WaxWord

February 2007

February 28, 2007

Hollywood Junk

Simpsons1_4 This (see photo) arrived in the mail the other day in the form of a paperweight. Why a paperweight? Do I, does anyone for that matter, need a silver and pink and yellow Simpsons paperweight? Will this want to make me see the movie? No.

Unfortunately, this is not the only absurd bit of junk to land in my mailbox in recent months. And with summer movies around the corner, there will be more to come. One of the most insulting I've received was a g-string -- yes, a g-string -- somehow related to the movie, "John Tucker Must Die." (I called the studio to complain that time.) I once got a box packed in dry ice with a cheesecake, I can't remember for what movie. I'd been out of town and it sat at my front door for three days. I called the studio to joke about this, and they turned around and sent me another one.

But there is hope on the horizon. In a fit of reason and cost-cutting, I am told that the Fox marketing department has eliminated promotional mailers, a practice in which postal costs often exceed the cost of the doo-dad (see dry ice above). I can only hope this will catch on across town. But now I wonder: should I send them back my paperweight?

February 27, 2007

Post-Oscar, in the Wee Hours

Me_at_the_oscars_2007 This is your humble correspondent on her way into Vanity Fair's Oscar party. You'll notice I found a last-minute replacement for the old white pantsuit. There's a story in today's paper about what it's like on the inside of the celebrity circle of cool, gleaned from crumpled, inky bits of paper -- that's what I found in my pockets the morning after. Here's a bit of that piece:

“There was joy in the room at the Vanity Fair party at Morton’s, by now an Oscar night tradition that has cowed the competition. The restaurant filled on Sunday night with the likes of Helen Mirren, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Peter O’Toole (who was perched merrily on a banquette most of the night). It was as if the industry breathed a collective sigh of relief that the Martin Scorsese Story now had a beginning, a middle and a happy end: spurned for his most brilliant, early work ('Taxi Driver,' 'Raging Bull'), left to wander in the cinematic wilderness - or, at least, New York - for decades, and now, finally, the prize for 'The Departed,' a return to his gangster roots. "I didn’t think it was the kind of film that they would choose,” Mr. Scorsese said of 'The Departed.' But they did, for two of the biggest awards: best picture, best director. Hollywood, all is forgiven. "For me, it’s good that it came now," said Mr. Scorsese, referring to his seven previous nominations, and snubs. "Now I’m concentrating on the work." And that's a strange thing about Hollywood. It operates very much like an exotic tribe, with its own social code and pecking order. Within the tribe, there was widespread accord that the director had been overlooked for too long...(Read the rest)Scorsese3_1

February 25, 2007

Backstage

Even the press room burst into applause when Martin Scorsese won the Oscar for best director. A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this to occur (even x-ray technicians, apparently). The volume of applause in the auditorium as the nominees were announced made clear that Scorsese would be the winner. One thing is sure: had he not won, there would have been very strange energy in the room. Even the other nominees seemed happy that he'd won, with Paul Greengrass on his feet with everyone else, applauding.

notes from the press room

Halfway through the ceremony, there's still no 'story.' That means no clear winner, no one film dominating anything, unless you count 'Pan's Labyrinth,' which has now taken Art Direction, Cinematography and Makeup. That makes for a lot of languages other than English backstage. The Academy is clearly not in the mood for light entertainment of the kind that 'Dreamgirls' provides. Instead, voters have gone for serious films, and is especially sending a message about global warming. Not only did that movie take the Best Documentary statue, as expected -- and Al Gore and company spent 20 minutes in the interview room afterward -- but they gave Best Song to Melissa Etheridge, who wrote it for the film.

There was a sweet moment backstage, with Etheridge winning Best Song just as Gore, director Davis Guggenheim and the producers were ending their interviews. Gore stepped from behind the podium and strode among the press, his arm around Guggenheim, to watch Etheridge on the monitor as she thanked him from the stage.

The Night Before Oscar

Hpim0423_1 On the night before Oscar, Giorgio Armani must be adored. This is the only conclusion I can draw from the stunning assemblage of celebrity plumage that appeared at the home of local billionaire Ron Burkle for a cocktail party and fashion show on Saturday night. This is the first time I can recall seeing Armani at an Oscar weekend in a decade or so of my covering the event. Harvey Weinstein made sense; of course he'd be here. Al Gore? Burkle is a major Democratic donor, and Gore's documentary is up for an Oscar. Steve Martin, John Travolta and Kelly Preston -- they loitered around the swimming pool. That's plenty of firepower right there. But by the time we all gathered in a massive, black tent and found seats -- no, not behind the mansion, which we never entered, behind the pool, and the bar by the pool --  I had to rub my eyes. I could not recall seeing a line-up like this: Helen Mirren beside Clive Owen, beside George Clooney, beside Penelope Cruz, beside Leonardo DiCaprio beside Cate Blanchett. Across from them: Katie Holmes, Mark Wahlberg, Josh Hartnett, Natalie Portman, Adrian Brody.  Wait, we're not done:  Martin Scorsese came. Clint Eastwood came. Clint Eastwood? To a fashion show?

Hpim0422Blogpix_009(Pictured from left: Natalie Portman; right: Producer Jerry Weintraub; Top: Faye Dunaway talking to Penelope Cruz, George Clooney in foreground.)

Without publicists, agents or other protection, it was a rare moment of A-list intermingling. Clearly, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, is facing some competition. He has been the silver baron of the ironclad A-list party for some years: the post-Oscar paty at Morton's. Someone, clearly, is creeping on his turf. Stay tuned. 

The Day Before Oscar

Mikewhite_1On the day before Oscar, there's lots to do. We dress up, go to the beach and eat very small amounts of food at the Independent Spirit Awards, the ceremony designed to celebrate the scrappy, independent films that are likely to be overlooked by the big, brassy Oscars. Except that now, "independent" films -- which no longer really means independently financed -- tend to dominate the Oscars, so the Spirits have become a kind of prelude to the big Academy Awards. Take today, when "Little Miss Sunshine" took the Spirit award for the best feature of the year. It's up for Best Picture at the Oscars tomorrow, and has many believing it can take the big prize. That film actually was independently financed, by Marc Turtletaub, a businessman.

The Spirit Awards are also a chance to relax and reconnect with all manner of friends, contacts and independent film insiders. (See Mike White, pictured, who was kind enough to pose for my new digital camera attempts. His upcoming film, 'Year of the Dog,' premiered at Sundance and opens soon.)

Just to show that I'm trying to become more technically able, or at least less technically lame, here are a couple of other shots, for no particular reason.

Ortenberg_1 This would be Tom Ortenberg, of LionsGate Film, with Bill Higgins, a reporter from Variety.

Zachbraff_1And Zach Braff was kind enough to get up from lunch to pose for this really, really bad shot. We can all agree that I should stick with writing.

Hpim0409_1Finally, since I've been writing about swag for the paper lately, I couldn't help but notice the swag tents, sponsored by Elle magazine, at the Spirit Awards.  A little disheartening, I have to say, to see free jeans and piles of lip gloss distracting from the purpose of the event. But freebies are an apparently unstoppable force of nature.

February 21, 2007

Waiting for Oscar

Oscar weekend is upon us, and your intrepid reporter is sharpening her stilettos and dusting off the same white Ralph Lauren pantsuit that takes her through the gauntlet of cocktail parties, shindigs, ceremonies and champagne receptions every darn year, all in the service of you, faithful reader.  I have this to say about ye olde pantsuit: it cleans up great. Also this: no one, truly no one, is looking at what the reporter is wearing.

To give you all some idea of the grand glamour of Oscar night for a daily newspaper reporter: imagine a subway car at rush hour, filled with passengers pressed one up against the other, in gowns and tuxedos. The train is moving, but the passengers are already late. They are trying to take notes on the lurching train while watching a monitor where important events are unfolding. Meanwhile the conductor boards and begins to make a speech about a life-threatening emergency. It is an evening when the East coast-based reporter ages about a year per ceremony. (By that count I'd be well over 50 by now, so perhaps I ought to revise that.) Fun for the winners, stress for the reporters.

This year there is precious little banter over the battle for the Oscar; without Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Katzenberg to nasty up the fight, Oscar campaigning no longer seems like a blood sport. The word on the street for Best Picture is that "The Departed" is up against "Little Miss Sunshine," which on its face seems like a rather absurd competition. The "Sunshine" people have been trying hard to appear like the dark horse candidate; though that's not working out.  "The Departed" camp is trying not to want it too badly, since a loss for Martin Scorsese -- who does seems poised to win Best Director -- would be one Academy humiliation too many.

I'll try to keep you posted as the events fly by. (Note to my male readers: Women do not actually sharpen their stilettos.)

February 19, 2007

Don't Cough in Hollywood

I interviewed Bob Shaye, the co-chairman of New Line, at length last week for a story in today's Business Day section of the Times. In the piece, Shaye addressed numerous rumors swirling around Hollywood about his studio, and revealed a fairly big piece of news: that he was in a coma for six weeks in 2005, and nearly died from a sudden illness. The experience put him out of commission for several months. Jeff Bewkes, the president of Time Warner, gives Shaye his vote of confidence. Read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/19/business/media/19new.html

The episode confirms a brutal reality in Hollywood: never show your weakness. Physical infirmities and illnesses - including near-fatal ones - are to be guarded as secretly as the national nuclear codes. I've seen this personally, as when the former MPAA chief Jack Valenti (in his 80s by that time) was furious when I once reported his collapse at a dinner party in Paris. Miramax cofounder Harvey Weinstein was topic A on the rumor mill when he disappeared into the hospital several years ago with an apparently life-threatening, still-mysterious illness. When Oscar producer Laura Ziskin was seriously ill with cancer, there was cause for alarm when I called up to inquire after her health. The best example of all came last year at the Oscars, when the director Robert Altman, in accepting an honorary statue, dropped the news before an audience of hundreds of millions that he'd had a heart transplant. Backstage in the press room, flummoxed journalists asked him why he'd never revealed this before.  With well-founded logic, Altman replied that he was afraid he'd never work again if people knew. He died later in the year, in November, from leukemia.

February 15, 2007

The Death Star

I went to lunch with a source in Century City this week, which incidentally now has a horrifying new area code of its own, 424. The building I went to visit is now being called "The Death Star," but it's actually the gleaming new home of CAA, the all-powerful talent agency that seems to gobble up all movie stars in its path, the latest being Reese Witherspoon.

The building itself evokes the modernist Arch de la Defense on the outskirts of Paris, all 90-degree angles and glass and steel, and a notable difference from the sinuous curve of the agency's former building, designed by IM Pei.

Arche_1

When you stand inside the lobby, you look out through a wall of glass looking onto the Avenue of the Stars, and then turn and face a football field-sized white expanse toward the elevators and a set of broad stairs up toward another wall of glass. The scale is huge, and feels like it might have been inspired by a viewing of the movie "The Incredibles." If you do not validate your parking, as I did not (but will never so err again), you can mark the new high-water level for audacity: $28 for two hours.

Still, it's only at night, when the CAA building twinkles darkly, that the name 'Death Star' seems earned. Staring from across the street, the Century Plaza hotel valet line, the building is a dark, imposing hulk, illuminated by the small blinking lights around its edges. All it needs, actually, is a John Williams score  and a couple of heavy breaths from James Earl Jones to complete the drama.

February 04, 2007

The Mystery of the Missing Moviemakers

FOR fans of Kimberly Peirce 2007 may be a banner year. 

More than seven years have passed since this 39-year-old writer-director gave the world a movie. Her first effort in 1999, ''Boys Don't Cry,'' was indelible. It won a best-actress Oscar for the unknown Hilary Swank and catapulted Ms. Peirce to a spot among the major filmmaking talents of her generation.

But time has been passing, with no second movie. This spring Paramount will finally release her new film, ''Stop-Loss,'' about an Iraq war veteran who returns home to Texas and is called back to duty through the military's so-called stop-loss procedure.

Seven years amounts to a yawning stretch in the prime of any filmmaker's creative life. And what happens if the new film fails?

But it would be unfair to pick on Ms. Peirce or any one filmmaker for spending years between projects. She is only one of numerous filmmakers among her generation who have taken long hiatuses before stepping back up to the plate; others include breakthrough directors of the 1990s like Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze.

Is it a sign of timidity, or laziness, or some unexpected lack of drive? Is it a lack of interesting material? Is it the fault of the studio system and its emphasis on high-paying, mind-numbing commercial fare?

Mr. Aronofsky, the director of ''Pi'' and ''Requiem for a Dream,'' released his latest film, ''The Fountain,'' in November after working on it for seven years. It quickly sank from sight. Mr. Russell, widely admired for his original mix of comedy and seriousness in ''Flirting With Disaster'' and ''Three Kings,'' has dropped from view since his disastrous ''I Heart Huckabees'' in 2004, and is not close to making a new film. The delightfully absurdist Mr. Jonze, of ''Being John Malkovich'' and ''Adaptation'' fame, has spent the last several years making music videos and finally settled on a feature film based on the Maurice Sendak book ''Where the Wild Things Are,'' planned for release in 2008.

It's not zero productivity, perhaps, but it is a far cry from the deluge of creative output from young directors in the 1970s, when Hal Ashby fired off seven movies in nine years, including ''Shampoo'' in 1975, ''Bound for Glory'' in 1976 and ''Coming Home'' in 1978. Robert Altman made six films in five years, including ''MASH'' and ''Brewster McCloud'' in 1970 and ''McCabe & Mrs. Miller'' in 1971. And Francis Ford Coppola had a similarly fertile run, with ''The Godfather'' in 1972, along with ''The Conversation'' and ''The Godfather: Part II'' in 1974.

The current lack of productivity among promising filmmakers in their 30s and 40s has become a cause for quiet consternation among producers and agents, not to mention film lovers. It is felt in the paucity of movies creating excitement around the Oscars, and in the desperate trolling for new talent at the Sundance Film Festival.

And it's not just these filmmakers. Other major directors have spent years tiptoeing around different projects, often ambitious ones, only to back away and ultimately choose something more familiar. David Fincher, who after ''Seven'' and ''Fight Club'' in the '90s was considered a top filmmaker, has become notorious for spending months considering projects, then walking away. His latest film, ''Zodiac,'' a police thriller, is finally due from Paramount; picking up the pace, he has been shooting an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ''Curious Case of Benjamin Button,'' about a man who ages in reverse.

Others, like Baz Luhrmann, who reinvented the musical with ''Moulin Rouge!'' in 2001, or Mark Romanek, who created excitement with his indie ''One Hour Photo'' in 2002, have had projects fall through for various reasons. Mr. Luhrmann is currently filming ''Australia,'' starring Hugh Jackman, his first film since ''Moulin Rouge!''; Mr. Romanek is still idle.

In the space between all the conversations in Hollywood about star salaries, box-office winnings and Oscar possibilities lurks a larger question: Where are the missing movies?

''I say it to these guys all the time, and some of them are my friends: 'I feel like I want to see more movies from you,' '' said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a producer who was in charge of production in the '90s at Warner Brothers, where he championed both ''Three Kings'' and ''The Matrix.'' ''Why not more David Russell? Why not more Darren Aronofsky?'' As filmgoers we're being deprived. We as a business have to reach out to these filmmakers and beg them to make more.''

Even Alexander Payne, the writer and director of ''Sideways,'' a critical darling two years ago, is not productive enough for Mr. di Bonaventura. ''Why wouldn't I want one movie a year from him?'' he asked.

Mr. di Bonaventura suggested that this diminished output had something to do with the extreme scrutiny the filmmakers' every step receives. ''The biggest problem in the business is you're torn apart for failure now,'' he said. ''By the critics, by the audience, by the studios -- everybody.''

David Linde, co-chairman of Universal, agreed that the Hollywood fishbowl is not always healthy for originality and creativity. ''There's a lot of pressure in this town to be part of the mix in a specific way,'' he said, like having the best weekend box-office numbers.

Some mentioned money in discussing the drought: successful writer-directors can make huge fees rewriting other people's scripts, as Roger Avary has since winning an Oscar as one of the writers of ''Pulp Fiction'' in 1994, or by directing commercial blockbuster-type movies, as Bryan Singer has done with ''Superman Returns'' and ''X-Men,'' after making a striking impression with ''The Usual Suspects'' in 1995.

But it is possible that the self-indulgent American culture that shaped these filmmakers and made them so successful in the 1990s has left them ill equipped to take on the weightier questions facing society in the new millennium. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, child of the video culture, feels at a loss when faced with the war in Iraq and global terrorism. And yet Mr. Russell made a movie about Iraq in 1999, well ahead of the current conflict, while the projects he now has in development are in the light comedy vein.

''It's part of the larger culture,'' said Laura Ziskin, who was in charge of Fox 2000 when it made ''Fight Club'' and is now producing the third ''Spider-Man'' movie. ''There's not a lot of encouragement to go deep on anything. In the '70s people had the feeling they could change things through art, through creativity.''

Hollywood itself has a responsibility too, said Jeremy Barber, a leading agent for writer-directors like Noah Baumbach. ''There's no one pushing back,'' he said. ''It takes an oppositional force'' to bring out the best in an artist, like a strong-minded studio executive or producer.

''We have an indulgent system,'' he added. ''The industry celebrates them prematurely, and we don't enter into a dialectical relationship with them.''

Ms. Peirce declined a request for an interview, but a spokeswoman said that she took a long time to find material she liked well enough to make into a movie.

Ms. Peirce has had many opportunities along the way. She landed a two-year deal at New Line in 2000, which expired without a project getting off the ground. She had been slated to direct ''Memoirs of a Geisha'' and, later, ''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,'' based on the book by Dave Eggers. In 2001 she spoke in interviews of spending seven months researching an unsolved murder for what was to be her next project. That movie was never made.

More than any other factor, though, Hollywood veterans cite the absence of the kind of creative ferment that coursed through the Hollywood of the 1970s, the challenge that one cinematic triumph posed to other artists.

At least that's what Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of ''Jerry Maguire,'' ''Almost Famous'' and the more recent critical disaster ''Elizabethtown'' suggested, as he was leaving a recent tribute to his hero, Billy Wilder.

''There's no community,'' he said. ''We need to encourage one another.'' He cited the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the '60s, when one group's innovative album spurred the other to do it one better. ''It's like 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sgt. Pepper's,' '' Mr. Crowe said. ''It becomes a cycle that feeds on itself. One great work leads to another.''

There is powerful evidence of that dynamic in three ambitious, critically hailed movies in 2006 that were, in no small way, the fruit of mutual challenge and frank criticism. The films -- Alejandro González Iñárritu's ''Babel,'' Guillermo del Toro's ''Pan's Labyrinth'' and Alfonso Cuarón's ''Children of Men'' -- were constantly reviewed and critiqued among the three directors, who are all Mexican.

''These films are like triplets, they are sisters,'' Mr. Cuarón said in a telephone interview from Mexico. (In the middle of the conversation his cellphone rang, with Mr. Iñárritu on the line. ''I am trashing you as we speak,'' Mr. Cuarón told him in Spanish.)

''We are very good friends,'' he continued. ''We are big fans of one another, we respect each other so much. If Alejandro says, 'That stinks,' I know he is not trying to hurt me, he's trying to help me.''

All three films -- which last month received a total of 16 Oscar nominations among them (including writing nominations for all three) -- take on serious subjects in contemporary society. Mr. González Iñárritu's film is a multicharacter tale about the breakdown in communication across diverse cultures. Mr. Cuarón's, based on a novel by P. D. James, is a dystopic comment on society, foreseeing a terrifying future where women's fertility has disappeared amid environmental disaster and a rising police state. And Mr. del Toro's dark fable, set in Spain in the 1940s, grapples with the dangers of blind obedience in the face of evil.

When Mr. González Iñárritu ran out of steam in the editing room, Mr. del Toro trimmed several minutes from his film; Mr. González Iñárritu returned the favor on ''Pan's Labyrinth.'' After months of research in London, Mr. Cuarón showed an early draft of the screenplay for ''Children of Men'' to Mr. González Iñárritu.

''He said: 'Man, this is a piece of junk. You can't shoot this thing. Where are your characters?' '' Mr. Cuarón recalled. He spent a sleepless night, then went back to the drawing board.

This mutual prodding has been going on for years, Mr. del Toro said. ''We have a relationship that is not guarded, and that is invaluable in an industry where most people expect complacency,'' he said over a drink at a Los Angeles theater where he was introducing ''Pan's Labyrinth'' to a local audience.

''All you can dream of is a system of truth, and support,'' he went on. True to his creed -- and in conspicuous contrast to his American counterparts -- he is already at work on a new film, a sequel to ''Hellboy.''

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