The Big-Money Battle
Catch Me if You Can is part of a Hollywood gang war between two Oscar-hopeful Leo DiCaprio blockbusters. DreamWorks has Catch Me (Dec. 25), while Miramax has Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (see review). As Joseph McBride's definitive bio demonstrates, father-son conflict is the key to Catch Me director Steven Spielberg's soul, and there's a father-figure subtext here: Spielberg started out, according to film historian Peter Biskind, wanting to be Scorsese, whose gang of 1970s directors looked down on Spielberg's upbeat populist style. They nearly shamed him into turning down Jaws. Later, Spielberg traded Scorsese Cape Fear for Schindler's List. But Scorsese never made it in Spielberg's big-bucks game, while Spielberg's Schindler won him auteur gravitas, twin Oscars, and ever more money.
Now the two titans (and studios) go mano a mano with dueling Leo films. If Scorsese loses, he may be exiled to the art house. My money is on Spielberg.
Song and Dance
Madonna lobbied for it; Britney considered it; Goldie Hawn was practically guaranteed to star in it at one point. A desperate Harvey Weinstein even offered Barbra freakin' Streisand the directing reins in a moment of sheer desperation. Now, after nearly 25 years of limbo and turnaround, the Broadway musical Chicago is finally coming to the big screen (Dec. 27) with Catherine Zeta-Jones. Odds are that the dark tale of two murderous showgirls and their flamboyant lawyer in the tabloid-obsessed '20s will be either a Heaven's Gate-style disaster or mind-boggling success—loads of fun, regardless.
Zeta-Jones has the looks and bearing of an iconic Hollywood star, but so far she's more famous for marrying old coot Michael Douglas and hawking T-Mobile than for any spectacular display of acting. It will be interesting to see whether the steely ambition crouching just beneath her lovely surface—look at that mercenary ho; can you possibly imagine her marrying for anything as silly as love?—translates into a film-carrying performance as showgirl-ber-alles Velma Kelly. Ren饠Zellweger, meanwhile—all 86 pounds of her—forgoes her sweet 'n' loopy image in the role of Roxie Heart, an also-ran with a near-sociopathic need to succeed. And, in a coup of what we're hoping is visionary casting, Richard Gere, one of the most physically reserved and wooden of actors, not only sings but dances up a storm as the shady attorney/ Svengali. Support from Lucy Liu, Queen Latifah, and consistently brilliant character actor John C. Reilly rounds out the crazy smorgasbord.
And who directs them all? Not the rumored Alan Parker (who would seem to fit, having helmed both Fame and Evita) or Herbert Ross (Footloose), but one Rob Marshall, whose principal credits are as a choreographer for Annie. Could Streisand have done it any better? Or any worse? I can't wait to find out.
I'm dying to see what the endlessly inventive screenwriter Charlie Kaufman does next with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (Dec. 31 in N.Y.C. and L.A., Jan. 24 here), because it will have nothing to do with the truth. Just look at his track record with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (see review). I mean, the guy is an out-and-out liar, like all great writers; he prevaricates for a living. If that sounds like the professional envy of a scrupulous fact-checking journalist who gets angry e-mail for every little niggling error he makes, it is. I am, after all, the idiot who once transposed the surnames of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in a feature review in this paper. If I were Charlie Kaufman, people would think that was intentional—genius!
Mind is Kaufman's adaptation of the memoir by TV's Gong Show host Chuck Barris, who claims to have been a CIA hit man (but is more widely considered to be a delusional nutcase). So much the better. Truth goes right out the window. Apart from documentaries, I'm sick of strict veracity in historically grounded and fact-inspired movies. Who really cares about the exact history or shirt color of this gang or that in Gangs of New York? And who really wants to write about those profound details? Not me.
Better to be reckless about the truth, as Kaufman is. Perhaps it's that spirit that's drawn George Clooney to direct his first film (he also plays a small role). And given the CIA's actual record of wacky/inept schemes (Castro's exploding cigars, LSD as a weapon, etc.), is it really so unthinkable that tinsel-town fantasies might creep their way into our nation's top-secret espionage operations? Maybe Barris was crazy. Or maybe he was just so crazy that he was actually sane. I'm just hoping there's a midnight White House meeting with Nixon or Reagan to validate the latter theory. Oh, wait—could there be an alien spacecraft, too?
Scorsese's Last Stand
For a lifelong Martin Scorsese fanatic, these are exciting and, frankly, worrisome times. Rumor is, if Gangs of New York bombs after opening Dec. 20, Marty may hang up his viewfinder for good.
I've always felt a deep affinity for the guy—both as a filmmaker and as a person. It's hard not to root for Scorsese. Like me, he's a short, nervous movie and music geek deeply affected by the experiences of his childhood. He's also the last truly important filmmaker America has produced. Scorsese's experiments, his genre exercises, even his flat-out failures evince more passion and personal vision than any of his me-decade contemporaries. Unfortunately, with a string of marginal flicks since the mid-'90s, his star has diminished considerably. While populist hacks like Spielberg and Lucas can punch their own tickets, the commercially corrosive Scorsese has had to wait nearly three decades to get this sweeping historical drama off the ground.
Scorsese hasn't done himself any favors with the casting. To get the movie financed, he had to offer Leonardo DiCaprio the lead role—and, please, all you Leo apologists, spare me. The fragile, feminine star looks as much like a 19th-century Irish tough as he does a 19th-century African warlord. Female top biller Cameron Diaz has yet to display any cinematic appeal aside from nice eyes and a tight ass. And instead of Robert De Niro as the chief villain, we get Daniel Day-Lewis in De Niro wanna-be mode.
But just for a minute, let's forget all the casting miscues and Hollywood hoo-ha. I mean, come on, people! Marty needs us now more than ever! I hope you'll join me when I urge you to purchase at least half a dozen tickets for Gangs. If we all do our part, we may be able to garner a decent opening gross and help ensure the film's success, so that Scorsese can keep making movies. Either that, or pin your hopes for American cinema on Michael Bay.
The Gay Fave
Here is what happens in Virginia Woolf's nearly perfect 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway: not much. Clarissa Dalloway buys some flowers, catches her reflection, and thinks about the party she's going to throw that night. Two hundred pages later, Clarissa's guests arrive, and the book ends. Cerebral and unshakably cold (like Clarissa, in fact), the novel's power exists in the author's masterful narrative hand, her deep realization of characters, her profound intellect, and her ability to suggest (without ever saying it) an atmosphere of impending doom.
So it makes sense that, five years ago, when Michael Cunningham wrote an homage to Mrs. Dalloway, called The Hours (Jan. 10), he wrote Woolf into the book as a character. There, she becomes a young novelist undertaking an experimental novel about a day in the life of a woman. Cunningham's chapters about Woolf are interspersed with chapters about two new characters of his own: a suburban housewife who prefers reading Mrs. Dalloway to raising her kids; and a lesbian (as was Woolf) named Clarissa (as was Mrs. Dalloway) throwing a party, whom we follow around for (you guessed it) one day.
It's a pathetic novel, The Hours, one that, by paying homage to a great book, only draws attention to its own weaknesses. Namely, it's sentimental, soggy, and trite. A character who suffers from insanity in Mrs. Dalloway shows up in The Hours afflicted, fashionably, with AIDS.
Nicole Kidman, equipped with a prosthetic nose, is Virginia Woolf (I am terrified, but hopeful); Julianne Moore is the nondescript housewife (expect her usual intensity); and Meryl Streep (who has an uncanny ability to take roles unsuited to her and then do them better than anyone else could) is our contemporary Clarissa. Given his novel's structure, Cunningham could've written The Hours as a screenplay in the first place. But if they use any of his book's original dialogue, we're in trouble.
The Troll and I
My grandmother had a hideous picture of a snarling, drooling Norwegian troll that she kept in a dark corner of her basement. It scared me more than her Christmas lutefisk, which is saying something. When I was 10 or so, my sister suggested I read The Hobbit, but when I found out the book was about big-footed dwarves, I took a pass. Too much like that creepy troll. When I came of age in the 1960s, J.R.R. Tolkien's books were everywhere, but I managed not to read them. I continued my resistance at Evergreen State College, where a few of my hippie classmates had actually taken the names of Lord of the Rings characters. The troll-lovers were now a cult. It wasn't until last fall, mere weeks before the release of the first LOTR film, The Fellowship of the Ring, that I read the entire trilogy. I did so because my teenage son, a major fantasy reader, went all mature on me and made a familiar parental demand of his own: "You have to read the books before you see the film." Checkmate, Dad.
I liked the books, but I thought Fellowship was even better: Rather than getting bogged down in elvish anthropology, it cut right to the chase with great casting, mythic resonance, and spectacular special effects. It was relevant, too, for those of us who brood about resource-gobbling globalization: Middle-Earth vs. the WTO. Some say that sequels are nearly always disappointing, but The Two Towers (Dec. 18; see review) was a better book than the first (less setup, more plot, the amazing Ents), so I have high expectations. Someone once described the Scandinavian sagas starting as little rivulets of glacial melt that eventually cohere into gushing torrents of plot and action (and often blood). Tolkien's trilogy is like that, so I expect the films to gain mo' as they roll.
Hot for Dickens
The great thing about movies is you don't have to pretend you're into them for the edification. Unlike with books, theater, or other such pesky ventures into the intellect, you're allowed to head to a film just because it's raining or you're bored. Or horny. Sure, you can go see Hamlet onstage because the whole idea of a surly Dane turns you on, but you'd better not confess it at intermission when everybody else is feigning boners for the Bard. No such performance anxiety exists, however, at the multiplex; any art form pairing itself with popcorn and fandango.com commercials has to admit it's just as big a whore as you are.
Which brings me to Nicholas Nickleby (Jan. 3). I won't act like I'm jonesing to catch it just 'cause some dead British guy wrote it. Dickens? Love him. Great English thespians like Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent? Fantastic. And I'm very happy that director Douglas McGrath, the man who put a little bounce into Emma, is in charge. Ain't why I'm going, though, Einstein. I'll be lining up for a little Charlie Hunnam sumthin'-sumthin'.
Hunnam plays Nicholas. He's also blond, 22 years old, and was buck naked and being mounted by an older man within the first 15 minutes of the British Queer as Folk. (I love actors—so brave.) Hunnam played predatory pretty-boy Lloyd on the tragically underrated Fox sitcom Undeclared. And he was Katie Holmes' mysterious ex-boyfriend in Abandon, a crap-ass thriller I would've seen if it had stayed open for more than two seconds. (DVD, please?) Hunnam is pouty and perfect and potentially a very, very bad boy; he looks like what every fading member of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys wishes he could be.
Bah, humbug, I say, if the movie stays too true to Dickens. I'm hoping McGrath found an opportunity in Nicholas' adventures for Hunnam to work up a sweat.
Poor Roberto Benigni: When he's funny, they call him superficial; when he's serious, they call him pretentious. He's getting it from both directions for Pinocchio, Italy's biggest film hit ever (Dec. 25). And not just the usual sniping this time—he's being accused of being too faithful to Carlo Collodi's classic and not faithful enough; for being too old to play the lead (it's a puppet, for chrissakes!); for hiring his wife to play the Blue Fairy; for directing her badly; for accepting tainted money (from the Italian prime minister, whom Italians elected, for chrissakes!) to finish the film when his backer went bankrupt. And that's before stateside reviewers get their licks in. . . .
Me, I can't wait for Benigni's latest to open; he was born to play the role of Pinocchio the way Collodi wrote it: an agent of chaos who hurts everyone around him (himself most of all), vain, amoral, impulsive, heartless yet sentimental to a fault. A whole lot like your typical Italian man, in fact, which is just what Collodi meant him to be.
Remember: The 1940 Disney animated Pinocchio was a mess, leaping from incident to incident without warning, interrupted by droopy bits and (admittedly faux) moralizing. That version, with its radically simplified story and trudging pace, is as far from the spirit of the book as you could get. Pinocchio is anarchic as Carnival, and the less Benigni and co. have tried to tame for their film version, the better.
My Spanish Heart
What really grabs me about Talk to Her (Dec. 25) is a film still of a female bullfighter (Rosario Flores) alone in the ring. With that single shot, Pedro Almod� reveals the essence of his New Spanish Woman, looking for new ways to live, or simply survive, on her own. After the success of his Oscar-winning All About My Mother, Almod� could have pulled a Verhoeven, leaving his native land to become just another Hollywood drone. (And I'm sure there were big-money offers.) Instead, sticking to Spain, his new film looks to be meditative and unapologetically complex, worlds away from the breezy, kinky high jinks of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the next promising step in an unlikely trajectory from well-written sex farces to beautifully calibrated, wittily referential art films.