Monday, January 30, 2012

David Mamet Is a Fan of Silent Movies

By Steven Rosen

(This Denver Post interview originally ran in 1998, when  Mamet was at Sundance Film Festival to promote The Spanish Prisoner. In light of renewed interest in silent movies because of The Artist, I have put  it up on this Website, as it seems timely.)

David Mamet is a master of language - his award-winning scripts crackle with ominously witty, highly original dialogue. So it's surprising that he believes the best movies are the silent ones.

"It works better without words,'' the playwright and screenwriter says, relaxing in a small hotel conference room at Park City, Utah, the night after his new film "The Spanish Prisoner'' showed at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

"Hitchcock derogated dialogue films - he said they were just pictures of people talking.

"What I'm hired to do (as a screenwriter) is describe pictures,'' he explains. "The question is how to tell the story best at any given point. The answer always is to see if I can do  it without words, because then I know I'm doing it right. But sometimes I'm not smart enough. But that's my ideal.''

Interviewing Mamet is like talking to a professor about language and literature. He is opinionated and authoritative, yet not dismissive or conceited. He has obviously thought hard about the process of his work, and enjoys the opportunity to analyze it.

"The Spanish Prisoner'' is entirely Mamet's film. He conceived of the idea, about an elaborate confidence game designed to bilk the inventor of a cryptic "Process'' out of his sole copy of the top-secret formula.

Mamet wrote and directed the film. His wife, Rebecca Pidgeon,co-stars with Campbell Scott, whose lean build and forceful, no-nonsense articulateness are reminiscent of Mamet himself. Also featured are Ben Gazzara and, as an allegedly wealthy businessman who gains the confidence of Scott's inventor, Steve

"The Spanish Prisoner'' is a thriller, but not in the style of, say, "Face/Off'' or "Air Force One.''

"This is a more traditional style of light thriller - or Hitchcock thriller,'' Mamet says. "We're meant to understand it as an entertainment, which is meant to delight us, rather than as an exploration of violence.''

If there is a movie role model, it is Stanley Donen's devilishly clever "Charade,'' a 1963 film starring Audrey
Hepburn and Cary Grant. There also, however, are many literary influences. "I've done a lot of reading on the literature of con games for a long time - a whole strain of Western literature is taken off of
confidence games,'' he says.

"Thomas Mann wrote one that's called "Confidence Man.' (Herman) Melville wrote 'The Confidence Man.' It's just picaresque literature. It's a very strong element of our Western canon.

"This kind of literature rips the mask of hypocrisy from Western civilization,'' he says. ""It says those institutions and things which we believe in are really peopled by scoundrels and knaves and people no better
than you and me.''

Mamet assures that there is a real confidence game called the Spanish Prisoner. Still, it is a relatively obscure and allusive reference for a title. That risks confusing the potential audience.

"My theory on titles is that they should be provocative,'' Mamet says. "They should make you ask the question, 'Golly, what does that mean?' rather than telling you. Then you're provoked to go on and see the movie.''

Hollywood tends to see things differently, and that perturbs Mamet. He discusses the topic of effective movie titles as if he were critiquing a poem.

""I just did (wrote) a movie called 'Bookworm' about these two guys lost in Alaska,'' he explains. ""At the last minute the studio decided people didn't know what that meant, and decided to call it 'The Edge,' which is a kind of generic title.''

Mamet argued. ""Why is that the title to that movie? Nobody knows. They said that nobody knows what the title 'Bookworm' means. But if you take the title 'Bookworm' and put it next to a picture of a big snarling bear, somebody might get the idea something provocative is going on.''

Mamet realizes that the studio probably thought moviegoers would respond to "The Edge'' as an "edgy'' word rather than as a flat, undescriptive one. "They thought someone else migh think that word was provocative - someone in effect stupider than themselves,'' he says. The movie, released last fall, was a
big flop.

This time, Mamet chose his title and stayed the course. "I'd rather make my own mistakes than make mistakes figuring out what someone else might think.''

Mamet, who also received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the "Wag the Dog'' screenplay, has many new projects planned both for theater and movie. Clearly, despite his stated preference for silent films, he enjoys writing dialogue for the screen.

"I always wished I was a handyman - a guy who could fix the garage door, tune a car, rehang the shutter,'' he says. "I'm not good at that stuff at all. But I always admired those people who could take a few basic principals of construction repair and renovation and apply them to many different things.

"On the other hand, I hope that's what I do in movies and plays - take a few very basic principals of construction, renovation and design and try to apply them to various tasks.''

Friday, January 27, 2012

Get Reel

Come blow your vuvuzelas! Deeper Into Movies -- The Current (and Classic) Cinema passes the 20,000 hit mark in two years. For reviews, musings and dissent, by Steven Rosen and Thomas Delapa. Also playing on Facebook and on Twitter as DeeperIn2Movies. Be a fan, no annual fee required.

Coming Soon: Reviews of The Artist and A Dangerous Method

(Not affiliated with any Super Pacs.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

DVD Review | THX 1138 (1971)

Where Were You in ‘71 and ‘72?

by Thomas Delapa

Forty years ago in a movie galaxy far, far away, George Lucas was just a bearded, bespectacled young filmmaker struggling to make it in Planet Hollywood. While today’s audiences may know that American Graffiti was Lucas’ mega-breakthrough on his road to mogul-dom, far fewer recognize that his debut feature was 1971’s THX 1138, a bleakly futuristic sci-fi fantasy that’s as distant from Star Wars as Alien is from E.T.

Lovingly restored by Lucasfilm and Warner Home Video in a two-disc DVD set first released in 2004 (and now out on Blu-ray), THX 1138 Director’s Cut Special Edition comes uploaded with stellar extras, including the director’s original student short that provided the seeds for the feature. For sci-fi fans, the film should be a revelation, not simply for a peek at Lucas’ early creative sensibilities but also for the pivotal part it played in the rise of a brave New Hollywood that would transform—and jumpstart—a stalled American movie industry.

If the meteoric path of Lucas’ career has by now entered into popular myth befitting Joseph Campbell, a review is worthwhile, if only because the Modesto, Calif.-born multi-media tycoon amazingly intended to shoot for a career as an avant-garde filmmaker. After a bumpy 1950s youth racing cars part-time, Lucas shifted gears to attend the burgeoning University of Southern California film school, where he sped into a prodigy during the premiere decade of the so-called “film brat” generation—movie-mad young turks like Steve Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, et al. Meanwhile, crosscutting to a parallel universe known as Hollywood, legacy studios like MGM and Warner Bros. were running on fumes in the 1960s, betting on elephantine old-school boondoggles like Dr. Doolittle and Cleopatra while largely dismissing the hip, youthful audiences that had hitched up to such anti-Establishment hits as Easy Rider and The Graduate.

At USC in 1968, Lucas made Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138 4EB, an award-winning experimental short about one man’s desperate escape from a sterile, automated Orwellian underworld. While obviously a cinematic whiz kid, the shy, slight Lucas lacked at least two parts necessary to mesh in Hollywood: fearless brio and bluster. Francis Ford Coppola, a heralded young Italian-American filmmaker at rival UCLA was hard-wired with both.

After an apprenticeship with producer/director Roger Corman at the low-budget American International Pictures (famed training ground for a long list of future luminaries including Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme and John Sayles) and one audacious self-financed film (1967’s You’re a Big Boy Now), Coppola vaulted the studio moat, landing as a writer/director at Warner Bros. In one of the golden meet-and-greets in movie lore, Lucas wandered onto the set of the musty musical Finian’s Rainbow, where he so forcefully impressed Coppola that the brash young cineaste made Lucas his assistant.

Some of these bright flashbacks can be gleaned from A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, a 60-minute documentary included in the DVD set (along with Lucas’ THX student film and a smarmy “making of” studio featurette from 1971). As ringleader in a band of rebels battling a fading movie empire, Coppola enlisted Lucas in his grandiose plan to create his own independent studio, splicing together a classic studio model with an “auteur”-centered élan inspired by the great 1960s European directors like Godard, Fellini and Bergman. Coppola dubbed his studio American Zoetrope (after a 19th-century pre-cinematic toy), based it in counterculture capital San Francisco, and managed to attract such raw USC talents as screenwriter John Milius and the gifted sound designer Walter Murch. Zoetrope’s debut, backed by a semi-bamboozled Warner Bros., would be a feature remake of THX.

Forty years later, the digitally upgraded THX 1138.2 is a widescreen eye-opener, especially enhanced by the spirited tag-team commentary of Lucas and Murch. Then-unknown Robert Duvall (one year before Coppola’s The Godfather) stars as the titular THX, just a cog in a stark-white, high-tech totalitarian society where sex is verboten and citizens are controlled by drugs and Big Brother-ish video surveillance. Using such futuristic locations as the nearby Lawrence Livermore lab and the under-construction BART subway tunnels, the 25-year-old Lucas and his guerrilla crew fabricated a striking alternate reality on a shoestring budget, with eclectic bits and pieces cobbled from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, and Godard’s Alphaville. Looking ahead, Lucas’ far-out vision appears to anticipate such dystopian milestones as Blade Runner, Brazil and The Matrix. (As in his digital tune-up of Star Wars, Lucas has slipped in stealth footage in spots, which may strike purists as a walk on the disingenuous dark side.)

Both Lucas and Murch say that the film was meant as a cautionary quasi-documentary “from the future,” which helps explain its deliberate foreignness as well as its chilly, off-putting absence of conventional plotting and character. Light years away from the warm-and-funny androids in Star Wars, THX’s black, baton-wielding robocops call up allusions to 1960s campus riots—as well as eerie flash-forwards to the incendiary 1991 Rodney King beating.

Betting on another revved-up Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde or maybe even 2001, the Warners studio suits reeled at their first look at the finished film. Far from the ultimate trip, they thought it was the ultimate bummer, demanding cuts and re-edits. Despite good critical reviews during a heady year that included such cutting-edge hits as The Last Picture Show and The French Connection, THX self-destructed in theaters, partially sabotaged by Warners’ lackluster marketing campaign.

Zoetrope’s misfire was not only a personal and professional blow to Lucas, but, worse, it caused Warner Bros. to pull the plug on Coppola’s dream studio (including a project written by Milius tentatively entitled Apocalypse Now). Yet like Star Wars’ rebel alliance, the Zoetropers would regroup to strike back against Hollywood, in both individual and collective sequels. Back at the front after a 1971 Oscar for co-writing Patton, Coppola reluctantly gave in to Paramount producer Robert Evans, who made him an offer he couldn’t easily refuse to direct a controversial novel about the American Mafia—a project that a dozen-odd elite directors had rejected. Much more the money-minded businessman than his mentor, it was Lucas who helped convince Coppola to take the job.

Over the decades in the duo’s leapfrogging rise to the top of a reborn Hollywood, Coppola has repaid his friend the favor several times over, most critically in his fronting of American Graffiti, made possible only because of Coppola’s clout after The Godfather became the biggest, baddest New Hollywood blockbuster until Jaws hit the beach in 1975. A jaunty semi- autobiographical comedy about hot-rodding teens in Northern California one night in 1962, American Graffiti was cool, fast and commercial, whereas THX was cold, grim and a black hole of humor. Riding the first crest of a 1970s nostalgia wave after a decade of tumult, the film would pass up Easy Rider on the list of the most profitable low-budget productions in history. Ever the anti-Hollywood outsider (even today), by 1974 Lucas had zoomed into the fast lane, ready to shoot for the moon—and far beyond—with cast and crew in a souped-up Millennium Falcon.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Film Review | My Week with Marilyn

Marilyn, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Thomas Delapa

There are movie stars, and there are Movie Stars. For ten short years, few shone as bright as Marilyn Monroe’s. In the fifties and early sixties, she was every American man’s dream girl, from presidents to princes. She might have been the quintessential female star of the Hollywood sound era, a pinup Greta Garbo in living, luscious color.

You won’t need to be a fan (or a man) to fall in love with My Week with Marilyn, which features some of the best performances of this past year. In a role that would scare off scores of actresses, Michelle Williams is nearly spot-on as the once-plain Norma Jeane.

At the height of her fame in 1956, Monroe traveled to Olde England to make The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by none other than Laurence Olivier, the regal grand man of the British stage and screen. During brief intermissions in the troubled production, the 30-year-old Monroe struck up an unlikely friendship (and perhaps more) with Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a lowly assistant director not unexpectedly dazzled by the blonde bombshell.

Clark’s 1995 memoir (The Prince, the Showgirl and Me) was followed by My Week with Marilyn in 2000, and those few days have been translated with taste and movie-loving brio by director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Adrian Hodges. Unlike the exploitative handling of Monroe before and after her tragic death in 1962, Curtis and company have fleshed out the person behind the one-dimensional star image: insecure, innocent, frightened, and mercurial—as well as a heavenly vision of beauty and sensuality.

My Week isn’t a kiss-and-tell dream date with Marilyn. It’s a smart, handsome film about celebrity, acting, exploitation, and professional insecurities. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Larry” Olivier greets Marilyn and her entourage with charm and open arms, he soon tires of what he sees as her Method madness, especially with her doting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) constantly whispering in her ear. The clash of acting styles deftly dramatizes the division between old-school U.K. acting (“the character is on the page”) and the erupting U.S. Method (“the character is in me”) of the Kazan/Strasberg/Brando school. Hodges’ script deftly echoes Monroe’s problems with her role with those coming from her own impossible full-time part as “Marilyn,” the voluptuous, girlish sexpot who keeps her underwear in the freezer. In one of her most revealing private moments, she coyly asks Colin, “Shall I be her?” before instantly turning on her radiant, full-lipped persona in front of an adoring crowd.

Williams’ wattage outshines her Oscar-nominated work in 2010’s Blue Valentine. It’s an imitative performance, but not an impersonation (take that, Meryl Streep); rather it’s a full-bodied interpretation that’s closer to alchemy than acting. The only blemish in the complexion is that Williams fades a bit during Monroe’s famed film performances. On some rarified level of the silver screen, only Marilyn seems able to spin pure gold.

While some have disputed Clark’s latter memoir, this is nonetheless a glistening fairy tale of fleeting love and friendship, with shadows lurking in the wings. Accompanied by her new husband, playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott)—an owl and the pussycat marriage if there ever was one—Marilyn is erratic and inconsolable at times, popping pills that Hollywood Dr. Feelgoods were/are only too happy to prescribe. We also get a dose of the sexism that sought to typecast Monroe as a dumb blonde, both on and off the screen.

While Olivier plays the smitten prince to Monroe in his star-crossed movie, it’s the young and perceptive Colin who gallantly comes to her aid. Their sweet, near-Edenic relationship—flowering in nature—also germinates a handful of droll lines. All Colin has to hear on the phone is “Marilyn wants to go shopping,” and he is galloping to her beck and call.

Along with Williams, Redmayne and Branagh, bows are in order for Judi Dench in the small role of actress Dame Sybil Thorndike, who maternally tries to reassure Monroe after Olivier’s nasty cuts. Like 2008’s underrated Orson Welles and Me, My Week with Marilyn engages in a touch of romanticizing star-worship, but it never basks in idolatry. It deserves a place on your calendar.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Film Review | War Horse & The Adventures of Tintin

War and Oats

by Thomas Delapa

Less is often more in Hollywood movies, but don’t tell that to screen general Steven Spielberg, director of two, count ‘em two, major holiday releases. In the case of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg had an uphill battle before the first shots.

According to the Associated Press, Hollywood’s 2011 box-office numbers will hit a low not seen since 1995. With no blockbusters on the scale of Avatar or The Lord of the Rings, few summer smashes and most A-list directors taking a holiday hiatus, election-year adult audiences ought to be asking themselves, “Where’s the beef?” Instead of hefty films with bite, Spielberg and fellow auteur-in-arms Martin Scorsese (in Hugo) served up candy-coated corn.

Based on a children’s novel by British author Michael Morpurgo that grew into a hit play, War Horse is a handsome but skittish crossbreed between Black Beauty and All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s a boy-and-his-horse story about young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and Joey, a spirited colt who marches from the green fields of Devon to the bloody World War I battlefields of France. Forcibly separated from Albert, Joey passes from one owner to the next, finally arriving in the beastly trench warfare of the Somme.

Perched in the no-man’s-land between kiddie-lit and anti-war tract, Spielberg’s dramatic terrain is tricky, and he never quite finds his footing. As a plow horse, Joey saves the family farm from a mean landlord (David Thewlis), the melodramatic load lightened by Disneyfied comic touches and John Williams’ mickey-mousing score. Though Spielberg aims at making a heartwarming family film, War Horse only pulses during the few battle scenes, led by a David Lean-like British cavalry charge, bayonets drawn, against the Germans.

In the novel, Joey himself narrates his story as he’s yanked along under the reins of a string of good and bad owners. But with that voice gone on the screen, we’re left with the anthropomorphized sight of woeful, mistreated Joey, a mute Mr. Ed. Except for a kindly captain (Tom Hiddleston) who drafts the horse as his mount, Joey’s human co-stars have even less to say, surrendering to a script that comes up lame in the backstretch.

Whether affixed with bumper stickers that say War Is Hell or Be Kind To Animals, War Horse plods through a well-trod turf. Throughout Joey’s journey, we watch his human handlers making and breaking promises to each other and him, resulting in separation, loss, and death. The nadir of the fable is a mawkish vignette that drops Joey into the arms of a French farmer’s sugar-sweet granddaughter who seems airlifted in from a 1930s Deanna Durbin movie.

By the time the climax is dragged in, the battle for the audience’s minds, if not their hearts, is over. In the thick of a battle between the British and Germans at the Somme, Joey becomes the catalyst for the most improbable wartime plot turn since McHale joined the Navy.

For the bottom-half of his 2011 double feature, Spielberg drafted the Eurocentric Tintin comic-book series written by Belgian author Hergé. Like Scorsese in Hugo, Spielberg takes his first flying, in-your-lap leap into the world of 3-D fantasy, enhanced with motion-capture visual effects. If War Horse might claim partial victory on looks and animal magnetism, the retro charm of Tintin is conspicuously missing in action. For all the millions spent on this production, it’s hard to picture how anyone could generate such a generically lackluster teen hero. Only HAL 9000 might warm up to Tintin, a carrot-topped boy journalist who stumbles into a mysterious plot thick with thieves, treasure and ships in bottles.

Despite his G-rated retorts ("Great snakes!"), this kid also bizarrely packs a handgun, setting off a slew of frenetic chases and shootouts befitting a low-caliber action movie. For a director who went so far as to digitally delete the guns in his E.T. re-release, Spielberg seems to have sailed off into a weird new dimension, and a shallow one at that.