Shrinking Film Critic Archive for July, 2006

What's the fuss? Mel already said those things in TPOTC

I interviewed Mel Gibson many years ago in London on a morning when he was clearly hung over. After arriving an hour late, looking like Christ dragged to the cross of media interrogation, he nursed cappucino after cappucino, a black cloud hanging over him through the whole dispiriting session. I can’t blame stars for hating interviews, but since it’s usually part of their contracts to help promote their movies, or at least it fosters good will with their studio employers, and since their profession makes them perfect for at least acting like they’re actors who enjoy talking about their work, I have no sympathy.
This particular interview was for Bird on a Wire, and whether it was bird or dog or turkey, you didn’t see Goldie Hawn showing up late and scowling. Known for her professionalism, Hawn was perky, engaged, and wearing a Lycra top that flirted with areola territory. At least she was making the effort.
The film community has long known of several biblical commandments Gibson was prone to breaking. Now that he’s confessed his alcoholism — the lesser of two evils on display during his recent arrest for drunk driving — it’s almost a relief to be able to state the obvious: that the vehemence of The Passion of the Christ has always been as much about the strident zeal of the newly reformed addict as about Gibson’s guarded anti-Semitism.
Think of ex-smokers who won’t tolerate others lighting up, not even outdoors, or those nouveau vegetarians who examine the meals of complete strangers with disgust. At some point, Gibson gave up (or tried to give up) his hard-partying ways, and the result is the kind of intolerance people often exhibit when they struggle to keep themselves in check. I haven’t followed closely the timeline of Gibson’s turnaround — his embracing of religion as part of his atonement for years of bad behavior — but TPOTC was clearly part of his own, personal detox program. Once you’re on the wagon, you can’t proclaim it loudly enough, and TPOTC was not just a movie about Jesus, it was an attempt to rewrite history according to the narrow view of one particular religious sect, one that is as rigid in its views (toward Jews, for example) as reformed alcoholics are rigid on the topic of booze.
But ex-drunks fall off the wagon. Why? Because they’re human, not divine. All the addiction literature makes note of it. As Gibson observed in his statement, it’s a good thing he was arrested before he hurt someone.
The anti-semitism he betrayed from the bottom of the bottle is something else. Alcohol is a chemically proven disinhibitor, and Gibson apparently spun himself like a top as he spewed his bile at the arresting officers, demanding to know if they were Jews, blaming the Jews for all the wars in history. (Hmm, where do the Crusades fit into that theory?) His published “apology” mentioned alcoholism but not the anti-semitic remarks, or at least not specifically. Just as he’s never distanced himself from his father’s crazy, Holocaust-denying rants, Gibson still refuses to pin down just what it is about the statement “Jews are to blame for everything” he doesn’t believe.
But I’m surprised anyone’s surprised. TPOTC is an anti-semitic screed. I’m not saying that in an accusing way, simply as a matter of fact, like saying The Awful Truth is a screwball comedy or Oliver Stone’s movies are blunt. I received thousands of e-mails after my initial review of TPOTC, the majority from those who believed that a movie can’t be “anti-semitic” if it’s “true.”
Where to begin to refute such a Moebius strip of incomprehension and illogic?
For the most part, I’m guessing the problem is that people don’t know how to “read” a movie. They can’t see how Gibson, as writer, producer, and director, created his own “truth” through the magic of movie composition, editing, casting, lighting, and words. What went into TPOTC, what didn’t, the litany of choices he made, the calculated variables of the moviemaking process itself, all this contributed to saying on film what Gibson said to the arresting officer the other day.
What part of “Jews are the devil” does Gibson not believe? He’s sorry he fell off the wagon, embarrassed himself and his family, broke the law and endangered others. He wasn’t sorry for the hole in his heart.
And why should he be? After all, he’s said it all before, on film, and he must have known what he was doing, because it went down millions of gullets as smoothly as a nice cold beer.

"Super Ex" a power drain

Uma Thurman gamely sends up her tough-girl, kick-ass, Kill Bill persona in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, but the nearly clever idea that powers the screenplay sputters into brownout mode early on, developing rolling blackouts and cutting off vital blood supply to brain cells.
Umasuperexgf.jpg As the brown-bewigged Jenny, Thurman adopts a mousy librarian demeanor (even though Jenny, inexplicably, works at a high-end art gallery). As Jenny’s blonde alter-ego, the Fantastic-Fourish superhero “G-Girl,” the character is tricked out like Superman with laser vision and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound (and an allergy to extraterrestrial rocks).
But Jenny reveals her bipolar secret early on to new boyfriend Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson), thus sidelining the movie’s one running joke — the powerful woman who is secretly insecure, a jealous bunny-boiler in the making. As Glenn Close would say in Fatal Attraction, which this movie vaguely references, she WON’T be IGNORED.
With the full subtext now on display, like underwear worn over street clothes, the story has nowhere to go, no ideas to push, no opportunity for playing peekaboo with G-Girl’s embarrassing, relationship-killing secret: She can save Metropolis from ruin but she’s jealous and possessive.
What to do? Some filler with sidekick characters, and a few Jokes that repeat like the reprise of title songs in a musical — here’s a scene of sex so super the bed moves, and here’s a scene of buddies discussing sex so super the bed moves, and here’s, yes, more bed-moving. At least Brigadoon only showed up once every hundred years.
Luke Wilson’s reaction shots are fun, but you can’t hang a movie on them. (If it were Owen Wilson, maybe.)
Thurman is clearly more comfortable with comedy than any other acting style, and she’s good at it. Her Quentin Tarantino roles have all been essentially comedic. Super Ex-Girlfriend, though more obviously billed as a comedy, is a bad one, a lazy and half-baked one, and it’s a step down for her. She’s not even the lead — Wilson’s reaction shots play the lead. G-Girl’s super powers are indicated by cheesy special effects, the kind that would be impressive on small-screen Smallville; she she goes into action, there’s a watery ripple effect as if G-Girl is disturbing the cosmos just a little. Her powers seem to reside in placing a watermark on the screen; could G-Girl be the first heroine for the paper-supplies industry?
Screenwriter Don Payne (who is writing next year’s Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer) is clearly more interested in the superficial aspects of the high-concept, comics-based joke than in mining the rich, deep vein of Jenny/G-Girl’s personality conundrum. Comics are not superficial, though. The best of them explore the painfully human — how to fit in when you’re different, how to turn your back on those you love to protect them from retribution by your enemies — and movie comedy should demand no less. We should laugh at but also feel for the plight of poor Jenny — so competent. So helpless.
superexgf.jpgThat’s not to say there are no good scenes, like one in which Jenny and Matt have dinner out with Matt’s work colleague Hannah (Anna Faris). A missile is headed for midtown, and the other diners are glued to the TV, but jealous Jenny doesn’t want to leave Matt alone with an attractive woman. “Shouldn’t SOMEONE do something?” Matt hisses to Jenny. “Maybe SOMEONE needs just ONE NIGHT OFF!” she hisses back, like any couple bickering over who did what in the relationship.
I wouldn’t go on at length about a movie like this except that the missed opportunity is profound. Fatal Attraction is in desperate need of a feminist makeover, but I’d rather see a serious one than a comic send-up (it is its own send-up, really). And superhero comics are all about the strain of keeping subtext in place, the exhaustion of keeping the secret life and the public life in balance. The chief mistake of Super Ex-Girlfriend is that Jenny/G-Girl should be the protagonist, not the less-interesting Matt, whose goal is to get a hot chick who won’t turn out to be high-maintenance. That’s too common a movie topic, and it’s been addressed countless times.
No, what this needed to be was a hip, breezy summer spin on The Upside of Anger, that movie in which Kevin Costner is strangely attracted to Joan Allen even though she’s a raving bitch. As a woman, I want to see such a movie in all its variations. And I want to see Uma Thurman (or any actress!) play a smart, strong, funny woman, not the male-fantasy version of it.


Oh, so Kevin Dillon WAS the problem …

The biggest unintentional guffaw of Poseidon, Wolfgang Petersen’s remake of the 1972 disaster flick, came when the captain announced that it was neither bird, nor plane, nor iceberg, but a “rogue wave” that was to be the harbinger of death, destruction, and Act II.
Rogue wave, my ass. At least try to make the movie’s galvanizing event sound plausible.
My bad. According to a splashy piece in The New York Times science section yesterday (“Huge, Freakish, but Real, Waves Draw New Study”), rogue waves exist indeed and are suspected of causing many a flip twixt the ship and the slip — even those watercraft that don’t have Kevin Dillon aboard, playing as clueless a character as a screenwriter can dream up on his sofa. (“I’m just lucky,” says Lucky Larry, or final words to that effect, before doing a Tarzan from an electrical vine over a cavernous inferno.)

Barnard Hughes comes through

Actor Barnard Hughes is dead at 90. I’d like to tell my Barnard Hughes story now; it’s a small story, but it reminds me of why I always thought he’d live to a ripe old age.
Many years ago, Elle Magazine asked me to write a piece on New Year’s Resolutions of the stars. They wanted 50 “fabulous” celebrities. No problem, I said.
It was a problem, of course. Rule No. 1 for freelancers: Never agree to do a “roundup” story involving celebrity quotes unless you personally have the home phone numbers of said celebrities in your PalmPilot (or, back then, in your handwritten scrawl on a piece of paper). Even when you have their home numbers – I dialed Susan Sarandon while she was in her kitchen making dinner and she chewed me out in a most Oscar-worthy way – these need to be home numbers of celebs who will take your call.
Getting a celeb on the phone is hard. Getting a “fabulous” celeb is harder. Getting 50 of them on deadline? Impossible. I tried night and day, hounding publicists, calling in chips. I didn’t have any chips, but I called them in anyway.
Then I widened the net. I couldn’t get Mick Jagger, but I got Judge Reinhold, briefly buzz-worthy for Ruthless People. Brooke Adams, already fading from sight after Days of Heaven, would only cooperate if I also used a quote from her (less fabulous) sister; I agreed.
Then there was Barnard Hughes. Not only was his home number listed, but he answered his phone, seemed honored that I had thought to include him, was delighted to help. His movie credits included Midnight Cowboy, Hamlet, and Tron. He was an Emmy winner for Lou Grant. Really, he was more of a theater actor, starting out at New York’s Shakespeare Fellowship Repertory and developing into a Broadway and Off-Broadway institution. He worked steadily, reliably, never making it to People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive status, but never lacking for work or respect either. And still answering his own phone. I don’t remember what his New Year’s resolution for 1987 was, but I like to think it was that he’d continue to be at one with himself.
I’m not saying actors should get off their high horses and take my phone calls. Far from it. I think actors and “stars” and “celebrities” should strictly enforce boundaries to afford themselves a private life, since the media and public certainly won’t do it for them. But I can barely recall today the other names on my list of 50 — only Hughes, who was gracious, charming, generous, and seemed so at home in the world that he’d likely live to 90.
Which he did.
Elle Magazine killed the piece. “Not fabulous enough,” was their assessment of my 50 celebs.
Barnard Hughes, dead at 90. Not fabulous enough for Elle Magazine, but fabulous enough for me.


Bootleg Sandler

Will I respect myself in the morning?
Unclear. But I felt sleazy as hell as I purposely made eye contact with the stooped Chinese woman who was selling bootleg DVDs at a pizza place in Queens. This on the heels of a spectacular FBI roundup of 13 bootleggers, the punchline to a long-gestating sweep through New York.
Those 13 may be behind bars, but there’s still inventory floating around out there. The Chinese pizza connection was a veritable one-woman Blockbuster, carrying all the latest summer titles — X-Men, Da Vinci Code. Also like the folks at Blockbuster, she didn’t seem to have any personal interest in or knowledge of the movies she sold. I noticed her because her body language was that falsely ingratiating kind found in pleading-eyed scavengers who try to sell single-stem roses to diners before a restaurant kicks them out. But the table of teenagers near me squealed with glee when the woman splayed her plastic-wrapped wares like slabs of an oversized Tarot deck; I was curious.
Years ago, the MPAA took me along on a stakeout of a Bronx video store that was serving as a front for bootleggers. So now, I briefly thought of calling my old contact (who, notwithstanding, had long since left the MPAA) and alerting him to the skulduggery of this old woman — although she was “old” only in the sense that actresses over 40 were once considered fodder for granny roles. She was possibly in her 50s, but she shuffled as if she were in her dotage, perhaps because life had beaten her down. Or perhaps she’d lost the will to live after seeing Click, the moronic, depressing new Adam Sandler movie that I bought from her for five bucks, rationalizing to myself that it was in the service of “research” for this blog.
Whoever filmed Click off a movie screen with a camcorder was sitting to the left of the theater, coughed like a banshee, hit the mute button twice by mistake, and squeaked his chair with alacrity throughout the movie. As for those pesky end credits, he didn’t bother filming them. They’re not part of the movie, are they?
If you care about film, you don’t want to see one off a bootleg copy. But then, if you care about film, you don’t want to see Click.
No one has accused Sandler of having range. His claim to fame is still his man-boy singing of silly songs in a silly voice. As most sentient beings will agree, a little Sandler goes a long way. But that doesn’t stop him in ClickSPOILER ALERT!!!! — from performing an excruciatingly sorry-ass death scene in which he flails about, gasping, in a hospital gown and a puddle of water. His character, who has fast-forwarded through his life to avoid the hassle of experiencing any of it, suddenly sees the error of his ways and tries, with his dying breath, to gain absolution from the family he betrayed.
Hamlet he ain’t.
But the week wasn’t a total loss. Here’s the view from my neighbor Nick’s terrace:

1 Comment »

Quote Unquotesee all »

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