Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Pledge to Quit Blogging for A Month

In exactly a month, Ryan Kelly and I will launch the Steven Spielberg Blogathon on December 18. Since there are a lot of movies I want to write about and since writing about them will take up an awfully large amount of my weeks and creative hours, I'm making a pledge: no blogging for a month. Don't be surprised if you don't see any new reviews or essays here for the next handful of weeks--I'll likely be busy in my bedroom writing about Spielberg movies and preparing them for the blogathon. Or I'll be consciously avoiding writing entirely, and you won't know it. One of those two things.

I can't promise that I won't break the pledge, of course. Since the Coens' True Grit gets released on Christmas Day, I might decide to publish some posts about my thoughts on True Grit itself (the Charles Portis novel, the original Henry Hathaway/John Wayne film) in preparation for that remake. And maybe I'll even review the remake. Again, no promises.

So, will I end up breaking the pledge? Will I not? I don't know--I'm making this up as I go along...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Casino Jack (2010) Premiere at the St. Louis International Film Festival

None of us in the audience last Thursday had any idea that Kevin Spacey would be showing up in George Hickenlooper's place, but, evidently, that's what he'll be doing all over the country at each and every one of the dfifferent film festivals kicking off this fall.

Okay... I sounded like an Associated Press reporter when I wrote that. But to answer your question, Casino Jack is an amazing film. One of my favorites of the year. I agree with Cinema St. Louis host Cliff Froehlich when he says that it is the best movie George Hickenlooper ever made.

A lot of people showed up at the Tivoli for the premiere last Thursday, November 11: if you're interested in seeing some high-quality photos check out this blog piece by Melissa over at We Are Movie Geeks. It'll give you a nice overview of the evening.

As Melissa's piece mentions, before the movie began there was a tribute to Hickenlooper's work complete with a montage including clips from each of his films. Then there were rememberences by Hickenlooper's family and friends. Hickenlooper's friend Bill Boll told an amusing story about how, when they were kids hanging out at Six Flags St. Louis, Hickenlooper filmed a murder sequence on the moving Screamin' Eagle roller coaster and got away with the shot (a story I enjoyed the heck out of, considering that I used to work at that corporate monster of a theme park and absolutely love the notion of a young filmmaker taking advantage of it for the purpose of his art).

I was also happy to see Art Holliday from News Channel 5 come up and talk about how Hickenlooper helped him out with his own filmmaking career. Holliday is currently working on a doc about Chuck Berry, and Hickenlooper pitched in by lining him up for an interview at Taylor Hackford's "compound" (Holliday's own words: "I expected Helen Mirren to drop down from the stairs and serve me lemonade at any moment!")

But Holliday touched on something more personal: he felt guilty that he never got to show Hickenlooper the footage of his documentary. When Hickenlooper asked to see it, Holliday told him to wait because it wasn't finished yet. Holliday said he regretted this, but realized it was time to move on; he knew that Hickenlooper's family had a suffered a loss that was far worse.

Holliday's self-realization reminded me of my own when I paid tribute to Hickenlooper two weeks ago. I deeply regretted not getting to meet Hickenlooper in person, but when I realized I was being selfish, I made myself move on. As Bill Boll put it in his rememberence speech, Hickenlooper himself might have said to us, "Don't worry. At least I got my shot."

After these rememberences as well as a rememberence by actor Spencer Garrett, who plays Tom Delay in the film. Then, Cliff Froehlich announced that "Casino Jack himself" was going to be coming out.

Holy shit.

Sure enough, Kevin Spacey walks out, and suddenly there's a big standing ovation in the audience. Spacey offered his own brief rememberence of Hickenlooper (he recalls how Hickenlooper sometimes whined, "I can't believe we're out here shooting fuckin' Goodfellas in D.C."), and then the movie began.

Like I said, the movie is incredible. It's effortlessly entertaining. Incredible performances by Spacey, Garrett, Jon Lovitz, Kelly Preston and the late Maury Chaykin. I've always liked Hickenlooper's movies, but this movie makes such fascinating use of jump-cuts, snappy dialogue and a smashing soundtrack that it DOES sort of bring back the old-fashioned Scorsese spirit.

After the movie was over, Spacey and Spencer Garrett came out for a Q & A session. I sat there in the audience puzzled because, unlike my Q & A with David Lynch, this one posed a problem for a filmmaker wannabe such as myself: what do you ask an actor? I had no idea what I could possibly learn from whatever question I asked Spacey. Some people were asking him, "Did you get to meet the real Jack Abramoff?" Others were telling him how they liked the final scene in which he goes on an imaginary tirade against his sentencing judge--a scene straight out of Norman Jewison's ...And Justice for All (1979). These were amusing questions, but they were also generic. I wanted to challenge Spacey and Garrett and throw them completely off-guard.

Once it came time for them to call upon another person, Spacey began pointing his finger at the dozens of hands raised in the front row. He wasn't sure who to pick. With me in the back row fearing that I would never be called upon, I mustered up a little courage, and stood up while raising my hand.

Spacey sees me. "Oh! Yes? Wayyy there in back the row... I always hate it when I miss the back row."

I cleared my throat, and began my question.

"Yes, uhh... I noticed that throughout the movie, George sprinkled in a lot of famous quotes from famous movies here and there. Like, there was a Taxi Driver quote, which of course was an homage to Martin Scorsese. There were Godfather quotes, which were homages to Francis Ford Coppola. And I counted at least two references to Norman Jewison: one to ...And Justice for All, as you've mentioned, but also one to Fiddler on the Roof. So, I guess my question is: did you guys and George have any copyright troubles in getting permission for all of these famous quotes?"


"Wow," Spacey says into the microphone. "That is a REALLY good question. Are you a lawyer?"

The whole audience erupted into laughter.

"No!" I shouted back. "I just love movies!"

Spacey smiled. He then proceeded to answer my question very thoughtfully, first by pointing out that since the real Jack Abramoff really is obsessed with quoting movies, Hickenlooper felt it only necessary to include them in the film. Spacey offered me some other explanations, but I've forgotten most of them--because, admittedly, I was in a state of euphoria over getting my question answered by a two-time Academy Award-winning actor.

"Besides," Spacey concluded, "George is dead--do you really fuckin' think they'd care anymore???"

Again, the audience burst out laughing. I laughed as well. With that, I expressed my thanks, and parted.

Since my mother hadn't been able to see the film (by chance, I had bought the last ticket), I felt like I had to quickly leave the theater since I knew she was probably waiting outside. Once outside, however, she came rushing out to me; she had been allowed to witness the Q & A screening without my knowledge, as well as take the cellphone photos that you now see here. In this particular photo that she took of the actots, Spacey and Garrett smiled for the camera:

Although I deeply regret not getting to meet George Hickenlooper during his life or getting to see him attend the premiere of Casino Jack in his own hometown, this was a nice way to make up for his absence. When Casino Jack gets its wide release next month, I urge you to see it: it truly is one of the year's best films. I do confess to perhaps loving it more than some will, since, through my brief connections to Hickenlooper, it's sort of a personal film for me. Now it's a personal film for me in another way as well.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remembering George Hickenlooper

I didn't know George Hickenlooper very well, but every time I corresponded with him, he had something nice to say. Back in early October, when he received the news that a Morgan Spurlock documentary featuring him was going to be airing on AMC, he went on Facebook and expressed how nervous he was. He was a little embarrassed about the fact that he would be appearing alongside fellow independent filmmaker John Sayles as they would both be featured getting ready for the Toronto Film Festival.

Trying to make light of the situation, I offered some words of support. "Can't wait for it, George!" I posted on his link. "You and Sayles are two of my favorites!"

"Thanks, brother," he replied. "I feel like I have a few compromising moments that will make me wince to say the least."

Brother. That's what he called everybody. Even people he didn't know very well. I learned this upon watching the Spurlock documentary when it finally aired: he was gliding through Toronto, joking with his actors (Kevin Spacey, Jon Lovitz), relaxing in hair salons, ordering Spurlock's cameramen to stay out of his suite. And he addressed everybody as "brother". It's a testament to the bright, optimistic spirit he was. He regarded every fellow man as a supporter.

Normally when actors and filmmakers pass away, it's something that you think about, mourn, and then move on from. But hearing about Hickenlooper's death last Saturday was something that saddened me beyond belief. It shouldn't have happened that way. Not like this. He was only 47 years old. It was not his time.

One thing I have to confess is that I mourned over Hickenlooper's death for a reason that was, in retrospective, pretty selfish: I hadn't ever gotten a chance to meet him. My mother and I, both of whom are fans of his work, were planning on attending the premiere of Hickenlooper's latest film, Casino Jack, on November 11 at the St. Louis International Film Festival. I couldn't wait to finally get a chance to speak to him--the single greatest native St. Louis filmmaker--in person. And when I realized that it was never to be, it wounded me deeply. I didn't even stop to think about how this wasn't about me: it was about Hickenlooper, and the films he never got to make, and the friends he knew better who had lost him. It was a pain far beyond my own insignificant regrets.

I can do nothing now except reminisce about what I remember of Hickenlooper and his work. To date, I have only seen four of his films. I'll describe my thoughts about each of them, briefly. And I'll try to fit in my other correspondences with Hickenlooper, provided that they fit into my tribute.

Hearts of Darkness (1991)

When I first saw Hearts of Darkness, I was impressed, but I'm not sure I *got* the point of it. The film, which documents Francis Ford Coppola's nervous breakdown on the set of Apocalypse Now (including the details of Martin Sheen's heart attack, as well as Coppola's rage when helicopters in the "Ride of the Valkries" sequence would suddenly ride off in the middle of the shot to fight guerillas in the jungles), gathers so much damning footage of Coppola that it almost makes Apocalypse Now, as a film, look like it turned out to be a disappointment--like an early Heaven's Gate.

But then I realized that Hickenlooper and his co-director, Fax Bahr, were trying to be as objective as possible. If they had fallen into hero worship of Coppola while editing the film, Hearts of Darkness might not have been the most reliable documentation of the making of that movie. The end result of Hearts of Darkness was so impressive that Gene Siskel even went so far as to name it the best film of 1991.

In recent years, Hickenlooper himself flew into a Hearts of Darkness type of rage over the Coppolas' refusal to allow him and Fax Bahr to have any control over the documentary's DVD release, which is full of interviews with Coppola and his wife Eleanor and even includes their own commentary track--but nothing by Hickenlooper or Bahr. The reason is simple: the Coppolas regards Hearts of Darkness as *their* film. They don't care about the fact that it essentially made Hickenlooper's career; they believe they had every right to take away his credit and claim it as their own. When Jeff Wells wrote about the Coppolas' bewildering treatment of Hickenlooper and Bahr, the controversy was revived all over again.

Moved, I sent Hickenlooper a private message informing him that I sympathized with his condition and that I was spreading word of this over on other websites. His response to me: "Thanks for your support. Much appreciated. GH."

Like Hickenlooper, I am a fan of the Coppolas, but I hope they realize that by taking Hickenlooper and Bahr's film away from them, they were putting themselves in opposition to the free independent film movement. I hope now they have the sense to do the right thing and hand over credit of the film to where it is due.

Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade (1993)

I actually saw Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade before I saw the 1996 feature film remake. I love both films, but in terms of aesthetic I much prefer Hickenlooper's film, which, unlike Billy Bob Thornton's remake, is shot in black-and-white and makes great use of lighting and shadow, especially during the sequence in which the demented Karl is interviewed by a reporter (Molly Ringwald) about how he murdered his mother and her lover, with a kaiser blade, when he was a little boy.

Hickenlooper makes this scene unforgettable: he closes slowly in on Karl as he gives this unexpected speech, moving in as we get increasingly closer to a madman. The main flaw of the 1996 remake is that Thornton had to direct himself and, therefore, the camera is stationary most of the time.

On Facebook, Hickenlooper made it no secret that he did not enjoy working with Thornton ("Fuck Billy Bob!"). I don't know what went on between them, but I know two things: a) without Hickenlooper, Thorton wouldn't be where he is today, and b) Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade was further evidence that Hickenlooper would be going places in his great filmmaking career.

The Big Brass Ring (1999)

The most notable thing about The Big Brass Ring is that Hickenlooper actually worked from an original screenplay by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar. So the film is, in a nutshell, Welles in St. Louis! What's more thrilling than that? Overall, it's a modestly-made film with good performances by William Hurt as a bisexual politician running for Governor of Missouri, Miranda Richardson as his embittered wife, and Nigel Hawthorne as a congressman with secrets to his embarrassing past. The story is less than perfect, but it's a movie that should be seen and doesn't deserve the anonymity it's been getting in recent years. I think the fact that it debuted on television, rather than in theaters, has something to do with that.

What I admire most about the film is that it makes spectactular use of St. Louis, and Hickenlooper's camera is particularly in love with the Gateway Arch: there is a tremendous shot in which we pan up and stare at the top of the Arch as it gleams in the sun's ray's. There are other fine shots of the Mississippi River and the casino boats that ride around it, as well as clever interludes of television telecasts by real-life St. Louis anchors Dick Ford and Mandy Murphy. I can't think of another movie that makes better use of our city.

Also, if you look closely, there's a cameo in the movie by Hickenlooper's video game designer friend, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner. He appears briefly as one of William Hurt's political aides, guiding him through the crowds. In the 1990's, Hickenlooper did a favor to Mechner by providing the voiceover for a French cook in Mechner's computer game, The Last Express (1997). Back in April, when I reported about the possibility of a film adaptation of The Last Express being in the works, I sent word of it to Hickenlooper. He then posted on my Facebook Wall a message that was absolutely priceless: "I hope to reprise my role!"

I saw The Big Brass Ring for the first time just last week, watching the first half of it on Friday and the second half of it--eerily--on Saturday, after hearing about Hickenlooper's death.

The Man from Elysian Fields (2002)

This was the first Hickenlooper film I ever saw, and it remains my favorite of his work. I actually owe it to my mother introducing it to me: she had rented it from the Webster Groves library, loved the heck out of it, and thought it amusing that it was directed by a man who had "Hickenlooper" for a last name. Neither of us had any idea that he was a filmmaker from St. Louis.

I haven't seen The Man From Elysian Fields in years, but I'd see it again in a second. It is truly an amazing little film. Basically, Andy Garcia plays a struggling writer who is hired by a gigolo businessman (Mick Jagger--I'm not kidding) to serve as an escort and sexual partner for married, rich women. His latest client is played by Olivia Williams (in a role that, oddly enough, is a lot like the role she played this year in Polanski's The Ghost Writer), and her husband is played by James Coburn in what was to be his last role as well as, fittingly, his swan song. And Garcia's wife, played by Julianna Margulies (her best performance ever?), is hurt and angry when she finds out that her husband has been sleeping with other women for money.

It's a passionate film, full of emotions about real people and struggling artists. It even has an uplifting ending, but--as Roger Ebert noted in his 4-star review--it is a happy ending that is earned.

But it's not over. I have more of Hickenlooper's films to see. Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdonavich in Archer City, Texas. Persons Unknown. Dogtown. Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Factory Girl. And of course, Casino Jack. My mother and I still have to decide if we'll be attending the November 11 premiere. Maybe we will. I don't know. We'll see.

Hickenlooper's films were not always commercial hits, but they almost always sparked varying discussion in the critics' cricles. In that AMC documentary (Committed) that aired back in October, Hickenlooper told Morgan Spurlock, "When I was young, I was really stupid. If I’d get a bad review, I’d contact a critic and argue with them over why the movie worked. And David Carr of the New York Times called me once and said, 'Dude, you gotta back off! These journalists are gonna hang you out to dry—they take it very personally.' And I was like, 'hey, it’s just a movie, right?'"

St. Louis is not a city that encourages young people to grow up and live out their lives as filmmakers. Most of us grow up to become teachers, bankers, small business owners and sometimes even journalists. You don't ever hear about kids from St. Louis going off and becoming successful filmmakers. For a long time, I was so unsure that it was even possible. George Hickenlooper was living proof that, with just the right amount of filmmaking brilliance, it can happen.