THE LONG GOODBYE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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“I felt that the film was almost an essay, an education, to the audience, to say, ‘Stop looking at everything exactly the same way.’” – Robert Altman

When The Long Goodbye was released in 1973, United Artists promptly bungled its ad campaign. Robert Altman’s film radically reworked Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name and the studio had no idea how to market the offbeat movie. It polarized critics and promptly disappeared from theaters. People weren’t ready for its offbeat vibe and the way it satirized Los Angeles culture. However, it was Elliott Gould’s unusual take on private investigator Philip Marlowe that drew the lion’s share of people’s criticism. His loose, easy-going style flew in the face of the traditional interpretation made famous by Humphrey Bogart and was tantamount to heresy among cinephiles but in retrospect paved the way for a film like the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), which also confounded the mainstream with its own eccentric take on West Coast culture.

While trying in vain to feed his cat late one night, private investigator Philip Marlowe (Gould) receives a visit from his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Tijuana, Mexico. When he returns home, the police are waiting for him and claim that Lennox brutally murdered his wife. Marlowe does not believe that his good friend is a murderer and refuses to tell the police anything. After three days in jail, he’s released when the police inform him that Lennox committed suicide in Mexico. It’s an open and shut case but something doesn’t quite sit right with Marlowe. He is subsequently hired by the wealthy Eileen Wade (Nina van Pallandt) to find her alcoholic husband, Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden), a famous author with an Ernest Hemingway complex. Marlowe learns that the Wades knew the Lennoxes and that there is more to Terry’s suicide and his wife’s murder than initially reported.

The Long Goodbye
is bookended by the strains of “Hooray for Hollywood” and the song quickly fades out as if to signal that this film will not be a classic noir take on Chandler. Marlowe wakes up after an undetermined period of time. How long has he been asleep? He mutters to himself while trying to feed his cat, a very fickle pet that will only eat a specific brand of food, and when he tries to fool the feline with another brand hidden in an old can, the cat bolts. So what is the purpose of the first ten minutes of the film dedicated to Marlowe feeding his cat? First off, it establishes that this is going to be a very different take on Chandler’s book and that Marlowe’s friend, Terry Lennox, is as fickle as his cat – he only hangs around Marlowe when he needs him but when he’s no longer of use, he splits. This opening scene came from a story a friend of Altman’s told him about his cat only eating one type of cat food.

The Long Goodbye
is much more than a murder mystery. Taking Chandler’s novel set in the 1940s and updating it to the 1970s, Altman is also interested in satirizing the superficiality of L.A. culture. Marlowe is surrounded by an odd cast of denizens that populate the city: his neighbors are a group of women who spend their time getting high and doing yoga with very little clothes on, the security guard for the Wade’s gated community does impersonations of famous actors like Barbara Stanwyk and Jimmy Stewart, and Marty Augustine (Mark Rydell) is a nasty gangster who is proud of his Jewish heritage. Throughout it all, Marlowe repeats his own personal mantra of sorts, “It’s okay with me,” which personifies his easy-going nature.

The heart of the film is Elliot Gould. His Marlowe is a laid-back guy in a rumpled suit that wanders through the film muttering jokes to himself and chain smoking constantly. Gould’s character is man out of time, a throwback to another era, which provides a sharp contrast to the trendy, health-obsessed ’70s culture that surrounds him. Altman nicknamed Gould’s character Rip Van Marlowe, as if he had been wandering around L.A. in the early ‘70s but “trying to invoke the morals of a previous era.” The actor delivers a wonderful assortment of smart-ass comments to anyone who gives him trouble but also knows when to play it straight during key dramatic moments. He’s also not afraid to improvise in a given scene like when the police interrogate him and he smears the fingerprinting ink under his eyes like a football player and then applies it to the rest of his face a la Al Jolson, riffing off the police officer that is giving him a hard time. Gould delivers a multi-layered performance that ranks right up there with his other classic Altman films, M.A.S.H. (1970) and California Split (1974). There was clearly a creative synergy between the two men that resulted in both of their best work to date.

Producers Jerry Bick and Elliott Kastner commissioned a screenplay from Leigh Brackett, who had written the script for the Humphrey Bogart version of The Big Sleep (1946). The producers offered the script to both Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Both directors passed on it but Bogdanovich recommended Altman, whom he admired. Bick and Kastner sent Brackett’s script to Altman while he was shooting Images (1972) in Ireland. Brian Hutton was supposed to direct but was offered another film and Altman took over. Initially, he didn’t want to do it until he was told that Gould would be cast as Marlowe.

In adapting the book, Brackett had problems with its plot which she felt was “riddled with clichés” and was faced with the choice of doing it as a period piece or updating it. Altman and Brackett spent a lot of time talking over the plot. He wanted Marlowe to be a loser. Her first draft was too long and she shortened it but the ending was inconclusive. She had Marlowe shooting Terry Lennox because it was the way Hutton wanted it. Altman liked the ending because it was so out of character for Marlowe. He agreed to direct but only if the ending was not changed.

Altman conceived of the film as a satire and it was his decision to cast Sterling Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt. The director only knew Van Pallandt from The Johnny Carson Show and from the Clifford Irving scandal. He felt that she resembled a character from Chandler’s novel and the studio allowed him to do a screen test. He also made all kinds of changes to the script, like Wade’s suicide and Marty Augustine smashing the Coke bottle into his girlfriend’s face. Altman did not read Chandler’s book and instead gave copies of Raymond Chandler Speaking to the cast and crew and advised them to study the author’s literary essays. Altman originally wanted Dan Blocker for the role of Roger Wade but he died just before shooting began and the director was persuaded to meet with Sterling Hayden.

When Bogdanovich was briefly attached to the project, he wanted Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin to portray Marlowe. United Artists president David Picker may have picked Gould to play Marlowe as a ploy to get Altman to direct the film. Bogdanovich did not see Gould in the role because he was “too new” and left the project. Brian Hutton also wanted Gould to play the private detective. At the time, the actor was box office poison in Hollywood after his rumored troubles on the set of A Glimpse of Tiger where he argued with co-star Kim Darby, exchanged blows with director Anthony Harvey, and abused drugs as well as being unreliable and absent. Warner Bros. stopped the production early on and Gould claimed that he was blamed for its failure. The studio collected on an insurance policy that attested the actor was crazy. For The Long Goodbye, United Artists gave Gould the requisite physical before approving his contract and demanded a psychological exam to determine that the actor was mentally stable. Gould read the first draft of Brackett’s script described it as a “pastiche” and very convoluted. Altman called Gould to discuss the film and the actor told him that he always wanted to play Marlowe. Altman asked Gould to read the novel as well as Chandler on Chandler. Gould discovered that he was exactly the same age, height, and weight as Marlowe.

When it came to the scenes between Marlowe and Wade, Altman had Gould and Hayden ad-lib most of the dialogue. Hayden, with his long, scraggily beard and scattershot delivery of his dialogue, is great as the eccentric writer who constantly refers to Marlowe as “Marlboro” (“the Duke of Bullshit,” he adds at one point), in reference to his ever-present cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Hayden delivers a wonderfully unpredictable performance full of bluster and eccentric line readings. According to Altman, Hayden improvised a lot of his dialogue and was drunk and stoned on marijuana most of the time. In the scene where Marlowe tries to save Wade from drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean, Gould almost drowned when he went out too far. He was only able to do three takes. The director decided that the camera should never stop moving and put the camera on a dolly. However, the camera movements would counter the actions of the characters so that the audience would feel like a voyeur. To compensate for the harsh light of southern California, Altman gave the film a soft, pastel look reminiscent of old postcards from the 1940s.

Mark Rydell is something else as Marty Augustine. In the first scene we see him in he threatens Marlowe, then talks sweetly to his girlfriend, and then goes back to menacing Marlowe. At times, Augustine is downright charming and then he suddenly and shockingly smashes a Coke bottle across his girlfriend’s face just to make a point. With the shocking violence of this scene, Altman said, “It was supposed to get the attention of the audience and remind them that, in spite of Marlowe, there is a real world out there, and it is a violent world.” Augustine is clearly a psychopath and Rydell nails the character’s shifting moods with unsettling intensity. The Coke bottle scene is like a cold splash of water to the face and it causes not only the audience to sit up and notice but Marlowe as well, who, up to this point, has mostly been in his own little world. Now, Marlowe has a real, vested interest in what happened to his friend Lennox because he owed Augustine a lot of money and is now threatening Marlowe’s life.

The Long Goodbye
was previewed at the Tarrytown Conference Center in New York. The gala was hosted by Judith Crist, then the film critic for New York magazine. Altman flew in for the Q&A session. The film was not well-received by the audience except for Nina Van Pallandt’s performance, which got good notices. The mood at the Q&A was “vaguely hostile” and afterwards Altman was reportedly “depressed.” The Long Goodbye did not fare well in its limited release in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Miami. As a result, the New York City opening was canceled at the last minute after several advance screenings had already been held for the press. The Long Goodbye received mixed reaction from critics and performed poorly at the box office because of the unconventional story, plot, and character changes from the novel.

The film was abruptly withdrawn from release by United Artists with rumors that it would be re-edited. Altman went to Picker and told him, “No wonder the fucking picture is failing. It’s giving the wrong impression. You make it look like a thriller and it’s not, it’s a satire.” The studio analyzed the reviews for six months and concluded that the advertising campaign was too narrow. They created a new release strategy for The Long Goodbye with a novel ad campaign that featured a poster illustrated by legendary Mad magazine artist Jack Davis. Altman explained that he “had to prepare audiences for a movie that satirizes Hollywood and the entire Chandler genre.” United Artists spent $40,000, and the New York City première was profitably and critically successful. The Long Goodbye ended up on The New York Times’ year-end Ten Best list. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond won the National Society of Film Critics’ award for best cinematography in 1973. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and the film still failed to perform well elsewhere.

The Long Goodbye
has endured and become one of Altman’s signature films. It also has some famous fans, chief among them the Coen brothers who cite it as their favorite of Altman’s and an influence on The Big Lebowski. Aside from being a cheeky satire on Hollywood almost as much as The Player (1992) was, a later Altman film that brought him back into the mainstream, it is a film about loyalty. By the end of the film, Marlowe has learned a valuable lesson – there are some friends you don’t stick your neck out for. He is loyal to a fault and realizes that Lennox wasn’t the friend that he thought he was. As the Altman quote states at the beginning of this article, Marlowe is forced to stop looking at everything exactly the same way, just as we are, and see his friend for who he truly is.

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CHAD STAHELSKI & DAVID LEITCH’S JOHN WICK — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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John Wick is exactly the bullet to the face that the American action picture desperately needed. There’s nothing remotely new to the mostly predictable narrative of this film and that’s totally fine – it’s just lean, mean, and very, very effective. Obviously inspired by the blood ballet that is The Raid and The Raid 2 and John Woo films from the 1990’s, first-time directors (and veteran stunt coordinators) Chad Stahelski and David Leitch shot their impressively staged action scenes with a stylish, confident hand, emphasizing long takes with a static camera, letting the ammo fly all over the room, and ramping up the body count to obscene, old-school-Schwarzenegger levels. I had an absolute blast watching this totally kick-ass action film, and if it loses some overall points in the way of originality, there’s something to be said for a lower-budgeted Hollywood actioner such as this that returns the R-rated action film to some form of glory.

There’s nothing complicated about John Wick, but that’s sort of what I loved about it, as it appeals to your primal levels in an immediate, visceral, and universal way. A stoic assassin (Keanu Reeves, well cast) goes for the straight life after years of loyal and lethal service to his Russian boss because he’s finally found the woman worth retiring for. She then gets cancer, quickly dies, and leaves him a farewell present: A beautiful puppy. After the gangster son of Wick’s ex-employer unwittingly roughs up Wick, steals his treasured car, trashes his house, and kills his dog, what’s an ex-contract killer to do than take out ALL of the trash?

And that he does – people are sliced, diced, shot repeatedly, thrown across the room and over ledges, and used as general battering rams against all sorts of sharp objects. The Gareth Evans effect is in total display here, as Stahelski and Leitch go for broke with their wild yet coherent action scenes, letting the bad guys have it at all times, always trying to up the ante from scene to scene. And honestly – if you’re not down for seeing an animal abusing scum bag and a slew of his henchmen get what they deserve – well, this isn’t the movie for you, and you need to check your priorities. PETA should use this film as their calling card from here on out. I fucking LOVED this piece of simple minded action cinema.

 

B Movie Glory with Nate: Blood Shot

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Folks, this is one for the books. Ever wish there was a film made about a badass, gun slinging vampire who is secretly contracted by the President of the United States  (Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert) to carry out dangerous missions and thwart evil Islamic terrorists? Well your very specific and demented wish just came true. Imagine for a moment that John Carpenter, Joe Dante and Michael Bay got hammered one night and wrote the most ridiculous script for a horror action comedy this century has seen. The resulting treatise would be Blood Shot, an absolute hoot of a flick that combines elements that wouldn’t be caught dead (or undead) together in any other setting but that of the gloriously unrestricted world of the B movie. The President uses a craggy operative named Sam (ever brilliant Lance Henriksen) to brief the Vampire in question (Michael Bailey Smith) on his missions. He is to hunt down violent Islamic rebels, led by a dude called Bob. Bob is Arabic. Bob is played by Brad Dourif, who is white as a sheet, but here shows up caked in brown makeup and hollering away in the most idiotic accent I’ve ever heard. His casting alone is just hysterical, and should drive the social activists up the wall screaming, while the rest of us howl in with laughter. His character is called Bob because of everyone’s inability to pronounce his real arabic name which is a mile long and completely nonsensical. His crew are terrorists straight from a Mel Brooks film, complete with a midget amongst them. There’s also a lone hero cop (Brennan Eliott channels the hotshot, reckless law enforcers of 80’s movies) hunting both the terrorists and the Vampire, getting in everyone’s way and capping anything that moves. The fact that Highlander plays the President in a film about a Vampire who hunts down terrorists named Bob should be more than enough for any self respecting film fan to drop whatever they’re doing and go bask in this baby’s glow. Despite being a direct to video flick, it contains not a trace of the trademark ineptitude and shoddiness that you’re always likely to find when exploring the genre. Campiness and lunacy, oh yes. But never mediocrity or laziness. But that’s what your friendly neighborhood Nate is here for, to wade through the unwatchable sludge and mine out the priceless gems for you all to see. This one’s funny, imaginitive, off the wall and a pint of B positive fun. 

MILOS FORMAN’S THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Incendiary. Forceful. Incredible. The People vs. Larry Flynt took on a larger than life subject with gusto and bravado, with director Milos Forman plunging neck-deep into the smut and kinky fun that accompanied the hard-living life of exuberant Hustler Magazine publisher Larry Flynt, brilliantly portrayed by Woody Harrelson in a performance that’s nothing less than a tour de force. This film absolutely ripped my head open at the age of 16 when I viewed it theatrically, and over the years, I’ve remained fascinated by the film, due in no small part to the fabulous, three decade spanning screenplay by masters of the biopic Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. This is a raucous, ribald, and totally righteous film about an outrageously insatiable man, with a personality the size of Texas, and a sex drive to equal it. Co-starring the perfectly cast Courtney Love as Flynt’s long suffering romantic companion Althea, Forman populated the edges of his film with a sterling acting ensemble, including Edward Norton as Flynt’s crusading lawyer, James Cromwell as the venal Charles Keating, Richard Paul in a hilarious performance as scumbag Jerry Falwell, Vincent Schiavelli and Crispin Glover as magazine cohorts, and Donna Hanover in a sickeningly awesome performance as Ruth Carter Stapleton.

Forman’s effortlessly natural storytelling sense was on firm display all throughout, with the tone bouncing back and forth between jovial fun to serious darkness. This film is scene after scene of terrific filmmaking, crafted by an intelligent director who seemingly paid attention to every single element that went into his films. And most importantly, it was a warts and all exploration of a man who lived life according to his own terms, a project fully sanctioned by Flynt, who also made a disturbingly ironic cameo as the judge who sentenced him to prison. The velvety cinematography by Philippe Rousselot was in perfect tandem with Patrizia von Brandenstein’s evocative production design, all pulled together by Thomas Newman’s pensive score and the swift editing of Christopher Tellefsen. The film received excellent reviews but, sort of unsurprisingly, stalled out at the box office, no doubt hampered by the potentially alienating subject matter and the mostly prudish, immature attitudes of mainstream audiences. But it’s a tremendous entertainment, and a film with much to say about free speech and freedom of expression, still feeling relevant and important today just as it did 20 years ago.

Passion Of Mind: A Review by Nate Hill

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Passion Of Mind is a little seen fantasy romance tale that stars Demi Moore as a woman named Marie, essentially living double lives in a way. She lives and works in New York, and is as ordinary as any other woman in the world, but when she goes to sleep she wakes up to another life in the French countryside, with another job and children who aren’t in New York. She lives a day in the French life, goes to sleep, wakes up back in the New York life and lives for another day before going to sleep and back again. And so it goes. Is one life a dream? Or both? Is she imagining things, or stuck in some rift? To complicate things, as always happens in film, there are two men, one for each life. Aaron (William Fichtner) is a kind, caring businessman in the New York life who she begins a relationship with. In France she meets compassionate, romantic William (Stellen Skarsgard) who she also begins to fall for. Quite the predicament, no? If the premise sounds familiar to you, here’s why: there was a short lived NBC drama called Awake which ran for one season, starred Jason Isaacs and had the exact same setup. Now while the show obviously borrowed it’s central plotline from this film, it’s no big deal because it’s such a great idea it deserves more than just one shot. The film is quiet, pleasent and sweet, never really taking steps to explain it’s concept but simply letting it’s characters live within it in perplexed, whimsical harmony. Moore has an inherent sweetness to her and she’s wonderful here. One might think a protagonist who is put through a scenario would be confused, stressed out and damaged. Moore plays it her own way, as she always had. Her character is enchanted by her situation, if a little wary. Skarsgard and Fichtner are left field choices for romantic leads, as both are kind of considered character actors with stark, specific looks. Both play it straight here and their casting helps the film loads. Marie has two separate therapists, each from one of the lives (an element which the NBC show used as well), played by Joss Ackland and Peter Riegart. It’s not to serious, not too fluffy, just the right kind of low key romance with an imaginitive streak and a high concept that fits neatly into the story.

WONDER BOYS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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Wonder Boys (2000) is a redemptive tale of a college professor in the midst of a mid-life crisis. It is a film about faded glory and people past their prime. Curtis Hanson’s film is the kind of small, oddball little tale with a decidedly off-kilter, dark sense of humor and a cast of eccentric characters. It was a bit hit with critics but never quite connected with a mainstream audience due in part to a bungled initial promotional campaign that clearly did not know how to convey the quirky tone of the film into an easily digestible soundbite.

Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is a burnt out English professor that wrote a much celebrated novel entitled, The Arsonist’s Daughter, but has since been having a hard time with his follow-up. He keeps writing and writing with no end in sight (current page count sits at around 2,100+ pages). His young wife has left him and he’s sleeping with his boss’ wife, Sara Gaskill (Frances McDormand), who is also the Chancellor of the university where he works. His long-suffering editor Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey Jr.) is in town to take a look at the book. He maintains a “what me, worry?” façade but is in danger of losing his job unless he can find a potential best seller and applies subtle but definite pressure on Grady. The professor has also taken under his wing a brilliant but troubled student, James Leer (Tobey Maguire), from his creative writing class. He’s a tortured artist wannabe as evident from his habit of sitting in an empty, dark classroom. He is also ostracized by his classmates who resent his ability to write.

Producer Scott Rudin gave Michael Chabon’s book to screenwriter Steve Kloves. At first, he wasn’t interested – he hadn’t written a word in four years and had never adapted a novel before – but while reading the novel he connected with the material, “and a sort of kinship with Michael Chabon’s tone and the way he looked at his characters, with all their flaws, with a real generous spirit,” he said. Initially, Kloves agreed to adapt the book and talk about directing it but two and half years into working on the screenplay, he decided not to direct. After the success of L.A. Confidential (1997), Hanson was working on a script of his own and reading other scripts with a keen interest for his next film to be a comedy. Actress Elizabeth McGovern once advised him to work with Kloves and was given his screenplay. He was told that Michael Douglas was interested in playing Grady and was impressed by the way in which the characters were presented and “the lack of judgment on their actions and eccentricities.” In addition, Hanson “fell in love with these characters – and they made me laugh.”

Hanson told Rudin, “it’s too bad you can’t have Jean Renoir or Hal Ashby direct this.” Once Hanson was attached to direct, Kloves met with him and was relieved that they were both on the same page in terms of their approach to the material. Chabon encouraged Kloves to make the material his own and this included changing Grady’s Jewish in-laws to gentiles. Additional changes were made once Hanson came on board. For example, he felt that James Leer would be a fan of Douglas Sirk’s films as opposed to Frank Capra as he is in the novel. The studio wasn’t interested in making a quirky, character-driven comedy/drama until Michael Douglas agreed to work well below his usual large fee. One of the challenges for Hanson was to take a plot that he called “meandering and, apparently, sort of aimless,” and a character that “does things that even he doesn’t really know why he’s doing them,” and try to create a “feeling of focus” to keep the audience interested. Another challenge was working on actual locations in very cold weather and constantly changing conditions.

Hanson’s other concern was if Douglas would be willing to take on the role without a hint of vanity but also do it in a truthful way and not in a way that would draw attention to the fact that he was playing an unattractive character. To his credit, the actor disappears completely into this role. He’s not the first person you’d think of to play Grady. When he tries too hard to be funny it can come across as pompous, but he tones it down here and looks completely at ease, comfortable as the frumpy Grady. Douglas hits just the right notes of world-weary cynicism but with a romantic streak buried underneath. For the veteran actor it’s an unglamorous role – he gained 25 pounds for the role, eating pizza, subs and drank a lot of beer. He always looks rumpled, unshaven with unkempt hair and often wearing a ratty old housecoat when he writes. Grady has the capacity to do something about his miserable lot in life and during the course of the film his character undergoes a fascinating arc. In some ways, Grady is a pot-smoking burn-out like the Dude from The Big Lebowski (1998) only with slightly more ambition. He lives outside of normal society in the rarified atmosphere of academia — puttering around, writing his novel and teaching his writing class, but when he crosses paths with James Leer, Grady realizes that he’s got to change.

Wonder Boys
also marked a break-out role for Tobey Maguire. Before he garnered massive mainstream exposure with Spider-Man (2002), he was known mostly for roles in small, independent films. Like everyone else in the cast, he has his memorable moments, like when his character laughs at Q’s (Rip Torn) pretentious speech at Wordfest with a high-pitched giggle that reverberates through the large auditorium. The blissfully stoned expression he gives afterwards is priceless. Everyone in the film keeps harping on what a genius writer Grady is, but it gradually becomes apparent that James is the true genius. He writes pages and pages of beautiful prose in minutes. And like any true talent, it just comes pouring effortlessly out of him. What makes James such a good writer is that his whole life is essentially a lie – he lies about his parents’ past, how they met and where they came from. He even maintains this air of a tortured artist but as we find out that too is a lie. James has it pretty easy, living in a large house in an affluent neighborhood. Good fiction writers have to be masters at making things up.

As always, Robert Downey Jr. knows how to make an entrance, meeting Grady at the airport with a transvestite as his date. The exchange between Terry and Grady quickly establishes their long-time friendship by the familiarity between them. Downey is able to take the most mundane, ordinary line and give it his own unique spin and make it funny or give a look that is memorable. His rapport with Douglas is excellent and they play well off each other as both sides of the comedic equation. Downey was on probation during the winter of 1999 when Hanson considered him for a role in Wonder Boys. The director was cautious because of the actor’s drug history and was concerned because it would be a tough film shot in sequence in Pittsburgh in the winter. Downey flew to Pittsburgh and had a long dinner conversation with Hanson where they addressed his problems. The actor demonstrated a commitment to the film and the director hired him. According to Hanson, Downey acted in a professional manner for the entire four-and-a-half month shoot but after it ended and he returned to Los Angeles, the actor violated his parole.

Frances McDormand knows how to react to those around her, like when she meets Grady, Terry and his date at a party. Watching her react to the charming transvestite is priceless. She and Douglas also have excellent chemistry together as evident in the short hand, the give-and-take between their characters. This is nicely established in their first scene together where Sara tells Grady that she’s pregnant. The music sets a slightly melancholic even whimsical tone as the two characters reveal that they are trapped in relationships that they don’t want to be in. They want to be together but Grady won’t show her how serious he is about them. Ultimately, Grady has to save himself and to in order to do this he must convince Sara that he does love and he want to be with her.

Steve Kloves’ script is a solid piece of writing as he does a great job of adapting Chabon’s book, trimming it of its excess narrative fat (as he also did so well with the Harry Potter books). It has clever, memorable dialogue that speaks volumes about these characters. There is a pleasant mix of off-kilter humor and poignant drama as we are presented with all sorts of colorful characters, like Grady’s bisexual editor and the famous and pompous writer known as Q (played to haughty perfection by Rip Torn) and then have them played by equally eccentric characters actors. The dialogue is humorous and offbeat in one scene, touching and thoughtful in the next. For example, in one scene, James rattles off a list of celebrity suicides in alphabetical order, the dates and how they did it in a mechanical monotone as if he’s reading off a grocery list that adds to humor of the scene because it is such an unusual moment.

Kloves also wisely avoids the usual clichés. like Katie Holmes’ character, the young, nubile co-ed who, in a lesser film would have had a fling with Grady. This would have broken the magical spell that this movie casts and so the filmmakers wisely avoid it. Instead, she helps Grady realize that his book is going nowhere and that he needs to make some choices about it and his life. One of the film’s major themes is about making choices. Grady’s problem is that he is indecisive. He can’t make up his mind about how he feels about Sara and he can’t figure out how to end his wildly out of control novel that is ultimately a metaphor for his life. Grady’s life is in a holding pattern, like his book and both get more complicated as life goes on. As the days go on so does the page count increase on his book. However, the key to his salvation lies in his mission to reach James and nurture his talents. Grady sees some of himself in James – a wonder boy in the making while he is a wonder boy who has lost his way. Terry is the third wonder boy in the film and his luster has been fading over years, unable to find another breakthrough novel like The Arsonist’s Daughter and is generally regarded as a joke at work.

Hanson strips color from the palette, presenting Pittsburgh in blues and grays, a romantic, post-industrial setting that we see through Grady’s car window. It’s subtly presented as Hanson doesn’t hit us over the head with obvious landmarks. He excels at creating just the right mood and atmosphere. For the director, the city mirrors the characters in the film as he commented in an interview, “it’s a city with this glorious past that went into decline…That’s why I wanted to shoot here. I think the city’s so emblematic of the characters’ problems.” The city was experiencing a mild winter during their shoot and they had to use a lot of artificial snow.

The best films are the ones that you lose yourself in completely. There is a scene where Grady sneaks a smoke outside of the Gaskill house at night and a light snow falls. He spies a greenhouse in the distance and it is illuminated in the night looking like “heaven” as James puts it. This is in contrast to the warm, gold interior of the nearby Gaskill house. This is a wonderful little moment frozen in time and the beginning of the friendship between Grady and James.

The attention to detail — a snowy winter in Pittsburgh — is beautifully realized. Hanson does a great job of conveying a sense of place, utilizing locations well. There is the warm, red and gold of a blues bar that Grady meets Terry and James at. It’s a small place packed with people and they sit in a booth that create an intimate feel. There’s a great moment where Grady and Terry spot an odd looking guy across the bar and create an elaborate and colorful backstory for him, including a name – Vernon Hardapple – and who is, among other things, “president of the James Brown Hair Club for Men.” Grady later encounters the man on a couple of very memorable occasions including a funny scene where Grady, Q and Terry try to evade Vernon outside of the bar that ends with the man jumping on the hood of their car with his butt. We see Q and Terry laughing and having fun as Grady tries to escape and in turn it is fun for us to watch.

Hanson had been a fan of Bob Dylan’s music since childhood and a great admirer of his soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). As it turned out, Dylan was a fan of Hanson’s previous film, L.A. Confidential and after a lot of convincing screened 90 minutes of rough footage from Wonder Boys. Hanson wanted Dylan because “who knows more about being a wonder boy and the trap it can be, about the expectations and the fear of repeating yourself?” In addition to Dylan, Hanson built the score around nine singer-songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. The entire soundtrack is integrated into the film and Hanson even played some of the songs for the actors on the Pittsburgh set to convey a scene’s “aural texture,” as the director put it in an interview.

The studio decided to release Wonder Boys in February, notoriously the month where films no one cares about are unceremoniously dumped, and while it connected with critics, flopped at the box office. It came out a week after the Academy Award nominations were announced. The studio spent a lot more money promoting the films of theirs that were nominated and not enough on Wonder Boys. The Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern praised Douglas’ work in the movie, but criticized the movie poster, which featured a headshot of Douglas: “a raffishly eccentric role, and he’s never been so appealing. (Don’t be put off by the movie’s cryptic poster, which makes him look like Michael J. Pollard.)” The Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan also slammed the poster: “The film’s ad poster brings Elmer Fudd to mind.”

Hanson was not happy with how the film was marketed, in particular the poster, which he said in an interview, made Douglas look “like he was trying to be Robin Williams.” Furthermore, he said, “The very things that made Michael and I want to do the movie so badly were the reasons it was so tricky to market. Since films go out on so many screens at once, there’s a need for instant appeal. But Wonder Boys isn’t easily reducible to a single image or a catchy ad line.” The director disagreed with the studio over the film’s original release date and advertising campaign. To make matters worse, the marketing was criticized in the press and in an unprecedented move, the studio canceled the lucrative video contract and pulled the film out of theaters. Hanson and Rudin lobbied to have the film re-released. A new campaign was designed that emphasized the ensemble cast and the film was released in theaters where it promptly flopped at the box office again.

Every scene in Wonder Boys feels warm and inviting and filled with interesting characters that inhabit this world and that allows you to be in it for the duration of the film. By hanging out with James, Grady regains that wonder boy spark while also guiding his young protégé to becoming one himself. What better teacher than someone who was once one? At one point, Grady says that most people don’t think and that books aren’t important anymore. He’s jaded and cynical about the world but over the course of the film James reaches him and changes his outlook on life.

ANTON CORBIJN’S A MOST WANTED MAN — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

a most wanted man

The gifted and cerebral director Anton Corbijn (The American, Control) de-glamourized and upended the conventions of the post 9/11 spy film with A Most Wanted Man, a cold, cynical effort, where, much like in The American, he subverted the audience’s expectations at almost every turn, favoring the plausible over the unbelievable, the rational over the illogical, with results that are highly intelligent and wholly engrossing. Based on the John le Carré novel and shot with muted, un-showy elegance by the great cinematographer Benoit Delhomme, this is a film that lives in the same world as The Constant Gardener and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, favoring moral ambiguity and shadowy inner workings over flashy action scenes featuring car chases and shoot-outs. Andrew Bovell’s crisp, talky, and extremely sharp screenplay gave the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman the chance to slow-burn his way through one of the best performances of his estimable career. Slugging scotch or coffee and sucking down cigarettes in almost every scene, this weathered, broken, beaten-down character was a perfect match for Hoffman’s inherent sad-sack instincts – his final moments on screen blister with intensity. The great supporting cast includes Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. With an ending that truly stings and zero hand holding at any point, this is a film I’ve found myself watching whenever I come across it on the movie channels.

 

 

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