Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker


Jonathan Baker, meet Jonathan Baker.

(2018) Documentary (Random)  Jonathan Baker, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, Adrian Lyne, John Badham. Directed by Neal Thibedeau

 

It goes without saying that it takes a certain amount of ego to be a successful Hollywood motion picture director. You need that ego to maintain focus on your vision and refuse to let compromise and collaboration dilute it or divert it. Without that ego, a director’s crew, his/her actors and financial backers will walk all over them like a linoleum runner on your mom’s best carpet.

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not ambitious. Not only does he want to direct movies, he wants to be really good at it – Oscar-winning good, name above the title good. He was getting ready to direct his first feature film – a suspense film from Lionsgate called Inconceivable with a stellar cast including Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway and Gina Gershon. Baker wisely figured out that he could avoid a lot of pitfalls by talking to other directors and finding out what their experiences were on their first films – and what advice they had for an aspiring director.

The interviews with such luminaries as Foster (Little Man Tate), Badham (Blue Thunder), Hackford (Ray) and Lyne (Fatal Attraction) are actually mega-informative and have some good advice for those who want to direct movies as a career – in fact much of their advice can be applied to leadership roles in other fields as well.

Baker is clearly passionate about film and filmmaking and I have no doubt that he wanted to make the best film he could. He talks about the interference and lack of faith from the studio, the bond holders and even his own crew. Often he felt that it was “me versus them alone on an island,” a comparison he uses more than once. Overcoming these sorts of hurtles and completing his film was a Herculean effort that is worth respecting.

But Baker is also extremely full of himself. Some might remember him from The Amazing Race 6 which he ran with his then-wife Victoria Fuller and became one of the most hated contestants in the history of the show, allegedly shoving his wife to the ground in anger after losing a foot race to the rest stop for one of the legs in Paris. While Baker maintained that he would never hit his wife (and the tape is inconclusive as to whether she lost her footing or if he shoved her), he certainly verbally abused her throughout the race. He seems a lot calmer now.

Getting back to the present, Baker drops names incessantly, particularly that of Warren Beatty whom he characterizes as his mentor – not once but at least a good half a dozen times during the film. He also mentions that he owns Beatty’s first house, which he claims that the legendary actor/director wouldn’t have sold to just anybody. We’ll just have to take your word on that one, Mr. Baker.

So much of the movie we’re made to watch Baker walking down streets, walking in parks, sitting in an editing bay…at times it is difficult to figure out whether this is meant to be an instructional documentary or a biographical one, omitting his stint on The Amazing Race which brought him notoriety and fame enough that likely opened a few doors for him.

Baker’s advice often comes off as a means of pumping himself up, to illustrate that he had the inner strength and purity of vision to withstand all of the obstacles and in honesty those obstacles were considerable. When he concentrates on the other directors and their experiences – even on his own experiences – the movie is at its best. When we hear the actors on his single feature film describe what it’s like to work with the Iconic (eventually) Jonathan Baker, or hear Baker talking about how talented and strong in character he is, well, it comes off more like a love letter to himself.

Director Neal Thibedeau doesn’t do himself any favors by inserting as many random issues that are sometimes only tangentially related to what’s being discussed onscreen as possible. He also managed to get a soundtrack which sounds like it belongs on a 1980s action film, preferably one based on G.I. Joe. The two elements together take a movie that needs all the help it can get and lets it drown in shallow water.

Not to discount Baker’s accomplishment in getting his film made, but it should be noted that Inconceivable carries with it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 31, not a number that speaks of a natural talent immediately making waves. Baker has a considerable distance to go before becoming iconic – even some of the directors interviewed here are experienced rather than iconic. That’s not to say that Baker one day won’t make amazing, insightful award-worthy films but in the meantime it might serve him well to remember that along with a healthy ego a good director needs humility as well.

REASONS TO GO: Hearing some of the stories by the likes of Foster, Hackford, Lyne and Badham is invaluable particularly to budding filmmakers but also budding leaders of other fields as well.
REASONS TO STAY: The name-dropping and self-promotion wears one down. This may come off a little bit as “Movie Directing 101” for first year film students. There are a lot of visual non-sequiturs and the soundtrack is inappropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing Baker is in pre-production on his second feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT:
Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Advertisements

The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Parker


Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

Do you think Jason Statham makes for an authentic Texan?

(2013) Thriller (FilmDistrict) Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr., Bobby Cannavale, Patti LuPone, Carlos Carrasco, Emma Booth, Micah Hauptman, Kirk Baltz, Kip Gilman, Sharon Landry, Charleigh Harmon. Directed by Taylor Hackford

Most of us have some sort of moral code that we live our lives by, even if we can’t always articulate. We call them “lines” and we try not to cross them (although we aren’t always successful). It’s always somewhat miraculous when someone actually accomplishes it.

A priest and two clowns walk into the Ohio State Fair main office. Sounds like a joke but it’s actually a robbery, one spearheaded by the priest – who is actually Parker (Statham), an expert thief who lives by a rather stringent moral code – never steal from those who can’t afford it, never hurt those who don’t deserve it. It’s served him well.

But when you work with clowns, well, you get what you deserve. One of them, Melander (Chiklis) has an idea for an even bigger score but needs the entire take from the State Fair job to make it happen. Parker, who is already not happy with the crew because one of them (Hauptman) had set a diversionary fire in the wrong place, decides to pass.

Unfortunately, Melander isn’t willing to take no for an answer and leaves Parker shot and nearly unconscious on the side of the road. Fortunately, a farmer and his family spies Parker on the side of the road and takes him to a local hospital. Parker regains consciousness and manages to escape before the cops arrive to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. He recovers in a stolen ambulance in a secluded patch of woods and a helping of Demerol to help him sleep it off.

When he comes to he’s in a pretty foul mood. He approaches Hurley (Nolte), his mentor and also the father of Claire (Booth) – his girlfriend – and the man who set him up with Melander. It turns out that Hurley didn’t know that Melander was extremely connected, in this case to Danzinger (Gilman) a vicious crime boss. Hurley advises him to walk away but Parker can’t do that. He needs his score and he needs justice. He knows that Danzinger will send people not only after him but after Hurley and Claire and anyone Parker knows but it’s the principle of the thing.

After a visit to the brother of the misplaced arsonist (Baltz) in New Orleans, Parker gets wind that the job is taking place in Palm Beach, Florida. From snippets of  conversation just prior to his assault, he knows they were looking for a house down there. He contacts Leslie Rodgers (Lopez), an ambitious realtor trying to get her first commission. She’s in desperate financial straits – a divorce has left her with plenty of bills and precious little cash and she is forced to live with her difficult mother (LuPone) and field calls from bill collectors and repo agencies. She is at the end of her rope.

Parker, posing as an Ecuadorian-born oil baron from Texas (yeah, she doesn’t believe it either), soon discovers where Melander is hiding out and what he’s up to. Even with his atrocious Texas accent, he soon comes up with a plan but he has to dodge a hitman that Danzinger has sent after him and Leslie’s well-meaning interference. He’ll have to beat some pretty stiff odds to get away with this job.

This is based on Flashfire, the 19th novel in the Parker series by Richard Stark which is the nom de plume of the late Donald E. Westlake, one of the most respected and honored crime novelists of the 20th century. This was meant to be the ground zero of a Parker franchise, but given the anemic box office and quite frankly the lackluster quality of the movie, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Hackford might not have been the best choice for the director’s chair. While he’s a veteran helmer, he’s better known for movies like An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray. Noir-ish action flicks, which is what this was supposed to be, are outside of his comfort zone and it shows – the action sequences have almost no life to them and are filmed kind of statically. In fact, the movie is kind of oddly lacking in kinetic energy.

It’s not Statham’s fault. He actually makes a pretty good Parker given the taciturn nature of the character in the books. Parker is meant to kick ass and take names….well, he doesn’t really care about the names so much but Statham inhabits the role well. This is right in his wheelhouse.

Lopez has never really been my cup of tea although I thought she showed amazing promise in Selena back in ’97 but she actually was pretty good here. There’s a scene in which she is reading an e-mail about her car being repossessed and her mom is giving her crap about some inconsequential thing and then she looks up at her mom and you can see in her expression all the pain, the stress and the worry that has brought her to her breaking point. The look is so poignant her mother puts a hand on her shoulder, unsure what to do (inside you’re screaming Hug her you idiot!) but at last her mom walks away and Leslie hides her face in her hands. It’s some really affective acting and tells me that if Lopez could just stay away from the pop star diva thing she’s done she can be a really great serious actress.

The Palm Springs locations are actually quite nice as we see gorgeous home after gorgeous home. Yes, the lifestyles of the rich and shameless. Makes me want to punch someone in a Giorgio Armani suit and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. Or at least give them the evil eye.

I would have liked to see a movie with a little more grit, a little less glitz and a lot more spice. For a movie looking to establish a franchise beachhead there isn’t a lot of bang for your buck. It’s basically a mediocre action film with poorly written logical lapses – if you were going to buy a home in which you were going to lay low with tens of millions of stolen jewels, wouldn’t you at least consider some sort of home security system? – that with a little more care and a director more suited to this sort of film might have been the right step towards a profitable action franchise. As it is it’s back to the drawing board.

REASONS TO GO: Statham actually makes a pretty nifty Parker. Gorgeous Palm Beach location. Lopez ain’t half bad here.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t add anything to the mix. Lacks spice.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots and lots of violence. A surprisingly small amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the fifth film to be based on a Parker novel, it is the first in which the character’s name is actually used.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100; the reviews are mixed but trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Italian Job

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff