Blood Over Simplified

Now available on Blu ray and DVD:

A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP (Dir. Yimou Zhang, 2009)

Director Yimou Zhang (HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, HERO) counts the Coen brothers’ 1984 debut BLOOD SIMPLE as one of his favorite films, but this crude “re-imagining” really doesn’t properly pay homage to the cult crime classic.

The basic elements of BLOOD SIMPLE, one of my favorite films too, are here transported to a noodle shop in the Chinese desert with Yan Ni, Ni Dahong , and Xiao Shenyang in the roles previously played by Frances McDormond, Dan Hedaya, and John Getz respectively.

The old mean Dahong owns the noodle shop, and just like in the original his wife (Ni) is cheating on him with one of his employees (Shenyang). Dahong hires a policeman (Sun Hunglei in the M. Emmett Walsh part) to kill the young lovers.

There are very few laughs in this film and it tries way to hard to get them. Slapstick replaces the original’s dark humor, and while Xiaoding Zhao’s cinematography has a lot of visual style, the film is sorely lacking in the wit department.

One of the major problems is with the emptiness of the characters. In BLOOD SIMPLE McDormond was a frail frightened woman who genuinely loved Getz, but here Ni in the same part is a shrewd conniving gold digger. It’s not an improvement because she’s just another despicable character in a film full of despicable characters.

Likewise Shenyang in the Getz role – the character’s strength is replaced by a trembling Jar Jar-ish oafishness and it’s painful to watch.

I’m not even gonna go into how Dahong and Hunglei come nowhere near Hedeya’s and Walsh’s masterfully sleazy performances.

Give me a character I can care about, Zhang!

If you haven’t seen BLOOD SIMPLE – by all means go out and get a copy of the DVD. I’m a Coen brothers connoisseur so I’m a bit biased, but it’s a film noir masterpiece that, like just about all of their films, holds up to repeated viewings.

There’s nothing noir about A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP.Sometimes the only good thing about a remake is that they stir up fond memories of the original film.

That sure is the only good thing about this one.

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TRUE GRIT: Another Instant Classic From The Coen Brothers

TRUE GRIT (Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010)

Since they stumbled in the early Aughts with a couple of sub par offerings (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, THE LADYKILLERS), Joel and Ethan Coen have been on a grand roll. The Oscar winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the comedy hit BURN AFTER READING, and last year’s critically acclaimed A SERIOUS MAN were all excellent additions to their canon, but their newest film – TRUE GRIT – may be the best of the batch.

An adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis rather than a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film, TRUE GRIT is in many ways a traditional example of the Western genre. What makes it so much more is its handling of the manner of characters that appear naturalistic yet still exuberantly exaggerated – in a way that long-time followers of the Coens will appreciate royally.

The “Dude” himself, Jeff Bridges, plays U.S. Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn – an iconic role that is considered one of the most definitive of the Duke’s. Bridges owns it here however with a drunken swagger and a grizzled gusto.

The real protagonist of the story is the 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who recruits Bridges to help her hunt down her father’s murderer (Josh Brolin). For such a young whippersnapper, Steinfeld has a stern delivery confirming her determination and her sometimes harsh words to Bridges have a sting to them that is more than equal to Kim Darby’s readings in the 1969 version.

See? It’s hard not to compare this film to the original adaptation.

They follow the same plot progressions and the spirit of Western homage is certainly present, but the Coens saw the piece as funnier with less Hollywood sentiment and they deliver a film that lives up to their vision gloriously.

Matt Damon, who was long overdue for a part in a Coens production, has a juicy gruff character of his own in Texas Ranger Le Bouef. Damon is at first just along for the ride with Bridges and Steinfeld, but his jaded face-offs with the Marshall and the foes they encounter along the way have a hilarious bite to them as the tension builds.

As a Western in the classic mold with a body count, I didn’t expect TRUE GRIT to be as funny as it is – it’s for sure one of the Coen’s most laugh-filled films since THE BIG LEBOWSKI – just about every utterance of Bridge’s is comic gold and his fellow cast mates (including crusty turns by a deranged Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper funnily enough) hold their own humor-wise as well.

Then there’s the magnificent cinematography by Coen Bros. collaborator Roger Deakins that fills the frame with striking shots of the blinding terrain in New Mexico and Texas as well as the extreme jolting actor close-ups that flicker with raw emotion.

Another Coen Bros. co-hort Carter Burwell, who has been with them since BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), provides a score composed of gospel hymns and effectively spare piano accompaniment.

TRUE GRIT is an instant classic. From the Coen Brothers’ ace direction to the cast’s top notch acting spouting out hilarious dialog line after line and then on to the wondrous look, feel, and heart of the film, I honestly can not think of a negative criticism of it. I can’t wait to see it again. If I find anything to dislike about it then – I’ll get back to you.

More later…

Hey I Finally Saw…TRUE GRIT!

It seemed like a good time to catch up with the 1969 John Wayne western classic for a few crucial reasons. The recent death of Dennis Hopper who has a small, yet memorable role was one, but overwhelmingly it’s because the Coen Brothers next project is a remake with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin set to be released later this year. Although the Coens reportedly are aiming for their film to be a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel than a strict remake, the original was a milestone movie that won an Oscar for Wayne’s performance as Marshall Rooster Cogburn, therefore a must see.

In the late 60’s the genre was undoubtedly winding down, but you wouldn’t know it from the opening landscape shots of TRUE GRIT in which the wide-screen western still looks alive and kicking. Henry Hathaway had the formula down as he had directed dozens of cowboy pictures, and of course “the Duke” was a hardcore veteran, but this project had a different element to it in the form of a young tomboyish girl named Kim Darby. Darby plays the fiercely determined 14 year old Mattie Ross who recruits the ornery drunken Wayne to help her hunt down her father’s murderer (Jeff Corey).

Accompanied by Glen Campbell as a Texas Ranger they ride out through dangerous Indian Territory. They encounter horse thieves, rattlesnakes, and an extremely shady Robert Duvall as Corey’s partner in crime “Lucky” Ned Pepper. Wayne says of Duvall: “Short, feisty fella. He’s got a messed-up lower lip. I shot him in it.”


That’s just one of many great line readings the Duke gives in the best performance of his that I’ve ever seen. Rooster Cogburn is an iconic role and very comic at the same time. In one scene he sees a rat in the corner of the cabin he resides in. Inebriated though still fairly articulate he declares: “Mr. Rat, I have a writ here that says you are to stop eating Chen Lee’s cornmeal forthwith. Now, It’s a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of same! See? He doesn’t pay any attention to me.” Then he swiftly shoots the rat.

Later the trio came across a couple of outlaw buddies of the men they’re pursuing – Jeremy Slate and Dennis Hopper. Hopper, as a character named Moon that wasn’t in the book, took 5 days off from editing EASY RIDER to do the film and appears to have been added as a concession to the kids of the hippie era. Or maybe it’s the unsettling “tweaking” manner he’s acting in that makes me think that.


Darby is very much the heart of the movie bringing a feminist factor in to re-ignite a timeworn formula. Her poise and “never back down” spirit clashes then mashes with Wayne’s rugged demeanor in many amusing blustery exchanges. Sadly as an actor Campbell is not up to par with Darby or “The Duke”. He was perhaps the real concession to the times as he had just had a hit single – “Wichita Lineman”.

It wasn’t the last western that Wayne made – he even returned to the role of Cogburn in a sequel simply entitled ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) – but TRUE GRIT was perhaps the most notable of his films in his last decade. It’s just a notch below the supreme quality of the movies he made with John Ford, yet it’s still a towering achievement and an absolutely essential work. Rooster Cogburn deserves further recognition as one of the greatest characters in the history of motion pictures. Can’t wait to see what “The Dude” will do with it.

More later…

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Movies Of 2009

All this last month readers have been asking me for my top 10 movies of 2009. I’ve mentioned before that some major prestige films don’t get to my area until late January or early February or later, and that’s not considering many Foreign films that aren’t released in these parts until months after the Oscars so it’s usually a month or so into the year before I post my picks. So since there’s no way I’m going to catch up anytime soon and because tomorrow the Academy Award nominations are going to be announced, now is as good a time as any for my list for what I think was a great and diverse year for film:

1. A SERIOUS MAN (Dirs. Joen & Ethan Coen)

“The greatest films are the ones that leave you not able to explain, but you know that you have experienced something special. I’ve always had this feeling that the perfect response to a film or a piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but it’s right.’ That’s the feeling you want – ‘That’s right’ – and it comes from four or five layers down, it comes from the inside rather than from the outside.”
– Robert Altman

I’ve been plowing through the new book: “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” since I got it for Christmas and I was struck by the quote above. It made me think of A SERIOUS MAN, though the latest Coen Brothers cinematic conundrum is anything but Altman-esque. With Michael Stuhlburg leading an equally unknown cast into the academic abyss of late 60’s suburban Minneapolis, it’s the Brothers’ most personal work to date. Whether it’s a post modern riff on the story of Job or a series of nonsensical jabs at everybody’s existential expense, it’s a perplexingly pleasing parable. Read my original review here.

2. UP (Dir. Pete Docter)

Last year the same #2 position on this list was held by a Pixar film (WALL-E) so I was tempted to go in another direction here. But, that would’ve been wrong because UP honestly deserves this space. The first 10 minutes alone deserve this space. This wonderful tale of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) – a crotchety old widower who attaches thousands of balloons to his house in order to fly it to Paradise Falls in South Africa is a rambunctiously inventive and funny flight. And if you don’t cry at that sweeping opening montage, either you have a heart of stone or you’re Armond White. Read my original review here.

3. THE HURT LOCKER (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Every explosion has an emotional impact in this gripping war drama featuring Jeremy Renner as a bomb defusing expert who’d rather risk his life in Iraq than be home with his wife. Read my original review here.

4. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)

This indulgent alternate history World War II film is possibly over-stuffed with story strands but as I said in my original review: “the pulse and tone of Tarantino’s best work is intact.” Read the rest of that review here.

5. BLACK DYNAMITE (Dir. Scott Sanders)

Though it was little seen, this is hands down the funniest film of 2009. Forget THE HANGOVER, this blaxploitation homage/satire/greatest hits has more laughs per minute and is sure to be one Helluva a future cult classic. Read more here.


6.
THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Dir. Wes Anderson)



Wes Anderson’s stylistic whimsy works wonders in this friendly, fuzzy, and ferociously witty film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. So does George Clooney’s charm which I enjoyed more here than in a certain air-born live action film that is sure to get more acclaim awards wise. Read my original review of THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX.

7. BRIGHT STAR (Dir. Jane Campion) An unfortunately overlooked period piece centering on poet John Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) doomed courtship of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). A beautifully moving work with first rate performances including a scene stealing Paul Schneider as Keats’ writing partner Charles Armitage Brown. With hope the Academy will take notice. Read my original review here.

8. DISTRICT 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp) Without a doubt the most frighteningly original (and strikingly satirical) work of science fiction of the year. A misadventure in alien apartheid leaves a wet behind the ears field operative (Sharlto Copley) with his arm mutated to that of a “prawn” and he…oh, just go watch it. Read my original ravings here.

9. ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL! (Dir. Sacha Gervasi)

This documentary about a Spinal Tap-ish band of aging Canadian heavy metal rockers may have you snickering at first but before you know it they win your heart over with their “never say die” determination. As I said in my original review: “Metal heads and casual movie-goers alike (which means just about everybody) ought to dig it.”

10. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS (Dir. Werner Herzog) Speaking of “never say die”, Nicholas Cage re-ignites the crazy edge of his persona in this twisted and surrealistic corrupt cop crime caper while he re-ignites his “lucky crack pipe” yelling “I’ll kill all of you…to the break of dawn! To the break of dawn baby!” Read about more craziness and how this does and doesn’t relate to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 BAD LIEUTENANT here.

Spillover:


The ones that didn’t quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks – click on the title for my original review.

STAR TREK (Dir. J.J. Abrams)

THE INFORMANT! (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)


ZOMBIELAND (Dir. Ruben Fleisher)


THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat)

IN THE LOOP (Dir. Armando Iannucci)


A SINGLE MAN (Dir. Tom Ford)


WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (Dir. Spike Jonze)


AN EDUCATION (Dir. Lone Scherfig)

AWAY WE GO (Dir. Sam Mendes)

OBSERVE AND REPORT (Dir. Jody Hill)


BIG FAN (Dir. Robert Siegel)

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Dir. Marc Webb)

MOON (Dir. Duncan Jones)


ABEL RAISES CAIN (Dirs. Jenny Abel & Jeff Hocket)


TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray)

I didn’t write reviews of these but they are also strongly recommended:


SUMMER HOURS (Dir. Olivier Assayas)


GOODBYE SOLO (Dir. Ramin Bahrani)

WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (Dir. Bobcat Goldthwait) Yep, that’s right.


More later…

THE ROAD: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE ROAD (Dir. John Hillcoat, 2009)


Your eyes may roll when once again reading the phrase “set in a post apocalyptic world” and that this film’s release was pushed back several times (it was originally set for Dec. ’08) may be discouraging, but hold on because this film is an intensely moving and towering piece of work. While on the surface its bleak depiction of an ash covered world in ruins with death in every direction may be for many a grueling experience, in all the darkness a tiny light shining off a glimmer of hope can be seen.


That light is almost impossible to see at times for a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), only credited as “Man” and “Boy”, in rags making their way through the rubble with a grocery store shopping cart and a gun that only has 2 bullets in it. We’re never told how this all happened, we’re only given a few flashbacks from before the devastation that present the Man’s wife (Charlize Theron) sacrificing herself for her family as the world seemingly comes to an end.


Mortensen gives a career best performance as the Man, a desperate but ferociously protective father tuned into every threatening tick of movement on the terrain surrounding him and his shaking but just as driven son. Every element they encounter might as well have “from Hell” attached to it. They hide in the woods off the road from groups of hunters or hoards of cannibals, they look for food in battered houses, they share dwindling provisions with a grizzled old Robert Duvall (the only character in the film given a name – Ely), and they just keep on heading towards the ocean.


This sprawling epic is the third film adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel (the others being Billy Bob Thornton’s ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and the Coen Brothers’ acclaimed Oscar winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN). Save for the expansion of the role of the wife, THE ROAD is extremely faithful to its source, retaining its scary tense tone with almost all of the spare spoken dialogue verbatim from the book.


It’s maybe the anti-“feel good” movie of the year (or the decade) but its strengths as a tale of survival and its powerful emotional pull will linger for a long time. The Man tells his son that they’re “the good guys” and that they will live through this. The Boy believes it and somehow in the face of the complete breakdown of society and all the anarchy of the wilderness we believe it too. THE ROAD may be a long tough one, but it does get to that glimmer and it really got to me.

More later…

A SERIOUS MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

A SERIOUS MAN
(Dirs. Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

“No Jews were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”
– Disclaimer in the end credits.

In the 25 years since they first burst on the indie movie scene with the stellar BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coen Brothers have hit many cinematic curveballs into the woodwork of their films. Those being character or tangents (or both) that appear not to fit initially into their understood premises and leave us scratching our heads to their purpose in the grand scheme of things. Examples include: Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) -the high-school classmate of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) who oddly appears at an pivotal point in FARGO, the pedophile bowling rival Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) who steals a good 5 minutes of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Ed Crane’s (Billy Bob Thornton) UFO dream in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. As perplexing as these seemingly ersatz elements are, they are often the most memorable moments of their movies. Imagine if they concocted an entire film out of such scenes.

A SERIOUS MAN isn’t quite that concoction, but it comes pretty damn close with its unproven paradoxes, character threads that aren’t followed through, and fake-out dream sequences. On the surface it’s about the trials and tribulations of Minnesotan physics professor Larry Gobnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late 60’s. Beneath the surface it’s about religion, betrayal, academia, Jewish suffering, and a futile search for meaning – I think. When the opening couplet of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” (a driving force throughout the movie) is recited by a Rabbi as if it’s an ancient prayer, you can be sure that what this film is about exactly is going to be up for debate for a long time.

Gobnik is surrounded by headaches – his wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce, his schlebbish but possibly brilliant brother (Richard Kind) sleeps on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from his wallet for a nose job, his son (Aaron Wolff) is stealing from her for marijuana, and his tenure may be threatened by a series of slanderous anonymous letters that his school’s committee keeps receiving. There’s also a thick headed racist gun-toting neighbor (Peter Breitmayer) and a Korean student (David Kang) who attempts to bribe Gobnik for a passing grade. In a confrontation over that particular no-win situation the student’s father tells Gobnik to “accept the mystery.” Obviously that’s what the Coen Brothers are telling us too.

Here’s hoping movie goers got their A-list fill with their previous outing BURN AFTER READING because there are very few recognizable names here. Folks will likely know Richard Kind and Adam Arkin (as a somewhat sympathetic lawyer) from various television roles, but the cast is mostly fresh and unknown with Stuhlbarg’s pitch perfect exasperated everyman standing out in the starring role.

As one of the Rabbis that Gobnik seeks solace from, George Wyner (also familiar from TV as well as turns in fan favorites SPACEBALLS and FLETCH) owns one of the best scenes in the film (an instant classic in the Coens canon BTW) relaying a story about a dentist who is shocked to find Hebrew engravings on the back of a non-Jewish patient’s teeth.

Gobnik’s son Danny’s (Wolff) bar mitzvah is another notable highlight. While his father struggles with existential discord, Danny’s biggest concerns are out-running a bully he owes money and getting the best possible TV signal so he can watch F Troop. As seen through Danny’s stoned eyes, the paranoia pulsating through his coming of age ceremony is pleasingly palpable.

There is quite a bit of humor in A SERIOUS MAN but it’s not laugh out loud funny, it’s more like inward cringing giggle funny. It has been called the Coen Brother’s most personal film as the suburban tract housing world it creates is reportedly identical to the one of their childhood as are the overriding rites of a traditional Jewish upbringing but it rarely comes off auto-biographical. Gobnik and his family’s fates are literally about to be twisting in the wind as we leave them and while that’s of little comfort – for some reason it made me smile. One day maybe I’ll be able to say exactly why.

More later…

DVD Review: THE ACHIEVERS: THE STORY OF THE LEBOWSKI FANS

THE ACHIEVERS: THE STORY OF LEBOWSKI FANS (Dir. Eddie Chung, 2009)

“Friday we watch the movie, on Saturday we become the movie.” – Will Russell (Founding Dude, Lebowski Fest)

First released to bad box office and mostly critical indifference, over the last 11 years THE BIG LEBOWSKI has grown a following of fans so large that they regularly meet for conventions all over the country called “Lebowski Fests”. This documentary, made from modest means, tells the story of how these events celebrating “the first cult film of the internet era” came together – from such ramshackle beginnings as an impromptu party at a bowling alley with 150 people to large lavish venues attended by thousands with appearances by actors from the film, rock bands, and all sorts of special guests usually in costume.

Full disclosure: though I’ve never attended one of the fests, THE BIG LEBOWSKI is one of my favorite films of all time. I loved it from the beginning, seeing it in the theater in its original theatrical release more than once. I dragged a few less than excited friends to see it – trying to recruit converts before I even considered a cult was possible I suppose. In the years afterwards I saw it many times recognizing over and over that it was one of the funniest and one of the most quotable movies ever made. It’s undoubtedly up there with DR. STRANGELOVE, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, and THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Obviously I wasn’t alone in this thinking as people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds started convening for these Dude loving festivals running around in bathrobes or dressed as giant Creedence tapes, severed toes, red suited nihilists with over sized scissors, girls in viking gear, and scores of gun toting Walter Sobcheks who all come to bowl, drink White Russians, and to see yet another screening of the film.

This documentary, named after the moniker message board forum member Lebowski fans gave themselves which comes from dialogue in the movie (“The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers – and proud we are of all of them.”), introduces us to founders Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell who are ecstatically surprised at the ever growing turnouts. Russell: “All my nerdiest dreams are coming true.” They’ve been organizing these fests since 2002 (the first one was in Louisville, Kentucky) and through past footage and photographs we get all the, you know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous.

Definitely a highlight is when The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges, shows up to thunderous applause at a Fest in Los Angeles and with his band performs Dylan’s “The Man In Me” (which I guess is The Dude’s theme song). Bridges in a later interview in Rolling Stone refers to his reception walking on stage as his “Beatles moment”. They cut away from his performance but that’s okay since they later have a much better version of the song (sorry Dude) done by My Morning Jacket at a Fest in 2004. Also resonating are the book ending bits (which also thread through) focusing on a young woman (Stormy Lang) who’s passionately determined to win 1st place at a Lebowski trivia competition.


With a looser structure than the similarly themed TREKKIES and perhaps too dependent on interspersed and often punctuating clips from the original movie, this plays more like a glorified bonus featurette than a film in its own right. Indeed one of the most recent DVD editions of the THE BIG LEBOWSKI had a 14 minute excerpt from this documentary so be sure to look for it on 15th and 20th anniversary editions in the future. Not that that’s such a bad fate but at 70 minutes with 25% film clips it’s not gonna have the same rewatchability factor as the film it’s paying homage to. Also it should be noted that the DVD has no special features itself – not even a proper menu and it’s one track with no chapter breaks so we’re really talking bare bones here.

Still for Lebowski fans it’s worth a rental with one good concentrated viewing. To see the creative costumes, to hear the anecdotes (especially one I won’t spoil involving a friend of Joel and Ethan Coen’s: USC Professor Peter Exline), and to feel the vibe from everybody involved is a touching testement to what the Coen Brothers created but then left behind (The Coens do not appear in THE ACHIEVERS nor have they commented on the film’s appeal or cult in any recent interview). I may yet go to one of the Lebowski Fests so it’s nice to get an idea of what to expect and it’s also good to know that there’s all these dudes out there takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.

More later…

WHAT JUST HAPPENED & 10 Better Inside Hollywood Homages

Just released on DVD:

WHAT JUST HAPPENED
(Dir. Barry Levinson, 2008)

“Hunter S. Thompson once said to me ‘Bruce, my boy, the movie business is a cruel and shallow money trench where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.’ Then he added, ‘there’s also a negative side.’” – Bruce Willis written by Art Linson in this damn movie.


The above quote is rejiggered from a line attributed to Thompson which has been often alternately applied to the TV, radio, music business and the corporate communications world. That this misguided movie would have Willis (playing himself) claim it was spoken directly to him is one of the many things wrong with this rightly ignored project. The title is apt for such a film with a stellar cast that appeared and disappeared in an instant last fall. For most film folks this would be a dream A-list line-up – Robert De Niro as the lead with John Turturo, Catherine Keener, Stanley Tucci and Robin Penn Wright then throw in Bruce Willis and Sean Penn playing themselves and you’ve struck gold, right? Not with such dreary uninvolving material mostly concerning cutting a dog getting shot in the head out of a prestige picture and 40 minutes fighting over whether Bruce Willis will shave his bushy beard before a new production.



No doubt similar dire situations in Hollywoodland happened and still happen all the time but it hardly makes for compelling cinema. A little of a gruff De Niro as a once powerful producer plagued with these problems going back and forth from one uneasy conflict to another goes a long way. The intertwined subplot about his ex-wife (Penn Wright) sleeping with Tucci tries as it might but comes nowhere near making an emotional dent. Better is Michael Wincott as the strung out British director of the Sean Penn project who gripes about his artistic integrity being compromised when the cold calculating Keener threatens to take his movie and cut it herself. Willis profanely blares about artistic integrity too, but in a more destructive manner by throwing things and berating people on the set. ‘Oh, those inflated egos’ we’re supposed to think but instead I found myself looking at my watch.


Based on Art Linson’s book of the same name (with the sub-title “Bitter Hollywood Tales From the Front Line”) and marking a return to a smaller independent style production for Barry Levinson, WHAT JUST HAPPENED is nowhere near the great insider movies of years past (see below) unless anybody considers AN ALLAN SMITHEE FILM: BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN a classic and nobody does. It’s a shame to see De Niro and fellow ace actors tread water in a sea of industry indifference. Just like its IMDb entry, there are no memorable quotes or new lessons learned, just a lot of unpleasant exchanges between unlikable people making for a film with a charcoal soul. What just happened? Nothing worthwhile that I can think of.


As for better films about the same subject, that is movies about making movies, here are:


10 Essential Hollywood Insider Homages (Or Scathing Satires Of The Business We Call Show)


1. SUNSET BOULEVARD (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) Classics 101. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond is truly one of the greatest screen characters of all time but with over a half a century of accolades and greatest films ever lists you don’t need me to tell you that. A film that set the precedent for dropping real names and featuring film folks play themselves (Cecil B. Demille, Buster Keaton, H.L. Warner, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper among them). The movie plays on TCM regularly so if you haven’t seen Swanson declare “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small!” you’re sure to get your chance soon.


2. THE PLAYER (Dir. Robert Altman, 1991) No less than 60

Hollywood names play themselves in this excellent satire of the state of the film industry in the early 90’s. As Griffin Mill, an executive who murders a writer he believes is harassing him, Tim Robbins nails it when he suggests: “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”


3. A STAR IS BORN (Dir. George Cukor, 1954) Actually the second remake of a 1937 film (skip the third one with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), this is the ultimate ‘you meet the same people on the way up as on the way down’ morality play. Judy Garland’s career is taking off as husband James Mason finds himself on the outs turning to alcoholism and then to suicide (if thats a Spoiler! you really ought to tend to your Netflix queue or consult the TCM schedule). A still blinding spotlight on the fickleness of fame.


4. BARTON FINK (Dir. Joel Coen, 1991) A tour de force for John Turturo as a New York playwright struggling to write a wrestling B-movie script in 1940’s Hollywood. He fancies himself an intellectual who speaks for the common man, but he ignores an actual common man – his hotel neighbor played with gusto by John Goodman who could sure tell you some stories. Written by the Coen brothers as they themselves were struggling with writer’s block on what turned out to be the masterful MILLER’S CROSSING, the feel of spiritual distraction that all writers suffer from has never been so perfectly portrayed. Well, until #5 on this list that is.

5. ADAPTATION (Dir. Spike Jonez, 2002)


“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.” A peek into the writing process of Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) who has to adapt the book “The Orchid Thief” and ends up writing himself into his screenplay. Catherine Keener, John Cusack, and John Malkovich play themselves (from the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH) while we get an abstract window into the world of a sought after screenwriter looking for more than just love from the business.


6. TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller, 2008) Over the top and in your face with a fast pace and a loving embrace of literally explosive satire, Stiller put himself back on top of the comedy heap here. With one of the best ensemble casts a comedy has ever had including Jack Black, the Oscar nominated Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey and (say what?) Tom Cruise as a crude bald pudgy hip hop dancing movie executive, we’ve got a crew well versed in tweaking the business that broke them. There are hundreds of zingers in this mad making of a film within a film but maybe Danny McBride as an explosive engineer spouting off as he rigs a bridge in the jungle is one of the best: “That’s it! Im going into catering after this!”

7. POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1990) Another tale of a career in movies that has hit the skids, but given a hip post modern cynical spin by Carrie Fisher who adapted her semi-autobiographical book. Not soon after leaving rehab Meryl Streep as actress Suzanne Vale exclaims “Thanks GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations!” This is after finding out a new beau (Dennis Quaid) is cheating on her, which is on top of over hearing people on the set talking about how much weight she’s gained. These worries pale compared to having to live with mother Shirley MacLaine (also a former actress based on Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds). MacLaine asks her daughter: “I was such an awful mother… what if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner?” Streep deadpans: “These are the options? You, Joan or Lana?” The funny side to growing up famous with a song sung by Streep to boot (“I’m Checkin Out” by Shel Silverstein).


8. THE BIG PICTURE (Dir. Christopher Guest, 1989) The forgotten Christopher Guest film. Pity too, because there’s a lot of wit to spare in this send up featuring Kevin Bacon as a fresh out of film school director whose first film gets compromised at every turn. A crack cast surrounds Bacon including frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Terri Hatcher, and the late great J.T. Walsh as stoic but still sleazy studio head Alan Habel. Best though is Martin Short as Bacon’s slimy permed agent Neil Sussman: “I don’t know you. I don’t know your work. But I think you are a genius. And I am never wrong about that.” Look for cameos by Elliot Gould, John Cleese, and Eddie Albert as well as a Spinal Tap-ish song by a band named Pez People (“The Whites of Their Eyes” written and performed by Guest/McKean).


9. S.O.B. (Dir. Blake Edwards, 1981)


Despite trying to peddle ersatz post Sellers expiration date Pink Panther movies at the time, Edwards showed he still had some bite left in a few juicy farces – 10, VICTOR VICTORIA and this vulgar but saucy satire. The later concerns a film within the film that flops so film maker Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) decides to re-shoot the family film as a R-rated romp with wife Julie Andrews (Edwards’ real life wife) going topless. A lot of this comical exposé of desperate sordid behavior in the movie business went over my head when I saw it as a kid but a recent viewing got me up to speed. Another fine ensemble cast alongside Mulligan and Andrews – Robert Vaughn, Larry Hagman, Robert Loggia, Robert Webber, Robert Preston (lots of Roberts!), and it was William Holden’s last film (shout out to #1 on this list).


10. BOWFINGER (Dir. Frank Oz, 1999) Many folks despise this campy comic caper of a film maker and his crew making a film (another film within a film plot) with an action star who doesn’t know he’s in the movie but I think it’s Steve Martin’s last great movie. Eddie Murphy’s too if you don’t count his extended glorified cameo in DREAMGIRLS. As Robert K. Bowfinger, Martin channels his old wild and crazy guy persona into a snake oil salesman of a wannabe movie mogul. Heather Graham (playing an aspiring sleeping her way to the top starlet that many thought was based on one time Martin flame Anne Heche), Robert Downey Jr., Christine Baranski, and Terrance Stamp are all along for the ride.


Okay! I was purposely skipping biopics or other movies that are based on true stories so don’t be complaining about ED WOOD or CHAPLIN not making the cut. There were a few close calls – LIVING IN OBLIVION and MOVERS & SHAKERS among them. Are there any other Hollywood insider movies that I forgot? Please let me know.


More later…

Clooney Tunes, An Assassin’s Lament, & Lou’s Lost Lullabies To Die For

Time for some more reviews of new release DVDs. Let’s get right to ‘em:

LEATHERHEADS (Dir. George Clooney, 2008)

Its doubtful that anybody will ever mistake this for a comedy classic. George Clooney’s period piece football follies opened last spring to mixed reviews and bad box office and it’s immediately easy to see why. The first few scenes involving a comic contrast between college and professional football in 1925 breeze by setting the lightweight tone with the tried and true jazz scoring. The all too familiar sense of a by-the-numbers conventional comedy is set in place with only Clooney’s self deprecating charm to elevate it. As you should well know, the man is not above cracks about his age (he’s called “old man” and “Grandpa” throughout the film) and his getting punched in the face is a almost cartoonish given so there’s that. There’s more than a little of Ulysses Everett McGill from O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU in Clooney’s Jimmy ‘Dodge’ Connelly – captain of the Duluth Bulldogs who, of course, are cast as lovable underdogs. <!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section

Clooney evidently learned a lot from his three-time collaborators the Coen Brothers, with décor and dialogue that echoes greatly of their particular brand of old timey screwball. This also applies in the case of the fast talking quick witted newspaper gal that sets out to expose a “boy wonder” a la THE HUDSUCKER PROXY except that here Renée Zellweger actually pulls it off better than Jennifer Jason Leigh did. Clooney plots to save his team, and pro football in the process, by exploiting the celebrity of a war hero (The Office’s Jon Krasinski) as a new team member. Everybody’s working their own angles in this enterprise especially a sly Jonathan Pryce as Krasinski’s agent who even tries to throw his hat into the predictable romantic triangle of the three leads. As for predictable goes, theres the obligatory bar brawl, much farcical bickering, standard montages of sepia-tinted photographs, and the ole climatic final game that everything hinges on. Yep, weve all seen this many times before.

It helps that Clooney and Zellweger have wonderful chemistry in their snappy repartee and a slow dance in a speakeasy certainly gives off sparks, but this is a forgettable formula film. Its the kind of movie one would watch in a hotel room while going to sleep or glance at randomly while reading a magazine on a plane. Im sure it’ll be playing forever on TBS because its exactly their kind of safe family fare. LEATHERHEADS isnt a bad movie, it just lacks the vital energy that flowed through Clooneys first 2 films as director – the weirdly absorbing CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and the sublimely supreme GOODNIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. I doubt many people would seriously regret watching it, I just think theyll feel the same indifference that moviegoers and critics showed on its first run. I know I did.

This also died a quick death at the theaters for good reason:

CHAPTER 27 (Dir. J.P. Schaefer, 2007) Was it really any big deal that pretty boy actor Jared Leto put on 67 pounds to play Mark David Chapman, the deranged murderer of John Lennon? I mean we’re not talking Robert De Niro in RAGING BULL here, are we? Actually, it’s another De Niro movie that CHAPTER 27 wants to evoke and that’s TAXI DRIVER. Much like Travis Bickle’s inner dialogue raged about loneliness, rain washing the streets clean of trash, and personally vowing to rid the world of scum; Chapman’s focuses on the phonies he hates inspired heavily by Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher In The Rye”. Titled as such because J.D. Salinger’s book contained 26 chapters (get it?), this film depicts the three days in December 1980 that Chapman stalked the streets of New York, lurking for long hours at the gate of the Dakota (where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono lived) with evil intent. He befriends a friendly Beatles fan, played by Lindsay Lohan of all people, named Jude – that’s right. Jude didn’t exist in real life and really shouldn’t exist here but it seems that first time writer/director Schaefer decided there had to be more of a dynamic to this dreary material.

That Leto’s work is the best acting I’ve witnessed of his and the film is well made is the best I can say here. I could never get over the question of “why?” Why recreate the incredibly unpleasant pathetic circumstances of such a wasteful tragedy? Doesn’t making Chapman into a tortured dark cinematic character like De Niro’s Travis Bickle romanticize him in a disgusting manner that really doesn’t fit with his pathetic psyche? Never when watching this film did I feel there was any art or worth in dramatizing these events. At one of many absurdly fictitious moments, Lohan introduces Leto to Lennon’s nanny strolling in Central Park with a young boy supposed to be Sean Ono Lennon. It’s an icky offensive scene that defines how misguided this project was in every sense. The real Sean Ono Lennon called this film “tacky” which is a major understatement; CHAPTER 27 is severely unnecessary but worse, it’s an insult. Schaefer should be ashamed.

Whew! Those last few films weren’t very appetizing. Maybe a rock concert film will lighten things up. Oops, not sure that’s quite in the cards with:

LOU REED’S BERLIN (Dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007)

It has been a trend of late for an artist or band to perform a classic album from start to finish. Patti Smith performed her seminal “Horses” for its 30th anniversary in 2005, Sonic Youth not long ago trotted out “Daydream Nation” (1988) to the applause of aging hipsters everywhere, Public Enemy played “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” (also 1988), and Liz Phair was able to raise her ticket prices due to resuscitating her “Exile In Guyville”. But while those albums were undeniably classic or at least huge fan favorites, even hardcore Lou Reed fans have had troubles with “Berlin”. I myself didn’t “get it” back in my youth when going through an extreme Velvet Underground phase and devouring all things Lou. It was too dark and repetitive for me so I opted for “Transformer” or “Rock ‘N Roll Animal” when it came to early-mid 70’s Reed repertoire. So grim that I put it on the shortlist I had of albums to contemplate suicide to you understand? Well, it’s been years since I’ve heard it and like Lou felt now is as good a time as any to rediscover what I originally thought was a very odd and overly orchestrated song cycle.

Schnabel, a huge fan of the album, filmed Reed and a full band including horns and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY over 5 nights in December of 2006. Lou’s longtime guitarist Fernando Saunders and the highly acclaimed Rob Wasserman on stand-up bass make up the band with, most notably, guitarist Steve Hunter who played on the album back in the day. They deliver mighty arrangements for these songs rescuing them from the synthesized chill and giving them much needed warmth, even if it is desperate warmth. Reed looks like he means every word of such weepers as “Caroline Says” (both I & II) and “Sad Song” while “How Do You Think It Feels” as a more straight forward tune (though no less theatrical) is sung with none of his typical detachment.

Knowing that Reed isn’t Mick Jagger and wouldn’t work the audience or cameras in any way Schnabel incorporates film footage that is shown on a screen behind the band and also is intercut through-out. The footage, filmed by Lola Schnabel, depicts the doomed lover characters from the album mostly Caroline (Emmanuelle Seigner – Roman Polanski’s wife!) in purposely blurry artsy scatterings. LOU REED’S BERLIN may not be the most compelling concert film (that would be Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE) but it may prove to be the most haunting. It’s not for the casual fan in that there’s no “Walk On The Wild Side” or “Satellite Of Love” and the long moody pieces may being boring city for some less loyal Lou fans. However just about everybody should appreciate that when savoring the power of the band punching out a furious version of “Men Of Good Fortune” behind him early in the film, Reed actually sports a big smile. And that really is saying a lot.

More later…

Paul Newman R.I.P. (1925-2008)

One of the most solid actors to walk the planet in the last century has just left us. I suspect many of my fellow film bloggers out there are too young to truly know the depths of his work so I would suggest filling NetFlix queues with Newmans finest. Undisputed classics such as THE HUSTLER, HUD, COOL HAND LUKE, and Sydney Lumet s THE VERDICT are highly recommended. As are his fun period piece buddy films with Robert Redford – BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING.

Extracurricular work would include Sydney Pollack s ABSENCE OF MALICE, NOBODY’S FOOL, and MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE. Honestly you can’t go wrong with a Paul Newman movie – even BLAZE and THE TOWERING INFERNO have their merits. He worked with many of the great directors – Alfred Hitchcock on TORN CURTAIN, Robert Altman on BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, Martin Scorsese on THE COLOR OF MONEY (which Newman won the Best Actor Oscar for) and even the Coen Brothers on the unjustly underrated THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (pictured at the top of this post).

His comical side has been overlooked in many of the obits I ve read the last day or so but his appearances on Letterman over the years have been hilarious self-effacing affairs – check out this clip on youtube. Its fitting that his last role was the voice of a 1951 Hudson Hornet Automobile named Doc Hudson in Pixars CARS. Nice that the wee ones will get an intro to Mr. Newman there.

So put some Newmans Own popcorn in the microwave, fire up the DVD player and pay proper tribute to the man.

More Later…