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Cinema Potpourri: February


(This is a new monthly segment that will cover a variety of topics -- casting news, movie happenings, and whatever happens to be on my movie-crazed mind)


(what it was…what it became…what it now wants to be)

Of course, the independent film movement existed long before the Sundance Film Festival opened its doors in 1985 and officially adopted its title in 1991.  But never before had mainstream Hollywood responded so resoundingly to its possibilities. Redford's artistic haven soon became an institution unto itself, especially when aided by the buying savvy of Harvey Weinstein.  Soderberg, Jarmusch, Tarantino and Rodriguez were crowned the new visionary kings and a wholly inspiring fleet of undiscovered performers found their place in the spotlight. 

It was all about freedom then: the freedom to create stories that remained untarnished by studio hands.  These were not factory-made productions.  These films had distinctive personalities and trumpeted a new era of truly original, authentic voices. But, when you're an outsider who is suddenly embraced by the mainstream, how long can you continue to tout your outsider status?  When do you officially become just like "one of them"? 


It didn't take long.  As the new millennium approached, the distinctive voices became more and more muted, as did everything that made Sundance unique from the beginning.  An increasing number of films came packaged with a high-wattage celebrity cast and many had arrived pre-purchased by the majors.  All of a sudden, it wasn't about the celebration of undiscovered talent or the heralding of originality in filmmaking.  It was about marketing.  Worse still, it was about the marketing of increasingly banal audience fare.


"Sex, Lies & Videotape" and "Reservoir Dogs" perished and went the way of "Happy Texas" and "Little Miss Sunshine".


The Sundance Film Festival – the one-time champion of creative integrity – had somehow lost its own identity.


This year, they seemed to make a real concentrated effort to reclaim it.  The film selections were, by and large, removed farther from mainstream sensibility than they had been for several years.  Of course, that didn't necessarily mean they resulted in better films. The theme of this year's festival was "Focus on Film", and that they did, as buyers (including Harvey Weinstein's newly minted enterprise) scooped up a great number of hot properties, many of which were created by previously unheard voices.

The schedule filled with decidedly more "daring" material.  "Zoo" was a documentary on man-horse love (wow, we've all  been waiting on pins and needles for a film to tackle this subject).  In spite of the controversial subject, limited running time, and provocative video footage of a man actually having sex with a horse, early reviews have found "Zoo" to be the very definition of boredom.

Controversy swarmed around the narrative features as well. "Teeth" was the stinging coming of age story of a young woman whose vagina could bite (and I mean that literally).  "Hounddog" featured little Dakota Fanning as the victim of a violent rape.  "Teeth" received slightly positive notices, while Dakota's picture languished in the realm of mediocrity.

But there were two pics that look to make a significant splash in the 2007 cinema landscape, one with sights on mass audience acceptance and the other with its eye clearly planted on the cult crowd.  "Grace is Gone" stars John Cusack as a father who hides his wife's death in the Iraqi war from his children pending the results of a family road trip. "Joshua", starring Sam Rockwell, follows a modern metropolitan family who welcome a newborn into their tribe, and suffer the consequences.  Turns out, the elder child feels a scotch jealous and tries his damndest to destroy the infant.  All in all, whether the actual quality of the Sundance films were up to snuff or not, it seemed as though true movie fans had reason to rejoice.


Now, I don't mean to imply that it's so terrible for a film festival to feature the bigger budgeted, higher profile features.  There's plenty of room for these works in festivals across the country and internationally, whether they exist simply as a product or as shallow escapism.  I am as much a fan of junk cinema as I am highbrow art. And I freely admit that there are just as many awful "art" films as there are terrible "mainstream" pictures.  But Sundance was never intended to be the type of festival to showcase films as regurgitated product.  Somewhere along the way, the battle between passion and commerce was fought and lost.  Hopefully, though, this past year is a clear indication that the scales are tipping back in the right direction.




My guess is that this year's Oscar telecast will be a fairly predictable affair.  Even so, there is one award recipient who is uncontested – they are an absolute lock for their honor – and their acceptance of this award will serve as the highlight of the telecast for me. 

Film composer extraordinaire Ennio Morricone will be given this year's Lifetime Achievement Award.  Anyone filmgoer who doesn't know the name, would certainly recognize his theme for the Man With No Name.  In all, he has composed, arranged and conducted over 300 film scores.  From spaghetti Westerns to gothic horror to morose gangster films, he's given emotive voice to every genre of film imaginable.  Here are just a few of my favorite scores from this legendary composer:


"The Mission"
"The Untouchables"
"The Good, The Bad & The Ugly"
"The Thing"
"Casualties of War"
"Love Affair"

When you need your film to resonate with an audience – to haunt them – you bring on Morricone.  He is the most eclectic of all composers; his work can move you, thrill you and mystify you in equal measure.  Is there a stranger mainstream score than the delightful one he provided for Oliver Stone's "U Turn"?

One of the shameless qualities I have always enjoyed most about Morricone is his complete willingness to rip himself off.  Surely, after 300 scores, you can't come up with new ideas every time out.  And when your work is that stunning, singular and versatile, why should you?  One of the many examples of this:  His excellent score for "Disclosure" is just a toned-down version of his much earlier work on "Duck, You Sucker".  Two completely different pictures, and one distinctive sound that elevates both beyond their initial potential.




We can count the number of truly great Stephen King film adaptations in one hand.  On July 13, we might be able to be start counting on the other hand.  "1408" is another spooky haunted hotel room story (a-la "The Shining") that's generating strong early buzz.  Test screening reactions indicate that this one genuinely earns its scares, due in no small part to the contributions of stars John Cusack and Samuel Jackson. 


I think that casting the exceptional Cusack as the skeptic lead of a supernatural horror film is a master stroke. Check out the trailer on Yahoo Movies and see what I mean.


In casting news, some mighty heavyweight talents have been assembled for "What Just Happened?", a Hollywood parody-of-sorts about a has-been producer and his struggles to get one last masterpiece under his belt.  How heavyweight is this cast?  Try Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, John Turturro, and Stanley Tucci.  When you throw director Barry Levinson ("RainMan") into the mix, this star-studded concoction becomes even more intriguing.  Levinson is a versatile director whose career is littered with just as many misses as hits.  Will this project be his Tinseltown version of "Wag the Dog"?  Or will it go the way of his "Jimmy Hollywood" instead?  Let me know what you think and keep your fingers crossed.WHERE THE HELL IS GENE HACKMAN?


Somebody put this man on a milk carton!  Gene Hackman is one of our all-time greatest actors – a talent who can elevate even the lowest cinematic garbage.  He's done nearly 100 movies in his career (and he's never turned in a bad performance, even in the many stinkers that litter his resume).  But since 2004's "Welcome to Mooseport", he's been MIA.  I understand the man is going on 77 years of age, but has he decided to retire without informing anyone?  And if so, did he really want to go out with "Mooseport"?  After 100 films, has he decided there's nothing more for him to do?  Is he just waiting for that one really special project? 

At least there's hope for video game fanatics…seems that the only project Hackman has under his sleeve is voice-over work for a new 'Dirty Harry' videogame. Well, at least that confirms that he's still alive.




-Hackman was originally slated to make his directorial debut, and star as Hannibal Lecter, in "The Silence of the Lambs".  Eventually, he dropped out because he took serious issue with the level of violence.

-He was reluctant to take on "Unforgiven" for the same reason, until Clint Eastwood convinced him that he wanted his film to make a statement about the senselessness of violence.

-On a similar note, Hackman was originally slated to play FDR in Michael Bay's war-torn, weep-infested, soap-opera monstrosity "Pearl Harbor".  He eventually turned it down at the insistence of his Japanese wife.  The role went to Jon Voight instead.

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Gene Hackman

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