Movie Reviews - 2000s postsThursday June 30, 2016
Movie Review: What Just Happened (2008)
The book was better.
Seriously, how sad is it that Hollywood can’t make a good movie from a juicy, insidery memoir about the absurdity of making movies in Hollywood? Shouldn’t they own that shit?
Art Linson’s book, “What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line,” focuses on Linson’s years in the late ’90s producing pictures for Fox Studios, including: “The Edge,” “Great Expectations,” “Pushing Tin,” and “Fight Club.” You look at that list and think, “Well, ‘Fight Club’ anyway.” Except that one was the real disaster. The Fox brass was horrified by the film. Nobody got it. And it led to a shitty marketing campaign that smoothed over the very things—its violent complexity; its take on modern male culture—that might have made it a box office success. “Fight Club” has become part of the cultural vernacular but at the time, to use a Linson phrase, it didn’t keep anyone’s swimming pool heated.
Think of that. The thing that’s dismissed out of hand by the people in power is the thing that means something, the thing that lasts. This dichotomy is indicative of Hollywood but not limited to Hollywood.
Bring me the beard of Alec Baldwin
Linson’s memoir gives you all of this; it’s blunt and funny. The movie, which he wrote, soft-pedals and fictionalizes things. It follows the rules of “Fight Club” by not talking about “Fight Club.”
Instead, we get “Fiercely,” an idiotic-looking (and idiotically titled) action-adventure movie starring Sean Penn; and instead of the stunned horror of Fox execs at the “Fight Club” screening, we get dull art/commerce arguments:
- The rebellious director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) wants to kill his hero in the end—and his little dog, too.
- Preview audiences freak when the dog is shot.
- The studio head (Catherine Keener) makes Brunell change the ending for the Cannes Film Festival so the dog lives.
- Brunell screens the dead-dog version anyway.
- Our hero, Ben (Robert De Niro), the movie’s producer, becomes persona non grata at the studio as a result.
Worse, I actually liked the ending where the dog lives. It’s bittersweet; it resonates. Brunell’s “artistic” ending simply piles on misery. I’ve said it before: Just because studios and test audiences want the happy ending doesn’t mean the grim ending is any good. It’s probably equally reductive.
Oh, the movie screws up the story of Alec Baldwin’s beard, too.
In the mid-1990s, Baldwin, still a leading man, agreed to make a movie called “Bookworm” (eventually: “The Edge”), written by David Mamet, but he showed up to the reading wearing a heavy beard. He was supposed to be the young rival to an older patriarch, played by Anthony Hopkins, but Baldwin looked as old as Hopkins. They needed him to shave, but he refused: temper tantrums, curses, overturning tables, etc. He kept claiming artistic integrity. Finally, days before shooting begins, he shaves. Afterwards, Linson asks an actor friend why Baldwin was so committed to the beard and the friend responds, “Alec probably thought he was a little too heavy and he didn’t like the way his chin looked.”
And in the movie? It’s Bruce Willis rather than Baldwin; and after much ado, including asinine behavior at a funeral, everyone gathers around Bruce’s trailer on the first day of filming to see if he’s shaved. When the door opens, he appears in the doorframe in profile—still bearded. Do you see it coming? A mile away? I did. Bruce turns and the other half of his face is shaved. Then he makes a joke and everyone on screen laughs. They’re friends again!
In the book we got the small, vain, but very human reason inside all that hifalutin artistic/commercial turmoil. In the movie we got ... Got me.
You can’t handle the truth
Linson and director Barry Levinson also add a love story to the movie: Who’s Been Sleeping with My Beautiful Ex-Wife (Robin Wright)? Like we give a fuck.
The book is about how difficult it is to get movies made, and how difficult it is for any movie made to make money. More, it’s about all the forces that prevent Hollywood movies from being good or true. The movie proves the book's point.
Movie Review: Rocky Balboa (2006)
“Take It Back” plays over the title credits of “Rocky Balboa,” which is appropriate since that’s what Sylvester Stallone does here. He takes us back 30 years to the days of “Rocky.”
We get Spider Rico again, the first boxer we saw Rocky fight, and Little Marie, the “Screw you, creepo!” girl who didn’t listen to his advice when he walked her home that one night. We see two turtles in Rocky’s room, replacements for Cuff and Link, and instead of running through the Italian market to Bill Conti’s ridiculously uplifting score, Rocky (Stallone) buys produce for his restaurant, Adrian’s, where he acts as gregarious host telling old boxing stories to the patrons.
Adrian’s dead now, joining Mickey (“III”) and Apollo (“IV”), which leaves us with Paulie (Burt Young), the one who won't go away. He’s back at the meat plant for most of this movie, and is the complaining chorus as Rocky, on the anniversary of Adrian’s death in 2002 (“woman cancer” Rocky explains to Little Marie), does a nostalgic tour of their old haunts—or at least the ones from the first movie. There’s the pet shop where she used to work; there’s Mighty Mick’s, more rundown than ever. The ice rink where they went on their Thanksgiving date is torn down now, so Rocky stands beside the rubble, reminiscing. He even goes by his old apartment—the 1818 one—the one he couldn’t wait to get away from; the one that STINKS. He’s fond of it now.
Which raises a question: In old age, do we get nostalgic about even the things we hated in our youth? Or is the nostalgia tour more for Stallone? A reminder of better days for him, and for the movies?
A cruise or something
I always felt “Rocky” epitomized the split between good ‘70s films and crap ‘80s flicks. The first half is a ‘70s character study of a down-on-his-luck dude, skirting morality and legality; a man who WASTED his life, in the words of Mickey. The second half is, you know, “Rocky”: an inspirational tale of perseverance and success. When the receipts came in, making “Rocky” the No. 1 box-office hit of 1976, Hollywood began to run with the second half of this equation and hasn’t stopped. We got less and less character study and greater and greater wish-fulfillment fantasy. In the subsequent “Rocky” movies, it wasn’t enough to go the distance; Rocky had to win. Then he had to beat: 1) angry blacks; 2) Russia; 3) punk kids. He got sleeker and smarter and less talky. In the original, he talked forever. Whatever was on his mind. He filled gaps.
We get this Rocky again. He’s not sleek here; he’s a pug. The first half of the movie is a character study of the lion in winter, and it’s not bad. It’s touching when Rocky puts on his glasses in the Italian market to read from his grocery list. There are subplots with his son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia from “Heroes”), that aren’t cartoonish. Junior has a corporate job with a douchey boss who belittles him even as he admires Rocky. He’s trying to create space for himself away from his father’s shadow.
I think the relationship between Rocky and Little Marie went on too long and go too creepy (creepo), but I like the dialogue after he first drives her home. It says a lot about our society. Two kids, one black and one white, are hanging near her front stoop. That’s my son, she says.
Rocky: You know he sort of resembles you—he’s got that big Irish hair.
Marie: Yeah, it’s the other one.
Marie: His father was from Jamaica.
Rocky (nodding): Jamaica. European. [Pause] Was you on a cruise or something?
I was hoping it would remain this kind of character study, but it’s a Rocky movie so we have to have a fight. But even here Stallone goes retro.
During the training sequence, Rocky drinks raw eggs and pounds frozen meat, neither of which he’s done since the first film. More importantly, his opponent here, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), isn’t demonized the way Rocky’s post-Apollo opponents were. Clubber Lang was all seething trashtalk, Ivan Drago amoral Teutonic stoicism, Tommy Gunn whiny, spoiled need. They’re cartoons. Dixon is a little more complex. The movie has mixed feelings about him that bend positively. He winds up a good guy. At the same time, he’s kind of a non-entity.
In the sequels, Rocky always won. Here, as in “Rocky,” he goes the distance but loses. But in losing he wins. As does Dixon. It’s win-win.
So “Rocky Balboa” isn't a bad movie. I’d probably say it’s the second- or third-best Rocky movie.
Sunshine and rainbows
Sorry, but it makes no sense that the boxing match is a win for Dixon. The criticism of him in the press is twofold:
- He doesn’t have heart
- He wouldn’t have lasted a round against the superior fighters of the past—like Rocky Balboa.
In the match with Rocky, he shows heart. He breaks his hand and keeps going. He shows people he’s a true champ—that’s what everyone says afterward. But look at that second criticism. He barely wins a split decision against a 60-year-old man. What does that tell you about his place in boxing history? In losing, Rocky wins, but in winning, Dixon loses. He should never have taken the fight. It was lose-lose from the beginning.
We also get a ton of fudged messages to arrive at the feel-good ending. Paulie tells Rocky, “You’re livin’ backwards,” Robert Jr. tells his father he’s having trouble living in his shadow, and everyone objects when Rocky decides to fight again. All of these people are essentially correct but the movie doesn’t recognize that. In the movie, the fight totally makes sense, his son shouldn’t use excuses for why he’s not his own man—that’s what cowards do—and apparently it’s OK to live in the past if it’s with the girl you loved.
There are better lessons the movie could have played up. This, for example, is what Rocky says to his son before telling him that cowards use excuses:
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
So if nobody hits as hard as life, why isn’t that the story? Why go into the ring for the lesser hits? Why not make the superior hits the story?
I know. Because that’s not what the public wants. Or what studio execs think the public wants. Of course, back in 1975, studio execs didn’t think we wanted a feel-good story about a down-on-his-luck boxer going the distance, either.
Movie Review: The Cat's Meow (2001)
Peter Bogdanovich has always been fascinated with early Hollywood (cf., “Nickelodeon”), so the scandal-laden death of film pioneer Thomas Ince while he was aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during a 1924 trip down the coast, which included Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Louella Parson (Jennifer Tilly) and Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), well, that’s the cat’s meow.
The result is a fairly straightforward picture, with touches of melodrama in the end.
I first saw the movie shortly after it was released, but 14 years later had pretty much forgotten whodunit. Didn’t Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros leave Ince’s death up in the air?
No, they didn’t.
Orson Welles, piker
Almost everyone boards Hearst’s Oneida with an agenda that relates to Hearst:
- Ince, credited with creating the “cowboy picture,” but with career floundering, wants to strike a deal with Hearst.
- Chaplin wants to woo Davies away from Hearst.
- Parsons wants greater Hearst distribution for her entertainment column.
The rest, mostly girls, just want to have fun.
So what happens? Ince witnesses Chaplin wooing Davies and uses this intel to get closer to Hearst. He keeps feeding him information (innuendo, love letters) until Hearst’s volcanic, cuckolded anger erupts. Except Hearst mistakes Ince—wearing Charlie’s hat, and talking softly with Marion in a stairwell—for Charlie, and shoots him in the head. Ince, in other words, creates the circumstances for his own death.
In the messy aftermath, the murder is covered up, Chaplin and Davies part company, and Parsons, a witness, lands a lifetime contract with Hearst’s newspapers and becomes one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
How true is all this? Unknown. It’s gossip and guesswork. Apparently Bogdanovich first heard about it from that great raconteur Orson Welles, and in telling Welles’ tale, Bogdanovich actually gets to outdo his idol. In “Citizen Kane,” Welles suggested Hearst was a megalomaniac, warmonger, tyrant, bad friend, and a poor little boy who just wanted his sled—but he stopped short of murderer.
What I never understood while watching? Why these people were on that boat. Why did Hearst invite Chaplin? To spy on him? If so, why in the early going does he seem oblivious? Why invite Ince if he doesn’t want to do business with him? Or did Marion choose the guest list?
Dunst makes a great, bubbly Marion, and Izzard is a good Chaplin, if a bit thick-limbed and graceless. (Chaplin would’ve been all over that Charleston number.) The standout is Edward Hermann’s Hearst: the giant undone by the Little Tramp, and then, post-tragedy, remade by will, wealth and power.
(I’m curious: Did Hearst’s newspapers hound Chaplin after this? Were they part of the “Get Charlie out of the good ol’ USA” line in the late 1940s? Anyone know?)
Another standout is Joanna Lumley as the cold-eyed romance writer and Valentino screenwriter Elinor Glyn, who I knew nothing about before this movie. (Apparently she popularized the concept of It, as in “The It Girl.”) So much of our history just goes. We need to remind ourselves how our archetypes (cowboys, Valentinos) were created and monetized. In the long run, that’s a more valuable exercise than figuring out who killed Thomas Ince. Ince is long dead, but we still have Valentinos. And men are still being elected president of the United States by pretending to be cowboys.
Movie Review: Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss (2008)
Here’s a quote from “Cinemas of the World” by James Chapman that I’ve always found helpful in explaining the world:
Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
I expected more of that, or at least some of that, from the documentary “Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss.” Instead, Felix Moeller’s look at Veit Harlan, the Frank Capra of Nazi filmmakers who directed one of the most notorious anti-Semitic films of the era, a period drama called “Jew Süss” (1940), focuses almost exclusively on how Harlan’s family has dealt with its tarnished legacy.
His son Thomas led a fascinating life, although we get only glimpses of it here. He became a playwright, a poet, a filmmaker. In the 1960s, in Italy, he unearthed thousands of Nazi crimes, which helped with thousands of prosecutions. He became, in effect, a Nazi hunter. He also publicly condemned his father. “Once you’ve seen that the fruit of your work turns into a murder weapon, it is difficult to just say, ‘Well, I’m a filmmaker and I will carry on making films,’” he says. “That was the end for me.”
Another son, Kristian, wearing a trim beard and a severe look, takes the opposite tack. “The image of my father is mine,” he says without heat but with firmness. “And it’s nobody’s business what I think of my father or my mother,”
Caspar calls his father’s work “unforgivable,” while a daughter, Maria Körber, talks about how work-oriented their father was—to the exclusion of all else. She also mentions seeing “Jew Süss” late in life and wondering what the fuss was all about.
So do we, in a sense, since we only get glimpses of the movie here. No one even tells us the plot. We have to look that up for ourselves.
Basically, it’s a Nazi version of “Birth of a Nation.” In the 18th century, a Jewish merchant wiedles his way to power, taxes the people, takes a Christian woman by force, and is eventually executed for the crime. “May the citizens of other states never forget this lesson,” one character intones in the end. It was a huge box office success in both Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Overall, Harlan’s movies were seen by more than 100 million people during the war.
That's why it’s startling when we learn that earlier in life Harlan had married a Jewish woman—a cabaret singer named Dora Gerson, whom he divorced in 1924. (She died at Auschwitz.) The phrase “fellow traveler” comes up often to describe his politics. He wanted to make movies and went along with whatever regime was in power. For most of his career, that was the Nationalist Socialist Party.
The Harlans are spread over Europe now. One grandchild, Alice, is French and beautiful; another, Caspar, is Italian and handsome. Harlan’s niece, Christiane, wound up living in England with her husband Stanley Kubrick (yes, that one), while her brother, Jan, produced Kubrick’s last four films: “Barry Lyndon,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Overall, the doc includes too little history and too much handwringing. It’s video footage of what the Harlans think of Veit Harlan, and of being Harlan. The nature of propaganda is hardly explored.
The most telling moment may be when Maria admits that her father didn’t feel particularly guilty about any of it. “He’d always claimed that he’d been forced,” she says, “and that he’d been under such pressure that he couldn’t refuse.” This is then juxtaposed with the ending of “Jew Süss,” in which the Jewish merchant, on trial, says the same thing:
The charges against me are due to the direct orders I received from my duke. I have the duke’s written orders. You can check. I am merely the faithful servant of my master!
It's not only ironic but unoriginal. It was the most tired defense of the era. Or any era.
Movie Review: Please Teach Me English (2003)
Comedies don’t travel well, but since I taught English abroad—Taiwan, late 1980s—I thought Kim Sung-su’s South Korean comedy, “Please Teach Me English,” might work for me. And it does, for the most part, but I doubt I needed the ESL experience to appreciate it.
The comedy is pretty broad. At times it’s really broad. There are bells and whistles: thought balloons popping up on screen, cartoon versions of the lead character, a video game takeoff of ESL. It’s fun. But it goes on about a half hour too long. In the boy-meets-girl playbook, it plays like this:
- Girl meets boy
- Boy is a jerk
- Boy becomes less of a jerk
- Girl becomes more of a jerk
- Girl does something so awful I lost all interest in her
- Boy gets girl
If I were the filmmakers, I might have lost step 5.
A financial Sophie’s Choice
It begins well. Slow-motion panic enuses at a government office in Seoul when an American shows up to complain about his electricity bill. Everyone ducks out of the way, unsure of their English ability, and afterwards at a restaurant/bar they all play spin the bottle to see who in the office will take English lessons to deal with foreigners in the future. The bottle lands on our heroine, Na Yeong-ju (Lee Na-yeong), who might be one of the few people in Asia who doesn’t want to learn English.
But off she goes, meets the cute boy, Park Moon-su (Jang Hyuk)—the smooth “playa” in her class whom the cute blonde teacher, Catherine (Angela Kelly), dubs “Elvis” for his sideburns. He eminates nothing but disinterest, not to mention a lazy kind of loutishness, but she’s smitten anyway. She does whatever she can to land him.
Since this is Asian cinema, there’s pathos amid the comedy. Years earlier, Moon-su’s mother faced a kind of financial Sophie’s Choice: She had two children, couldn’t afford both, so she gave up the daughter, Victoria. Now Victoria is a successful attorney in New York and coming to visit for the first time. That’s why Moon-su, a shoe salesman, is taking the ESL course—so they can talk between the tears.
Of course, just when our romantic couple is about to get together (step 3, above), Yeong-ju finds the photo of the pretty Korean girl in his wallet, assumes it’s Moon-su’s girlfriend rather than his long-lost sister, and retreats. He pursues. She retreats again. And again. Then she does step 5. Corralled into translating for mother and daughter, and still assuming Victoria is the girlfriend rather than the sister, Yoeng-ju tells Victoria that the mother and Moon-su both hate her and never want to see her again. It’s a pretty horrible moment. But then she goes the other way—flinging herself in front of Victoria’s cab to tell her the truth—before running away again, pursed by Moon-su, who, in a nice bit, if one that goes on too long, finally corners her on a subway and slips on her feet the red shoes she’s always wanted while professing his love for her. Applause from the people in the subway. Cinderella wins, even though she was a total jerk 10 minutes earlier.
War in somewhere
It’s not bad, not great, but what recommends the movie for me is its take on English and America: from the colorful and confusing corporate logos swirling around Yeong-ju as she rides the bus, to the Hollywood SWAT team that, in Yeong-ju’s nightmare, bursts in on their class and demands they answer a question in English at gunpoint: What is your favorite movie?
But my favorite moment was when Yeong-ju was watching CNN as a way to improve her English. A western correspondent in fatigues was reporting from abroad. The headline? WAR IN SOMEWHERE. Nothing says “America” more than that.
START: What does Na Yeong-ju want? To live in a world where she won''t have to speak English.
The world doesn''t cooperate.
But at least in ESL class she meets a cute boy.
Unfortunately, he''s a jerk.
Fortunately, she's goofy.
But there's all those damn western girls around. (Psst: They put out.)
Meanwhile, ESL is as scary as a video game.
Or a SWAT team nightmare.
But is anything as scary as U.S. foreign policy? *FIN*