The latest from Sundance...
"The Technical Writer"
NUDITY: there is some miscellaneous nudity in the first 15 minutes or so. William Forsythe and Tatum O'Neal invite Michael Harris to a party at their apartment. The party turns out to be an orgy, to Harris's astonishment. There is some frontal nudity scattered through the party action, but the participants are anonymous and the scenes are shot at very low light levels. Ms O'Neal herself is seen in bikini underwear, inexplicit silhouetted nudity (actually just suggested nudity when light shines through her dress), and cleavage shots.
World Premiere at Sundance
Michael Harris plays an agoraphobic whose entire existence seems to consist of sitting at three computers in his Manhattan basement apartment. He has all his meals delivered to his building, and he doesn't even seem to bathe, get a haircut, or clean his apartment. Apart from typing and sleeping, his only social interaction consists of conversations with an elderly woman who lives in his building. She is dying and bed-ridden, so Harris acts as her part-time nurse and confidante.
Although the writer doesn't seem to be interested in changing his life, some kinky new neighbors have other ideas. William Forsythe and Tatum O'Neal play the couple in the penthouse, extroverted freethinkers who change the life of the introverted scribe. The gregarious Forsythe drags Harris to a party in the penthouse - an orgy, as it turns out. When Forsythe wanders into the group grope, the technical writer is engaged in a conversation by O'Neal. As the film develops, we learn that Forsythe and O'Neal are looking for a certain type of person for a kind of sex game, someone who will eventually make love to O'Neal while Forsythe watches. Forsythe thinks the technical writer is a lost cause, but O'Neal is bored and her husband is about to go out for months on a location shoot, so she takes on the agoraphobic author as her project.
Her challenge - to get him to reclaim first his humanity, then his sexuality.
In the course of the film, the writer undergoes a significant metamorphosis, awakening from the near-death stupor he had fallen into, going outside, relating to people again, and helping his dying neighbor in the process.
I thought the film had many positives and an excellent ending, but stumbled a few times along the way. The casting of the wooden O'Neal was the greatest liability. I could never figure out what she was trying to do with the character. Was she in love with the writer? Was she pretending to be in love with him in order to seduce him into the threesome? Is she capable of any feeling at all? Is her relationship with the writer a betrayal of her husband or part of their partnership? Is she seducing the unwashed writer because she is bored, because she is intrigued by the man, or because she is just being a dutiful wife? I didn't get any feel for these answers because Tatum just doesn't bring the answers into the role. It seems that she's just reciting lines, and sometimes artificially at that.
I did like Harris's literate, blase take on the sardonic writer, and Pamela Gordon's portrayal of the dying neighbor. In fact, I found enough positives in the film that I liked it overall. It was original and intelligent. Unfortunately, I don't see much box office appeal. The storylines are far from the beaten path, and the tone is consistently kinky and too dark for any moviegoing target group except the arthouse set. If this film is picked up, it will struggle for an R rating. If mainstream viewers could somehow make it through to the ending, they might view the entire experience positively, as I did, but that ain't a-gonna happen. By the time the world premiere was finished at Sundance, there were plenty of empty seats in the house, and most of those people walked out before the technical writer performed oral sex on the dying woman. (This happened after his transformation. Before O'Neal forced him out of his agoraphobic asexual existence, the writer balked at even changing the old lady's bedpan.)
The film was shot in very low light levels by a new type of digital camera - the Sony MSW 900P, a PAL format digicam. The cinematographer was also able to get some extraordinary shots of Times Square in which he was able to keep the foreground action focused and visible in dim light while allowing the bright neon signs in the background to remain vivid and readable. In effect, he was virtually creating special effects right in the camera. In the post-film interviews, he mentioned that the camera was also able to do the impressive time-lapse shots of New York traffic, all without any studio F/X or editing tricks.
"The Maldonado Miracle"
Salma Hayek debuts as a director in G-rated family fare. Her directorial debut, which was filmed in Utah, turns into a love-feast with the Utah audience.
NUDITY: would be G rated, or perhaps PG
World Premiere at Sundance. Premieres on Showtime February 14th.
I learned a lot from the experience of seeing this film at Sundance. I learned that Jesus has type-O-positive blood, I learned how movies like Solaris can get good reviews when people want the director to succeed, and I learned why my anonymous outsider status is so important to objectivity.
Salma Hayek filmed this movie in Utah, and it seemed during the Utah premiere that half the audience was involved in the film. Salma herself is a refreshingly open, charming, energetic, funny, intelligent and generous person. The audience loved her. The cast and crew thought she was the best boss they had ever had. The Utah filmmaking community embraced her support of their efforts. The entire screening was a virtual agape between Salma and the audience, which applauded all the individual names in the credits, and gave the film a rapturous standing ovation.
Everyone in the audience, including me, wanted the film to be a rousing success. They wanted it so much that they projected their hopes on the results.
I might be writing something different right now if I were an insider or if I knew Hayek, because everyone who knows her seems to adore her and wants to shelter her from criticism. She's just so damned nice and so humble, how could you feel otherwise? According to location
reports, she was actually pitching in with a hammer and nails when set construction was falling behind schedule. How can you give a bad review to somebody like that?
I don't know. I guess I'm just downright mean. This movie stinks.
It reeks to high heaven. It's basically at the same level of sophistication as one of those after-school specials. Some of the acting performances are barely above the level shown by small town auto dealers who do their own used car commercials. The dialogue is jaw-droppingly bad (think "Dondi"). The storyline is sappy and unoriginal, virtually a sentimentalized retread of a sardonic 2000 film called Picking up the Pieces, an unsuccessful film, but one which was nonetheless directed by the great Mexican director Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate).
The town of San Ramos is dying. People are moving out, and even the priest has asked for a transfer. The town's morale is at its nadir until the day when a statue of Christ seems to be crying blood. Word of the miracle spreads, and soon the town is booming again. People
come to San Ramos to be healed. The lame walk. The infertile conceive. The lonely find love. Crocodiles start eating with utensils. Jerry Springer is chosen to be the next James Bond. Jimmy Carter defeats Mike Tyson in the ring, causing Tyson to devote his life to building
housing for the poor. Reality shows disappear from TV. Arabs and Israelis embrace. Dubya and Saddam go camping together, and rescue an adorable baby deer. Lost fathers are found by big-eyed children. You get the picture.
It turns out that an illegal Mexican boy was injured in an escape from the border patrol, hid in the church, and changed his clothing on the scaffold above the statue, thus dripping blood on Christ's face. Unscrupulous locals deduce the truth, and conspire to keep the boy
from telling his story, because if he did so it would end their town's renascence.
But if that was just the boy's blood - well, gosh darn it, how do you explain all those other miracles? Especially the Tyson thing?
You'll have to watch it to find out.
In Alfonso Arau's version, it turned out that a "hand of the Blessed Virgin" was actually the hand of an unfaithful wife who has killed and chopped up by her butcher husband. The other plot details and dramatic conflicts are about the same. To be fair, Arau's R-rated movie is more sardonic, and Hayek's film is supposed to be a sentimental G-rated
entertainment, so the parallel plots don't really suggest any similarities in tone or atmosphere.
I don't know how many of the film's liabilities should be blamed on Salma. She didn't write the sappy script, and Showtime already had the project in the pipeline, so she didn't develop it, but she was in charge, so the fact that the movie is poor is ultimately her responsibility.
Having said that, I really have to add that I would be happy to invest money in a Salma Hayek project. When you hire this woman, she gives you everything she has, as she demonstrated with Frida and with this project. She'll be a good director someday as well, because she wants to learn how to do it, and she has the energy and intelligence to get it right. There's nothing really bad about the pacing, photography, set design, or editing of this film, and the narrative is coherent. After all, it's just supposed to be a made-for-cable family film, so I'm not sure what more she could have done with it.
While Salma did nothing to make us forget Kubrick, and she hasn't acquired all the technical and artistic expertise of her fellow actor-turned-helmsman George Clooney, she did just as workmanlike a job as a professional TV director, which is a helluva start because those TV people normally take years to achieve that level of proficiency.
And let's face it, people love her.
And with good reason.
Joaquin Phoenix interview
This film debuted at the Toronto festival on September 8, 2001. It has languished in distributor purgatory outside fo Europe and the Sundance 2003 screening is the USA premiere.
It was filmed in 10 weeks in Germany. Reported budget: $15 million
Talk about a cursed film. This is a dark, satirical look at the peacetime activities of the U.S. Army in Germany just before the wall came down. It offers such a critical look at the Army that every main character turns out to be a swindler, a wimp, an idiot, a junkie, or a
This film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, three days before Sept 11, 2001. As you may guess, the bottom immediately dropped out of the USA's market for material critical of America and the American military, and the film was flooded out of a country awash in fear, paranoia, defensiveness, and patriotism. Given the current political climate, the Buffalo Soldiers almost seems to say to Americans, "now do you see why everyone hates you?" To this day (15 months after the Toronto screening) it had never been shown in a US theater before Sundance 2003, where it debuted to a mixed reaction.
Ray Elwood (Joaquin Phoenix) is the company clerk for a U.S. supply base. Like Radar O'Reilly, he's really making most decisions for his colonel to rubber stamp, but he's not the benevolent Radar kind of clerk. He's the wheeling and dealing Milo Minderbinder (Catch 22) kind of black marketer. If there is anything which an Army can obtain, Elwood will hustle it up and sell it at a profit, his product assortment ranging from Mop 'n Glo to arms to heroin.
Most of Elwood's colleagues seem to be stoned half the time, and that's bad news for Germany when the colleagues in question are engaged in tank exercises. We see the wacked-out GIs driving through beer fests, running over VWs, blowing up gas stations, and generally causing each other to die purposelessly. These deaths, of course, usually result in posthumous awards and medals, since the Army on view here is an institution which spins all news and sweeps all problems under the rug.
When the lads aren't killing off destroying Germany and killing each other, they manage to steal two trucks full of weapons, and Elwood is able to build this hijack into a mammoth deal for himself, involving a swap of the arms for 30 kilos of pure heroin.
The only real rain on Elwood's parade is a new straight-arrow top sergeant who immediately sniffs out the corruption on the base, and resolves to clean house, starting with Elwood. Since Elwood is a real bad-ass himself, he gives the battle with Top Sarge a real kick-start by deliberately screwing the man's daughter in a car outside his window. Of course, the Sarge does not take this lightly, retaliates, and the two men thence engage in an ever-escalating personal battle.
Joaquin Phoenix brings his unusual presence to the role of Elwood. He doesn't seem tough enough, or smart enough for the role, but there is something very positive that results from the disconnection between his personality and the lines he is speaking. He makes Elwood seem
like a wide-eyed college kid who fell into the wrong crowd and got in trouble scamming on campus, rather than like the hardened criminal he really is. That adds a lot of dimension and sympathy to a role that could have seemed like a complete dirtbag if played by another type of actor with a more obvious high level of weaselly intelligence, ala James Woods.
Since the honest top sarge is played with cold, psychotic brutality by Scott Glenn, their battles leave the audience at wit's end when it comes to choosing sides. Elwood is completely in the wrong, and the sarge is completely incorruptible, yet Phoenix just seems so much more vulnerable and sensitive than Glenn that we are unable to root for Elwood's downfall.
Although screened at Sundance, the film is about as un-Sundance as anything you'll see there. It features big name Hollywood actors and a budget big enough to finance about 20 typical Sundance features. It resembles Hollywood movies in other ways. It features macho street confrontations, racial violence, guys waving guns at each other, car wrecks, and big, bad explosions. It also centers around contrived characters who are obviously movie characters rather than real people.
To be honest, I thought it was a good enough movie that it got me emotionally involved with the plots and characters, but it's a good movie in the Hollywood sense, not in the indie sense, and I'll be surprised if it ever manages a successful run at the American box office. The peacetime army may really have been like this, but the Sundance crowd is the wrong market for the macho stuff, even though the anti-military message may resonate. Away from the rarefied mountain air at Sundance, this is just the wrong time to market a big-explosion movie which maligns America and its military and seems to justify anti-American feelings overseas.
"Die Mommie Die"
NUDITY: Stark Sands is seen naked from the rear. Two other men are seen naked fromn the side in a three-way sex scene. The woman in that scene is played by a man, but I thought I glimpsed breasts, so I guess it was a female body double.
Charles Busch is a female impersonator who writes and stars in genre parodies. His last filmed effort was Psycho Beach Party. This latest effort, Die Mommie Die, is a parody of the drama queen melodramas of the 50s and 60s, in which actresses like Susan Hayward schemed and
seduced callously, and encountered crises which were not only larger than their real-life counterparts, but also arrived with far greater frequency.
The genre died out of the film world before most of you were born, but it left behind a legacy of nighttime soap operas like Dynasty, so if you can remember Joan Collins on the small screen, you'll have a good idea of the equivalent big screen target Busch is focusing on.
Busch is a talented guy, whom you may remember from his portrayal of Nat Ginsberg on Oz. I don't know if it's even correct to call him a female impersonator. He is a male who plays certain types of female roles convincingly. His characterization in this film is so convincing that you'll forget he is a male, and his writing shows a real gift for walking the line between lampoon and homage.
Busch and director Mark Rucker got the actors to deliver all their outrageous lines in a consistently theatrical and obviously insincere style to match Busch's own. I thought Jason Priestly was especially funny as a bisexual gigolo. The entire film plays out as if everyone in the cast knows he or she is in a high camp entertainment, and wants the audience to know that they know.
I laughed a lot, to tell you the truth. I suppose drag queen movies may not be what most of you are looking for. Me neither. But the fact of the matter is that Busch can probably evoke the actresses of that era better than any contemporary female I can name. Hell, When I was a
kid I always wondered if Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were really middle aged men in wigs, so who better to portray them than a 48 year old man in a wig?
Busch is making fun of the melodrama queens, but he also has a gift for witty dialogue and a genuine regard for the subject matter which makes this an entertaining confection about part of filmdom's barely-remembered past
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