Hey folks, Harry here to introduce you to the third installment of the dear professor's rantings and ravings. Seems the ol evil one is honing his sword to a razor's edge in his continued strong feelings about Barry Sonnenfeld. Just at a personal interest level I have to say I'm not curious in the least about seeing a Sonnenfeld directed, Will Smith vehicle about ALI. When I hear things like, "Ali was the first rapper," I just get this sinking feeling like someone is completely missing the point. It's akin to talking about latex nipples and Batman. It just doesn't raise a flag of interest in the least. Well, enough from me... onto the evil genius....
Hey, Head Geek...
I spent the holiday celebrating with fireworks like everyone else. Of course, most of them were strapped to various henchmen who have angered me recently, but I enjoyed the hell out of it just the same. I hope that all of you had a good time whether you were in a theater or out and about. If you were in a SOUTH PARK audience, I'm sure you had a blast. I know I did when I paid to see it for a second time, something I only do with movies I love these days. Besides, I wouldn't have missed that brilliant SLEEPY HOLLOW trailer for anything.
If you were in a WILD WILD WEST audience, I'm sorry. You can't say you weren't warned, though. Aside from my review, the film took a fairly merciless beating from the national critics, and no matter how hard Warner Bros. spins the story (kind of a dramatic jump between the estimates on Sunday night and the estimates on Monday night -- funny how that worked), their box-office take since Wednesday is a disappointment. I'm dying to see what sort of precipitous drop the film has in its second weekend.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't just a case of Schadenfreude run amuck. After witnessing the debacle of WILD WILD WEST, I now have a powerful interest in seeing the film bomb. If it does, then we will be spared one of the projects we've been hearing rumbles about for months now. I'm writing, of course, about Sonnenfeld's proposed Muhammad Ali biopic starring Will Smith.
When the idea of Sonnenfeld and Smith working together on the film first went public, I thought the weak link was the casting of Smith. He couldn't physically be more wrong for the role unless he were white. His "nude" scene in WILD WILD WEST made that abundantly clear. Smith's lean, smooth torso doesn't remotely resemble Ali's iron frame. Their specific types of charisma are almost exactly opposite as well, and I don't think Smith has the range to change himself enough. One of the working titles of the biopic is POWER & GRACE, and that certainly sums up Ali in his prime. He could beat the hell out of anyone alive, but there was an elegance to his life outside the ring that distinguished him from the typical "fighter."
Smith is the least of my concerns now, though. Instead, I'm actively afraid of how badly Sonnenfeld will mismanage one of the greatest human stories of the 20th Century. Muhammad Ali is not just a great boxer. He is a great man, a true legend, deserving of that status. Both Harry and I have met him, and we both agreed that it was a humbling experience. He was a powerful voice against the war in Vietnam and an active figure in the civil rights movement. He's also one of the only true role models I can think of in pop culture. The telling of this epic and important story demands a filmmaker of remarkable sensitivity and skill, someone capable of balancing the heavy dramatic material, the political content, and the thrilling fight sequences. We need someone who's proven their capability at a wide range of styles.
What we don't need is a director who frequently talks about how much he dislikes watching movies -- any movies -- and who complains that filmmaking is boring and that he doesn't really care when he's on the set. We don't need someone who prioritizes style over substance. We don't need Barry Sonnenfeld. If you want a look into the mindset of this director, you can pick up any of the articles currently hyping WILD WILD WEST. In particular, though, I'd recommend the new issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE. It's revealing material, but I'm not going to take any of his quotes out of context. Read the whole thing. It reads a lot like every Sonnenfeld interview, thick with his dislike for the work he does. At least he and I agree on something.
Before you think this is personal, allow me to interject that I think his work as a director of photography was frequently brilliant. RAISING ARIZONA and MILLER'S CROSSING are two of my favorite looking films of all time. He was collaborating with some real artists on those films, though. Same with Rob Reiner. I just think he's out of his depth when he's in charge of the whole picture. As Columbia rolls ahead with the project, AICN plans to cover the film every step of the way. If this thing derails, we plan to be there. I've got the latest draft of the script en route right now and will be reviewing it soon. I sincerely hope that the heat of the Sonnenfeld/Smith team has cooled enough that saner heads will steer the project forward to success.
Enough with the big-budget impersonal world of filmmaking, though. Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to get a good look at the other side of things when I joined the Filmmakers Alliance (www.filmmakersalliance.com) at the Director's Guild for an evening of short films, free food, and tequila. As with any collection of work, there were certain shorts that stood out over the others, but my compliments to everyone whose work was shown. For me, there were three films that really shone.
IS2O was 16 minutes of sublime visual power, shot to great effect on MiniDV. Described in the evening's program as "the edited log of an alien transmission," the short was an exercise in point of view. An unidentified device or creature observes a photographer as she moves through various southwestern locations, trying to find something to photograph, seemingly unaware of what a fascinating subject she is. Writer/director/photographer/editor Elyse Couvillion shows enormous control here, and her film is visually ravishing. Her subtle visual wit is bracing, and I'm curious to see what else she can do.
Another female filmmaker with a strong visual sense is the charming Shawn Tolleson, whose HIDE AND SEEK manages to telll a simple, emotionally direct story with no dialogue, no color, and a mere nine minutes. Tolleson told me that she's worked in color and sync sound before, but she chose to push herself to tell a story with the most basic tools available. If this is the kind of work Tolleson can do when intentionally limited, someone should set her free soon.
Finally, there was the collaboration of Frankie Como and Ken Lipman on THAT MARINO THING. Lipman was the co-creator of Nickelodeon's long-running THE SECRET WORLD OF ALEX MACK, and Como was a regular on the show. This short is their first film. Como plays one of the leads and directs, and it's obvious he's an actor since the film's clear emphasis is performance. Despite a surface similarity to HBO's recent sensation THE SOPRANOS and the spring hit ANALYZE THIS, the short film manages to take the central conceit of mobsters consulting a psychiatrist and wring fresh laughs from it. Doing this kind of goombah humor without crossing over into caricature or cartoon is tricky, but Lipman's script pulls it off with real flair.
The event as a whole was great fun, with Neil LaBute (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, the upcoming NURSE BETTY) delivering a strong, funny speech to kick things off. The afterparty ran for several hours, and gave us a chance to talk to people about the Filmmaker's Alliance. It's a great idea, a group that really practices what it preaches , and it's great to see new filmmakers given a voice. I'd advise anyone who's still taking these first steps in the field to visit the group's website and see how to get involved. Maybe we'll see your film next year.
Has anyone else noticed the truly deplorable trick Paramount's using in their GENERAL'S DAUGHTER campaign? The TV spot starts with the announcer solemnly intoning, "Roger Ebert calls it a 'steamy psychological thriller.'" Then they run the quote by onscreen. The thing is, I've checked Roger's reviews at his website and on the SISKEL & EBERT homepage. He gave the film a thumbs down, and he doesn't actually call it a "steamy psychological thriller" anywhere in his print review. In fact, it's a mixed to negative review. Isn't that just inherently dishonest? Paramount has plenty of quote whores they can run, but they know that using Roger's name implies he gave the film a good review, no matter what he said. He didn't though, so I'm calling a foul.
Another foul I'm going to have to call is on the makers of this Friday's release ARLINGTON ROAD. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to write a full review for the film or not. I'm not sure if I feel like the film's worth the effort. It's not a terrible film by any means. In fact, there are bits and pieces of the film and the performances by Tim Robbins, Jeff Bridges, and Joan Cusack that I liked. In the end, though, I can't recommend it. The material is ultimately too distasteful, played as exploitation, to be enjoyed. The topic is demanding enough that it should have been written smarter, and less like a conventional thriller. The real kicker is the film's ending. I won't spell it out here, but I will say that I'm a big fan of THE PARALLAX VIEW, a film that was just released on DVD. Rewatching it for the first time in years, I was flabbergasted at how exactly, beat-for-beat ARLINGTON ROAD rips off the earlier film. Note to screenwriter Ehren Kruger: when you come up with your clever twist ending for SCREAM 3, make sure it's actually yours.
Loved the news about David Mamet writing the adaptation of HANNIBAL. Let's have another VERDICT or UNTOUCHABLES or HOMICIDE, David. You can do it.
To those of you lucky enough to be able to take advantage of that Kubrick festival in Australia (see our story today), ask yourself this question: what's the likelihood of seeing Cruise and Kidman there with him working on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 and her shooting MOULIN ROUGE, both there in Australia? I'd guess pretty good.
Gabriel Byrne's playing a priest fighting Satan in STIGMATA. He actually plays Satan in END OF DAYS. I saw the trailers back-to-back today. Isn't this somehow conflict of interest?
Anyway, I've got to start scrubbing the henchmen off the walls to gear up for the week ahead. I'll be looking at DICK, LAKE PLACID, and I'll be offering the first review anywhere of Peter Jackson's scripts for LORD OF THE RINGS. Next week, I'm going to take an in-depth look at why Bill Murray is one of our national treasures. Until then...