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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: October 2010

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R.I.P., George Hickenlooper

October 30, 2010 |  7:37 pm

It feels like it was essentially yesterday that we talked to George Hickenlooper, the director of "Casino Jack," who died suddenly last night at the age of 47.

Hickenlooper was found dead this morning in Denver, where he had traveled to support the gubernatorial campaign of his cousin, John Hickenlooper, and attend this coming week's Starz Denver Film Festival. We'd met and spoken to the filmmaker at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, and he came across as vibrant, candid and articulate in promoting the Kevin Spacey-starring Abramoff biopic, which is scheduled to come out in December.

Hickenlooper The director spoke about his hopes for John's gubernatorial bid in Colorado (it's a tight race, he said, but the poll data was encouraging)  his new project ("How to Make Love Like an Englishman," a drama with Pierce Brosnan about an older professor reevaluating his life, which he was preparing to shoot in November) and his interest in the intersection of politics and idealism.

"There's something unique about the United States, a sense of individual rights and freedoms, and a sense of social and civic responsibility that we contributed to so much of the world," he said. "We lost that mission in the 1980s and 1990s, when we entered a gilded age, and the culture of individualism became a culture of avarice. It's seen in every aspect of our culture. Everything is totally commodified, even in box office. Do you care how many Big Macs McDonald's sold last week? How is that relevant? And that kind of feasting and ravenous thinking has seeped into the pores of our culture such that we've lost a sense of ourselves."

Hickenlooper was an independent filmmaker par excellence, struggling to get movies his way even if they were out of sync with the Hollywood fashion. His best known work, "Hearts of Darkness," which took a compelling behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of "Apocalypse Now," documented some of those same struggles, while his 2006 Andy Warhol-Edie Sedgwick movie "Factory Girl" examined the troubled souls and diverse company of an artist. He also directed the documentary "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," about pop impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, and the feature drama "The Man From Elysian Fields," about a novelist who threatens to crack under various pressures.

"It's tough when you're a filmmaker because you go into a studio and they say 'You gotta like a character,' " he said. " 'You gotta sympathize.' And I think 'No you don't.' Travis Bickle -- do you like Travis Bickle? No. But you empathize with his loneliness."

Hickenlooper said that both politics and filmmaking had a tendency to increase one's cynicism, something he thought about a lot after studying and meeting with Abramoff, whom he found flawed and tragic. But he said it was important to fend off those thoughts. "Most people, 95% of people, are good people. It's the 5% who get seduced by power," he said, adding, "Abraham Lincoln said if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Hickenlooper summed up a worldview both pragmatic and ambitious.

"As a storyteller I want my films to entertain -- what is it Louis B. Mayer said, 'if you want to send a message, call Western Union?' -- but I do want them to be worldly and relevant. I'm fascinated by failure, and I'm fascinated by finality. Shakespeare's historical plays are more universal than his comedies because they relate to the finality of life. Without finality, life would not be beautiful."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: George Hickenlooper at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. Credit: Dan Steinberg/AP


Casino Jack director deals a new hand

Kevin Spacey plays Jack Abramoff


Does today's Hollywood stack up to the Hollywood of decades past?

October 29, 2010 |  6:43 pm

One of the perks, or hazards, of writing about contemporary films is that you often get letters and messages from readers about the weakness of said films. Nothing today, goes the refrain, is as original/good/uncynical as it once was (which is probably why the remake trend both exists and gets people so riled up).

Like analyzing World Series teams from different eras, these are questions entirely without resolution,  but not without arguments (and arguers). Are "Inception" and "Avatar" as groundbreaking in this era as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind" were in theirs? Could Humphrey Bogart or Marlon Brando act circles around Matt Damon or Javier Bardem?

The cable network TCM has now tried to see how pervasive these feelings really are. To commemorate its upcoming airing of the seven-part series "Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Contemporary Hollywood," the channel polled 1,000 people (nearly half of whom self-identified as “classic film enjoyers”) to see how the current film era measures up in the popular imagination.

Certainly there are some achievements that, quite literally, can't be compared. Even if an overhwhelming number of respondents (71%) believe that Denzel Washington "carries on the tradition" of Sidney Poitier, most of them wouldn't deny Poitier faced obstacles few contemporary black actors do.

And one hopes that some of the findings aren't representative -- such as when nearly 25% of respondents said they believe that Antonio Banderas exemplifies, more than anyone else, Errol Flynn in the modern era. (The survey design may also skew the results, as the questions cite the older era but all of the multiple-choice answers come from the present-day; it might have been more instructive to include choices from a number of eras and see where each landed.)

Still, in many respects the survey shows that we believe the present is, in fact, just as good as the past.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents, for instance, believe that Steven Spielberg's influence matches that of Alfred Hitchcock. And 73% were willing to say that modern power couples such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones stack up favorably to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

There may be a kind of cognitive dissonance at work here. In the abstract, we might think that the old days were better. But when we actually get down to specific comparisons, we rather like our current stars and films.

There were, of course, some exceptions. When asked if there was a contemporary version of Marilyn Monroe, "None of the Above" outranked everyone, even Jolie. Some things really were better in the past.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Gone with the Wind. Credit: MGM.


Saw franchise ends with a bang, and a bloodletting

October 29, 2010 |  6:11 pm


It’s a bittersweet weekend for "Saw" fans as the final film in the long-running franchise hits theaters.  How much mayhem have we endured over the past six years? Quiz your friends while you wait in line with this quick by-the-numbers look.

Q. How does Jigsaw stack up to other villains when it comes to box office?
A. Saw has sold $370 million worth of tickets sold (so far) -– that means Jigsaw has drawn more victims (to theaters) than Michael Myers (“Halloween”), Jason Voorhees (“Friday the 13th”) and even Freddy Krueger (“Nightmare on Elm Street”).Hairpuller

Q: How many people will Jigsaw have taken out, or pushed to suicidal action, by the time the "Saw 3D" credits roll?
A: 70, including this film and the six previous ones.

Q: How many diabolical torture/death traps has the franchise featured?
A: 47, including the hair puller pictured at right. "Saw 3D" has the largest number of traps.

Q. How many gallons of fake blood were needed for “Saw 3D"?
A: More than 25 –- that’s 2.5 times more than they needed for "Saw II."

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Can 'Gravity' get off the ground? Studio says yes, but doubts persist

October 29, 2010 |  3:55 pm

"Gravity" is one of the most anticipated films on the Hollywood drawing board. But the science-fiction film about a woman marooned in outer space is enduring more than its share of launch troubles.

When details about the film began to circulate several months ago, "Gravity" looked like the kind of project many believe Hollywood studios do best: employ a muscular budget in the service of a grand vision, creating memorable effects and hitting emotional beats. And serious talent was involved: Alfonso Cuaron, the "Children of Men" auteur, was writing and directing the movie, and Angelina Jolie was set to star.

Fan sites were gushing immediately. "Anyone know when filming is supposed to begin because I can't wait for this. If there's any director who could potentially match what [Christopher] Nolan is doing with 'Inception,' it's Cuaron," was one typical fan-site comment.

But the movie that many saw in their mind's eye may never make it to the screen.

Jolie bowed out of the film three weeks ago, and Natalie Portman had discussions with Cuaron to replace her but opted out as well, according to several trade-news outlets. Robert Downey Jr., who was to play a supporting role, now looks likely to exit. ("Scheduling issues" are acknowledged by Warner Bros. executives, who say they have not entirely given up hope that the actor will take the part.) Sandra Bullock, who came on to the film after talks with Portman didn't materialize, remains in — for now.

Over the last few days, the talk in Hollywood circles has been that all the casting issues, as well as budgetary concerns for the effects-heavy movie, were causing Warner Bros. to put the film on hold. One person who had been briefed on the project but asked not to be identified because the conversations were private said that studio officials had told him the project was headed to the shelf.

Reached by phone, the Warner Bros. executive in charge of production said that, despite the casting issues and the other talk, the film remains on track. "We love this movie, and we're going to find a way to make it,"  Lynn Harris, executive vice president of production, told 24 Frames.

Harris said there were "four or five scenarios" for how to make the movie but said none involved cutting the budget or replacing Bullock. Harris did not disclose the budget, but Hollywood observers estimate it to be in the ballpark of $75 million.

To some in the movie business, "Gravity" has been a question mark from the start: It's coming at a time when studios rarely make expensive character-driven movies. It also lacks an obvious commercial hook, and there are artistic touches that include a reported 20-minute single take to open the movie.

Some have likened "Gravity" to "Cast Away," but even if the comparison holds, times have changed in the decade since the Tom Hanks film came out. These days, most movies of this kind are left in independent-film hands. The premise of "Gravity" is similar to that of 2008's "Moon," Duncan Jones' story of a man on the lunar surface struggling to get back to his family — which was made for a small budget outside the studio system.

Warner Bros. executives say they wouldn't want to make "Gravity" with anyone other than Bullock. The question for many in Hollywood is whether they will make the movie at all.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Cuaron's 'Children of Men.' Credit: Universal Pictures

Noomi Rapace swings for a boxing movie

October 29, 2010 |  2:48 pm


EXCLUSIVE: Noomi Rapace, the white-hot Swedish actress who reprises her role as Lisbeth Salander one last time in this weekend's "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," is taking a lead part in a new boxing movie -- opposite her ex-husband.

Rapace, who is on the verge of English-language stardom with a role in "Sherlock Holmes 2," is set to star in a biopic about the colorful Swedish boxer Boss Hogberg, in which she'll play real-life cabaret singer Anita Lindblom, who was married to the prizefighter.

Rapace will star in the English-language movie with Ola Rapace, to whom she was married for seven years. They recently divorced but remain on good terms.

Hogberg's life and career was the stuff of "Raging Bull"-esque legend: The product of a working-class Gothenburg neighborhood, Hogberg captured the light-middleweight title (and lost it three weeks later), boxed through pain (he once fought 14 rounds with a broken jaw), romanced starlets, dealt with alcoholism and ran into legal troubles like Jack Thompson used to run into right hooks. His life changed -- somewhat -- when he met and married Lindblom.

Even with Noomi Rapace's schedule filling up, producers say they're not concerned about timing, with the idea to shoot the as-yet-untitled film as early as this summer in Sweden and France.

The movie will reunite the Rapaces with producer Helena Danielsson (who will produce with Malte Forssell and L.A.-based Paradox Entertainment). They previously collaborated on the addiction drama "Beyond," which is set to be released in various countries over the coming months.

Before breaking out in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Rapace starred in a number of movies in Scandinavia, including the Danish movie "Daisy Diamond," in which she played the role of a teen mom. It's a path she's apparently not abandoning: Even as she continues to book Hollywood roles (besides "Sherlock," she's also set for the vampire movie "The Last Voyage of Demeter"), she's continuing to take parts in European art-house productions.

 -- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Noomi Rapace in 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.' Credit: Music Box.


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Critical Mass: 'Welcome to the Rileys'

October 29, 2010 |  2:11 pm


The critics are almost evenly split in their opinion of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival offering "Welcome to the Rileys." Despite the "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" appeal of seeing Tony Soprano paired on screen with Bella Swan (OK, James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart) under the direction of Ridley Scott's son, Jake, reviews have been mixed to negative.The story concerns a grieving father (Gandolfini) who travels far from his suburban Indiana existence to New Orleans and takes a wayward stripper named Mallory (Stewart) under his wing. The actors, including Melissa Leo, are mostly getting good reviews, but it's the story that appears to be taking a drubbing.

Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey, one of the film's defenders, has many nice things to say about  Gandolfini and Stewart, writing that "much of the pleasure of the film is watching Gandolfini and Stewart navigate a minefield pocked with stopped toilets, no electricity, arrests and even angry johns." She's less tolerant of Leo's scenes, noting "sometimes three's a crowd." But despite her fondness for the film as a whole, she's not as impressed by Scott, whom she says "is still too tentative with his actors and hampered by a script that keeps trying to fix too many of Mallory's problems with new clothes and clean sheets."

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Can James Cameron gain fans with a movie that isn't 'Avatar'?

October 28, 2010 |  6:18 pm

MV5BMTMxMTYzNTU4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODUzMzQwNA@@._V1._SX640_SY939_James Cameron may be plumbing the depths of "Avatar" one more time (and then one more time after that). But there will  be some non-"Avatar" Cameron storytelling with "Sanctum," a more modestly budgeted 3-D tale from Australian Alister Grierson. The king of the world is executive producing and godfathering.

At least we hope it's original.

There's long been a bit of a fear around "Sanctum" that Cameron would simply apply new technology (and a lower budget) to his 1989 underwater classic "The Abyss." The first trailer for "Sanctum," due in theaters  in February, indicates that those fears are unfounded. But he and Grierson may be borrowing from some other movies just the same.

After some opening shots of the pastoral sea that could have come right out of "Oceans," the "Sanctum" trailer tracks underwater cave divers who become trapped deep in caverns during a tropical disaster. Those shots evoke memories of "The Perfect Storm."

As the divers encounter rising water and false exits, the spot takes on water -- or at least a vibe similar to "Buried" and a host of other trapped-explorer narratives (including the Chilean-miner saga). Breathless exclamations of action-movie cliches -- "You'll find a way out" and "We're running out of time!" -- don't help either.

Of course it's hard to see the scope of Cameron's and Grierson's world on a computer monitor, and Cameron has always been about the visual first. Trapped-men stories are also highly dependent on performance and a dozen other nuances. So there's a benefit of the doubt to be given. But those of us hoping that we don't need hundreds of millions of dollars and a voyage to distant Pandora to see some trademark Cameron chops probably won't be encouraged either.

--Steven Zeitchik




Photo: "Sanctum" poster. Credit: Rogue.


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'Last House on the Left' director looks to set up a new home

October 28, 2010 |  1:20 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Fans of the supernatural should be keen on this one: The man who brought a Wes Craven classic back to the big screen and a veteran of television hit "Ghost Whisperer" are poised to team up on a new horror picture.

Dennis Iliadis, who remade Craven's seminal 1972 film, "The Last House on the Left," last year, is negotiating to direct a new film called "The Demonologists," say several sources familiar with the project. The film is written by Teddy Tenenbaum, a screenwriter who also has numerous credits on the Jennifer Love Hewitt series "Ghost Whisperer."

"Demonologists," from "Sherlock Holmes" producer Silver Pictures, concerns a family of veteran ghost hunters who get more than they bargained for when they are called in to face what they soon realize is not a routine ghost job but a demon infestation. The film shares some thematic similarities with "House," which looked at what happens when a decent family is driven to violent acts.

Iliadis, incidentally, is an up-and-coming horror director who has also been considered for the remake of the Hitchcock classic "The Birds."

"Demonologists" continues a mini-trend of films about people battling evil supernatural forces. "The Last Exorcism" proved a niche hit this summer, while the Anthony Hopkins-starring exorcism movie "The Rite" is due out in January.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from "The Last House on the Left." Credit: Rogue Pictures.


Kenneth Turan's film pick of the week: 'Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing'

October 28, 2010 |  7:07 am

Love is a Many

Sometimes the circumstances of a screening can be as interesting as the film itself, and that is the case with "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing."

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena has been running a tribute to actress Jennifer Jones, and no wonder -- Jones was married to Simon and was active as a museum trustee.

Previous films have included Jones' Oscar-winning "The Song of Bernadette" and the series concludes on Saturday at 2 p.m. with "Love," another of her signature movies. It's a sturdy 1955 weepy that costars William Holden, and though it got Jones a lead actress nomination as a Eurasian doctor, it's best known for its score and its classic title song.

If you go, be sure to get there on time: curator Carol Togneri is scheduled to talk with Jones' son Robert Walker Jr. before the film about his memories of his mother.

-- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: Jennifer Jones and William Holden in "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing." Credit: Courtesy of Norton Simon Museum

Simon West will wear a 'Medallion'

October 27, 2010 |  4:15 pm


EXCLUSIVE: Action fans will know well the name of Simon West, a veteran director who counts "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" and "Con Air" among his filmmaking credits. West returns to form when his remake of the Charles Bronson assassin movie "The Mechanic" starring Jason Statham hits screens early next year.

It might not be long, it turns out, before we see West try his hand at some vintage action again. Several sources familiar with the project say the director is coming on to direct "Medallion," the story of a father who has just a few hours to locate his kidnapped daughter, who has been locked by hostage-takers in the trunk of an unidentified New York City cab.

The "Taken-"esque story, which is being produced by McG, is based on a script from writer David Guggenheim. Guggenheim is a former US Weekly entertainment journalist who made a splash when he sold "Safe House," the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller that's currently shooting. West is shooting the Dwayne Johnson action movie "Protection" first, then would make the move to "Medallion."

There have been a number of top-flight actors previously discussed for the lead part in the film, including Clive Owen and Nicolas Cage. No big name is on board yet, but with West now in the director's chair and McG producing the film, we don't imagine they'll have much trouble finding one.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Angelina Jolie as "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." Credit: Paramount Pictures


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