24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Patrick Goldstein

'Hunger Games': Should Jennifer Lawrence really look hungrier?

March 28, 2012 |  1:56 pm

Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games'

If you ever wondered why so many Hollywood actresses spend so much time having so much plastic surgery before they're, oh, say 35, look no further than the way some film reviewers reacted to Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance in “The Hunger Games.” As Slate’s L. V. Anderson has noted, a surprising number of critics have bodysnarked Lawrence for having a body that is, well, too ample for the role of the film's heroine Katniss Everdeen.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis thought Lawrence didn’t look hungry enough for the part, saying “now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.” 

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy suggested that Lawrence was miscast, saying her “lingering baby fat shows here.” And Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells referred to Lawrence as a “fairly tall, big-boned lady” who’s “too big” for Josh Hutcherson, Katniss’ love interest.

PatrickgoldsteinSo what we to make of this reaction? Is it sexism? Or is it something more complicated? After all, showbiz always has been all about appearances. In fairness, the obsession with slimness isn’t limited simply to actresses.

“Park and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt made no secret of the fact that he flunked his audition to play Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg in “Moneyball” because he was too fat. He said after losing 30 pounds he finally got the part. And if I had a dollar for every critic and blogger who made malicious fun of Russell’s Crowe hefty appearance in “State of Play,” I’d have almost as much money as “The Hunger Games” made in its opening weekend.

In other words, the critics certainly aren’t the only ones with a neurotic preoccupation with appearances. It starts with the people who make the movies, who have a thousand reasons to focus on appearances, some of them perfectly reasonable, some of them ridiculously frivolous. At least when it came to “Moneyball,” veracity was an issue. The “Moneyball” filmmakers clearly believed that having an obviously fat first baseman would hurt the film’s authenticity, since real major league first basemen (OK, with the exception of Prince Fielder) don’t look fat. Hatteberg certainly didn’t, so realism was an issue, since Pratt was playing a real-life character.

But Lawrence is playing a fictional character from a book. Does she really have to look exactly the way we perceived her character in the text? Surely by now critics must be accustomed to seeing actors and actresses who often look strikingly different than the characters from a book or a person from real life.

Kate Winslet doesn’t look remotely like the Mildred Pierce character, as described by James M. Cain in his novel “Mildred Pierce,” or for that matter, like Hanna Schmitz in “The Reader.” It’s Winslet’s acting chops that make the portrayals come to life, not her physical resemblance to the characters. Ditto for Meryl Streep's fabulous take on Julia Child in "Julie and Julia."

It’s especially disappointing to see Dargis of all people focusing on Lawrence’s figure, since she has written so eloquently and hilariously — see her withering review of the Farrelly Brothers’ “Hall Pass” — about the casual sexism in modern-day Hollywood films. If Dargis, or any of the other critics, thought Lawrence was miscast in the film, fair enough.

But it would have been simple enough to put the blame on director Gary Ross, the filmmaker who made the call. Lawrence looks like a believable woman, not some curvy, Kardashian-style cartoon. After years of carping about the lack of strong women characters in Hollywood movies, isn’t it time the critics showed a little more respect when one comes along?

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Summer Showdown: Is there room for two action movies on the same day?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence, right, in a scene from the film "The Hunger Games." Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate

 

 


Summer showdown: Is there room for 2 action movies on the same day?

March 27, 2012 | 10:59 am

Total Recall

It was 38 degrees in my backyard last night, but in the movie business, it’s already Summer Showdown Season.

Sony Pictures is so eager to launch its August film “Total Recall” that the studio is putting a 30-second promo on Apple’s movie trailer home page Tuesday. The promo isn’t just selling the film; it’s touting the movie’s first trailer, which will premiere Sunday during ABC’s showcase NBA clash between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. (Yes, it’s an ad for an ad.)

On the surface, it’s a big way to beat the drums for “Total Recall,” a reboot of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller that stars Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. But by buying a costly 2 1/2 minutes of prime NBA advertising real estate for a movie that doesn’t hit theaters until Aug. 3, Sony is also sending a not-so-subtle signal to Universal Pictures that it means business. Universal, you see, has an action movie of its own slated for the same date: “The Bourne Legacy,” a reboot of its popular “Bourne” franchise, with Jeremy Renner taking over from Matt Damon in the lead role.

PatrickgoldsteinIf you think it’s crazy for rival studios to release two action movies aimed at the same male audience on the same date, you couldn’t be more right. In an era when studios find common ground on all sorts of shared goals, from fighting piracy to rolling back star salaries, box-office blood lust still surfaces when it comes to planting flags on prime opening weekends.

This gamesmanship is deeply rooted in Hollywood’s DNA. In the old days, studio moguls would play poker with one another, betting huge wads of cash just to prove who had the most cutthroat instincts. Today’s movie marketers have inherited some of that gambler’s mentality.

With only 40 or so really attractive weekends a year and nearly three times as many major movies in need of release dates, marketers are always playing chicken with one another, especially since studios are rarely eager to betray any lack of confidence in their product.

Universal was the first to date its “Bourne Legacy,” picking the Aug. 3 date way back in October 2010. Sony moved “Recall” onto the date roughly four months later. So why hasn’t either side blinked?

After all, when rival studios release movies with similar appeal on the same date, at least one film has to come in second.

In the summer of 2010, 20th Century Fox put an action film, “The A-Team,” on the same date as Sony’s “Karate Kid,” believing it had a stronger product. Fox underestimated the “Karate Kid” remake’s appeal; it did $55 million on its opening weekend, more than twice what “A-Team” made.

The same thing happened a few weeks later when Fox’s Tom Cruise-starring “Knight and Day” went up against Sony’s Adam Sandler-starring “Grown Ups.” The Sandler film easily won the weekend.

Sometimes both films get hurt. Last April, Warner Bros. and Universal both ended up with R-rated comedies on the same date when Warners moved “Arthur” onto the same weekend as “Your Highness.” Both flopped.

Warners is the most aggressive studio when it comes to jumping onto other studio dates. In fact, Sony’s “Grown Ups” sequel, already scheduled for release on July 12, 2013, now has company, thanks to Warners’ announcement that it is putting its “Pacific Rim” thriller on the same date. Warners also said it would release “Hangover 3” on May 24, 2013 — the same day as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 6.”

Sometimes, though, it’s not the aggressor who wins. Last summer, when Paramount moved its J.J. Abrams-directed thriller “Super 8” onto the same June date as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 5,” Universal called an audible, moving “Fast 5” to April 29. The decision was a huge winner — “Fast 5” scored big at the box office, opening to $86 million in the U.S. on the first weekend and getting an early jump on its international release; it ended up making $628 million overseas.

When it comes to the face-off between “Total Recall” and “The Bourne Legacy,” it would seem that Sony has a key competitive advantage: Universal hasn’t seen Sony’s “Total Recall” trailer, but Sony has seen Universal’s first “Bourne” trailer. That’s because Universal released it early so it could play in theaters in front of the studio’s recent Denzel Washington thriller “Safe House.”

With Universal’s trailer in hand, Sony did what is known as a head’s up trailer test, showing both trailers to a recruited audience of 800 likely moviegoers. Neither studio would talk to me on the record, but Sony insiders say their trailer easily received the better reaction. It’s possible that it wasn’t a fair fight, since Universal says its “Bourne” trailer was missing some key special effects.

But having been given a sneak peek of the “Total Recall” trailer, I’d have to give it the edge as well. Although the “Bourne” trailer is loaded with action, “Total Recall” has more audience eye candy, displaying an exotic futuristic world and some dazzling, gravity-defying visual effects. Even more crucially, since both films are going after guys, “Total Recall” has more sex appeal. Farrell has what appear to be complicated relationships with the film’s female costars, who engage in a fierce battle with each other at one point in the film.

“You'd have trouble betting against ‘Total Recall,’” said a marketer who is familiar with both projects and works for neither Sony nor Universal. “It has action and sex appeal, which will win out over action alone every time with guys. And ‘Total Recall,’ with its cool futuristic look, has a chance to appeal to far more teen boys than ‘Bourne.’”

There’s even a game within the game: The producer of “Total Recall,” Neal Moritz, is also the producer of Universal’s lucrative “Fast and Furious” series. Moritz declined to comment, but insiders say that he’s been fending off a sizable amount of playful trash talk from Universal about the commercial challenges for “Recall.”

Will Universal blink after “Total Recall” gets a splashy send-off this Sunday? The studio insists it isn’t moving. But these days, you don’t need your own market research team to see if Sony is making the right bet. After its trailer has its premiere Sunday, the court of final opinion will be on Twitter, where fans will weigh in with their own assessments.

Today’s studio marketers keep an intensely close eye on reaction on the Internet. Twitter buzz can be deceptive — “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was a Twitter sensation, yet it bombed. But at least it’s spin proof. If the reaction to “Total Recall’s” trailer is mixed, you can bet “Bourne” is staying put. But if Sony’s film gets a tsunami of ardent tweets, I’m betting Universal might look for a more hospitable weekend.

In showbiz, sometimes you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

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 --Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Farrell in a scene from the upcoming summer thriller "Total Recall." Credit: Columbia Pictures

 


Hollywood flop sweat: What caused the latest box-office duds?

March 20, 2012 |  6:00 am

Dustin hoffman
What do A-listers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Milch and Andrew Stanton have in common as of late? If you said major Hollywood duds, you’ve been paying attention.

Disney on Monday said it expects to lose $200 million on Stanton’s “John Carter” — a huge disappointment from the wizard who co-wrote or directed an amazing string of Pixar hits, including the “Toy Story” films, “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo.”

HBO canceled “Luck” last week after the death of three horses during production. Making matters worse, the costly racetrack drama by the veteran TV writer Milch (“NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood”) and filmmaker Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) wasn’t connecting with viewers, with recent episodes drawing 500,000 viewers, barely half of what HBO gets for its unsung “Eastbound & Down” comedy series.

PatrickgoldsteinThis follows the cancellation of Spielberg’s “Terra Nova,” the hugely ambitious Fox TV dinosaur drama — its pilot alone cost $15 million — that flamed out after one season, victim to flagging ratings.

And who can forget Scorsese’s “Hugo,” the Oscar-nominated valentine to the early days of moviemaking that cost upward of $170 million to make, but made only $73 million in the U.S., and even less overseas?

Have all these guys been drinking from the same poisoned well? Or is there something in common about all these projects that explains why they went bust?

I was a huge fan of both “Hugo” and “Luck,” less so when it came to “John Carter” and “Terra Nova.” But regardless of my own critical take, it was pretty obvious all of the shows lacked a key ingredient: a rooting interest in the central characters. Whom did we really care about? Not Dustin Hoffman in “Luck,” who barely came into focus until way too late in the season. Not “John Carter’s” title character, whom Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips called “a flat, inexpressive protagonist played by a flat, inexpressive actor.” Not anyone in “Terra Nova,” which seemed engineered to please every possible demographic known to man. Not “Hugo’s” wide-eyed young boy, who was almost as inexpressive as John Carter.

The ideas at the heart of these stories skew old in an era when audiences skew young. For all its cutting-edge visual effects, “John Carter” was based on a century-old idea of adventure from Edgar Rice Burroughs. “Hugo” was set in 1930s Paris with a story that revolved around film pioneer Georges Méliès. Set at Santa Anita racetrack, “Luck” focused on a sport that has almost no resonance with anyone under 40 (and featured two marvelous actors, Hoffman and Nick Nolte, who are in their 70s).

“Terra Nova” had younger on-screen talent, but the New York Times’ Mike Hale accurately described the show as being “without doubt the squarest, most old-fashioned series to hit TV since, well, since Spielberg’s own ‘Falling Skies.’”

So why didn’t anyone stop these guys any sooner? It isn’t as if each project didn’t come with a host of bright, pulsing warning lights. Disney got its hands on “John Carter” only after Paramount bailed on the project, having seen a string of top filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo del Toro and Jon Favreau, struggle unsuccessfully to crack the story. Producer Graham King had to finance “Hugo” on his own when studio after studio passed on splitting the cost. “Terra Nova” had all sorts of writing staff shakeups and production delays. And on “Luck,” Mann and Milch were so unwilling to compromise their visions that they ended up hatching a nonaggression pact, with Milch having total control over the scripts, Mann complete autonomy when it came to the filmmaking.

Stanton’s track record was unblemished by failure, but you can’t say the same thing about Scorsese, Spielberg, Mann or Milch — they’ve all had ups and downs when it comes to commercial success. Milch, for example, was coming off of an HBO series, “John From Cincinnati,” so convoluted that even many of his biggest fans chalked it off as a head-scratcher.

But if you’re a studio executive, it’s hard to turn down an opportunity to work with a gifted filmmaker with a closet full of Oscars and Emmys. As one talent agent put it: “When you spend most of your time making Adam Sandler movies or reality TV shows, do you really want to be the one who takes a pass when Spielberg or Scorsese walks in the door?”

Several insiders I spoke to argued that today’s studio and network chiefs are more confused than ever about what their audience wants, a lack of certainty that encourages them to look for answers — and cede control — to high-powered creative minds.

“If you look at these situations, especially the one at Disney with ‘John Carter,’ you see inexperienced executives who were afraid of the people who were working for them,” said TV and film producer Gavin Polone (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Panic Room”).

Polone argued that executives with years of crisis management under their belts are more likely to make tough calls. He cited the example of “Moneyball,” which was just days away from going into production with Brad Pitt in the starring role and Steven Soderbergh at the helm when Sony studio chief Amy Pascal pulled the plug until she could hire a new director.

“There’s no way that was an easy decision, especially with a talented filmmaker and a major movie star involved,” said Polone. “But Amy clearly didn’t believe in the direction the film was going, so she put on the brakes and went in a different direction.”

Rich Ross, who ran the Disney Channel before taking charge at the studio less than two years ago, was new to the game of crossing swords with heavyweight talent, making it perhaps much harder to rein in a runaway film production. Of course, Graham King had made three previous movies with Scorsese yet still couldn’t stop him from going tens of millions of dollars over budget.

You could say this illustrates the oldest cliché in the book — no one knows anything. But it also demonstrates that betting on A-list showbiz talent doesn’t guarantee a better outcome than picking the favorite in the NCAA basketball tournament pool. Sometimes, even when you’re in the room with the most incandescent talent in the galaxy, you just have to say no.

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Photo: Dustin Hoffman, left, with filmmaker Michael Mann at the Jan. 25 premiere of HBO's "Luck" in Los Angeles.

Matt Sayles/Associated Press

 


'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar and the new Israeli cinema

March 18, 2012 |  8:24 pm

Footnote
The Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar was in town last month for the Academy Awards, which honored his latest movie, “Footnote,” with a nomination for the foreign language film Oscar. To make him feel at home, I took him to lunch at an Israeli café in a neighborhood that has so many kosher markets it’s known as Little Israel. The café owners gushed over Cedar’s movie, which was a big hit in Israel, winning 9 Israeli Oscars. The waitress even delivered a free dessert plate, which Cedar politely nibbled at, confiding that “she doesn’t know how skinny you have to be to fit into a tuxedo.”

The warm reception was somewhat out of character for the typically fractious Israelis, who can argue about almost anything, as Cedar captures so adroitly in “Footnote.” The film, now playing at the Laemmle Royal Theater, is about a bitter rivalry between father and son, both Talmudic scholars at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The father, played by Shlomo Bar Aba, is taciturn and misanthropic, resentful of any incursions from modern life. The son, played by Lior Ashkenazi, is worldly and successful, a champion schmoozer.

The men are already at odds. But when a misunderstanding occurs involving the ultra-prestigious Israel Prize, all hell breaks loose.

Many have assumed that the film has autobiographical roots, since Cedar’s father, Haim, is a celebrated biochemist who has been awarded the prize, the country’s highest academic  honor.  Cedar insists that he and his father are extraordinarily close. In fact, when “Footnote” earned an ovation at Cannes, the first person Cedar hugged was his father.

Patrick

To me, the film is really about something larger that all artists, Israeli or otherwise, struggle with--the need to remain creatively autonomous while also connecting with a broader culture. It is an issue that engages Cedar, since he has struggled to retain a fiercely independent vision at a time when Israel's film and TV industry is amid a commercial boom. 

“I’m always torn between the two sides,” says Cedar, 43, who was born in New York and emigrated to Israel as a young boy. “If you use popularity to spread important ideas, it can be a wonderful thing. Populism is a necessary force, because purists don’t always communicate very well. But without strict purism, the populist would lose his connection to the source of his subject.”

For years, Israel was something of a showbiz wasteland, with only one state-regulated TV channel. It wasn’t until 1993 that what is now known as Channel 2 became a commercial operation. The government now mandates that nearly half of Israel’s TV content be locally produced. After Israeli film production faltered in the 1990s, the government passed a cinema law in 2001 that established public subsidies that are allocated by competing nonprofit organizations.

The results have been dazzling. Israel’s now-vibrant movie business has produced so many critically acclaimed pictures that the nation has been a foreign film finalist at the Oscars four of the past five years.  (“Footnote” was financed in part by government subsidies.) And the TV industry is now successfully exporting its concepts. The Showtime hit “Homeland” is based on the Israeli series “Hatufim.” The HBO series “In Treatment” is a remake of a similar Israeli show.

Israelis say the government intervention inspired a new generation of filmmakers and TV show runners. But they also credit the country’s burst of creativity to its wealth of immigrants. “Israel is a place full of talent because it’s an incredible melting pot,” says producer Ehud Bleiberg, who made the critically acclaimed films “The Band’s Visit” and “Precious Life.” "Israel has immigrants from more than 100 countries, so you get the best of the best, whether it’s in science and technology or film, art and literature.”

Bleiberg points to another key cultural difference. “Israelis are impatient, so things happen much more quickly than in Hollywood. You’d never spend six months negotiating with a studio the way you do here. Israel is a small country where everyone knows each other. If you have a good script, you just call up the actor. If they like the script, then you get going.” And if they don’t? “When someone says no, it’s not an answer anyone in Israel accepts.”

With funding handed out by nonprofits, not bottom line-oriented studios, Israel has become an incubator for uncompromising, personal filmmaking. Yet Cedar says that having to rely on subsidies can sometimes make filmmakers feel like workers on a plantation. "A filmmaker in Israel can't function without the establishment," he says. "In Hollywood, you have an odd sort of freedom, since the film industry won't do anything that isn't financially successful. So it replaces conformism with the desire for success."

Cedar's ambivalence about the larger role of the state in all aspects of society emerges in one of the bravura moments in “Footnote.” It depicts an epic committee squabble, filmed in a tiny, claustrophobic room where all of the scholars are hemmed in by books and sheaves of papers.

“It was based on a committee I had to deal with to get my daughter into kindergarten, the only difference being that it was women who were all pregnant,” Cedar explains. “Everywhere I go, everything I need is blocked by a committee. The dynamic of a committee automatically means there is a power struggle, usually weighted toward those in power, so having everyone in a tiny room was a perfect metaphor.”

Even though "Footnote" is set in academia, for Cedar, the film is a quiet commentary on the power of the establishment in Israel. "If in order to be embraced by the establishment you have to betray everthing you stand for--well, that's pretty political for me," he says. “Israel started out as a small country that had to be more ingenious and creative to survive. But as we became more prosperous, we became a bully. And when you gain power, you lose your hunger for innovation. So when you look at Israel today, what do we boast about? Our high tech industry, which uses our intellect to make lots of money. We should be creating different roles other than the role model of being rich.”

Still, Cedar doesn’t see himself as a government critic so much as an artist who invariably finds himself in conflict with the establishment. For Cedar, what really matters, especially in “Footnote,” is the struggle to preserve culture. “The question is how to do it—do we preserve culture by retaining the older traditions or by keeping them relevant?” He smiles. “There’s no real answer. I guess it’s the debate that matters.”

Photo: Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in "Footnote." Credit: Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics


'American Reunion': How Universal revived its oldest teen franchise

March 13, 2012 | 11:55 am

Jason Biggs in the upcoming teen comedy "American Reunion."

The world has certain immutable laws. Once you go bald and kids at convenience stores start calling you “sir,” your days as a hipster are over. It’s the same thing with movie franchises — once they lose their box-office sizzle and begin showing up in direct-to-DVD bins, they ain’t coming back to the multiplex.

Until now, that is. It was nearly 13 years ago that Universal Pictures had a surprise hit with “American Pie,” a giddy, raunchy, R-rated comedy that revolved around a scheme hatched by four teenage boys to lose their virginity before they graduated from high school. Opening in July 1999, the low-budget film made more than $100 million in the U.S. and $133 million more overseas.

Buoyed by a wave of admiring press coverage, the film gave birth to a new cycle of R-rated comedies and served as a launching pad for its young filmmakers, Chris and Paul Weitz, who have gone on to make films as varied as “About a Boy,” which they directed together, and solo efforts such as “Little Fockers,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “A Better Life.”

Patrick

“American Pie” was a rare commodity — an R-rated teen comedy franchise. Universal released two sequels, which each made more than $100 million in the U.S. And even after most of the original cast members moved on, the studio kept the franchise alive in home video, churning out four low-budget direct-to-DVD spinoffs under the “American Pie presents” brand.

A strange thing happened, though, in the direct-to-DVD underworld. Universal continued to treat the films as a franchise, spending millions on TV advertising and wooing a new generation of fans. Instead of losing cachet, the DVD series flourished, selling millions of units. The payoff? Universal is bringing the series back to the big screen on April 6 with the release of “American Reunion.”

The new $50-million film reunites the original cast, now playing young thirtysomethings, returning to the mythical hamlet of East Great Falls, Mich., for a high school reunion.

“When the franchise was in its direct-to-DVD run, we learned that the brand had really established itself, not just with the original viewers but with young people who’d never seen the films in a movie theater,” says Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson, a young, creative advertising executive at the studio when the series debuted. “So we don’t believe we have to introduce an entire generation to the film — it has lived on in the culture.”

Although Universal has struggled to create the kind of A-list franchises that, for its rivals, are financial bonanzas, executives at the studio thought it wasn’t entirely improbable that they could revive a franchise that had been out of theaters for years. After all, 20th Century Fox successfully resuscitated its “Die Hard” franchise with “Live Free and Die Hard” after the series was in the deep freeze for a dozen years. Ditto for “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth “Rocky” movie, which was a sizable hit for MGM in 2006 despite a 15-year hiatus between films.

But the key ingredient in the return of “American Reunion” involves a lesson Universal learned from one of its own films. The studio had nearly resigned itself to taking its flagging “Fast and Furious” franchise to direct-to-DVD when the Universal team, along with the films’ producer, Neal Moritz, decided to reunite the original “Fast” cast for a fourth film. The result, 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” outperformed the first three films and rejuvenated the entire series. The fifth installment, “Fast 5,” took in $628 million worldwide last year, and now sixth and seventh installments are planned.

“ ‘Fast 4’ and ‘Fast 5’ showed us that there was a real value to getting everyone back together,” Fogelson explained. “I mean, the series had basically been declared dead after the third film. And it not only came back in a spectacular fashion but it reinvented the whole idea of release dates for franchises, since it proved that if you had the right movie, you could come out in April and still blow past the box-office records for that time period.”

One other event helped convince Universal that “American Pie” was a franchise whose appeal hadn’t entirely faded. When the studio began looking for writers to pitch ideas for a new installment, they met Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. High school pals from New Jersey, they had bonded over outrageous comedies made by filmmaker teams such as the Farrelly brothers.

After college (Schlossberg graduated from the University of Chicago while Hurwitz has a degree in finance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School), the duo pursued movies and created the “Harold & Kumar” comedy franchise. They wrote the three stoner comedies and directed the 2008 installment, “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Even better, the two were huge “American Pie” fans.

“Between our sophomore and junior years of college we decided to write a script that would be the first real R-rated youth comedy since ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’” Hurwitz recalled. “Then one night I went to see ‘Cruel Intentions,’ and before the film I saw a trailer for ‘American Pie’ and my heart sank. I called Hayden and said, ‘You won’t believe it — someone made our movie.’”

The would-be writers ended up seeing “American Pie” six times while it was in theaters and even more times on DVD, studying it the way young basketball players scrutinize the way Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol run a pick-’n’-roll play. By the time they came to Universal to pitch an “American Reunion” film, they had an encyclopedic accumulation of raunchy comedy ideas. “It struck a chord with us,” Fogelson said. “They had such a fondness and emotional identification with the first film that we felt they could really deliver the comedy moments the film needed.”

For the writers, the whole gestalt of raunchy comedy is rooted in blending outrageous humor with heart-tugging sweetness. “You have to understand what the heart of your movie is,” Schlossberg said. “With ‘Reunion,’ it’s all about friendship and life experience. You need to have that for the audience to care about the characters and get emotionally involved in the story.”

Having seen the film, I suspect Universal has a hit on its hands, especially after hearing the way audience members enjoyed seeing the teen characters return as recognizable, if not entirely responsible adults. When it comes to moviegoing, Americans are amazingly eager to return to the womb, which is surely why studios reboot many pop-culture nuggets from our youth, whether it’s a new Dr. Seuss movie (“The Lorax”), an old TV show (“21 Jump Street”) or a 3-D re-release of a popcorn favorite, like “Titanic,” just to name a few current examples.

“American Reunion” is a perfect fit for the age of pop nostalgia. By letting us see our favorite teen dimwits all grown up, it reminds us that we’re never too old to act young and hilariously dumb all over again.

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Photo: Jason Biggs in a scene from the upcoming teen comedy "American Reunion."

Credit: Hopper Stone / Universal Pictures

 


'Game Change' is an old Hollywood story, a la 'A Star Is Born'

March 11, 2012 |  6:00 am

Julianne Moore, left, as Sarah Palin, and Ed Harris as Sen. John McCain in a scene from the HBO film "Game Change."

It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Sarah Palin is no fan of “Game Change,” the new HBO film about the dizzying ups and downs that buffeted John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign after he picked the then-unknown Alaska governor as his running mate.

According to its filmmakers, the movie, which debuted Saturday, is a scrupulously well-sourced account of Palin’s ascendancy to the national stage. According to its detractors, who include McCain and Palin, as well as much of Palin’s campaign staff, the film is just another example of showbiz liberal bias. As Palin put it the other day: “Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies. . . . The movie is based on a false narrative.”

It’s easy to see why Palin hates a movie that portrays her as a woefully unprepared candidate who wilts under intense media scrutiny. But for me, “Game Change” doesn’t have a false narrative. It actually has an eerily familiar narrative, one that dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood: the  backstage showbiz drama. It's just the backdrop that's different -- instead of a Broadway theater, or movie back lot, we've got a political convention and campaign.

Patrick

Palin is the wide-eyed young starlet plucked from small-town obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, forced to rely on her innate self-confidence to survive in a shark tank full of jaded performers, I mean, politicos. McCain is portrayed as the aging leading man, an ex-war hero hoping for one last hurrah, forced to choose between his flinty integrity and the opportunistic demands of a new media age.

The entire Palin-McCain relationship has an uncanny similarity to the story arc of “A Star Is Born,” except that the twosome are a couple thrown together by political expediency, not starry-eyed romance.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that no story line has deeper roots in Hollywood’s family tree. The earliest days of talkies were populated with dozens of backstage melodramas, from 1929’s “Broadway Melody” to 1933’s “42nd Street” to 1934’s “Twentieth Century” and 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld.” The early 1950s were also crammed with similar stories, notably in films such as “All About Eve,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Singing in the Rain” and “The Band Wagon.”

Even today, the genre is alive and well. Look at “The Artist,” the Oscar best picture winner that unfolds in late-1920s Hollywood. Both "The Artist" and "Game Change" feature men struggling to keep their relevancy, whether it’s in a new-media dominated political world or a film industry being reinvented by talkies. Both films center on easily underestimated women who are transformed into instant stars, thanks to their ambition and an innate connection with the hoi polloi.

When I spoke to “Game Change” director Jay Roach the other day, he broke into a broad grin when I brought up the backstage drama comparisons. “Frankly, that’s all I was interested in when we started working on the film,” he explained. “That’s what makes politics so compelling today. The audience sees all of the show and presentation that comes across in the debates and speeches and TV ads. But what we don’t get to see is the influence of the strategists and campaign managers who are always there, behind the scenes.”

Roach has always had a fascination with similar manipulators. Long before he emerged as a top comedy director with such hits as “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents,” he produced “The Empty Mirror,” a little-seen 1996 speculative drama about Adolf Hitler coming to terms with his infamy. “Even then, I was more interested in Goebbels than Hitler,” he says. “He was the idea guy who made the horrible ideas seem like they were good ones. He was the spinmeister.” 

The backstage aspect of campaign image making—first openly captured on film in the 1993 documentary “War Room”--clearly fueled Roach’s interest in making “Game Change." "The people in the back rooms are a lot like screenwriters, in the sense that they come up with the right narrative to pitch to the public.”

Even though he’s best known for his work in comedy, politics is never far from Roach’s mind. In 2004, he produced a reality TV series about finding grassroots candidates who would run in that year’s presidential election. In 2008, he directed “Recount,” an HBO film about the contested 2000 presidential election. He’s now in post-production on “The Campaign,” a comedy due this August that stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival candidates embroiled in a nasty race for a congressional seat in North Carolina.

Although the story is played for laughs, it has roots in reality: Galifianakis’ uncle, Nick Galifianakis, was a three-term Democratic congressman in North Carolina who ran for the Senate in 1972, only to be beaten in a bruising campaign by Jesse Helms. “The movie is all about the power of the Super PACs and negative campaigning,”  Roach says. “It’s really what I’m trying to get across in ‘Game Change’ as well. Do we want to live in a world where the electoral process feels like a reality TV show or a Sunday afternoon World Wrestling match?”

Having closely followed the 2008 campaign, Roach told HBO he’d love to do a film that put viewers into a backstage political environment. Once he saw former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt on “60 Minutes,” offering a withering assessment of Palin, he knew he had a movie. “If you put people together who don’t know each other very well in a high-stakes game, battling their opponent while they’re also fighting each other,” he says, "you have the makings of classic drama.”

In the early days of the movies, backstage dramas offered audiences an opportunity for an inside peek into the lives of stars at a time when the print media presented a well-scrubbed portrait of showpeople’s private lives. So it’s only natural that today’s backstage dramas gravitate toward politicians, since life in Washington involves as much image-making as any practiced in Hollywood.

“Game Change” joins a sizable contingent of backstage political dramas, from “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors” to “W” and “The Ides of March.” Today’s audiences, having grown up in a reality TV culture, are eager to see past the political tinsel--the polished speeches, campaign ads and debate performances—and get a good look at how the sausage is being made.

Whether it's a sex scandal, graft and corruption or just Palin's diva-style antics, the misadventures of public figures offer terrific fodder for filmmakers like Roach, who see rich storytelling possibilities in the huge chasm between appearance and reality in politics.

Near the end of “Game Change,” a McCain operative says, “The ones who don’t pathologically need to be loved—they don’t get elected.” He was talking about politicians, but hey, the description is a perfect fit for almost any movie star who’s ever roamed the planet. In politics or in showbiz, stone cold narcissism makes for irresistible drama.

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Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over 'Bully?'

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Julianne Moore, left, as Sarah Palin, and Ed Harris as Sen. John McCain in a scene from the HBO film "Game Change." Credit: Phil Caruso/Associated Press/HBO


Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over 'Bully'?

March 6, 2012 | 10:58 am

Harvey Weinstein
When it comes to staging a PR campaign, no one can hold a candle to Harvey Weinstein, who makes P.T. Barnum look like a taciturn Buddhist monk. Weinstein cannily beat the drums for “The Artist,” leading to an Academy Award for best picture and several other Oscars, and within days, he had set out on a new publicity blitz, this one for the release of the documentary “Bully.”

Weinstein’s hype for “Bully” is a classic from his playbook. It centers on the R rating that the Motion Picture Assn. of America gave the film, which is about the epidemic of bullying in American middle schools that has resulted in widespread psychic trauma and, in some instances, suicide.

Over the years, Weinstein has used or manufactured ratings controversies to buy free press for many movies, from the recent “Blue Valentine” all the way back to a 1990 lawsuit against the MPAA for giving an X rating to Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (which led to the institution of the NC-17 rating). So when I heard about this one, I initially felt Weinstein was just crying wolf yet again.

Patrick

If you haven’t been following, here’s what’s been happening, in a nutshell: The MPAA’s rating board gave “Bully” an R rating solely because several kids are overheard using the F-word in the film. Weinstein believes the film should get a PG-13, which would allow teens to see the movie even without a parent or guardian. He appealed the rating but was denied.

Weinstein was so upset that he claimed he was considering taking a “leave of absence” from submitting his films to the MPAA for ratings. That earned a fresh wave of publicity for the film, as well as a stern rebuke from John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who informed Weinstein in a letter — one that Weinstein promptly publicized — that if Weinstein released his films unrated, theater owners would treat them as NC-17 rated films, meaning no minors allowed, even with parents or guardians.

At first, I was willing to side with Joan Graves, the MPAA ratings board chief, who told me last week that Weinstein knew the rules going in. If Weinstein wanted a PG-13, he could easily cut “Bully’s” bad language, as he did last year when he wanted to reach a broader audience — and make more money — with his 2011 Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech.” That film was initially rated R solely for language issues; Weinstein later cut the F-words and re-released the movie with a PG-13 rating, even going against the wishes of his filmmakers.

But when I got Weinstein on the phone, he had a new ace up his sleeve: “Gunner Palace,” a riveting 2005 documentary about an artillery squad’s wartime experiences in Iraq. The Palm Pictures film featured 42 examples of the F-word, 36 more than in “Bully,” but the MPAA, after hearing an appeal, agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating. Weinstein immediately pounced on the inconsistency.

“The board said they gave the film a PG-13 because there was a war going on and it was important for young people to see the film,” he told me. “But they set a precedent. I complimented them on the decision to give it a PG-13, but I said that there’s another war going on in America’s schools with bullying. So you have to think of the two movies in the same way.”

When I asked Graves about why the board was willing to overturn its rating decision for one movie and not for another, she argued that what happened in 2005 didn’t necessarily apply in 2012.

“It was a different time and a different appeal board,” she said. “[It was] also quite an anomaly. The overturn resulted in an acknowledgment of the important of consistency in the way we give information to parents about the level of content in a film.”

When it comes to explaining almost any ratings board inconsistencies, Graves tells her critics that the MPAA’s decisions reflect the attitude of America’s parents. When I denounced the board’s decision to give “The King’s Speech” an R last year simply because the film used a few curse words, Graves told me that, living in Los Angeles, I was out of touch with most American parents’ attitude toward language. Graves says parents in red-state, small-town America are far more wary of foul language than of graphic violence.

As it turns out, the MPAA was so stung by “The King’s Speech” controversy that it commissioned a study to see how much bad language actually bothers parents.

“After the language in ‘King’s Speech’ became a big issue, we did a survey to see if parents wanted us to overlook the language,” Graves told me. “And what we discovered was that, overwhelmingly, parents said they wanted to know what kind of language there was in the film. We asked specifically about the F-word, which clearly bothers a large number of people. That’s just how they feel. Language matters.”

According to Weinstein, Graves brought up the still-unreleased survey as an argument against “Bully” in his appeal hearing. “It was like a scene out of ‘Perry Mason,’” Weinstein recalled. “The news of the survey came out of nowhere. Joan summarized it in our hearing and it really hurt us. We lost our appeal by one vote and I think the survey cost us that vote.”

Graves told me she would eventually make the survey public but wouldn’t commit to a specific timetable. Weinstein argues that there’s no time like the present. “If it says what Joan says it does, she should release it,” he said. “If it makes a strong point, maybe we could learn from it. But I’d like to see the scientific evidence myself.”

Weinstein told me he was willing to screen “Bully” for parents anywhere in Middle America and live by the results, but Graves waved it off as unnecessary, since the MPAA already had its own survey results. Personally, I wouldn’t put much stock in whatever the study turned up, because the people who commission surveys often get the results they want.

When it comes to the baffling, often myopic ways of the MPAA’s rating board, I’m with Weinstein. The board’s ratings decisions are often an embarrassment, especially when it comes to language issues. With sex or violence, the ratings board has broad, often indecipherable leeway in deciding an R rating. But with language, no flexibility exists: If you have more than one F-word, you get an R. Why is one F-word OK, but not two? Don’t even ask.

The MPAA really needs to overhaul its ludicrously inflexible language constraints. If I’ve learned anything from making a living watching movies, it’s that every film is a unique artistic document. If the same kind of violence in one film can earn an R while earning a PG-13 in another, simply because of its intent or intensity, why can’t the same be true for the use of foul language?

Hearing a nasty bully shout obscenities at a timid 14-year-old in a documentary designed to raise our awareness about bullying is just not in the same ballpark as hearing a drunken high school partygoer bellow F-bombs in a bratty teen comedy. One alerts and educates us; the other titillates and, perhaps, entertains us.

But there’s a difference. And it’s long overdue for the MPAA’s rating board to figure out that when it comes to judging the impact of language in our movies, not every F-bomb sounds alike.

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Andrew Breitbart: Media manipulation as an art form

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Harvey Weinstein photographed last month at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

 


Andrew Breitbart: Media manipulation as an art form

March 1, 2012 |  2:58 pm

Andrew Breitbart

Andrew Breitbart didn’t invent the new media universe. It was already safely in place when he emerged as a potent force in the conservative blogosphere several years ago. But no one exploited the immediacy and subversive force of new media like Breitbart, who died Thursday of an apparent heart attack at age 43.

Breitbart was a revolutionary eager to overthrow a media establishment that he viewed as a front for left-wing social causes. Always brimming with righteous indignation — before he died, his final tweet offered an explanation for why he’d called an adversary a “putz” — he had contempt for anything that smacked of liberal do-gooderism or hypocrisy.

As much as Breitbart loathed his liberal adversaries, he shared many of their beliefs — not the political ones but the ones rooted in an adversarial approach to the establishment. Like many on the left, such as Christopher Hitchens and Jon Stewart, Breitbart had a sly wit, a knack for courting controversy and a disdain for the insular, self-important Washington press corps.

Patrick

A savvy provocateur, Breitbart knew that the best defense was a good offense. Even though “Game Change,” HBO’s film about how Sarah Palin became John McCain’s 2008 running mate, doesn’t debut until later this month, one of his websites, BigHollywood, has been attacking the film’s credibility for weeks. A typical headline: “‘Game Change’: Meet the Leftists Who Turned HBO Into a Pro-Obama SuperPAC.”

When it came to liberals, it took one to know one. Breitbart was born in the cradle of modern progressivism, growing up in a Jewish liberal household in Brentwood. Largely apolitical through his college years, Breitbart embraced the conservative cause in the early 1990s, only after he became outraged at what he viewed as an insidious liberal attack on Clarence Thomas during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation hearing. From then on, outrage was Breitbart’s chosen weapon. After apprenticing with Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington (even after she’d emerged as a full-blown liberal), Breitbart began launching a variety of his own websites, including BigGovernment, BigJournalism and BigHollywood, each one dedicated to the destruction of the old media guard.

Because I write about pop culture, I kept a close eye on BigHollywood, a site especially close to Breitbart’s heart, since it gave him a platform to bash the most visible form of liberal hegemony — the pampered, self-absorbed denizens of show business. Breitbart viewed Hollywood as an industry of sellouts who disguised their careerism by embracing silly social causes. As he once memorably put it: “People come out to Hollywood not to do Shakespeare in the Park, but to get rich and to be able to have sex with the best looking people in the world.”

PHOTOS: Andrew Breitbart - 10 media moments

According to BigHollywood, the movie industry was ridiculously out of touch and often contemptuous toward regular Americans, slipping left-wing messages into virtually every aspect of entertainment, even “Muppets” films. To hear Breitbart’s bloggers tell it, there was a blacklist against conservatives in Hollywood, forcing them to avoid ever revealing their true beliefs. No one avoided the lash — after I took issue with Breitbart on that last issue, BigHollywood’s lead writer, John Nolte, took to calling me Hollywood’s “left-wing enforcer.”

Breitbart would’ve been a marginal figure if he had simply been a media gadfly. His genius was rooted in the realization that in the new media universe, being outrageous often gets far more attention than being authoritative. After Ted Kennedy died in 2009, when everyone else was lionizing the great liberal crusader, Breitbart ripped him as a “duplicitous bastard.”

In many ways, Breitbart was a throwback to the subversive media manipulators of the 1960s, especially counterculture provocateurs like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They courted the media with bizarre antics. Breitbart often did the same. One of his most potent weapons was the hidden camera. In 2009, his confederates posed as a prostitute and her boyfriend, seeking assistance from the staff of the community group ACORN. The stunt attracted nationwide controversy when ACORN staffers offered advice on a scheme designed to skirt federal law to obtain housing that could be used for illegal activities.

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A Government Accountability Office report cleared ACORN of criminal activities, but the explosion of news coverage put Breitbart’s BigGovernment site on the map. Other exposés weren’t as successful. Breitbart posted video excerpts of an agriculture department employee, Shirley Sherrod, supposedly making a racist remark but had to backtrack when a longer version of the tape showed Sherrod discussing bridging racial differences.

Last year, Breitbart was at the heart of the scandal involving New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, an outspoken supporter of liberal causes. Breitbart posted a sexually explicit photo on his BigJournalism site that he obtained from Weiner’s Twitter account. After Breitbart leaked other graphic photos that Weiner had sent to young women, Weiner resigned, but not before Breitbart hijacked a Weiner press conference, taking control of the podium and holding court with reporters before Weiner could take the stage.

If Breitbart had a psychic twin it was Michael Moore, someone he loathed but someone who shared Breitbart’s gift for self-promotion and agit-prop exposés. Love him or hate him, Breitbart was a bracing breath of fresh air who brought an entrepreneurial zeal to his combative style of journalism. Breitbart once said, “I have two speeds — humor and righteous indignation.” It was his true gift — putting pedal to the metal. That may not qualify him as a hall of fame journalist, but in today’s shoot-from-the-hip media universe, it makes him irreplaceable.

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Photo: Andrew Breitbart at home August 5 in 2010. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.


Oscar's aging audience: Time to shake up the academy?

February 28, 2012 | 10:27 am

Billy Crystal hosting the Academy Awards: Click for more photos

The 84th Academy Awards really looked their age on Sunday night. The painfully cobwebby spectacle included a cringe-inducing blackface joke, a tribute to an elderly seat filler and endless self-absorbed claptrap about the magic of movies. After a dreary 6-month-long awards season largely revolving around movies about movies, why did Oscar organizers feel the need to hammer away at the idea that they love — I mean really love — their movies?

Probably because there's growing evidence that the rest of us don't really love the same movies they do. With one exception, “The Help,” the academy's nine best picture nominees didn't make much of an impression in Middle America. “The Artist” won best picture but hasn't hit box-office pay dirt outside of the urban chattering classes. Having struggled to make $32 million, “The Artist” is on track to be the second-lowest grossing best picture winner in the past 35 years.

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The worst performing best picture winner in that period was 2009's “The Hurt Locker.” In other words, the two lowest-grossing best picture winners have come in the past three years, not an especially encouraging sign in terms of Oscar relevance to the broader culture.

The retro feel of Sunday's show didn't do anything to connect the Oscars with a younger audience. Overall viewership was up 4% over last year but ratings were flat with adults ages 18 to 49. As one viewer put it on Twitter: “I think my dad is texting all these jokes to Billy Crystal during commercials.”

Although the academy and ABC have tried all sorts of hip new ways to engage the masses — they've got Twitter, a Facebook page with more than 394,000 “Likes” and whatnot — the Academy Awards remain a 1960s-style variety show, simply one devoted to promoting movies.

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Before the show began, ABC's Jess Cagle accompanied Tom Hanks down the Oscar winners' backstage walkway to the then-largely empty press room, with Hanks attempting to describe the madcap atmosphere the press corral would have later in the evening. But amazingly, especially for an industry where you are taught on the first day of film school to “show, not tell,” the broadcast never returned to the press room to give us a glimpse of the colorful interplay that ensues when an Oscar winner arrives in a room packed to the gills with unruly reporters.

The Oscar team clearly realized its top films didn’t have much juice with mainstream America. Which begs the question: If the Academy really wanted to connect with a broader audience, why didn’t it organize a “Harry Potter” tribute, spotlighting the beloved actors who helped make the series such an immensely popular box-office mainstay?

In the long run, the show isn't even the academy's biggest problem. In recent years, the organization has lost a sense of focus about what kind of institution it wants to be. For years, we've suspected that the academy's aging membership was about as connected to today's turbulent pop culture as the Council on Foreign Relations. This month, The Times published a study that found that the academy's voting membership is nearly 94% white and 77% male. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, with just 14% of voting members being under 50.

With this new mirror held up to its visage, academy members have been of different minds as to whether a face-lift is needed. Denzel Washington, an Oscar winner for his role in “Training Day,” said that if the “country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black.” But Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for writing “Dog Day Afternoon,” said, “I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population,” he said. “That's what the People's Choice Awards are for.”

This difference of opinion seems to parallel the internal debate the academy has over the show itself — should the Oscars remain a stodgy but classy way of honoring the year's most artistic films? Or should it open its doors to more populist fare in the hopes of reflecting more mainstream tastes (and of course higher TV ratings)?

The truth is, the show could be more populist but still classy. And the academy could diversify itself without diminishing its status as a meritocracy. To insist otherwise is simply a failure of imagination.

The academy says part of the reason it hasn't been easy to make itself younger or more diverse is because its memberships are for life and rules allow the organization to bring in only 30 new voters each year beyond the number of spots created by deaths or retirements.

The academy could easily decide to put its oldest voters on retired status after a certain point — a step that is now strictly voluntary. For example, if you haven't had a credit in 25 years, you'd become an emeritus member, which would entitle you to all the perks the academy offers, minus the voting.

Currently, approximately 5% of the voting membership is over age 85. If they were put on emeritus status, that would presumably open up the membership rolls to a younger, more vital constituency.

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Lorenzo Semple Jr., who wrote such classic films as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” is 88 but an avid participant in social networking. So I asked what he thought of the idea. It turns out that in the 1970s, after he'd become a member of the board of governors, he proposed a similar idea.

“People hated it — they thought it would be a terrible blow to older members,” he recalls. “Now that I'm older, I believe in the value of wisdom that comes with age. And it would be ridiculous for the academy to exactly reflect society as a whole. But we should consider the idea of having older members go on retired status, so the academy would be represented by more active members.”

The academy's lack of diversity is reflective of Hollywood as a whole. Executive suites are almost entirely bereft of people of color, and the majority of movie crews have very few minorities in their midst. The academy can't force the studios to hire more minorities. But it does have the economic resources to develop even more minority outreach programs than it currently funds. And it has the clout to send a clear message to studios that it expects to see a movie community with fewer barriers of entry for minority aspirants.

If our country's finest academic institutions feel an obligation to promote diversity by finding qualified students, it is long overdue for the industry that creates our kids' pop culture fantasies to do the same. Even though Billy Crystal is taking tons of heat for joking, apropos of “The Help,” that there are no black women in Beverly Hills, he would've been on perfectly safe ground noting that there aren't any black women greenlighting movies anywhere in Hollywood.

It is an industry-wide embarrassment. And because the academy represents Hollywood's highest order of artistic aspirations, it should make itself a visible leader, starting with an Oscar show that doesn't feel like a stale trip down memory lane.

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Photo: Billy Crystal performing his opening number at the Oscars on Sunday night in Hollywood. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.


'Undefeated': A provocative look at race and class in sports

February 22, 2012 | 10:58 pm

The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

If we’ve learned anything from the mega-media onslaught over Jeremy Lin, it’s that racial and ethnic stereotypes are still a powerful force in America, especially in the world of sports. My 13-year-old son’s generation is largely colorblind about its sports heroes. If only we could say the same thing about the knuckleheads who write about sports, especially the jerk — excuse me, Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock — who tweeted a nasty remark about Lin’s anatomy the other day, which was followed by a crude ethnic slur in a headline on ESPN’s mobile site.

“Linsanity” inspired comic Larry Wilmore to do a whole ironic riff on “The Daily Show” about the indignity of an Asian American player taking the NBA by storm, right in the middle of Black History Month. When Jon Stewart asked why, as an African American, Wilmore wasn’t more supportive of a person of color’s achievement, Wilmore grouched: “Don’t reduce this to a discussion about my race. This is about his race.”

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

I bring this up because “Undefeated,” a new documentary that opened last weekend, raises a bundle of provocative questions about how much of a dividing line color is in our lives. The film, directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, is a lovingly crafted portrait of the football team at Manassas High in North Memphis, Tenn. The squad is a cauldron of troubled inner-city kids that undergoes an improbable transformation at the hands of Bill Courtney, a volunteer coach who is just as determined to make a difference in the kids’ lives as he is to win football games.

Most critics have lauded the film. But others have been unsettled by a thorny issue only glancingly noted in the movie: Courtney is white, while his entire team is African American. It’s almost exactly the same setup we saw in “The Blind Side,” the 2009 hit that, like “Undefeated,” focused on a white do-gooder who reached out to help a needy black kid who happened to be a potential NFL football player.

Like “The Blind Side,” “Undefeated” offers a Rorschach test for how people see race in America. At a time when we have a black president, isn’t it time we stopped obsessing about the race of people in our movies? Or in a country where so many people believe that our black president is a Muslim, or not a natural-born citizen, or a man with a “phony theology,” is racism still a wound that hasn’t healed?

From the standpoint of awards, Oscar voters have taken both films to heart. “The Blind Side” earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award while “Undefeated,” distributed by the Weinstein Co., has landed Martin and Lindsay a documentary Oscar nomination. It’s a high honor for the young pair, who are entirely self-taught--neither went to film school.

For the filmmakers, the high point, so far, was showing an early cut of the film to Courtney. “When Bill watched it, he was a big ball of tears,” recalled Martin. “Finally, he laughed and said, ‘OK, show it to me again. I couldn’t bear to watch the first half-hour because of how fat I looked.’”

Martin, who’s 32, and Lindsay, who’s 33, decided to make the film after reading a newspaper story about O.C. Brown, the team’s star 300-pound lineman, who was living with one of the team’s coaches during the season. Brown needed tutoring to get his grades up enough to land a college scholarship. But no tutor would venture into his poverty-stricken neighborhood.

As soon as Martin and Lindsay set up shop in Memphis, they began following the ups and downs of several other players, notably Chavis Daniels, a talented but volatile player who returns to the team after spending 15 months in a youth prison.

Courtney has a deep emotional connection with his players. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, we discover that Courtney, like many members of the team, grew up in a fatherless family. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that the Weinsteins own the remake rights to “Undefeated,” since its narrative essence — a coach helping a team of troubled kids triumph over adversity — is at the core of dozens of classic sports films.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but ponder whom I’d want to cast as Courtney in the remake. After all, it’s easy to assemble a who’s who of great actors who’ve played football coaches, including Gene Hackman (“The Replacements”), Denzel Washington (“Remember the Titans”), Al Pacino (“Any Given Sunday”), Billy Bob Thornton (“Friday Night Lights”), Dennis Quaid (“The Express”) and Ed Harris (“Radio”).

With the exception of Washington, those coaches are all white, which raises an unsettling question: Why do so many movies about African Americans have a white protagonist at their core? As the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson put it, the feelings the kids in “Undefeated” might have about their white coach is a question “that crosses a viewer’s mind, and one that doesn’t get an answer” in the film. When I asked the same question of the filmmakers, they insisted that race wasn’t an issue. (For the record, Lindsay is white and Martin is biracial.)

“In ‘Blind Side,’ they make a point of bringing up race, especially when you see that Sandra Bullock’s wealthy white friends are shocked by what she’s doing,” explains Lindsay. “For us, the kids set the tone. They never brought it up, so we didn’t bring it up. There’s a valid criticism to why feature films get financed that are about white heroes in a black setting. We just told the story we saw and for the kids, race wasn’t on their minds.”

If race isn’t on their minds, class certainly is. When Brown goes to live in his coach’s sprawling home, he says the wealthy manicured subdivision took some getting used to. He remarks on how people jog around the area and says if he did that in his neighborhood, people might think he was running from the police.

Of course, in America race is almost always on someone’s mind, which is why when Chavis drives his coach crazy with his unruly behavior, refusing a ride in his truck, Courtney blurts out: “You don’t like driving with white people?”

If nothing else, “Undefeated” is an indispensable example of the quixotic passion that sports inspires in us all. “Sports is embedded in the fabric of America,” Martin said. “People identify themselves through sports teams. It’s the one thing in our culture where, regardless of where you come from, you have a common passion that breaks down the walls between us.”

Still, as much as I admire the film’s storytelling, I wish it had spent a little more time exploring the chasm between the wealthy white Memphis enclaves and the kids’ desperately poor inner-city neighborhoods. Sports is one of the few ways to inspire honest discussions about race and inequality in America. Which is why it’s so bracing to see phenomena like Jeremy Lin pushing us past all the usual sports cliches and toward a deeper understanding of ourselves.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

Credit: Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/The Weinstein Company

 


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