Panel Thief

Okay, so maybe a lead story about the intoxicating elements within a certain woman’s personality isn’t exactly a page-one topic, but I’m covering the Santa Barbara Film Festival this weekend and for what it’s worth and what-the-hell, here is Saturday’s earthshaker:
Oscar screenwriting nominee Julie Delpy (for her Before Sunset collaboration with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke) totally killed at Saturday’s screenwriter’s panel at the Lobero Theatre.

Actress-screenwriter Julie Delpy during Saturday afternoon’s panel discussion, “It Starts With the Script,” at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Delpy is — right now, in my humble opinion — the absolute coolest, wittiest and most radiantly attractive actress around. Her Sunset performance had me half-convinced of this, but yesterday’s panel dazzle brought the house down and amounted to a total closer.
She was quick, hilarious and unabashedly confessional. Her mind was here, there and everywhere…but always amusingly and never scattershot. She said at one point that she’d lost the ability to think because she was listening too much to the sound of her own voice, and she had everyone in stitches as she described the disorientation. She unintentionally reduced moderator Frank Pierson to a straight-man stooge during a brief back-and-forth. Her facial expressions alone were inspired.
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And she got off a great line about how women will have truly secured their just portion of power in the film industry “when a mediocre woman is given a powerful job.”
Brian Grazer and Ron Howard erred in not hiring Delpy to play Sophie Neveu opposite Tom Hanks in the forthcoming production of The Da Vinci Code. (They’ve gone with 26 year-old Audrey Tatou, who’s too young and small and slender to play Hanks’ pseudo-love interest…he probably outweighs her by at least 100 pounds.)
Garden State director-screenwriter Zach Braff was asked the most questions and drew the heartiest applause during yesterday’s discussion, as a good chunk of the audience was composed of under-35 types, the demographic that has turned Garden State into a formidable nationwide hit.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and The Incredibles director and co-writer Brad Bird seemed to be the most popular after Braff, and all three delivered the best cracks.

(l. to r.) Screenwriters John Logan (The Aviator), Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), Julie Delpy (Before Sunset), Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Zach Braff (Garden State), Bill Condon (Kinsey), and Jim Taylor (Sideways) just prior to Saturday afternoon’s panel discussion at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

That is, if you left Delpy out of the equation.
The other screenwriter panelists were Million Dollar Baby‘s Paul Haggis, Kinsey‘s Bill Condon, The Aviator‘s John Logan, Sideway‘s Jim Taylor,and Teh Motorcycle Diaries‘s Jose Rivera.
Pierson (Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon), the current president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, got shouted down at one point by an audience member because they thought he was talking too much and not letting the panelists have their say. Pierson’s moderating skills can be on the avuncular and loquacious side, but he’s also a wise and perceptive man.
A very young aspiring screenwriter — a woman — asked Braff at one point whether “this feeling of uncertainty and nervousness and not knowing what’s going to happen in my life…is this going to continue or get worse or what?” Braff said he was sorry but no, it’s not going to stop, but hang in there and don’t let it defeat you.
Pierson had a better answer. He said to the woman, “If you’re lucky, it will never stop…because your writing will be better for it.”

Elvis Mitchell interviewing Sideways star Paul Giamatti at Santa Barbara’s Victoria Threatre late Sunday afternoon — 1.30.05, 5:45 pm.

Leonardo DiCaprio addressing crowd at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre after being presented with the SBIFF’s Platinum Award by Aviator director Martin Scorsese — Sunday, 1.30, 9:20 pm.

Piece of letter-sized paper taped to seventh-row seat at Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre — Sunday, 1.30.05, 7:25 pm.

Author, film critic and TV personality Leonard Maltin and Best Supporting Actress nominee Virginia Madsen (for Sideways, as if I had to say that) after a small luncheon at Nu, a restaurant on State Street, which followed a women’s filmmaker panel at the Lobero Theatre — 1.30.05, 2:25 pm.

Santa Barbara Film Festival artistic director Roger Durling just before Saturday evening’s Annette Bening tribute — 1.29.05, 7:25 pm.

Former New York Times critic and current Columbia consultant Elvis Mitchell interviewing Best Actress nominee Annette Bening (Being Julia) at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre — 1.29.05, 8:35 pm.


It’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival time again, and I say that on a note of relief as well as excitment.
This smartly constructed, smoothly run, agreeably-vibed event is the perfect Sundance antidote. Well-chosen movies, great parties, beautiful (if slightly air-heady) women and hardly anything to make you grind your teeth. I love it up here in Goyville.
Cheers once again to the exuberant Roger Durling, the festival’s artistic director, for making this festival into a vital happening all around.
Annette Bening, Leonardo DiCaprio and Paul Giamatti are dropping by the festival this weekend for tributes.
I’m especially looking forward to the Giamatti encounter, and it’ll be fun to fence with DiCaprio, whom I interviewed eleven years ago at The Grill in Beverly Hills for Movieline magazine, when he was nineteen. (Clinton had been in the White House for only a few months, and the subjects were This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?.)

(l. to r.) Exterior of Santa Barbara City Hall — Friday, 12.8.05, 9:55 pm.

(l. to r.) One of many ornate areas inside Santa Barbara City Hall deployed for the purposes of shmoozing, drinking, chit-chatting — Friday, 12.8.05, 10:15 pm.

I drove up late Friday afternoon, checked into a Holiday Inn and went straight to the Arlington Theatre on State Street to catch the festival’s opening-night attraction — Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda.
Most of the reviews out of Europe (it played last fall at the San Sebastian Film Festival and has since opened commercially in Spain and other territories) called Melinda a return to form for Allen, and I seem to recall someone saying it was his best since Mighty Aphrodite.
That’s close to an accurate statement, or at least not far off the mark. Melinda and Melinda is a very good…make that a slightly-better-than-very-good Woody.
It’s a half-downerish, half-amusing piece about the fine line between comedy and tragedy. It basically says that the two opposite poles are made of the same story material, and the difference essentially lies in the attitude we bring to this or that situation or circumstance.

Revelers at Santa Barbara City Hall during Friday’s (1.28) opening-night soiree.

The piece is framed by a couple of playwright/screenwriter pals (Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine) discussing the differences between comedy and tragedy. They expound by talking about a real-life story they’ve heard about an actual New York woman named Melinda (who’s known to a friend of theirs), and riffing on how her story might turn out as a tragedy or comedy.
These writers proceed to entertain each other by telling parallel tales about Melinda (which we see dramatized, of course) that are similar in every respect except for the fundamental slant.
Only Melinda (Radha Mitchell) appears in both versions. The downer piece costars Chloe Sevigny, Johnny Lee Miller and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the doctor from Dirty Pretty Things) while the comedic piece costars Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet.
The two stories explore themes and plot turns that Allen fans will quickly recognize. Anxious and lonely New Yorkers, lovers at cross purposes, spouses cheating on each other, and the constant dodging and lying that goes on between significant others.
“Of course we communicate,” Peet says to Farrell, her live-in partner, at one point. “Now, can we not talk about it?√ɬØ√Ǭø√ǬΩ

(l. to r.) Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda.

I wouldn’t quite place Melinda among Allen’s very best (Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives). I would, however, put it in roughly the same realm as, say, Sweet and Lowdown or Bullets Over Broadway.
It’s not quite a nine-course meal, but is undeniably nutritious. It’s been written with a fairly sharp quill, gets right down to business in short order, and delivers the philosophical goods, gags and witticisms in an agreeably absorbing fashion.
It provides Mitchell, who portrays two versions of the same character of Melinda, with a chance to shift between Bergmanesque edge-of-suicide emoting and Annie Hall-like bubbly-goofy stuff, and she delivers with assurance and buoyancy on both counts.
And Ferrell has fun playing the neurotic, emotionally frustrated, wittily judgmental Woody character. The idea of an actor hired by Woody Allen to deliver a performance that literally channels Allen’s spirit and personality will always be an extremely weird confection, but Kenneth Branagh and John Cusack have obviously done it before and I suppose we’re all getting used to this.
The comic highlight is a would-be seduction scene between Farrell and Vinessa Shaw (the prostitute in Eyes Wide Shut). The gags in this scene aren’t profound, but they’re funny as hell.

Wallow In It

On Wednesday evening, at the end of my last full day at the Sundance Film Festival, I saw what has to be, content-wise (as opposed to form-wise), the most astoundingly disgusting film in human history. And oh, yeah…one of the funniest.
I wasn’t reacting in any particular way at first, but I started to laugh a bit, and then I laughed a bit more, and then I threw my hands up and gave in somewhere around the halfway point and just surrendered to the whole flatulent lower-intestine Elmer’s Glue-All vomit bag vein of it.

(l. to r.) The Aristocrats director Paul Provenza and producer-comedian
Penn Jillette in a shot possibly taken in Park City (but don’t quote me).

And it felt okay. I was in an excellent mood the rest of the night.
Sitting in that theatre at the Yarrow and watching this verbally fecal-smeared objet d’art may have contributed in a tiny way to the ongoing implosion of 21st Century western culture, and I may have felt a little bit closer to the slimy ooze out of which which we originally crawled, but at the same time it made me feel vulnerably human and loose and open to all kinds of good stuff.
I’m speaking of a perverse documentary called The Aristocrats, which just got acquired at the festival by ThinkFilm.
At the risk of sounding like Peter Travers, this is one of those movies you just have to see. Partly just to see how you’ll react to it. It’ll probably reveal something about yourself…something you may or may not want to know.
And partly so you can say to yourself “my life-absorption foundation has now devolved into a state of ca-ca infantilism,” and so you can (try to) tell your friends about it, and so you can tell the joke…a wheezy hairy thing that squats at the center of this movie like a naked and odorous 290 pound woman from East Harlem with pus-filled boils on the back of her neck and multiple hemmorhoids the size of golf balls.
It’s a strangely liberating thing to be sitting with a group of people and accept or acknowledge (by the evidence of constant laughter) our gross animal commonality.
This experience is made extra-palatable by watching all these very Olympian big-name comics with their worldly cool-cat attitudes talking about a family of four sliding around in…you don’t want to know.

(l. to r.) Comedian Gilbert Gottfried delivering the “Aristrocrats” joke at the Hugh Hefner roast three and a half years ago in New York City, not long after 9/11.

Or do you?
Cooked up by Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza, The Aristocrats is basically about numerous comedians — George Carlin, Paul Reiser, Martin Mull, the great Gilbert Gottfried, Robin Williams, Bob Saget, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, Eddie Izzard, Drew Carey, Eric Idle, et. al. — telling the joke and elaborating on their willingness and ability to totally filth out.
The Aristocrats joke isn’t really a hah-hah joke. It’s more like a format that gives the teller an opportunity to free-form his or her ass off.
It’s basically about a family sitting down with a showbiz agent and claiming they have a great act and telling him to sit down and watch them perform it. The act is foul…rancid…in defiance of every tenet of civilized, moralistic behavior.
But the joke isn’t about following a script — it’s about where the teller dares to go. Into, you know, whatever kinds of stool-mashing, anus-invading, semen facials, urine showers…whatever.
(I realize I’ve just offended some readers, and I’d like it understood that I tried to figure ways to describe what The Aristocrats is without using these terms, and none of the polite ways seemed to make it. I’m sure Manohla Dargis’ editors at the New York Times will come up with a vaguely effective diluting, but it won’t be easy.)
Anyway, after the act is over, the agent says, “Wow, that’s a hell of an act. What do you call it?” And the father-of-the-family says it’s called “the Aristocrats.” And that’s it.

Comedian George Carlin as he appears in The Aristocrats.

It doesn’t sound all that funny, I know…but it gradually gets there, and then it gets better and better, and eventually grows into something else.
The funniest bit of all is a tape of Gilbert Gottfreid telling the joke at a Friars Roast of Hugh Hefner that took place in New York only a few weeks after 9/11. I’ve always thought of Godfrey as howlingly funny, but his “Aristocrats” delivery is flat- out mythic. He’s like Zeus up there on the mike…like Alexander the Great.
The second funniest bit is Kevin Pollak telling the joke like he’s Christopher Walken.
The third funniest bit is Martin Mull telling the “kiki” joke (the one with the two anthropologists captured by loin-clothed natives and being told they can either die or suffer “kiki” and…you know how it goes), but with “aristocrats”-style sexual assault substituted for “kiki.”
I wouldn’t say I’m exactly “proud” of having enjoyed this film but letting it in provides a kind of opening-up experience of a curiously surprising nature.
Sundance honcho Geoff Gilmore expressed part of the film’s weird appeal when he wrote that it “has a seriousness of purpose that places it dead center in any discussion about values and mores and even more specifically the nature of taboo.
The Aristocrats is one of the most shocking and, perhaps for some, offensive films you’ll ever see,” Gilmore concluded. “But its provocativeness is never gratuitous…it creates in its own singular fashion an absolutely arresting portrait of comic art.”
ThinkFilm’s Aristocrat‘s deal was negotiated by company topper Jeff Sackman and senior acquisitions vp Randy Manis, and on behalf of the filmmakers by Ken Weinrib (of Franklin, Weinrib, Rudell and Vassallo) and Peter Golden.

Howie Mandel, Gilbert Gottfreid.

“I have rarely been more excited about a film and its potential,” Sackman said in a press release. “The Aristocrats audience runs the gamut from frat boys to intellectuals, and we’re going to have a great time reaching out to both ends of the spectrum and to everyone in between.”
I don’t usually run with Variety-type trade paper quotes, but I wanted to convey that other semi-credible industry people (besides myself) are behind this film in a deeply sincere (i.e., money on the table) way.
As long as we’re dealing with deeply offensive material, perhaps someone can explain to me — simply, plainly — why the following racist joke is supposed to be funny, and what it friggin’ means, for that matter.
The joke is this: [insert racial slur of your choice] goes into a bakery and asks for a loaf of bread. And the baker says “Brown or white?”. And the [racial slur] says, “It doesn’t matter — I’m on my bike.”
What is that?

Mad About It

Hooray for Paramount Classics’ chutzpah and sharp eyeballs in picking up a Slamdance film I was too bogged down to even hear about until I was in a van heading toward Salt Lake City airport, on my way back to L.A., around 1:30 pm on Thursday.
It’s called Mad Hot Ballroom, a doc about a bunch of New York City public school kids getting into ballroom dancing and revealing aspects of themselves and their world along the way.
The idea of dance being transformative and transcendent is not new, but the journey these kids take from their various stations and attitudes on their way to a big-deal dance competition is said to be extra-special.

(l. to r.) Mad Hot Ballroom kids as depicted in crappy, not-enough-pixels shot copied off the Slamdance website.

Marilyn Agrelo is the director-producer. Amy Sewell is the writer-producer.
Paramount Classics, which also picked up Hustle & Flow wll be using its corporate hookup with MTV and Nickleodeon to promote Mad Hot Ballroom sometime later this year, although I know nothing about when it might come out.
Word is that all the major buyers crammed into the under-ventilated Slamdance theater at the Treasure Mountain Inn to take a look at it. The reactions were (said to be) quite exceptional, even by mountain-air standards.
Paramount’s Ruth Vitale, David Dinerstein, Jeff Freedman and John Sloss of Cinetic Media worked on the deal from late Tuesday into Wednesday’s wee hours. And blah-dee-blah-dee-blah. Great for everyone involved. But, well…can I see it sometime soon?


“I’ve just seen Million Dollar Baby and want to comment on the supposed ‘rightist, traditionalist’ reaction to the film — the third act, I mean to say — that you spoke of earlier this week.
“First, I would like to thank critics for keeping the lid on the ending of this movie. I hope that I can express my opinion about the film without letting the cat of the bag.
“There are some definite conservative values coming into question in this film. In truth, I think that Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie Dunn, is quite a conservative man. He has turned to his Catholic faith to help with his past demons and he initially refuses to train a girl boxer.
“The main reason for his not wanting to train her, of course, are old-dog sexist opinions. Just by body language alone you can sense his disgust at Maggie’s family. They are the epitome of why conservatives absolutely despise the welfare system, as Maggie’s mom would rather live in a dumpy trailer and abuse the system then live in a nice house that a family member cared enough to buy them.
“I am a conservative, religious person, and yes, Frankie’s final decision with Maggie is not something that most conservative religious people would do.
“That is the part of the religious right that I cannot agree with. Sometimes the right thing to do is, unfortunately, painfully immoral.
“And by the way, just because the Academy screwed up 20 years ago with Martin
Scorsese not getting a Best Director Oscar for Raging Bull doesn’t mean he should get what amounts to a `pity’ Oscar.
“It’s obvious that Eastwood has become a much better director at this point than Scorsese. Baseball gives the MVP award to the guy with the best year, not the guy who should have won three years ago.” — Derek DiCiccio, Dallas, Texas.


“My wife and I recently saw Sideways. We thoroughly enjoyed it, and it hit home as no other film has for a long time.
“In lieu of a bachelor party, last July my best friend Dan and I embarked on a weekend road trip prior to my wedding the following week. While the video chronicle of our trip is, thankfully, far more serene than Sideways, the similarities were hard to miss.
“I’m a freelance automotive journalist and part-time video guy — considerably more successful than the Giamatti character, I might add – and my buddy Dan is and always has been the go-getter lady’s man with the line of shit as long as his arm.
“With many Haden Church lines, Pam whispered, ‘That’s just what Dan would say!’ She’s only known Dan for a few years, but she had him pegged.
“As much as I could relate to the film, I suppose, like a lot of guys, I was also happy to be able to say, `Am I ever glad that’s not me!'” — Jeff Johnston, Eugene, Oregon.

View outside my Park City condo as I waited for the van to pick me up early Thursday afternoon. You can’t tell from the photo but it was snowing and beautiful everywhere at the moment of capture.