Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: I found it interesting that audiences turned up their noses at A Walk Among The Tombstones, a thriller that had what should have been all you need for a hit — Liam Neeson on a one-sheet, holding a gun. The filmmaker Scott Frank made a throwback to the ’70s films he grew up loving. The title didn’t help: didn’t it evoke memories of being dragged to the cemetery to pay posthumous respects to Grandpa? In my view, it got maligned unfairly by critic squeamishness over grisly scenes that weren’t there. Kenny Turan called it Eli Roth torture porn, though Roth told me last week the critic told him he’d never actually watched a Roth film. I’ve seen more blood on TV shows. There is a proud tradition of serial killer thrillers, from Kiss The Girls to Se7en, Zodiac, Silence of the Lambs, even HBO’s True Detective. None of those were ’70s films, but my question: what exactly is the definition of a ’70s film and what made them different from say, the ’80s? And is it just not a good idea to go retro in today’s prudish climate?
BART: Scott Frank’s reverence for ‘70s films and disdain for the current tentpole mania is praiseworthy, but his new film A Walk Among the Tombstones is a throwback to the alienating gloom-and-doom violence of that period’s movies. Ken Turan may have overstated it by calling the film “a descent into the pornography of violence,” but I get the point. The filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s were inspired by (and oppressed by) the onslaught of Vietnam, the plague of assassinations, the violent confrontations of black power. Still, many of the memorable films of that era embodied dark humor, not mere violence. I am thinking of Dr. Strangelove, Nashville, Being There, The President’s Analyst (director Ted Flicker died last week), Harold and Maude and one film that has lately been rediscovered, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Even the thrillers of that period were cast with a certain irony – Noel Coward, the droll playwright, was the ‘heavy’ in the original Italian Job. Anyway, I appreciate Scott Frank’s sentiments but I wish I could lighten up his sensibilities.
FLEMING: Jesus-Whispering couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have parlayed their Bible mini and the re-purposed Jesus Christ feature Son Of God into a resurrection of United Artists. Quality-wise, those pics paled compared to The Passion Of The Christ. Mel Gibson earned the highest grosses of any indie film in history, after surviving turn downs by every studio. He bankrolled what became the biggest indie success ever, and the perceived anti-Semitism evident in the New Testament, and subsequent drunken comments left him a pariah. Now, Relativity is also launching a faith-based division and there are rumors some others might follow. All of this is Hollywood drilling new wells, trying to tap into faith-hungry audiences who are responding to pics like Heaven Is For Real. I think Hollywood will find this is tricky business if they hire filmmakers with conviction. Look at all the struggles on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, when he veered from Old Testament scripture.
BART: I am not a Bill Maher-style anti-religion crusader, but I found myself groaning last week when I learned that celebrated old logo would be re-born as a faith-based TV and film machine. Burnett and Downey will preside over UA in addition to producing every reality show on TV. They are honorable and gracious people, but can’t they promulgate their evangelical beliefs in church rather than confiscate our entertainment media? To force-feed Son of God earlier this year, Burnett arranged for mega churches to buy out multiplexes in many towns. That is force-feeding evangelical religion to thousands of young people.
FLEMING: I am so intrigued to see what Ridley Scott did with the upcoming Exodus, with Christian Bale playing Moses. Cecil B. De Mille’s 1956 Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston remains about the biggest movie ever, adjusted for inflation, and it’s the reason Scott and Fox raced to hard to beat the rival Moses pic Steven Spielberg tried to mount at Warner Bros. Exodus ought to be huge; unlike the polarizing pics about Christ or Noah, this tale is inclusive to a wide range of religions. Still, Ridley has been through his own crisis of faith with the shocking loss of his brother Tony, and I hope he poured his sensibilities into this and rejected the understandable temptation to pander for a billion-dollar gross.
An aside: I have never been as profoundly moved by or indebted to a film as The Passion of the Christ. I was a lapsed Catholic when I went into Gibson’s Icon headquarters to see that movie. After watching one man’s extreme suffering for the world’s sins, I couldn’t speak for an hour. When I could, I felt changed, reminded of what was pure about the religion I’d put on a shelf. I called my parents and asked them to come to church with me. I got home and, more Sundays than not, we attended 8 o’clock mass at St. Patrick’s, an architectural marvel of a church that made no impact on me when I was a Bay Shore kid. Church centered and uplifted me at a time I needed both. We always followed with breakfast at the diner and so I had years of extra time with my father before he was abruptly taken from us during Hurricane Sandy. How can I ever repay what I got out of that movie? Maybe I’m emotionally vulnerable today because it’s Jeter’s last game, but I guess this is part of the reason I keep putting it out there that a man capable of making a film that powerful shouldn’t be stifled for saying (and apologizing for) some awful things. My fear with the burgeoning faith films genre is that the menu will be filled with gentle fare like Heaven Is For Real rather than gut wrenchers like Passion because the former is inclusive, inoffensive, and to me, uninteresting. Okay, I’m out of the confessional.
BART: Here’s the irony of the UA buyout: When Tom Cruise confiscated the UA label a decade ago, some assumed that the doctrines of Scientology would infiltrate his films. That didn’t happen (most of his releases failed for other reasons). In any event, UA never recaptured the energy of the Arthur Krim-David Picker era — films like Tom Jones or A Hard Day’s Night or Midnight Cowboy. My message to Mark and Roma: You guys admire the principals of survival. So let our nation survive as a secular republic, and let our multiplexes survive as movie palaces, not faux churches. I feel a bit sentimental about UA because I was actually charged with running it for a couple of years in the early ‘80s. I was senior vp at MGM at the time and my principal responsibility insofar as UA was concerned was to avoid making any movies. That’s how low this great brand had fallen. MGM was making movies, but not UA. The lone ‘go’ movie was to be the next James Bond picture, which I was technically to ‘green light.’ I say “technically” because the Broccolis could basically make any Bond movie they wanted. My one chance to block it was at the treatment stage.
So I faithfully read the treatment and hated it, starting with the title. Was Octopussy truly an appropriate title for this great franchise? The plot seemed as fake as the fake Faberge egg at its center. And it starred Roger Moore, a fine actor who here seemed more like a maitre d’ than a Bond hero. My objections were quickly smothered by the Broccolis, who do not like to discuss issues involving their films, down to titles. Octopussy was the 13th Bond movie and, true to the jinx, was not a hit. So there it was: Arthur Krim got to make Tom Jones during his reign and the Bart reign ended in Octopussy.
FLEMING: You just put goat horns on yourself, a nice segue to my final rant. Last Monday’s New York Times piece about the Warner exec triumvirate that succeeded Jeff Robinov made me lament the press’s desire to hang horns or a crown on a single person when movies hit or they miss. I’m okay that Robinov’s run has been romanticized because he had stones. But Greg Silverman was the guy behind that guy, Sue Kroll marketed the hits and Toby Emmerich brought his share from New Line. Robinov agented the Wachowski siblings and made Speed Racer as well as The Matrix with them, so does his halo fall because Jupiter Ascending was moved off the 2014 calendar? We all fall prey to the blame and praise game, but it seems to this outsider like hits are cyclical and unpredictable, and success in a collaborative pursuit isn’t a solitary thing. Though if there was one exec I’d put on a pedestal right now, it might be Marvel’s Kevin Feige.
BART: I agree with your point and would add that Alan Horn had a lot to do with the Harry Potter films that fueled Robinov’s tenure. When you examine the histories of big hits (or disasters) so much is the result of inadvertencies or coincidence. Francis Coppola’s involvement in The Godfather stemmed in part from a soft-core porn film he directed as a film student at UCLA. I got to know Coppola at the time because I did a small piece in The New York Times describing how porn helped finance the educations of many promising film students. Coppola didn’t especially appreciate the piece, but we kept in touch over the years as his career kept expanding (there were hits and misses along the way). And I remembered his stories of his own Italian family, its successes and conflicts.
Cut to The Godfather: at Paramount, Bob Evans and I needed a writer and director for this still unpublished novel (we’d optioned a 60-page unfinished version) and I brought up Coppola. I kept bringing him up again and again at various company discussions (the book had by now become a best seller). I also worked hard to “sell” him on the idea of making a crime movie (he’d just finished Finian’s Rainbow). Coppola finally agreed. The casting and production of the film was turbulent, and its intrigues are well known. Once, amid the sturm und drang, Coppola kidded me about the fact that it all stemmed from his very brief involvement in soft-core porn and my dubious decision to write about it.
FLEMING: That and its sequel are my two favorite American films, so seamlessly scripted and directed that I am surprised to hear how unscripted was its success story. Makes you appreciate when these mad creative collisions result in genius.