Thursday, March 08, 2007

Opening this weekend

Three new movies open this weekend: only one in wide release, the eagerly anticipated Frank Miller adaptation "300," and two in limited release that only a few of you will be able to catch in select cities before they expand in the weeks ahead.

These would be Mira Nair's Indian family drama based on the best-selling novel, "The Namesake," starring Kal Penn, and the Japanese monster movie "The Host."

Both "Host" and "Namesake" caught me by surprise with how much I liked them, and both offer something new for those who think they've seen everything in their respective genres.

"300"... well, frankly, I didn't like it at all. It left me numb and bored; for most of its running time, I sat slumped in my seat waiting for it to be over. But plenty of peeps seem to love it-- it's the movie event of the year for frat boys.

Anyway, I have my reviews for "The Host" and "The Namesake" written up but I'm on my way out, so I won't be able to post them til tomorrow afternoon. I'm going to check out "300" one more time either tonight or tomorrow morning before I can write a definitive review, but rest assured, it will not be positive.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: "Black Snake Moan" writer/director Craig Brewer

I had an opportunity to speak to Craig Brewer on the phone about two weeks ago and was amazed at how personable and cool, and more importantly, grounded the guy was. I'm a big fan of his latest film "Black Snake Moan," opening tomorrow, and an even bigger fan of his last film, "Hustle & Flow." Above all else, the impression Brewer gives off is that he's passionate about his work, and for the moment, he's being allowed to do exactly the sort of movies he wants to do. "Moan" is more alive and original than most movies we're afforded these days, so if you want to ensure more movies like it get made, give it your hard-earned cash this weekend. Anyway, here's the interview:

Rob Scheer (Me): Now, you premiered the film at Butt-Numb-a-thon?
Craig Brewer: That's true, and I'm proud to say that I did.
RS: Why did you think that would be the best forum to show it for the first time?
CB: Well, I mean, they're people who love movies. There's a lot of cynicism in cinema I think, and I think that we forgot there's a whole group of people that [are like] 'we love movies, we're not out to just get people, we want movies to work' and moreso with that particular crew, it was the first time I really felt like 'Black Snake Moan' was shown in front of the true audience for it; the people that like the music of the Black Keys and also like the music of people like Arnold Burnside.
It was just the most incredible screening I went to. I mean, the Sundance screening was great; I mean, 1,200 people leaped out of their chairs for a standing ovation. But the Butt-Numb-a-thon, I mean, they were applauding after each music number, they were laughing, crying, there were women crying during the movie because they were so in love with it, women coming up to me saying they're going to get a 'Black Snake Moan' tattoo, and let me tell you man, that's a filmmakers's fantasy. Oscar, shmoscar, man, if a hot girl wants a tattoo of a movie on her body for the rest of her life, I'm telling you...
RS: I can imagine. It's interesting that you say the film's been particularly embraced by women, because I was wondering if you've gotten any flak from any women's groups prior to the film's release...
CB: No, no, none at all actually. The only flak I'm getting is from Aryan bloggers who are saying that are calling for my head because I actually the audacity to have Sam Jackson chaining up a white Christina Ricci, and they're saying it should be the other way around. No one should give those guys any print, I shouldn't even be saying it. But no, there's been no protests or anything from women's groups, because I think it's clear that, if anything, I'm trying show that we're in a culture right now where we're kind of crazy for girls going wild.
We're really into reality shows where if people aren't arguing and fighting with each other, they're getting drunk and getting naked and making out in hot tubs. I wanted to have a movie that had someone like Sam Jackson's character, saying, hey, we've got to calm this mess down. These are people, and you're a human being, and you're entitled to happiness and you're entitled to have love in your life. I know some terrible things happened to you but you've got to get past that and you've got to get on with your life.
RS: I know a lot of filmmakers tend to make a big, ambitious, out-there project for their first film to get attention right out of the gate, and then follow it up with a more mainstream, accessible film. You sort of went the opposite route-- was that always the plan?
CB: It wasn't really planned, I mean, in terms of not doing a big, blockbuster movie, but I'm really on a mission to do these movies that I've been hearing in my head for a while, because they're different music genres of my state. I was feeling like I was experience something with the Memphis rap singing that I was not seeing in movies. Something that is part of our Memphis history, which is people coming together across racial lines and economic lines and they forget about it all, because the music's so damn good, so damn loud. And to me, that's what the spirit of 'Hustle & Flow' was: it didn't matter who you were, if you've got a song in you, you're an artist while the tape is rolling. You may be a pimp, you may be a whore, you may be a thieve or a crook or something like that, but right now, you're an artist
And with 'Black Snake Moan,' I was having a crazy time trying to get 'Hustle & Flow' going, and I didn't have any money, I was really struggling. I just had a baby, I didn't have any healthy insurance or anything like that. Everybody knew that John Singleton was trying to get my movie made, so everybody in Memphis thought I was high on the hog when I was poorer than dirt. I was really experiencing a lot of anxiety and then it really took hold of me, and I started having attacks. That's what really got the idea going for 'Black Snake Moan' because I wanted to make a blues movie, and blues in its essence is artists talking about things they're not supposed to be talking about.
The black men of the delta weren't supposed to be singing out loud about levees breaking or women hooking up with other men in the forest or things like that, so they began to sing about it, and they began to be really loud with it. By doing that, it's almost like they got control over it instead of it controlling them. That's what I feel like Samuel L. Jackson's character is doing for Christina Ricci's character in the movie. He's saying, this stuff is not going away, you've got to grab hold of it and accept it, and you've got to ride it out.

RS: Lazarus and Rae, and DJay for that matter, all sort-of find some sort of redemption and/or love at the end of your films; do you tend to have more of a positive outlook on the human condition, or..

CB: I do, and I think a lot of people from Memphis felt that way. I'm a big fan of a Sam Phillips, who is a man at Sun Studio who started recording B.B. King and Rufus Thomas and Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley. He believed in loving people, and loving them in spite of their flaws, loving them in spite of their social standing; you know, these people were not educated, they didn't have a lot of money, Jerry Lee Lewis wasn't even the best piano player in the world but he played it with an energy-- he played it in a way that could only be Jerry Lee Lewis.
I personally, for a long time in my life, was really cynical and judgmental of not only people, but of movies. I think it's easy for a young filmmaker to go 'hey man, that stuff sucked, I can't get into that,' but then as you start making movies on your own, you realize that it's very difficult, it's very hard, and that moment that I started to let loose a little bit, saying 'I've got to start concentrating on the good.' As a father, as a husband, I'm learning that's the way to get through these tragic, difficult times we're living in right now.

RS: Alexander Payne, up until 'Sideways,' swore he would set all his movies in Omaha. Do you envision leaving Memphis in your films at any point?
CB: Well, like, my next movie 'Maggie Lynn,' which is a country music movie, that's going to be taking place in East Tennessee in Nashville, so it's not specific to Memphis, but I love my state and I love my region, and that includes Mississippee and Arkansas and Alabama. I feel that there's so much in the South that hasn't been represented, and hasn't been explored in a long time. I think when people outside of the south do it, they tend to lampoon it a little bit, and my theory on that is, it's our dog and we get to kick it. So I can put cliches in movies, I can lampoon myself and lampoon our culture, but it's my culture so I can do that.

RS: Do you tend to let the type of music you want to fuel your film dictate the story, or vice versa?
CB: I do. Really, 'Black Snake Moan' was kind of an investigative story with me; I was home one night, just grooving to some blues music and lighting some candles, I can even tell you the name of the blues musician I was listening to, it was Skip James. I was listening to his music, it was just this haunting music, and I saw saw in my head this radiator in my granddad's house, and I saw this chain around it and just yanking against this radiator, with rust and dust particles just flying off it, and there was somebody yelling 'Just let me go!' and they were just yanking on this chain and the radiator wouldn't move. I was like, 'man, what the hell is that?' I just started grooving on that, and I saw Rae, I saw this girl in white cotton panties and a torn-up halter top with a chain and a padlock around her stomach like this wild animal. I just said I've got to follow this story in my head; I don't know where it's going to go but I've got to get it down now before it's gone.
RS: I was wondering how the film festival circuit, or specifically Sundance I guess, changed for you from 'Hustle & Flow' to 'Black Snake Moan'?
CB: Well, with 'Hustle & Flow,' Sundance changed my life. When the Audience Award is granted to you, it means the audience is saying, we appreciate you, we think you're a new voice and keep making movies. I know this may sound silly and simplistic, but I really feel a debt to try to keep making movies that I want to make, they afforded me that privilige to do that. Am I better off now? Most definitely. I didn't have health insurance, I could barely take care of my family, and now I have a career making movies. And moreso, I get to be me. I'm offered things that are kind of really big pictures, and I want to make a big picture one day, but I get to stay true to me right now. And even better, Paramount wants me to be me, and they want me to make bold movies, and what I'm hoping is that audiences come to know who I am so when I make another movie, they come out and support me. And I could live a long time on that kind of support.
RS: Do you think you'd be open to directing someone else's screenplay at some point?
CB: I think so. Like I really want to do the Charlie Pride story with Terrence Howard, and we're looking for a writer to write that story. But these music movies that I'm doing, they're ones that I need to go through that journey. I'm gonna write the story, I'll be directing it; the one's I write are special, they really are.
RS: On the other end of that, would you let someone else direct your screenplay?
CB: Yeah, yeah, to be honest with you, a dream of mine is to write something that Singleton will direct, and he's basically waiting for me to write something for him to direct. We're real close, he's the big brother I've never had. And since my dad died, he's really been the mentor. And something I've really got to give up to John, you know Hollywood and entertainment is really all about the money. It's a place where the shark eat their young. So, to have a mentor as successful as John, that's going to support me, and supported me when I was nobody, we need more of that in entertainment. It's hard, you've got to grow, people can't learn until they're in it, and once you're in it, you only get one chance in Hollywood, and if you don't pull in the numbers, than they kick you out.
RS: Were there any films or filmmakers that inspired you for 'Black Snake Moan'?

CB: There's a few films, and moreso books-- I'm really into Slattery O'Connor, and into the plays of Beth Henley and Tennessee Williams, and on that note, I'm obviously a big fan of movies like "A Streetcar Named Desire." There's another movie that's more obscure called "Baby Doll" that Kazan directed, that Tennessee Williams wrote, with Carole Baker and it's just filled with sex and taboo sexual imagery, and it was banned by the Catholic church. They basically said if you went and saw the movie, you were going to hell. I don't know how they got away with that movie back in the day, but you look at 'Black Snake Moan' and it's not that outlandish.
RS: Some people, purely based on the poster, or a quick glimpse at the trailer, or even the title, have the perception that 'Black Snake Moan' is a sort of exploitation movie.
CB: Right.
RS: Did you intentionally take it from that level, like adhering to those archetypes and then humanizing them?
CB: Yeah, well it's very important to put those exploitation elements into it, because men were/are obsessed with those exploitation elements and culture. But even moreso, the South. The whole drive-in circuit existed because there was a south. The chrome mudflap honeys on the back of trucks. I wanted to have that so I could have an audience be culpable in the guilt of objectifying this girl.
It's very important that audiences feel this tension that any minute something bad is going to happen, because there's this older black man and this younger white girl and she's in heat effectually. It's fun to watch an audience, because they're both tense and turned on at the same time, and that usually spells for a memorable movie. That's a movie that won't leave peoples minds.

RS: So I take it then that you did have a lot of involvement in the marketing materials?
CB: Oh yeah, very much so. I'm really glad Paramount is marketing it this way, because look, I don't want a 'Regarding Henry' type of poster with Sam Jackson's face half in shadow, gazing upon the full body of Christina holding a tree wearing a sun dress. To me, that's just not what 'Black Snake Moan' is. It's gotta have a little bit more of kick to it.
I wanted to give people permission that they could have fun with the movie, and I think that Butt-Numb-a-thon audience-- they were hooting. They were hollaring, they had a great time with it, and they didn't know what the movie was about when they saw it, they didn't even know that they were going to see 'Black Snake Moan.' Lights went out, lights came up and they experienced my movie. I wanted to give people the context in the poster and the marketing like 'don't come at this so serious,' 'don't be so afraid.'

RS: I know I'm stretching my time here, do you mind if I get in one more question?
CB: We're just driving to the hotel, you can just keep talking till we get there. Fire away.
RS: Okay, sure. With 'Hustle & Flow' and 'Black Snake,' did you ever find that either film appeals to one demographic more than the other?
CB: Well that's what's really fun about 'Hustle & Flow' now, is that it's been out on DVD and it's one of the highest rented movies on Netflix, and I think what it is, and I'm kind of guilty of this myself just as a husband, and that is, if there's a movie where there's going to be a lot of young kids hootin and hollarin, you may not want to go see that on opening weekend-- that's when you go, okay I think I'm going to rent that.
I love it when the older white people come up to me and say 'Oh my god, I loved Hustle & Flow, I thought I would hate that movie because I hate rap.' And I'm like, you really do hate rap, or you've never really given it a shot? Like, I don't think that music has ever been specific to a culture, it may be molded by a specific culture, but it's for everybody.

It's very interesting, a little bit of trivia, but the song 'Black Snake Moan' has musical significance. It's a song written by a blind bluesman, but one of the lines in the song is 'Oh, that's alright mama, that's alright with you, that's alright with you,' and that was later turned into 'That's Alright Mama' by Elvis Presley. And at the time, people didn't know what to make of Elvis. He just made these songs that were referred to as 'race records,' and he's white so we can't play him during on the race stations and we can't play him on the country stations.
And I think the same thing happened with 'Hustle & Flow.' It doesn't exclude people, I think it just brings people together.
RS: I think you're completely right, I remember dragging my parents to see 'Hustle & Flow,' and they both were completely taken aback how much they liked it.

CB: Let me tell you man, old people that are seeing 'Black Snake Moan' looove it. They love it more than 'Hustle & Flow.'

RS: Really?!

CB: Oh yeah. Well, look man, it's about an older generation looking at a younger generation saying 'hey, you've got to calm down and get right.' And it's not coming from a place of righteousness, it's coming from a place of experience. Your parents may be pretty conservative or whatnot, but they've had some hellion days I'm sure. Everybody was young once, and I think that's what Sam Jackson's character is doing with Christina Ricci's character. He's loving her unconditionally, he's helping her, but he's also saying 'Hey, I've been like you. I've been crazy in my days. But you've gotten a little out of control, and you're ailing and hurting, and you need to take care of yourself and let me help you.'
RS: Are there any actors you'd really love to work with, or do you just let that manifest itself organically as you're writing the script?
CB: I never have an actor in mind when I'm writing something, but I definitely have actors I want to work with. One actor that I really want to work with again is Justin [Timberlake]. He's made three movies, and I've made three movies, and I feel like we're both Memphis boys and we're learning, we want to keep challenging ourselves. I'd like to work with him, I'm writing something for Sam right now, so it's all good.

RS: Did you receive any sort of flak or criticism for that, for casting Timberlake in your film?

CB: It's funny, because the time when I cast him, he wasn't as big as he is now. I mean, of course I caught shit for it because of people like 'Justin Timberlake? A pop star? What're you doing?' And now, people are just like 'it's a good thing you got Justin when you did,' and I'm like 'I got Justin because I believed in him, I talked to him and I thought this is a guy than can grow, and I want to grow with him.'

[I'm now informed they've arrived at the hotel and I have one more question]

RS: Would you mind telling me a little about how the leads became attached?

CB: Well, Sam read the script because John Singleton gave it to him, and he was calling every day. He just really wanted to do that movie, I mean he just felt it in his gut. He's a Tennessee guy, so I think he had a connection.
Christina auditioned for the role, she fought for it. She did such an amazing job, I just couldn't see anybody else playing it.

There you have it. 'Black Snake Moan' opens everywhere Friday, March 2nd.

"Wild Hogs" -- *

Hey there! You like John Travolta, right? Hm, you don't? How bout Tim Allen... not him either? Maybe Martin Lawrence... what's that? You think he's terrible too? Well what about all three of them in the same movie? I thought so! I smell a blockbuster...
This apparently was the thought process behind the horrific "Wild Hogs," which follows the "Benchwarmers" principle of combining three horrible movie stars for maximum possible box office. Tossed into the mix is the only non-star William H. Macy, the only one with any talent remaining and shockingly, the only one of the four who hasn't completely let himself go (as showcased in a skinny-dipping scene midway through).

For those who don't know the intricate details of the plot, let me sum it up: four middle-aged guys go on a motorcycle road trip to feel young again. Along the way, they fight with the Hell's-Angel's-inspired Del Fuegos (led by a really embarrassed looking Ray Liotta), get harassed by a creepy gay cop (ewwww..... gays? Gross!), and get pummelled by a bull. Essentially, it's "City Slickers" for retards.

What's astonishing is, it takes less than a minute for the movie to establish itself as a piece of shit. Yep, it's good old-fashioned lowest-common-denominator humor, which was completely ate up by the audience around me, buit was nearly torturous for yours truly. While the average lame comedy usually just leaves me stone-faced, I grimaced my way through most of 'Wild Hogs.'
Literally every joke is recycled, and the poorly-paced movie just lumbers along from one humorless set-piece to another before finally deciding in its third act that it wants to have a plot: the four guys get in a big fight witht he Del Fuegos, and guess who wins?

However, despite being wall-to-wall generic, "Wild Hogs" does distinguish itself as the most homophobic movie in a very, very long time. Nearly half of the movie's humor is attributed to: (a) Macy's sensitive nature making him seem gay, (b) previously mentioned gay cop (John C. McGinley) lustfully coming on to our leads (they wish!), and (c) one of the Del Fuegos accidentally saying "gay" things, which fellow gang member Liotta deems worthy of beatings. I swear, this thing is practically tailor-made for middle America.
Travolta, Lawrence and Allen are slumming here (yes, it's worse than the movies they usually make!), but Macy especially should be ashamed of himself. I can only hope he got a big nut of a paycheck which will ensure he won't have to do garbage like this for a little while.

Given how much "Wild Hogs" completely panders to the middle-aged, middle staters and middlebrow, and how horrible and borderline-evil it is, I can only imagine it's going to be a massive box office hit. Please, pleeease, PLEEEASE give your money to "Zodiac" or "Black Snake Moan" this weekend and do your part to work against the enabling of "Wild Hogs 2."