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.”

‘Sundance Film Festival: Where Hollywood goes to find new talent,’ Jan. 22, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

SALT LAKE CITY – Left Coast chic and hometown conservatism met head-on at the opening of the 15th Sundance Film Festival Thursday evening. 

The occasion was the world premiere screening of “Into the West,” an Irish-American co-production that marked the beginning of 10 days of what organizers hope will be the best and most representative of this year’s crop of American independent films.

At a reception in the Utah Arts Center prior to the premiere, the Basic Black Crowd – filmmakers, film company employees and assorted others who wear black to fit in – literally rubbed elbows with festival sponsors, reporters and many Utah lawmakers taking a break from their duties up the street at the State Capitol Building. The tinkling of champagne glasses and the snarfing of finger food went hand-in-hand with discussions of all things related to film and the festival.

Gov. Mike Leavitt stopped by to congratulate the Sundance Institute for its efforts; Sundance has been running the festival since 1985. Leavitt stressed that the Beehive State’s quality of life is one of its prime assets, and that “a large part of that is quality of art in every form.” 

Gary Beer, president of the Sundance Institute, remarked that ticket sales for 1993 have exceeded all past festivals, and that some 300 media representatives from around the world will be covering this year’s gathering. 

Additionally, Beer said, approximately 6,000 filmmakers, industry professionals and movie fans will descend on Park City during the next week or so, depositing an estimated $6 million into the local economy. 

Then the action moved across West Temple Street to the Crossroads Cinemas for the screening of “Into the West.” In remarks prior to the screening, the movie’s less-than-effusive star, Gabriel Byrne, called the film “a labor of love,” adding, “We are very proud that it’s been chosen as the opening night film for your prestigious festival.” Then he added, almost cautiously, “It's a genuine family film.” 

And so it is: Directed by Mike Newell (“Enchanted April”) and written by Jim Sheridan (director
of “My Left Foot”), “Into the West” is a film about two motherless boys, their hard-drinking father (Byrne) and a beautiful white horse that leads them all on a wild chase from Dublin to Ireland’s western coast. It’s a sure sign of the gathering’s growing all-inclusiveness that the festival would kick off with a heartwarmer of a movie that’s safe for the kiddies.

The festival’s stature is unmatched in its importance among American independents – those films made outside the film centers of Los Angeles and New York, and without major studio financial support. In 1985, Beer acknowledged, “the pickings were slim” at Sundance. Now the festival is the place where Hollywood comes fishing for new talent, waving money for distribution deals and hiring new directors and writers. 

“Into the West” already has an American distributor, Miramax Films Corp. But most of the films playing in the dramatic and documentary competitions during the festival don’t, so their directors and/or producers will be hoping for success at Sundance and, consequently, a bright future ahead. 

Today, the festival moves to Park City, with alternate screenings at the Sundance Resort and Salt Lake City’s Tower Theatre.

'Hamlet' review, Jan. 18, 1991


Standard-Examiner staff 

I confess. When I heard Mel Gibson was set to play the lead in “Hamlet,” I feared a cataclysmic screen disaster on the order of Clint Eastwood singing in “Paint Your Wagon.” 

But the fears were unfounded. Gibson is good. Capable, even. 

Sure, he’s no Larry Olivier. And he seems aware of his limitations. So he plays Hamlet, the vengeful Dane, as ferocious instead of introspective and brooding. Amazingly, it works. 

Purists may protest, but this film adaptation of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play is accessible and energetic. Therefore, it has the potential to introduce the Bard of Avon to a wide spectrum of the American public. 

It will come as no surprise that the man behind “Hamlet,” the Mel-movie, is director Franco Zeffirelli, who made popular cinematic adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” He aims to make audience-pleasers, and with those films he succeeded. Time will tell for “Hamlet,” but neither Gibson’s fans nor those of classic theater should be able to find much to whine about here. 

“Hamlet” is the complex tale of a Danish prince, Hamlet, who grieves over the loss of his father, the king. Even more distressing is the appearance of the dead monarch’s ghost, informing Hamlet that the death was, in fact, murder – committed by the king’s own brother, Claudius (Alan Bates). 

This knowledge, coupled with the immediate marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Glenn Close), to Claudius, effectively drives Hamlet ’round the bend. And as his madness flowers, drawing more and more characters into the fracas, danger and intrigue mounts and multiplies; loyalties are suspect, treachery awaits his every move and even good people are destroyed in the havoc wrought by Hamlet in his quest to avenge his father's death. 

In short, this is a great story, full of passion, romance and skullduggery. And all of it hinges on Gibson’s ability to carry it off, which he does. He’s a blustering presence on the screen, constantly on the move, a raving lunatic with a dark purpose in mind. 

Zeffirelli buys considerable insurance for his star in the form of his supporting cast. Close plays a youthful-looking Gertrude with a wide-eyed openness that deflects suspicion. Ian Holm is rock solid as Claudius’ loyal Polonius, and his tragic end – even though we know it’s coming – still shocks and dismays. And Bates’ performance as Claudius is a fine contrast to Gibson’s Hamlet. Claudius, wary of his nephew’s fury, is reserved, cautious. 

“Hamlet” is a revelation. Gibson is more than an action star. What a nice surprise.

Lawrence Bender, producer of "'Reservoir Dogs," Jan. 8, 1993

EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was conducted at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. 

Standard-Examiner staff

PARK CITY - Lawrence Bender sits at a table in the hospitality suite o f Z Place, where press and filmmakers come to mingle, do business and escape the crush of humanity on Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival. 

Bender has a broad smile on his face, conveying his feelings of wonder and excitement to all who see him. He’s been that way for a couple of days, since “Reservoir Dogs,” a gritty crime film he produced, began getting most of the ink and much-coveted buzz at this 1992 edition of the premiere festival for American independent filmmakers. 

“This is a really great time for me,” Bender says ,with barely contained enthusiasm. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop. I’ve made couple of other movies, but I was a production assistant on a TV commercial two months before we went into production on ‘Reservoir Dogs’ because I had no money.” 

Then Bender, formerly an actor, had the good fortune to pass along a script by his friend and former video store clerk, Quentin Tarantino, to his acting teacher. The teacher, in turn, gave the script to actor Harvey Keitel (“Mean Streets,” “Bugsy”), who read it, loved it and helped Bender and Tarantino get the movie made.

“Harvey Keitel is one of mine and Quentin’s all-time favorite actors,” Bender explains. “And when got a message on my answering machine from Harvey Keitel that he loved the script, it was the dream of my life come true.” 

But Keitel became so involved – financing early casting sessions in New York that landed Steve Buscemi (“Barton Fink,” “In the Soup”) as one of the lead actors – that Bender asked Keitel, over supper one evening at the Russian Tea Room, if he would become a coproducer on the film. To which Keitel replied: “Lawrence, I’ve been waiting for you to say this. What took you so long?’”

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's “The Killing,” “Reservoir Dogs” is a film about the aftermath of a botched diamond heist; as the tough guys who took part meet afterward in a warehouse to sort out what went wrong, why and, most important, who’s to blame. 

“But what’s different about this film is that you never actually see the robbery,” Bender explains with the kind of verve he might have used when scrounging for money to make the $1.1 million production. “And when they come back to this warehouse where they’re supposed to meet, it’s like ‘Rashomon’ – everyone comes back with a different story. 

“And as an audience member, you really don’t know what actually happened. ... And then at a certain point in the movie, you start to understand a little bit more than they know. The movie’s sort of structured in chapters, and it’s very intriguing. In most movies, you get the questions and then you get the answers. But in this movie, sometimes you get the answers and then the questions.” 

And you get something else: unvarnished violence. Point-blank shootouts, sadistic torture and bleeding wounds are included in the price of admission – which, Bender asserts, is precisely the point. 

“The script is a very visceral, brutal depiction of a group of guys,” he says, looking like he’s answered this question more than a couple of times this week. “And the movie is really about loyalty – not among robbers, but amongst men. And loyalty taken to an extreme – such an extreme that extreme things happen because of loyalty. And you start questioning, ‘What is loyalty all about, anyway?’

“And as far as the violence, Quentin actually feels that film is a place where violence should be shown, because violence and action are very cinematic, and that kind of material can really be shown in a very cinematic way.” 

In this regard, Tarantino’s film recalls the more violent and machismo-infused films of Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah and John Woo – influences Bender eagerly acknowledges. (In fact, Tarantino is currently at work on a project with Woo.)

“We actually shot certain scenes that could have been cut to be more graphically violent, but we didn’t do it because it didn’t work the way we wanted it to,” Bender explains. “And actually, most of the violence happens off- screen.

“So, to me, I’m really glad that people come out with that reaction; because when you see a picture and you don’t see a lot of graphic violence but you get a feeling of brutality, we feel like we’ve done our job.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

'Reservoir Dogs' review, Jan. 8, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

The title, all by itself, gives a pretty good indication of what’s in store when you sit down to watch “Reservoir Dogs.” It’s as visceral a moviegoing experience as you’ll get anywhere.

The film was something of a sensation at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is only now making its way back to a Utah theater. Its writer-director, first-timer Quentin Tarantino, has done himself proud with “Reservoir Dogs,” creating a bold genre film that’s repulsive, hilarious, sexist, violent, profane and utterly – utterly – engrossing.

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s ’50s heist film “The Killing,” Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” opens with a gang of robbers gathered in a coffee shop. They’re analyzing the lyrics of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” debating the etiquette of tipping waitresses and preparing to rob a jewelry store. The language is blunt and offensive, but we realize we’re onto something different here; Tarantino is a style- and violence-wonk in the tradition of Martin Scorsese: There’s artistry galore, but he makes you pay for the experience. 

From the restaurant scene, Tarantino cuts forward to minutes after the caper – we never actually see the robbery, but that's OK ... really. The crime went down badly, and a robber named Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is gut-shot, screaming and bleeding profusely in the back seat of a getaway car driven by Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). They rush back to the prearranged meeting place, an empty warehouse, and wait for the others to follow.

Soon enough, the rest have returned, including Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen). The ringleader, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), has mandated the color-coded aliases to prevent each of his men from knowing the others; only Cabot and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), use their real names. 

As Mr. Orange bleeds to death , on the floor, the rest of the gang discusses, excitedly, the possibility that they were betrayed by an informer. If so, that would mean one of them is a cop. And so Tarantino uses a series of flashbacks to provide background on each of the remaining robbers – Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, buys the farm early on – detailing how they came to be involved in the diamond heist. 

“Reservoir Dogs” is in many ways similar to the hyperstylized crime films of white-hot Hong Kong action master John Woo (“The Killer,” “Hard Boiled”). And Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah are other obvious influences. What seems to set Tarantino apart from these others –the professed adherence to “professionalism” and an intense friendship between Mr. White and Mr. Orange notwithstanding – is an overall emotional detachment and a vision that’s ultimately nihilistic. 

Where his predecessors scoop some form of redemption, however meager, from the ruins of his protagonists’ ordeals, Tarantino appears to revel in the brutalization of both his characters and the audience. The scene that’s been getting all the attention, and rightfully so, is the one in which the psychotic Mr. Blond produces a cop he’s taken hostage and – to the tune of the annoying ’70s pop tune “Stuck in the Middle With You” – proceeds to carve the patrolman’s ear off. While the actual removal of the ear takes place off-camera, the experience is unusually harrowing; Tarantino plays the violence in his film realistically, as opposed to the cartoonish brand of mayhem we typically receive via mainstream Hollywood. 

“Reservoir Dogs” is by no means a “fun” movie. It is, however, a well-made film and one that should be seen by those interested in exciting talent – both in front of, and behind, the camera.

'Scent of a Woman' review, Jan. 8, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

In the course of living, we inevitably encounter people who are so persistently obnoxious that we go to great lengths to avoid them. Al Pacino plays just such a jerk in “Scent of a Woman.” But we’re supposed to pay good money to spend more than two hours with him. 

It’s the same sort of bizarre miscalculation director-star Billy Crystal made with last year’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” which also was a movie about a jerk. 

There are some people you just don’t want to spend a couple of hours with. As cinematic torture goes, there are worse movies to punish yourself with (“Toys,” for example). Still, “Scent of a Woman” is not the only other movie in the marketplace.

Pacino plays Frank Slade, a former military man whose loud, boorish behavior worked fine for him while he was on LBJ’s White House staff a quarter century ago – LBJ, after all, was probably worse than Slade in the crude department. But somewhere along the line Frank’s career derailed, and he wound up playing hot potato with live hand grenades to relieve boredom, or prove his mettle, or whatever. The stunt blinded him, and he’s been living on a disability pension ever since. 

Bottom line: Frank’s life, as he views it, isn’t much fun anymore. He’s been living with his niece, her husband and their two kids – and hating every moment. Now’s his chance to make a break for it: They’re leaving home for the weekend and have hired a teenager, Charlie (Chris O'Donnell), to look after him. 

Unbeknownst to everyone, Frank’s been stashing his pension checks away, saving for a big trip to New York City. He hauls Charlie along, of course, and once in the city they eat the best food, drink the best liquor and Frank spends time with the best call girl. 

Inevitably, the two males wind up teaching each other about life over the course of their eventful weekend. 

Regrettably, the one major plot twist that’s supposed to take us by surprise is shockingly easy to anticipate – a flub that further deflates the movie. (I won’t reveal it, but rest assured that if you see the film you’ll catch on early.) After that, all that’s left is to watch Pacino slam dunk all the other actors who venture into the frame alongside him. 

The man can act ... with a vengeance. There, hasn’t been this much acting going on in a movie since Dustin Hoffman wore a skirt in “Tootsie.” It’s a shameless play for Oscar consideration, a big bold “Look, Ma, I still have what it takes!” message for a Hollywood currently obsessed with younger talent.

The thing that makes you cringe is the knowledge that, yes, Pacino has talent to spare; he really is the genuine article, one of our best actors. It’s precisely his ability to remain truthful to the character of Frank Slade that does the movie in: Frank is so easy to dislike that we stop caring precisely when we should be caring the most. Frank’s a goon.