Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Passion of Anna

File this one under Good Ideas from Uninspired Executives. Anna Faris has been cast in the Private Benjamin remake.

I think I’m catching on. Hollywood is now a place wherein new talent is eschewed for new versions of old talent (ie Anna Faris is not Anna Faris, she is the new Goldie Hawn.) If new talent happens to slip onto the screen in Big Hollywood, it means someone was not doing their job, or they were looking the other way at the wrong moment. Originality, these days, is an aberration, someone’s mistake.

So while I’m excited at the prospect of Anna Faris becoming the next Goldie Hawn, I’m concerned that Faris, a comedienne of appreciable gifts, will be drawn into a kind of surrogate career, like Madeline, the Kim Novak character from Vertigo, who was possessed by Carlotta Valdez. But who was she really? Jimmy Stewart never knew.

Faris deserves her own persona. Though she shares with Goldie an affinity for easygoing sexiness, she has a tomboyishness, an up-for-anything quality that brings to mind Carole Lombard at her almost-best. If only Faris’s scripts were up to her potential, I’m certain she could one day turn out a performance as full and witty as Lombard’s masterpiece, Maria Tura in To Be or Not To Be, but in the meantime, relegated to the world of middling material and unappreciative executives, the actress will continue to produce, with industrial reliability, her particular brand of rock-solid comedy. But she’s capable of more.

I can already feel myself falling into the studio trap of identifying one actress through the work of another, which is I why I want to look at Faris in double counterpoint, from the perspectives of both Goldie and Lombard. First, a distinction: for all of her airy cuteness, Goldie Hawn is a naturalist at heart. She’s really messy underneath her composure (which is really what Private Benjamin is all about), and though she tries to put on airs, to keep it together, what she craves is simplicity. Among other things, it comes from having a terrific smile, a wailing whine, and sometimes even anger. She wants to be real; that’s what I mean by naturalist. It made her an ideal star for 80s anti-yuppie comedies, reverse Cinderella stories like Overboard (which, by the way, they’re remaking with Jennifer Lopez).

Lombard, on the other hand, is not a naturalist, she’s a fantasist, and as we see in her best roles, she better than anyone mastered the hair-brained antics of a genuine screwball. If she had to flip, slip, fall, she was best off doing them all at once, and then starting from the top and doing them all again. The more elaborate her actions the better. It made her an ideal star for 30s escapist comedies, which gave reality a good run for its money. Back then, more was merrier.

Our gal Anna combines them both. But we still don’t know who she is really. Why we don’t is due to her youth, and the movies they put her in. Scary MovieThe House Bunny, and Observe and Report – these pictures have given us glimpses at Faris’s potential, at the great comedienne to come, but they don’t give her the opportunity to showcase her unique talent, whatever that may be. And I know it’s in there. It’s going to take time, both for her to mature and Hollywood to grow up, but when it comes out – as it did, just a little, briefly in Lost in Translation – I think we’re all going to be very impressed.

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Greenberg

The six films of Noah Baumbach describe sad and gentle slide from probing disappointment (Kicking and Screaming) to pervasive contempt (Margot at the Wedding). Greenberg, his latest film, sits somewhere in between.

In fact the movie is about inbetweens. About not being one thing, or its opposite. About not loving and not hating, not wanting and not not wanting. “I’m not doing anything,” Greenberg declares, “But I’ve decided not to do anything.” Is there a difference? Yes. No. We’re meant to laugh, weakly. This is a neurotic comedy if Antonioni had made it.

Greenberg is a cry for help without any crying. I wish I could say it’s the story of two generations – grunge versus mumblecore – but that would suggest Baumbach was aiming for something a little more conceptually ambitious. And ambition is contrary to the whole ethic of the film. Greenberg is just about a guy; guy so unlikable, it seems he actually sets out to cause difficulty, thwart coherence, and stymie momentum, just as Baumbach’s movie – named for its pro/antagonist – pursues ideas only to drop them, shirks from illumination, and stifles our satisfaction wherever and however possible. In other words, it’s good.

But even if you nail it, setting out to make blah can only net you the finest blah in town. That explains the sense of cold dissatisfaction upon leaving the theater, of feeling as though you haven’t sat through anything. But that’s reality, isn’t it? Nothing? Blah? Our man Baumbach seems to think so. Futility is the river of the world.

I began to wonder on my way out about the kinds of futility. Some of the greatest films have come out this all-powerful twentieth century curse, but only recently have they been designed to be unappealing. (Trying to seem unrefined, they actually appear more calculating than an honest-to-God Hollywood blockbuster.) But paralysis didn’t always used to be that way. Think back: Chayefsky was mad as hell. Ingmar Bergman was smart as hell. Benjamin Braddock, the patron saint of paralysis, had Elaine. And Beckett? There’s a lot to be gained from Godot, Greenberg’s wiser grandparent. The difference is, those clowns fought the nothing. Baumbach’s guy gave up the fight long ago. No, wait. Scratch that. He never began it.

Is that because the fight doesn’t exist anymore? Is that, I wondered on my way out into the street, what mumblecore is actually all about – apathy? Because if it is, I think that is worth fighting.

Compare Greenberg to Cassavetes’s Minnie & Moskowitz, a film that has so clearly inspired Baumbach’s, and you’ll see the fight up close, back in 1971, when Los Angeles wasn’t the capital of aimlessness (the first shot of Greenberg is of smog and crossed telephone wires), but a whacked-out town of lonely loonies turned loose to wreak havoc upon each other’s weirdnessess. Like Greenberg, they’ll never win, but unlike Greenberg, that’s why I love them.

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Out and About with James L. Brooks

It’s of enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there in this vast, hilly city of ours, probably between 26th Street and Doheny, James L. Brooks is puttering around in a shaggy windbreaker and sneakers, driving himself to Whole Foods, hopelessly scanning the shelves for a soy product he can’t find, and returning to his Prius more aggravated than when he left it. Yesterday’s piece in The New York Times made me think of him. Now I can’t stop.

If not Whole Foods, then maybe Starbucks, the one on Beverly south of Little Santa Monica. I can see James L. Brooks, modern master of what we call “dramedy,” aggravated to find himself at the very end of a long line of customers, pulling out his years-old Blackberry to check messages as he shuffles forward, struggling to download the picture of his ex-wife that his daughter accidentally emailed to him from their room at The Four Seasons Maui. Struggling all the way up to the counter, he finds himself face-to-face with the barista and forgets why he even came to Starbucks in the first place. Was it for coffee? He squints at the big menu. A blueberry muffin? But what about that piece he read in the New York Times, the one about the dangers of fructose? Overwhelmed – and angry with himself for letting such a small thing defeat him – James L. Brooks leaves Starbucks and gets back in his Prius. “Please enter your destination.” He thinks of his ex-wife and starts to cry. There’s fructose in everything.

You see, this is what makes James L. Brooks different than Nancy Meyers, who calls herself his acolyte. A look at Brooks’s second masterpiece, Terms of Endearment, and we remember that a dramedy is not simply a narrative form of alternating lights and darks. It’s not, “See Diane Keaton Laugh and then Cry.” It’s “See Shirley MacLaine in the Painful Joy of Life.” It’s “Isn’t it Funny The Way We Hurt Each Other and Get Hurt?” That’s why they call it dramedy, not drama-comedy.

James L. Brooks understands the distinction. As far back as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” we’ve seen him fuse rigorous emotional logic with warm, welcoming comedy, creating a genuine closeness between the audience and his characters. Unlike most contemporary comedies, when Brooks’s people are funny, it’s never at the expense of their humanness; in fact, it only enhances it. Think of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. He’s given as many one-liners as a character in a sitcom, but they don’t come off as shtick because they express that frustrated, lacerating instinct that makes him such a clever journalist and such a difficult lover. Brooks is unafraid to let him get ugly, but no matter how unappealing he becomes, you love him. That’s what the comedy does, and it’s not calibrated for laughs, but to the needs and fears of the characters in question.

The opening moments of Terms of Endearment are just as full. In what may be her best performance, we see Shirley MacLaine obsessively keeping watch over her sleeping baby, expertly evincing comic beats from an otherwise panicked situation. Then, after the laugh – our laugh of recognition, of closeness – she checks on her baby again (a third time, I think) and with Brooks’s proper, adoring close-up we feel the sweetness beneath her worry. We know her, we love her, and the movie’s only just begun.

It gives me enormous comfort to know that somewhere out there, James L. Brooks is living his life – a life that, despite his millions of dollars, looks a lot like mine, and yours.

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Jason and the Argonaut

I saw a sad thing this weekend.

Jason Reitman, who has every reason to hold his head high, who has made two half-movies and one hearty, honest-to-god, fully-realized romantic comedy, and who has already been compared to Preston Sturges, and whose best work, I’m sure, is still ahead of him, took the stage several evenings ago, and conducted a brief interview with Kathryn Bigelow. Poor Reitman was discomposed throughout.

By the end of their conversation, his distress turned sour and I regarded him, as I did Jude Law’s Hamlet, with an equal mix of pity and nausea. (Bigelow remained poised, however; a tower of grace and earthy virtue, like a pretty Virginia Woolf come to Hollywood.)

It was a revealing piece of movie-town theater. I wish I could say the boy was overwhelmed, that facing a presence as physically imposing, endearingly kind, and irrefutably talented as Kathryn Bigelow threw him off balance. But that would imply humility. Because he framed it against his own Oscar-losses, Reitman’s deference, which he punctuated with press-release style clichés about how “tense” The Hurt Locker was, read less like genuine awe than the kind of passive-aggressive cry for attention I used to pull on girls in high school when I suspected no one was going to make out with me.

Bigelow would be ambling her way to a point and Jason would cut in with a joke – about a remark she made some time ago. Had he spent the intervening moments, I wondered, polishing the perfect punchline? Or did it just come to him right then, and he couldn’t hold it back? In either case, he was uncomfortable ceding the stage, so much so that Bigelow, out of a kind of saintly beneficence, often seemed to be ceding it for him. That is the only way to explain the number of times she changed the subject from The Hurt Locker to Up in the Air, which, naturally, was met with waves of obligatory (though earned) applause, and a lot stern nodding on the part of Jason. Soon, he was answering her questions.

In light of the recent (and very public) business of Up in the Air’s WGA arbitration debacle, I suspected Reitman would have taken greater pains to represent himself as judiciously as possible. But it seems he can’t help it. (There is something of Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington about him.) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Reitman asserted his draft of Up in the Air represented substantial changes from its predecessors. “When it came time to allot credit,” wrote Steven Zeitchick in his L.A. Times blogpost, “Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with [Sheldon] Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit.”

Up in the Air becomes even more interesting when it’s considered in the light of Reitman’s apparently merciless ambition. Did he make the film as warning against the bulldozer life or as an approbation of the Ayn Randian instinct? It’s tough to say. But that’s what gave Up in the Air its color. With Clooney as his pilot, Reitman made ego look as compelling as ever. But the other night, Kathryn Bigelow, with a single touch of her magic wand, had him in the kind of chokehold he may never get out of. I sincerely hope he does.

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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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Blahteurs in Love

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes split. Without Conrad Hall or Roger Deakins, there’s no way Mendes could make anything work.

Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)

American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!

Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.

Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)

Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.

And brilliant.

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Master Class

It looks like Dustin Hoffman will be directing Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, and Albert Finney in Quartet. The script will be written by Ronald Harwood, based on his play. I’m so excited I don’t know what to do with myself.

Set in a retirement home for musicians, the stage version of Quartet tells of Reginald, Wilfred, and Cissy, a group of former opera singers, who along with Jean, a newcomer to the home, set about preparing a gala concert in honor of Verdi’s birthday. I’ve never seen the show, but I’m sure it contains a goodly amount of bittersweet good-old-daysing; the kind everyone today seems to be engaged with, in some form or another.

Speculation aside, we can be certain that Quartet, directed by one of the greatest actors in the world, will star three of the greatest actors in the world (review John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar to brush up your Courtenay), with a script by Harwood, one of the greatest dramatists in the world. I suggest you search your search your local internet for a credit roll, but I can’t miss the opportunity to single out his adaptations of The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (no easy gig, that), The Browning Version (The Figgis/Finney version, far better than the Anthony Asquith/Michael Redgrave of 1951), and of course, The Dresser, which provided Finney and Courtney with some of the most succulent acting opportunities of their career (not to mention Eileen Atkins as Madge, who delivers the kind of life-capping, career-summarizing statements that just about every mid-level show business employee might take as their motto: “No, I haven’t been happy. Yes, it’s been worth it.”) I told you I was excited.

It all brings to mind a terrific documentary, a clip of which I’ve included above. To watch Tosca’s Kiss, Danie Schmid’s 1985 film of the residents of Milan’s first nursing home for retired opera singers (founded by Verdi himself in 1896), is to sit in the front row of the world’s greatest magic show, and watch – dumbfounded, if you’re me – as a group of elderly artists are transformed into previously lost, younger versions of themselves in the space of an aria, or a trembling, impossible-to-sustain high note. They’re both the magicians and the white rabbits.

As film and theatergoers, we know firsthand what joys performers can bestow upon an audience, but rarely are we privy to the private ecstasies they offer to themselves, the reasons why they do what they do. Pop psychology has its own reasons, but no textbook theory is expansive enough to match Schmind’s wordless inquiry into the stage artist’s heart and mind. It’s All That Jazz if Bob Fosse lived into his eighties.

Backstage films like All About Eve are good on struggle, the sweat and greasepaint and thankless effort, and today, with Hollywood cynicism at an all-time high, there’s no shortage of behind-the-scenes misery. But what about the good? How does it feel to nail that moment on stage? What kept Albert Finney’s “Sir” (in The Dresser) coming back, year after year, as the theater was crumbling in the midst of an air raid? Tosca’s Kiss. It shows how art sustains the artist, even after the spotlight has been taken away. Perhaps Quartet will too.

Did I say I was excited?