun redneck movie was pretty much shoved into gear by White Lightning (’73), in which Reynolds first played the stud-smoothy Gator McLusky. He played the character again three years later in Gator.
The creepy kind came into being in ’72 with John Boorman’s Deliverance (which still plays…a brilliant film) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. And the genre still lives today, most recently in the form of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek.
There was only one high-velocity ’70s redneck film that was any good, and it wasn’t even a redneck film.
It was a scrappy piece of backwoods Americana about a young guy on the wrong side of the law who went on to become a famous stock-car racer, a movie that was actually loved by critics and was also an unfortunate financial disaster: Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero (1973).
For me, this is the super-daddy of redneck movies, the one that got it right with unaffected realism and a kind of dignity by not dealing in the usual cliches and showing respect for its characters, and by being intelligent and tough and vivid with fine acting.
Hero was loosely based on Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about one-time moonshine smuggler and stock-car racer Junior Johnson. Wolfe’s piece was called “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”
The movie is about a guy named Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges) who’s more or less content to smuggle illegal hooch until he gets pinched and his soul-weary dad (Art Lund) persuades him to think twice, and he eventually uses his car-racing skills to break into stock-car racing.
Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ed Lauter, Gary Busey and Valerie Perrine are among the costars.
There’s no question that Johnson’s film was widely admired (nearly all the serious film critics got behind it, especially Pauline Kael). And its influence in Hollywood circles seems hard to deny, its commercial failure aside, for the simple fact that it was the only backwoods-moonshine movie at the time that was seriously respected for what it was, as opposed to being (nominally) respected for what it earned.
As movies steeped in rural southern culture go, The Last American Hero had roughly the same levels of honesty and sincerity as Coal Miner’s Daughter, which came out in 1980.
Hero stood out for the gritty low-key realism that Johnson and his collaborator Bill Kerby brought to the script. The original Hero screenplay was officially credited to William Roberts, but, as Johnson told me during a brief phone conversation yesterday. “it didn’t have any real people in it,”
The Last American Hero director Lamont Johnson
The Last American Hero wasn’t an art film — it was a punchy thing with a kind of B-movie feeling — but it stood out for its avoidance of easy ironies and from any kind of condescension toward the hardscrabble characters, and for the totally on-target performances.
Articles like Wolfe’s and films like The Last American Hero make me forget about my loathing of red-state attitudes and even lead to affection for the vitality of working-class types and the blue-collar thing. They make me feel like their characters belong to my country. They make me want to eliminate the “Blue State” blue-ribbon logo that I’ve displayed in this column space for nearly a year.
It’s not genuine Americana that I can’t stand — it’s the degraded, stupid-ass, hee-haw stuff peddled by downmarket opportunists and turned into corporate-brand jackoff diversions like The Dukes of Hazzard TV series and motion picture.
What galls me is that most consumers out there don’t even know what genuine backwoods Americana is — they just know the Happy Meal-kind that corporations have sold to them.
The irony is that one of the biggest corporations, Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, the owner of 20th Century Fox, isn’t selling The Last American Hero. It isn’t available on DVD, and Fox Home Video, the rights holder, has no plans to put it out.
When I called that division’s public-relations guy on Thursday to ask about possible DVD plans, he asked, “This is ours? It’s a Fox movie?” Yeah, it’s a Fox movie, I said. Fox has the rights. “We produced it?” Yeah, Fox produced it in ’73, and Fox Home Video put it out as a VHS in ’97.
I think I convinced him, but I wrote him back again today to ask if he’d had a chance to ask the higher-ups, and he didn’t respond. But at least I’ve started the awareness thing a little bit. Maybe someone else will pick up the ball.
It would be nice to see this film again along with DVDs of my two other most-wanted ’70s films — Play It As It Lays and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
One of the six or seven reasons today’s column went up so late today is because I got hung up with technical issues in trying to prepare a digitally recorded interview for what I hope will be the first of a series of Podcasty-type deals I’m trying to turn into a regular thing.
It’s a recording of an interview I did Thursday, 7.14, with Jim Jarmusch, the writer-director of Focus Features’ Broken Flowers, which will open in theatres on August 5.
Apologies for the long boring rambling intro — I’m re-recording it this morning (Saturday). And all that rumbling background noise you can hear while Jarmusch is speaking…I dont know what that could be. We were sitting in a very quiet back room of an Italian restaurant.
Jim Jarmusch in the back room at Ballato’s, an Italian eatery at 55 East Houston (between Mott and Mulberry) — Thursday, 7.14, 4:45 pm.
Like anything else, it’s going to take a while to get these things down and sounding right.
Anyway, here it is. Thanks to Moises Chiullan, a good guy from Florida State University in Tallahassee, for urging me to do this and doing the sound editing and whatnot.
And I’m highly recommending the restaurant, by the way. It’s called Ballato’s, a kind of old-feeling, late 1940s Godfather-y type place. Visually, I mean. Jarmusch has been going there for years and says the food is wonderful. It’s at 55 East Houston, between Mott and Mulberry.
The late-afternoon light in Ballato’s back room is really beautiful — delicate, diffused.
This is Jarmusch in a nutshell — he told the publicity people to run his press kit biography as lean and pruned down as possible. None of the usual press-kit blather…just list what he does, list the film titles and that’s it.
At Long Last
Lifeboat, the only Alfred Hitchcock movie that hasn’t been restored and/or remastered and put out on DVD, is finally undergoing that process and will be released by Fox Home Video before the end of the year, according to spokesperson Steve Feldstein,
Lifeboat isn’t often recognized as one of Hitchcock’s best films, but for me it’s right up there with Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious and Vertigo.
I’m astonished that it took Fox Home Video this long to come around. They had it out on laser disc in the early ’90s but the transfer was awful, which always seemed extra-offensive to me given that Glen MacWilliams’ black-and-white photography is exceptionally beautiful with all kinds of moody textures and fog lightings and whatnot.
The Lifeboat team (l. to r., minus Walter Slezak and Canada Lee): Henry Hull, John Hodiak, Hume Cronyn, William Bendix, Heather Angel, Tallulah Bankhead.
Lifeboat is one of the best-written Hitchcock films (script by Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling and John Steinbeck) with whip-smart dialogue that is on-target and feels authentic for its time. It has a certain “written” quality that was par for the course in the early ’40s, but it’s so well shaped and phrased that the theatrical refinement feels right in the pocket.
Tallulah Bankhead, John Hodiak, William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, Walter Slezak, Henry Hull…talk about assurance. Six performances with a certain actorliness (and flamboyance, in Bankhead’s case), but at the same time relatively straight, unaffected and concise. (There are three performances that feel overly sentimental — Heather Angel’s, Canada Lee’s and Mary Anderson’s.)
Lifeboat is easily Hitchcock’s most visually inventive film. He imposed a huge challenge upon himself in having to tell a riveting story and make it all feel vital and visually absorbing despite the entire thing being set in a lifeboat on the North Atlantic, and damned if he didn’t succeed. (Hitchcock even figured a way for his usual cameo appearance to happen.)
It’s an excellent example of how persuasive studio-based photography and 1940s visual effects could be in the hands of the right director. It was all shot on a Hollywood sound stage, but you can really feel the unruly energy of the sea and taste the salt water on your lips. It’s a much more convincing evocation of what it must be like to be afloat and helpless in the middle of a vast ocean than anything you saw in Waterworld.
I’ve been asking the Fox Home Video people off and on for years about when they were finally going to move on a Lifeboat DVD, and they’ve never had any kind of answer. Like all home-video divisions Fox Home Video has seemed, to me, almost Soviet-like in its penchant for secrecy and not being candid about internal workings or plans.
And yet, oddly, South Korea put out a Lifeboat DVD in 2003.
Check out the image of Hodiak and Bankhead on the Korean DVD jacket cover [above]. It’s from a scene in the film, of course (their characters become lovers aboard the lifeboat, although it doesn’t seem to involve anything more than making out), but there’s no missing the allusion. It seems as if Bankhead, who was quite the liberated woman in her time…well, you get the drift.
The inspiration for Lamont Johnson’s film was, of course, Tom Wolfe’s legendary 1965 Esquire article about famed stockcar racer Junior Johnson (“The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”). It’s a great piece and the whole article is right here. Please read it…it’s fantastic. Articles like this one and films like The Last American Hero make me momentarily forget about red-state attitudes and even inspire admiration for the vitality of working-class types and blue-collar culture. They make me briefly ashamed of having used terms like “redneck.” It’s not genuine Americana that I hate — it’s the degraded, stupid-ass, hee-haw stuff peddled by downmarket opportunists and turned into corporate-brand jackoff diversions like The Dukes of Hazzard TV series and motion picture. What galls me is that most consumers out there don’t even know what genuine backwoods Americana is — they just know the Happy Meal-kind that corporations have sold to them.
“Like the rivets popping off the wing of an airliner”….good one! The Tom Wolfe-ian wordsmith is D.J. LaChapelle, webmaster for TomCruiseIsNuts.com. The quote was given to Daily News “Lowdown” columnist Lloyd Grove: “What really inspired us was Tom’s appearance on the Today show. His body language, the way he got in Matt Lauer’s face — it was all pretty amazing. Watching one of America’s best actors coming unglued — like the rivets popping off the wing of an airliner — there’s a kind of fascination.”
On Tuesday afternon I saw a DVD of Paul Schrader’s Exorcist prequel flick, which has been titled as Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist. Warner Bros. will release it on May 20, and it’s about friggin’ time.
Do I have to recount the whole Exorcist mishegoss over the last two or three years? Are there people who haven’t read about Morgan Creek’s James Robinson shelving the Schrader because he felt it wasn’t scary or pea-soupy enough, and then hiring Renny Harlin to shoot a slicker, aimed-at-the-youth-market version, blah blah?
Stellan Skarsgard (r.), star of Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist, and costar Billy Crawford (l.) in burning demonic possession mode.
The story of the Schrader version, which was shot between late ’02 and early ’03, coming back from the dead and finding release is in this week’s Entertainment Weekly , in a “News and Notes” article by Missy Schwartz.
What I have to say may not muss your hair and knock you out of your chair, but it’s the truth. Schrader’s version is the better film.
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By that I mean smarter and more grounded and being actually about something. It’s one of Schrader’s most thematically satisfying films, and there’s a caring and compassionate tone in the third act that feels unusual coming from the writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Hardcore and American Gigolo.
Okay, it has a couple of lumpy elements (one or two CG shots that don’t quite cut it, a lead female performance by Clara Bellar that feels stiff and awkward), but nothing to throw you off the rails.
The Schrader isn’t as juiced as the Harlin and it doesn’t have Izabella Scorupco (who has, for me, a close-to-breathtaking shower scene in the latter), but the Schrader is so much fuller and richer and more rooted than the Harlin it’s not even funny. It’s an actual movie, as opposed to a thrill-ride reel.
And the star of both films, Stellan Skarsgard, delivers a tenderer, more expressive performance in the Schrader version. His acting actually left me feeling emotional allegiance and admiration for a Catholic priest character, which I frankly haven’t gotten from any theatre-viewed film since…well, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist .
When I see a priest in a movie, I usually think “pederast alert!” or “okay, here comes the obligatory guy-who-doesn’t-get-it” or something along these lines. Schrader’s film manages to punch through all this and come up with a real hero in Skarsgard’s Lankaster Merrin, a Dutch priest who will eventually grow old and turn into Max von Sydow and meet up with Linda Blair and die of a heart attack in her refrigerated bedroom.
I saw the Schrader after watching Harlin’s Exorcist The Beginning, which came out last August and hit the DVD shelves on 3.1.05. I never bothered to see the Harlin, and I probably wouldn’t have even rented it on DVD if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Schrader.
I have to say that I half-liked the Harlin…at first. Because it’s so beautifully photographed (by the great Vittorio Storaro, who also shot the Schrader version) and because it has that expensive texture and accelerated rhythm and feeling of sublime polish that big-budget films always have because people are somehow comforted by them (as I was myself, to a limited extent).
But it gradually gets worse and worse (i.e., stupider, tackier, more desperate) and by the time it’s over it’s hard not to hate it.
The Harlin is a better cheap-high movie than the Schrader, granted, but in what kind of perverse universe do we applaud cheap highs?
If you go to the Schrader saying, “Okay, I want to see some really cool stuff I can talk about with my friends later on,” you may be disappointed. In fact, I was a tiny bit disappointed…at first. But it gets better and better, and by the time it’s in the home stretch it’s paying off on a fairly profound level.
There are loads of similarities between the two films, and a few key differences.
The Schrader takes place in 1947. The Harlin happens in 1949. Don’t ask why. Even Schrader, whom I spoke to this morning, says he doesn’t have a clue.
Both films are about how Merrin re-connects with his belief in God and the righteous scheme of things after losing faith in just about everything after enduring a horrible Sophie’s Choice-like incident during World War II.
A German officer (played by the same actor in both films) is threatening to kill a large group of Dutch villagers if someone doesn’t confess to killing of a German soldier. He orders Merrin, the local Catholic priest, to select the guilty party…only one person at first, and then, after Merrin initially refuses, ten.
Schrader’s film begins with this episode, and is much more psychologically intriguing (by the virtue of being better written) than it is in the Harlin film, which flashes back to this episode in piecemeal fashion.
The Harlin film is totally shameless in having the German officer shoot an innocent little girl in the head. The Schrader isn’t any less traumatic than Harlin’s version, but it doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting a terrible situation.
Establishing title card in the Harlin version…
..and in the Schrader film.
The main story line of both films is about Merrin facing fundamental evil during an archeological dig in Kenya, where an ancient cathedral is being excavated…along with some long-buried demonic forces.
This unholy emergence not only forces Merrin to eventually confront a living devil, but to rediscover his lost faith…mainly, obviously, because it’s the only weapon that will work.
The Schrader is much more layered and ambivalent in some ways about the way native Africans regard the emissaries of Christianity. Some characters feel that Christianity is a bringer of a kind of plague. There is one male character, embittered about losing his son, who picks up a framed painting of Jesus Christ at one point and smashes it on a desk and then throws it to the ground.
And yet the conclusion of Schrader’s film is one of the most spiritually centered I’ve ever seen. Skarsgard’s Merrin is standing tall and firm and fully resolved about who he is and what he needs to do as a priest in order to fight evil. Merrin is also a priest again at the end of Harlin’s film, but the undercurrent isn’t as strong.
There’s a female doctor in the Schrader film played by Pellar. The doctor in the Harlin version is played by Scorupco, perhaps not in a fully believable way (female doctors are rarely this attractive, in my experience) but she’s still a better actress that Pellar. And her slightly-older-fashion-model, eastern-European quality (she’s Polish-born) is highly stimulating.
The great Izabella Scorupco in Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning
Scorupco’s breasts are (or should be) objects of sincere religious worship. They require abasement and groveling on the church floor. They made me feel born again, or do I mean newly born? Harlin deserves full credit for getting her shower scene just right.
Gabriel Mann plays a young and ardent Catholic priest in the Schrader version, but he is replaced by a somewhat less passionate, altogether less reliable priest, played by James D’Arcy in the Harlin.
There’s a local native guy named Chuma (played by Andrew French in both) who is Merrin’s closest and frankest ally. He seems more of a typical secondary character in the Harlin film, and a more intriguing and layered fellow in the Schrader version.
The Harlin film has a young African boy of about nine or ten falling victim to demonic possession. The possession host in the Schrader is a 20-something character named Cheche, played by pop star Billy Crawford. Sickly and spindly at first, his demonic inhabiting doesn’t turn him into a Linda Blair-type monster but an androgynous-like Hindu God figure with his physical maladies gone and his personality warped by ego, ferocity and manipulation.
Painting of Satan as it appears on buried cathedral walls in Harlin’s version.
Billy Crawford in Satan mode in Schrader’s film.
This is far, far more interesting than the usual possessed by Beelzebub or the demon Pazuzu or Izusu crap in the Harlin version.
On the DVD I saw, the Schrader version looks like it was shot in 1.85 (i.e., standard Academy ratio) and the Harlin version is clearly framed in 2.35 to 1.
Schrader said that his version was actually shot in Univision, a system devised by Stroraro which has a wider aspect ratio than 1.85, and will be projected in theatres as Scope.
Schrader’s is more political than Harlin’s in the character of some British troops. They are portrayed as seriously belligerent pissers in his version but they barely figure in the Harlin film, except for the suicide of a certain officer character. (He shoots himself in the mouth in both films.)
Skarsgard seems to weigh a bit more in the Schrader version. He might be ten or fifteen pounds lighter in the Harlin film. His hair might be a touch blonder and he even seems a bit tanner.
Slightly fuller-faced Sarsgard as he appears in Schrader’s film…
..and as he appears in Harlin’s.
The pacing of the Schrader film has been slowed down. “I wanted to make it feel like an older film,” Schrader told me, “rather than follow the typical pace of another jacked-up, pumped-up horror film.”
Schrader was contractually obliged to keep his yap shut last year before the Harlin film opened, but the gloves are off now.
“I saw in the Harlin film every bad idea that I had fought off,” Schrader told me. “Every bad Jim Robinson idea that I rejected, re-surfaced in the Harlin film, so I think the issue of true authorship is pretty clear.”
Schrader’s film cost about $30 million; the Harlin cost another $50 million. The total domestic gross for the Harlin as of last November was about $42 million. I don’t know what it’s made worldwide and on DVD, but probably another $50 or $60 million, at least, and maybe a lot more.
Would the Schrader film have earned as much? I doubt it. It’s not a mass-audience film. But when it’s over, you know you’ve had some nutrition. The Harlin makes you feel like you’ve just wolfed down a Big Mac and some fries.
Dutch villager-killing German officer as he appears in Schrader’s film…
…and as he appears in Harlin’s version.
And of course, people like junk food. They know Big Macs are mostly chemicals and ground-up noses and ears and hooves and fatty sauces and most people don’t care. They just want the rush, and guys like James Robinson knows this.
By all means see the Schrader when it opens, but the more interesting thing to do is to watch these Exorcists prequels in tandem on DVD, like I did yesterday. Robinson and Warner Bros. should have put them both out simultaneously in theatres, a plan I suggested in this column on 8.11.04.
I quoted film critic and essayist David Thomson in that particular column. At one point he attempted a reading of why Schrader, who has never been and never will be a horror film kind of guy, took the deal to make the Exorcist prequel in the first place.
“There had to be an understanding on Paul’s point of view what a troubled route he was taking,” Thomson said. “He must have known what problems he was in, and I guess he took a gamble that they would argue it and change it a bit, and then let it go. I assumed he had made a bargain with himself that he could do [this film] to please himself and Morgan Creek at the same time.
Billy Crawford in third-act scene from Schrader’s Dominion.
“I don’t know why they hired him,” Thomson continued. “It must have been clear in the script there were not great torrents of vomit.” Thomson saw a version of Schrader’s cut early on, and said in the piece that it “didn’t really seem like a continuation of the Exorcist franchise, and to that extent one could foresee trouble. Schrader had made a film about spiritual isolation…a study in a crisis of faith.”
Except it’s not a troubling experience to watch. Okay, the first part is, a tiny bit, but you get past that soon enough, and then it gathers force and it ends like gangbusters.
Schrader’s film may not work for your 15 year-old son or nephew, but unlike 97% of the horror films cranked out these days, it has an actual undercurrent. It’s a film about a spiritual tug-of-war by a guy who has written and directed more films about spiritual (and often volatile) conflict than anyone else I can think of.
If you don’t believe me or you’re not sure, click on Schrader’s IMDB page and read his credits.
Design for Flying
We’ve all seen that Man of Steel get-up that Brandon Routh will be wearing in Bryan Singer’s currently-rolling Superman Returns (Warner Bros., 6.30.06). And Movie City News recently ran a photo created by some fanboy site with a more routinely designed outfit, which is obviously meant as a suggestion.
The message, which I sense is probably endorsed by a good number of those who are jazzed about the Superman mystique and are looking forward to the film, is that Singer not do to Superman what Joel Schumacher did to Batman with the ass closeups and those pointy nipples on the chest plate.
The Singer suit uses burgundy instead of traditional fire-engine red for the shorts, cape and boots, and has Routh wearing hot go-go dancer bikini briefs instead of the standard gym shorts that Chris Reeve used to tool around in.
The fanboy designer, whomever he or she is, will eventually learn to live with the burgundy, but he/she obviously doesn’t like that bikini shit. The alternate design is pure D.C. Comics and straight out of the 1930s (or 1950s, a la George Reeve). The fanboys can see what’s going down and…well, draw your own inferences.
Of course, the boat has sailed and whatever kind of Superman Routh is going to be (and whatever his suit may end up conveying), it’s a done deal and the fanboys will have to make their calls as they see ’em.
Singer gave the X-men movies a certain dimension, I think, by subtly portraying the sense of social apartness that mutants feel in terms that any socially aware gay guy could relate to. I’m not saying this was overt, but it was there.
Remember that hilarious Roger Avary riff that Quentin Tarantino acted in Sleep With Me about the subtext of Tom Cruise’s Maverick character in Top Gun? “Go the gay way, go the gay way…you can ride my tail,” etc.?
I used this to mess with Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson during a Crimson Tide junket interview about ten years ago. I told them, “Guys, you’re missing out on a whole marketing angle here. You should do an Advocate cover story and talk about the gay subtext in all your films, starting with the submarine in Crimson Tide.”
“Your source wasn’t lying about Monster-in-Law being a hit waiting to happen.
“Unless the anti-Lopez sentiment keeps the crowds away, it should be a hit. I saw it this morning, and the audience went nuts for Jane Fonda’s wonderfully whacked-out performance as Viola Fields, a Barbara Walters type who loses her grip when she’s replaced on her talk show, ‘Personal Intimacy,’ by a ditzy hottie.
“The movie seemed to strike an especially strong chord with women who might have endured similar situations in their own lives.
“Still reeling from her abrupt fall from grace, Viola freaks when her son, a doctor (Michael Vartan, whose role is so perfunctory we never really even learn what his specialty is), proposes to Charlie (Lopez), a dogwalker/yoga instructor/aspiring designer, who also works as a temp in a doctor’s office.
“Viola throws the couple an engagement party and invites numerous celebrities and diplomats, just so she can introduce her future daughter-in-law with ‘this is Charlie — she’s a temp!’
“For those in the audience who have fantasized about seeing J.Lo humiliated, insulted and hassled, most of the rest of the film is going to be a delight. Wanda Sykes also got more than a few laughs as Viola’s put-upon assistant, who is caught in the crossfire between Viola and Charlie.
“Monster-in-Law is not a comedy classic, but it’s good fun and an excellent reminder of how sharp and funny Fonda can be.” — James Sanford.
The Big Stink
Deep down there’s something in us that enjoys the art of financial hoodwinking and flim-flamming… as long as it’s presented in a suitably fictional and charming package.
There’s an appealing example of this in The Sting when Paul Newman’s Henry Gondorff is talking about his days with the O’Shea mob in Chicago in the 1920s, when corruption was rife and “the feds took their end without a beef.”
(l. to r.) Former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, former COO Jeff Skilling, sullied execs Andy Fastow and Lou Pai
And then Newman’s smirk grows into a shit-eating grin as he says to Robert Redford’s Johnny Hooker, “And it really stunk, kid.”
If you’re honest, you’ll admit your reaction when you first saw this scene was something along the lines of “yup…corruption can smell like nectar when there are no squealers and everyone’s equally dirty” or “there’s something to be said for graft and payoffs if they’re handled in a civilized manner.” Right? Especially if guys like Newman are in on it.
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In real life, of course, financial snookery isn’t quite as sexy.
Nine times out of ten the grifters are high-end corporate types with fleshy faces and boring haircuts and heavy political connections and an ability to put people to sleep with their inane remarks at stockholder’s meetings, or in their statements to the press.
And so it was with the Enron meltdown that began to break about four years ago, and spilled over into total scandal in early ’02.
Nothing remotely charming in this mess. The leading Enron bad guys, CEO Kenneth Lay and COO Jeff Skilling, were just odious. And yet Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia, 4.22 in New York and Houston, expanding on 4.29) manages to make their story a gripping thing.
It is, in fact, fully entertaining, and I never thought I’d say that about a documentary recounting the wrongdoings of a bunch of George Bush-supporting pirates.
“It’s like a heist film,” Gibney told me earlier this week. “When you think of it that way, it takes on a certain dimension.”
Over-valued and increasingly founded on imaginary concepts as it got closer and closer to the financial precipice, the Houston-based Enron, which got rolling in the `80s as as a gas-pipeline energy company but began to get into all kinds of stuff in the late `90s, was this country’s seventh-largest corporation before collapsing in 2001.
Lay, Skilling and other bigwigs walked away with over a billion dollars in their pockets, leaving lower-level investors and employees holding the bag, in some cases with their life savings wiped out.
Gibney has based his film on the 2003 bestseller of the same name, co-written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. He began working on it just over a year ago and finished it last Thanksgiving,
(l. to r.) Skilling, Lay and former Enron executive Joseph Sutton.
Enron adds new reporting about stuff that has come out since ’03, including some indictments that have come down. The feds are putting Lay and Skilling on trial for fraud in January ’06. If they get a conviction, stiff sentences may result.
There is also TV coverage of Congressional hearings, several on-camera recollections from eyewitnesses and various folks who got burned. Lay and Skilling didn’t talk to Gibney but their statements are covered with TV news footage, C-SPAN clips and corporate videotapes originally meant for in-company viewing.
The basic message is that as things got more and more vision-driven in the mid to late ’90s, Enron became an absurdly overvalued company. Its stock was pumped up by deceptive maneuvering, and it borrowed heavily to make itself look good to the world, and eventually the fakery couldn’t sustain itself.
In ’91 Skilling introduced one of his cuter moves, which he got SEC approval on, called “mark to market” accounting. It was a scam by which Enron could project millions of dollars in potential profits from some newly launched endeavor or acquisition in their stockholders reports. If the venture wasn’t profitable, Enron was obliged to cover the losses with heavy borrowing.
A key component in all this, Gibney says, is that Enron wasn’t hassled all that much by federal oversight agencies, partly, he feels, because of a certain chumminess between Lay and George Bush, who accepted millions in Enron campaign contributions. Enron’s freedom to pretty do what it wanted to do seemed linked in a lot of people’s minds to an attitude on Bush’s part to go easy on “Kenny Boy” and his pals.
It turns out Enron was behind the big California energy crisis of 2000 and ’01. As footage of California brush fires are shown in the film, tapes are heard of Enron guys chortling about the success of their plan to artificially create the crisis. This was partly achieved by selective “maintenance” shut-downs of power plants, which allowed for hikes in electricity rates.
Former California governor Gray Davis, whom Enron tried to blame for the rolling blackouts that were happening back then, is shown trying to point the finger at Enron. Gray “suspected something [like this] was going on but he couldn’t prove it at the time,” says Gibney. “When 50% of the power plants were down for maintenance on a single day, you have to wonder what’s going on. That smelled fishy.”
Enron suggests that a May ’01 conference between Lay and eventual California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the latter information that he used to make Gray look bad over his handling of the energy crisis.
The one note of compassion (or at least empathy) comes when the doc briefly focuses on Lou Pai, a Skilling associate who had a yen for strippers and strip clubs. It reminded me of Mort Sahl’s crack that revelations in the early ’80s of sexual impropriety by a certain Republican fat cat was “a cynical attempt to humanize the Reagan administration.”
The most chilling scene for me happens during a morale-boosting meeting among Enron employees right when the meltdown is happening, and some guy asks if he should invest all of his money, “all of my 401 K” in Enron, and he is told by a spokeswoman who happens to be standing at the mike, “Absolutely!” And then she laughs.
Bottom line: a lot of people were being paid a lot of money for working with Enron and being good team players, and as long as the checks were coming in none of them wanted to know anything. Nobody being paid good money ever does.
An Enron employee named Cliff Baxter killed himself in January ’02.
How much did Lay and Schilling walk away with? In the film Lay is quoted as saying he’s down to his last $20 million and something like $1 million in liquidity. Skilling reportedly paid $23 million to his attorney as a retainer fee.
Andrew Weissman is heading the prosecution of Lay and Skilling in the upcoming fraud trial. He was also the lead attorney in the government’s prosecution of fraud charges against the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which cooked and then shredded the books for Enron during its big-calamity phase.
The Justice Department has been investigating the Enron debacle since January 2002. Why has it taken so long to put together a case against Lay and Schilling? “Because it’s very complicated,” says Gibney. “It’s going to be very tough to try because they’re going to have to prove intentional fraud. They may be found not guilty.”
President Bush “is, I think, happy to have the Department of Justice pursue this case as aggressively as possible. Now he can just say ‘I didn’t know’ and if they did something crooked, they have to pay the price.”
Gibney says “if I were king of the world, and it’s probably a good thing that I’m not, I’d like to see Ken Lay work as a grill man for McDonald’s and be forced to ride only public transportation for the rest of his life.”
Here’s a link to Bethany McLean’s 3.5.01 Fortune magazine piece, “Is Enron overpriced?”
If McLean’s piece has a money paragraph, it’s this: “‘Enron is an earnings-at-risk story,’ says Chris Wolfe, the equity market strategist at J.P. Morgan’s private bank, who despite his remark is an Enron fan. ‘If it doesn’t meet earnings, [the stock] could implode.'”
Fortune has put up a special webpage linking to various other aspects of its Enron reporting.
The thing that sticks with you at the end of Gibney’s film is the look in Lay and Skilling’s eyes as they try to sell the concept of Enron’s financial health.
I don’t know if these guys would have gotten off any easier if they had some of that Henry Gondorff charm, but I know audiences tend to respond to this on all sorts of levels.
If I had been an Enron stockholder five or six years ago in a buy-sell position, and all I had to go on was the way these guys presented themselves and the deep-down attitudes they conveyed, I would have unloaded like that. I feel sorry for the people who kept their Enron stock and lost everything, but that’s life in the big city.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room “is kind of a moral report card,” says Gibney. “There is a moral dimension to our economy that has to be reckoned with. It says, in a way, that the free market ultimately makes us slaves….utterly free but slaves at the same time.”
HDNet, the high-definition cable station owned by Enron producers Mark Cuban and Philip Garvin, will screen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room concurrent with the 4.22 theatrical debut. It will play at 8 pm eastern (5 pm Pacific) and then at 11 pm eastern (8 pm Pacific).
Bill of Goods
The thing that made me want to buy Universal Home Video’s new 2-Disc Anniversary Edition of Apollo 13 was a promise on the jacket art that the IMAX version of this 1995 film is included on the second disc.
I saw a piece of the IMAX version on this Ron Howard film at a special invitational press screening a couple of years ago, and it made the images look sharper, fuller and bolder than those in the theatrical version, which was pretty good to start with.
The IMAX version looks better because each frame of the original has been digitally tweaked so as to make everything look richer and more vivid, in order to meet the blown-up standards demanded by the much larger IMAX screen.
Actual frame of IMAX film, indicating the appproximate 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio in which IMAX films are projected in theatres…
I wondered at first how this would work since the aspect ratio of an IMAX screen is kind of boxy (close to 1.33 to 1), and Apollo 13 was originally released in Scope (2.35 to 1). The solution, I learned at the press conference, is that Apollo 13 was actually shot in Super 35mm, which captures a 1.33 to 1 image but is then cropped in post-production to create a Scope aspect ratio. So there was plenty of extra top-and-bottom image space to fill the IMAX frame.
Pretty much all Scope films are shot in super 35, or so I’ve heard. This is how DVD pan-and-scan versions of Scope films are assembled — not by cropping off the sides of the Scope image but by using the original 1.33 to 1 super 35 image.
Anyway, knowing all this I was shocked when I played the IMAX version last night and discovered it’s not the IMAX version at all. What Universal Home Video has released on Disc 2 is a cropped IMAX image with an aspect ratio that looks roughly to me like 1.75 to 1.
(A critic on www.dvdtalk.com wrote that the IMAX DVD version uses a 1.66 to 1 aspect ratio. He’s wrong. Check out the Warner Home Video DVD of Barry Lyndon — that’s 1.66 to 1.)
I’m not strenuously complaining about this. Image quality-wise the IMAX-on-DVD version of Apollo 13 looks quite superb. It has a knock-down, almost startling clarity and all kinds of ripe bountiful colors. It is so appealing and soothing to the eye that I stopped working last night in order to watch it.
But — but! — to tell DVD buyers they’ll be getting the IMAX version of this film when they buy the new DVD is a cheat. It’s the IMAX image quality without the actual shape of the image shown in IMAX theatres, and in my book to sell it as a “the IMAX Experience version” is at least a half-lie. To me it’s a flat-out fib.
…and the 1.75 to 1 aspect ratio of the “IMAX Experience” version as presented on the new Apollo 13 2-Disc DVD.
I enjoyed Apollo 13 when it came out ten years ago, but I hadn’t looked at it again since last night and it plays better than I remember. Well shot, professionally paced and believably acted, this is a fully involving, methodical recreation of a true-life event. I still love Dean Cundey’s photography and while the special effects look a bit dated by today’s standards, they’re still decent.
It’s always the mark of a good film when the third-act tension (i.e., will the possibly damaged heat shield hold during re-entry?) in the third-act works even when you know astronaut Jim Lovell (i.e., Hanks character) and the other two guys made it and there’s nothing to worry about.
I had forgotten how young Hanks used to look, and how thin he once was. Kevin Bacon looks so much younger also; ditto Bill Paxton. I know it sounds banal for an industry journalist to mention age and weight issues, but this is the first thing you notice when you watch this DVD. You say to yourself, “Wow, time really moves along.”
In Tom Wolfe’s scheme of things, reports a New York Times Magazine profile (11.31), social behavior is almost always determined by status consciousness — an instinct to preserve your place in the social pecking order. Pretty much all human endeavor “has to do with status,” says the 74 year-old author of “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (excerpted in Rolling Stone, in book stores November 9). “Or STATE-us, which is the way you say it if you want more status.” Our status awareness is so fundamental, Wolfe says, that “there may even be a specific place in the brain that creates it,” the article relates. “Status is neurological, in other words…people aren’t so much interested in scaling the social ladder as in clinging to their own, hard-earned rung.” For what it’s worth, I can say with some authority that Wolfe’s theory is observable in Los Angeles entertainment journalist circles.