The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: Film

3-D glasses showdown: Who will blink first, Sony or theaters?

Andrew garfield America's movie studios and theater owners are starting to sound exactly like the Democrats and Republicans, fighting over -- well, everything. As you may remember, the studios had a nasty showdown with exhibitors earlier this year when, with hardly any warning, they launched the much-ballyhooed Direct TV premium video-on-demand experiment. It was a flop, since almost nobody wanted to pay $30 for the privilege of seeing a bunch of second-rate films 60 days after their theatrical releases.

Even so, exhibitors were furious, since the experiment looked like another effort to whittle away the time between a film's theatrical opening and its DVD release, a window that exhibitors are fighting tooth and nail to preserve.

Now Sony has launched another salvo, announcing Tuesday that it plans to stop subsidizing 3-D glasses, starting with the release of the studio's two 3-D blockbusters next summer, "Men in Black III" and "The Amazing Spider-Man." The National Assn. of Theater Owners was quick to fire back, saying that it "believes Sony’s suggestion is insensitive to our patrons, particularly in the midst of continuing economic distress. Sony’s actions raise serious concerns for our members who believe that provision of 3-D glasses to patrons is well-established as part of the 3-D experience."

The theater owners group reminded Sony that "since the onset of the digital 3-D revolution in 2005 it has been understood that exhibitors would bear the weight of technological and facility modification costs related to 3D, while distribution took on the cost of 3D glasses.... Sony would be well advised to revisit its decision."

The exhibitor organization left the threat at that. It probably didn't need to remind anyone that in 2009, when 20th Century Fox announced that it wouldn't pay for 3-D glasses, starting with the release of "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the blowback from theater owners was so fierce that the studio had to relent.

So what will happen this time around? Or put it this way: Who has the most leverage?

Being an exhibitor is not an especially great business. Profit margins are slim, so theater owners have to fight for every penny. Insiders predict that the three big exhibition chains -- AMC, Regal and Cinemark USA -- will individually say this to Sony: You may think you have the leverage, since you have two huge summer movies in 2012. But if you expect us to foot the bill for 3-D glasses, then when it comes to splitting the take on "Men in Black," instead of giving you 50% of the grosses, we'll only be giving you 45% to make up for our losses on the glasses.

The exhibitors could also tell Sony that they'll happily play "Men in Black" and the new "Spider-Man," but  in 2-D, not 3-D.

Of course, if some of Sony's studio rivals announce that they won't be paying for 3-D glasses either, then the leverage could shift to the studios.

Some 3-D boosters have been urging consumers to simply buy their own glasses, which they could bring back to the theater each time they want to see a film in 3-D. But for now, there are still too many different 3-D systems, each requiring a different pair of glasses. In the future, there could be one industry standard, but I'm skeptical that most moviegoers -- who only see a handful of 3-D movies each year -- will want to keep a separate pair of glasses lying around the house, just for use at the movie theater.

As always, the end game here will be a negotiation. But at a time when most American moviegoers are growing increasingly unenthusiastic about paying a $3 to $5 premium for a 3-D movie, any settlement that passes along more costs to the consumer is going to be wildly unpopular.

That's the real question here: If 3-D is the golden goose, how many times can Hollywood try to kill it before it finally succeeds?


'Amazing Spider-Man' sequel set for May 2014

Theater chains escalating fight with studios over video on demand

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Andrew Garfield, who stars in the upcoming "The Amazing Spider-Man," dressed in a Spider-Man costume at Comic-Con this year. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times



Are rednecks in 'Straw Dogs' an insult to Mississippi?

Rod Lurie

My family is from all over the South -- Mobile,  Montgomery, Atlanta, Chapel Hill -- so I'm always quick to defend the region against nasty cultural slights, whether it's a lack of culinary appreciation for fried okra and biscuits with gravy or having to endure hearing yet another New York actor do a bad Southern accent.

On the other hand, I'm not a mindless defender of Southern backwardness, like James Frazier at the Washington Times, who has penned a lengthy essay defending Mississippi against the hordes of Hollywood liberals who have, as he puts it, "cemented the state's image in American culture as a brutal, benighted backwater teeming with violent bigots."

Of course, we could just end this argument right here by saying that if you've ever studied the history of Mississippi, home of such virulent racist demagogues as Sen. Theodore Bilbo, Gov. Ross Barnett and Sen. James Eastland, you'd know that the state's image as a brutal backwater teeming with violent bigots is well deserved, having been cast in stone by its own actions long before Hollywood had anything to say about it.

That brings us to "Straw Dogs," which barely opened over the weekend, making a paltry $5 million and earning a measly 38 Fresh Rating at Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that its days at the multiplexes are numbered. But is the Rod Lurie-directed film a slap at the South, as Frazier and other conservative critics have argued? The remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic does offer a number of uncomplimentary Southern stereotypes, substituting Mississippi rednecks for the British working class tormenters from the original film.

According to Frazier, Mississippi has spawned a host of great writers and musicians, but "in the imagination of Hollywood, Mississippi has long since ceased to be a place and become instead a facile metaphor for violent racist bigotry and hostility to outsiders." He recruits a gaggle of academics to back up his theory, with Kathryn McKee, associate professor of Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, saying that "the idea of Mississippi has functioned in the American imagination as a kind of holding bin for negative things about the nation."

That may have been true in the days past that gave us "Mississippi Burning" and "Ghosts of Mississippi." But what about "The Blind Side," which presents a very idealized vision of a Mississippi family that helps raise a homeless football prodigy? Or "The Help," now a huge box-office hit, which offers an upbeat take on the ability of black maids to stand up for themselves in the midst of the racial upheaval of '60s era Mississippi?

Frazier acknowledges their presence, but views them as exceptions to the rule. But I think he's missing a much bigger trend. If you watch reality TV, you see far more negative stereotypes about the South in such shows as CMT's "Sweet Home Alabama" and tru TV's "Lizard Lick Towing," where the South is viewed as such a backward, thickly accented region that many of the shows have subtitles for their characters, worried that a well-educated reality TV viewer wouldn't understand what they were saying.

Reality TV doesn't make any pretense about pushing the cultural envelope. If it portrays the South as benighted, it's because it thinks that is what its audience wants to believe. I suspect that the South is often portrayed as a poor relation because most of America needs to feel superior to someone, so why not the South as a good starting point?

But it's a stretch to say that "Straw Dogs" is part of Hollywood's overall hostility against Mississippi, just because the villains in the movie are rednecks. Conservatives are always up in arms about some new Hollywood excess, just as they were when they greeted "Avatar" with a storm of complaints that it was somehow anti-American because its military characters were portrayed as warmongering invaders. Stereotypes are everywhere in storytelling. Rod Lurie may be guilty of a lack of imagination, but he's not guilty of giving Mississippi a bad name. The state did that all on its own.

--Patrick Goldstein


'Avatar' arouses conservatives' ire

'Straw Dogs' remake sees the humans in us

Photo: "Straw Dogs" writer-director Rod Lurie photographed at his office last month in Los Angeles.  

Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times

Publicity Stunt 101: Harvey Weinstein butters up Michele Bachmann

Michele bachmann In Hollywood, if you have a lemon, you make lemonade. That's surely what Harvey Weinstein is doing with "Butter," a new Weinstein Co.-produced political satire that has been getting very mixed reviews on the film festival circuit. To drum up controversy about the film, Weinstein had Olivia Wilde, who co-stars in the film with Jennifer Garner, read a statement from him before the film's Toronto premiere inviting Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann to co-host an official premiere of the film in Iowa later this year.

The statement proposed that Bachmann spend a day with Weinstein, taking math classes "to help balance the budget" and discussing gay rights and women's rights. The statement ended by saying: "I look forward to hearing from Michele and I'm particularly looking forward to those classes on the Constitution."

My colleague Nicole Sperling, who was on hand at the screening, noted that the statement elicited laughter as well as puzzlement -- as in a host of wondering by wonderers about why Weinstein didn't just let the movie speak for itself. I think I can figure that part out, especially after hearing from insiders that the film had already had some poor test screenings, leading to it being recut even before it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival early this month.

The Weinstein plan all along has been to gauge response to the film at festivals, with an eye on whether it played well enough to be a viable Golden Globe candidate -- which would lead to a qualifying run later this year.

As critics have noted, the attempt to draw Bachmann into the film's PR nexus isn't just a wild shot in the dark. In his review in the Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy described the film thusly: "This satire on self-righteous, homily-spewing Red Staters and the cutthroat world of butter carving trades almost entirely on making jokes at the expense of others, most of all an obsessed, venal woman who could pass as a kissin' cousin to either of the two most prominent female Republican figures of the moment."

I doubt that Bachmann, who has her eyes squarely on the GOP presidential prize, will give Weinstein the satisfaction of a reply. But conservative commentators have already taken the bait, starting with John Nolte, Andrew Breitbart's top gun at the conservative Big Hollywood website.

Referring to Weinstein's past support for filmmaker Roman Polanski, Nolte fired off an acerbic response to the statement, especially to its offer to take a joint class on the Constitution, saying, "With his favorite child-raping fugitive out of jail, Weinstein can now turn his brave self to taking shots at the softest target in Filmdom. I’m especially interested in that part of the Constitution that says it’s OK to drug, rape and sodomize a 13-year-old girl and flee from justice if a guy named Harvey really dug 'Chinatown.'"

This is like manna from heaven for Weinstein, who thrives on generating controversy for his films, especially ones that aren't exactly getting money reviews from the critics. But for now I think the odds of getting Bachmann to talk up "Butter" are about as good as getting her to see the wonderful upcoming Weinstein production of "Piranha 3DD." Meaning: slim and none.



-- Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) greets guests at the Black Hawk County GOP Lincoln Day dinner last month in Waterloo, Iowa. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

John Calley's studio legacy: Maximum taste, minimum tyranny

John Calley

We'll be hearing all sorts of industry tributes today about John Calley, the producer and studio chief who died early Tuesday at age 81. But the best tribute anyone who runs a movie studio today could pay Calley would be to actually run their business the way Calley ran his. Calley was a top executive at Warners from 1969 to 1980, overseeing a giant mushroom cloud of edgy movies and box-office hits, including "A Clockwork Orange," "Dirty Harry," "All the President's Men" and "Blazing Saddles."

He ditched the movie business for most of the 1980s, but when he came back in 1989 as an independent producer, he was still on top of his game, making movies in partnership with Mike Nichols before taking control of MGM/United Artists in 1993, then joining Sony Pictures, where he led the studio for seven years before retiring in 2003.

I got to know him in the late 1990s when I was writing a writing a Sunday story for The Times, looking back at the seminal movie year of 1969. No one had less pretense than Calley. We'd go have lunch at the Grill, where most producers and studio executives would obsessively worry about being seated at one of the booths along the wall of the restaurant. Even though Calley was more of a big shot than anyone else in the room, he insisted on sitting at a table in the middle of the eatery, hardly a prestigious location, but one where he felt completely comfortable.

Calley had great stories to tell about the neurotic, maverick filmmakers of the day, but what stuck with me the most was his attitude toward running a successful studio. He firmly believed that whether you were an executive or a producer, your job was to make great movies. If they made money, so much the better, but he saw it as a wasted opportunity to spend all your waking hours worrying about sequels, remakes and all the other franchise-building fluff that studios chiefs today spend most of their brainpower bringing into the world. Whatever the conventional wisdom was, Calley was against it.

Luckily for us, Calley brought a host of great movies into the world. He also helped train several generations of talented executives, most recently Amy Pascal, who worked with him at Sony and like him has largely avoided pandering to the lowest common denominator of moviegoer tastes. As she said of Calley in a statement today: "John's taste may have seemed idiosyncratic, but his pulse was unerring. How could one person have championed 'All the President's Men,' 'Blazing Saddles,' 'The Exorcist,' 'Dirty Harry,' 'Klute' and 'A Clockwork Orange,' at the exact right moment in time? Those are the instincts of a one-of-a-kind executive."

Those are also the instincts of a man who proved how much he loved movies by finding a way to make a lot of good ones.


Steven Spielberg: 'Stanley Kubrick never really leaves'

John Calley dies at 81; honored studio chief and movie producer

-- Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: John Calley. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

Weekend Movie Pick: Hal Ashby's lost gem 'The Landlord'

Hal Ashby

Larry Karaszewski has a day job that keeps him busy, having written (with his writing partner Scott Alexander) a host of movie delights, including "Ed Wood" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt," as well as the upcoming "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters." But what impresses me the most about Karaszewski is that he's found time to moonlight as a film history enthusiast, helping curate a series of revival screenings, almost all accompanied by appearances by the film's key talent, including "Taking Off" (with Buck Henry), "The Hired Hand" (with Peter Fonda) and "Ten From Your Show of Shows" (with the immortal Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks).

This Sunday night Karaszewski has arranged a screening of a rarely seen movie classic: "The Landlord," a 1970 film that marked the directing debut of Hal Ashby. Unavailable for years, the film is finally out on DVD, via MGM limited edition series, but it is still worth a trip to the Aero Theater at 7:30 p.m. Sunday to see it. You'll have the added bonus of hearing Karaszewski discuss the film with Beau Bridges, its star, who also co-starred in "The Fabulous Baker Boys," the second film on the Aero Sunday night bill.

"Landlord" has its roots in '60s-era social consciousness, with Bridges starring as a spoiled New York rich kid who buys a run-down tenement in the ghetto, hoping to flip it and make a lot of dough. But when he moves in, he starts to identify with the tenement's African American residents and has a change of heart. "The film is about race and class," Karaszewski explains. "But because it's Hal Ashby, it never feels preachy or dated. It just feels real."

Karaszewski says Ashby's directorial touch, most evident in later films like "Harold and Maude," "Shampoo" and "Being There," is already visible in this early effort. "You can see all of his later work right here from the start," Karaszewski says. "There's a great scene in the film between Lee Grant and Pearl Bailey where they're smoking pot -- and it feels totally improvised, as if the scene just started playing out right in front of everybody."

The film is also worth seeing because it has a score by Blood Sweat & Tears founder Al Kooper and was shot by Gordon Willis, who went on to fame as the cinematographer for Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" films and a host of Woody Allen classics. For Karaszewski, giving the film a tip of the hat has an element of kismet. "The Landlord" was produced by Norman Jewison, who had used Ashby as an editor on his early films, including "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming." And guess who works out of Jewison's old office in Culver City today? Karaszewski and Alexander. No matter how big Hollywood gets, it's still a small world.


Is 'The Help' Hollywood's latest liberal civil rights fantasy?

Will Reiser and writing about what you know: getting cancer

Mel Gibson's Maccabee movie: Penance or career self-destruction?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Hal Ashby, in an undated photo, on the set of his film "Bound for Glory." Credit: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Mel Gibson's Maccabee movie: Penance or career self-destruction?

No, it isn't April's Fool Day. But I had to do a quick check of the calendar when I heard the news that Mel Gibson was developing a movie for Warner Bros. about the life of Judah Maccabee, the much heralded warrior who led a heroic revolt in 160 BC that is celebrated every year at Hannukah by Jews. You know, the same Jews that Gibson has infamously maligned, not only in a nasty anti-Semitic rant after he was arrested for drunken driving but in his enormously successful film "The Passion of the Christ."

The announcement of the project makes it clear that Gibson is back in good standing in Hollywood, at least at Warner Bros., arguably the industry's leading studio, despite the fact that Gibson as recently as last summer was in hot water again, for making racist and misogynistic remarks in a taped conversation with his then-girlfriend. If Warners was at all worried about its image, it easily could have decided to wait until Gibson finished the film before agreeing to do a deal with the star, who will be directing but not necessarily appearing in the film.    

The fact that Warners agreed to bless the Gibson film before it even had a script in hand -- it's being penned by Joe Eszterhas -- shows that the studio felt it was on safe ground in terms of blowback about lending the Warners shield to the project.

Of course, the blowback is already here, with a host of Jewish leaders, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Marvin Hier and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, already blasting the decision. Foxman said it would be a "travesty" to have the Maccabee story told "by one who has no respect and sensitivity for other people's religious views." Hier topped that, railing against the way Gibson portrayed Jews in "Passion of the Christ" as "idiots and buffoons" before adding a coup de grace, saying that having Gibson at the helm of a story about Judah Maccabee "is like casting [Bernie] Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, or a white supremacist as trying to portray Martin Luther King Jr. It's simply an insult to the Jews."

But is it? It's true that Gibson's portrayal of Jews in "Passion of the Christ" was one-sided and deeply stereotypical. And it's pretty clear, from his own actions, that Gibson, drunk or sober, is a man with a lot of enmity inside him, not just for Jews but for African Americans and women. But does that disqualify him from making a movie about Judah Maccabee?

Hardly. First off, until Eszterhas turns in a script, we have no idea what sort of story will be told, much less how it will portray its characters, in terms of tone and shading. Gibson clearly loves mythic heroes from the past -- remember "Braveheart"? -- so his adoration for an embattled warrior might trump his lack of respect for his religion. Stranger things have happened. Conservatives were in an uproar when it was announced that big fat liberal Oliver Stone was doing a 9/11 movie. Yet the final product, "World Trade Center," was viewed as incredibly reverential and uplifting, even by longtime Stone critics.

Gibson has a lot of serious flaws as a human being, but he has always been a gifted filmmaker. It's unfair to judge him so soon. What concerns me most is Gibson's motives for making the film. Even though he has been notoriously self-destructive in his personal life, he surely must realize that a film from him that in any way undercuts the heroism of Maccabee would be a career killer of the highest order. But it would be almost as bad if he were doing the film as an act of penance for his sins, since dutiful acts of penance rarely lend themselves to great artistry.

There are many hurdles to come, starting with the fact that Gibson has put the story in the hands of Eszterhas, the author of all sorts of pulpy, over-the-top thrillers who, even by the most generous standards, hasn't written a decent screenplay in 20 years. But if, Hanukkah miracle of all miracles, Gibson were to end up with a great story to tell, I'd be happy to see him celebrating one of the great Jewish heroes. When it comes to art, sometimes the people who have the most demons to confront end up being the most riveting storytellers of all.

-- Patrick Goldstein  


Mel Gibson and Warner Bros. developing Jewish hero epic

Wonder Who's the Biggest Anti-Semite? Try the New Mel Gibson Scale

Photo: Mel Gibson appears in a Los Angeles courtroom to settle a long-running custody dispute with his former girlfriend over their young daughter. Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press 

Will Reiser and writing about what you know: getting cancer

Will Reiser, left, and Seth Rogen on the set of '50/50'

In the old days of Hollywood, no one ever wanted to admit they were sick. Studios covered up for stars when they had operations. Anyone who had major surgery would say they had their gall bladder removed. After Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS, he kept it quiet for more than a year, then had his publicists say he had inoperable liver cancer. When the National Enquirer broke the news in 1980 that Steve McQueen was dying of cancer, the star’s handlers issued angry denials, staging an elaborate lunch with McQueen and several friendly celebrity columnists, who all wrote glowing assessments of his health. McQueen was dead eight months later.

In show business, a business that revolves around youth and sexual vitality, sickness is viewed as a sign of weakness. It’s a bad career move. I guess that makes it all the more improbable that Will Reiser, after being diagnosed with cancer and enduring an eight-hour operation to remove a massive tumor along his spine, decided that he would use the experience as fodder for a comedy about — gulp — cancer.

The film, “50/50,” which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Reiser) and Seth Rogen, will make its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a nationwide release slated for Sept. 30. Thanks to Rogen, who plays Reiser’s womanizing best friend — an exaggerated version of their real-life relationship — the film has plenty of laughs, but it is closer to what you might call a soulful comedy, with an emphasis on how Reiser’s experience with cancer affects his relationship with his family, his girlfriend (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and friends like Rogen.

As a young comedy writer, Reiser, 31, worked on the short-lived U.S. version of “Da Ali G Show,” where he met Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, as well as future “Colbert Report” co-creator Ben Karlin, who all share producer credit on “50/50.” Not long afterward, in early 2005, Reiser found himself having hunger pangs and dizzy spells.

“I went on WebMD and diagnosed myself as being diabetic,” he told me over lunch at a Venice vegan eatery. “But after I saw a doctor, I discovered I had cancer. Even though the character in the movie has a cancer that’s actually more severe than mine, what the doctor tells him is taken 100% from the diagnostic reports in my files.”

The surgery was so arduous that Reiser still does physical therapy. But the psychological adjustment was even more difficult. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” he says. “It’s like this switch gets flipped and people who you barely know are crying and everyone starts acting weird to you, putting their hands on your shoulder, asking if you’re OK. No one knew exactly how to deal with it, so we’d joke a lot — it was the only way to grasp the absurdity of it all.”

Rogen suggested that the best way for Reiser to cope with the experience would be by writing about it. “In the movie,” Rogen says in a separate interview, “we try to get Will laid, which is the equivalent of what I did in real life, except that our coping mechanism was trying to get him to come up with some funny movie ideas.”

It took a while for Reiser to have enough perspective to write a first draft of the script. “The best way for me to deal with the whole idea of confronting my own mortality was to write about it,” explains Reiser, a slender, soft-spoken guy with an unusually thoughtful air, especially for a comedy writer. “But it took Seth and Evan to give me the confidence. Without them, I would’ve felt too vulnerable.”

Reiser finished the script in 2008. It began floating around Hollywood, which has made a few memorable films about disease over the years but few comedies. It was getting lots of enthusiastic reviews from showbiz insiders but no bites from major studios, which saw the cancer angle as a big marketing hurdle. However, Rogen and Goldberg had made a deal to write an R-rated comedy for Mandate Pictures, the company that has produced such offbeat fare as “Juno” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Seth called me and told me about the script, saying it’s not the kind of movie I usually make — it’s the kind of movie you usually make,” recalls Mandate head Nathan Kahane. “When I read it, the story had such a profound effect on me that I knew we had to make the movie.”

That said, Kahane had his concerns about the story’s commercial viability, especially considering that the script was still going by its original title, “I’m With Cancer.” The film had this title when Mandate and co-financier Summit Entertainment, which is distributing the film, held its first preview screening last summer. “The audience loved the film, but it was clear that if they had known the title they wouldn’t have come to see the picture,” Kahane says. “So the old title had to go.”

There were other bumps in the road. Just days before shooting was scheduled to start in Vancouver, Canada, the movie’s original lead, James McAvoy, dropped out, flying home to England for a family emergency. Reiser suggested Gordon-Levitt as a replacement. Rogen flew to L.A., gave the actor a script to read and, somewhat amazingly, had him on a plane to Vancouver just days later.

Gordon-Levitt added a host of touches to make the character his own, giving him an interest in jazz and old radios, though Reiser’s love for baseball remains — he’s a long-suffering Mets fan. Reiser says Rogen’s character in the film is “a little bit cockier” than the real Rogen, adding, “Seth is also a little more sensitive to women in real life than he is in the film.”

The film cost only $8 million to make, so everyone worked for scale, including Rogen, who’d become a big comedy star by the time Reiser had finished the script. “What we lacked in money we gave everyone in the freedom to be creative,” says Goldberg, who managed with Rogen’s help to persuade Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino to do the film’s score. “Everyone felt this was something special, so they did it out of love.”

“Yeah,” Rogen adds. “Somehow ‘Pineapple Express’ didn’t bring that out in people.”

Despite all that love, it’s still an open question whether audiences will turn out for a comedy whose central character has cancer and undergoes chemotherapy — even if he gets to consume a lot of medicinal marijuana cookies along the way. The film’s marketing material, which shows Gordon-Levitt preparing for chemo by shaving his head, certainly doesn’t hide from the subject.

For Reiser, who freely admits having had trouble dealing with his feelings about being sick, the whole experience was liberating. “It’s only now that I’ve realized how much doing the film helped me deal with feelings I couldn’t express,” he says, shaking his head. He’s had no recurrence of the cancer, he says.

“I used to be such an emotionally closed off, inexpressive person. And having gone through what I’ve gone through, I can say that I’m a much different person now. That’s Joseph up on screen — it’s his character now. But I think I recognize myself a lot more clearly.”


'50/50' filmmakers Seth Rogen and Will Reiser book a new trip

--Patrick Goldstein 

 Photo: Will Reiser, left,  and Seth Rogen on the set of "50/50," which comes out Sept. 30. Credit: Chris Helcermanas-Benge

Is 'The Help' Hollywood's latest liberal civil rights fantasy?

Viola davis I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster Viola Davis must have experienced when her agent called to say she'd been offered a juicy part in “The Help,” DreamWorks' adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel. Even though parts for African American women are extremely few and far between, she would be costarring in the movie, enjoying more time on screen than she'd ever had in a major studio film.

Of course, there was an uncomfortable reality: She would be playing a part that many African Americans see as a cobwebby stereotype — Aibileen, a maid in 1960s Mississippi who cleans house for and raises the children of white segregationists, tots who beam at her and exclaim, “You're my real mama, Aibi!”

“The Help” centers on Skeeter, an aspiring white writer who returns from Ole Miss to her hometown, Jackson, Miss., after graduation. Put off by her childhood friends' racism and unsettled by the disappearance of her beloved childhood house servant, she seizes on the idea of writing about Jackson from the perspective of Aibileen and the city's other black maids. The film is a hit, having earned $35.4 million in its first five days. The CinemaScore tracking service said opening-night audiences gave it an A-plus, and it has a respectable 73 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

But its story, like so many Hollywood films about the civil rights era, puts a white person at the forefront of the struggle against Southern racism. This has created a big split in the African American community. DreamWorks points to endorsements from civil rights icons like Andrew Young and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and onetime NAACP chairman, who introduced the film at an NAACP convention last month. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have urged fans to see the film. The studio says the film earned just as high a score at an all-black test screening in Chicago as it did with mixed audiences.

But if white movie critics have been all over the map about the movie — my colleague Betsy Sharkey called it “heartwarming,” while the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern said it “strengthens stereotypes it purports to shatter” — African American reviewers have been giving the film a thumbs-down. The Denver Post's Lisa Kennedy, the New York Press' Armond White and the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris all weighed in with largely negative reviews, with Morris saying “the movie is too pious for farce and too eager to please to comment persuasively on the racial horrors of the Deep South at that time.”

Melissa Harris-Perry, a black Tulane political science professor, called the film “deeply troubling,” complaining that instead of focusing on the lives of the black women, the film ends up being a coming-of-age story about Skeeter. “The fact is that the African American women — the domestic workers — become props for her.” Perry actually tweeted from a movie theater on opening day, writing at one point: “Thank God plucky white girls could give black women the courage to resist exploitation!”

I too found the movie deeply troubling. It asks us to believe that black maids in brutally repressive 1960s Mississippi could wage a battle against racism with only the tiniest of consequences. One maid brazenly reveals an act of revenge against her employer yet survives unscathed, when such a deed would have surely had dire repercussions at a time when civil rights workers, even white ones, were being beaten and murdered.

The film also never gets around to answering a pivotal question: How did these adorable little “chillen,” shown so much love by their black nannies, end up becoming virulent racists?

What is even more bothersome is that “The Help” presents today's moviegoers with a distorted view of what the civil rights struggle was really like in 1960s Mississippi. It's all too much of a white liberal fantasy, with one idealistic young Southerner inspiring the town's black underclass to rebel against their oppressors. In reality, the movement was led by African Americans, from charismatic organizers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to idealistic black college students and accidental heroes like Rosa Parks.

Of course, the movement had white supporters, many of whom risked their lives registering voters and participating in marches, but the push for change was often a lonely African American crusade. Perhaps that's why it's so galling to see Hollywood make so many films over the years, from “Mississippi Burning” to “The Long Walk Home” to “Ghosts of Mississippi,” that put white heroes at the center of their story. (Two influential directors, Lee Daniels [“Precious”] and Paul Greengrass [“Bourne Supremacy”], have seen financing evaporate for films about King.)

In fact, Hollywood has an aversion to almost any dramas of black struggle that aren't set safely in the past. It's hardly a coincidence that two of the most high-profile projects with an African American story line that are heading into production are set in the slave era: Quentin Tarantino is making a slavery revenge thriller with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio called “Django Unchained,” and Brad Pitt is producing “Twelve Years a Slave,” about a free black man sent back into slavery.

Studios loathe taking commercial risks. And even in an era of a black presidency, a serious modern-day film about black and white relations would hardly be a hot box-office prospect. But something else is at work. As a number of black filmmakers have confided to me in recent years, it is especially hard to find any enthusiastic support for a modern-day racial drama when you are pitching your idea to a room full of white people.

There are ridiculously few black production executives in Hollywood, none of whom have anything resembling greenlight power. DreamWorks, for example, does not have a black production executive, though it is the only major studio to have an African American marketing head. So while Hollywood has an abundance of white liberals, it is an insular world, full of executives who have little firsthand understanding of the black experience.

Perhaps that's why “The Help,” despite its earnest, colorblind intentions, feels like a such a naive piece of feel-good storytelling. I bet plenty of people will be beating the drum for Davis' performance, and rightly so. It would be terrific to see her win an Oscar for her part, just as Hattie McDaniel did more than 70 years ago for her role as a black maid called Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In Hollywood, I guess that's what they call progress.

 --Patrick Goldstein




Photo: Octavia Spencer, right, with Viola Davis in a scene from the new civil rights drama, "The Help."

Credit: Dale Robinette/Disney


Multiplex manners: How rude are patrons at your movie theater?

Texting in the movies

One of the first W.C. Fields movies I saw was an early 1930s Paramount all-star film called "If I Had a Million." Given a cool million to spend as he wishes, Fields uses the money to buy a fleet of jalopies allowing him to careen around Los Angeles, hunting down pernicious road hogs. Whenever Fields sees someone hogging the road, he rams them with one of his cars, hops into the next waiting car in his fleet and heads off in search of a new victim.

I am often reminded of the grand old comic when I'm in a multiplex these days. I think of myself as a generally peaceful citizen, but it seems as if almost every time I go out to the movies I find myself spoiling for a fight with some rude knucklehead who's texting or talking during a movie. I usually just bark, "Put the phone away!" but it's hard to resist the temptation to knock some sense into them, just as Fields did to his road hogs.

Apparently I am not alone. Matt Singer at IFC News says that going to the movies, far from being a refuge from the outside world, is now an even more stressful experience than real life. He is asking people to sign a petition designed to improve the moviegoing experience. He suggests that in addition to shutting their mouths mouth and silencing their cellphones, people should never bring a baby to an R-rated movie, stop throwing their garbage on the theater floor and never, ever, bring loud, stinky food to the theater, suggesting that people who arrive at the multiplex with Chinese takeout in crackly plastic containers "should receive one warning. A second violation gets you a lifetime ban." 

I'm on board with Singer's proposal, but it doesn't really deal with the prickly issue of new technology -- especially the proliferation of texting in the middle of movies. I've found that at least in my family, there is a dramatic generation gap on the texting question. My 13-year-old son considers it totally acceptable to stay in touch with pals during a movie while I find it loathsome and obnoxious, especially to everyone in the vicinity of the glowing light of a cellphone.

I tried explaining to my kid that texting was also insulting to the filmmakers, who have every reason to expect that the audience might actually give their undivided attention to their work. But he wasn't buying that, arguing that if the audience pays good money they should be able to make their own decisions about how much attention a film merits, which I'm afraid is a sign of exactly what happens to your cinematic values when you've grown up watching Michael Bay movies.

If anyone has a strong opinion on this issue I'd like to hear it. Personally, I'd be happy to have theater owners eject anyone guilty of rampant texting, at least unless they can prove that they've been in necessary contact with a baby sitter or an elderly relative. Am I guilty of being too much of a multiplex vigilante? Or would you, too, like a little more peace and quiet when you watch a movie, regardless of how much it might infringe on every American's right to big-screen free speech?


Michael Bay on 4-D: 'Looks like fake 3-D'

W.C. Fields: Comedy hero for the new Depression

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: There's always a new way to deal with the scourge of texting in movie theaters. Credit: Los Angeles Times


'Smurfs' producer's other job? Film school dean

'Smurfs' producer Jordan Kerner, right, with director Raja Gosnell. Credit: Mark Renders / Getty Images

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Veteran movie producer Jordan Kerner spent nearly 10 years finding a way to make “The Smurfs,” which earned $35.6 million in its U.S. opening last weekend. But it’s not his long track record in Hollywood, which includes producing everything from “Less Than Zero” to “The Mighty Ducks,” that interests me most. It’s his other job: dean of the school of filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

I went to film school myself at Northwestern University, back in the stone age, when we still shot with 16mm cameras, lugged around Nagra sound recorders and edited footage on ancient Moviolas. We'd occasionally be treated to lectures from visiting filmmakers, who'd regale us with tall tales about their exploits. But if you wanted any real-life experience, you had to move to Los Angeles and find a job. Thanks to Kerner’s innovative ideas, undergrads at UNCSA are getting an education not just in theory and production, but in the often less-than-glamorous aspects of life in the trenches of Hollywood.

Kerner has recruited a host of faculty members who still have their day jobs, which helps give students a grounding in the kind of pragmatic problem-solving necessary to survive on a film set. Through a shadowing program, students get to spend weeks at a time on movie sets, seeing their professor (or in the case of Kerner, their dean) in action. Nearly 80 students spent time on “Smurfs.”

“We set it up as part of our internship program, but not just to get coffee, but to see how movies are really made,” he told me the other day, sitting in his office on the Sony lot. Every two weeks, a new group of students would establish residency on the film, listening to budget discussions he would have with the studio or sitting in on script revision meetings among Kerner, the screenwriters and director Raja Gosnell.

“During the shoot, if Raja went up to talk to an actor, our kids would be right there with him. They also got to spend time with our editors, visual effects supervisor, sound designers and other crew members. Sometimes the discussions were difficult, but that was the whole point--it's a way to learn the whys and why nots of filmmaking.” (It being 2011, students had to sign release forms promising not to blog about what they saw.)

From the point of view of Andrew Porter, a 2010 graduate of the school's screenwriting program, the shadowing experience on “Smurfs” was an eye-opener. “It was pretty amazing to watch the drafts of all the scripts come through, and see what stayed and what was replaced,” he recalls. “The script really evolved a lot. In one draft you'd see some part of the story that you thought for sure would stay, and then it would be gone. But after you got to hear all the discussions, you'd realize why they'd made the changes.”

Tom Ackerman, a veteran director of photography on such films as “Anchorman” and “Balls of Fury,” has been teaching cinematography at UNCSA for three years. He's also a big believer in the shadowing process, having brought a flock of students to spend time with him on “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked,” which will hit theaters this Christmas. He also has his students listen in on his conversations with his agent so they can develop an understanding of the demands of the marketplace.

When he was back in Los Angeles, doing a quick music video shoot, Ackerman had students sit in on his production meetings, via Skype, so they could follow the flow of the production. “It makes their teacher more relevant, because you're teaching something that you're still practicing,” he says. “It's great to teach theory, but the students need to see that theories often evaporate under the pressure of trying to get a movie made. Everyone knows that cinematographers try to create great images, but you also have to exercise leadership and be able to manage the resources that you're given.”

Kerner2 Kerner never imagined himself being a film school dean – in fact, he never went to film school himself. But after surviving a freak staph infection and enduring the disappointing showing of a pet project, 2006’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Kerner was looking for a new challenge. He became dean in 2007, agreeing to split his time between Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, where his wife and three daughters now live.

UNCSA, a state school with 270 film students and tuition far below institutions like USC or AFI, has its share of prominent young alums, notably director David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”), writer-director Jody Hill (“Observe and Report”) and screenwriter Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), who often return to share their experiences. But Kerner felt the school needed more outside professionals on the faculty, so he recruited a host of industry pros, including producer Bob Gosse, who co-founded The Shooting Gallery and Peter Bogdanovich, who teaches a freshman film class.

Eager to broaden the students' horizons, Kerner has everyone taking art history, which he believes will help students “see the world composed in a way that stimulates individual expression.” Students in the producing program will soon start studying Mandarin since Kerner is convinced that China is “where much of the funding for film is going to come from.”

My biggest concern with today's film schools is that they tend to offer students far more instruction in technique than in actual ideas, which is perhaps one reason why we see a generation of filmmakers who seem to value box office success far more than artistic accomplishment. The star directors in today's studio system, from Todd Phillips to Michael Bay, operate more as careerists than auteurs.

But the student films I watched from UNCSA were loaded with strong ideas, wit and imagination – which may come as a bit of a surprise, given that the dean is the guy producing commercial fare like “The Smurfs.” Kerner, though, sees his work as dean as contributing to enhancing the business more than any one movie he might make.

“When I arrived, we had way too many student films that were full of close-ups of smoking guns, employing the imagery of video games,” Kerner says. “Filmmaking isn't just about coolness and pose--you need bigger subjects to tell.” So Kerner started an American Immersion project, where students gain a deeper understanding of character and story by spending several weeks at places like the Veterans Artificial Limb Hospital in Philadelphia and Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.

“They can't take cameras or recording devices--just a pad and pen,” says Kerner. “The whole idea is to go out and get to know people, hear their stories and get under their skin. The whole idea is to find ways to take what they've learned and adapt it to their work.”

As much as Kerner would enjoy seeing his students make lofty art, he is enough of a realist to realize that they also need what it takes to actually land a job. Since much of the job market today is geared toward the web, animation and TV commercials, Kerner is a proponent of short-form storytelling.

“Our kids are going to have to think clearly in short bursts, because that's where the action is,” he says. “But we want them to have their own voice, because having a unique voice is what sets you apart from everyone else.”

[For the record, 12:55 p.m. Aug. 5: An earlier version of this post used a photo of "Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell but identified him as Jordan Kerner.]


Movie review: 'The Smurfs'

Set Pieces: The Smurfs' New York digs

'Cowboys & Aliens' narrowly beats 'Smurfs' to top the box office

-- Patrick Goldstein

Top photo:  "The Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell, left, and producer Jordan Kerner. Credit: Mark Renders / Getty Images

Lower photo: Jordan Kerner in New York City in July. Credit: Cindy Ord / Getty Images


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