Monthly Archives: February 2017


February 24th, 2017 5 Comments



I recently expressed my outraged astonishment at the great tidal wave of critical praise washing over a modest little mediocrity like La La Land.


Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what in heaven’s name could have inspired such adulation.


One answer that occurred to me is simple.


Look at the competition.


Many are darker than a moonless sky at midnight while La La Land is refreshingly bittersweet.


Many of the others are remarkably inept while Chazelle’s film is smooth and polished.


Take Manchester by the Sea.


(You take it. I, like Bartleby the Scrivener, prefer not to.)


Brilliantly acted, written and directed, graced by an amazing performance by Michelle Williams, it is also painfully slow.


In fact, it’s just downright painful.


Pain, pain and more pain.


Heaped upon a protagonist who will clearly never escape the crippling burden of his past.


I, like one of the few critics with his head screwed on, kept asking myself, “What did I do to deserve this?”


I finished it whistling “Suicide Is Painless” and had to be restrained from rummaging around in the garage for the rat poison I know to be out there somewhere.


Then there’s Moonlight.


Fluid camera work and direction, astonishing acting (take special note of the remarkable Mahershala Ali), and a faint note of hope at the end, but flawed by physical casting in the second of the film’s three parts.


The talented actor who plays the protagonist as a teenager looks less than nothing like “himself” as a boy or as an adult, completely undercutting the important moment late in the film when a friend from his earlier life miraculously achieves the impossible task of recognizing him.


And while I have boundless compassion for those trapped in the sewer of poverty, racism and drugs, I really don’t want to swim there with them.


After the double bill of Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, I pulled myself up out of the slough of despond in which they had abandoned me (and, I suspect, most of the other members of their audiences) by watching That’s Entertainment, Parts One and Two.


It took the likes of Mickey and Judy, Fred and Ginger, Gene, Donald and Debbie (all of whom, unlike Ryan and Emma, could both sing and dance) to remind me that films are, first and foremost, entertainment.


Entertainment that can very occasionally, as it did under the inspired stewardship of Alfred Hitchcock and a handful of others, become art.


So there’s the one explanation for the immense critical popularity of La La Land.


It, unlike so much of the competition, is mildly entertaining and leaves you mildly uplifted rather than desperately wishing you could join Christopher Walken in his game of Russian roulette at the end of The Deer Hunter.


Then, of course, there is rest of the Oscar field.


Let’s see.




How did I loath it?


Let me count the ways.




Void of drama or any kind of characterization.


Full of pretense.


Utterly incomprehensible.




Some good performances in an ineptly filmed version of an overrated play.


Denzel Washington might have picked up a few hints on how to translate a work from theatre to screen by studying Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men or Long Day’s Journey into Night.


But he did not.


Nocturnal Animals


It begins with hideous nude shots of grotesquely fat women who turn out to be part of a performance art show at a gallery owned by Amy Adams. The nauseating show finally ends, and Amy goes home, where she starts to read a novel by her ex-husband, a novel in which the characters behave like teenaged idiots in a brainless horror film.


What possessed this enormously talented actress this year? After a long stream of great performances, she made two really bad choices, condemning herself to endlessly enter and exit, enter and exit, enter and exit an alien ship shaped like a seed pod…and then, in her other film, to be photographed passively reading a novel manuscript.


If you’ve ever wondered why they don’t make movies about writers, it’s because they don’t do anything you can see except scribble and type. It’s even worse with readers—they just sit and turn pages. What in heaven’s name was she thinking?




A tiresomely familiar structure—a reporter interviewing the film’s subject with flashback after flashback after flashback—and a star who underplays her role so determinedly that the only thing you notice is her Elmer Fudd accent.


So…explanation number two is that with the competition so weak, even a mediocre film looks great.




…and this is a very big but…




Why is La La Land getting so much attention while these remarkable movies are getting so little?


Florence Foster Jenkins


A masterpiece of a comedy starring one of the greatest of all film actresses, it had me laughing until I cried.


Do you know the story of writer/director George Seaton visiting his old friend actor Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed?


Seaton, who had directed Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, asked him how he was doing, and Gwenn replied, “Dying is hard, George.” And then, after a perfectly timed pause, “But not as hard as comedy.”


Gwenn was right, but the Academy is traditionally loath to acknowledge that indisputable fact, and it’s unlikely to make an exception in the case of this remarkable comedy.


Hacksaw Ridge


One of the most realistic portraits of war ever put on film, possibly even surpassing the D-Day invasion at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.


A masterwork from a master filmmaker built around extraordinary performances, not just from star Andrew Garfield (he was Spiderman, for God’s sake—who knew he could act?) and supporting actor Vince Vaughn (he’s a comic, a wedding crasher, right?) but from every member of the cast.


But Mel Gibson is still paying for that drunken meltdown years ago. Odds are the Academy isn’t ready to forgive him just yet.


Hidden Figures


A truly great film about three truly great black women.


Neither the movie nor its stars nor the women they portray have yet received their due.


My recommendation?


See it.


Tell your friends.


Then see it again.




…and keep your eyes open, once again, for Mahershala Ali and for a Kevin Costner you’ve never seen before.


Finally, there’s…


Hell or High Water


A brilliant portrait of life in today’s West Texas, one that helps the viewer understand the Trump phenomenon, but more important, it’s yet another moral drama from screenwriter Sheridan Taylor, scribe of the dazzlingly brilliant but ineptly titled Sicario.


Like the earlier film, Hell or High Water explores the question of what happens when an individual, driven by the best, most understandable of motives, crosses the line and finds himself engaged in dubious battle.


And it gives us yet another great performance from Jeff Bridges. I remember director Lamont Johnson telling me that when Bridges finished the photo booth scene in The Last American Hero, the entire crew burst into spontaneous applause. I did the same thing at the end of this remarkable film. He is nothing short of a wonder.


And I could say the same for the actress who plays the coffee shop waitress, the one who asks Bridges and his companion, “What don’t you want?” She makes this brief encounter a classic on the level of the famous “Hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces.


It’s my personal favorite of the four or five films worth seeing in 2016, but it came out in the spring, and the Academy’s memory is as short-lived as a mayfly.




…when it comes to the Academy Awards, we might as well join hands with the membership and sing “City of Stars” each of the fourteen times the cast and crew of La La Land dance awkwardly to the stage.

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February 21st, 2017 1 Comment




I made a terrible mistake the other night.


I know. I know.


It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?


After all, there’s virtually no precedent, but unlikely as it may seem, it’s true.


My inexcusable blunder?


I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.




The blame rests solely on the shoulders of the critics who have welcomed La La Land as the Second Coming of Cinematic Art, bending their knees in worship of it, shouting hosannas to its beauty and originality.


“Soaring and gorgeous!

                   Vanity Fair

“A gorgeous romantic fever dream of a musical.”


“A film you simply never want to stop watching.”



The chorus is almost deafening, and it has been joined by other voices in other rooms–The Hollywood Foreign Press, The American Film Institute, The Directors Guild, The Producers Guild—virtually every professional organization in Hollywood, including the loudest voice of all…


…The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which bestowed an almost unprecedented fourteen nominations on this blessed production!


Now, as a member of The Writers Guild, I’ve long had a copy of La La Land in my hot little hand.


It arrived, courtesy of UPS, along with a dozen or so others from producers promoting their wares in their selfless quest for glory, box-office dollars, DVD sales and other ancillary income during the fall/winter award season.


I deliberately held off watching it out of my firm conviction that one should always save the best for last—a conviction that probably derives from my long career as a screenwriter: an acolyte of Syd Field, I invariably build to a climax at the end of each act and save the biggest, best bang of all for the end.


During this long period of self-imposed denial, I found myself reading more and more about the film and learned that its writer/director, Damien Chazelle, was a huge fan of Jacques Demy, that his favorite film was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, that Demy’s masterpiece was, in many ways, the direct inspiration for La La Land.




…when I’d worked my way through all of the other Academy qualifiers, when I had left nothing but La La Land unseen, I did what any other red-blooded American film fanatic would do: I decided to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as a prelude to my long-anticipated screening of La La Land.


I would watch the Demy film; I would then watch Chazelle’s homage; I would jump on the bandwagon celebrating La La Land.


(Note my clever reference to the classic MGM musical starring Fred Astaire, no slouch in the singing and dancing department, someone who could, I’m sure, have taught Chazelle and company a few important lessons.)


This strategy of deferred gratification was, as I announced at the beginning of this piece, a terrible mistake.


A catastrophic miscalculation.




Because from the moment it opens, Umbrellas is nothing short of magic!


It begins with a wide shot of the harbor, transforming this working-class military port into an impressionistic painting.


The camera, accompanied by Michel Legrand’s lush romantic score, pulls back to an overhead shot of a cobblestoned street—a checkerboard awash in rain and color as a rainbow of umbrellas begins to move across it in patterns as precise as the words of a crossword puzzle, their holders completely obscured by these dazzling canopies of cloth.




…the first of an endless succession of scenes in which everything—the sets, the props, the costumes—is presented in breathtaking color coordination.


In this case, the set is a common auto mechanics garage, and the dialogue—here and in every other sequence in the film—is sung rather than spoken, sung in spite of the utter commonplace of the sentiments expressed, sung to the accompaniment of that amazing Michel Legrand score.


The mundane is rendered magnificent.


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is as artificial, as stylized as a film can be…and as real, as profound as life itself.


It begins with young love–at first yearning and hopeful, then bittersweet and heartbreaking.


It ends with mature love—an adult acceptance of reality in place of romance, responsibility in place of headlong passion.


And the performances!


Oh, my God!


The performances!


To single out one of many…let’s just say I will love Catherine Deneuve until my dying day.


Her charm.


Her intensity.


Her beauty.




Suffice it to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of the great, innovative masterworks of cinema.


It more than justifies Damien Chazelle’s enthusiasm for it.


And it unfortunately reveals La La Land for what it really is: a nice little imitation of a great original.


A derivative movie with a familiar, stereotypical plot, a mediocre score and a pair of stars who are good enough actors but simply cannot sing and cannot dance.


To paraphrase Fred Astaire…


They can’t dance. Don’t ask them.


More important: Don’t ask the critics anything about the movies.


They see through a glass very darkly and blow a lot of smoke when they should be clearing the air.



























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February 16th, 2017 14 Comments



During the course of the last two years, I’ve been busy—obsessed really—doing what professional writers do best: finding excuses not to write.


I don’t want to boast, but I have to admit that when it comes to this particular skill, I have no equal.


First, there was the clean-up of the sixty trees brought down by a killer snowstorm. I had to cut the crowns from the trunks, drag those tangles of branches hundreds of feet up the slope to the ridge where our house sits, and reduce them to sawdust with an industrial-size chipper that seemed as eager to swallow up me and my companion as it was to devour the broken limbs we were feeding into its voracious maw. Then I had to cut the trunks down to size, haul them up the ridge, feed them through a splitter, and stack them in a woodpile that now rivals the house itself in size.


This months-long chore left me utterly exhausted, much too tired to even think about writing.


Then, of course, there were the mandatory backpacking trips into the Sierras—six or eight of them in the course of the last two summers, two of them over 12,000 foot passes where the trail was little more than a ledge and the eight and nine hundred foot drop-offs struck terror into my timid heart. (I, like Jimmy Stewart, suffer from paralyzing vertigo. Like him, I look up. I look down. I look up. I look down…and nearly pass out from the dizziness and nausea at war with my desire to jump.)


Sit down and write after such experiences?


No way.


I was simply too busy healing my shattered psyche.


Last but far from least, I wrote a novel—Masquerade, the book I had promised you, dear readers at the end of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.


Wait! I hear you say.


That was writing. I thought you said you’d done no writing during the last two years.




It was, and I did.


But here’s the really clever thing: I used the writing of my novel as an excuse not to write my blogs.


Writing as an excuse not to write!


It’s that sort of genius that separates me from my peers.


Peers like Jameson Parker, who brings shame to the ranks of writers everywhere by faithfully doing a weekly blog, by producing an endless stream of magazine articles, and by composing a new novel even as he publishes another (Dancing with the Dead—due in April and not to be missed).


Far be it from me to be critical of a fellow wordsmith, but he seems to have no conception of the fundamental role procrastination plays in the life of the serious writer.


He simply can’t help himself.


I forgive him, however, not simply because he is a writer touched by the gods with talent but also because he is the one who called my attention to the fact that there has been a recent surge of demand for bringing back my blog, informing me that two (count them—two!) of his readers had asked him what had happened to me and whether my weekly column would ever reappear.


It’s hard to argue with numbers like that.


Even so, I decided to do a little research to confirm this great reawakening of interest in my work.


First, I went to the IMDB, where I discovered that my rank on the Star Meter was 494,256! I was beside myself with excitement until I discovered that this was not the number of followers I had. It was, instead, my position on the list of Hollywood types covered by the site’s date base—that there were 494,255 people more popular than I.




A disappointing number on the surface.


But it occurred to me that it might look different if placed in context.


I decided to check the rank of my old friend Steve White, producer of both Death of a Cheerleader and Talk To Me.


These were, of course, his most important credits, though he does have a few other minor show-biz accomplishments: road manager for The Grateful Dead, founding member of The Groundlings, first head of Francis Coppola’s American Zoetrope, head of movies and mini-series at NBC, head of New World Pictures during the era of Heathers and Hell-Raiser, producer of The Devil’s Advocate and a handful of other features along with dozens of television films, and on and on and on.


I thought it would be instructive to compare Steve’s IMDB rating with mine.


Guess what?


Steve was at 624,795…and falling!


A pathetic record compared to mine: 494,256…and rising!


494,256 and rising!


Numbers don’t lie, and these numbers clearly confirmed the popular demand that had surfaced on Jameson’s website.


But before I made a decision, I decided to seek out further evidence of this incredible surge in my numbers.


I launched a Google search for interest in my Death of a Cheerleader (the movie that launched Tori Spelling’s career in television films and spawned such classics as Mother, May I Sleep with Danger? and Coed Call Girl), and the results were astonishing.


1,850,000 hits!


Oh, a few of them were for Nicole Kidman’s To Die For and a handful were for foods to die for, but there it was: page after page of hits, in Chinese and Russian, French and Spanish, and God only knows what other languages. Even a current blog about it. And get this. A song about it!


I was entirely unprepared for what I had found, but when I calmed down and had a chance to think rationally about it, I concluded that the numbers were very likely inspired by my masterful performance as THE JOGGER who opens and closes the film.


And so…


…here I am.


Like Crispy M&M’s…


Like McRibs…


Like the legendary Twinkie…


I’m back!


















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