Liz and Dick and Everyone We Know


Just some quick thoughts I had while watching Lifetime’s Liz & Dick — which by strict movie of the week standards isn’t so terrible, but by any normal film standard is a miserable, artless, lifeless lump:

-My prevailing thought this whole time was, “at least they’re off Marilyn for now.” And let’s be honest, that’s a huge step for movie producers. Everything is Marilyn. Marilyn this, Marilyn that, Marilyn up the ass. I love Marilyn too, especially the comedies, but it’s too much. It’s just a short break though. By the news feeds, they’re going right back to Marilyn for next year.

-Grant Bowler as Dick… wasn’t so bad actually. No one can really do Dick — not even Bill Murray in Scrooged — but he got the essence and the voice, if not the immense presence. To which I ask this: what the hell is he doing in a Lifetime movie? I haven’t seen him in anything else though, so I’m not sure of his real abilities. Maybe he was just benefiting from the low standard of those around him.

-I don’t want to pile on, but, just like in real life, Lindsay Lohan is a train wreck in motion, heading straight into a wall. Her makeup crew got Liz right, but when you’re playing a two-time Oscar winner, you need to bring it (like Cate Blanchett brought it for Katherine Hepburn, or — yes — Michelle Williams did with Marilyn). Lohan though, hard as she tries — and you can see her trying really hard — can’t act. She just can’t. She never really could, not even her rightfully beloved Mean Girls role, where she was natural in playing a stressed teenager because she was a stressed teenager. But here, given another chance and asked to branch out a little bit, she doesn’t have the natural being of her personality to fall back on. Her awkwardness, once a plus, is a major dent here. She’s thrown her life into disarray over the last few years since Mean Girls— and whatever, I’m not going to judge her for that — but she’s thrown her career away and that’s a palpable problem here: you can see the stress on her face. This is perhaps her last chance to get back into the game, into the career she ought to have had. And it wreaks havoc on whatever abilities and confidence she might have had going into it. Having to play crazy, vulnerable and fat couldn’t have helped her any, but experience hasn’t been channeled nor conveyed, only the stress of the situation. She tries so hard that all you can see of it is the trying, the reading the lines as they were on the page, hitting her marks and trying to hang with Bowler. Special effects artists always say, “if you can see my work, I didn’t do my job”, and the same goes for acting. If you can see the acting that’s all you can see, you can’t see the character.

-Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lohan did make something of a comeback off of this. It’s going to end up with killer ratings, no doubt, even if most people were rubbernecking. TMZ joked the other day about Lifetime doing a whole series of famous women films, all staring Lohan. Heidi Fleiss, Hilary Clinton, the whole cast you’d expect, all with Lohan as the central woman in crisis. Lifetime could do worse.

Happy Birthday to Roy Neary and Co., Close Encounters turns 35


Thirty five years ago today, Steven Spielberg’s jaw dropping b-movie classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was released in theaters. No one knew what the hell a close encounter was, but they quickly learned as they watched Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Gillian (Melinda Dillon) search frantically the kidnapped little Barry (Cary Guffey), culminating in the stunning 30 minute light and sound finale, affectionately known as “the light show”.

Since I started making stupid all-time lists (not all that long ago because they’re really stupid), there have been two mainstays at the top: #1, Fanny and Alexander, and #2, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Numbers 3-10 have fluxed wildly depending on the mood I was in when I wrote the list out, but #1 and 2 have remained the same. They’re not films that seem to have that much in common on their face, but they share similar themes of family and abandonment, and are both just slightly left of reality as we know it. Close Encounters has its aliens, Fanny and Alexander has its ghosts and mysticism. Of all of the great films that have been made and that I’ve seen in my life, I’ve always found it funny that a TV movie and a B movie are at the top of the heap for me, but it’s been persistent. Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player is never far behind in the list (#3 right now), and I’ve always loved Criterion’s description of it, that Truffaut was drunk on the possibilities of cinema.

The same idea goes for Close Encounters. Just off of the impossible success of Jaws, Spielberg had the backing and leeway to be drunk on the possibilities of B cinema. As it ended up, he was more the puppet master of the film than its director. It’s an incredibly manipulative film (especially playing out the scares and scary light of kidnapping of a cute little kid), but its manipulative in the best way possible. This week in THR’s writer’s roundtable, Michael Haneke rightly cited the Auschwitz gas/shower scene in Schindler’s List as being unbearably manipulative in the worst possible way, but, perhaps because there is less at stake in Close Encounters, Speilberg’s manipulation comes off more as a gentle nudge in the right direction for the maximum amount of experience than anything else. It’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate in B cinema. Sleight of hand, and devious editing and blocking are part of the experience. The goal is to thrill you and sometimes the suspension of disbelief needs to be stretched to the point right before it breaks before you can achieve that.

Stretching the bands of the suspension of disbelief is Spielberg’s real talent in the filmmaking world. Even though he’s had them snap on him (1941, for example), they’ve snapped remarkably few times for a man who has been making high end blockbusters for 40 years. Guy’s like Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson don’t even bother with playing with the suspension of disbelief. You just have to ignore the ridiculousness in their films. If you don’t, then fuck you. Whereas you walk out of the theater or turn off the DVD really feel like E.T. or T-Rex exist out there somewhere. It makes Spielberg’s films, especially the ones made before 1985, easy to appreciate wholly without any reservations.

Bob Balaban is another great story of the film. Literally, through the publication of the diary he kept during shooting, Spielberg, Truffaut & Me, that chronicles his experiences with the film: from panicking about not actually knowing the French he said he did, the uncomfortable stay in India, and being the bearded one constantly getting mistaken for Dreyfus, who was often standing next to him, clean shaven and thus invisible.

In producer Julia Phillips’ bridge-burning autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in the Town Again, stories of the film are dished as well. She speculates about whether Truffaut’s hearing aide was just for show so he could escape conversations, and the real childlike nature of Spielberg when a kiss she gives him outside of the Alabama zeppelin hangar where “the big set” was housed embarrasses him so much.

George Lucas was so afraid that Star Wars would not gross anything and he’s be ruined, he traded Spielberg 2 1/2 points on Star Wars for 2 1/2 points on Close Encounters. Lucas has probably done pretty well off of those points with Close Encounters‘ $300+M gross, but not as well as Speilberg did on Star Wars‘ $1+b gross over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, Spielberg took his name out of contention to direct the new Star Wars film being written by Michael Arndt. After Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, maybe they needed a long break from working together.

With each new viewing the film only grows in my mind, especially for its masterly special effects, done by a team led by effects whiz Douglas Trumbull, not to mention the fact that almost everything is a set (designed by Joe Alves), including the dark side of the moon, which had to be built in a zeppelin factory, and even extended out of the bay door with duvetyne, the blue screen of the day: practical, easy to optically “paint” over. Today it would have been a green screen and digital paint, as would every one of the space ships. No one would have wondered, “how did they do that?” But 35 years later, I still sit with wonder for this film.

We’ll just pretend the 1980 special edition never happened.

Deadfall – Stefan Ruzowitzky (2012)


From the trailer, it looked like Stefan Ruzowitzky’s wintry casino heist film Deadfall had all of the makings of a tight, gripping psychological thriller. Everything looked right, from the twisted, broken family angle to the Thanksgiving blizzard setting that eventually sets the deadly Addison (Eric Bana) against Jay Mills (Charlie Hunnam), the boxer just out of jail, and his own sister Liza (Olivia Wilde).

But this is why we shouldn’t trust trailers. They lie, willfully, like a politician. And instead of the gripping thriller promised, Ruzowitzky and screenwriter Zach Dean treat us to a sloppy melodrama full of bad accents and ham-handed police sexism where screaming as loud as you can is a substitute for emotional depth.

The film starts shortly after the casino heist, with Addison and Liza already on the run, splitting up after their car hits a deer and flips off of the road for a better chance at survival. Addison murders the cop who was trying to help them, setting off a slow witted manhunt by the local sheriff’s department, where none of the boys club want to let the deputy sheriff, Hannah (Kate Mara), join in because what if she has to stop and change her tampon in the middle of the chase? I should have added quotations there, because that’s a quote, one that thuds in the middle of the scene like an anvil from a 1980s very special episode. In the world of this film, sexism is a cartoon problem, lacking all of the subtlety and savvy that it possesses in the real world.

These problems extend out to the cast, with Eric Bana playing an extension of his character from Hanna, a cutthroat survivalist with pinpoint accuracy who speaks like an imitation Southern preacher. He’s not given much to work with, and Charlie Hunnam is given even less with Jay, an Olympic-level boxer just out of jail who gets into trouble hours after getting out when he gets into a fight with a sleazy boxing trainer to owes him money. Jay is attacked and fights back, but doesn’t think anyone will believe him so he flees, running into the shivering Liza along the way, whom he promptly falls in love with and takes home to meet his parents, where Addison is hiding out, holding Jay’s mom and dad (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) hostage. Spacek is the only one who really comes off well in the film, and it’s her scenes with Eric Bana that play the best. Bana feels to be over acting, or at least acting in a way where we can see him acting, in the rest of his scenes, but he is calm and understated playing against Spacek in a way that eventually falls apart once the rest of the gang joins them for their Thanksgiving hostage diner, where writer Dean meant to play out the heady drama, but either as written or as translated by the actors came out as maudlin and overwrought before mercifully ending.