Thursday, October 23, 2014

REFLECTIONS ON THE HOLLYWOOD MIRROR

Original caricature of Meryl Streep by Jeff York (copyright 2012)
Whenever there’s another ‘scandal’ about another Hollywood star’s plastic surgery, I’m always reminded of Isabella Rossellini’s line in 1992’s DEATH BECOMES HER. In that black comedy, she played Lisle Von Rhuman, a sorceress with a magic potion, who promises aging actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) that it will keep her young forever. Literally. She won’t die. But then, after the desperate star drinks it, Lisle issues a warning. Madeline implores, “Now, a warning?!”

Lisle tells her, “Take care of yourself. You and your body are going to be together a long time.” Of course, Madeline doesn’t heed that warning. She doesn’t take care of herself and instead commits one epic fail after another. She falls down the stairs, breaks her neck, and has a vicious, physical battle with her enemy played by Goldie Hawn. It leaves Maddie maddeningly bruised, busted, and twisted into some zombie version of herself. And she’s stuck with those errors of her judgment, for the very long time that is immortality.

Which brings us to Renee Zellweger. 

Renee Zellweger then and now. 
The blogosphere is abuzz this week with outrage about the apparent alterations that Zellweger has made to her appearance. They're screaming that she's ruined her face, that she's unrecognizable, that society demands too much youth and beauty from women in Hollywood and on and on. It's become the story in Hollywood this week, and yet surprisingly, the only real surprise should be that there's no real surprise here at all. 

Now, did Zellweger have plastic surgery? Or too much Botox? Is she merely getting older and we can't handle it? You'd think she committed a crime by the way some are overreacting, but it does appear that she is different looking. It's hard to find those identifiable Zellweger features (the pouty lips, the squinty eyes, the apple cheeks) that characterized her since her launch into stardom as the fresh-faced, all-American girl from JERRY MAGUIRE. Where did that Renee go? Talk about your GONE GIRL.

But this isn't really all that much of a news story. This kind of thing happens all the time in Hollywood. Cher, Joan Rivers, Mickey Rourke, Courtney Cox, Bruce Jenner, and on and on. If Zellweger wanted to beat the clock with some artificial means, that is just par for the course. There may be some news in how it affects her career, but that will take a while to tell. It could rob her of choices like it did for Jennifer Grey or Meg Ryan. And hopefully, Zellweger won't become a bad punchline like Heidi Montag and Kenny Rogers did after their unfortunate alterations.  

Zellweger does cop to looking different now, admitting that there were times in the past when she wasn’t at peace with her looks. She says she's happy and healthy now though, and if that's really the truth, good for her. If it hurts her access to roles, that may quickly change. 

Of course, an actress' age and looks shouldn't be such an issue, but they are. And they always have been. It comes with the job. It does with most jobs. For men too, though obviously not as much. It's a sexist world and a vicious one at that. But there is not much surprise in that fact. Certainly not enough to create the reaction of  abject horror to Zellweger's new face by so many. It may be an ugly part of the game that is Hollywood, but it's a game that no one should be naive about. Not in a town that usually has the word "Tinsel" in front of it. 

If anything is a shame it's that we're not talking more about all the terrific movies coming out now during Oscar season including such buzz worthy entries as BIRDMAN, THE IMITATION GAME, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, NIGHTCRAWLER, ST. VINCENT, INTO THE WOODS, and BIG EYES, among others. We should be talking about the art of movies, not the art of looking younger.

Gloria Swanson and William Holden in SUNSET BLVD. (1951)
As William Holden’s Joe Gillis pointedly told aging actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in 1951's SUNSET BLVD., “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five!”


A tragedy, indeed. And not much different now than it was then. End of story.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

THE FIVE WAYS THAT SUGGEST DAVID FINCHER'S "GONE GIRL" IS REALLY A HORROR MOVIE


David Fincher’s thriller GONE GIRL virtually tied with ANNABELLE, the horror movie prequel to THE CONJURING this past weekend at the box office. Both took in over 37 million, and both prove that the nation’s audiences love to sit on the edge of their seats at the Cineplex. And, not surprisingly, GONE GIRL has a lot in common with the horror genre too. In fact, if Fincher’s SEVEN brushes up against terror, his GONE GIRL could be considered such a genre entry as well. Here are five reasons that suggest so. (Note: there will be plot spoilers ahead so you have been warned!)


Its antagonist is monstrous
First and foremost, the antagonist in GONE GIRL goes way beyond the normal femme fatale one would find in a thriller. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has a lot in common with the dangerous female characters from film noir. She could be a Hitchcock blonde with her icy beauty and sophisticated allure. However, her diabolical agenda renders her less Tippi Hedren and more Hannibal Lecter. Amy’s actions go way beyond what passes for vengeance in most pulp fictions. She’s not just vile; she’s villainous. And her deeds are more than just self-preserving. They’re sociopathic.


Its main setting is a haunted house
David Fincher loves to work with the extraordinary cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. In fact, Fincher’s recognizable signature  - low, warm light and lots of shadows – is a staple of noir and horror. And in Fincher’s thrillers, Cronenweth is an absolute expert at making the maximum out of the mystery by painting the light with his disquieting darkness and eerily still camera work. The DP has proven in everything from FIGHT CLUB to GONE GIRL that he knows how to place suspect characters in suspicious settings, and make the modern world as scary as anything supernatural.

Just look at how he shot THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Cronenweth photographed the characters sitting at a boardroom table, practically static as they gave depositions, and made it look as dangerous and terrifying as anything Phillip Marlowe ever discovered in a darkened alley. In GONE GIRL, Cronenweth shoots the Dunne’s beige, bland suburban house like it’s a well-decorated prison. The home of hapless husband Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is vast, lonely and filled with secrets. Has track housing ever been so disturbing? Cronenweth’s shadowy geography kept Nick in the dark in GONE GIRL, both physical and metaphorically. And the audience too.


The creepy music would make Dracula feel right at home
Film composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose have collaborated with Fincher on two other occasions – THE SOCIAL NETWORK and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – and both times they produced moody scores that added to the eeriness of those edgy stories.

With their music for GONE GIRL, they’ve made even more out of such dismaying tones. The chords are sultry and yet foreboding throughout. It’s spooky in the film and as a stand-alone soundtrack as well. Such a score could easily accompany a modern vampire tale. And in many ways, that is exactly what GONE GIRL is.


The murder and mayhem is truly terrifying
Say what you will about the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise, but antagonist Jason Voorhees was basically a big, dumb killing machine. He was practically a shark in a hockey mask, driving forward from one inevitable bloodletting to the next. In GONE GIRL, Amy Dunne is so calculating, cold and vicious that she’d make a Manson girl blush. The death on display in GONE GIRL is simply shocking. And somewhere, Eli Roth and John Carpenter are covering their eyes behind their hands.


The lethal combination of sex and murder is a horror staple
The female vamp archetype has always driven screen thrillers. Bad girls like Barbara Stanwyck in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Kathleen Turner in BODY HEAT made homicidal tendencies haute, hot and horrifying. But seldom has film noir seen a villain as unstoppable and ferocious as Amy Dunne. Her peer group is more like horror’s Freddie Krueger and Norman Bates. In fact, if the mother from “Aliens” had a showdown with the ‘Amazing Amy’, I’d bet on the 5’8” stunner vanquishing the space creature in a minute flat. That’s how horrid the antagonist of  GONE GIRL is.


The movie title itself works on a couple of levels, and one clearly points to horror. Of course it refers to the so-called ‘disappearance’ of Amy Dunne since she is perceived to be a possible kidnap victim in the first hour of the film. More importantly however, the title points to how far Amy is from what everyone thought she was. Amy was never really the beautiful, erudite and loving woman that her husband, friends and family thought she was. Instead, she’s hovering on the fringes of societal norms as her humanity has long vanished. What’s left is an utter monster.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

THE AFI'S SERIOUS CHOICE OF COMIC STEVE MARTIN FOR THEIR LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD


On Friday, the American Film Institute announced that Steve Martin would receive their 43rd annual Life Achievement Award. AFI CEO Howard Stringer described the new recipient as “an American original” and he went on to further laud the actor, comedian and writer by saying, “From a wild and crazy stand-up comic to one who stands tall among the great figures in this American art form, he is a multi-layered creative force bound by neither convention nor caution. His work is defined by him alone, for he is the author – and a national treasure whose work has stuck with us like an arrow in the head."

Martin is an inspired choice. He’s perhaps the major, singular comic voice of the last 50 years. From his time as a writer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in the late 60’s, to his sold-out stadium stand-up days in the 70’s, to his influence on “Saturday Night Live” and the generation of comedians who’ve come after him, Martin’s legacy is unarguable. We could not have had Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell or Jimmy Fallon without him. Martin was the comedic voice of his generation and he turned that into movie gold as well.

Starting with “The Jerk” in 1979, Martin was able to blend the sophomoric with the intellectual, and that one-two punch has made most of his films both uniquely silly and intellectual simultaneously. On its surface, “The Jerk” may appear as all broad caricature and sight gags, but Martin injected his story with plenty of biting commentary on the American class system and racism.

In films like “Roxanne” and “All of Me” the outrageousness of the slapstick visuals that Martin excelled at like few others were juxtaposed against the comedian’s scathing indictments against prejudice and sexism. In “Roxanne”, perhaps Martin’s best film, he not only updated the story of “Cyrano de Bergerac” to show that expectations of beauty and manliness haven’t changed that much since the 17th Century, but he brought a pathos to the whole shebang that was worthy of Charlie Chaplin. 

 “All of Me” showcased Martin’s incredible physical grace as two personalities took over his brain, fighting for control of his body. Throughout, Martin wove sexual politics into the laugh-out-loud farce. Clearly, he had learned well in his early days, writing Emmy-winning sketches for the liberally adroit Tom and Dick Smothers, and throughout his career, Martin added gravitas to the lightest of fare. He was a serious man, who was serious about comedy, and serious about making the comedy have true bite.

Martin could be a triple threat, writing, directing and starring in his scathing satire on Hollywood moviemaking with “Bowfinger” and he was a formidable serious actor as well. He played self-centered cads (“Pennies From Heaven”), unlikable Hollywood sorts (“Grand Canyon”), and corporate villains (“The Spanish Prisoner”) in straight projects that had nary a sense of humor. One of his greatest onscreen performances was in John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” where his priggish ad exec is forced to travel with a gauche salesman (John Candy). Of course Martin gets the laughs, but he also aces the pathos, particularly in the last act when he realizes how much his companion has been an asset on their journey home for the holidays.

Martin exhibited a rich, haut cool on screen when needed, like in “Shopgirl” of “It’s Complicated”, but he could also play an utter ‘everyman’ and gave terrific performances in films like “Parenthood” and “Father of the Bride”. Even in efforts like his attempts to reboot “Sgt. Bilko” and “The Pink Panther”, Martin demonstrated a sense of comic timing and physical hilarity that cannot be taught, even if it didn’t exactly save those misfires.

What may be the most important part of Martin’s film legacy was his ability to master comedic language and physicality equally. There are few true great comedians in film today, and even fewer who could play both anywhere close to Martin’s capabilities. Throughout his work, especially in film, his tongue is as funny as his body. And in movies like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, Martin is hilarious whether he’s talking the talk or walking the walk, or sitting in a wheelchair faking paralysis.

All in all, the AFI has made a shrewd and worthy choice in choosing Martin. There can never be enough accolades for comedic stars that too often get the brush when it comes to such awards. Every actor will tell you that comedy is harder to do than drama, but the number of Oscar-winning comedies is inconsistent with that, and that’s somewhat of a tragedy. Indeed, the AFI failed to honor the likes of Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Blake Edwards in their time, and it’s great to see such comedic standouts as Martin, and Mel Brooks a few years back, getting their just due from this venerable institution.

The only troubling thing about choosing Martin now is that many others that were due, and older, were not called. Stars that started their sterling movie careers in the 1960’s, like Michael Caine, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, have yet to be called and may never be called now as the AFI seems to be culling from the 70’s and later periods. It’s also a shame that no ‘below the line’ stars have been lauded yet, including a household name like composer John Williams. He is most certainly worthy of the AFI Life Achievement honor, but whether the Institute will be that bold remains to be seen.


Still, Martin is a bold choice. The Academy Awards never saw fit to nominate him for an acting award for “All of Me” or “Roxanne” even though he’d won tons of critics awards for them. To see Martin get both an honorary Oscar last year, and now be pegged for the AFI’s most prestigious honor, says a lot about not only the man’s enduring legacy but also about the due that his comedy, all comedy, truly deserves. Wild and crazy, isn’t it?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

ONE WOULD THINK…BUT THEN AGAIN


You would think certain things in Hollywood would be obvious and  self-evident, but then again, if you look at them from a different angle, well, you might see something else entirely. 

For example:

One would think a smart, involving thriller like A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES would be doing better at the box office, but then again, the Liam Neeson audience these days isn’t exactly looking for anything this challenging.

One would think the NSA could catch the ass hat that stole the iCloud pics of JENNIFER LAWRENCE, et al., but then again you’d think our expert spies could also find ISIS members through their Twitter accounts too.


One would think that the reason GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY keeps making gobs of money is due to it being one of the better comic book movies, but then again its ginormous success is really due to the fact that there was precious little competition worth seeing at the Cineplex this past summer. 

And one would think that Chris Pratt's Star-Lord character was the breakout character in the movie, but then again, everyone knows it's really Groot who steals the picture.



Also, one would think that with the success of Tony Stark, et al. the name THE AVENGERS could only refer to the hugely popular Marvel heroes, but then again, for anyone over 40, the term refers to Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel.

Speaking of comics, one would think that DC Comics would be able to create great movies with their amazing array of titles, but then again, it’s actually more extraordinary that they’ve been able to ace TV with ARROW, GOTHAM and THE FLASH.



And with GOTHAM, one would think that the villains would be the most interesting characters, but then again, if you saw the pilot, you know that the two cops (Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock) were the best things in the show.

While we're on the small screen, one would think that the movies could find great roles for Oscar nominee Viola Davis and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, but then again, TV is outshining film these days, so the small screen is where you'll find them shining in HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER and RED BAND SOCIETY, respectively.

One would also think that People magazine would have enough smart journalists working for them to avoid the racist comments about Viola Davis and her new show (http://huff.to/106gsmT), but then again, most magazines and newspapers haven’t exactly aced social media yet. 



One would think that Shailene Woodley’s followers will be anxiously lining up for her next DIVERGENT movie, but then again, if they’re true fans, they'll seek out her terrifically edgy indie WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD.

And one would think that Lindsay Lohan would look at Woodley’s career choices and think, “That could’ve been me” but then again, LiLo is probably only thinking about choices for her next night out.



And speaking of WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD, after stealing that movie, as well as SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR and Showtime’s PENNY DREADFUL,  one would think that the world would be Eva Green's oyster, but then again, Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with someone like Charlize Theron, so I won't be surprised if it takes studios a while to come around and cast Green in every lead in sight. 

One would think that David Fincher might falter one of these days, but then again, he's the best director of his generation so why shouldn't his new thriller GONE GIRL be great too? (BTW...it's getting absolute raves and it opens next Friday, October 3rd. Can't wait!)



One would think the big opening weekend for Denzel Washington’s THE EQUALIZER would be a cause for celebration, but then again, if you’ve ever seen the Edward Woodward TV version you'd probably be depressed at how far afield this movie reboot is from the source material.

One would also think that an Oscar contender like THE IMITATION GAME would have come up with a better poster than this rather pedestrian one, but then again, Benedict Cumberbatch is such a red hot star right now, his face is probably enough to sell the movie. 



Speaking of Cumberbatch, one would think he could’ve made it easy on himself and simply voiced Smaug for THE HOBBIT movies in the recording booth, but then again, he's the consummate actor, so of course he donned the motion capture suit. 



One would think that after the tepid reviews and so-so box office for GODZILLA, Hollywood might have hesitated to order up a sequel, but then again, bad begets bad in Tinsel Town, so why am I surprised?

And finally, one would think that Jennifer Lopez, who is such a capable actress when she wants to be, would do more things like the movie OUT OF SIGHT, but then again, if you know what you're money-maker is, I suppose you shake it.