Wednesday, April 26, 2023

"State of Play" review, April 2009


Ogden Independent


“State of Play” arrives at a heartbreaking moment for the American newspaper industry. Financial pressures, technology and customer preferences have combined to shatter daily print journalism’s old business model. Its practitioners grow increasingly desperate to hang on, flailing for a way to stop the financial bleeding.


The film argues, convincingly, that shoe-leather reporting is worth saving. It also admits salvation probably isn’t in the cards. It is of the opinion, and rightly so, that blogging – the heir apparent – is a hollow substitute when absent the employment of tried and true methods of information gathering. In the end, we are left with the impression that even if we get all the journalistic heroism this country needs to survive, it likely won’t be enough to alter the inevitable reduction of the Fourth Estate to a trivial, untrustworthy, marginalized corner of American life.


Still, the telling of this tragic tale, against the backdrop of political intrigue, makes for splendid moviegoing. Based on a crackerjack six-hour British TV miniseries – bump it up to the top of your Netflix queue; you won’t be sorry – “State of Play” stars Russell Crowe as Cal McAffrey. His character continues the tradition of every tireless old newspaper scribe you’ve seen in the movies or, if you’ve worked in daily newspapering, witnessed in real life. His car’s a mess, just like his wardrobe, office cubicle and the downscale apartment he calls home.


McAffrey’s no star columnist. Rather, he’s the guy who grinds it out: dispatched by his editors at the Washington Globe – think: The Washington Post – to cover our U.S. capital’s never-ending homicides. As the film opens, he’s tracking down the facts of a double-homicide in which a drug dealer and pizza-delivery bicyclist were killed, execution-style, in a back alley.


Seemingly unconnected is the next-day’s apparent suicide of a congressional staffer. Writing that story is the job of Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a Globe blogger for whom McAffrey has little respect and significant resentment because, he says, she traffics in rumor as opposed to fact. When she asks him for help on her story – McAffrey’s best friend from college is now a U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania’s 7th District, and he was having an affair with the dead staffer – the aging, rumpled reporter not so politely tells her to shove off.


It turns out the deaths are connected, the suicide was a murder and a Blackwater-like defense contractor’s tentacles embrace powerful congressional offices. In grand newspaper-movie style, the only thing standing between the criminally colluding forces of money and power are a handful of poorly dressed, over-fed, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, ink-stained newspaper reporters.


Just as a merciful God intended.


The reduction of the Brit series is not, as you might guess, without its trade-offs. That film luxuriated in the details of England’s quite-different media model – though the Web-based content of U.S. papers is beginning to look more and more like that of the tabloid press across the pond. And anyone would have to admit that this new version of “State of Play” has third-act difficulties: a little too neatly packaged, it could be successfully argued.


On the whole, however, that’s quibbling. Generally speaking, the performances are quite good. Crowe carries the film, but McAdams (“Mean Girls,” “Wedding Crashers”) more than holds her own. She exudes confidence regarding the inevitable dominance of the blogosphere, but her Della still is willing to pause long enough to do a few things the old-fashioned way.


Likewise, there’s solid work from Jeff Daniels as a corrupt House leader, Jason Bateman as an oily public-relations operator and the always-amazing Helen Mirren as the Globe’s editor – the latter of whom is trying, in vain, to satisfy the profit-earning mandates of the paper’s new owners while clinging to a tradition of solid reporting and service to the readers.


Less successful: A wooden Ben Affleck as the philandering congressman. Here he takes a real step backward from his memorable performance as the doomed George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.”


“State of Play” doesn’t get all the details right, but it evokes a romanticism about the world of daily newspapers that’s mostly true, and probably on the way out – at least as we now know it. Journalism, like politics, is rife with high-minded ideals, brutal compromise and fascinating, conflicted personalities. It’s perfect grist for the movie mill.


And remember this, too: When you go see the film, stay through the credits. Admittedly, it might only be the mood of a middle-aged guy who spent decades of his life in a craft that’s fading away, but watching the physical production of that Globe newspaper – those stories reported, written and made into something you can hold in your hands – was perhaps what it might have been like to view one of the last wild bison herds in the late 19th century. You pray it will survive, and grow to magnificence again. But for the moment, it almost makes you weep to realize what could be lost.


Dumping "Some Girls": Outtakes movie column, March 17, 1989


("Some Girls" opened and died in some major markets in the fall of 1988. It played for one week in Ogden in March 1989, just before debuting on videocassette.)


If you were running a business -- a multimillion dollar corporation, let's say -- and you had invested millions of dollars in a new product, wouldn't you try to market it, to recoup your money?

Well, not if you're calling the shots at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the motion picture studio. If you're the individual who makes distribution decisions for the financially troubled movie factory, you decide to take a perfectly pleasant, entertaining, fresh comedy called “Some Girls” and dump it into a few dollar theaters in remote locations for a week before shoving it out on videocassette.

Local moviegoers were treated to this very scenario last week, as “Some Girls” opened in a second-run theater, the Newgate Cinemas, for a dollar per person and one screening nightly, at 9:40 p.m.

This is a good example of several things: the ruthlessness of the movie business, the willingness to write off millions of dollars as a loss without even trying to market a film and the horrifying effect a booming videocassette rental industry is having on Hollywood marketing decisions.

When “Some Girls” was screened at the United States Film Festival in Park City two months ago, producer Michael Hoffman expressed doubts the film would receive any distribution. His fears, he said, were based primarily on recent management changes at the studio. As is so often the case, one regime will approve financing for a film and see it through production, only to be fired on or about the completion date. The incoming executives, not wanting to have any of their predecessors’ films do well, intentionally downplay or ignore the films and put their efforts into creating a brand new slate of pictures they can call their own.

I would have thought “Some Girls” might not fall into that danger zone, given that Robert Redford was the executive producer of the film. The fact that MGM was willing to dump a project Redford was associated with indicates to me that the studio is experiencing major difficulties; three-piece suits usually try to avoid offending powers like Redford.

The studio has been rumored for months to be a possible target for a Japanese purchase, with the likely buyer being Sony Corp., which reportedly has been looking to buy an American movie studio for some time. MGM hasn't had a hit -- or released many movies -- for a long while. I'm no marketing executive, but “Some Girls” was a fine film with real potential. It's sexy, funny and smart -- fairly atypical qualities for many comedies these days.

Anyway, it's gone from the Newgate now. There were about 50 people at the screening I attended Monday night, and people laughed a lot. If you missed it, “Some Girls” is due out on videocassette April 18. I suppose MGM will recover its original investment and then some from the sales to video, cable and network television. It's a pity more people couldn't see it on the big screen.

And speaking of marketing decisions, Terry Gilliam's new movie, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” is scheduled to be released next week. Gilliam previously directed “Time Bandits” and “Brazil.” And, once again, his studio doesn't seem to know how to sell his movie.

In the March issue of American Film, the director said he disagreed with the scientific method used by the market-research team. The team ignored the differing reactions of blue-collar and white-collar workers in the test audiences.

“Anybody in the theaters listening to the two audiences knows that (the white-collar crowd) liked it more,” Gilliam told the magazine. “Yet, the scientific method didn't distinguish. Both of (the separate groups’ reactions) looked pretty bad, so the panic level was rising. They may as well get witch doctors to shake bones or cut a sheep open and look at its entrails.”

Market research is “a way of avoiding individual responsibility, it seems to me,” Gilliam said. “It gives everybody an out. If the film doesn’t work, it’s not their fault. The scientific method showed that people didn’t like it” even thought the white-collar crowd sounded as if they were enjoying themselves.

In two weeks, when the box office reports are in, we’ll see who was right.

"Dumb and Dumber" review


Standard-Examiner staff  


The new Jim Carrey comedy “Dumb and Dumber” is another example of truth in advertising. It gets my vote for this year’s most pathetic, stultifyingly stupid and relentlessly moronic movie.


This isn’t a comedy that leaves you laughing – rather, it makes you wince.


The level of humor in “Dumb and Dumber” suits chug-a-lug night at the frat house, with umpteen scenes revolving around themes including – but not exclusive to – urination, defecation and nasal drainage.


To wit: Lloyd (Carrey), the dumb half of the “Dumb and Dumber” team of the movie’s title, slips a potent laxative into dumber-half Harry’s (Jeff Daniels) tea. Subsequently, Harry leaves for a date, and suffers a gastric attack upon arrival at the woman’s home.


Bad enough, yes, but “Dumb and Dumber” takes us where no mainstream movie comedy has ventured before: into the bathroom and onto the toilet with the intestinally challenged character, complete with facial grimacing and surround-sound effects.


Some movies aren’t afraid to dabble in bad taste. “Dumb and Dumber,” however, embraces bad taste like Roseanne holds fast to vulgarity: with a passion.


There seems no blow too low to strike at the audience, whether it be a gratuitous glimpse of Lauren Holly’s bare behind, a grade school prank performed with a cigarette lighter and flatulence, or an unwitting man swilling urine from a beer bottle.


Why Daniels became involved with this project is a good question; apparently the desire to feed one’s family knows no bounds. Carrey, on the other hand, has found great financial success with this debased form of comedy: “Ace Ventura” was a smash.


If you want an example of how low and completely unredeemable the popular cinema of our nation has become, you need look no further than “Dumb and Dumber.” Look for it to be a hit and, if so, heaven help us all.


Some scenes in “Dumb and Dumber” were filmed at Utah locations – including Ogden, Park City and Salt Lake City – earlier this year.

"Lorenzo's Oil" review, Jan. 22, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

Nick Nolte is one of my favorite actorsBut, so help me, he should avoid doing Italian accents.

He takes a stab at one in “Lorenzo's Oil,” and the result is catastrophic. Then he makes it worse by delivering most of his dialogue in a loud whisper. Not good.

As for the rest of “Lorenzo's Oil,” well ... Susan Sarandon is great, and she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her work. The movie itself, however, plays little better than a disease-of-the-week TV docudrama. Which is not to diminish the incredible true story on which the film is based.

In April 1984, Augusto and Michaela Odone were told their son, Lorenzo, was dying from ALD, or Adrenoleukodystrophy. The disease is found only in boys, and it destroys the human body's myelin – the sheathing material that insulates the nerves.

The Odones were told their son, Lorenzo, had about two years to live and that there was no cure. Furthermore, they found out not much research was being done on the disease.

So Augusto, an economist, and Michaela, a linguist, resolved to find a cure themselves, even though they had no scientific credentials or training. Using their limited knowledge of Latin and Greek, they pored over medical journals and other published research from around the world in a desperate attempt to forestall Lorenzo’s demise. “Lorenzo’s Oil” is directed by George Miller, maker of the “Mad Max” trilogy and most recently “The Witches of Eastwick.” A physician himself, Miller nonetheless takes a dim view of the world medical establishment’s behavior in this instance, portraying the participants here as obstinate foot-draggers whose plodding work lacks any sense of urgency.

The Odones, with the clock running out on their son’s life, possess a fanatical sense of purpose and commitment. If they don’t get the help they require from physicians, researchers and chemists, their child will die.

In this regard, “Lorenzo's Oil” is a fascinating detective story; piecing the puzzle together, at least for the Odones, is like trying to defuse a ticking nuclear bomb with no previous knowledge of electronics, physics or weapon design.

But Miller succumbs to the temptation to play this already high drama even higher, and that’s unnecessary. The conflict, tragedy and passion inherent in the story would have been sufficient. Miller heaps it on so thick that it begins to be more about the condition of the Odones marriage than about the quest to halt the effects of ALD.

Miller has taken a marvelous and inspiring and personal story and turned it into a big, hairy Hollywood production.

"Used People" review, Jan. 22, 1993

Standard-Examiner staff 

Good roles for women are so few and far between that it’s something of an event when a film like “Used People” comes along.

Basically a tale of women whose lives have been made miserable by their associations with men, “Used People” is offbeat and quirky, offering no easy conclusions or solutions for its characters. It’s also a film about loosening up after the tragedy of divorce and death, and the consequences of freeing oneself, or refusing to.

Shirley MacLaine plays Pearl, the cranky widow and matriarch of an eccentric New York City clan. Imagine the character she played in “Terms of Endearment” and you’re in synch.

Pearl’s marriage was not a good one. Her husband, Jack, provided financially for the family, but the relationship between husband and wife wasn’t close or loving. Now, on the day of his funeral, an Italian named Joe (Marcello Mastroianni) – a casual acquaintance of Jack’s – has interrupted the family gathering to ask Pearl for a date.

Joe’s inappropriate but genuinely affectionate advances trigger a chain reaction in Pearl’s family, eventually causing the members of the dysfunctional brood to confront their myriad problems.

There’s Bibby (Kathy Bates), whose weight problem and failed marriage have been a constant source of friction between herself, Pearl and sister Norma (Marcia Gay Harden).

Norma, on the other hand, has taken flight from the depression surrounding the death of one of her children by masquerading as a series of movie stars: Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Audrey Hepburn among them. In turn, her surviving son, nicknamed Sweet Pea (Matthew Branton), has retreated into a delusion of his own, believing he has become invincible.

The calming character in this combustible mix is Joe, the love-sick romantic. He pleads with Pearl to cast aside her doubt and apprehension, and to go with her heart – to for once in her life be daring and carefree. His philosophy has a rippling effect on the other characters, including Frieda and Becky, played by Jessica Tandy and Sylvia Sydney, two longtime friends who disagree about almost everything. Soon, everyone’s thinking about change and taking chances.

Some have compared “Used People” to “Moonstruck.” While it’s not as dramatically cohesive or rigidly plotted as that film, “Used People” does have its charms – primarily contained in the odd assortment of characters. 

The script by sometime actor Todd Graff – who also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming American remake of the Dutch thriller “The Vanishing” – ranges from cute to sarcastic to wacky. And director Beeban Kidron joins in the fun by employing more close-ups than a Sergio Leone Western.

“Used People” is a nice alternative to the kiddie-driven movie marketplace. Imagine that, a movie made for adults. 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

'Damage' review, Jan. 22, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

That old saw about the third time being the charm certainly applies to “Damage,” film No. 3 within a span of two weeks to address the subject of obsessive love and sex. Infinitely more thoughtful and a lot less explicit than either “The Lover” or “Body of Evidence,” “Damage” takes a clear-eyed approach to its topic, emerging as one of the most compelling adult dramas in months.


Based on the novel by Josephine Hart and directed by Louis Malle (“Au Revior Les Enfants”), “Damage” is a disturbing look at a doomed, destructive romance between Dr. Stephen Fleming (Jeremy Irons), an esteemed British politician, and Anna Barton (Juliette Binoche), the girlfriend of his son, Martyn (Rupert Graves).


We are left to surmise that prior to this dalliance, Stephen has been perfectly monogamous in his marriage to wife Ingrid (Miranda Richardson). It’s plain to see by the way he charges into the relationship that he’s been repressing his emotions for years, and that Anna affords him the opportunity to release a lifetime’s cache of frustration and sexual denial.


What’s not so apparent is why Stephen is so willing to betray not only Ingrid’s trust, but also Martyn’s. Why would a father pursue an affair with his son’s lover?


Because he’s out of control, that’s why. Initially, he recoils from the affair when Martyn and Anna are finally engaged. But he’s hooked, and-shortly thereafter continues the liaisons.


The film’s most horrifying moment comes just afterward, when Anna confides to Stephen that she surely wouldn’t have consented to marriage to Martyn if her older lover hadn’t been part of the package deal. Stephen’s response is a perfectly evil smile.


What Stephen doesn’t understand, even though Anna warns him, is that she’s been “damaged” by love in the past – there are vague references to an incestuous relationship with her late brother – and since surviving that episode describes herself as “dangerous,” because she knows whatever crisis looms, she will be alive and kicking after the furor subsides.


More than a dark infidelity drama, “Damage” is a film that perceptively investigates the dynamics of an extramarital affair. It’s something that happens all of the time in our society – everyone knows someone who’s been involved in, or touched by, adultery. But movies haven’t been all that great at dissecting the phenomenon, opting more often for the sensational (“Fatal Attraction”) than for stories that possess the ring of truth.


Granted, “Damage” concerns people of privilege and position – not to mention the bizarre father-son-lover triangle – but that aspect of the story only serves to compound the disaster of betrayal with the potential for public humiliation.


Watching “Damage” is troubling, because you know all along that the affair can come to no possible good, and that people will be hurt when it blows up. Just how badly they are hurt is something we’re not altogether prepared for, though.


Malle’s direction is superb. He handles the sex with a frankness that, for the most part, avoids being graphic. There’s plenty of huffing and puffing, but not nearly the nudity contained in the aforementioned “Body of Evidence” and “The Lover;” the other two films that – along with “Damage” – were briefly tagged with NC-17s.


Even with Malle’s sure hand, “Damage” needs strong, believable, passionate actors. Irons is sensational, as is Binoche. But Richardson comes close to stealing the film as Ingrid. The scene in which she takes her husband to task for his betrayal is shattering. 

Amazingly, this is Richardson’s third incredible performance since autumn – she previously co-starred in “Enchanted April” and “The Crying Game.” The only question now is: Which performance will be nominated come Oscar time?


Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Documentarian Bill Couturie, Jan. 22, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

Bill Couturie laughs as he recalls a conversation about his 1988 documentary “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam,” because it so perfectly illustrates the often absurd relationship between the art and commerce of filmmaking. 

Someone from the company distributing the film into the TV market rang him up: “Now that it’s on commercial television, we need an extra 20 minutes,” this person told Couturie. “Could you add 20 minutes to ‘Dear America’? You must have some extra letters lying around.” 

“Guys, it’s not a sausage,” was the director’s incredulous response. “You don’t just add 20 minutes.” 

In fact, Couturie turned the request into “Memorial,” a short companion piece to “Dear America,” which nabbed an Oscar nomination last year. 

Couturie’s latest film, “Earth and the American Dream,” is playing in competition at this month’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a sweeping documentary, surveying American society’s relationship to the environment from the landing of Columbus in 1492 right up to present day. And, as you might guess, it takes a disheartening inventory of our society’s abuse of nature. 

Couturie’s background is diverse. He began making animated films for “Sesame Street,” then segued into cinema verite documentaries as an associate producer on “Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?” – the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award winner for 1978. More recently, he produced “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” which won the documentary Oscar for 1989 – the film looked at the lives of several people who have died from complications of the AIDS virus – and finished directing a music video for Michael Jackson’s song, “Gone Too Soon,” a couple of months ago. 

“Earth and the American Dream” utilizes a technique that Couturie pioneered with “Dear America”: Lots of famous actors – Mel Gibson, Jeremy Irons, Bette Midler and others – supply the dialogue in “Earth and the American Dream.” In “Dear America,” they read letters written by soldiers to their families, sweethearts and friends back home. In “Earth and the American Dream,” another stellar cast of voices reads from letters, journals, diaries, speeches, newspaper accounts and historical books.

“Obviously, there is some thought to marquee value,” Couturie says from his San Francisco office, explaining his fondness for using major stars. “But it’s not simply that. It’s very hrd in a brief number of words to create a character and to create a sense of time and place. And there’s a reason these big stars are big stars: They’re very, very talented actors.” Rounding up the talent to provide the voices took some doing, the filmmaker insists, even though many of the actors in Hollyw0od agree with his film’s environmentalist point of view.

“They work a lot,” he says, “and when they’re not working, they want to spend time on vacation or with their families. To get through to Dustin Hoffman took me over a year, even though he did the narration on ‘Common Threads’ and helped win me an Oscar.”

For assistance, Couturie turned to the Environmental Media Association (EMA), which functions as a liaison between the environmental community and various media. EMA’s board of directors includes the heads of all of the studios, Couturie says, and super-agent Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency and the man widely regarded as the most powerful in the movie business. “Super heavyweights,” Couturie, a CAA client, calls them. 

“It takes all of that – the Oscar, the track record, CAA’s and EMA's credibility – to get through to these people,” Couturie says. Plus, now it’s the thing to do with documentaries: finding stars to read letters and such in films – a la Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” on PBS and the recent “Lincoln” documentary on ABC. 

“Frankly, these guys are getting deluged with requests. So it’s more difficult to get them, even for worthwhile projects, than it used to be.” 

By sticking to the words of his subjects, and without commenting on them, Couturie avoids what he terms the “official interaction” created when a filmmaker interviews the people in a film. 

“The very nature of an interview changes what people say,” the director says. “It can be for the better, because it can be entertaining. On the other hand, when you interview someone, they can’t not be aware of this big hunk of glass staring at them. Even in a good interview, they’re telling you what they want to tell you, and they’re not telling you what they don’t want to tell you – no matter how good an interviewer you are.” 

Couturie theorizes this is the reason he’s been drawn of late to historical subjects; it’s his desire to permit the story to tell itself. 

“One way I describe these films is ‘history haiku,’” he says, referring to the distillation of some 10,000 hours of film footage reviewed by his staff of researchers – 200 hours of which he dragged into the editing room before whittling his film down to its current 80 minutes.

“With ‘Dear America,’ you could go into the library and say, ‘I'm looking for stuff on Vietnam.’ With this film, there was no limit to what we could look at. I liken it to finding hundreds of needles in a huge, huge haystack. It’s by far the most challenging film I’ve ever made.”