When Brendan Fraser went away

Image from Getty via EW.com.

If 2021 goes as planned, we should be seeing Brendan Fraser in a couple movies this year — one of them a crime thriller, “No Sudden Move,” directed by Steven Soderbergh.

That shouldn’t be exceptional. For many years, from the early ’90s until about 2009, Brendan Fraser was in tons of movies. Some were box office smashes — “The Mummy” series, “George of the Jungle” — and some were critical hits, including “Gods and Monsters,” which should have earned him an Oscar nomination.

He was hot. There’s even an ancient website — it seems to run through about 2005, when Fraser had a photographic exhibit in New Orleans — that walks through his career in the movies and with his photographic hobby, in the days when a personal website was somewhat unusual.

And then he seemed to vanish.

There were several reasons for this, points out Zach Baron in “What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser?”, which was published in GQ in 2018. It’s my Sunday read.

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Sunday read: Notes from Roger Ebert

Image via Rogerebert.com.

A few days ago on Twitter, writer Chris Jones shared a series of Post-it Notes he’d gotten from Roger Ebert when he interviewed Ebert for Esquire in 2009. The notes were pure Ebert: funny, longing, sad, matter-of-fact.

It has been 11 years since Jones’ moving, insightful piece appeared in Esquire’s March 2010 issue. I remember when it came out: There was a great deal of surprise that Ebert, who had had part of his jaw removed due to cancer, had agreed to sit down in person and let himself be photographed. Jones, an excellent writer who’s made a habit out of surprising perspectives (try his profile of Carrot Top on for size), didn’t waste the opportunity.

His story is my Sunday read.

Ebert has been dead for almost eight years now, but his impact hasn’t faded. The website he founded, rogerebert.com, is filled with the same kind of concise reviews and thoughtful articles he wrote himself for decades; now they’re done by a whole staff of contributors, including Christy Lemire and Matt Zoller Seitz. (His own work, of course, is also available, as well as a blog from his wife, Chaz.) Now that the Internet has made everybody a published critic, one could do worse than emulate Ebert, who tried to find the good even in mediocre films.

What’s more, he always kept a sense of discovery about him — and he brought that spirit to the country through his long-running partnership with Gene Siskel. As I wrote about the pair in an appreciation of Ebert, “They were, in a word, refreshing – especially for those of us, like me, who grew up far from the film centers of New York and Los Angeles. Where else could you get a sense of movies that might never come to your town? Where else could you take part, even from your living room, in the debate between two guys who really knew their stuff, and were entertaining as hell to boot?”

Jones went much deeper.

Now his hands do the talking. They are delicate, long-fingered, wrapped in skin as thin and translucent as silk. He wears his wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand; he’s lost so much weight since he and Chaz were married in 1992 that it won’t stay where it belongs, especially now that his hands are so busy. There is almost always a pen in one and a spiral notebook or a pad of Post-it notes in the other—unless he’s at home, in which case his fingers are feverishly banging the keys of his MacBook Pro.

I probably read Jones’ story two or three times when it came out. He was fair and he was honest and he captured something … heroic in the midst of struggle. (Ebert would probably hate that I termed his medical battles “heroic.”) It led to a lot of chatter among the chattering classes, which I’m sure Ebert — who enjoyed the spotlight — liked, but it wasn’t written as that kind of “Up Close and Personal” sentimental glurge that TV networks and celebrity magazines like to put out. It was matter-of-fact, like the man himself.

I miss that ferocity.

You can read “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” here. (And follow Chris Jones on Twitter. You won’t be disappointed. The man has a very real girlfriend and does not let anyone insult his CBC T-shirts.)

Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Sunday read: The past and future of ‘Be’

The Beatles on the set of “Let It Be,” from denofgeek.com.

I was going to write something about the events at the Capitol last week. I thought it was interesting how they provided a perversely tragic bookend to the inauguration of the president’s other favorite president, Andrew Jackson, an occasion when mobs overran the White House and Jackson himself had to sneak out a window. (“The reign of King Mob seemed triumphant,” said Supreme Court justice Joseph Story.) To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second as tragedy.

But I’m still too angry and upset to deal with it. So I’m going to go to my Happy Place: talking about the Beatles.

You’re probably aware by now that Peter Jackson is taking the raw material of the “Let It Be” sessions and refashioning it into a new documentary, one that appears to be much happier than the sometimes bitter original film, which ended up as the group’s official swan song (and, in fact, appeared after the group had broken up).

I can’t help but think: Is this revisionist history? Or is it closer to the way things were?

And what impact does re-editing our memories have on their impact?

So I bring to you a pair of Sunday reads: “Let It Be” director Michael Lindsay-Hogg on Jackson’s project, and Francis Ford Coppola on the changes he made in “The Godfather Part III” (now retitled “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone”).

“Let It Be” hasn’t been easily available since the VHS era; I can remember seeing it in a midnight showing at the Abalon Theater in New Orleans sometime around 1980, when midnight movies were a common way of showcasing older or outre works. Its reputation had preceded it: the Beatles seemingly trapped in a different studio than the familiar Abbey Road, constantly surrounded by cameras (in the days before that was a thing), with John bringing Yoko into the inner sanctum and Paul and George bickering over guitar parts.

Harrison, in fact, quit the band during the sessions. He didn’t return for more than a week, but when he did, he brought Billy Preston with him, and the rest of the sessions were calmer.

It’s Harrison’s attitude, along with Lennon’s opinion of the music, that’s colored opinion of “Let It Be” over the years. But McCartney and Starr have their own memories, and with more than five decades gone, we’re apparently going to see a more even-handed take of the era.

Does that mean Lindsay-Hogg’s original version is wrong? Not even he thinks so.

That argument was a small thing but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers and so they got married very young.

And you have to remember the time: the band is past its days of novelty. There are many things amazing about the Beatles, but for me, what often stands out is their energy — an ability to bring the joy of live performance to the studio. Just yesterday, I was listening to “I Want to Tell You,” a Harrison track off “Revolver,” and you can hear the thrill of musicians discovering new parts of themselves, and their love of doing it together.

By early 1969, though, they’d become businessmen and spouses and, above all, more cognizant of their individuality. The White Album, released just a few weeks’ before, showed they could still bring it, but it also showed they didn’t need each other as much as they did a couple years previous.

The White Album has been criticized for its sprawl, which brings up the question: What would you cut? What would you change? That got me pondering the value of good editing. I happen to love John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but a recent article in The New Yorker mentioned that famed editor Robert Gottlieb wanted Toole to cut some of its set pieces. (Fortunately, they survived.)

In Hollywood, editing can make or break films. In his interview about “Godfather III,” Coppola talks about how “Godfather II,” which some critics consider superior to the first “Godfather,” was originally received at a screening.

When we previewed The Godfather Part II in San Francisco, we had a tepid reaction. And it was a mixed movie, meaning the sound and everything was done. That night, I made 121 changes, which is unheard of, because to make an editorial change when the film already has music and everything is really hard. We went three days later and previewed it again in San Diego, and the difference was night and day, which was the version that generally people value, which is Part II.

I’m reminded of a line told me when I was working on a story about film editor Kevin Tent, who’s done most of Alexander Payne’s films. Another editor said that his position is the most optimistic he knows; editors always think they can save the movie.

“Godfather III” appears to have been improved by Coppola’s changes. What will “Get Back,” the Jackson “Let It Be,” do to the image of the late Beatles? I’ve got a feeling it will add another facet to one of the great stories of recent years.

You can read the Coppola interview here and the Lindsay-Hogg interview here.

Sunday read: A day of rest

Image from Getty via Vox.

Given that I’m way behind on my own Sunday reading — and, for that matter, my reading in general — I’m going to give you (and me) the day off from a nice feature story.

(Though, if you’re looking for something thoughtful, this essay on the film “Catch-22” has a few things to say about that movie and absurdity. In our current, exhausting times, in which we’re waiting for a cranky president to accept reality and a virus is achieving new heights of death, absurdity has been on my mind a lot.)

So enjoy the day, or enjoy your sleep, or enjoy catching up on your reading. All I know is I have today’s New York Times, several New Yorkers, various other periodicals, and a few lesson plans to look over.

To borrow from Furman Bisher, Selah.

Paddy Chayefsky, the real prophet

Image from Warner Bros.

The votes are being counted. I’m foolishly reading a lot about the process and its possible outcomes, though the usual suspects are saying what everybody knows: We’re a divided country, and regardless of who becomes president, we’re not going to easily fill in the chasm between the Two Americas. (John Edwards had it in terms of economics, but there are so many other indicators that split us. And what’s Edwards up to these days, anyway?)

But I keep coming back to “Network,” a 44-year-old movie which — despite its incredible wordiness and turned-up-to-11 performances — still resonates today. (I know, I’m always coming back to “Network.”)

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Sunday read: Sean Connery and Alden Whitman

Sean Connery died Saturday. He was 90.

I was going to write a blog entry just about the great Scot, but what more could I say? He was the best James Bond. (Ian Fleming even gave Bond a Scottish background after seeing Connery’s performance; before that, the Bond author had been against his casting.) He had incredible presence, enough that he could get away with his Scottish accent even when playing Russians and Irishmen. He was Indiana Jones’ father.

But I decided, for once, to leave the obituary writing and appreciations to others.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

I would like to apologize to Taika Waititi.

From the reviews, my impression of “Jojo Rabbit” was that it was a zanier version of “Life Is Beautiful.” OK, I knew it didn’t have concentration camps, but I was worried it was going to be silly until it suddenly got sober and gooey. (Can you tell I hated “Life Is Beautiful”? And Roberto Benigni got TWO Oscars for it!)

Well, “Jojo Rabbit” is no “Life Is Beautiful.” It loses the thread at times, but when it’s on — when Waititi is using the Beatles under the opening credits, or Sam Rockwell is on screen, or Waititi is channeling a Monty Python version of Adolf Hitler — it’s terrific, with energy to burn.

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Belated Movie Review: ‘Trumbo’

“Belated Movie Review” is an occasional feature in which I review a movie that everybody else has already seen.

I’ve watched only a handful of Dalton Trumbo-written movies: “A Guy Named Joe,” “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “Exodus,” “Papillon,” maybe a couple others. Of those, my favorite is “Roman Holiday,” which has the benefit of Eddie Albert with a beard, Gregory Peck playing Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn playing Audrey Hepburn. It’s witty, effervescent, and charming. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Other Trumbo films, such as “Spartacus,” did take themselves seriously — it was an important epic, ya know — but it’s also terrific entertainment.

“Trumbo,” the 2015 biopic about Dalton Trumbo, also takes itself very seriously, but with less of a payoff. It’s like one of those ham-handed documentaries they used to show in high school, the kind in which the filmmakers may as well have used flashing neon title cards.

“Trumbo” starts in the late ’40s, with our hero (Bryan Cranston) about to sign a contract with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He appears to have it all: a movie in the works with good friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), a picture-perfect family (Diane Lane plays his wife, Cleo) and an excellent reputation.

But there’s a problem. A few years earlier, Trumbo had joined the Communist Party. Now, with the House Un-American Activities Committee holding hearings and a blacklist in the works, his position is threatened. (Helen Mirren plays the seething Hedda Hopper, constantly rallying Tinseltown against the Red Menace.)

To his credit, Trumbo stays true to his ideals when testifying and actually goes to prison for a time. When he gets out, nobody will hire him, and he has to find fronts and use pseudonyms; “Roman Holiday,” for example, is co-credited to Trumbo’s friend, Ian McLellan Hunter.

He signs on with a pair of B-movie producers, the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and cranks out screenplays for a pittance. He brings in some of his blacklisted friends. He wins an Oscar under an assumed name. He’s befriended by Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, who book him a major motion picture (Douglas’ “Spartacus”) and promise to give him a credit (Preminger’s “Exodus”).

JFK goes to see “Spartacus,” the blacklist is doomed, Hopper is furious, and Trumbo reclaims his honor. The end. Many of the heroes and villains are so obvious the movie should have been made in black and white.

What saves “Trumbo,” and makes it generally entertaining, are the performances. Cranston is terrific as Trumbo — a little glib at the beginning, but a man who acquires a few shades of gray as the movie goes on. Stuhlbarg doesn’t look or sound much like Robinson, but his agonizing — an avowed liberal, he still names names in front of HUAC — makes him sympathetic. Diane Lane has nothing to do but does her best to do it well. John Goodman is ballsy as Frank King and gets the best lines.

That’s all to the good, because the script — by John McNamara (who, I see, created the weird and underrated ’90s TV series “Profit”) — is paint-by-numbers episodic, and Jay Roach’s direction emphasizes the themes with a sledgehammer. Some characters go nowhere: Louis C.K. appears as an unnecessary composite of several blacklisted writers, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a menacing inmate whose sole reason for being, it seemed to me, was to show that a big Black guy in prison wasn’t illiterate. After awhile, it seemed like a movie made by checklist.

Certainly, the blacklist was bad, HUAC was made up of grubby hypocrites, and Hedda Hopper was a harridan. But in its clip-cloppy way, “Trumbo” comes across as something you’d see on the History Channel, not the big screen. As a movie, it’s a missed opportunity.

I’ll give it a cautious recommendation for the performances, but if you have to choose between “Trumbo” and “Roman Holiday,” definitely watch the latter. It’s already in black and white, but it feels like glorious full color.

Sunday read: Chadwick Boseman, hero

For many people, Chadwick Boseman was more than an actor. He was a hero.

That was particularly true in the Black community, my friend Lisa Respers France writes.

Some of that was due to his role as T’Challa, the King of Wakanda, in “Black Panther,” she writes in an essay, “Chadwick Boseman gave us the superhero we so desperately needed.” It’s my Sunday read.

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