Sunday, January 29, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 455: Killer In Red

Any liquor or liqueur is an acquired taste. And I've just never acquired a taste for Campari, a red concoction primarily designed as an aperitif, but pretty much combined with anything liquid if you're in Italy.

I don't know what put me off Campari. Maybe it's because it can't decide if it's bitter or sweet. Maybe because the color originally came from crushed insects. Maybe my palate, like my brain, just can't handle things that are too complicated.

And perhaps I'm not alone. Because Campari, more than most manufacturers of imbibable spirits, goes all out when it comes to finding creative new ways to promote itself.

For decades there have been iconic posters and calendars. Their classy magazine ads and sophisticated commercials, populated by A list stars and fashion models, appear with regularity. They even have a youtube channel offering famous bartenders inventing new ways to enjoy their product.

And now they have entered the world of short film with "Killer in Red" starring Clive Owen and directed by Paolo ("The Young Pope") Sorrentino. I'm not sure if it will change anybody's mind about trying Campari. But it will definitely alter how some companies approach advertising.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 454: Election Night

Well -- we're into it now...

And in the very near future, we'll all know whether our fears, hopes and expectations will be what we feared, hoped or expected.

The Chinese have a curse, "May you live in interesting times" and given what America's new president has said, particularly about them, you have to wonder if the times to come will be more interesting to the Chinese, or us, or both.

I lived in LA when Ronald Reagan was elected President and most of the showbiz community I interacted with were as concerned about his elevation to the Oval Office as today's stars and celebrities. But Reagan had been governor of California, as well as a one time movie star, so a chunk of the industry also liked him.

One day, a composer I was working with shrugged off the "sky is falling" predictions of some of the more progressive musicians we were working with, suggesting that in his experience Conservative governments are better for artists. And in the decade that followed, a lot of us worked a lot more than we had.

Will that happen again? Who knows. 

The only thing that's become crystal clear is just how quickly the world can turn on a dime.

I was in New York shortly after the 9/11 attacks and overheard two high school kids discussing what they had planned for the weekend. One of them, finding his buddy's plans fairly lame, responded with "Dude, that's so September 10th". 

Times change. We all have to adjust. Or dig in our heels and refuse to change our compass heading. Something that doesn't usually work out well.

It might be worth looking back at who we were on November 8th and decide how that person survives and prospers over the next four -- or maybe even eight -- years.

So here's filmmaker Ryan Scafuro's both objective and unflinching take on the night.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 453: The Blacklist

I've long believed that nobody calling themselves an artist has any right to tell another artist what they can or cannot do with their talents let alone where or for whom they can perform.

Recently, there's been a building brouhaha designed to convince entertainers of all stripes to either refuse the booking or withdraw from performing at this week's Presidential inauguration in Washington, DC.

Across the media, both traditional and social, pretty much anybody with a recognizable name in film, television or music has urged their peers to teach President-Elect Trump some kind of lesson by not showing up for the gig.

Now, I'm not a Trump fan -- and isn't it interesting that I have to issue that kind of disclaimer -- because otherwise a whole bunch of people would either just stop reading this or get busy calling me a racist, a misogynist and all sorts of other insults of the day. But where do any of you get off dictating the terms of somebody else's employment?

None of those people or what they have to say bothers me much, since most have a tighter grasp on ideology than actual talent. And few if any would ever get an invitation to perform at a Presidential Inauguration, no matter who was taking the oath of office.

Still, they go after everybody from the Radio City Rockettes to marching bands from Alabama, artists they'd probably never personally pay to see -- shaming, promising career disaster and uttering death threats.

Seriously. Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli withdrew this week because he'd been getting death threats. What kind of person sends death threats to a blind man?

Just how deep this hatred goes was illustrated this weekend when Nicole Kidman merely refused to take a shot at Trump and said she was adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Director Josh Whedon immediately issued the following tweet...

Good thing Mr. Whedon has gone out of his way to declare himself an avowed feminist. Otherwise, God knows what kind of venom he might've spewed.

All of this has reminded me of a rainy night in the mid-1990's, when I ducked into a Santa Monica bookstore and stumbled into a reading by one time movie director and the only Canadian member of the Hollywood Ten -- Edward Dmytryk.

At some point in Edward's youth, his family had moved from BC to Los Angeles and he landed a job as a messenger at Paramount Studios. From there he moved to film editing and then directing. Among his first features were the Film Noir classics "Murder, My Sweet" and "Crossfire" for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

He would go on to direct dozens of notable films including, "Back to Bataan", "The Caine Mutiny", "Raintree County", "The Young Lions", "Walk on the Wild Side", "The Carpetbaggers" and "Mirage".

But all that talent and the millions he'd earned for the studios didn't mean much when the House Un-American Activities Committee arrived to uproot Communists in Hollywood and discovered Edward had been a party member for a brief time in 1945. 

Like others of "The Hollywood Ten", Edward refused to testify before the committee and went to jail, his career destroyed. 

Later, HUAAC gave him a chance to redeem himself, so Edward named the guys he was already in the slammer with and they let him go.

While lining up to get my copy of his book autographed, I thumbed the pages, finding a photograph of Edward in Convict Blues leaning against a gas pump where he worked gassing up the the prison vehicles. During his reading, he'd referred to it as "The best job I ever had". 

I asked him to sign that photo instead of the title page. He laughed and we started a conversation that would go on for several weeks. Mostly about screenwriting, editing and directing. But also -- what happens when artists are turned against one another merely to suit someone's political agenda.

You can find Edward Dmytryk's exceptional work almost anywhere. But here's a taste of what Andrea Bocelli won't be doing on Inauguration Day but Country Star Toby Keith will. Part of me hopes Toby sings one of my personal faves. It might be quite fitting.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Lazy Sunday #452: Bill


Most of you know Bill Marshall, who passed away last week in Toronto, as the founder of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the largest public film festival in the world and the most influential festival in getting movies into theatres and in front of audiences around the world. But he was so much more than that.

Bill was one of those people who just made things happen. He got politicians elected, produced films and partied long and hard. The kind of outgoing, tenacious guy who never took "No" or "That's not possible" for an answer. To parrot one of his phrases, he was a guy who just went out  and "got shit done".

I was fortunate enough to have a film in the first festival in 1976, when the event went by its original name, "The Festival of Festivals". 

The film was "The Supreme Kid" by Vancouver filmmaker Peter Bryant and its presentation at the now long gone Toronto Dominion Theatre on a Friday morning might've been the only legitimate screening it got in the country in which it was made.

The Festival then was only a week long affair with nowhere near the publicity it now gets and featuring titles most people had never heard of, so I didn't expect much of a turnout. But the place was full and Bill and his festival founding partner Dusty Cohl were there with the express purpose of showing me off.

They'd promised a star studded week of movies but no big names actually came, so I guess being able to introduce somebody who was a star of a movie at least helped them prove they hadn't been snowing everybody.

And they were gracious hosts, later dragging my wife and I to party with Wilt Chamberlain, the only real celebrity who'd come to town.

At that time, Bill had only produced a low budget movie called "Flick" or "Frankenstein on Campus" depending on what poster or print was handy when somebody wanted to show it.

But a few months later he launched Dick Benner's "Outrageous" which became a huge success and set him on the path to producing another 18 features.

Either because I had attended that first festival or because I was among a handful of screenwriters in Toronto, I always ended up getting dragged into bars and bistros with Bill and a couple of years later was hired with three other scribes for a mini-series he'd sold to CBC.

For reasons too complicated to explain (and you'd only be getting my side of it anyway) the project eventually collapsed due to a combination of broadcaster, studio and guild acrimony and I headed off to Hollywood to seek my fortune there.

Barely a week later, at my first ever glittering party in the Hollywood hills, I flopped down on a couch with a glass of wine and found myself almost in the lap of Bill Marshall, who said…

“Geez, Henshaw! We can’t be seen together. We’re suing each other.” At which point we both cracked up.

The great thing about Bill in those days was he was exactly the sort of character the Canadian film industry desperately needed. A guy who understood how things must be seen to be done in an overly cautious and closely regulated nation –- and yet knew how the real world worked so they could actually get done.

He was one of my producer mentors long before I’d ever contemplated producing anything and he not only taught me a ton, but contributed to some of the defining moments of my life.

Much has been written, for example, about the earth-shaking argument he got into with Mordecai Richler on a TIFF panel about Canadian culture. The press, as usual, mostly took Richler’s side in reporting it. But everybody who was in that room, including me, knew that Bill had won the day and a lot of ugly truths about how culture is made and supported in this country were laid bare.

There are two things I feel deepest about the loss of Bill Marshall. One is the memory of nights of frivolity and story telling or intense discussions about craft and production and building an industry of which I'm now one of the sole survivors.

But more important is the realization of how badly we need someone like Bill Marshall today. A guy who could convince or cajole the driest bureaucrats and most tight-fisted of investors to take a chance at trying something different -- of just ignoring what everybody accepts as an unchangeable  reality and going out and getting shit done.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Lazy Sunday # 451: Looking Back to Look Ahead

An interview with Martin Scorsese is making the rounds in advance of the release of "Silence", a passion project he's been trying to get made for decades. In it, perhaps our greatest living film director bemoans the loss of cinema as we've known it, declaring the art form is dead.

It's not hard to understand where Scorsese is coming from. Anybody trying to sell a script or project they love has shared the defeat and disappointment when other people just don't get it -- year after year after year. 

Recall the number of times in the past months when you wanted to go out and see a movie but the multiplex was showing nothing but cartoon superheroes and frat boy comedies. Or ask how often the films you did see rewarded you with an experience that affected you deeply.

If you're like me, those latter moments were few and far between. Or you got them from something you found on Netflix, which gave you the movie, but not the communal reward of sharing it with others. 

Quentin Tarantino once defined a great film as one where you had to go out and have pie afterward. And we all remember those late night cafe conversations with friends or film nerds as we relived the movie we'd just seen, unwilling to let go of either its content or the bond it had created among those with whom we'd seen it.

A friend reminded me this week of Nicholas Cage's performance in "Leaving Las Vegas" a movie so raw and harrowing in its examination of alcoholism that I literally NEEDED a drink when it was over. 

I'm sure that like Scorsese, few of us can remember the last time something like that happened.

But while there's a lot I can agree with in the great master's assessment -- the proliferation of images, our awareness that much of the spectacle is computer generated and not "real" or the ways we consume the art form on smaller and more private screens -- for me, Cinema is not dead.

While I probably attended hundreds of movies in movie in theatres when I was a kid, I was probably in my late teens before I truly experienced one. 

It was early one morning in university, a mostly empty theatre and a film appreciation class I'd booked for an easy credit. From the first frames of "Citizen Kane" I knew something out of the ordinary was happening.

Over the next weeks I saw "The Grapes of Wrath", "Seven Samurai", "Onibaba" and "Casablanca" without commercials. And I became aware that movies weren't just somewhere to go to eat popcorn or make out in the back row.

And unlike Scorsese, the young filmmakers I meet these days give me great hope for the future.  
Like him, they've seen it all. But unlike most people in Hollywood (or working in the bureaucratic maze of Canadian cinema), they're not beholden to a system that determines and ultimately controls their output.

What keeps cinema alive as 2017 dawns are the myriad ways a filmmaker can get around or simply ignore the barriers that have been placed in their way to protect those who currently control the marketplace.

Last week one of those new ways of reaching an audience, Vimeo, published their list of the best short films of 2016. Among them you'll find the Scorseses of the future, the Haskell Wexlers and enough talented writers and actors to replace those we lost in the celebrity massacre of 2016.

One of my current favorites on Vimeo is below, giving me faith in the fact that movies aren't even close to dead, they're evolving. Something you'd think a guy who once took a few friends and a camera onto the "Mean Streets" of New York to make a film would recognize and understand.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Strange Men from andrew fitzgerald on Vimeo.