Sunday, September 28, 2008

Newman: We Lost a Great One

Saturday morning I went to to read the recap of the first Obama-McCain debate from the night before. On the home page, I was greeted with the unwelcome news that fellow Clevelander, Paul Newman, had lost his battle with cancer, succumbing at age 83.

Newman came up in the age of Brando, Dean, McQueen and Clift, actually replacing Dean following his death in 'Somebody Up There Likes Me'. Like those great performers, Newman was a student of the 'Method' school of acting, taught by The Actors Studio in New York. Unlike those actors, Newman largely avoided scandal, diminished skills and peculiar behavior. Not a fan of Hollywood, Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward moved to Connecticut shortly after Newman's career solidified and never considered Los Angeles home.

Newman had an unbelievable run of great roles in the fifties, sixties and seventies. Just a few include Hud, Harper, Cool Hand Luke, Billy the Kid, Judge Roy Bean, Rocky Graziano, 'Fast' Eddie Felson and of course, Butch Cassidy. Always a fine actor, the eighties found Newman piercing a deeper layer of performance. A naturalism so real, he just blended into a role and seemed more relaxed than ever. Starting with 'Absence of Malice', continuing through 'The Verdict', 'The Color of Money' and culminating with 'Nobody's Fool' (the role Newman said was the closest to his true self that he'd ever portrayed), Paul Newman became a consumate actor; one that I think we tended to take for granted because he was so consistently excellent.

Shortly after I joined Sony, I had the opportunity to oversee an interview with Paul Newman for the upcoming 'Absence of Malice' DVD. Taking place in New York at a subdued, elegant hotel on the upper West Side, we were due to share a camera crew with A&E's Biography show. Upon arrival, the cameraman told us, "be careful, he's cranky today".

We walked in, and there he was, sitting in a chair, reading a paper, ignoring the crew as they redressed the set for us. We were introduced, he said hello and put his head back in his newspaper. Feeling brave, I said: "Mr. Newman, may I ask you a quick question?" Without looking up, he said "sure". I said, "where was your father's sporting goods store located in Shaker Heights?"

Newman looked up at me, clearly surprised. "What do you know about my dad's shop?" I told him I was from Cleveland and had always heard about it, but never knew where it was. He put the paper down and told me about the shop and what it was like growing up in Cleveland. He asked what part of town I was from and then spent the next ten minutes telling me stories about Cleveland proper vs. Shaker Heights. When he spoke, the glint in his eye and the smile on his face melted at least twenty years away.

The interview ultimately went well. Newman generally didn't like talking about his craft, but he was a good sport and told some great stories. Following the interview, I asked him for any tips to get Robert Redford to do interviews for his DVDs. Newman said it would be rough, because Redford really didn't like to see how he used to look in his glory days.

The next day we did interviews with Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro for 'Taxi Driver'. That was substantial, but Paul Newman, ah...that was the gold standard.

Ten Newman flicks you must see:

1. Hud
2. The Hustler
3. Harper
4. Hombre
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
6. The Sting
7. SlapShot
8. Absence of Malice
9. Fort Apache The Bronx
10. Nobody's Fool

Monday, September 22, 2008

Quantum of Anticipation

This year has been a pretty good one for movies, from surprising blockbusters like 'Iron Man', an even better than expected Batman sequel; quirky, cool indie flicks like 'In Bruges' and the return of the western via Ed Harris's engaging 'Apaloosa'. Then there are small, satisfying flicks like 'Vicki Christina Barcelona', 'Man on Wire' and 'The Duchess', that take the stench out of stinkers like 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' and anticipated clunkers like Frank Miller's take on 'The Spirit'. But with that said, the movie event of the year for me is on November 14th, with the release of the 22nd James Bond adventure, 'Quantum of Solace'.

I've been a hardcore Bond fan since I was a kid, watching 'Goldfinger' on ABC's Sunday Night Movie. That was one of the few times my parents would let me stay up late to watch television (the other was anytime the Temptations were on tv). As a child, I couldn't tell the difference between the spry, inspired Sean Connery of 'Dr. No' and 'From Russia With Love' and the bored, chunky Connery in bloated (but enjoyable) epics like 'Thunderball' and 'You Only Live Twice'. All I knew was that Connery just definited manly cool and the gadgets were not to be believed.

In later years, I've come to appreciate George Lazenby's sole attempt at Bond in one of the series' best films, 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', but I've never been able to reconcile Roger Moore as James Bond. Too stiff, too fragile, boring. Didn't believe him fighting or romancing and his films were parodies for the series that I took so seriously. Even when he tried to play it relatively straight ('For Your Eyes Only'), I still couldn't buy it. In fairness, He was saddled with the worst wardrobe of all of the men who have essayed Ian Fleming's classic character.

Moving onto Timothy Dalton, he proved to be an unpopular choice; a fine actor who lacked charisma. I was just happy to see someone replace Roger Moore, and take the series serious again. Unfortunately Dalton tended to play Bond so serious that he bordered on neurotic. That resulted in an inability to handle the lighter part of the character and the 'cool' which is so essential to 007 was lost.

Following Dalton came the man who many felt should have been Bond for many years, Pierce Brosnan. Originally set to replace Roger Moore following 'A View to a Kill', NBC exercised their option to renew Brosnan's 'Remington Steele', preventing the popular Irishman from fulfilling a career dream. Ultimately it worked out for the best. Had he got the role at the initial offering, Brosnan was still somewhat boyish, and following the light humor of 'Remington Steele', there's a good chance that the Bond series would have stayed in the paperweight vein of Moore's previous films. Fortunately, by the time Pierce signed for 'Goldeneye', he'd matured into a sophisticated, serious man with credible acting chops.

Throughout his run as Bond, Pierce Brosnan brought the expected effortless sophistication, charm and panache', but added unexpected gravitas during the more dramatic passages and an earnest conviction in his action sequences. By the time he got to his third film, 'The World Is Not Enough', Brosnan was clearly comfortable as Bond, he had the right look, attitude and confidence. While the film had its flaws, his performance was the best of his quartet of appearances.

By the time of 'Die Another Day', it was clear the filmmakers were fuzzy on what to do next with Bond. Unfortunately, the result was the worst of the Brosnan Bonds and one of the worst of the series. Aside from the exciting fencing sequence, the film has nothing going for it. Many people cite Halle Berry as the film's saving grace, but while she looked amazing, her performance was nearly as bad as Denise Richards' in the previous film. Add an invisible car, a jowly, bored Brosnan and the most heinous special effect (Bond 'water skiing against a green screen) in the entire collection of Bonds, and the future of the franchise was bleak.

When Eon surprisingly announced that Pierce Brosnan wouldn't return for a fifth film, a variety of names were bandied about: Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Colin Ferrell, to name a few. Each name that entered the rumor mill filled me with dread. Then I heard that Daniel Craig was considered and then snagged the role. I was shocked but very pleased. Ever since seeing him in 'Layer Cake', I felt that he was a star waiting to happen. I followed his career and saw most of the art house films that he appeared in, proving repeatedly that he had an incredible range.

Some Bond purists rebelled ("He's too short!" "He's f____g blond!"), but the public at large gave 'Casino Royale' a shot, resulting in the best reviewed and highest grossing James Bond film ever.

Eon, the company that produces the films has been staid and safe for so long that it was hard to imagine that they would go back to basics and reboot Bond, eschewing gadgets, Moneypenny and M, for a look at the circumstances that created the 007 that we know and love today. In addition to Daniel Craig's rugged, relentless but sensitive Bond, Eon recruited the director of 'Goldeneye' to kickstart the series again with a dramatic, action packed adventure with an acutely telling love story right in the middle.

From the title song and retro credits to the debut of Craig in Bond's uniform of classic black tie, for me, 'Casino Royale' was everything I ever wanted a James Bond film to be. Craig isn't to everyone's taste as 007, but as far as I'm concerned, he nailed it better by far than anyone except the originator, Sean Connery. It's been said that each generation gets the Bond that mirrors his era. If that's true, Craig is definitely the man for these tough, unnerving times. Capable but cockier than he ought to be, able to get the job done, but sometimes to proud to ask for help, Daniel Craig's James Bond reflects our lives and times right back to us.

From what I understand, 'Quantum of Solace' picks up right where 'Casino Royale' ends, becoming the first real sequel in the canon. It also clocks in at 106 minutes, becoming the shortest Bond movie ever. The director, Marc Forster says that it's 'a more compact, emotional intense, journey than 'Casino Royale'. From the trailer, it looks action packed and has plenty of Daniel Craig's now patented intensity. Everything I've seen about the film looks like it's going to better than 'Casino Royale' and after seeing how much better 'The Dark Knight' was than the excellent 'Batman Begins', I can't wait. However, it must be said that the theme song 'Another Way to Die' by Alicia Keys and Jack White is among the absolute worst James Bond theme songs EVER!!

I've been to one James Bond premiere, the dismal 'Die Another Day', where I was sitting in the midst of a gang of Eon executives, so I couldn't even groan out loud. Determined not to let that be my only Bond premiere, I'm working hard at getting tickets to the London premiere of 'Quantum of Solace' on October 29th. If I get there, I'll take pictures and post them on the blog. That will be the highlight of my year, only eclipsed by a personal experience that began on July 7th and continues to this day. Neesh, that's what I call real talk.