- Talk about a blast from the past–on Wednesday morning, I’ll be sitting down for a chat with an old childhood favorite, ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, who has followed in the footsteps of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and graduated from the World Wrestling Federation to the wide world of motion pictures. Austin is promoting The Condemned (trailer), a Lions Gate release in which he plays one of ten death row inmates dropped on an island as part of a reality show that promises freedom to the last one standing. The film will unspool nationally on April 27th, and which I’ll be screening on Tuesday morning.
- I’m particularly excited about Wednesday evening, when I’ll be part of a small group that will get the first look at a rough-cut of S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, the latest film by Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War), who may well be the greatest living documentary filmmaker, and who I’ll be having dinner with after the screening. All I know at the moment is that the film examines the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and was originally going to be released sometime this summer, but I’m hearing it may now have been pushed back to 2008 due to a delayed start on postproduction. I’ll check on that and get back to you, since one can reasonably expect it to shoot onto the Oscar radar whenever it debuts.
- You can’t do much better than–or not get excited by–this Variety review: “Knocked Up is uproarious. Line for line, minute to minute, writer-director Judd Apatow‘s latest effort is more explosively funny, more frequently, than nearly any other major studio release in recent memory. Indeed, even more than the filmmaker’s smash-hit sleeper The 40-Year-Old Virgin, his new pic is bound to generate repeat business among ticketbuyers who’ll want to savor certain scenes and situations again and again, if only to memorize punchlines worth sharing with buddies. Currently set for a June 1 release, this hugely commercial comedy likely will remain in megaplexes throughout the summer and, possibly, into the fall.”
- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), who I consider to be the world’s greatest living film critic, is still recuperating from complications that arose during his treatment for salivary cancer approximately a year ago. His absence has been jarring for many of us who turned to him each week for wisdom and perspective on new releases, so I was pleased to see that he has posted a note on his web site updating us on his progress, announcing that he will attend his 9th annual Overlooked Film Festival, and commemorating a special milestone: “As I look at the date, I realize I was named film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times forty years ago today. I had no idea I was embarking on a lifelong career, but I was, and I can’t think of a better one.”
- 67 year old Bob Clark, the somewhat anonymous director of the classic comedies Porky’s (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983), was killed on Wednesday morning along with his 22 year old son when by a drunk driver on the Pacific Coast Highway. Clark, who also made such lesser works as Baby Geniuses (1999) and SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (2004), was certainly not a consistently strong director, but he didn’t deserve the mean-spirited obituary written by my fellow awards analyst Jeffrey Wells, whose attempts at being ‘provocative’ this time went too far.
- I was at a dinner the other night at which a gentleman from Italy spoke very passionately about Toto, an Italian comedian of the screen who practiced an almost poetic form of comedy while always maintaining a ‘stoneface’ (like Buster Keaton), and whose work has not yet been subtitled into English. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I hadn’t heard of the guy, so I looked him up–here’s his story.
- Speaking of random items, I was recently informed that Bronwyn Cosgrave, a friend of a friend, has written a beautiful book on the history of red carpet fashion, Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards. Now, while that subject is not exactly my cup of tea, I do know a lot of people who only tune into the Oscars to see what people are wearing, and I’ve looked over the book and was impressed with its sharp grasp of film history, let alone fashion history. So, without reservation, I can recommend that you check it out.
- Last thing. I’m still a bit bugged about Reign Over Me, which could have been a much better movie if it had been tightened up a little–well, a lot–by conveying information with fewer words and with more meaningful behavior. Here’s a thought I’ve had: Why not have a scene with Alan (Don Cheadle) and Charlie (Adam Sandler) walking down the city street, with Alan still trying unsuccessfully to get Charlie to acknowledge his past, and Charlie still shutting him out. Suddenly, Charlie’s jacket gets tugged at from behind, and he and turns around to see a cute little girl–say, eight years old–who smiles at him and points to her teeth, “Hi Dr. Fineman! Look, still no cavities!” The girl’s mother catches up to her, tells her not to run away from her in the street, and looks up and peers at Charlie’s face, uncertain that it really is him behind the disheveled appearance, and says, “Well, she has a good eye–I didn’t even recognize you! It was nice to see you, Dr. Fineman,” before walking away with the daughter. Now, cut to a close-up of Charlie’s face and show him fighting back tears, having been reminded not only of his career, but also of his own young daughter. This scene is far from perfect–I know, I’ll keep my day job–but something like it would have at least shown some humanity–something redeeming–about Charlie prior to his tearful revelations late in the film, which come after far too long a period of one-dimensionality. (Granted, kids hate the dentist, so perhaps the little girl wouldn’t have been so thrilled to spot her old dentist in the first place!)
I just received my credentials from the Independent Film Festival of Boston (April 25-30) and the Tribeca Film Festival (April 25-May 6, though I’ll only be in New York from May 2 on) and I’m very much looking forward to both. In just five years, the IFFB has grown into a formidable showcase for indie film. Having now looked into the slate of films for this year’s festival, here is my synopsis of what to look for:
- Away from Her, d. Sarah Polley (feature)–the great Julie Christie (Dr. Zhivago, Darling, Don’t Look Now, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Afterglow, etc.) plays a married Alzheimer’s patient who forgets about her husband and falls in love with another man after being institutionalized)
- Brooklyn Rules, d. Michael Corrente (feature; world premiere)–longtime television writer and Emmy and WGA winner Terence Winter (The Sopranos) writes about what he knows best, the mob, and three friends who come of age alongside it in 1985 Brooklyn; with Alec Baldwin, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Scott Caan (apparently reminiscent of his dad James), and Mena Suvari
- Fay Grim, d. Hal Hartley (feature)–ten years ago, writer-director Hal Hartley won the Best Screenplay Award (and was nominated for the Palm D’Or) at Cannes for Henry Fool, starring Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum; now, the cast is back for a sequel set in a post-9/11 world in which Goldblum’s CIA agent coerces Posey’s title character (the wife of fugitive Henry Fool) to head to Paris to try to locate some of her husband’s notebooks that could compromise U.S. national security
- The Sensation of Sight, d. Aaron J. Wiederspahn (feature)–rookie Wiederspahn guides Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as an English teacher experiencing a mid-life crisis who decides to start selling encyclopedias door-to-door; also features indie-staple Jane Adams (Happiness, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children), who alone is usually worth the price of admission
- Zoo, d. Robinson Devor (docu)–if you thought documentaries couldn’t get weirder than last year’s The Bridge, which was a no-holds-barred portrait of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers, think again; Devor looks into the shocking case of Kenneth Pinyan, a Boeing engineer by day who led a secret life as a bestiality porn star by night, and who died as a result of having his colon perforated by a horse
- The Unforeseen, d. Laura Dunn (docu)–Variety has called the director’s debut effort “astonishing” and “the kind of transformative viewing experience that has made the current period a golden age for nonfiction film”; produced by Terence Malick and Robert Redford, the film examines a real estate development in Barton Springs, Texas (near Austin) and the shocking implications it has had on the health and safety of the area
- The Cats of Mirikitani, d. Linda Hattendorf (docu)–the filmmaker encounters an elderly Japanese artist on the streets of New York hard at work; she returns to rescue him from the chaos of 9/11 and invites him to live with her in her home, where he begins to reveal the story of his past at a World War II era Japanese internment camp, to which he returns in the film
- The Killer Within, d. Macky Alston (docu)–fifty years ago, a Swarthmore College undergraduate who felt bullied planned a shooting spree, but managed only to kill one fellow student, who was asleep at the time of the murder; the killer, Bob Bechtel, is now a Professor of Youth Psychology at the University of Arizona who warns about the effects of bullying; his victim’s brother is outraged, arguing that Bechtel was not bullied by his brother
- A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar…, d. Eric Chaikin (docu)–an examination of how different law students deal with the stress of the bar exam, the make-or-break test that they must pass in order to become a lawyer; features commentary from Alan Dershowitz, Robert Shapiro, Nancy Grace, and other prominent legal experts
- Lake of Fire, d. Tony Kaye (docu)–Tony Kaye, the director of American History X (1998), offers a graphic look at the national debate over abortion in recent years
It’s too early to do a thorough preview of Tribeca, but I’m already hearing good things about a number of the films, including Numb, a dramedy starring Matthew Perry (Friends) as a chronically-depressed screenwriter. More to come as we get closer…
It’s been a while, but I’m back from vacation, and there’s a lot to catch up on and go over. First, from the screening room:
- The Lookout is the best American movie of the year so far. The directorial debut of accomplished screenwriter Frank Scott (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report) seems to me a close relative of A History of Violence, but far more effective at bringing a 21st century edge to what is ultimately B-movie pulp of the finest variety. It features a surprisingly strong lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who many of us first got to know as the thirteen year old star of Angels in the Outfield (1994) and were reintroduced to in Brick (2005). Jeff Daniels, first-rate as always, leads a colorful cast of supporting characters that also features the beautiful Isla Fisher (aka Mrs. Sacha Baron Cohen, the “stage five clinger” from Wedding Crashers) and Matthew Goode (Match Point) as the lead bad guy.
- What can I say about 300? If you’re looking to burn two hours, have a ball, but don’t expect much more–you forget about the film before you hit the parking lot. So why did this movie, without a single ‘name’ star, rake in $70 million? It remains somewhat of a mystery, although the early word is that it had unexpectedly high crossover appeal between the genders. It is a visually impressive movie, but the fact that so much of it was done with CGI was actually a negative for me, since everything was too falsified to at all resemble reality–up to and including six year old boys and eighty-five year old men running around with bulging six packs. I get that this is an adaptation of the comic book retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, but the Sin City thing wasn’t working for me with this story, and perhaps is best used for stories set in the future, not the past. To me, the most interesting thing about the film–which is otherwise a poor man’s Braveheart type of thing–are the unmistakable parallels that it tries to establish between the Spartans and the Bush Doctrine… going into battle without the authority of the council, fighting them there instead of here, staying the course, don’t pull out before the job is done, don’t go down without a fight, etc. Apparently, we’re dealing with some conservative filmmakers–the only thing missing was “Let’s roll!”
- Indian filmmaker Mira Nair‘s latest picture The Namesake is good, but could have been so much better. Although I have not read the acclaimed novel that inspired the movie, I can tell that the filmmakers were scared to tinker with the story too much, and the film suffers from being too literary. Between all the flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, is a powerful story about the timeless problem of forbidden love… we’ve sort of seen variations of it in films like West Side Story, Casablanca, and other films, but it has never been the sole focus of a great major motion picture, and this film is no exception. That said, Kal Penn (better known as Kumar in the stoner flick Harold and Kumar and its upcoming sequel) skillfully handles his tough assignment as the conflicted young Indian-American man in the middle of things, as does popular Indian model/actress Tabu as his mother and, especially, Irfan Khan as his father. (Kahn will next be seen on these shores in the Daniel Pearl bio-pic A Mighty Wind with Angelina Jolie.)
- Finally got around to: Sherrybaby, which features a gutsy, bare-all performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal that almost netted her a Best Actress nomination last year… This Film Is Not Yet Rated, the Kirby Dick exposé of the Motion Picture Association of America–I felt a little guilty seeing Dick stick it to Jack Valenti‘s brainchild the day after he suffered a stroke, but the MPAA really is a pretty slimy operation, as the film shows… picking up the Criterion Collection (nobody does it better) DVDs of a few essential classics–Federico Fellini‘s La Strada (1954, Italy), Akira Kurosawa‘s Rashomon (1950, Japan), and David Lean‘s Brief Encounter (1945; the best British film of all-time, in my opinion)