Exceptional Year, Same Old Routine

I’ve added three titles to my 2015 Oscar Balloon list of Ambitious X-Factor films — Tom Hooper‘s The Danish Girl, John Crowley‘s Brooklyn and Stephen FrearsIcon – for a total of 27. Add these to HE’s list of quality-calibre commercial films, which number 10, and you’re obviously looking at 37. And that’s not even counting my list of 13 hopefully or presumably high-grade popcorn flicks, which of course takes it to 50. 2015 is going to be a great year, and yet I wonder which of the 37 will be ready to screen in Cannes, or whether their reps or distributors will be interested in screening them there?

(l. to r.) director Alejandro G, Inaritu, Leonardo DiCaprio, dp Emmanuel Lubezki on the set of The Revenant.

The bottom line, as per custom each and every year, is that the majority of these presumed heavy-hitters won’t begin to peek out until the late August to mid September festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Probably a good 30 or so will be crammed into a twelve-to-fourteen-week release period. With the usual lean pickings between now and then. I don’t mean it’ll be awful but you know what I mean. The usual March and April-level releases over the next two months, and then the summer crap begins in early May and continues until late August. The Cannes interlude is always a blessing but we’re mainly looking at six months of theatrical deprivation between March 1st and fall festival time. (more…)

What’s Been The Hold-Up?

Andy Grieve‘s Can’t Stand Losing You (3.20 NY, 4.3 LA), a doc about the nine-year ride of The Police from the perspective of guitarist Andy Summers (and based on Summers’ “One Train Later: A Memoir“), has been a long time coming. The film’s website says it “brings together past and present as the Police members reunite, two decades [after breaking up], for a global reunion tour in 2007-’08.” (Sting formally quit The Police in 1986 but the group had been on hiatus starting sometime in ’84.) So the bulk of it was apparently shot seven or eight years ago. Plus it was first screened at DOC NYC in November 2012. Why did it take almost two and half years to open this film commercially? There’s a hint why in John DeFore‘s 11.12.12 Hollywood Reporter review: “Of interest to Police fans but hardly a rock-doc for the ages, it’s best suited to small screens.”


Wise Blood

“I’m not talking about ‘following your dream’ either. I never liked the inspirational value of that phrase. Dreaming is a way of trivializing the process, the obsession that carries you through the failure as well as the successes, which could be harder to get through. It’s important and imperative to always be awake to your feelings, your possibilities, your ambitions. Every day is a re-dedication. Every step is a first step. Every brushstroke is a test. Every scene is a lesson. Every shot is a school. So let the learning continue.” — Martin Scorsese

Weekend Binge

All 13 episodes of House of Cards‘ third season are up and rolling. The idea, of course, is to binge-watch between now and Sunday night. The plan, ideally, is to watch two today or tonight, and then six on Saturday and five on Sunday. It’s my earnest hope that Kevin Spacey‘s Frank Underwood will out-connive or out-bludgeon his enemies and slither away from all his troubles like the black snake he is and always will be. I know Frank deserves to go down and be eaten by predators, but there’s something perversely enjoyable in watching him turn the tables and eat them.


Nimoy/Spock Belongs To The Ages

I’m sorry that Leonard Nimoy has left the earth, but know that his soul is moving at light speed through the heavens, an element in the cosmos, serene and absolute and soaring and eternal. I’m glad Nimoy, 83 when he died, had a long and fulfilling life for the most part, and that Mr. Spock meant so much to so many millions of Star Trek fans during the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s even (the last Star Trek film starring Nimoy was Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in 1991). I mostly hated Phil Kaufman‘s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’78) but I thought Nimoy was quite good as a San Francisco spiritual psychobabble guru type. And I’ve always loved his “Highly Illogical” song. The poor guy passed from the after-effects of smoking. Nimoy reportedly stated on Twitter that “I quit smoking 30 years ago…not soon enough.” Zachary Quinto, the 21st Century Spock in JJ Abrams‘ two Star Trek films, has posted the following on Instagram: “My heart is broken. I love you profoundly, my dear friend, and I will miss you everyday. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Silver Deckard

10 months hence we’ll see Harrison Ford bring Han Solo back to life, and then sometime in 2017 Ford will revive Blade Runner‘s coolest replicant, Rick Deckard. Maybe in a lead or supporting capacity, but definitely in a Blade Runner sequel that’ll shoot in the summer of 2016. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) will direct from a script by Michael Green and original Blade Runner co-author Hampton Fancher, based on an idea by Fancher and producer Ridley Scott. My usual response is to say “why?” and “1982 was then, this is now” and so on. But maybe. Reactions?

Click here to jump past the Oscar Balloon

2015 X-Factor, Ambitious, Semi-Fresh, Social Undercurrent, Something More (27)

A Bigger Splash -- Luca Guadagnino (director); Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson. Fox Searchlight, presumably sometime in the fall.

Black Mass (Warner Bros.) -- Scott Cooper (director/screenplay); Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, Dakota Johnson. (9.18)

Brooklyn (Fox Searchlight) -- John Crowley (director), Nick Nornsby (screenwriter) -- Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters.

By The Sea (Universal) -- Angelina Jolie (director, screenwriter). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Niels Arestrup, Mélanie Laurent.

Carol (Weinstein Co.) -- Todd Haynes (director); Pyllis Nagy (screenplay, based on Patricia Highsmith novel); Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler.

Concussion -- Peter Landesman (director-writer). Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson. Sony.

The Danish Girl -- Tom Hooper (director). Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts.

Demolition (Fox Searchlight) -- Jean-Marc Vallee (director); Bryan Sipe (screenplay); Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Chris Cooper. Fox Searchlight.

Everest (Universal) -- Baltasar Kormákur (director); Justin Isbell, William Nicholson (screenplay); Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright.

Hail Caesar! (Universal -- listed as a February 2016 release but if the film turns out to be half as good as the crackling script, it'll be criminal to relegate it to a dump month); Joel and Ethan Coen (directors, screenplay); Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill.

Untitled Warren Beatty/Howard Hughes Drama (no distributor) -- Warren Beatty (director, writer); Warren Beatty, Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Taissa Farmiga, Chace Crawford, Candice Bergen. 2015 or '16?

Icon -- Stephen Frears (director), Jon Hodge (screenwriter). An Irish sports journalist becomes convinced that Lance Armstrong's performances during the Tour de France victories are fueled by banned substances. Ben Foster, Lee Pace, Chris O'Dowd.

Irrational Man (Sony Classics) -- Woody Allen (director, screenplay); Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley. .

Joy (20th Century Fox) -- David O. Russell (director/screenplay). Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Édgar Ramirez. 20th Century Fox, 12.25.

Money Monster (TriStar/Sony -- apparently shooting in early '15) -- Jodie Foster (director); Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf (screenplay). Cast: George Clooney, Jack O'Connell, Julia Roberts.

Our Brand Is Crisis (Warner Bros.); David Gordon Green (director); Peter Straughan (screenplay); Sandra Bullock, Scoot McNairy, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd. WARNING -- possible 2016 release.

The Revenant (20th Century Fox) -- Alejandro González Inarritu (director/screenplay); Mark "nobody can remember my middle initial" Smith (screenplay); Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson.

St. James Place (Touchstone / DreamWorks / 20th Century Fox) -- Steven Spielberg (director); Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (screenplay); Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Billy Magnussen, Eve Hewson.

Sea of Trees (no distributor) -- Gus Van Sant (director); Chris Sparling (screenplay); Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Katie Aselton, Jordan Gavaris.

Silence (Paramount) -- Martin Scorsese (director); Jay Cocks (screenplay); Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Issei Ogata, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano. WARNING -- could be 2016 release.

Snowden -- Oliver Stone (director, co-writer). Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant. Open Road, 12.25.

Spotlight -- Thomas McCarthy (director, co-writer). Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery.

Steve Jobs (Universal -- shooting began in January 2015, which indicates an intention to bring it out by late '15) -- Danny Boyle (director), Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), Scott Rudin (producer); Cast: Michael Fassbender, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston.

Richard Linklater's That's What I'm Talking About (his "spiritual sequel" to Dazed & Confused) is opening sometime in the fall. Annapurna/Paramount.

Trumbo (no distributor) -- Jay Roach (director), Michael London (producer), John McNamara (screenwriter). Cast: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren, John Goodman.

Truth (no distributor) -- James Vanderbilt (director, writer -- based on the 2005 memoir "Truth and Duty" by Mary Mapes); Cast: Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood.

The Walk (TriStar / ImageMovers) -- Robert Zemeckis (director/screenplay); Christopher Browne (screenplay); Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Charlotte Le Bon. Sony/TriStar, 10.2.

2015 Quality-Grade Commercial / alphabetical order (10):

The Hateful Eight (Weinstein Co.) -- Quentin Tarantino (director-writer); Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demián Bichir, Kurt Russell.

In the Heart of the Sea (Warner Bros.) Ron Howard (director); Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson.

The Last Face (distributor) -- Sean Penn (director); Erin Dignam (screenplay); Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Legend (Universal); Brian Helgeland (director, screenwriter); Tom Hardy (playing both Kray twins), Emily Browning.

Midnight Special (Warner Bros.) -- Jeff Nichols (director/screenplay); Cast: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton.

Regression (The Weinstein Company) -- Alejandro Amenábar (director/screenplay); Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Dencik.

Ricki and the Flash (TriStar) -- Jonathan Demme (director); Diablo Cody (screenplay); Meryl Streep, Mamie Gummer, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Rick Springfield, Ben Platt.

Tomorrowland (Disney) -- Brad Bird (director, cowriter); Damon Lindelof (co-writer); George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Thomas Robinson, Kathryn Hahn, Tim McGraw, Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer.

Trainwreck (Universal) -- Judd Apatow (director/screenplay); Amy Schumer (screenplay); Cast: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Barkhad Abdi, Norman Lloyd.

Pleasingly, Vigorously, Assuredly Mainstream (or something in that realm) / alphabetical order (13):

Aloha (Sony/Columbia) a.k.a. Son of Deep Tiki -- Cameron Crowe (director, writer); Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel.

Criminal (Summit Entertainment) -- Ariel Vromen (director); Douglas Cook, David Weisberg (screenplay); Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman.

Crimson Peak (Universal / Legendary) -- Guillermo del Toro (director/screenplay); Matthew Robbins, Lucinda Coxon (screenplay); Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jessica Chastain, Jim Beaver.

Grimsby (Columbia) -- Louis Leterrier (director); Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston (screenplay); Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Annabelle Wallis, Ian McShane, Gabourey Sidibe, David Harewood, Johnny Vegas, Penélope Cruz, Scott Adkins.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.) George Miller (director/screenplay); Nick Lathouris, Brendan McCarthy (screenplay); Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Richard Norton, Riley Keough, Courtney Eaton, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

Magic Mike XXL (Warner Bros.) Gregory Jacobs (director); Channing Tatum (screenplay); Cast: Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Gabriel Iglesias, Andie MacDowell, Amber Heard, Jada Pinkett Smith, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan.

The Martian (20th Century Fox) -- Ridley Scott (director); Drew Goddard (screenplay); Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Mackenzie Davis, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sebastian Stan.

Masterminds (Relativity Media) -- Jared Hess (director); John Goldwyn, Lorne Michaels (screenplay); Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis.

Mississippi Grind (no distributor) -- Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (directors, writers). Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Ben Mendelsohn, Analeigh Tipton.

Southpaw (Weinstein Co.) -- Antoine Fuqua; Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Naomie Harris, Forest Whitaker, Victor Ortiz.

Spectre (MGM / Columbia) -- Sam Mendes (director); John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade (screenplay); Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney / Lucasfilm / Bad Robot) -- J.J. Abrams (director/screenplay); Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay); John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Max von Sydow, Lupita Nyong'o, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker.

Triple Nine (Open Road) -- John Hillcoat (director); Matt Cook (screenplay); Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Chris Allen, Anthony Mackie.


Wouldn’t Play Ball

From a 1.8.10 N.Y. Times article by the late David Carr, called “Me, Campaign? Just Go To The Film”: “Mo’Nique, 42, says she cares deeply about Precious and is thrilled to be among the mentioned, but she is not about to reorganize her life or her priorities to get her mitts on an Oscar. The Mo’Nique Show, her daily talk show on BET, just began in October, and while other hopefuls are criss-crossing the country for all manner of events, chatting up Oscar bloggers and making sure that everyone knows that they want it, Mo’Nique is mostly here in Atlanta, tending to her show, this past year.


Chill Therapy

A friend has been applying for a job he’d really like to get and has gone through a series of interviews so far, the last being with the head of the company. He just got a call saying that the honcho wants to meet again, apparently because my friend seemed a little nervous and the honcho felt he was off his game on some level. Right away a suggestion came to mind but I hesitated before sharing it. If you don’t want to be nervous before a job interview just slip into a bathroom stall about 20 minutes before the interview and jerk off, and you’ll be as centered as Buddha. I seem to recall reading that Bill Maher does this before taping Real Time. Matthew McConaughey told Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street to have a wank once or twice a day because it leaves you in a Zen place.  Chris Elliot said the same thing to Ben Stiller in There’s Something About Mary when Stiller said he was nervous about going on a date with Cameron Diaz.

Get It Off Your Chest

I might as well just admit that I’ve never seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert. I bought the Bluray last night but I still haven’t seen it. I’ve been sensing all my life that it’s basically an industrial gloom-trip thing, but I’ve finally pushed past that.

This ISIS-like tableau (the victim is obviously a gay guy) is in the display window of a small LGBT-friendly shop on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, located right next to Laurel Hardware.

Net Neutrality Approved By FCC — i.e., No Fast Lanes

Well, it turns out that all the bellyaching and predictions of doom about the demise of net neutrality and the advent of “fast lanes” and all those assumptions about FCC Tom Wheeler being a cable-industry toady were wrong. For this morning the Federal Communications Commission did the right thing by voting 3 to 2 to regulate broadband internet service as a public utility, which is a major milestone and a blow for equal internet access and cause for dancing in the streets.

This is excellent news for everyone out there and easily one of the proudest accomplishments of the Obama administration. If David Carr was still with us he’d write a hell of a column about this. Sasha Stone owes Wheeler an apology.

The new rules ensure that no content will be blocked and that the net will not be divided “into pay-to-play fast lanes for big media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else…[which] are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept,” in the words of the N.Y. Times story. Wheeler said the F.C.C. was using “all the tools in our toolbox to protect innovators and consumers” and preserve the internet’s role as a “core of free expression and democratic principles.” He added that interest access was “too important to let broadband providers be the ones making the rules.” (more…)

To Be Young, British and Appallingly Smug

An instinct told me to put off seeing Lone Scherfig‘s The Riot Club (IFC Films, 3.27 theatrical/VOD) during last September’s Toronto Film Festival. I had gone cold on her after enduring One Day, which I found almost shockingly tepid and underwhelming after Scherfig’s highly enjoyable Italian for Beginners and especially An Education. The Riot Club is based on Laura Wade‘s Posh, a 2010 stage play about a swaggering attitude of entitlement and imperviousness known to the sons of the British conservative upper classes. (British Prime Minster David Cameron is a former member.) The play and the film (which Wade also wrote) are based on the real-life Bullingdon Club, an exclusive all-male dining club at Oxford University, going all the way back to 1780 and known for its grand banquets and trashing of restaurants.

I think we all know about rich assholes, don’t we? Do we really need to be told again that they’re all quite arrogant and loathsome?

To non-Brits, The Riot Club “will play like Brideshead Revisited meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History meets Lord of the Flies,” wrote Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney. “An anesthetizing inevitability creeps into the film as damning evidence stacks up that these ‘Wild Boys’ believe they can buy their way into any pleasure of their choosing and out of any scrape of their making. The far-from-revelatory conclusion is that the deck remains stacked in the class war. Duh.” (more…)

Mercy Teaser

I said it last September and I’m saying it again: Paul Dano‘s performance as the youngish Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad‘s Love and Mercy (Roadside, 6.5) is almost spookily great. I’m telling you straight and true this is 2015’s first must-nominate performance. “Wilson’s disturbed spirit hums and throbs in the 30 year-old Dano, who looks like he gained 35 or 40 pounds to play the genius Beach Boy maestro in his mid ’60s blimp period,” I wrote on 9.8.14. “You can really feel the vibrations and sense the genius-level ferment and the off-balance emotionality. Inwardly and outwardly it’s a stunning, drop-dead transformation and the finest performance of Dano’s career, hands down.

“Not to mention John Cusack also as the 40ish Wilson in the same film, which shifts back and forth between the mid to late ’60s (i.e., the recording of Pet Sounds and Smile) and the mid to late ’80s (i.e., “the Landy years”). For the last few years Cusack has been on a downturn, playing ghouls and creeps and psycho killers…my heart aches for the guy. True, he’s had two good roles over the last couple of years — Richard Nixon in The Butler and the husband-masseuse in David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars — but this is a revelation. Cusack plays a gentle but very solemn and intimidated Wilson during the period in which he was under the firm hand of the disreputable Eugene Landy, who died in 2006. Cusack is child-like and Gentle Ben-ish, and as convincing and fully submitted to his task as Dano is to his. For the first time in my moviegoing life I wasn’t bothered by two actors playing the same character — quite a landmark. (more…)

No Sympathy For A Runaway

It’s been reported that later this year Richard Linklater will direct an adaptation of Maria Semple‘s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” with Annapurna’s Megan Ellison producing with Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. Semple’s book, which has been adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars), is about an outspoken architect mom who disappears and an attempt by her 15-year old daughter to find her. My first reaction to this summary and to the book’s Amazon page was that this premise doesn’t seem very interesting or engaging. Why should I care about a intelligent mom with passion and responsibilities who takes a powder? If there’s one thing I don’t want to pay to see it’s the story of a hider or a quitter. (It’s a different story if the hider/quitter is childless, and if the hiding/quitting is presented in a take-it-or-leave-it, existentially cool way, as Mike Figgis did with Leaving Las Vegas.) I don’t know anything but my instinct is that Linklater’s film, presuming it gets made, is going to tank commercially (it’ll play mainly to older upmarket urban women) and be met mostly with indifference by guys like me. I’m sorry but that’s my first reaction. The situation could change, of course, but right now this almost sounds awful. On top of which it would be the second Linklater film title to use a proper name that starts with the letters “B-E-R-N.”


I’ve been through this. You always get right up and continue like it’s nothing, but two or three hours later you start to bruise and feel stiff. 12 years ago Jett and I were barreling along on a scooter on a summer evening in Paris. He was driving. We were approaching Place Bastille when I mistakenly yelled out that we’d gone through a yellow light, which meant nothing. But Jett got riled and slammed on the brakes, and the bike went down and I with it. I got right up and wheeled the bike off to the side of the boulevard. I felt a little sore right away but the serious stiffness kicked in three or four hours later. The next morning my left thigh was colored green and grey and I was hobbling pretty badly.

“Oh, Mr. Bernstein…???”

When I was 12 or 13 I had no tolerance for math and was flunking algebra, and so my parents sent me to a math tutor, an old guy who really smelled old and occasionally acted old. Which is to say he was rigid, autocratic and even scolding from time to time. He made write down algebraic equations until they came out of my ears, and these late-afternoon sessions were so painful that, unfair as it sounds, I gradually came to hate the tutor as much as the math. When the sessions finally ended after a few weeks I put them in a little box and the box in a drawer, and after a decade or so I’d completely forgotten about the whole mathematical agony of it all. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus were torture, and I never once used any of my arduous math lessons in any kind of practical way. If I need to add, subtract, divide or multiply I use my iPhone calculator. The people who made me study math all those years in high school were sadists.

In any event yesterday I saw Ethan Hawke‘s Seymour, An Introduction, a documentary portrait of retired classical pianist and present-tense teacher Seymour Bernstein, who’s now 87. God help me but I almost hated it. Not because it’s badly made or uninteresting, though I wouldn’t exactly call it riveting. It’s because the more I watched Hawke’s film, the less I was able to handle Bernstein the man.

I admire Bernstein’s passion and skill and delicacy as he instructs and plays — don’t get me wrong. And I marvelled at various pearl-like insights that he passes along. He explains that the order of music reflects the order of the cosmos…love it…and that “most people don’t tap the God within” and that his most profound joy as a teacher comes when “I pour it into you,” as he says to a longtime student. Awesome. But Bernstein’s persistent and gently domineering manner reminded me of my math tutor from 7th grade, and I’m sorry but as loving and impassioned as Hawke’s film is it mainly re-ignited my rage. I started to clench up early on. Bernstein is so needling and exacting, so interruptive and particular. It made me nervous just watching him put a female student through the wringer. If I was one of Bernstein’s piano students I would go absolutely nuts. I would get up and say “thank you for your time, Mr. Bernstein” and walk out and never return. (more…)

Slick, Glossy Wealth Porn…But Tolerable

You’ve got your lean cuisine and fatty, high-calorie meals, some nutritional and some less so, and then your salads and fruits and fine desserts, and finally the icing and sugar fizz and whipped cream. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s Focus, a superficially alluring but dismissable February programmer about a couple of con artist thieves (Will Smith, Margot Robbie) with a marginal interest in sex when the greed impulse ebbs, is almost all sugar fizz. The lady I saw it with last night gave it a 4 out of 10 but at the same time insisted she had an okay time. There’s a place in the world, she believes, for gliding emptiness and sexy time-wasting.

I’ll tell you what there’s no place for, not in my head at least, and that’s a climactic scene in which…nope, not going there. But I almost did out of spite. I can at least tell you that the Focus finale (i.e. the last 15 minutes) delivers the exact opposite feeling you had when you experienced the finale of The Sting for the first time. Everyone in the theatre was silently going “They’re kidding, right? This is how they’re ending it?”

The game behind all con-artist movies is, of course, to try and fake the audience out, which is naturally difficult with everyone constantly looking for the card trick. And so you have to resort to extreme if not absurd bait-and-switch tactics that defy belief. The audience naturally assumes that Smith and Robbie are constantly lying or conning or hiding some key piece of information and that Ficarra and Rerqua are doing the same thing so nobody trusts anyone or anything. So why am I watching this damn thing?   

Focus is basically selling two ideas. One, the life of a professional thief can be cool and smoothly attractive if that life is happening within the realm of phony Hollywood escapism, which of course isn’t serious escapism if the director-writers insist on reminding you how fake and fraudulent it is, which this film does in spades. And two, the relatively recent premise that U.S. moviegoers will pay to immerse themselves in this kind of emptiness if it’s a January, February or March release. They know Hollywood always saves the costliest escapism for the summer and the quality stuff for the fall and holiday periods, etc.

To me Focus is mainly an advertisement for wealth-porn lifestyles. Which is more or less what Fifty Shades of Grey was. The wealth-porn aesthetic is an atmospheric, quarter-inch-deep mood drug that has become the end-all and be-all among the clueless classes when they go on vacations and stay in Cancun or Vegas or wherever. Easily impressed, marginally educated, Taylor Swift-worshipping peons, I mean, who seem to want nothing more than to immerse themselves in faux-opulence to the exclusion of all other experiences and environments, and who wouldn’t know old-world class or gentility or a moment of quiet spiritual serenity if it snuck up and bit them in the ass.

The wealth-porn aesthetic is spreading like a virus across much of the culture these days. It has all but engulfed the travel industry. (When they travel to Mexico or the Greek islands or Phuket, faux-sophsticates want nothing more than to stay in the exact same kind of upscale McDonalds five-star hotels.) And it’s certainly defining cheap-gloss glamour rides like Focus. Somebody tell Dooley Wilson — the fundamental things no longer apply.

There are three main locations in Focus — New York, New Orleans and Buenos Aires. And they all feel pretty much the same. Okay, you’ll notice some atmospheric touches in the South American sections (Spanish-language store signs, a low-rent bar with an ancient TV showing a sports event) but it’s all about living flush and flash. 

It’s also about the fact that I can’t relax with Will Smith. He’s such a con-artist actor in the first place, such a slick salesman. He walks into a room and right away my guard goes up. No way I’m suspending my disbelief. I started giving up on the guy after he made Independence Day. The last time I was half-engaged was when he costarred in Enemy of the State. And I have to say that Margot Robbie’s Wolf of Wall Street allure is fading after this and Z for Zachariah. I’m starting to realize that she doesn’t have a lot of moves.

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy has written that Focus “is no Trouble in Paradise, House of Games or The Grifters.” It’s also no Pickpocket but the trailers have been assuring us of that for weeks now. I’m recalling how much fun I got from David Mamet‘s Games, and at the same time gulping at the fact that it opened over 27 years ago.

The technical adviser on Focus is Apollo Robbins, a security expert and former criminal who claims to have picked the pockets of more than 250,000 victims. There’s no way anyone’s ever going to get my wallet or iPhone, I tell myself. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky. I know that my wallet and phone are always snugly tucked inside my breast pockets or, better yet, in a tight front-breast pocket. I’m extra-watchful and guarded whenever I’m in a dense crowd. If someone comes near me I duck away or elbow them aside or whatever.

Curious Aftermath

I’m a day late on this but was there any Oscar-telecast viewer in the entire world who didn’t assume that Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore was gay after that moving acceptance speech? Anyone? After the Oscars Moore told reporters he’s straight. Okay, fine…but he had to know how his words would be interpreted, especially after referencing the sadness of Alan Turing as he began. The important thing, of course, is that he said a good thing. Kids who feel weird or strange or different (as I definitely felt when I was 15 and 16) should own that and not worry. But Moore’s speech was a bit odd itself.


Five days ago I booked my Cannes Film Festival flights. Fares go up and down all the time but I had a vague suspicion that the Charlie Hebdo massacre plus general fears of ISIS might bring them down. (One of the first things I did after 9/11 was purchase a dirt-cheap RT to Paris.) On 2.19 I went on Expedia and bought a triangulated trip — New York to Paris on Thursday, May 7th (I like hanging in Paris for two or three days before taking the train to Cannes) and then Prague-to-New York on June 1st. The whole thing only cost $1050 — pretty good. I’ve definitely paid more in the past. That’s not counting my Virgin America LAX to NYC RT, of course, or the train fare or the flight from Nice to Prague so I’m not getting away with murder, but you have to watch fares like the stock market. I just went online to re-check prices and the same trip now costs $1300.

Canary Yellow

It would appear that Ryan Gosling and Guillermo del Toro recently visited Disneyland as a way of cementing their bond. Based on what exactly? Well, Guillermo is a fan of Gosling’s Lost River, which I understand and agree with, and they’ll be doing a panel discussion of Lost River together at South by Southwest (3.13 to 3.21). But why Disneyland of all infernal places? Why not drive out to the desert or fly to Italy or something? I haven’t been to Disneyland since taking the kids there 17 or 18 years ago. Never again.

Pryor Biopic By Year’s End?

This morning The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth reported that Lee DanielsRichard Pryor biopic is a distinct (though far from guaranteed) possibility as far being a late 2015 release. Yes…another biopic of a genius whose life was destroyed by drugs and then died too soon. How many times has this story been told? Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee has said during an “Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend” podcast that the biopic will roll in July. Mike Epps as Pryor, Kate Hudson as Jennifer and Oprah Winfrey “so far” attached as Pryor’s grandmother. Daniels rewriting Bill Condon‘s script. Jennifer says that Harvey Weinstein “would like it to be released for the Oscars…because, you know, Harvey is good at that shit.” Selma shot last June and couldn’t punch the screeners out in time. It sounds as if the Pryor pic would work out better as a 2016 release. Flashback: I met Pryor at a Comedy Store press event sometime in the mid ’90s, when he was in a wheelchair and a thin, frail remnant of his former self. Mixed feelings, to say the least. We spoke for a few minutes but I could barely hear his voice.


When The Sex Goes…

I’ve kind of settled into Togetherness. It’s well written and appealingly acted for the most part, and I’ve gradually come to feel relaxed and easy with Mark Duplass‘s Brett, Amanda Peet‘s Tina and Steve Zissis‘ Alex. The problem is Melanie Lynskey‘s Michelle, who is generally morose and draggy to hang with. (The exception to this rule has been the “Kick The Can” episode.) Brett and Michelle’s sex life is all but toast along with the marriage itself, but neither wants a divorce. On top of which Michelle has been falling for Jon Ortiz‘s David. I’ve read the synopsis of the latest episode, “Ghost in Chains,” with plans to see it later today or tonight, but Lynskey’s enervated let-me-out-of-here vibe makes me want to run for the hills. I’ve been there. Things can sexually flatten out in a committed relationship after a year or two, and unless that spark is truly crackling from the get-go getting things going can sometimes feel like an uphill hike. It’s very difficult for a longterm couple to open up and work through stuff and find new ways of trusting. Hard work. I’m basically saying that hanging with Lynskey brings all that failed-marriage stuff back, and I’d rather leave that shit in a box under the bed. Brett and Michelle should probably just cut the cord and figure out a custody arrangement with the kids. It all works out in the end.

Reborn Rothman Is Pascal’s Successor

Average Joes don’t care who’s running the big studios, but I do. Especially if the studio honcho isn’t some mushy corporate toadie but someone with a little passion and gumption and force of personality. In this sense Tom Rothman, who’s just been appointed Sony’s Motion Picture Group Chairman, or in layman’s terms the successor to Amy Pascal, is an intriguing fellow. The other contenders were Doug Belgrad and Mike Deluca. Rothman had been working as TriStar chairman. Before that he more or less ran 20th Century Fox’s film division with changing, increasingly powerful titles from ’96 through ’12, mostly as chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment. True story: I vaguely knew Rothman back in the early ’80s through actor friends, all of whom seemed to live on the Upper West Side. I was also glancingly familiar with his actor brother, John. One night Tom, myself and a few others sat around and played a speak-along dialogue game as we watched Gone With The Wind. I can recite GWTW dialogue any hour of the day. Scarlett: “Sir, you should have made your presence known. You are not a gentleman!” Rhett: “And you, miss, are no lady.”

Wait…did I just make a mistake? In politically correct Stalinist circles and particularly in the wake of 12 Years A Slave, saying you’re down with GWTW can almost be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of its patronizing attitudes towards blacks and absurd characterizations of plantation slave life. It’s almost like saying you admire Birth of a Nation. Sorry! I hate GWTW! Not really. GWTW has always been a racist joke, except it’s really a film about the hard deprivations of life during the early years of the Depression and how gumption and survival instincts are what really matter in life. And the last hour of the first half (attending to dying men in Atlanta hospital to “I’ll never be hungry again!” in Tara) is about as good as old-school Hollywood filmmaking gets.

Trying This Again

16 months ago I posted a riff about the Fox Home Video Bluray of Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s A Letter To Three Wives (’49). I was discussing the film with a friend today, and as this piece didn’t get much action I figured I’d give it a slight rewrite (it wasn’t well shaped or carefully written enough) and give it another go:

“I first saw this…oh, sometime in my teens. Even in that early stage of aesthetic development I remember admiring the brilliant writing and especially the way it pays off. Nominally it’s a woman’s drama about marital insecurity. The plot is about three suburban wives (Jeanne Crain‘s, Linda Darnell, Ann Southern‘s) who’ve just learned before going on a kind of picnic that one of their husbands has “run away” with sophisticated socialite Addie Ross, who narrates the film from time to time (the voice belongs to Celeste Holm) but is never seen.

“But that’s just the story or clothesline upon which Wives hangs its real agenda. For this is primarily an examination of social mores, values and ethics among middle-class marrieds in late 1940s America. (more…)

Instant Lethargy

I’m sorry but I felt myself disengage less than ten seconds after this trailer began playing. The mere suggestion of an “uneven but pleasurably mellow indie,” in the words of Variety critic Ronnie Scheib, puts cold fear in my veins. Alex of Venice is one of those sensitive life-transition dramas, Scheib warns, that “veer toward the understated and mundane” and which “will attract connoisseurs of the laid-back.” God…no!

HE Oscar Score Beat Hammond, Stone; Tied With Pond

Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan and IMDB’s Keith Simanton tied for best score (83% correct) among the Gold Derby Oscar guesstimators. My advocacy attitude equals indifference about how accurate my predictions are, but I must confess to being amused when I was told a couple of hours ago that my 75% accurate pickings were the same as TheWrap‘s Steve Pond and Out.com’s Michael Musto, and that Deadline‘s Pete Hammond and Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone actually tallied lower with 67% scores.

Adding Trumbo

I’ve been told I need to add Jay Roach‘s Trumbo, a biopic of once-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, to HE’s list of notable, aspirational 2015 films. The period drama, filmed last fall in the New Orleans area, stars Bryan Cranston as Trumbo, one of the most prolific and honored screenwriters in Hollywood history. Costars include Diane Lane, Elle Fanning. Helen Mirren and John Goodman. Dalton Trumbo is renowned for having used “fronts” or having otherwise taken no screen credit for scripts written during his blacklisted period in the ’50s. Kirk Douglas, who claimed credit for being the first to hire Trumbo under his own name on Spartacus, is played by Dean O’Gorman; Otto Preminger, portrayed by Christian Berkel, paid Trumbo the same respect when he gave Trumbo public screen credit for his work on Exodus. Preminger’s film came out two months after Spartacus but who stepped up first? Douglas states on a Criterion commentary track that he provided a drive-on pass for Trumbo during the filming of Spartacus in late ’59 or early ’60. David James Elliott plays Trumbo enemy and rightie rabble-rouser John Wayne. Pic is produced by Michael London‘s Groundswell Productions.

Bryan Cranston as screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Jay Roach and Michael London’s Trumbo. Pic no release date but will probably pop six months from now at one of the August-September film festivals — Venice, Telluride or Toronto.

They Done Her Wrong

A spokesperson for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has provided the following statement to the L.A. Times about the absence of the late Joan Rivers from the “death reel” segment during last night’s Oscar telecast: “Joan Rivers is among the many worthy artists and filmmakers we were unfortunately unable to feature in the In Memoriam segment of this year’s Oscar show. She is, however, included in our In Memoriam gallery on Oscar.com.” Well, that’s bullshit. The Academy’s Board of Governors (and not, I’m told, Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who had nothing to say about it) weren’t “unable” to include Rivers. They considered whether to include her and then crossed her out. Their reasoning, one presumes, is that they decided that Rivers was more of a comedian and red-carpet interviewer — a periphery figure — than an actress or filmmaker. But if you think about it Johnny Carson — a guy who never made or starred in a film but who merely hosted the Tonight Show for decades as well as five Oscar telecasts — was just as much of an outlier. When Carson died in ’04 did the Oscar producers blow him off? No — in fact they devoted more time to his legend and passing than they did to the great Marlon Brando, whom they merely included in the death reel on the ’05 Oscar telecast. Carson was deemed such a major Oscar figure that he wasn’t even included in that montage — they gave him his own special tribute. You can argue that Carson was “bigger” than Rivers, but they were both essentially commentators and quipsters and deserving of the same kind of respect, certainly in the eyes of the Godz.


Odd Man Out

At last February’s Berlinale I caught Yann Demange‘s urgent, pulse-pounding ’71, and then promptly reviewed it. A bit later Roadside acquired ’71 but decided to hold it until early ’15, apparently hoping that star Jack O’Connell‘s drawing power would surge after the December ’14 release of Angelina Jolie‘s Unbroken, in which he played the late Louis Zamperini. Well, Unbroken was a domestic hit ($115 million) but ’71 isn’t driven by O’Connell’s charisma or star power — it’s really about Demange’s directing skills. You’d think that a violent chase thriller and a suspense film would play fine on its own terms, but the U.S. viewing public can be astonishingly thick and slow to respond to even the best-made films.

In any event ’71 is opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It has a 98% Rotten Tomatoes rating and 79% on Metacritic. (more…)