A Strange Preview: “The Revenant”

So after reading this Hollywood Reporter story about the sturm and drang of filming this thing, I was put in mind of tales that leaked from the sets of Apocalypse Now and from James Cameron’s The Abyss (an experience that proved so horrible, it made Ed Harris cry).

Veteran crewmembers who have toiled on director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant say the director’s follow-up to Birdman could turn out to be epic and Oscar-worthy. Some also say that making the film has been by far the worst experience of their careers — “a living hell,” as one bluntly puts it.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as early 19th century explorer Hugh Glass, Revenant went into production in September and was supposed to wrap in March. But cameras still will be rolling into August as the budget has climbed well past $95 million, with insiders predicting it will reach or exceed $135 million. Crewmembers say they have seen huge turnover, including many who were fired and others who quit. They say the behind-the-scenes drama led Inarritu to bar producer Jim Skotchdopole, who worked with him on Birdman, from the set.

Inspired by real events, Revenant follows DiCaprio’s character through deep snow and ordeals including battles with Native Americans and a near-fatal mauling by a bear. Inarritu, 51, made the unusual choice to shoot the film in sequence, using only natural light. While the plan was to film DiCaprio’s trek entirely in Canada, the weather did not cooperate, so the filmmakers now are headed to a location at the tip of Argentina in quest of snow.

The images are startling, which is not surprise given the director. But good gravy and abag of rocks, what they had to endure to capture them.

Multiple sources say the film started to spin out of control early on, as a major battle scene was shot over two weeks. Originally it was going to involve about 30 trappers and about as many Native Americans, but it expanded to 200 players. Leaving little time for the crew to prepare, Inarritu decided that a naked character should be dragged along the ground. The director remembers being concerned about the actor’s genitals and laying down plastic sheeting to protect him. “I asked him several times, ‘Are you fine?’ ” says Inarritu. Each time he asked, he says the actor replied that he was prepared to try another take. “I was super considerate because he was a nice, 22-year-old guy,” says Inarritu. While crewmembers say the actor was in pain, Inarritu dismisses that as “a lie.”

The director says safety always was a priority and no serious injuries occurred on set. An actor who was immersed in freezing water had a broken dry suit, volunteers Inarritu, “but he was taken care of 10 minutes after he was done.” A crewmember says some necks of the dry suits were cut off so they wouldn’t show on film, but first assistant director Scott Robertson denies that and says just one actor’s dry suit had the neck cut, and it was only to aid him after he reacted adversely to the cold water. Overall, Robertson says, there was a great deal of rehearsal and planning to protect the cast and crew. “We had a safety meeting every day of the movie, sometimes multiple times,” he says. “No one got hurt on the film with all the crazy shit we did.”

OK, calm down, just asking…

What’s interesting about Inarritu is that he appears to despise the overly technologized modern Hollywood film, and yet goes out of his way to produce the same kinds of effects “naturally,” which is to say, with the camera rather than in the computer.

Still, some crewmembers believe a lot of misery could have been avoided — and money saved — if at least some parts of the movie had been conceived with computer-generated effects. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want,” counters Inarritu. “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.” Revenant is about survival, he says, and the actors and crew benefited from having to make it in nature.

“When you see the film, you will see the scale of it,” promises Inarritu. “And you will say, ‘Wow.’ “

I bet. Take a look for yourself.

Opens Christmas Day. It’s one of those “just in time for Oscar consideration” rollouts, with showings in a couple of big cities first and then the big release come January 2016.

By the way, I came across these “Making of…” videos, with the actors and crew talking about what filming The Abyss was like. (My dad and I saw this at Radio City Music Hall when it opened. I don’t remember how we scored tickets, but I do remember having dinner beforehand at a joint on 57th Street and seeing Martha Plimpton at the next table.)

Below are parts 1 and 6 (if you’re interested, go to YouTube.com for the other parts):

That critique of the supernatural/space alien storyline is very true. They should have stuck with the human drama, which was tense enough. By introducing jellyfish from the planet Bongo, the whole story arc went sideways. Dropping the alien sub-story would have made the film tighter and less…ludicrous.

And while we’re at it, whatever happened to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio? She was one of my favorite actresses for years.

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A Strange Preview: “Spotlight”

So we have here a drama based on the Boston Globe‘s Pulitzer work investigating the priest-pedophile scandal and the Church’s years of cover-up. Documentaries have been made about this already, such as Deliver Us from Evil and The Hand of God, as well as fictionalized accounts of child abuse in the Church in places like Newfoundland (The Boys of St. Vincent, with the Christian Brothers as the villains of that piece, although the brothers’ reputation for being vicious bastards precedes them pretty much throughout the British Commonwealth and the United States).

Look, our corrupt mainstream media—entertainment and “news”—love any chance to bash the Catholic Church, granted, but in this case … go at it.

An interesting cast mix, I must say: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Billy Crudup, Rachel McAdams, and Mad Men‘s John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr.

Opens November 6.

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Two Strange Reviews: “The Jim Gaffigan Show” and “Impastor”

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So stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan has a new show, called The Jim Gaffigan Show, and it sucks.

He plays a stand-up comic called Jim Gaffigan. Original, no? Well, if it sounds like Seinfeld, stop your ears. It is the anti-Seinfeld. It’s what Seinfeld would have been had it been written by the folks who brought you Supertrain, with the train about to run over its own premise.

Gaffigan recently came out as a “Catholic,” or at least that’s how he described it to Keith Olbermann on Olbermann’s soon-to-be cancelled show, but in the context of the Gaffigan program, his character is not much of a churchgoer at all. (In fact, when he’s introduced to the parish priest, an immigrant from Zimbabwe, the priest is stunned and surprised, as he thought Gaffigan’s wife, Jeannie, was a widow.)

It’s the wife (Ashley Williams) who is Catholic—a “shiite Catholic” is how Gaffigan describes her. Which explains their five kids. Yes, five kids, and possibly one more on the way. Gaffigan’s best friend, played by Adam Goldberg, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here, tells him he must get a vasectomy because these many kids…something about Hitler.

Anyway, the “shiite Catholic” wife is OK with her husband getting a vasectomy (this from a woman who won’t take an apartment because the couple selling it are getting a divorce). She doesn’t think he will go through with it, however, because he is a big baby when it comes to pain. She also has no problem discussing her husband’s plans with her gay realtor friend (whom she dated in college before he realized he was sexually attracted to men), the priest, and just about anybody she comes into contact with.

The wife’s sort of a jerk, at least early on, with few funny lines. She then morphs into the sitcom wife, with little discernible personality, or at least one that was worth committing to paper. The gay realtor is also a catty jerk. Every African-American “extra” is surly and scary. The jokes are obvious and stale. The whole show seems…like something that might have been edgy in the late 80s, early 90s but is now just…stale.

I guess you can only come out as a Catholic in Hollywood if you’re OK with contraception and recurring gay and minority characters whom you depict in ways so stereotypical they would have been considered rude in the late 80s, early 90s.

This show sucked. Don’t watch it. I watched it, so you won’t have to.

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So Buddy Dobbs is about to kill himself, jump off a bridge, to be exact. He’s owes thugs money he doesn’t have. His girlfriend has just dumped him. He doesn’t believe in God, and so is without hope—that is until a would-be savior tries to talk him out of jumping, and in the process dies, leaving Buddy with what he considers a “divine” opportunity—to make off with the Good Samaritan’s identity, that of a Lutheran pastor. (Get it? “Impastor” is a play on “impostor.” It’s like genius.)

And so we have this hoodlum stuck playing Man of God to a “conservative” Lutheran congregation in a small town, which is just thrilled to have what they believe is a gay minister in the pulpit, so long as he remains “sexually inactive.” (The Good Samaritan was gay, apparently, and had come out to his previous congregation, an announcement we’re meant to assume went about as well as did the announcement in Miami of new relations with Cuba.)

Buddy’s plan is to play the role for a few days until he can come up with a plan and crack the dead pastor’s online bank-account password. Meanwhile, he’s given some cushy parsonage digs, an endearing personal assistant (Sara Rue, who’s always fun), and an adoring laity, including a gay parishioner who doesn’t believe the “sexually inactive” thing is a ‘hard-and-fast rule,” a beautiful young lady who’s determined to get the Rev to play for the other team, so to speak, and even one stern confessional type, you know, for diversity’s sake.

Meanwhile, the gangsters who are owed money are harassing Buddy’s ex, who’s convinced he’s dead: the cops have found the body of the actual pastor but believe it’s that of Buddy.

This is one of those shows that sounds better on paper than it is in realization. The writing is dull, as in unfunny. I laughed not once. The premise is amusing but you find yourself, straining to smirk. Michael Rosenbaum, who plays the impastor, is himself quite dull, even as he’s put in the awkward position of counseling members of his congregation, like the mother whose son is smoking pot and having sexual relations with microwaved fruit. (Turns out Buddy’s quite good at the counseling bit, despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, he’s making it all up as he goes along, which is to say, anything but stereotypically pious.)

And you can see the ending coming: Buddy decides to stay right where he is. Why? That’s unclear, other than, well, there’s no show if he takes off.

Will the congregation find out the truth? Will Buddy acclimate himself to his new role, even come to see it as a real God’s plan for his life? Will he succumb to the sexual advances of his  female parishioner, and if so, how will he explain it? Gay reparative therapy?

I could see this premise working in the hands of a gifted comedy writer—think Dan Harmon of Community fame, someone who at least could fake a sympathy for a conservative Protestant congregation that spent a year waiting for the right pastor and wound up with someone they believe is gay, which will require enough of an adjustment to their traditional sensibilities, but in fact is a lying, thieving criminal. (How the right pastor was a “celibate” gay man in a conservative church is another story. Perhaps it’s independent, or a conservative congregation within a larger liberal denomination. This aspect of the tale has all the feel of, well, making it up as they go along.)

Unlike The Jim Gaffigan Show, which sucked from line one, Impastor set the trap nicely. I was curious how the show would play itself out, whether the creators had bitten off more than they could chew, whether the ancillary characters would prove likable, or at least interesting. In short, would Impastor prove to be this generation’s Vicar of Dibley.

Alas, it will not.

Note to producers: consider going three-camera with a live audience and new writers. You might, might, get this sucker to work. But you need the laughs first.

(Note to Lutheran readers: if you’re wondering whether there was anything distinctly “Lutheran” about the construal of this church/congregation, dream on. My guess is they pulled a denomination out of a hat, or someone just thought “Lutheran” would translate as “stuffy” to a broad audience.)

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What I Saw at Andrew and N.C. Wyeth’s Studios

So it was my wife’s birthday, and she wanted to spend the day at the Brandywine River Museum—specifically touring the homes and studios of N.C. Wyeth and his son Andrew.

The Wyeths are big here in the Brandywine Valley, and big in our family. Our house is home to several Wyeth prints, but more than that, my father-in-law’s family knew the Wyeths and Don remembers visiting N.C. Wyeth’s studio and home as a boy.

My wife lost her father only this year (just a couple of weeks short of his 93rd birthday), and this tour was a means of connecting with that part of her dad’s life.

N.C. Wyeth was an amazing guy. Not only a gifted artist, perhaps best known for Western images (he actually worked as a cowboy, literally a “cowpuncher”) and also for illustrating such popular novels as Kidnapped and Treasure Island, he also worked on commercially for such major clients as Steinway & Sons, Coca-Cola, Lucky Strike, and…Cream of Wheat! This artist knew what it was to have deadlines.

His four children also proved to be pretty impressive in their own right: his daughters Carolyn and Henriette followed in their father’s footsteps as painters; daughter Ann was a rather brilliant pianist and composer; Nathaniel, as mentioned, was a mechanical engineer whose most famous invention was probably the plastic bottles we still use for sodas; and then there was Andrew, who went on to become one of the foremost American artists of the 20th (or any) century. (His son, Jamie, is still alive and well…and painting.)

All the Wyeth children were home-schooled (although by professional tutors) and much adored by their doting father, who never talked down to them, but constantly challenged them intellectually and artistically—for example, reading to them such “children’s” novels as War and Peace.

Below, from N.C.’s studio—William Penn, looking out at the New World, the Old World behind him. This graced the Met Life Building in Center City, Philly, for decades.

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Also from the studio: a self-portrait (center, with the hat). N.C. was greatly influenced by an Italian painter by the name of Giovanni Segantini, whose work I’m sure you’re all familiar with. (crickets)

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Wyeth’s tools:

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A prolific letter-writer, N.C. wrote his mother almost daily.

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The main room of the Wyeth house. N.C. would often wake the family up by playing the piano “badly but loud,” according to the tour guide.

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N.C. died suddenly and tragically when, traveling with his young grandson to pick up a domestic servant, his car was struck by a train that was traveling “off schedule.” They were both killed instantly. The family was devastated, as you might imagine. His daughter Ann marked his palette the next day to ensure no one would touch it again.

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Andrew was a sickly child and would often lock himself away in the family basement to play with his extensive collection of toy soldiers (he became obsessed with war and soldiering later in life). We were told that he gave names to each and every one of these soldiers. And this is only part of his stash.

IMG_0802A room in Andrew’s studio. His began working in tempura, hence the eggies.

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Among Andrew’s friends were Erroll Flynn and Henry Fonda, who came to the Wyeth studio to record narration for a documentary on Wyeth.

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A special exhibit at the museum proper was of pen-and-ink illustrations, which were commonly used to illustrate popular magazines before photography superseded it as the art of choice for periodicals.

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Among my favorites were those of Rube Goldberg. Look familiar?

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The work of the great Howard Pyle also feature prominently at this museum. His studio was in Wilmington, Delaware, and N.C. studied with him early in his career. This is one of my favorites: “The Nationmakers.” (I bought a print, as well as one of N.C.’s illustrations for Robinson Crusoe.)

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This was a weird one. The caption reads, “But it’s your best life now!”

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The area around northern Delaware/southeastern Pennsylvania is very rich with Revolutionary-era history, not to mention such cultural riches as the Brandywine River School of art. After five years, I’m still exploring all it has to offer.

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A Strange Preview: Spectre

While not a huge fan of the Craig Bonds, this looks like fun — and with Christoph Waltz as Blofeld!

If only the director were Quentin Tarantino — can you imagine what that dialogue would be like? Long, discursive asides, apropos of nothing, on British cinema, spy novels, and the business of sustaining a lucrative franchise!

Tarantino should do an anti-Bond, not quite a parody but an homage that takes the character and genre in another direction. Imagine British super-spy Idris Elba spouting dialogue originally written for Samuel L. Jackson, saving what’s left of the Empire from the predations of ISIS, whose super-villanous leader is played by Michael Parks.

I’m like a genius …

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The Superstitions of Super-Geniuses

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What would you do with $100 million? Let’s say you peeled off a few bills to pay off all credit cards and lingering student loans, bought a bigger house, an Italian sports car, took that lengthy vacation to high-culture tourist traps around the world, left some in the bank for old age and your kids’ college fund, even paid off an elderly parent’s medical bills or mortgage, and had, oh, $97 million left.

What would you do with it? Donate a chunk to some children’s hospitals? Write a few checks to the Alzheimer’s Association, the Red Cross, a few other charities? Perhaps set up a scholarship for someone, or a research fund for some orphan disease.

Here’s what I bet you wouldn’t do. I bet you wouldn’t spend it on … looking for space aliens.

Know why? Because you’re not a super-genius. Oh, you may be intelligent and relatively well-educated. You may even be clever. But you’re not … Stephen Hawking.

On Monday, famed physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian tycoon Yuri Milner held a news conference in London to announce their new project: injecting $100 million and a whole lot of brain power into the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, an endeavor they’re calling Breakthrough Listen.

“We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth,” Hawking said at Monday’s news conference, “So in an infinite universe, there must be other occurrences of life.”

Notice the “we believe…” They have faith, you see, that first there was nothing, then there was something, then, after a lot of rattling, burning, freezing, and expanding, that something donated $100 million to look for space aliens.

Because I bet it irks the brilliantly irkable that they have to use words like believe. Wouldn’t it be nice to say, “We know that life arose spontaneously”? And wouldn’t finding life elsewhere get them closer to “We know”?

But what if they don’t find life in another galaxy? Or, what if they find evidence of single-celled organisms on a moon somewhere, a microscopic space cootie?. I mean, it’s life, but it can’t vote Labour, so what good is it? It may as well be a fetus.

Then what?

You see, we all believe something wacky about how we got here. Some posit an intelligent, transcendent (i.e., disinct from the material universe) Being who spoke and there was life. Others that there was nothing … and then there were intelligent transcendent (i.e., vague and obscure) beings listening to reruns of Make Room for Daddy via radio waves that mysteriously floated their way from some rock in the Milky Way galaxy.

OK, weird—but whatever gets you through the night.

But the latter folk aren’t satisfied with saying, “We believe nutty stuff, you believe nutty stuff, go in peace and be well.” No. They think, “We’re geniuses, you’re idiots, shut up or pay the price.”

And that’s because each belief system has implications for how you treat life. The “first there was Someone, then there were someones” crowd (and their functional equivalents) believe humans are not their own, and therefore must refer back to the original Someone before redefining who is a human being and what can be done with/to same.

On the other hand, the “first there was nothing then there were someones” crowd (and their functional equivalents) believe humans are a great source of spare parts.

Now, I’m willing to accept the possibility of ETs. In fact, it may be wise to consider not only the possibility of their existence, but also the threat they may pose to life here on Earth.

Hostile aliens from outer space might attack! They’ll know we’re here because of our electronic emissions, which continuously bathe the earth in a soft glow. If these aliens discover us and manage to get here, it’s obvious that mankind is kaput. As in wiped out. À la mort.

Solution? Hide! Cease immediately all use of anything and everything powered by electricity. Sure, this necessary action will cause some inconveniences such as the ruination of the world’s economy and maybe the odd mass starvation since food will become scarce. But, hey, we’re talking about the survival of the human race. Don’t you care what happens to people? You brute.

What’s the likelihood of an alien attack? It’s complicated, but all the best scientists say it’s not impossible. Anyway, what’s the difference? As long as the chance is non-zero and the costs of failing to act are near infinite, shutting down the world is the only sane move.

What’s that you say? The burden of proof is on me? There’s no evidence of a forthcoming invasion?

What are you, some kind of denier? Just listen to a thinker like Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is the author of the influential The Black SwanFooled by Randomness, and other works which warn of the over-certainty and dangers that result from relying too strongly on models and accepted wisdom. Taleb thinks people often have an incomplete understanding of the risk of “unpredictable” situations.

Speaking of planetary risks, Taleb and three other big names said recently, “It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large.”

Let’s check this statement with respect to an alien invasion. (1) Absence of evidence. Check. (2) Enormously consequential action; indeed, none more consequential. Check. Thus, ancestral wisdom and scientific decision making demand we hit the OFF switch.

So here’s my proposal: we’ll accept the possibility that there may be life—hostile or not, intelligent or not—somewhere else in the universe, despite the fact that there is not one shred of evidence of such life, if the super-geniuses in our midst agree to accept the possibility that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures and appeared before many witnesses, a record of which has come down to us in written form.

Then they can spend their $100 million searching for space beeps. And we can be simply left in peace.

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R.I.P. Alex Rocco

Best known for his role as Moe Green in The Godfather, Rocco won an Emmy for his role as a talent agent in The Famous Teddy Z, starring Jon Cryer (of Two and a Half Men and Pretty in Pink fame), one of those shows that critics loved but that could not find a durable audience.

You know why The Godfather has achieved the status it has? Every great movie has two, three, four iconic, memorable scenes. Virtually every scene in The Godfather is memorable: for its dialogue, for the shift in the power dynamic, for some bit of bravura acting, for ratcheting up the tension just so. Every single scene. There is no fat in that script; it’s all meat and muscle. Never has a film done better by a novel than this one.

Here’s a clip from just one of those scenes, where Alex Rocco made his acting bones (although, quite frankly, he makes a gesture that seems false to Moe Green but true to a guy named Rocco).

And here was the original CBS promo for The Famous Teddy Z:

Posted in Cinecitta, Never Take Sides Against the Family Again if You Want to Be in the Third Film, R.I.P. | Leave a comment