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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

Brad Pitt: “Strippers Changed My Life”

I somehow neglected to mention this delicious morsel when previously recapping David Ansen and Sean Smith’s Oscar roundtable, from what is now last week’s Newsweek.

The obligatory “early jobs” question gives way to this response from Brad Pitt: “I had a job driving strippers around… my job was to drive them to bachelor parties and things. I’d pick them up, and at the gig I’d collect the money, play the bad Prince tapes and catch the girls’ clothes. It was not a wholesome atmosphere, and it got very depressing. After two months I went in to quit, and the guy said, ‘Listen, I’ve got this one last gig tonight.’ So I did it, and this girl — I’d never met her before — was in an acting class taught by a man named Roy London [a famous acting coach]. I went and checked it out, and it really set me on the path to where I am now.”

Ahh, yet another reason to love Pitt: his disarming penchant for candor, even as the most paparazzi-hounded star on the planet. For the rest of the full, lively conversation — which also includes Cate Blanchett, Forest Whitaker, Penelope Cruz, Helen Mirren and Leonardo DiCaprio — click here.

Metal’s Darkside II

That former porn star, wrestling show producer and (apparently) metal enthusiast Jasmin St. Claire “hosts” this disc is its main claim to fame, but even that shouldn’t be enough to inspire a rental or purchase from anyone but the most hardcore metal devotee with an Andrew Jackson burning a hole in his or her wallet, and absolutely no proximity to a Taco Bell.

The disc’s subtitle, if you will, is “The Deeply Disturbed,” and that appropriately describes the feeling one will likely have after subjecting themselves to the screeching, screaming, posing and derisible pontificating of this roster of rightfully undiscovered and unacclaimed bands. The track listing is as follows: an interview with Paul Romanko and Brian Fair, of Shadows Fall (not to be confused with Darkness Falls); an interview with Terrance Hobbs and Frank Mullen of Suffocation, followed by the music video for their song “Surgery of Impalement”; an interview with Rick Hunolt and Gary Holt of Exodus, followed by the music video for “War Is My Shepherd”; an interview with members of Deconstruct, followed by live footage of a performance of “Deeper Down”; an interview with The Black Dahlia Murder’s Trevor Strand and Brian Eschbach; and an interview with Arch Enemy’s Sharlee D’Angelo.

The cachet, I suppose, comes from the scope of the material, which spans from backstage at the Key Club in Los Angeles to the NAMM Music Conference and a small roster of other summer music festivals. Unfortunately, though, the mix of back-slapping biographical chat and balls-to-the-wall tunage is an awkward one, and at a scant 70-plus minutes, makes for a disc that’s irritating on several levels. Naturally, despite her enthusiasm, St. Claire isn’t necessarily the most discerning interviewer. Despite a few bonus videos — Fight Paris’ “Complete Heat” and Firewind’s “Tyranny” — I found this a big waste of time. Lots of “rawk” signs are flashed, though. And before you write me any hate mail, angry linked readers, just go back to Blackmetal.com already, will you? D- (Concert) C (Disc)

Little Miss Sunshine: “We Can’t Handle the Truth”

Oscarwatch.com’s Sasha Stone pretty much nails part of the main reason for Little Miss Sunshine‘s popular groundswell of support when she points out the film’s rootedness in idealism in these turbulent times, and its contrast in this manner to the rest of the nominees. Still, while I’d agree with her analysis in respect to the film’s nomination, I’m not yet officially 100% sure this can be extended to a hypothesis that foretells a victory. Best Picture Oscar winners whose directors aren’t at least same-nominated for Academy Awards are few and far between.

But again, Little Miss Sunshine carries the impression of weight or substance, and it’s all pitched in such a heightened fashion as to make audiences feel both that their lives aren’t quite as screwy and/or depressing, and that there’s a profundity at its core. This is why many folks who don’t typically bite on traditional comedies really like the movie. And Fox Searchlight has run a very smart, shrewd awards campaign. So in the end it doesn’t matter that the seams of its story show, or that the characters are willfully colorful responses to the
sort of stale, cardboard characters
we see in many broadly pitched,
mainstream comedies — atypical, therefore, but just as flatly
two-dimensional
and in blind service to the contrivances of plot as
their less original contemporaries. No, Little Miss Sunshine is beloved because we all want to believe in goodness. It would be interesting to ponder the film’s reception, though, in a parallel universe in which the disasterous quagmire of the Iraq War didn’t exist.

On The Amateurs, Now Moguls

For several years, when I was editor-in-chief at the Los Angeles paper Entertainment Today, the venerable Brad Schreiber covered the Palm Springs International Film Festival for us in his bi-weekly column, Development Hell, and did a slam-bang job, it’s worth mentioning.

Two
hours from the city, the Palm Springs Festival has earned its international status by way of including the majority of films
offered up for nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the Academy Awards. This year’s festival, its 18th incarnation, screened 254 films from 74 countries, and offered plenty of star-gazing into the clear, desert night sky, as well as at its
annual awards gala, where honorees included Sydney Pollack, Kate Winslet, Todd Field, Cate Blanchett, composer Philip Glass and Babel director Alejandro
Gonzalez Inarritu.

Schreiber caught over 30 films, but it was his thoughts on writer-director Michael Traeger’s The Amateurs, which has since been retitled The Moguls, that caught my eye. This film has had its own hellish post-development track, well chronicled, but this was my first run-in with someone who’d seen it firsthand, in completed form. To wit, Schreiber’s review, redacted below:

“Perhaps
it is not surprising that the release of The Amateurs has been long in
the making. It is, after all, a sweet comedy about pornography and its premise
is enough to melt the synapses of your average filmgoer. To be honest, we in
America have a strong puritanical streak, despite the accessibility of adult
entertainment and its remunerative power.

It
is just that financial lure that guides loveable loser Andy Sargentee (Jeff
Bridges) to hit upon the idea of gathering a group of friends in the bucolic
town of Butterfield Faces to make a blue movie and cash in. Andy’s ex Thelma
(Jeanne Tripplehorn) bears his lack of money, discipline and goals, even when he
shows up to give their son a basketball, one that Andy pretends, unsuccessfully,
is signed by Michael Jordan.

Andy is
good-natured. But he just seems incapable of doing anything. He brings in on his
scheme his closeted gay friend Moose (Ted Danson), nerdy locals Barney
Macklehatton (Tim Blake Nelson) and Otis (William Fichtner), who claims he just
wants to watch, and thus, is made an executive producer. There’s lovelorn Helen Tatelbaum (Glenne Headley),
cinematographer Emmett (Patrick Fugit) and Some Idiot (Joe Pantoliano) who is
writing the script, such as it is. “Hollywood has a lot of people like me,” he
trumpets, “who are multi-gifted.”

The
wrong vernacular is the least of their troubles. Learning it is not enough to
simply get a group to pony up $2,000 apiece, Andy has to entice two girls
working at a fast food restaurant and then a few black guys who he assumes are
well-endowed. This reverse-racism results in a shockingly funny argument in a
café and The Amateurs, written and directed by Michael Traeger, certainly
has its charms in portraying the doltish production of a porn flick into goofy
fun, rather than a seamy indictment of society’s underbelly. Pantoliano is
hilarious in his conviction as a great screenwriter and artist and sad sack
Bridges is priceless when reading aloud narrative like, “Boris gives it to
Bianca in the butt as she defuses the bomb.”

The
film is not without its moments best left on a cutting room floor, including a
final product that looks a lot better than it would have, based on the group’s
ineptitude. Talented performers like Headley and Lauren Graham are
underutilized. And there’s a feel-good ending that pushes our acceptance of this
whole porno-as-empowerment premise. But Bridges, as always, is an actor who
provides not only believability but a cohesiveness. He struggles to put into
words his benevolence when he tells his collaborators, earnestly, touchingly, “I’ll give anything if someone can get some destiny from this.” And there is
something very desirable about wholesome, smalltown folks who refuse to see
anything wrong with filming sex in their local Softy Freeze.”

For more of Schreiber’s writing, check out his site, A Critical Moment, by clicking here.

The Scars of Oscars

Nikki Finke’s piece in L.A. Weekly, “The Scars of Oscars,” correctly assays that Hollywood is agenda driven, and awards circuit voting is as often about the demerits of certain films as all the positive aspects, but I’m not sure that it correctly pinpoints the reason for Dreamgirls demise, if that can be said of a film with eight Oscar nominations.

Finke blames things on Hollywood jealousy of producer David Geffen, and reasons, “Individually, none of the Oscar voters would dare take on David. But there’s safety in numbers, so they figure, what the hell.” I’m not buying. I think it was simply a case of that film being outpaced in the home stretch. Babel had multi-culti support, and could be both a sociopolitical statement as much as an artistic one, at least in the minds of voters. Widely embraced by both critics groups and audiences predisposed to respectively attend, The Queen and The Departed (the latter despite a weak campaign) were too good to ignore, and the shrewdly marketed Little Miss Sunshine was easily slotted as this year’s indie darling/belle of the ball, a la The Full Monty. The remaining slot, then, came down to a resurgent Clint Eastwood’s Letter from Iwo Jima — would it be too of a piece, sociopolitically speaking, with Babel? — and Dreamgirls. The fact is, on the latter, there was simply a lot of noise about there not being enough substance, enough “movie,” in the last third of the film. It didn’t stick with you. And while Letters might not either, except for Ken Wantanabe’s performance, in a nomination dogfight, you can’t bet against the war movie. Maybe some voters resented the manner in which the film was being rammed down their collective throats as a breathless inevitability (I’m sure all the right restaurants were booked for celebratory lunches), but I don’t think that’s necessarily a David Geffen problem. That’s a hype > reality problem…

Venus

Venus, a rich, bawdy and yet ultimately moving tale of an aging actor’s infatuation with an irascible friend’s much younger niece. It’s in essence a movie about life’s indignities, and how they visit
and prey upon both young and old, frequently in indiscriminate fashion.
Yet Venus never succumbs to mopey dramatic tropes, or indeed, even much melancholy; it’s spry, and a heck of a lot of fun. What you so strongly feel while watching the film — even if
you’re unfamiliar with the rest of O’Toole’s filmography, or him as a
personality — is the force and weight of a life lived with full-tilt
passion. For the full review, from FilmStew, click here. For a feature piece on the film, meanwhile, click here.

Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas


Suzanne’s Diary for
Nicholas
costars real-life couple Christina Applegate and Jonathon Schaech,
and explores parallels between the lives of its in-bloom characters, teasing
things up into a lucky-to-have-loved chorus.

New York City
book editor Kate Wilkinson (Kathleen Rose Perkins) is a chronic workaholic who
thinks she’s finally found the perfect man in the form of author Matt Harrison
(Schaech). But on one of the most important nights of their relationship, Matt
suddenly ends their affair without explanation. (They’re not in the middle of a
war, alas, so this small nod to Graham Greene goes mostly un-highlighted.) Soon
after, a devastated Kate receives a package from Matt containing a diary
written by his wife Suzanne (Applegate) to their unborn son. Reading it, Kate
gets drawn into Suzanne’s tender, stirring story — about a Martha’s Vineyard marriage
between a housepainter who dreams of being a writer and a female doctor who
yearns to be a mother but it hamstrung by a serious heart condition. Slowly but
surely, Kate sees certain connections to her own life.

The general (and just) knock on made-for-TV fare
is that it’s reductionist emotional pabulum — cookie-cutter fare (except maybe
with better-looking people) made only to conform to expectation and give us a
mirror image of our own wishes and desires that we’re too lazy to act upon. On
this charge, Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas,
broadcast on CBS two springs ago, is essentially guilty. Yet by the same token,
it’s also decently rendered and acted, a sort of down-market version of The Notebook, if you will
. Director
Richard Friedenberg is a veteran of this type of material, and accordingly
pulls out all the stops. There isn’t much thought to a larger canvas, but the
movie’s achingly sincere purity of spirit makes for a passable tearjerker
.

Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for
16×9 televisions, the film comes with a Dolby digital 2.0 stereo track. Both
are entirely adequate, as there’s not much in the way of grandeur to inject
into the narrative. There are unfortunately no supplemental bonus materials to
complement the DVD release, which is puzzling only insomuch as the title of
such ridiculous ownership would seem to beg for some sort of interview or chat
with James Patterson. Alas… no. C (Movie) C- (Disc)

Forest Whitaker Exhales

I caught Forest Whitaker on The Late Show last night (gracias, TiVo!), and he certainly seems more at ease now than maybe I’ve ever seen him before. He’s always been a soft-spoken, very reserved guy, but it’s obvious that there was at least some tenseness or trepidation leading up to the Oscar nominations themselves. I’d had a chance to talk with Whitaker a few times with regards to The Last King of Scotland, both at its proper press day and since, and at any sort of mention of a positive reception to or surprise at his performance in relation to his persona, he would always “turtle.” It helped, certainly, chatting to the much more low-key, relaxed David Letterman — who exudes a naturalness that Jay Leno still can’t match — as well as the fact that Whitaker was rehashing stories he’s told a thousand times or more now. Still, it’s nice to see him seeming to enjoy the whole Academy Awards “ride,” and all the praise coming his way after a career of some very notable work.

Happy Birthday, Mia Kirshner

Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, luring my friend and I into an art film. And you were absolutely amazing in the otherwise muddled The Black Dahlia, conveying so much in your eyes, in just a few scenes, and with so little dialogue. In fact… it’s your eyes now… that are… hypnotizing me… compelling me to… link another picture. Yes, that’ll do nicely. Hey, I dig kneecaps, too, Mia! Not really my own, though. Not like that.

On Monster Mania 7

For those on the East Coast and with a predilection for all things horror, Monster Mania will be held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at the Crowne Plaza
on the weekend of February 16 through 18. The Saw series’ Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith will both be on hand, and Chainsaw Sally director Jimmy O and
stars Gunnar Hansen and April Monique Burril have been confirmed, to meet genre fans
and introduce a screening of their film, which releases February 27 on POPcinema’s
Shock-O-Rama Cinema label. I’ll probably more robustly update their slate again in a week or so, but for additional information on
guests, screenings and the like, visit Monstermania.net by clicking here
.

Ewan McGregor as Kurt Cobain?

including Virgin.net, are reporting that Ewan McGregor — who memorably launched into song in Moulin Rouge — will likely be tapped to headline an eventual biopic about late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 27. Cobain’s ex-wife, embattled rocker/actress/rehab-and-courtroom mainstay Courtney Love, has optioned the rights to Charles Cross’ biography, Heavier than Heaven, and is reportedly a big fan of the actor.

Usually I’m various shades of indifferent to casting news, but this strikes me as spot-on. McGregor has just the right deep baby blues and, when harnessed, stare of wounded, moody estrangement. Wipe that smile off his face (above) and slap Cobain’s dyed-blonde ‘do on him, and the mere surface resemblance already seems uncanny, without a word out of his mouth. His casting would actually get me jazzed about a Cobain biopic. The other crucial choice: the right director, one who wouldn’t pander to more prosaic instincts to overly indulge the grunge scene and deify Cobain as a sensitive, misunderstood artist corrupted by events and circumstances beyond his power. Well, that and the script, of course…