I’m not going to waste much time writing about Very Good Girls, since the chances aren’t very good that you’ll ever see it: It’s been available On Demand for weeks and received a cursory theatrical release over the weekend. The only reason you might be tempted to go see it, or more likely order it, is the cast: Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen star as New York City high-school seniors who resolve to lose their virginity before they go off to college. While that may sound like a 21st century version of Little Darlings, the result is far less fun.
The belated directorial debut of screenwriter Naomi Foner (better known as Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal’s mom than for her scripts to Running on Empty, Bee Season, etc.), Very Good Girls wavers uneasily between romantic comedy, as both young women fall for the same pretentious creep (Boyd Holbrook, Olsen’s real-life fiance), and feminist melodrama, as both women fall for the same… you get the picture.
In Foner’s overly schematic screenplay, Fanning and Olsen come from polar-opposite families: Fanning’s uptight-shrink mother (Ellen Barkin) and father (Clark Gregg) don’t want to talk about anything, even after they separate due to his infidelity; Olsen’s hippie-dippie parents (Richard Drefyuss and Demi Moore, an odd couple if ever there were one) never shut up. All the characters are paradoxically both overcooked and underdone, and you’re left feeling unsatisfied, like you didn’t have a full meal.
Or at least that’s how I felt. The woman I watched it with, herself a psychologist, enjoyed it more than I did and understood why these two attractive, intelligent young woman would jeopardize their friendship by pursuing the same very bad boy. So maybe I’m just not the target audience for this chick-shtick flick.
It would take a team of psychologists, however, to determine why Foner would cast her own son-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, as a pervy tour-boat operator who hits on—and ultimately makes out with—Fanning’s teenager. Also, to determine why Sarsgaard’s character was by far my favorite one in the film. Maybe I just like Peter Sarsgaard? Sometimes a Sarsgaard is just a Sarsgaard.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in February, I was angry, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill what-a-waste rage about the years of great performances he was denying his fans by selfishly cutting his life short with a drug overdose. And I was a big fan, although not necessarily of the performance most people cite as his best, in Capote, which I considered atypically showy; I preferred his subtler but no less magnetic turns in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
I was mad at Hoffman for abandoning his three kids, having witnessed first-hand the damage heroin addiction can do to a family (not my own), but that still didn’t explain why I was having so much difficulty working up any sympathy, muchless empathy, for a man who was universally considered a tragic figure. And I needed to work up some sympathy, as I’d been assigned to write a tribute to Hoffman for TV Guide Magazine‘s Oscar issue.
Then I had a breakthrough: I was furious with Philip Seymour Hoffman because I identified with him so profoundly, and I didn’t want to admit it. We were nearly the same age (although he was a year younger), we were both single dads (although he had one more child than I do) and worked in creative professions, primarily in New York City. And I, too, at times in my life, have engaged in self-indulgent behavior (although I’ve never used heroin, or anything close to it) that could’ve threatened my ability to take care of my family. And only then was I able to come up with a line that summed up the tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman: He could conjure his demons on screen, but he couldn’t conquer them in real life.
That line echoed in my head as I watched two of Hoffman’s last performances, in wildly disparate roles: as a wily German intelligence agent in the John Le Carre thriller A Most Wanted Man and a hapless Philadelphia criminal in John Slattery’s big-screen directorial debut, God’s Pocket. Neither is a perfect film: A Most Wanted Man takes too long to move all of its chess pieces into place and God’s Pocket’s underwritten script (adapted from a Pete Dexter novel) isn’t nearly as good as its cast, which also includes Richard Jenkins (who brilliantly humanizes the cliched character of an alcoholic newspaper columnist), Slattery’s Mad Men costar Christina Hendricks, and a cadre of top-notch, gritty-inner-city-drama character actors (John Turturro, Eddie Marsan, Domenick Lombardozzi, Peter Gerety, et. al.).
But Hoffman’s performances are damn near flawless. Even with a wacky, not-quite-German accent, he’s beautifully modulated in Most Wanted, slow-burning to a final explosion. He was an actor who could do so much with so little, and if anyone knows how little action is often required in intelligence work, it’s Le Carre, who documents the intelligence gathering and analyzing without resorting to James Bond-style derring do. That plays right into Hoffman’s acting-is-reacting wheelhouse.
So, too, does his role in God’s Pocket as a two-bit low-life whose ill-fated quest to find out the truth behind the death of his wife’s son (Caleb Landry Jones) at a construction site mostly consists of asking friends for favors and making bad bets, both of which result in only creating more mayhem, none by his own hand. As he watches it all spin out of control, Hoffman’s absolutely riveting. And that’s one mark of a great actor: He doesn’t have to do anything to command your attention.
Compounding the tragedy of Hoffman’s loss, millions more moviegoers will witness his upcoming performances in the last two Hunger Games films, parts of which will be computer-generated due to his mid-production demise, than will ever see A Most Wanted Man (even though it performed strongly, finishing in the Top 10 in limited release this weekend) and God’s Pocket, which barely got a theatrical release and is already available On Demand. It’s sadly ironic, because there was nothing computer-generated about Philip Seymour Hoffman: He was flesh and blood, flaws and all.
No. No, I did not. Why not?
Because you can’t spell “ludicrous” without L-U-C. As in Luc Besson, the Euro-trashmaster behind such overrated, over-le-top cult faves as The Professional and The Fifth Element. (And, yes, a good film or two, like the original La Femme Nikita.) Besson specializes in kick-ass female heroines and mind-numbingly stupid plots.
Lucy is the apotheosis of Luc-y-ness. Scarlett Johansson—she of the pillowy, pillowy, pillowy lips and the gravelly, Elizabeth Ashley-gargling-Drano voice—emptily ebodies an American expatriate in Paris who’s drafted by her inexplicably scuzzy boyfriend to deliver a briefcase to an Asian crime lord. Somehow this leads to her being turned into a mule for a synthetic drug that allows users to access more than the average 10 percent of their brains. The substance leaks, and she starts mutating into a superpowered avenger (not to be confused with the superpowered avenger, Black Widow, she plays in The Avengers and Iron Man and Captain America and… oh, never mind).
She hooks up with Morgan Freeman as a pioneering brain scientist (didn’t he just go down this road to nowhere with Johnny Depp in Transcendence?), and her exploits are intercut with nature footage of leopards preying on antelopes, rhinos screwing, dinos devouring each other and the first female, an ape-like creature named, you guessed it, Lucy. Besson’s airy-fairy montages play like bad outtakes from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (and that movie’s in-takes weren’t great either). Call it The Shrub of Life. Oh, and when Freeman starts talking about how dophins use 20 percent of their brains, you may think—nay, wish—that you stumbled into a sneak preview of his upcoming Dolphin Tale 2.
As Lucy’s use of her brain capacity increases, the not-so-special effects look like something an 8th-grader could do on their laptop, and the screen periodically flashes percentages—20, 30, 40%, and so on. That only makes you realize how much of this brain-dead movie is left to endure. After a while, you start to feel a sensation similar to watching a photograph upload from your phone to Facebook. You watch the completion bar slowly, slowly, slowly move near completion, but it never seems to happen fast enough.
When Lucy nears maximum capacity, she foolishly starts to wear an unflattering Bettie Page-like black wig and attains the ability to transport herself to anywhere at any time. She chooses to go all the way back to the past to meet, you guessed it, Lucy. But just as she’s about to be devoured by a dinosaur, she quickly swipes her hand to the left and returns to the present, eliminating the prehistoric era like an eon-spanning iteration of Tinder.
After threatening us with the specter of a sequel, Lucy (the pillowy-pillowy-pillowy-lipped one, not the ape woman) tells us that we were given our brains millions of years ago, and now we finally know what to do with them. Job 1: Don’t waste two hours of your life watching Lucy.
As I mourn the passing of my favorite actor, James Garner, I watched one of his films I’d never seen before: the 1971 Western comedy Skin Game. What a revelation! It’s a bold, ballsy farce about race, class and gender in the Civil War era. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was made by Garner’s Cherokee Productions (the actor’s maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Native American). Off-camera, Garner bravely blazed trails in the arenas of civil rights (he helped organize Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington) as well as actors’ advocacy (he sued Warner Bros. and Universal for unpaid profits on Maverick and The Rockford Files, bettering the lives of many of his colleagues). And though it’s little remembered today, Garner’s Skin Game prefigured at least five major pop-cultural landmarks.
1. Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that his slavery-themed dark comedy was inspired by the tale of a con man (Garner, flashing his Maverick charm) and a free black man (Lou Gossett) who ride from town to town swindling would-be slave buyers. While not nearly as blood-soaked as Django, Skin Game does feature a daring scene in which Gossett guns down a brutal slave trader (Ed Asner) and keeps on shooting, even after his target is dead.
2. 12 Years a Slave. Many moviegoers were shocked to learn the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man from New York who was captured by slavers in Confederate territory and forced into bondage. But they might not have been if they’d seen Skin Game‘s story of Jason (Gossett), a highly educated African-American from New Jersey who’s befallen by the same fate. While in captivity, Jason falls for a beautiful young black servant (Brenda Sykes) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo’s Patsey.
3. All in the Family. Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but Paul Bogart—who had previously directed Garner in the supercool 1969 private-eye drama Marlowe—made Skin Game before going on to direct 97 episodes of the classic sitcom, which broke ground with its frank depiction of racism. (Go ahead, call me a Meathead!)
4. Blazing Saddles. While its comic tone isn’t nearly as wild as in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof, Skin Game laid the foundation for the story of an African-American sheriff (Cleavon Little) with its blackfish-out-of-water premise. Working under the pseudonym Pierre Martone, screenwriter Peter Stone—the scribe behind 1776—wasn’t afraid to use the n-word, just as Brooks did. Not to mention Tarantino again…
5. Roots. It’s not just that Gossett plays a slave, like he did as Fiddler in the milestone miniseries, or that Asner (who won an Emmy as slave-ship Capt. Thomas Davies) plays a sadistic trader. The scenes in which Garner is stripped and whipped, and Gossett is threatened with death if he ever dares to speak proper English to his “owner,” are every bit as potent as the indelible image of Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte being tortured into accepting his slave name of “Toby.” That was no game, but there’s no question Skin changed the racial rules.
I had the pleasure of interviewing two true Hollywood legends—Jon Voight and Ann-Margret—for a story in this Sunday’s New York Times. We not only discussed their roles on my current favorite TV show, Showtime’s Ray Donovan, but also their memories of making one of the most underrated films of the 1980s, Hal Ashby’s Lookin’ to Get Out. That movie also marked the debut of Voight’s daughter, Angelina Jolie, and he reminisced about working with her. For all that and more, click here!
It seems fitting that Life Itself, the new documentary based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, should be released to theaters and on-demand services on July 4. To me, the movie critic and TV star is a true American hero.
By that, I don’t mean he was a perfect man—and the refreshingly straightforward two-hour film made by Steve James (one of the directors Ebert championed, starting with his groundbreaking basketball documentary Hoop Dreams) doesn’t paint him as a plaster saint. Ebert could be “a big baby” (as one of the producers of his TV show calls him), especially when he’d clash with on-screen partner/nemesis Gene Siskel over matters of ego. He was prone to human weaknesses, overindulging in food, alcohol, and women who were, in the words of a pal, “golddiggers, opportunists or psychos.”
But Roger overcame his shortcomings; he met Chaz, the love of his life, at an AA meeting. Life Itself is a love story on many levels: It’s about Roger’s love of Chaz, who embodies the “in sickness and in health” vow by supporting Roger through the grueling battle with cancer that robbed him of his jaw, his voice and ultimately his life. “This woman never lost her love,” Roger says in the film. “Her love is like a wind pushing me back from the brink.” In turn, Chaz swore to him, “If you promise me you’ll give it your all, I promise to make your life as interesting as possible.”
The film is also about Roger’s love for Gene, whose widow explains how their rivalry gave way to profound respect and friendship. “I’m sick and old and find myself thinking about Gene more than ever,” Roger wrote to her not long before his own death, in one of many revealing emails shared in the film. “My stupid ego, and maybe his, complicated the fact that I never met a smarter or funnier man.” And, most of all, it’s about Roger’s love of movies.
Life Itself features heartfelt testimonials from the likes of Martin Scorsese (who produced the film along with Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian—and who credits Roger and Gene for saving not just his career but his life by giving him an award at the Toronto Film Festival at the depths of Scorsese’s coke-fueled ’80s flameout), Werner Herzog (who dedicated his Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World to Roger), Errol Morris (who admits he wouldn’t have a career if Roger and Gene hadn’t championed his pet-cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven) and Ava DuVernay (who met Roger when she was a little girl at a dress rehearsal for the Oscars and perhaps not coincidentally grew up to be a great filmmaker behind Middle of Nowhere and the upcoming MLK biopic Selma).
Roger befriended many of the filmmakers and stars he wrote about, but—like Jed Leland, the Citizen Kane critic—he never allowed his friendships to affect his film criticism. (He even trashed Scorsese’s The Color of Money shortly after giving the director that award.) Among the many classic clips James unearthed for the film was Ebert on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, sitting next to Chevy Chase as he panned Three Amigos!
Roger was a genuine embodiment of the American dream. The son of an electrician (who instilled Democratic, pro-union values in him) and a housewife, he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, yet stayed at the working-class Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years, resisting the advances of professional suitors like The Washington Post‘s Ben Bradlee. His priceless explanation: “I’m not going to learn new streets!”
Never was Roger’s heroism more evident than in his valiant battle with cancer, which had taken Gene more than a decade earlier and to which Roger refused to surrender until he was ready to go on his own terms. “I consider my remaining days to be money in the bank,” he tells James, via his speaking computer keyboard, shortly before his 2013 death. “When I run out, I’ll be repossessed.” “I don’t know where he got his determination from,” Chaz says in an interview completed after he passed away. “He had an inner core of steel.”
Like another newspaperman immortalized at the movies, Roger Ebert was a real man of steel. And Life Itself is a film worthy of its superheroic subject.
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, but I’ve been busy: My latest piece for the New York Times, about John Logan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Gladiator, The Aviator and Hugo, Tony-winning playwright (Red)—and creator of the new Showtime shocker Penny Dreadful—just went live. If you’ve ever wondered how the same man could be responsible for writing films as disparate as Skyfall, Rango and Star Trek: Nemesis (not to mention Sweeney Todd, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday and Clint Eastwood’s upcoming adaptation of Jersey Boys), click here. And let me know what you think in the Comments below!