Saturday, September 19, 2009

In Theaters: "Cold Souls"

Here’s a research project for you: find one review of Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls that doesn’t mention Charlie Kaufman. Good luck! They are, admittedly, pretty easy dots to connect; Barthes’ story, in its broad strokes, mixes the pseudo-celebrity themes of Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich script with the medical/psychological concepts of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But what’s important to note is that Cold Souls is no mere copycat, no proto-Kaufman Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead; it is a film with its own particular style and ideas, and, at its best, is just as strong as the pictures it is so readily connected to.

Paul Giamatti stars as, well, “Paul Giamatti,” a well-known character actor struggling through rehearsals for a New York production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Something’s not quite right, he can feel it—something is weighing him down, keeping him from getting the role right, but he’s not sure what. He thinks he finds an answer when his agent tells him to read a New Yorker piece about “The Soul Storage,” a company that removes the soul, allowing people to live their lives more freely and happily. Paul decides that maybe that’s what he needs in order to do the play—a short-term soul transplant. It ends up getting more complicated than that.

David Strathairn lends marvelous support as Dr. Flintstein, the cheerful, confident quack who runs the company (which is, by the way, listed under “soul storage” in the yellow pages). It’s a finely-tuned comic character, a smart guy who is perhaps in a little over his head, but convinced that a warm smile and a positive perspective will win the day. As Paul looks a display of the tiny, pickled souls, he mutters “How did we get to this?” Dr. Flintstein answers, with wink, “Progress!” Later, when Paul starts asking some tougher questions, the good doctor shrugs, “We don’t know. The soul is a mystery!”

The details and particulars of the procedure provide some hearty laughs—there’s a funny scene after the removal where he sits in the “soul stimulator,” a testing device to determine how much of the soul remains, and a scene in which he accidently flings his tiny soul (about the size of a chickpea) across Flintstein’s office plays like Peter Sellers meets Plato. But the film has more on its mind than that, and finds its true footing with an inspired subplot about a Russian black market that is trafficking souls—a subplot which, with ingenuity and impeccable logic, leads to the immortal line, “What is my soul doing in St. Petersburg?”

Giamatti is outstanding in a role that was, obviously, written expressly for him. As a result, it’s (predictably) a “Paul Giamatti type”—exasperated, neurotic, put-upon, but with reserves of hope and longing. The most interesting—and most challenging—aspect of the role is in the performance within the performance; as the actor playing Vanya, he must first be not quite good enough, then very bad, and then very good. He pulls all three off with aplomb (though it is worth nothing that there is a certain Shatner-esque quality to his bad Vanya).

Barthes’ direction is subtle and unimposing; she lets her screenplay do most of the work, but that’s as it should be, since this is a story that doesn’t need a lot of visual razzmatazz to come across. The production design is quite clever, particularly in the contrast between the stark, clean, almost Kubrickian New York facility and the rinky-dink, thrown-together version housed in a Russian warehouse. There are a few minor flaws—the picture drags occasionally, and while I’m glad to see Lauren Ambrose getting work, she’s basically wasted in a nothing role. But these are piddling complaints. Cold Souls is a thoughtful, inventive, delightfully clever little movie, and when it softly switches to more serious waters in its third act, the turn is expertly navigated. Seek this one out, post haste.

"Cold Souls" is currently playing in limited release.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On DVD: "Management"

Look, I’m not immune to the pleasures of the occasional high-quirk romantic comedy; just this very week, I recommended an indie rom-com about a video store clerk who basically stalks a customer, resulting in a courtship where they watch 70s porn and she asks him not to talk. So I’ll go along with a premise—to a point. The problem with Management, Stephen Belber’s would-be oddball rom-com, is that it’s simply inexplicable. We’re given no indication as to why the object of our hero’s affection reacts to him the way she does at several vital junctures, and without understanding the relationship, it’s impossible to buy the relationship.

Steve Zahn, immediately likable and sympathetic, plays Mike, who helps run his parents’ roadside motel in Arizona. When Sue Claussen (Jennifer Aniston), a lovely traveling businesswoman, checks in, Mike is immediately smitten; he makes awkward overtures, taking “complimentary” booze to her room and trying to instigate small talk. For reasons unknown (aside from perhaps a sympathetic streak), Sue ends up encouraging and reciprocating his passes, so when she returns to Maryland, Mike decides to follow her.

“I thought, I’m just gonna go for it,” he explains. “With me?” she asks in disbelief. “It was a far-flung notion,” he admits.

The trouble with this set-up isn’t Zahn; he’s entirely believable, and his character is fairly well-constructed, as these things go. The film loses us with Sue—she keeps doing these inexplicable things, and since we don’t know anything about her (as written, the character could charitably be called “thin”), we don’t get her motivation. This continues well into the picture—impulsive, on-the-road sex is one thing, but allowing the guy who has stalked you across the country to go ahead and hang out for the night and crash on your couch is another. What the hell is she thinking? Writer/director Belber doesn’t seem to know, and unfortunately, neither does Aniston; they should have had a conversation about that, at some point. As the film stands, Aniston doesn’t do much but blink her big eyes, look pretty, and act indecisive; frankly, we’re not quite sure why Mike likes her so much, aside from her “great butt.”

So we don’t believe the relationship—it’s just too much of a stretch to believe that she would continue to let him in. As a result, the picture can’t quite find its narrative footing; it veers haphazardly between slapstick, pathos, and the comedy of awkwardness, unable to find or sustain a consistent, workable tone. It’s like channel-surfing at times; (very minor spoiler alert) between the climactic scenes of serious, heartfelt emotional confession and the touchy-feely ending, we have an absolutely absurd sequence where Mike decides to forget about Sue by becoming a Buddhist monk. That bit is like something out of a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie; how can we take the somber scenes that bookend it seriously?

There are, to be sure, some nice moments along the way. Some of the scenes work individually (particularly the last one), and it’s nice to see the underappreciated Zahn in a role of this size (well-worked though it may be). Woody Harrelson’s character is, admittedly, like something out of a sitcom, but he chomps into it with relish and squeezes some laughs out of it. But the central relationship just doesn’t work, and without that, there’s not much movie there.

Aniston and Zahn are fine comic actors on their own, but the woozily incongruent screenplay to Management can’t generate much chemistry between the duo or make them into a plausible screen couple. Its basic beats are numbingly predictable (see, he has to grow up before he’s ready for a real relationship!), a fact which Belber attempts to camouflage under wildly improbable story tangents and artificial quirk. Everyone tries awfully hard, but ultimately, they just can’t bring this one off.

"Management" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 29.

Today's New in Theaters- 9/18/09

The Informant!: Steven Soderbergh's latest is a real oddity--it's more about tone and quirk than real punchlines or the slapstick of the ads--but it's genuinely entertaining and a unique take on a pretty standard tale. Ebert and Rich both give it very high marks.

Jennifer's Body: The Megan Fox factor isn't enough to get me into the theater-- but the Diablo Cody factor is. Reviews have been pretty mixed, but Ebert gives it three stars ("as a movie about a flesh-eating cheerleader, it's better than it has to be"), and A.O. Scott proclaims it "an unholy mess" in the New York Times, adding, "I mean that as a compliment." ("A.O. Scott gets it!" announced Cody on her Twitter.)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: I remember the book, vaguely, from when I was a kid, but I didn't see much in the trailer that made me want to check this one out. That said, Orndorf gives it four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Love Happens: Good God, haven't I seen this movie a hundred times already? The AV Club thinks so. I like Aniston and Eckahrt plenty, but I'll be damned if I'm watching this.

Disgrace: Malkovich's performance is first rate, but the movie around it is strangely inert and tough to engage with. Its refusal to take the easy way out is admirable, but not terribly compelling.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In Theaters: "The Informant!"

The ads for Steven Soderbergh’s new comedy The Informant! are trumpeting it as the work of “the director of Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13.” The audiences who know Soderbergh purely as the razzle-dazzle sleight-of-hand artist who crafted those pictures (superior entertainments though they may have been) will likely be puzzled and perhaps bored by this film, which isn’t in that same style at all; if it resembles anything in the director’s admirably diverse filmography, it’s his underseen (and even less appreciated) 1996 micro-budget indie, Schizopolis. (This is, I’m certain, an angle that the marketing folks at Warner Brothers were wise to ignore.) Don’t get me wrong, The Informant! isn't nearly as flat-out weird as the earlier film, which Soderbergh shot with fun for friends when during his mid-90s dry spell—the new film has an explainable story and make some semblance of sense (I don’t present this as a knock on Schizopolis, which clearly isn’t interested in either notion). But this new flick—this expensive, well-promoted, big studio Matt Damon vehicle—feels like the first time since then that we’ve gotten a real peek at the director’s sense of humor.

The film tells the true story of Mark Whitacre (Damon), a rising executive at agri-industry corporation ADM who suddenly turned whistle-blower, alerting the FBI to an international price-fixing conspiracy while putting his job and comfortable lifestyle in jeopardy. Whitacre’s tale, first told in a book by Kurt Eichenwald, sounds at first blush like a retread of Michael Mann’s The Insider, and the book was reportedly a fairly straight-forward piece of reportage in that mode. Leave it to Soderbergh (and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns) to decide it was a comedy.

What it is, however, is a very specific kind of comedy, one that’s hard to pinpoint (and presumably even harder to create). It’s not character comedy, not exactly, and it certainly isn’t set-up/punchline or sitcom or slapstick (though the ads have seized on a couple of Damon’s Inspector Clouseau moments as a marketing hook). More than anything, the movie’s tone is funny—it’s got an oddball sensibility, a peculiar way of looking at things, an absurd, cockeyed view of Whitacre and the quicksand he marches proudly into.

Accurately or not, Whitacre is presented as a dim bulb, Homer Simpson in a Porsche and business suit, and Burns’ smartest and funniest device is an idea so simple yet so clever that I can’t believe no one has thought of it before: the notion of a first-person narrator who isn’t terribly bright. (The only other example I could come up with was Chris Klein’s portions of the voice-over in Election). Whitacre’s narration is set up to function as these things do—to explain what is taken for granted, to fill in the blanks, to move the story along—but the guy clearly has problems focusing, and his voice-overs turn into tangential, stream-of-consciousness meanderings. “What do they pay Kirk? What does a guy like that get?” he wonders after one exchange. “Is it Porsche or Porsch-uh? I should know that,” he asks himself during a leisurely drive.

These interruptions and non-sequiturs, which also include transgressions on polar bears, ties, German translations, TV ideas, and the signing of form letters, are always good for an easy laugh (and indeed, it may be a well they visit a couple of times too often). But they also function as an ingenious window into what’s really going on in his head (and the question “What was he thinking?” is one that is not unreasonable to ask, on several occasions). This is why Marvin Hamlisch’s score is such a masterstroke. Some critics have complained about the music’s jazzy, upbeat incongruity; they’re missing the point entirely. Just as the rambling, disorganized voice-overs put us in Whitacre’s head, so does that square, goofy music—we all have our own theme music rattling around in our brains as we go through our day, and a guy as button-up and white-bread as Whitacre would have exactly this kind of vanilla whirlygig bouncing around his noggin, and then of course it would transform into shiny, brassy spy music once he goes mole.

That music also seems to represent Soderbergh’s joyful recreation of a particular 1970s aesthetic (clearly his favorite period in American film, and one that he’s paid at least subtle tribute to in most of his films). His opening credit sequence, which matches up Hamlisch’s throwback music with tight close-ups of a briefcase being packed with low-tech surveillance and recording devices, is like something out of Three Days of the Condor or The Conversation (and the retro vibe is only heightened by his use of what appears to be the Laugh-In font for the titles).

He also lucks out with the casting of Damon, who may not have been the most obvious choice to play Whitacre, but certainly turns out to be an inspired one. His performance, complimented by bad hair, a cheeseball mustache, and thirty extra pounds, is an inspired comic creation—he’s absolutely full of shit, but totally confident in his own sense of right and wrong, which is more or less inexorably tied to his own sense of self-preservation. It’s an unfailingly funny performance, but you can’t catch Damon trying to be funny, and the deeper he gets, the more fun he is to watch. Melanie Lynskey is wonderful as his wife; given the opportunity to go for broad caricature, she plays it straight, and the film is richer for it. Scott Bakula does beleaguered well as Whitacre’s primary FBI contact. Soderbergh rounds out the cast with a rogue’s gallery of stand-ups and comic actors (including Joel McHale, Rick Overton, Paul F. Thompkins, Patton Oswalt, Bob Zany, Tony Hale, and—to this fan’s delight—the Smothers Brothers), a choice that helps keep picture clicking along at a good clip.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a blind spot for Soderbergh—for my money, he’s not only one of the two or three most skilled filmmakers working today, but one of our most prolific (in the last twelve months, he’s released this film, The Girlfriend Experience, and the mammoth, two-part Che). Few directors give me as much sheer pleasure while watching their films; part of the joy of his movies is how he works the angles, finding unique twists on potentially familiar material, subverting angles to create something new and his own. The Informant! doesn't rank with his finest work—it never quite catches fire the way his best stuff does, and it is missing the infectious energy that makes Out of Sight or the Ocean’s pictures such a hoot. The pace is a little spotty, and he has occasional difficulty holding on to the film’s odd, cockeyed tone. But consider what a boilerplate movie this could have been, what a standard, dull assemblage of cliché scenes and overworked intrigue a lesser director would have slapped together. The more you reflect on the kind of forgettable chestnut The Informant! could have been, the more you appreciate how Soderbergh decided to shake the snow globe instead.

"The Informant!" opens in wide release on Friday, September 18th.

In Theaters: "Disgrace"

Disgrace is a thoughtful, uncompromising film—and that is both its strength and its weakness. It departs from conventional story structure and refuses to play much of anything safe, and while those are admirable (and too-rare) qualities, it also makes it a tough picture to connect and engage with.

John Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a Capetown professor who seems deeply unhappy—he’s sleepwalking through his classes, he’s divorced and distant from his children, and even the prostitute he frequents seems uninterested in him. In desperation, he begins a turgid, awkward affair with a student; it quickly blows up in his face, and he’s forced to resign following an inquiry. He flees Capetown and goes to visit his daughter Lucy (Jessica Haines), who lives on a remote farm, growing vegetables and breeding dogs. It seems a fine change of pace, until something horrible happens.

The opening scenes of Disgrace, while deliberately paced, are quite involving; the writing is simple, brusque, and to the point, and director Steve Jacobs shoots much of the material in well-composed medium wide shots, letting the frames (and people within them) breathe. The section dealing with Lurie’s affair is particularly skillful—Jacobs (and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli, adapting J.M. Coetzee’s novel) deftly but subtly hint at the power dynamic that infuses the “relationship,” and vividly show the situation spinning out of control. Once he retreats to the sticks, the pace slackens a bit; while the film has a rich sense of place, it drags somewhat as Lurie settles in.

That ebbing turns out to be something of a trick, lulling the audience into complacency before the grisly, harrowing developments of the story turn at the midway point. I’ll not reveal what happens (my press notes gave away too much, and lessened the impact somewhat), but I will say that it is a stunning sequence of tremendous power. But the film proceeds to sound some odd notes in its second half; it’s not going to follow pat storytelling models, which is fine, but a few scenes are just plain befuddling. And the closing scenes are, frankly, somewhat maddening—the screenplay refuses to provide easy pay-offs, but there’s an argument to be made that this particular story just might need one.

Perhaps the picture’s greatest asset is Malkovich’s work; he’s front and center, present in every scene, and it is a performance of tremendous restraint. He’s (smartly) cultivated the popular notion that he is a larger-than-life personality, a crazy, scenery-chewing over-actor, and played up that idea in performances that verged on knowing self-parody, both directly (Being John Malkovich) and indirectly (Burn After Reading). In light of all of that, it is easy to forget what a subtle, sensitive actor he can be when the right role calls for it—and this is the right role. His clipped line readings convey an impatient weariness, and his body language is marvelous—watch his awkwardness among the salt-of-the-earth types when he arrives in the sticks, or the effective scene late in the film in which he asks forgiveness, simply and directly. It’s a sharp turn, and well-matched by Haines’ work as Lucy; her portrait of a bruised but headstrong woman is tough and mesmerizing.

Those performances go a long way, but can’t quite close the deal. It’s an admirable picture, but a difficult one nonetheless—we’re always on the outside looking in, intrigued but seldom genuinely involved, and for all of the skill of Malkovich’s performance, he’s unable to provide an entryway into the material. By the time the film’s 120 minutes winded down, I felt like I’d been an interesting journey, but I’m not sure where the hell we ended up.

"Disgrace" opens in limited release on Friday, September 18th.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On DVD: "Good Dick"

Through much of Good Dick’s brief running time, I couldn’t decide if it was charmingly off-beat, or if it was trying too hard to be charmingly off-beat. It ultimately won me over, but for no good reason; it’s chock full of problems, from its unsympathetic characters to its somewhat inert pacing to its schizophrenic tone. But it just kind of grows on you; like Justin Theroux’s unfairly maligned Dedication a couple years back, it’s a dark romantic comedy with the too-rare trait of being unpredictable, and that uncertainty gives it a real edge.

Jason Ritter plays the (never-named) male protagonist, who works in a suspiciously overstaffed video store (so there’s plenty of funny clerks hanging around) and is currently living out of his car. As the story begins, he is harboring a crush on a female customer (also never named, played by writer/director Marianna Palka) who frequents the store, taking home stacks of 70s erotica. He decides to act on his attraction, kicking the film off with a good old-fashioned stalking before embarking on one of the most peculiar courtships ever captured on film.

It’s basically a drag-and-pull; he’s crazy about her, she’s repulsed by him (or so she says), but she keeps letting him hang around, coming over after work to fix her food and bring her free movies. She’ll watch the dirty flicks with him, but with rules: “If you get a boner, you’re gone.” It is, for all intents and purposes, a psychologically abusive relationship, but he keeps coming back for more; his slow-but-steady push into her good graces has some pretty tart comic payoffs (the playing and shooting of his attempt at a first kiss is just about perfect), even if her mean-spirited rebuffs become somewhat tiresome as the film goes on.

Ritter (who co-produced) is quite engaging—it takes skill to pull off a character like this, and the actor must negotiate the fine line between dedicated, never-say-die romantic and creepy, needy, horny stalker. He pretty much pulls it off, though he has to navigate some pretty rough patches in the first act. Palka avoids the trap of writing herself a charming, beautiful ingénue role; she’s given herself a fairly impossible character, and though her tics and rules try the viewer’s patience, you can’t stop watching her.

Palka’s script is admirably low-key; she doesn’t push for effects, gives the characters plenty of room, and subverts expectations on several occasions (most notably with regards to her character’s eventual discovery of the big lie at the beginning of their relationship). Her direction is similarly unobtrusive—most of the picture plays in loose mediums and wides, allowing the scenes to breathe and occasionally expand (as with the loosely funny video store sequences featuring ace supporting players Mark Webber, Eric Edelstein, and invaluable Apatow regular Martin Starr).

Things get sharper and stronger in the last twenty minutes or so, with an outstanding single-scene role by Tom Arnold (I know, I should stop being shocked when he’s good in things) and a lovely, restrained closing scene. Good Dick is an odd duck of a movie, equal parts warm and wormy, but somehow, in its own, weird way, it works.

Good Dick is far from perfect—it has a strange, off-kilter feel, its tonal shifts are jarring, and its title is all wrong, a 15-year-old’s idea of clever branding. But it is honestly unique and continuously intriguing, sustaining viewer interest from scene to scene and taking its peculiar story into unexpected places. The film is far from being a crowd-pleasing entertainment, but those wary of conventional romantic comedy may find it strangely compelling.

"Good Dick" is currently available on DVD.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On DVD: "The Beatles: Rare and Unseen"

It’s a great time to be a Beatles fan, that’s for sure. Followers of the Fab Four have all sorts of ways to spend their hard-earned coin this month: there’s the all-Beatles version of Rock Band, the long-awaited CD remasters of the entire discography (in both stereo and mono), and… um… well then there’s The Beatles: Rare and Unseen, a new “unauthorized” documentary from the folks at (I’m not making this name up) Weinerworld Limited, an outfit specializing in these grade-Z music discs (their catalogue includes the previous Beatle cheapies Magical Mystery Tour Memories and The Beatles: Destination Hamburg, as well as all those horrible Bob Dylan docs.)

If you’ve seen one of these, you’ve seen them all: new interviews with peripheral figures and hangers-on, poorly preserved archival footage, and sound-alike music—since, of course, licensing actual Beatles music would be prohibitively expensive, and why would we actually need to hear the amazing music we’re being told about? Those general complaints aside (and they’re clearly moot—they wouldn’t keep cranking these discs out if diehard fans didn’t keep buying them), I will grant Rare and Unseen this: there are a couple of good finds here, and some of the interviews are enlightening. It’s still pretty terrible, but it’s the best of the bunch to date.

Let’s get the bad out of the way first, however, and there is plenty of it. The most egregious offender is the jive narration, which includes such bloviations as “This is the story of four people in an extraordinary situation!” Is it, now? The third-tier interview subjects have little to say of note; they include such perpetual “unauthorized” interview subjects as their early tour manager Sam Leach, former press officer Tony Barrow, original manager Allan Williams, and road manager Tony Bramwell. Some of their stories are interesting, but all of their anecdotes have been trotted out countless times before, and the new additions this go-round (such as the Len Goodman, “former British champion ballroom dancer and Beatle fan”) are pretty lightweight. The much-heralded rare footage is good, but often incongruent; the section dealing with their first big hit, in 1962, is accompanied by footage of the boys performing in 1964, when Beatlemania was at an entirely different stage. And the documentary’s apparent roots as a television special are made glaringly obvious by the bumpers between its five “parts”—“Coming up next!” the narrator announces at one point, “after the break!” at another.

There are a couple of gems here, however. That “rare and unseen” footage, some shot by the band, some by tourmates like musician Mickey Jones, is quite good; the performance footage is fun, and the home movies of them goofing off poolside while on tour shows the lads as we’d most like to remember them: impossibly young, full of joy. (The behind-the-scenes footage from the Magical Mystery Tour shoot is all recycled from the company’s Magical Mystery Tour Memories disc.) The voices of those on the inside are often sorely missed in these films, but producer/director Chris Cowie got his hands on a rare interview that John Lennon shot for French TV in 1975; the clips are sparse, but valuable. And while the interviews with the bystanders are mostly a bust, they do include some interesting pontificating by British cultural critics, who add some genuine analysis of the music, the power of the lyrics, and the group’s influence and influences.

As useful as those bits are, the film is ultimately sidetracked by its own baffling structure; the first four “parts” give us an exhaustively detailed account of the formation of the group and their first success, ending as they are about to go appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and conquer America. After a “commercial break,” the narrator is suddenly talking about Magical Mystery Tour. I ran the disc back (and went to the chapter menu) to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but I didn’t—apparently lacking footage or relevant interviews, the film simply skips ahead from 1964 to 1967, and basically spends its final nine minutes slapping together random thoughts on the last three years of the group. It’s a jarring shift from the itemized play-by-play of the film to that point, but I guess that’s how it goes with a documentary like this: they have to take whatever they can get.

Hardcore Beatle maniacs will find a few nuggets of gold—the Lennon interview, the home movie footage, the flashes of analysis—buried deep in The Beatles: Rare and Unseen. But it still falls prey to the pitfalls of the unauthorized music documentary, and although this particular example is the most watchable one I’ve seen, that’s somewhat akin to being the leper with the most fingers.

"The Beatles: Rare and Unseen" is now available on DVD.

Today's New DVDs- 9/15/09

Jesus, what a lousy week on DVD.

X-Men Origins- Wolverine: I loved X-Men and X2, loved them out loud, and then the series lost me entirely with the insipid, Ratner-helmed X3: The Last Stand. Nothing I saw from or heard about Wolverine made it sound like anything that would return me to the fold-- least of all Ebert's review, which should be tempered with the knowledge that he even liked X3.

Easy Virtue: This great-looking adaptation of Noël Coward's classic play starts of well, and includes a humdinger of a performance from Colin Firth. But Jessica Biehl is woefully miscast in the leading role, and the film is too wobbly to support the third act's turn to the serious.

Directed by John Ford: The best new release of the week is Peter Bogdanovich's documentary portrait of one of the American cinema's finest filmmakers; he reworked his 1971 film in 2006 with new interviews and came up with a brilliant pastiche that mixes impressions from several of Hollywood's late, great legends (including the man himself) with iconic current directors like Scorsese and Spielberg. Well worth seeking out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bookshelf: "Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars" by Thomas R. Lindlof

In 1988, Martin Scorsese (hot off the critical and box-office success of the Oscar-winning The Color of Money) was finally given the chance to fulfill a longtime dream: making a film adaptation of Nikos Kazantakis’ controversial Gospel-inspired novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Neither Scorsese nor Universal Pictures (which produced and distributed the picture) could have imagined the firestorm that would follow, mostly centered on the titular sequence, in which Christ is tempted to come down from the cross and shown the “normal” life that awaits him (which includes a brief glimpse of procreative sex with Mary Magdalene). Universal studios and theaters showing the film were picketed, boycotts were organized, death threats were received, and the film became a turning point for the floundering religious right (looking for a newsworthy cause after the falls of multiple televangelists) and its campaign against liberal Hollywood, as well as a rallying cry for defenders of the First Amendment.

Lindlof’s account of the controversy is exhaustively detailed—going clear back to Scoresese’s first attempt to make them film in 1983, when Paramount pulled the plug well into pre-production, skittish of exactly the kind of controversy that greeted the film five years later. Lindlof’s prose is tight and punchy, and he’s a skilled storyteller; I particularly enjoyed how we told the tale of an “advance man” for the picture, and how his savvy maneuvers prevented it from being seized by officials in Broward County (where else?). Only one minor criticism: the flurry of executive types and studio muckety-mucks are occasionally hard to keep track of, so an appendix of the book’s “cast of characters” might have been helpful. That note aside, Hollywood Under Siege is a smart, engrossing read.

"Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars" is currently in bookstores.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

TV: How to get a show on CBS

I’ve been seeing subway posters and bus banners all over the place for NCIS: Los Angeles, a sure-fire fall hit for CBS. The show, a spin-off of the Mark Harmon starrer that’s your grandmother’s favorite program since they cancelled Dr. Quinn, will join CSI: Miami and CSI: New York as part of one of television’s more peculiar programming patterns: apparently, the way that you get a show on CBS is by creating spinoffs with titles that consist of an acronym, followed by a city. It also helps if you have the show fronted by a B-list actor who’s not getting much work these days. (NCIS:LA stars loathsome ol’ Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J, who has appently given up on getting anyone to call him “James Todd Smith”.)

In that spirit, I’d like to propose the following shows to the suits at CBS. I understand that the fall season is just a couple of weeks away, so I’m open to options for midseason pick-ups.

Jonathan Silverman in ASPCA: Pittsburgh
Wilford Brimley in AARP: Palm Springs
Geena Davis in MADD: Milwaukee
John Lithgow in YMCA: Omaha
Craig T. Nelson in NRA: Detroit
Annabeth Gish in ASCAP: Denver
Keith David in AAA: Salt Lake City
Tom Hulce in OPEC: Albany
Mario van Peebles in ACLU: Raleigh
Rue McClanahan in DAR: Shreveport
Giovanni Ribisi in FDIC: Memphis

Pilot treatments available upon request.

Your suggestions?

Loose Ends: "Good Movie Season" begins

A few years back, when he was still doing the TV show, I saw a downright joyous Roger Ebert, thrilled over how many movies they were able to recommend that week. "It's the time of the year," he explained. "It's good movie season!" He's right. We've suffered through the mindless "tentpole" bullshit of the summer, the Transformers 2s and the G.I. Joes and the Wolverines (okay, maybe I didn't suffer through them personally, but, you know...), and now we get to the part of the year where, with an eye on those little golden statues, Hollywood starts releasing movies for grown-ups and pretends like that's what they do all year long. (As Ebert himself wrote in a recent blog entry: "Last July as I was watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I knew this season would come. After that film was over, I was 150 minutes closer to it.")

For many, the official started pistol for "good movie season" is the Toronto Film Festival, where many of the fall's most promising pictures attempt to make a big splash. Among those I'm looking forward to:

-I posted the trailer last month for the Coen Brothers' latest movie, A Serious Man, which sounds stranger and more intriguing the more I hear about it. I've seen that trailer a few more times now, in theaters; like the best trailers, it piques your interest and arouses your curiosity without telling you much of any damn thing about the movie iteself.

- Speaking of that: if you haven't watched this trailer for Up in the Air, the latest from Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), clear two minutes of your life and do just that. It's stunningly good, and the movie is getting remarkable, emotional responses at Toronto.

- Clooney is pretty much the MVP of Toronto; his other new movie there is The Men Who Stare at Goats, directed by his long-time collaborator Grant Henslov. It looks funny, weird, and great (and, at long last, promises the Jeff Bridges-Kevin Spacey reunion that you K-PAX fans have been clamoring for).

- Willem Dafoe is also all over the festival; he co-stars in Antichrist, the new film from Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville), and to the surprise of absolutely no one, it is reportedly batshit crazy. Take a peek!

Other intriguing items at the ol' TFF include Almodovar's latest Penelope Cruz collaboration, Broken Embraces; Lee Daniels' Precious, which has been getting rave reviews since Sundance; Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, with Nicolas Cage going insane in some kind of a "reimagining" of Abel Ferrera's 1992 film; the long-awaited The Road, directed by John Hillcoat (who helmed the brutal Australian western The Proposal) from Cormac McCarthy's novel; Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, featuring Heath Ledger's final screen performance; and Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.

If you'd like to keep up with the dozens of films unspooling up north, you can be like me and read Ebert's journal and the excellent coverage at Movieline and the Onion AV Club.