Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector opens with a man scratching his plumber’s-crack re-using a cotton swab to clean his ear and wearing the sleeveless shirt he uses as a towel. Naturally this is Larry (the Cable Guy) a health inspector. Halfheartedly inspecting the local food joints he’s leading the life that suits him well. But when his boss (Thomas F. Wilson) assigns him a serious-minded female partner (Iris Bahr) his world is turned upside down--or at least made less comfy. Larry’s called in to investigate “some fartin’ Jewish folks” at a swankier restaurant and learns that it’s not an isolated incident. While Larry’s unorthodox methods manage to arouse the interest of a waitress (Megyn Price) with bowel habits that he adores his tactics arouse the ire of the restaurateurs he investigates and it costs him his job. Now he’s forced to do whatever it takes to prove his innocence. Even the D-listers here must’ve gone straight to confession upon accepting these roles to help cushion their bank accounts. Let’s start with Larry the Cable Guy (of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour “Git-R-Done” fame) who is one of the most successful stand-up comics today. He’s right in his element seemingly with fart blanche on toilet humor but to the unconverted he’s a little more than grating. Speaking of grating the (hopefully) affected voice of Bahr makes the movie mostly unlistenable in addition to being unwatchable. But take pity on her for this is no way to jumpstart a movie career. Tony Hale clearly still reeling from the potential cancellation of TV’s Arrested Development (on which he plays Buster) also lowers his star and integrity with an ambiguous character here. And Joe Pantoliano shows his face. The once great character actor reaches a new low with this one even if his performance isn’t all bad. Health Inspector masters the art of the fart. But more disgusting than the settings with which the farts are juxtaposed is the ad nauseam (pun intended) level of over-usage. So congratulations go to along with fart Yoda Larry the Cable Guy director Trent Cooper who makes his feature directorial debut. And might we add what a fart-tastic debut it is! But it’s not all farts ladies and gentleman--all forms of gross-out humor are exploited unlike ever before. On the er serious side the collection of running jokes adds to a few legit laughs. Cooper helms a story that naturally doesn’t work deferring instead to Larry’s natural um charisma. The script offers no segue into Larry’s stand-up persona but anyone who sees this here flick ain’t lookin’ for no dang Oscar winner. Clearly Health Inspector will appeal to Larry’s following but is not meant for those of sound mind.
A year ago, five unknown guys from Orlando, Fla., went to the Sundance Film Festival with a cheap movie, a neato gimmick and a good publicist.
Today they return to Park City, Utah, as Hollywood players -- the creators of what might become the biggest horror film franchise ever -- and as bona fide filmmakers afforded multimillion-dollar budgets.
Their film cost $10,000 to $100,000, depending on what you read. They sold it for $1 million. It made $140 million in theaters. Maybe you've heard of it: "The Blair Witch Project."
Hands down, the "Haxan Five," as they like to call themselves (Get it? It rhymes with "Jackson Five") are the biggest rags-to-riches story ever to come out of Sundance. Sure, other nickel-and-dime neophytes such as Kevin Smith and Edward Burns have received more critical praise. But none of those guys launched a commercial juggernaut like "Blair Witch," which left most of last year's major studio films in the dust. If not for the festival, the phenomenon may have forever remained a figment of their fertile imaginations.
"Everything hinged on us getting into Sundance," Daniel Myrick, who co-wrote and directed the movie with partner Eduardo Sanchez, told the Dallas Morning News last year. "It's such a validation for our sort of filmmaking. It's like winning the lottery.
"We have these bongos in our office that we beat whenever something good happens. The day we were picked, we partied and beat on those drums all night. Now, we're living the dream, man."
How's tricks nowadays with Myrick, Sanchez and their producers, Gregg Hale, Mike Monello and Robin Cowie? Not bad at all.
This spring, they are set to begin filming their first post-"Witch" feature, a comedy called "Heat of Love" for Artisan. Earlier this month, they signed a big deal with Artisan in which Sanchez and Myrick will executive produce "Blair Witch 2," to be directed by veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger, and they will write and direct a third installment, a "Blair Witch" prequel, set for release in fall 2001. Both the sequel and prequel will be budgeted in the $7 million to $10 million range.
Add to that all their talk show appearances, magazine interviews, the merchandising (including a hugely hyped pre-Halloween home video release, a video game version of the movie, books, etc.), and a TV show in development at Fox, it's been quite a year. Their schedules are so full, they couldn't (or wouldn't) be interviewed for this article (their publicist apologized).
"I think in terms of money, 'Blair Witch' is the most successful movie to come out of Sundance. There's not anything that comes close," says John Anderson, chief film critic for Newsday in New York and author of the book "Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening in at America's Most Important Film Festival" (Spike Publishing).
But now that Sanchez, Myrick, et. al. are players, the player-haters will inevitably come out of the woodwork. It's already started: After receiving a big buzz-bounce out of Sundance last year, "Blair Witch" was greeted with mostly favorable reviews as critics praised it as an anti-film, a horror original. But as the film became a phenomenon, detractors appeared, saying, "it's not scary," "it's cheap-looking" or "stop shaking the camera already, you're giving me a migraine."
"The reaction was kind of funny," Anderson says. "Almost as soon as it started making money, people turned on it. There's always this perverse critical reaction when something becomes too popular, but you have to admit it had one of the great marketing plans, both by the filmmakers and by Artisan."
That marketing plan began back in 1997, when Sanchez and Myrick succeeded in getting snippets from "Blair Witch," then a work-in-progress, onto indie film guru John Pierson's cable TV show "Split Screen." From the beginning, the project was presented as if it were a true-to-life documentary, and the filmmakers neither confirmed nor denied its authenticity. To maintain a veil of mystery, they made sure the film's three actors, who portray the film crew lost in a haunted Maryland woods, didn't speak to the media until after the film was released theatrically in July.
The actors, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, who lent their real names to their characters, have also fared well in the wake of the film's box-office bonanza. All three were complete unknowns beforehand -- they didn't even have SAG cards -- but they spent last summer making promo appearances on Jay Leno, the MTV Movie Awards and other gigs. Now they all live in Los Angeles and have agents.
Leonard has enjoyed the most immediate big-time success, recently landing a part in "Navy Divers," a mainstream Hollywood flick with Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. He also worked on a low-budget film, "City of Bars," which was shot last year in San Francisco. Not bad for a guy whose resume previously boasted of a few films most have never heard of and stage work at the Seattle Fringe Festival.
Donahue, whose credits included stage work in New York, is now auditioning for films and spends time camping in the California mountains, an interest she developed while working on "Blair Witch." And Williams is also passing out headshots in Hollywood, having moved to the area last year after getting married. He also has diffused a longstanding rumor that he once played minor league baseball in the Yankees farm system.
What's next? Many filmmakers who hit pay dirt the first time out suffer a sophomore jinx, and the industry will surely be watching to see if the Haxan guys sink or swim with their new comedy. Will it be funny? Will it be in focus? Will there be lots of rocks and twigs?
The Haxan guys are being familiarly coy about "Heat of Love," which they have described as "'It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World' meets Ruth Buzzi and Erik Estrada."
"Whatever they do next, they're going to have to try extra hard to get over the hump," Anderson adds. "A lot of people feel like they were snookered by 'Blair Witch' because they [Sanchez and Myrick] were so cagey about the origins of the footage.
"Mainstream narrative filmmaking is a whole new ball game for them. There's no reason to think that they'll be better at it than anybody else. They caught lightning in a bottle the first time out."
If director Deepa Mehta is down in the dumps these days, who can blame her? Not only have protesters shut down production of her new movie, "Water," on location in India -- they've threatened to kill and burn her in effigy.
George Lucas to the rescue.
In today's Daily Variety, the "Star Wars" creator springs for a full-page ad in the trade newspaper, declaring: "Our heart is with Deepa Mehta ... in her current struggles to film 'Water.' Keep fighting, Deepa!"
The note was signed by Lucas, partner Rick McCallum "and all your friends at Lucasfilm Ltd."
So what's the Lucas-Mehta connection? Mehta directed one episode of the Lucasfilm-produced "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" TV series in the early 1990s, as well as a segment of the 1996 TV-movie "Young Indiana Jones and Travels With Father."
Lucas and McCallum "like her and fully support" Mehta, a Lucasfilm rep told Hollywood.com today.
Last week, 20,000 Hindu protesters destroyed sets for Mehta's movie in Varanasi, India, causing an estimated $700,000 damage. Although Mehta's production has been approved by the appropriate government officials, police have done little to stop the vandalism and Mehta has been meeting with government representatives in hopes of restoring the peace.
Before production on the film could get under way, the demonstrators -- who are aligned with the Hindu nationalist government -- stormed the set to protest purported distortions of old-school Indian values in the movie. Then, they occupied the sets, refusing to leave.
"Water" is the third film of a planned trilogy, telling the story of a 1930s love affair between an upper-class widow and a lower-class man. It's a story that some Indians apparently find offensive. Mehta's first two movies in the trilogy, "Fire" and "Earth," also dealt with social taboos such as lesbianism and religious persecution. "Fire" caused riots in India when it was released.
Last week, Mehta, a native of India who has lived in Canada since the 1970s, told the Toronto Star that she might quit making movies in India.
"It's getting too hard. I'm not the most popular person in India," she said.
Of course, there are those encouraging words from George Lucas: "Keep fighting, Deepa!"
Then again, the protesters probably don't read Daily Variety.
KA-CHING! Sundance entry "Love and Sex," starring "Swingers" alum Jon Favreau, has been picked up by Lions Gate Films, today's Variety reports. It's the company's third Sundance purchase, after the doc "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and the audience award winner, "Two Family House."
LIFE'S A 'BLAIR WITCH': They say that people forget their friends when they become rich and famous. Sam Barber was so upset that his "Blair Witch Project" colleagues forgot him -- or so he says -- that he filed a lawsuit claiming he was robbed of executive producer credit on the film. This week, a judge ruled that Barber's suit, which alleges that the filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment violated federal unfair competition laws, should proceed in court.
Barber has sued Artisan and "Blair Witch" creators Daniel Myrick and Gregg Hale, claiming that the movie was originally developed in 1996 at Barber's production company in Orlando, Florida. Barber claims he invested thousands into the picture, prepared the treatment and investor package and shot a theatrical trailer. He says the parties agreed they would all be partners, but Myrick and Hale later froze him out when they sold the movie to Artisan.
The lawsuit was filed before the film was released last summer and went on to make $140 million at the box office. It's one of two "Blair Witch" battles currently being fought in court: On Monday, Artisan filed suit against the UA Theaters chain, claiming it has failed to pay $3 million in "Blair Witch" licensing fees.
FILM FEST: If you're in Los Angeles this week, check out the 8th Annual Pan African Film & Art Festival, running today through Feb. 21 at the Magic Johnson Theatres and the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. For movie schedule and more info: (818) 890-2428.