MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Neil LaBute, What’s Up?/ Paul Newman is Family

What Happened to Neil LaBute?

Neil LaBute has never been a filmmaker who shied away from controversial topics. Mostly, he has seemed fascinated by gender in general and, specifically, people’s need to penetrate – both literally and figuratively. In his earlier films, he takes a microscope to the machinations and manipulations of people that are comingling for a stretch or just conjoining for the night. I didn’t necessarily like his first film, In the Company of Men, but I was utterly awestruck by its temerity. Here was a film that took its controversial premise to its shattering and logical conclusion.

The effect it had on me was strong enough that when Your Friends and Neighbors came out when I was fifteen, I had my mother buy the ticket for me and a friend since the theater was a little strict about films with R ratings. And, while his first feature gets much of the acclaim, I foundYour Friends and Neighbors to be far more powerfully off-putting and incredible. It is about six people, three men and three women, all of them acquaintances and more. Sex is the theme, the topic at large and all of these characters have very different points of view. The piece de resistance is the scene with the three men in the steam room, talking about the best sex of their lives. What’s so powerful about that scene is that it is absolutely filthy, incredibly disturbing, and completely absorbing. LaBute shows what a master he is by subverting his own subversion at the end of the scene; it’s almost like a really disturbing version of the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally…

To me, Nurse Betty and Possession were amiable diversions that didn’t feel like true LaBute pictures. There is some good stuff in both of them, but LaBute didn’t write the former and the latter is exceedingly conventional.

But then he came back with The Shape of Things, a film based on his own play. It has remarkable lead performances by Rachel Weisz, before her star really began to shine, andPaul Rudd before his Apatow films. It is about what it means to create art and the parallel of what it means to create a relationship (or a person, for that matter). Where his first film was about a man manipulating a woman, the table is turned on this one. LaBute points out how cruel this woman can be, but also how empowered a woman can feel when she destroys a man. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with Your Friends and Neighbors where Jason Patricseems to derive pleasure from destroying a woman with his penis and here, LaBute shows that the penis is not necessarily mightier than the pen.

And then the needless remake of The Wicker Man…. Some of LaBute’s themes are contained in it – it is, after all, about a man on an island of women – but it is an absolutely horrid mess of a film. The youtube collection of The Wicker Man’s “greatest hits” is hilarious and sad at once. I figured I’d give LaBute a pass on this one since he wasn’t working from original material and maybe he just wanted a big payday.

Now LaBute’s latest film has hit theaters, Lakeview Terrace, and instead of gender, LaBute has focused his microscope on race. This seems like the perfect subject for a sharp mind like LaBute except for two things: 1) LaBute didn’t write it and he’s a much stronger writer than a director, and 2) it’s rated PG-13 and it seems difficult to talk about race seriously when you’re trying to appeal to the widest possible demographic.

My fears abated somewhat during the first forty-five minutes as the story sets itself up: a mixed-race couple moves in next door to a black, racist cop in Los Angeles. The cop is played by Samuel L. Jackson and the first few scenes set him up to be a decent enough guy, taking care of his two children on his own while bearing his cross of being covertly racist. He gets along with everyone on the block for the most part, white, black, Asian or Latino but when his next door neighbors turn out to be a black woman and her white boyfriend, it really gets under his skin. There is an interesting line early on, when Jackson tells his son to take off his Kobe jersey because they’re Shaq fans now – presumably because Kobe is married to a Latino woman – and it’s an effective little way of showing how Jackson’s character can be racist without being overt.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s character grows increasingly unhinged over the course of the film, starting out as a human being and becoming a monster that is pure evil. One thing that LaBute had always excelled at in his past films was finding the human side of even the most vile monsters – whether is Aaron Eckhart in In the Company of Men or Jason Patric in Your Friends and Neighbors or Rachel Weisz in The Shape of Things – but here, Jackson’s Abel Turner has a flip switch midway through and there is no turning back.

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are fine as the couple, imbuing them with more human qualities than Jackson brings to his role, but subplots of having a child and a disapproving dad really go nowhere. Jackson’s subplots, similarly, do nothing to illuminate him or his situation. I can’t even remember the last time it seemed like Samuel L. Jacksonactually showed up to work instead of phoning it in, but that’s a column for a different day.

The film ends with a stupid shootout in a fire and it was somewhere around there that I remembered that Neil LaBute had directed this film. I swear, if I didn’t know that LaBute was behind the lens, you could have told me it was a Jon Avnet film. And that’s been the problem with LaBute for his last films, all of which had higher budgets than he’s used to.

LaBute is best when he is given an explosive topic in a small space. The film would have been much more effective if the only location was this block, but it’s opened up a bit more than that and every time we watch Jackson on the job or at a bar, the film becomes trite. And the PG-13 rating really hinders the film during a “wild” bachelor party or when there is very little mention of racial slurs; in a film about racism, there should be a slur here and there.

But that is ultimately the problem: the film feels like LaBute on lithium. Granted he didn’t write the film, but I really wish he had. The dialogue – and the film – doesn’t take any risks and there is nothing shocking about what happens. Instead, we get a predictable film that doesn’t really have anything to say about race. The only thing worse than making a boring film about a controversial topic is to take that topic merely for its shock value, without having anything to say about it. I was excited to see a film where LaBute aggressively tackled one of the most delicate issues of our time, but instead it feels like he was very anxious about it.

I’m confident that LaBute still has a lot to say, I just hope he writes the script himself.

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

My brother is named after a character that Paul Newman played, and his name isn’t Butch Cassidy Forrest. Forgive me in advance if this is a little scattershot.

In 1960, Paul Newman starred in Otto Preminger’s epic Exodus which is about the creation of the state of Israel. It’s a film that I’ve put off watching my entire life, despite being one of my mother’s favorite films. She loved the film so much and Paul Newman’s character of Ari Ben Canaan that she named my older brother Canaan.

When I first became passionate about films and had delved into my “classic comedy” phase, my stepfather told my brother and I that the only film we needed to watch was Slap Shot. It’s still one of my absolute favorite films and I defy anyone to keep a straight face when Academy Award winner Newman – as hockey player/coach Reggie Dunlop – taunts an opposing goalie by telling him that he wife “sucks pussy.”

I love the moment in The Verdict when Newman punches Charlotte Rampling in the face.

When I think of Paul Newman and racing, I always think of the race in Silent Movie between him and Mel Brooks.

To look back at Mr. Newman’s filmography is to see some of the classic films of all time:Somebody Up There Likes Me, Hud, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Absence of Malice. That’s to say nothing of his collaborations with Robert Altman, his Hitchcock film Torn Curtain or his recent films with modern masters like Robert Benton, the Coen Brothers or Sam Mendes.

The man is more than a legend; his work has had a profound effect and left a lasting imprint on my life. I vividly recall eating his chips with his salsa or eating his popcorn and watching his movies. His face is like the face of a family member, someone who has been there my whole life. I’m sure everybody will remember him in their own way; I’ll be remembering him by finally watching Exodus.

– Noah Forrest
September 30, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon