“Loveless”: Russia’s Entry for Best Foreign Film, and a Masterpiece

February 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

Alexy Rozin and Maryana Spivak in “Loveless”

I’ve seen many good dramas this season but only one great one: Andry Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” a searing portrait of marital dissolution and its consequences in present-day Moscow. Like the wintry landscape and sleek apartment blocks it depicts, the film is bleak, bracing and suspenseful. It’s also utterly devoid of cinematic bromides and head and shoulders above the competition. It deserves to win not only Best Foreign Film but Best Picture, despite not having been nominated for that award. For those who prefer movies based in reality, “Loveless” is an absolute masterpiece.

The film opens with a blond boy taking a meandering route home from school along a nearby river. Alyosha (Matey Novkov) is twelve, a loner and the only child of a middle-class couple. Though his family lives in a spacious modern apartment, Alyosha’s world is coming apart: his parents despise each other and are in the midst of an ugly divorce; the apartment is on the market. That night in bed, he overhears his father Boris (Alexy Rozin) and mother Zehnya (Maryana Spivak) fighting and learns that neither wants custody of him. When Boris says he can’t care for his son, Zehnya suggests putting Alyosha in an orphanage. The look of anguish on the boy’s face when he realizes he is–and always has been–unwanted by both parents is heartbreaking and unforgettable.

The next day, we learn that both parents have already found new partners: Zhenya a rich older man whose only daughter is not only grown but conveniently living in Portugal; and Boris a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Zehnya, after leaving work to have her hair and nails done, meets her lover for dinner and spends most of the night at his apartment, while Boris spends the night with his lover at her apartment. Zehnya returns home late and doesn’t bother to check on Alyosha. In the morning he’s missing, and Zehnya soon learns he skipped school the previous day and hasn’t been seen since.

On the advice of a policeman, Boris and Zehnya enlist the services of a private group dedicated to finding runaways. With admirable skill, they search the woods, riverbanks and a new but abandoned building where Aloysha and his only friend liked to play. When the search party finds no sign of the boy, they paper the area with flyers and search the stairwells, balconies and elevators of nearby buildings. There are visits to hospitals and the morgue, tips about unnamed corpses and a growing sense of despair. Early on, the group leader persuades Zehnya to visit her monstrous, estranged mother to see if Alyosha might have gone there. Their brief encounter is primer on what not to do, both as a parent and an adult child.

Compared with his icy wife, Boris seems warm and cuddly, but he’s just as much a narcissist as she is. A moral weakling whose main goal is to keep his job by deceiving his boss, a religious fundamentalist who fires divorced employees, Boris sleepwalks through the crisis of his son’s disappearance, unable to comprehend its meaning.

In the end, both Boris and Zehnya get new lives but not the fresh start they expected, and Aloysha’s disappearance is not transformative for either. Both parents remain irredeemably selfish in spite of their new partners and homes, and Boris loves his new baby no more than he did Alyosha. But life goes on as predictably as the children who sled outside the family’s apartment, now under renovation by its new owners.

It’s this refusal to indulge in sentimentality that ultimately makes “Loveless” great, as well as a welcome antidote to every film with a contrived ending. It opens theatrically this weekend in Los Angeles but should be more widely available soon.

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In the Ongoing Sexual Abuse Scandal, the Myth of the Studio System Endures

November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments

Louis B. Mayer in his Office

Amid the daily revelations of sex abuse and harassment by entertainment executives, I’ve noticed a large number of online commentators asking, “Why aren’t all meetings held in offices at the studios?”, and “Why don’t actresses refuse to meet producers/directors/actors in hotel rooms?” The implication that everyone has an office in a studio is laughable; a couple of years ago, I read an article by a producer who worked out of his car, which he recommended because he was always driving from one office to the next. As for actors being able to refuse a meeting in a hotel, it’s hardly possible when agents send them there via written instructions on agency letterhead. That these assumptions exist at all is proof the enduring myth of the studio system.

From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.

Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.

Creepy Hollywood A-Listers: A Personal History

October 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Mike Ovitz

Kevin Costner

Ben Affleck

I first worked in the entertainment industry as a story analyst at CAA, a job I did part-time from late 1989 to around 1992. Though it paid horribly–$25 per script and $50 per book, as I recall-it was a good way to find out what other people were writing (crap, for the most part). Because this was before PDF’s, I had to go to Beverly Hills to pick up my assigned scripts, which I would read, synopsize and analyze overnight. Arriving at CAA’s brand new, I.M. Pei-designed building at Wilshire and Santa Monica, I would announce myself at the desk and wait under the giant Roy Lichtenstein painting until I was allowed to go down to the Story Department, a cramped warren of basement rooms that, in addition to unrelentingly tense CAA atmosphere, led me to refuse a staff position.

One night, after a last-minute call to pick up scripts, I had to bring my five-year-old son with me. As we crossed the lobby toward the elevator, I saw Mike Ovitz, then CAA’s Chairman. Peering out from behind a column, he was staring at me stonily. I glanced back; more staring ensued. Years later, I read that CAA employees were instructed to avert their eyes in Ovitz’s presence, but I never got that memo. Ovitz continued to stare until the elevator doors closed.

At that point Mike Ovitz was the most powerful and feared man in Hollywood, threatening, cajoling, and making and breaking careers. He also had an uncanny knack of being everywhere, including many of the places I went. Soon I was receiving the Ovitz stare at the Forum during a Lakers Game, and during lunch at Locanda Veneta and Maple Drive. Both Ovitz’s ubiquity and his staring came to an end when he left CAA for Disney, at which point he also lost his power. But before that fateful move, he presided over some staring by a client, Kevin Costner.

Costner, then at the height of his career, was having lunch with Ovitz at the latter’s special booth at Maple Drive on a day I was there for a business lunch. The booth was lozenge-shaped, allowing Ovitz almost total privacy and his client a view of the room. The woman I was meeting was an hour late, and I was too naive to take this as a sign and leave. Between the wait and the lunch, I spent nearly four hours at Maple Drive that day, making three trips to the ladies’ room. To get there I had to pass Ovitz’s booth, and each time I walked by Costner would stop talking and watch me. This was no flirty glance or admiring gaze but a fixed, unblinking stare, reptilian in its intensity and impossible to ignore.

Years passed, and I assumed my days of being stared at like prey by Hollywood stars were over. Then, in 2000, it happened again. This time I was having lunch with my then teenage son in the courtyard of Pinot Hollywood. It was a hot August day and most of the patrons had finished, leaving us and the couple at a neighboring table. At some point I realized the man had been staring at me for some time, and showed no signs of stopping. “That guy is making me very uncomfortable,” I said to my son, who turned around to look at him. “Mom,” he said, “That’s Ben Affleck, and he’s with Gwyneth Paltrow.” Affleck was wearing a baseball cap; his hair, dyed for “Pearl Harbor,” had masked his appearance, and all I could see of Paltrow was her blonde hair. In time they got up and left, leaving me to wonder why a movie star who was having lunch with his movie star girlfriend would bother staring at me.

More than two years later, I was stopped at a long red light at the corner of Rossmore and Beverly. Though it was a cold day, the young man in the convertible to my right had the top down. He wore a grey watch cap, and he was staring at me so intently that if he had been a cartoon character his eyes would have been out on stalks. His car was uncommonly beautiful and expensive for a young person, and I was about to roll down my window and say, “Hey guy, nice car–is it your dad’s?” when I realized it was Ben Affleck. The convertible was the blue Bentley Azure given him by Jennifer Lopez, who was then his fiancée. I said nothing, and a moment later the light changed. He turned right and I went straight, already certain he was never going to marry Lopez.

Though I haven’t seen Affleck since, the creepiness of these encounters has stayed with me. To the horror of my boyfriend at the time, I once tried to hide under a table at Matsuhisa when I spotted someone who resembled the actor. Even worse, my subsequent boyfriend’s parents lived next directly next door to Affleck, who by then was married to Jennifer Garner. Though walls and trees blocked all views of their property, I half expected him to appear out of thin air and start staring at me again.

Last week Affleck made news by claiming not to know anything about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women. He was then accused of lying by Rose McGowan, who reported not only telling Affleck that Weinstein raped her but his response: “Goddamnit! I told him to stop doing that.” This, and the allegation that Affleck groped Annamarie Tendler after the Golden Globes in 2014, brought back memories his fixed stare, and not fond ones.

Harvey Weinstein, Bully For All Seasons

October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Harvey Weinstein

I’ve been out of town for the past week; what’d I miss?

Just kidding! The news of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse reached far beyond New York and Los Angeles. It spread like molten lava, and each new day brought another fiery stream of damning evidence against him. The list of women who have been assaulted in one way or another is enormous and stretches back decades. Was I surprised? Only at the way it happened, with an exposé in the New York Times unleashing an explosion of accounts from actresses, models, employees–in short, any woman who came within Weinstein’s thuggish reach.

I’ve only encountered Harvey Weinstein once, in a crowded screening room at the Cannes Film Festival in 1995. I was sitting next to a young man whose name I no longer remember; as I recall, he worked in acquisitions for one of the studios. When Harvey Weinstein sat down in the next row with his entourage, he turned to me and loudly said something like, “Hope, have you ever seen such an ugly man in your life? I mean, look at him” “Shh,” I muttered, “He can hear you.” At that point, Weinstein turned and glared menacingly at the man. Though that might have been his usual expression, I was terrified he would start a fight. Fortunately the lights dimmed, and Weinstein turned his head toward the screen. I never saw the either man after that festival, though I’ve often wondered what prompted the comment–and my involvement.

That year at Cannes, Weinstein bought scores of films, far more than he could release in the next couple of years. The rumor was that he bought many simply to spite other distributors, which only added to his growing list of enemies. Though I never heard anything about sexual abuses, the fact that Weinstein was already a feared and loathed bully made the allegations easy to believe. He was so powerful that he could make or break careers, which is why he got away with so much.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered why certain actresses, all promising and successful in their early and mid-twenties, seemed to work very little in what should have been their prime. It made no sense to me that Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan had careers that stalled; now it does.

Next time: Encounters with A-List Hollywood Creeps

How “Blade Runner” Became a Cinematic Classic

September 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

As the countdown to “Blade Runner 2049” continues, it’s worth remembering that the original “Blade Runner” wasn’t met with the kind of reverence it enjoys now. When it came out in 1982, I was living in Berkeley and saw it in a packed theater on what I’m pretty sure was opening night. From the first scene–explosions over an ominous-looking Los Angeles–I knew “Blade Runner” was a masterpiece. I loved the dystopian future it depicted, from the constant rain to the Japanese-influenced motifs. I loved the fact that Deckard was an updated Raymond Chandler detective who lived in a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house. I loved the fact that the climactic chase scene was filmed in the Bradbury Building, George Herbert Wyman’s 1893 iron-and-glass masterpiece that, like the film itself, was years ahead of its time.

I was surprised, to put it mildly, when the critics didn’t share my enthusiasm. Janet Maslin, though she praised the movie’s special effects, called “Blade Runner” “a mess, at least as far as its narrative is concerned.” On their TV show “At the Movies,” Gene Siskel called it “a waste of time,” while Roger Ebert gave it a thumbs up only for the effects. Twenty-five years later, Ebert reappraised it positively, in part because the once-futuristic lighted billboards had become a reality: “the story benefits…by seeming more to inhabit is world than be laid on top of it.” (Siskel died in 1999, so there’s no way of knowing whether he would have changed his mind.) The Hollywood Reporter called it “a Felliniesque journey into Dante’s Inferno, with Micky Spillane in tow,” though it also called it “mesmerizing.” Thanks to its decidedly mixed critical reception, “Blade Runner” was a box office dud.

The film’s reputation started changing with the release of Ridley Scott’s director’s cut in 1992. Shorn of its voice-over narration, “Blade Runner” gained a new following and began to be regarded as a science fiction classic. The lack of narration–tacked onto the original because some thought the story confusing–gives the film greater dynamism, as did additional footage that seems to affirm the theory that Deckard himself is a replicant. In 2007, the Final Cut, which I haven’t seen, expanded the unicorn dream sequence, remastered the haunting Vangelis score and added three scenes.

On October 6th, we’ll finally get the sequel: “Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it looks worthy of the original and will draw a massive audience of fans, including me. As for the critical reception, it’s safe to assume a much better response than the original received in 1982.

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My ebook on “Blade Runner” is available here:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/BLADE-RUNNER–FOUR-ESSAYS?keyword=BLADE+RUNNER%3A+FOUR+ESSAYS&store=ebook

Harry Dean Stanton, the Actor’s Prophet

September 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

Harry Dean Stanton in “Lucky”

It was shortly before going to see his new film “Lucky” on Friday that I heard of Harry Dean Stanton’s death at 91. As in his work, his timing was uncanny. His exit from life that day made his last film, a wry examination of an elderly desert dweller coming to grips with death, all the more poignant for those of us who saw it.

Throughout his long career, which began in TV and movie Westerns and dramas in the 1950’s, Stanton was described as a character actor, one who excelled in secondary roles. The character actor label followed him even after he became a leading man in two 1984 films: “Repo Man,” and “Paris, Texas.” It was, I suppose, a reference to his anti-movie star looks: a slight build and a gaunt, weathered face that became more fascinating as he aged. Stanton’s nose, always prominent, came to dominate his face as the rest of his features receded. Increasingly, his visage looked less made of flesh than carved from wood.

But his looks had little to do with his acting. His method relied heavily on observation and stillness, two qualities that elude most actors and almost all movie stars. Lucky is a man of few words, yet there’s never a moment when Stanton isn’t fully thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings. We see Lucky going through his day– getting dressed, shaving, brushing his teeth, exercising, venturing out to talk with fellow residents of his tiny town–quotidian activities made profound by Stanton’s acting. I wouldn’t have minded if the film had gone on in this way, like a more mundane “Groundhog Day,” but the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had a bigger theme in mind: mortality, and Lucky’s reconciliation with it. Filling out the story are colorful characters played David Lynch, Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr. and Ron Livingstone, but the film–and every scene in it–belongs to Harry Dean Stanton. For me the highlight is his unexpected, perfect singing of “Volver,” (“To Return”) at a child’s birthday party. More than a showcase for Stanton’s musical talents–he was an accomplished singer and guitarist–“Volver” is a song about memory, love, the passage of time and the inevitability of death:

To Return with a withered brow/the snows of time silvered my temples
To feel life’s a puff of breath/that twenty years are nothing

Through his performance of “Volver,” Lucky gains an acceptance of his own end, a moment of grace that affects everyone in the scene. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

Remembering Sam Shepard

August 1, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sam Shepard, 1943-2017

My first job after college was an odd mix of performing arts and social work. Each week, San Francisco’s theaters, dance and opera companies and orchestras would funnel their unsold tickets to my firm, which would distribute them to social service groups that could fill seats on short notice. Our clients were low-income seniors, recovering alcoholics, pregnant teenage girls and the mentally ill, all of them living or receiving care in facilities.

It was a job that put me in daily phone contact with theater managers, social workers and, in the case of the seniors and alcoholics, the clients themselves. First came the tickets, then the matching of shows to clients: nothing violent for the mental patients, for example, and nothing depressing for the pregnant girls. The alcoholics were the most manipulative, missing their call-in deadlines and refusing all opera, symphony and ballet. The mental patients were the most frequent no-shows and disrupters, while the pregnant girls never wanted to see anything. The seniors were by far the most reliable, and game for almost anything. Consequently, they were our most frequent clients.

Each group was escorted by one of our volunteers, local culture enthusiasts who lacked the income to see live events. They went to most of the performances, but occasionally my boss would assign me a show she thought I should see. One of these was a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Magic Theater, which had launched first production of the play in 1980. I had never seen a Shepard play before and probably would have been impressed by any of them, but seeing “True West” in the small theater where it originated was an indelible experience. As the brothers Austin and Lee argued, drank, fought and switched personalities, I knew I was seeing a work of genius.

Sam Shepard’s side career as an actor certainly garnered him more fame and money than his career as a playwright, and like most people I’ve seen a lot of his movies. Most put him in supporting roles, where his handsome, lone cowboy looks and quiet charisma had maximum impact. Each time he appeared onscreen, whether in “Frances,” “Crimes of the Heart,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” or any number of others, I felt a wave of excitement followed by a sense of relief. Whenever Shepard showed up, the film always got better.

Hearing of his death yesterday made me wonder who would fill his shoes, both as a playwright and actor. In the former category, comparisons to Williams and O’Neill are easier than those to younger American playwrights, whose work seems paler and less universal. And in an era where young American actors stay boyish throughout their careers, the Sam Shepard roles increasingly go to Australian, Irish, Scottish or English actors. Shepard himself was often compared to Gary Cooper, a Montana native he resembled both physically and stylistically, but who will remind us of Sam Shepard?

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