Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business. The combination of Sundance and the SAG Awards pushed the column until today.
BART: While you’re at Sundance looking for the next big winner, Mike, I find myself staring at the pathetic films that opened at the multiplexes – I’ll call it the “how did this happen?” club. Translation: If you don’t know what to do with it, dump it in January. Prime example: Mortdecai, starring Johnny Depp. Its ad banner says, “Sophistication has a name.” Really? Or we have a Jennifer Lopez comedy titled The Boy Next Door, which the Los Angeles Times calls “breathless, uninspired January junk” (critics even review the release date). In reviewing The Duke of Burgundy, A.O. Scott says filmgoers may need “an appreciation for the morphology of winged insects” to appreciate it. OK, count me in. The ad banners for January movies all reflect a certain desperation. The banner for Strange Magic says, “from the mind of George Lucas.” Does that mean he wrote or directed it? (He didn’t).
FLEMING: I wish Sundance was for me an exercise in finding new voices. I sit in a hotel waiting for deals to happen, and that involves trying to stay up all night. Enjoying the fest costs scoops. In a Sunday interview with Harvey Weinstein, we stopped so I could pull out my computer and break a deal story; a lunch was cut short so I could sprint up Main Street to file another deal. Before I fled last night to beat the New York blizzard, I rarely left the hotel room. I only saw the festival opener, The Bronze, a dictionary definition Sundance film. It reveals new talent in Melissa Rauch, unrecognizable from her adorable Bernadette Big Bang Theory character. I watched buyers come in, wanting to fall in love, then shift in their seats as they play the creative choices in their mind, cringing at some. Here, Rauch’s shrillness tests audiences, and her dialogue makes you wonder if she kisses her mother with that mouth, which is probably a plus. She also co-scripted with her husband some genuinely funny Bad Santa-like moments, the best of which is the much discussed one night stand between two gymnasts that is everything you imagine the coupling of two extremely limber athletes might bring. There are floor, rings, and pommel horse moves aplenty, and yes, they nail the dismount. But if Rauch had done everything to cater to the mainstream, Sundance would have rejected a film Relativity bought it for $3 million. But you were waxing on about January and films I don’t care about…
BART: I feel empathy for the stars and filmmakers who are assigned to the January dumping ground. I’m told Al Pacino is great in The Humbling, directed by Barry Levinson (“a free-wheeling satire of male insecurity in a postfeminist climate,” per NYT). Jude Law worked hard in Black Sea (lots of underwater stuff). David Koepp has written some terrific screenplays and deserves better than to be stuck directing Johnny Depp in a vanity project. Xavier Dolan is a mid-20s bright young Canadian filmmaker who got a standing ovation in Cannes for his film Mommy. That film happens to be unwatchable (“why does this movie have to be so noisy?, asks reviewer A.O. Scott). Or so clumsy, I would add. Why so many bad movies in this corridor? Playoff football preoccupation? Did audiences swear off movies after watching the first batch of awards shows? Or are distributors too committed to mandates of the past – tent poles in summer, awards contenders in December, dumpster candidates in January?
FLEMING: I imagine The Seventh Son and Jupiter Ascending might have to work hard to escape your January junk thesis. But it’s hard to feel cynical at Sundance, Peter. They come in droves to brave this awful cold thin air and traffic, to witness the birth of new important film voices. A bunch of these directors just signed with the major agencies and some already got followup jobs. I wish I had more time to share in these discoveries; when you watch a new artist emerge, there are few more rewarding feelings possible in a movie theater.
I do have a nice story one such discovery from Sundance two years ago. Even though I didn’t see it until Cannes, I have never been as moved by a Sundance winning film more than Fruitvale Station, which gutted me both times I watched it. I was so moved that I feel protective of writer/director Ryan Coogler and its star, Michael B. Jordan, and feel the need to head off the inevitable cynics who’ll question why they followed an indie triumph with what seems like the 38th installment of Rocky. Production begins this week on Creed. Coogler directs MBJ in the title role of the son of Apollo Creed (you remember Carl Weathers), whose wealthy family doesn’t want him getting in the ring, because he doesn’t have to. He asks Rocky Balboa to train him. Here’s why it’s consistent with Sundance: it’s all about personal passion. As Coogler grew up, his father wanted him to believe in heroes and dreams. So he showed Ryan those first few Rocky movies so often that the son learned every nuance and damn near every line of dialogue. Ryan got a football scholarship which led to film, and then he wrote and directed Fruitvale Station and won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. His father struggled with ALS, and Ryan put all this personal experience into a script he wrote with Aaron Covington.
It’s his dream project and required him to charm Sly Stallone into dropping his guard on his signature movie character, to allow the indestructible Rocky to weather a life threatening health crisis. I hear that for a long time, Stallone rejected the idea despite being implored by his reps. Finally, Sly’s wife Jennifer convinced him he would be crazy to shun a filmmaker exhibiting the kind of fire a young palooka showed back in the 70s, when Stallone wouldn’t sell his Rocky script unless he was the star. The cynics can marginalize Coogler and Jordon for using their Sundance capital to sell out, but they would be dead wrong. My fight prediction: this will be the best Rocky film, or at least the best since that 1977 Best Picture winner that also was heart and passion and desperation. Got anymore cynicism for me, PB?
BART: I hope you enjoyed Sundance before you fled, Mike. The air is cold but I’m glad you are breathing in the optimism. Everyone there envisions a great campaign, big promotional build and a hot release date. Hopefully their movies get bought—and don’t open in January. Next topic. Rupert Murdoch’s tweet supporting American Sniper is valid, in my opinion, but his repeated denunciations of ‘Hollywood leftists’ are sending chills through his subordinates at Fox. According to sources I trust, Rupert has never sought to implant his political bias on his film or TV companies as he has on his newspapers. Rupert watchers, however, say the 82 year old mogul’s politics are becoming increasingly shrill lately. To an increasing degree, they note, the stories and headlines in the Wall Street Journal are blatantly slanted to the Republican cause – the right wing of the cause. The New York Post, of course, has always shouted this bias. The big question: As Rupert moves further to the right, will his condemnation of so-called ‘Hollywood leftists’ be reflected in Fox films and TV shows? Fox’s top executives by and large are of the liberal persuasion. An infusion of Rupert-style polemics could cause unrest among executives as well as artists.
FLEMING: Okay, you’ve hit a nerve on American Sniper. I strenuously object to the notion that this movie belongs to Conservatives and that Liberals can’t love a movie which this week will surpass the $215 million domestic gross turned in by Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, considered the high bar for American war films. It so bothers me that privileged blowhards Michael Moore and Bill Maher take potshots at what is a most touching tribute to American troops and the incredible sacrifice they make. I looked it up. Navy SEALs like Chris Kyle earn not much more than $54,000 per year. They routinely see horrors that Moore, Maher–and myself and most everyone I know—hopefully will never see. So Moore calls snipers cowards, then backpedaled; Maher calls Kyle “a psychopath.” They allow Right Wing loons like Sarah Palin to seize the high ground. How many 60 Minutes segments do we have to watch to see the devastating physical and PTSD price paid by these soldiers? The beauty of this movie—I’ve watched it three times—is how spare and unpolitical Clint Eastwood is, conveying sacrifice. The marketing campaign shows a strong man falling apart. What part of this constitutes a pro-war propaganda film?
I hate to say something this extreme, but I wonder if Moore and Maher would have been among those who spat on American soldiers when they returned from Vietnam combat. This movie is being seen and appreciated by so many Americans and all it makes you want to do if you see a soldier in his fatigues is to shake his hand, thank him for his service, and pay for his lunch. As they say, hate the game, don’t hate the player. Just because Maher seems to think Kyle was some thrill seeker on a fun hunting trip, he doesn’t speak for any Liberal I know. Maher should remember that he doesn’t risk anything when spouting these obnoxious opinions to get attention. He does threaten to give all of us card carrying Liberals a bad name. This haunting movie has redefined the concept of a major studio film in so many laudable ways, the antidote to January junk.