Spiritual Sell

Gotta love that Bob Berney marketing audacity. Lay it on the line, sell the movie you have and damn the torpedoes.
I’m referring to Berney’s decision to call a certain heart-warming, Israeli-produced film, which his company, Picturehouse Films, picked up for U.S. distribution a few months ago…a movie that, let’s be honest, very few people other than Orthodox Jews in New York and Florida will want to see no matter what it’s called…a movie that Berney, in his admirably mule-stubborn way, has decided to sell with its orig- inal title, which is…ready?…Ushpizin.

Shuli Rand, star and screenwriter of Ushpizin, enduring a moment of anti-rapture

I would have called it Holy Guests or Bad Company or something like that. Partly because the movie’s about a Jewish Orthodox couple playing host to a couple of ne’er-do-wells during a holiday, but mainly because these titles are more…goy- friendly?
But then I’m not Bob Berney. I’m just this guy typing away inside a modest Brooklyn apartment while Berney sits in regal poobah splendor inside his $17 million Park Avenue triplex, tabulating profits from his offshore investments and making and breaking careers with a slight raising or lowering of his eyebrows…a much-feared and much-envied “big op” renowned for great wisdom and shrewd business judgment.
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Okay, I’m kidding about the triplex and the eyebrows and the offshore investments, but Berney is a smart distributor so maybe he made the right call.
Let’s start with the Ushpizin basics, beginning with the correct pronunciation, which is oosh-peh-zeen.
Directed by Giddi Dar and written by the film’s star, Shuli Rand, Ushizpizin is about a poor Orthodox Jew named Moshe who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Malli and is trying to live by the spirit of the festival of Sukkot…I’m sorry, is this sounding too exotic already?

Moshe’s a nice pudgy middle-aged guy with a long squiggly beard, but he and his chubby wife Malli have no kids and he’s feeling a little bit blue about this and other matters.
And then these two jerky oddballs show up — Eliyahu, an old pal of Moishe’s from his pre-Orthodox, running-around days, and a pal called Yossef. They’re prison convicts on the run from the law, which eventually becomes known by Moshe and Malli, and from this complications ensue.
As with all spiritual fables, the visit by this unruly pair turns out to be a kind of blessing in disguise.
There’s a totally valid analogy between Ushpizin and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. You could also say it parallels Michael Mann’s Collateral, which is also about redemption arriving in the form of criminal behavior.
L.A. Daily News critic Bob Strauss, who doesn’t roll over for just anything, has called Ushpizin “one of the best character-based comedies of the year.”
Ushpizin has already played successfully in Israel for about a year. It just opened limited on Friday, 10.28, and is expanding on 11.4 to Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles and (I think I have this right) Florida. Basically anywhere there’s a heavy Jewish Orthodox population,okay?

Dar said that even in Israel he was told by distributors to change the title because “a lot of [Israelis] don’t know what it means.” (It means “guests” or “holy guests.”) But when he spoke to Berney about selling the film in the U.S., Berney said “let’s trust in God and keep it…let audiences break their teeth.”
Berney decided to stick with Ushpizin precisely “because it’s exotic. I just thought it made more sense to go with the original Hebrew name.”
Berney acknowledges that the interest in “small outside of New York City, but inside New York City it’s huge. We’re going to take it slowly, obviously playing to the core audience first….evangelicals, other faiths…it’s a film, after all, about belief and a test of faith. And there’s also the arthouse crowd.”
Berney and his wife Jeannie went to a screening of Ushpizin last week at a Brooklyn neighborhood called Borough Park.
“It’s a Hassidic, ultra-Orthodox neighborhood near Coney Island, and it’s really it’s own world. A very concentrated, ultra-Orthodox Hassidic community. It was at a high school auditorium and there were hundreds of people and many of them were coming up to me and telling me they were really pleased…it was mainly a 35 or 40 year-old crowd.”
Gadar agrees that the word “exotic” applies to the title of Ushpizin as well as the film itself, “but the interesting part is that when you cross the line and look at the world from Moshe and Malli’s point of view…you end up finding they’re very much like you.

Official Ushpizin T-shirt, available through official website.

Gadar says he’s “not religious at all” but says, “I think what this movie offers is that it’s a completely authentic movie about faith…teling a story which all faiths and cultures can identify with.”
When Ushpizin played in Isarel last year “everybody …secular, liberals, left- wing…saw it.” America is the first country outside of Israel to have theatrical playdates,he tells me.
“I showed the film to some Muslim people, but I don’t think Muslim countires will allow it to be played in their territories. I would like to show it in Iran…but it’s not that simple to put an Israeli film in Ian or even Egypt. It’s very hard. But the best thing about this movie is that it overcomes politics.”
And the best thing for Berney and Picturehouse Films, obviously, would be for Ushpizin to catch on with the goyim.
Honestly? I might not have gone to see this film if I hadn’t been given a screener. The title seems to be a statement that it isn’t for someone like me. But having seen it, I can say that it’s a film I respect for its heart and spiritual values, and that I feel a certain allegiance because of this.

Sunday Evening

Schiller’s Liquor Bar on Rivington, a couple blocks north of Delancey on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — Sunday, 10.30.05, 8:50 pm.

Ditto, exterior — 9:15 pm

Fuck Yoga, an attitude T-shirt boutique on Ludlow Street — Sunday, 10.30.05, 8:20 pm

Pseudo-hip discount Manhattan hotel…”only” $169 per night.

Walking back to good old ratty Brooklyn across Williamsburg bridge — Sunday, 10.30.05, 10:05 pm

Schiller’s again

Nothing There

If I wanted to just blurt it out and cut to the chase, I could say that Jarhead (Univ- ersal, 11.4) is nothing. But it’s not entirely nothing — it’s the fall’s first major what- the-hell-were-they-thinking? movie, and that ain’t hay. Trust me, it’s going to send tens of thousands of viewers out of theatres and into the street next weekend (it’s tracking…it’ll open) asking themselves this very question.
Based on Anthony Swofford’s first-person account of his experience as a Marine during the 1991 Gulf War, Jarhead was probably pitched to Universal execs as the first GenX war movie…the Nirvana generation’s answer to Full Metal Jacket.

Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives at U.S. airbase in Saudi Arabia, ready to whoop ass.

It was probably also sold it as a kind of GenX woe-is-us movie…as a Douglas Coupland-referenced metaphor about feelings of impotence and powerlessness… about Gulf War grunts feeling robbed of immediacy and ground-floor opportunity during their Big Combat Moment.
Or maybe they (Mendes or producers Lucy Fisher or Doug Wick, or all three) sim- ply told Universal they would deliver an honest definitive portrait of what a letdown the Gulf War was for the combatants and how it felt to be bored out of your ass in the desert, and Universal execs listened, looked at each other and said in unison, “Cool, that’ll sell tickets.”
Universal bought the pitch, but Jarhead isn’t a movie. It’s about waiting in your seat for the movie to begin, and then waiting and waiting and eventually saying to yourself, “Oh, shit.” It doesn’t dig in or get down or manage to be any more than what Three Kings was during its first 15 minutes.
My respect for David O. Russell, the director and writer of Three Kings, is very much renewed. Great filmmaker!
Swofford’s book was fairly absorbing (I read about half of it), but the material that would make for a moderately absorbing movie simply isn’t there.
Jarhead is a series of scenes showing Marines being trained to be killers state- side, and then flying to Saudi Arabia in ’91 and waiting to go to battle against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard troops, and then never quite seeing battle.
And to give things a generically haunting vibe it tells us (by way of narration by Jake Gyllenhaaal, who plays Swofford, or “Swoff”) that a grunt can never forget that rockin’ feeling of having his finger on a trigger. To which you will say…to which your friends will say…to which anyone with a mind will say…”So what?”

Gylennhaal, costar Peter Sarsgaard (r.) in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead

If Jarhead wasn’t a Sam Mendes movie, and wasn’t a big-studio early November release (and hence a presumed Oscar contender on some level)…if it had opened in, say, March or August without a lot of hoopla…it might have been seen for what it is — a nicely textured, maddeningly empty film about grunts coping with boredom, loneliness and disappointment — without people resenting what it isn’t.
It’s not terrible. It’s well made, well acted, convincing, etc. But $1.75 and a movie like Jarhead will get you a bus ticket.
And I’m not going to be sucked into saying what some critics are probably thinking right now, which is, “Whoa…ballsy! A hall-of-mirrors film about nothing happening that actually becomes what it’s about!”
Watch out for any critic who tries this one out on you, because that critic will be totally full of shit.
I was in my local Montrose Avenue grocery store after Monday night’s screening and the counter guy — Hispanic, early 40s, unmarried – asked me about it after spotting the program notes in my hand. “A Gulf war movie…been wanting to see this,” he said. I said, “Well, I don’t know…it’s fairly well made but no fighting.” And he said, “No fighting?”
Not even the genius of Universal marketing honcho Marc Schmuger can save this film.
It’s kind of Full Metal Jacket-y at times, but it mainly resembles that film’s floun- dering middle section. That means no character intrigue or simmering conflict (like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pvt. Gomer Pyle being slowly tortured into animal madness by F.Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant), and no third-act battle-scene climax or a very young dying enemy soldier lying on the ground and whispering “Shoot me…shoot me!”… and no final ironic statement that comes close to Stanley Kubrick’s grunts singing the Mickey Mouse Club song with the hell-fires of Hue in the background.

It has one big scene toward the end that isn’t really a big scene…it’s kind of a final “sorry, son but this war won’t be happening for you” scene. You start to feel something when it happens but then it’s over and it’s back to the same old blah.
And there’s one really good line that Gyellenhaal says about not wanting to hear Vietnam music (i.e., a cut by The Doors) in the middle of an early `90s desert war.
So Kubrick wins and Mendes loses. (He never had a chance, really.) The British -born director, a good guy, started things off with a bang with American Beauty six years ago, and managed a stirring followup with Road to Perdition, but he didn’t have Connie Hall to punch things up this time and the material was too unfocused and insubstantial…and he failed. Jarhead is the suck.
No Oscar nominations for anyone except cinematographer Roger Deakins. No acting awards or nominations for Jake Gyllenhaal, although he’s pretty good (as far as it goes). No Best Supporting Actor nom for the great Peter Sarsgaard because the script doesn’t let him do or say anything except for a single emotional crackup scene near the end (and it’s nowhere near enough).
Universal will get its first weekend gross and then the word will get out and it’ll be down-the-toilet time.
Okay, it’s well-crafted. Yes, it has a certain high-visual distinction (occasional sur- real or dream-like flourishes) and (I keep mentioning this but there’s nothing else to mention) a streak of apparent honesty in its depiction of what boredom it can be to park your eager-beaver Marine ass in the Arabian desert for months and months, etc.
But the script never grabs hold of anything in the characters and tries to make something happen. Nothing means nothing. “Swoff” is nervous about what his girlfriend may be up to with some guy she says she’s met…who cares? Sars- gaard’s Troy is wired tight and born-to-fight…and that’s it. Jamie Foxx is a sergeant who loves the Corps and doesn’t shrink from handing out discipline…nothing. Chris Cooper gives two pep-rally speeches…showboating.

Marine Sergeant Jamie Foxx (l.) and the guys

There’s no narrative through-line to hitch your wagon to…no sense of gathering force or anything of interest approaching…nothing emotional. A lot of presumed disloyal girlfriend stuff, a little homoeroticism here and there…but it’s all Waiting for Godot-ish. The actors have zip to work with. They do moderately well with what they’ve been given, but moderately well doesn’t cut it during Oscar season.
Deakins’ photography is fine…okay, better than fine…and the CG of the burning oil wells in the third act is my favorite kind of CG, which it to say pretty much invisi- ble.
But a supposed war movie about not fighting a war — about the boring nothing bullshit stuff that happens when soldiers who’ve been trained to kill are just hanging around in the desert with their dicks in their hands…I’m really amazed. Jarhead‘s audacity would be startling if it didn’t feel so inert.

Mondo Kongo

Anyone who’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy (or, more to the point, has sat through the extended versions on DVD) knows Peter Jackson has never been into brevity. He couldn’t operate farther from a less-is-more aesthetic if he tried.
Eye-filling visuals, teary emotionalism, portentousness, sets and costumes that are just so, probing closeups, dialogue scenes that go on longer and are more exacting than necessary…Jackson loves to heap it on.

It should therefore come as no surprise that King Kong, his latest film which Universal will open theatrically on 12.14 (or six and a half weeks from today), is going to run three hours, according to a 10.27 story by New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman.
The obvious implication is that Jackson’s Kong is going to be a lot more about Jackson — his brushstrokes, I mean, and the absolute power and perogative he has to throw as much paint at the canvas as he deems fit — than anything else.
It also seems that Jackson’s indulgent streak has most likely overwhelmed any chance of audiences getting to savor a straight, clean re-telling of a classic tale about a dishy blonde and a big heartsick ape.
Take a look at the Kong stills and it’s obvious the film is going to look awesome. They’re clearly mouth-watering. But that aside, all bets are off.
I know how some of you are reading this. I have a case against Jackson and have hated everything he’s done since Heavenly Creatures, blah blah, so anything I say in advance about King Kong is a broken-record “here we go again” deal.

This poster is an unoffical fanboy thing, but thanks anyway to Jeremy Huggins for fixing the spelling of Adrien Brody’s name.

But ask yourselves this: has there ever been a remake of any kind — play, film, televised — that has been judged to be superior because it went on longer and used more words, sets, costumes and tubes of paint than the original leaner version?
I’m not saying this hasn’t ever happened (and I will honestly love it if Jackson outdoes the original in any way…really), but I’m having trouble thinking of an example.
The whole idea in Jackson making this film, according to his own proclamations when he began work on it a couple of years ago, was to pay some kind of tribute to Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original film. Not in a Gus Van Sant/Psycho way, but to essentially re-do a classic movie…to re-experience and re-deliver to modern audiences what he loved about Kong when he first saw it as a kid on TV.
The project, which has swollen in cost to $207 million dollars, has apparently evolved into something more obsessive than personal.
The 1933 Kong runs 100 minutes, and Jackson is pretty much using the same story and situations, or so I’ve understood all along. So what could the extra 80 minutes be about? Only a few people know, but I’m fairly certain they’re about one thing and one thing only: Jackson’s power to make this film any way he damn well pleases, and about nobody at Universal being able to say boo.
In other words, the extra 80 minutes are about the auteurist “wheee!” factor…the same carte blanche E-ticket that has allowed all powerful directors at the apex of their careers to go for broke.

Given his huge success with the Rings trilogy, Jackson is certainly in no position, contractually or psychologically, to alter his modus operandi. And he’s in no way obliged to listen to anyone else’s opinions, be they practical brass-tacks sugges- tions or what-have-you.
“The film is substantially longer than Universal had anticipated and presents dual obstacles,” Waxman writes. “The extra length has helped increase the budget by a third…while requiring the studio, owned by General Electric, to reach for the kind of long-term audience interest that made hits out of three-hour movies like Titanic and the films in Mr. Jackson’s Rings trilogy.
“Hollywood blockbusters have increasingly relied on big releases that bring in as much as half of their ticket sales on the first weekend. But long films receive far fewer showings per day, and the most successful ones, like Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) by Mr. Jackson, which took in $315 million at the domestic box office for New Line Cinema, have remained in theaters for well over half a year.”
Asked about the length of King Kong, Universal executives told Waxman they saw it “as an advantage in an era when jaded moviegoers are hungering for something extraordinary.
“‘This is a three-hour feast of an event,’ said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures. ‘I’ve never come close to seeing an artist working at this level.'”

Waxman notes that “few elements of the film have been seen by the larger public, and even Universal executives saw a finished version of King Kong’s face — with its expressive eyes, broadly fierce nose and mane of computer-generated hair — only in recent days.”
“Expressive eyes”? Is that Waxman talking or something she was told by some other Universal exec? No telling yet, but a Golum-ish, Andy Serkis-ized Kong will be a very tough row to hoe.
“Exhibitors have long complained that very long films make it harder to draw audiences, though in this difficult year at the box office, they have complained louder about not having enough good films to show,” Waxman writes.
No one will be happier than myself if Kong kicks ass. And yet the indications are what they are. Snaggle tooth, Jack Black doing a half-comical spin on Carl Den- ham, three-hour running time, 11th-hour firing of composer Howard Shore, etc.
Talk me out of this. Tell me how I’m reading this the wrong way…I mean, without resorting to the usual you-can’t-see-straight-when-it-comes-to-Peter-Jackson argument.


Lounge area on main floor of Algonquin Hotel — Monday, 10.24.05, 10:30 pm.

Tuesday, 10.25, 10:25 pm.

2004 Village Voice cover…never saw it before this week

Marilyn Monroe photo shoot, sometime around ’59 or ’60. (I think.)