When “Wag the Dog” hit theaters on Christmas 1997, nothing could have seemed more cleverly prescient. About a fake war staged to draw focus from a first-term U.S. president’s sex scandal, the film was released a month before then-President Clinton was accused of having sex with intern Monica Lewinsky and an Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan was subsequently bombed by the U.S. Viewed ten years later, this dark comedy seemed even more relevant. Though the world was verging on an economic meltdown after the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, the media was distracted by Britney Spears’ nervous breakdown and Brangelina’s growing brood. Only today does this adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s novel American Hero read as depressingly dated — if only because we have entered a new era of fake news and governmental deception. Continue Reading →
Eighty-three today, Joan Didion is inarguably old. But even in photos of the writer as a much younger woman, you can see something ancient and knowing that juxtaposes sharply with the youth culture of mid-twentieth century America. It’s a quality that distinguishes her work as much as her uncluttered, unflappable prose, and it makes her, to date, cinema’s most untapped natural resource.
It’s surprising that more of Didion’s books haven’t been adapted to screen, especially since she has worked many times as a screenwriter, usually with her husband, the late author and journalist John Gregory Dunne. All in all, Didion and Dunne co-wrote at least eight screenplays – more, if you count the ones they reportedly massaged without credit. In 1972, they adapted her own book, Play It as It Lays, though she has said in interviews she wishes the resulting film were better. (Few disagree.) There also was the 1971’s druggie romance “Panic in Needle Park”; the extremely furry 1976 reboot of 1954’s “Star Is Born” (itself a reboot of a 1937 classic); and the 1996 Robert Redford-Michelle Pheiffer journalist romance “Up Close & Personal,” loosely based on the life and death of TV reporter Jessica Savitch. What’s most surprising is this filmography’s soapiness. With few exceptions, the story arcs go along the lines of: Couple falls in love, life caves in on couple. Continue Reading →
There are films that ripen on the vine, and then there is “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” Richard Brooks’s 1977 adaptation of the Judith Rossner novel inspired by a NYC schoolteacher killed by a one-night stand. It was a crime that seized national attention – for some, as a cautionary tale about women’s liberation; for others, as a case study in lethal misogyny. Rossner’s fictionalized account–lurid and lucid both–was such a critically touted bestseller that the term “Mr. Goodbar” became mainstream slang for a hot one-night stand. But while Brooks’s film also made bank, reviews were mixed. Viewed forty years later, you can see why. Its ambivalence about independent female sexuality makes for a jarring, fractured viewing experience if also a fascinating time capsule of the hypocrisies necessitating today’s #metoo revolution.
Fresh off the heels of her “Annie Hall” success, Diane Keaton stars as Theresa Dunn, roughly based on real-life victim Roseann Quinn. But while Keaton retains some of Annie’s daffiness, Theresa’s shadows live much closer to the surface; she’s haunted by her repressive Irish Catholic upbringing and a childhood scarred by scoliosis. When we meet her, she’s studying to become a teacher and sleeping with her married professor (Alan Feinstein), a pipe-puffing cad who sports the unfortunate male perm that was de rigueur in the late 1970s. While he struts in front of her classroom, she fantasizes about fucking him in a hot flash; the film is very big on psychosexual stills a la “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist.” Continue Reading →