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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: January 2011

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Catherine Keener and John Malkovich, together again?

January 31, 2011 |  7:42 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Film fans eager to see "My Idiot Brother," Jesse Peretz's Sundance hit starring Paul Rudd that will be in theaters later this year, could soon get another dose of seriocomedy from the filmmaker.

Peretz is making headway on a new family drama called "What's This S%^@ Called Love?" Peretz, who wrote the script and has been talking to financiers, said that Catherine Keener and John Malkovich are attached to star in the movie -- the first time, if financing and scheduling work out, that the actors would appear on-screen together since "Being John Malkovich," the 1999 surrealist hit that turbocharged both their careers. (Representatives for the actors could not immediately be reached for comment.)

The new movie, which is being produced by Tim Perell ("Last Chance Harvey," "The Rebound") is set in Cambridge, Mass., during the 1980s, a place and period in which Peretz, the son of well-known journalist Marty Peretz, came of age.

It centers on a teenage boy who's contemplating coming out. But in a twist, his ultra-progressive family actually wants to celebrate the boy's newfound sexuality, while all the boy wants is to be left alone. (Keener and Malkovich would play the parents; Keener has played the open-minded parent of precocious children before, perhaps most famously in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin.")

"My Idiot Brother," a story of a dimwitted man and his doting sisters, became a breakout at Sundance, snapped up by The Weinstein Co. for more than $6 million. Peretz doesn't make movies very often -- it had been five years since his previous effort, the Amanda Peet-Jason Bateman dramatic comedy "The Ex," came out.

When asked if "What's This S%^@ Called Love?" was a little like the coming-of-age story in "The Squid and the Whale," Noah Baumbach's paragon of upper-middle-class family dysfunction, Peretz didn't disagree. "It's kind of like that," he said. "But maybe a little more positive."

-- Steven Zeitchik


 Photo: Catherine Keener and John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich." Credit: USA Films

Sundance 2011: Oprah's network buys L.A. crime documentary

January 31, 2011 |  4:40 pm


Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, OWN, has acquired “Crime After Crime,” a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and takes aim at Los Angeles County Dist. Atty.  Steve Cooley for his handling of a controversial murder case.

Director Yoav Potash said in an interview Monday that the deal includes an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York before its airing on television. The deal for the film was valued in the low six figures, according to a person involved in the negotiations.

“Throughout most of my time making this film, which was 5 1/2 years, people kept saying Oprah has to see this,” Potash said by phone. “It involves an important social issue that affects women but doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and it’s a film about an African American protagonist who holds her head up high despite being brutalized and being denied justice.” 

The film chronicles the story of Deborah Peagler, who pleaded guilty in 1983 to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. She said she agreed to the plea  to avoid a death sentence for her involvement in the killing of her estranged boyfriend. (Read more about the case, and last week's screening, here.)

At the time, the fact that she was severely battered by her boyfriend was not considered, but California became the first state in the country to pass a law in 2002 that allows cases to be reopened if the defendant can show that domestic violence was a factor that led to the killing.

Cooley became a key foil to the efforts of Peagler and her pro bono attorneys to gain her release under the law, and the documentary follows their topsy-turvy battle to its unsettling completion.

At screenings of the movie in Park City, Utah, many viewers hissed when Cooley appeared on screen, but his spokeswoman released a statement saying that the office was steadfast in its belief that Peagler was treated appropriately.

"Deborah Peagler intentionally orchestrated the murder-for-hire of her estranged boyfriend. She lured him to the spot where he was killed. She witnessed the murder and drove the killers away," Sandi Gibbons said. "She profited by receiving money from the victim's insurance."

--Garrett Therolf

Photo: Deborah Peagler, pictured behind the security glass at Central California Women's Facility prison. Credit: Yoav Potash

Henry Cavill as Superman: Why are Brits so appealing as American superheroes?

January 31, 2011 |  2:24 pm

The reaction in the fan universe to the news that Henry Cavill is the new Superman has been surprisingly muted given that the actor has little track record -- and the one he does have involves a royals soap-opera on pay cable.

But with the casting of "The Tudors" costar as the new Man of Steel, it's impossible not to notice the trend of Brits in capes. As my colleague Geoff Boucher notes, British citizens will fill all three slots in the holy trinity of superheroes for the first time in history now that Cavill will play Superman. (Welsh native Christian Bale is reprising his role as Batman in "The Dark Knight Rises," and British-American Andrew Garfield is the new Spider-Man.)

Meanwhile, Aussie Chris Hemsworth is playing Thor (a character, of course, rooted in another country's mythology) in a new Marvel movie. Even Green Lantern comes from Canada.

Before the comment flames begin ... yes, in many ways this doesn't really matter. These actors will lose their accents long before they leap off their first building. And while Superman is ostensibly a character who seeks "truth, justice and the American way," the phrase from the comic (if it's used in the movie at all) is just a euphemism meant to suggest goodness. These days it could just as easily be the British way.

Still, the casting of foreigners is notable. For one thing, it reflects where filmmakers are headed with these characters. Nearly all of these superheroes are darker and more tortured, and the current generation of Brits is seen, rightly or wrongly, as more comfortable at that end of the acting spectrum than many of their American counterparts.

Maybe more important, the choice speaks to a desire to cast relative unknowns in the roles. Except for Bale, none of the Aussies or Brits was known to a broad U.S. audience when they landed their superhero parts. The ability to get an actor at a reasonable paycheck -- the superhero, after all, makes the actor as much as the other way around -- can't be far from the minds of producers. And creatively, an unknown is a blank slate that can grow with a franchise instead of overshadowing it.

In fact, while some of us get very worked up about just who will play these superheroes, the actors who have inhabited these parts most successfully -- Christopher Reeve, Tobey Maguire -- have been low-key, even fey presences. Actors well-known for their charm -- a George Clooney, for instance -- actually make less-memorable superheroes.

When Brandon Routh was cast as Superman six years ago, he worried that he'd be confused a little too much with Reeve. It wasn't an idle concern: Routh looked and acted enough like the late Reeve to draw the comparison, but he inevitably got the short end of the stick. The goal these days seems to lie in the other direction: Bring in someone who looks and acts nothing like those who came before.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Henry Cavill (center) in '"The Tudors." Credit: Jonathan Hession / Showtime


Hero Complex: British Invasion among superhero actors


Sundance 2011: The six biggest stories of this year's festival

January 31, 2011 | 12:20 pm

As the last publicists, filmmakers and reporters made their way out of Park City, Utah, on Sunday and turned the land back over to its rightful owners (snowboarders and ski bums), we decided to take a look back at the 11 days just passed at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Six storylines had risen to the top. (Well, a few others did too, but six has a nice ring to it.) Here they are, in no particular order:

The cultists. This may well be remembered as the year cults and their leaders became a Sundance fixture. Two highly buzzed-about, if very different, films put a cult front-and-center: Sean Durkin's flashback-happy "Martha Marcy May Marlene" cast Elizabeth Olsen as a woman who seeks to escape the psychological clutches of a charismatic but murderous leader, while Zal Batmanglij's "Lost"-like "Sound of My Voice," about a cult figure (Brit Marling) who may or may not be from the future, provided some of the most well-received storytelling of the festival.  Both movies will  have a cultural impact beyond Park City -- "MMMM" will get a major release from Fox Searchlight, and the second could well end up as a television pilot and subsequent series, according to the movie's representatives.

Rebirthing. It may not be the most talked-about current-events documentary to come out of the festival (that honor probably belongs to Morgan Spurlock's "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold"). But when the festival fades into history, time could well show that the 9/11 movie "Rebirth" -- which will be a part of the national 9/11 museum and will likely get theatrical and television distribution too -- as the Sundance product with the longest reach. First-time filmmaker Jim Whitaker spent nearly a decade dealing with the messy emotional business of people who lived through, and with, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His movie looks to be a factor for even longer than that.

Tickle Me Emo. At Sundance 2010, "Blue Valentine" took the pining and emotional shoe-gazing pretty deep; this year's "Like Crazy" takes its story of lovers divided by an ocean a level deeper. Whether or not Drake Doremus' drama becomes a hit when it's released by Paramount this year, it already seems bound to usher in a new round of sensitivity in independent-film circles. And much like "An Education" did for Carey Mulligan at the festival two years ago, "Like Crazy," which won two major prizes from the jury, heralds the arrival of a young British actress (in this case, the vulnerable, young Felicity Jones).

Continue reading »

Sundance 2011: 'Like Crazy' the big winner at festival prizes

January 29, 2011 |  8:07 pm

The jury at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival has given its grand jury U.S. dramatic prize to Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy," a story of a long-distance romance starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones.

The prize, the festival's highest honor, was the second for the film this evening; the jury previously handed a special prize to Jones.

It also awarded the grand jury U.S. documentary prize to Peter D. Richardson's "How to Die in Oregon," a story of the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

In accepting the dramatic prize, Doremus said that "this movie is about love, and love never dying and being with you for the rest of your life." Then he thanked his agent. "Oh, and Paramount Pictures -- thanks for buying the movie." (The studio  acquired rights to the film a week ago and will release it later this year.)

Matt Groening presented the grand jury documentary prize and thanked the festival for inviting him to participate despite a "Simpsons" episode that once mocked the festival for the presence of "Parker Posey" and "Parka poseurs."

The audience at the festival gave its top U.S. dramatic prize to Maryam Keshavarz's "Circumstance," a Farsi-language look at a pair of teenage lesbians in contemporary Iran, and its top U.S. documentary prize to Cindy Meehl's "Buck," the story of a real-life horse whisperer.

Four films won a pair of jury prizes: in addition to "Like Crazy," Paddy Considine's "Tyrannosaur," Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" and Danfung Dennis' doc "Hell and Back Again" each were given two prizes.

For more details, see our sister blog, Awards Tracker.

-- Steven Zeitchik and Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah


Photo: Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones in 'Like Crazy.' Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: Difficulties on screen, reflecting the challenges off it

January 29, 2011 |  4:22 pm

The money and wine that flowed at the parties over the last week up and down Main Street in the resort mountain town of Park City, Utah, may not have suggested a particular kind of hardship. But Sundance has a way of depicting tribulations on its screens that belies the revelry of the festival itself.

This year, with the recession more than two years old, many of the movies, conceived when the recession was just starting, incorporated economic and other difficulties into their fabric. The struggle to make it in today's America was an on-screen trend related to -- or perhaps even the antecedent for -- the Sundance Film Festival's other common theme -- that of characters looking for spiritual salvation.

The struggle was not apparent in a Michael Moore-Barbara Ehrenreich power-to-the-people sort of fashion, though one documentary, "The Flaw," stopped to take a look at ordinary citizens affected by the subprime mortgage crisis. It  did, however, permeate the movies in more subtle ways.

In Tom McCarthy's "Win Win," a character played by Paul Giamatti cuts corners because his family-law practice has come upon hard times. Andrew Maclean's Alaskan Inuit thriller "On the Ice" showed the desperation of characters in a  remote, economically blighted part of the country (and then throws in some more reasons for desperation). In festival breakout "Martha Marcy May Marlene," Elizabeth Olsen's wanderer argues materialism and capitalism with her yuppie brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

In "Take Shelter," Michael Shannon's family man spends much of the movie readying himself for a coming storm that may be as much symbolic as meteorological. Danfun Dennis' documentary "Hell and Back Again" shows a sergeant struggling to adapt to everyday North Carolina life after he is wounded in Afghanistan.

J.C. Chandor's  "Margin Call" takes on the subject of modern-day crisis with an absence of metaphor: it shows how executives up and down the ladder of an investment brokerage are thrown for a financial and spiritual loop when the Wall Street unraveling begins.

Meanwhile, no one seems to be struggling financially (just emotionally) in "I Melt With You," the Rob Lowe-Jeremy Piven drama about a weeklong retreat of male bonding gone horribly wrong. But modern forces close in on them anyway:  Lowe's doctor becomes a pill-supplying quack to make extra cash, while Piven's banker has stolen from his clients to give his family an upper-class life and is, as the movie begins, bracing himself for a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Even genre films got in on the act: Brit Marling, the Sundance It Girl who co-wrote and starred in two movies here, explored a young woman with no prospects in the science-fiction-tinged "Another Earth" -- her best chance at redemption is represented by, literally, a trip to another planet.

Independent movies have explored difficult times in previous years."The Company Men," which played at Sundance last year, looked at the effects of the recession on upper-middle management. The 2009 festival-circuit  hit "Wendy & Lucy" showed a drifter whose lost dog may have represented a larger absence of hope. But this year's Sundance may be the first large-scale gathering of English-language cinema in which hardship isn't just the subject of an occasional movie but a veritable through-line.

"Things seem so strange, especially in the wake of the economic collapse and the confusion over 'if consumption isn't everything, how do you construct a meaningful life?'" said Marling, who also brought the episodic drama "Sound of My Voice," a cult-centric story that explores spiritual desolation and salvation of its own kind, to the festival. "Both of my films  are really investigating our faith in being alive: who are we, what are we doing and why should we keep going?" The filmmakers here have one answer to those questions: to make and see movies about just that.

-- Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah


Photo: Alex Shaffer, left, and Paul Giamatti in "Win Win."

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: 'Son of No One' births a strong reception

January 29, 2011 |  2:27 pm

GetprevEven before it screened for the public Friday night, Dito Montiel's crime drama "Son of No One" already had generated a lot of headlines in the bubble of the Sundance Film Festival.

The movie became a hot topic after a story appeared in The Hollywood Reporter earlier in the week saying  that a number of filmgoers had left a media and industry screening early. That prompted a sales agent for the film to tweet against the story (which prompted a followup item in The Hollywood Reporter).

But despite the walkout talk from earlier in the week, the movie, which co-stars Katie Holmes, played to a warm reception at a full house of approximately 1,200 filmgoers at the Eccles Theatre on Friday night.

Montiel's movie centers on a New York City police officer (Channing Tatum) tormented by a secret that threatens to catch up to him. As the walls close in, he finds himself on the run even from his boss (Ray Liotta) and wonders if he can even trust his godfather, who's also the police commissioner (Al Pacino).

At a news  conference earlier Friday, the freewheeling Montiel, who was previously here with "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," addressed the walkout story, saying it "drove him nuts" but then added, "Whatever ... the movie's great."

A handful of audience members did seem aware of the earlier publicity. "I heard Katie [Holmes] wasn't coming because of all the bad press," one moviegoer said to another. "She hasn't been in anything good since 'Pieces of April.'"

Holmes did, in fact, show up at the last minute -- and for the first time all week, nearly the entire Eccles auditorium stood up to gawk and snap photographs of a celebrity. She later took the stage with Montiel and the rest of the cast, who spent most of the question-and-answer session praising the filmmaker.

On the red carpet before the screening, Tatum -- true to actor form -- said he'd not read any of the press surrounding the movie.

"I don’t ever read those things. People have asked me some interesting questions today," he said with a smiled. When asked what he meant by that, he replied, with a wink, "I don't know, you asked me." (Check out the video with Tatum below.)

From the stage, the actor self-deprecatingly noted that he only had about "15 words or lines in this entire movie." "[Montiel] convinced me the less I did, the better I'd be," he quipped.

-- Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman



Photo:  Ray Liotta, left, Channing Tatum and Dito Montiel at the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Danny Moloshok / Associated Press


Sundance 2011: 'Son of No One' director: Bad press 'makes me nuts'

Sundance 2011: At war and at home in 'Hell and Back Again'

Sundance 2011: Flamethrowers and heartbreak in 'Bellflower'

Sundance 2011: A 'Hoop Dreams' director gets interrupted

January 29, 2011 |  2:24 pm

With his 1995 film "Hoop Dreams," documentary filmmaker Steve James helped turn nonfiction filmmaking into something that also appealed to popular audiences.

With his latest film, "The Interrupters," which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, James takes a look at a group of community activists in Chicago who attempt to intervene in conflicts and stop violence before it happens.

The film follows three of the violence "interrupters," who work with an organization called CeaseFire, over the course of one year. A number of mediations are caught on tape, in situations ranging from a brutal street fight to a group of teenagers haggling over $5.

But the real work of the interrupters often begins when they have backed people away from violence and they become involved in the lives of the people they encounter. Capturing both hope and heartache, the film is a far cry from the sensationalized accounts one might see, say, on a reality television show.

Continue reading »

Sundance 2011: Echoes of John Hughes in 'Terri'

January 29, 2011 | 11:26 am


Azazel Jacobs first came to Sundance in 2008 and his film "Momma's Man" became one of the hits of the festival with its uncanny blend of the personal and the fictional. With "Terri," directed by Jacobs from a screenplay by Patrick De Witt and playing as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition, Jacobs seems to be making a conscious bid for more mainstream acceptance, while still working entirely on his own terms.

Funny and strange, the film tells the story of an oversized teenager named Terri (Jacob Wysocki, in his feature film debut) who lives with his aging uncle (Creed Bratton). Having taken to wearing pajamas to school and all but giving up on the idea of a social life, Terri is taken under the wing of his eccentric vice-principal (John C. Reilly). Suddenly, and largely without meaning to, Terri finds himself with a sidekick best-friend (Bridger Zadina) and the interest of a girl (Olivia Crocicchia).

Following Thursday afternoon's screening to a jampacked Eccles Theater, there were huge bursts of appaulse for Jacobs, Wysocki and Crocicchia as they all took the stage with three of the film's producers. It is not unfair (and meant in a complimentary way) to say "Terri" is among the nicest films at Sundance, the most attuned to making the best of a bad situation and finding what's good-hearted in everyone. As Riley's character says at one moment by way of dispensing advice, "Life's a mess, dude."

I snagged a few moments alone with Jacobs as he walked down a long corridor alongside the theater just after the post-screening Q&A, enough time for a couple of questions about his sidelong take on the teen picture.

"I think inherently the story Pat gave me was a familiar story, and I wanted to respond to these movies that helped shape me just as much as other independent or abstract work," Jacobs said of the film's more accessible sensibility. Along the way he mentioned the films of John Hughes, "The Chocolate War," "Clueless" and the recent indie "Afterschool" as ones he looked at for inspiration and said he and Wysocki specifically watched Hal Ashby's "Being There" and Joseph Losey's "The Servant" with regard to tone.

"I felt that if I did this film from my point of view there could be something different than what we'd seen," he added. "And I still wanted to be part of that conversation."

Though he didn't write the script himself, Jacobs said he feels it comes from his sensibility.

"I had planned to co-write it and the pages were coming, like every five or six pages," Jacobs said, "and then I realized he didn't need any of my help. In a weird way, even though I didn't write it, because they were coming in bits and pieces I would help with editing and shaping and doing whatever I could. Pretty much every other day I'd get something, so instead of physically doing it, it still felt like something that was growing inside me."

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Scene from "Terri." Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2011: At war and at home in 'Hell and Back Again'

January 28, 2011 |  8:00 pm


In summer 2009, while photojournalist Danfung Dennis was embedded in Afghanistan with the Marines of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, a soldier handed Dennis his last bottle of water in the midst of a fierce firefight. That soldier was Nathan Harris, who would become the focus of "Hell and Back Again," a documentary Dennis made that screened Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

The intense fighting on the battlefield in the film is only part of the story. Wounded in an ambush shortly before he was to be sent home, Harris returned to the United States for physical therapy and recovery, but his battle was only starting. The camera follows Harris as he deals with physical pain and emotional trauma, and tries with his wife, Ashley, to move forward. The film moves back and forth between Harris in combat and back at home, giving a sense of the tremendous pull of battle on the psyches of soldiers.  

Speaking during a Q&A after the screening, Dennis described what brought him to shoot in such a dangerous environment.

"I've been profoundly moved by the images from past wars: World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda," Dennis said. "It's how our society views these very distant, complex battles. It's very easy to ignore them and look away and these images are a window into these places so we don't forget. These faraway wars become these abstractions, these ideas, that don't affect out daily lives."

"Hell and Back Again" has a surprisingly glossy, cinematic look, be it the bright sun of Afghanistan or the neon and streetlights of North Carolina. For his time in Afghanistan, Dennis designed a custom steadicam rig for the Canon camera he was using to capture video -- the shadow outline of the compact camera system can be seen in a few shots -- and he served as his own soundman.

The film has an intimacy and directness that brings a heightened sense of emotion to such everyday things as going to Wal-Mart or ordering take-out, as the rigors of fighting are contrasted with  the commonplace struggles of daily life. The film cuts directly from images of the firefight in which Harris was wounded to a drugstore parking lot at night, a transition that is shocking and disorienting, just as it must be for soldiers returning home.  

"When you come back from these places, it's very hard to switch these things off," Dennis said, "which I was trying to convey through that jumping back and forth between these two worlds, to really bring the war closer to home and show that it's just one experience, the fighting doesn't stop when you get back. This whole new battle begins, it's very psychological, very personal."

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Photo: "Hell and Back Again." Credit: Sundance Film Festival


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