dir. Nick Stagliano
R, approx. 100 min.
Showing Friday and Saturday at the Belcourt Theatre
Several hundred movies are made each year in this country. Of those, only a fraction reach the festival circuit. And only the merest fraction of those get a release beyond the country’s top five markets. At each step, the path gets narrower and more competitive. Even worthy movies with name casts and top-line behind-the-scenes talent get lost in the shuffle. This Friday and Saturday, you’ll get a chance to see just such a film. This is the story of a movie that arrives bearing names such as Hal Holbrook and Mary Stuart Masterson and Francis Ford Coppolaand yet it hadn’t received a theatrical run until one Nashville moviehouse made the offer.
This Friday and Saturday night, the Belcourt Theatre hosts the world-premiere theatrical engagement of The Florentine, an ensemble comedy-drama starring Holbrook, Masterson, Michael Madsen, and Tom Sizemore. Executive-produced by Coppola, the movie represents almost a decade-long struggle for director Nick Stagliano, who will appear at the screenings and a reception at the theater 6 p.m. Saturday. A local booking has been in the works since June, when its enthusiastic reception at the Nashville Independent Film Festival almost overshadowed the opening-night selection, Under Hellgate Bridge.
But the booking is only the latest upswing in a saga of exhilarating good luck and crushing reversals of fortunea cautionary tale for any aspiring indie filmmaker who thinks he’s got it made the minute he delivers the finished film. The Florentine is the kind of modest, low-key character study that requires careful marketing and a gradual release to develop word of mouth. It deserved both. It got neither.
The Florentine is set among the residents of a dying Pennsylvania steel town, where good-guy Whitey (Madsen) runs his dad’s old neighborhood bar, The Florentine. Like the town, almost all the characters are facing financial ruin. Whitey, who’s bankrolling his sister’s wedding, is losing the bar; featherbrained Frankie (Luke Perry) dabbles in get-rich-quick schemes; ex-boxer Bobby (Chris Penn) is plotting against the local mob boss (Burt Young). At the same time, Teddy (Tom Sizemore), an old friend who left town in disgrace, is back to face the music. The one voice of reason is Smitty (Holbrook), a regular who shores up Whitey with fatherly kindness. The movie juggles these and a half-dozen more subplots as the wedding day nears.
Some of the dialogue is overripe, and the sheer volume of subplots shortchanges some interesting characters and tangents. The indie ensemble piece loaded with name actors is arguably a cliché in itself. But Stagliano coaxes such good and unexpectedly warm performances from his castespecially from Tarantino tough guys Madsen, Penn, and Sizemorethat the movie gets to you. It has a keen sense of little-city life, conveyed in pungently written two- and three-character vignettes that allow the actors to build rapport. It has a sharp sense of place: The movie lays out the geography of its industrial burgh as surely as The Deer Hunter mapped out its own. And it’s the kind of sweet, sentimental crowdpleaser that would appeal to anybody who gets misty-eyed about the neighborhood tavernlike the Villager around the corner from the Belcourt.
That didn’t make The Florentine any easier to assemble. Stagliano and producing partner Tom Benson, who cowrote the script with Damien Gray, had been trying to package the movie since 1992. After years of frustration, the casting started falling like dominoesespecially once a friend got Coppola’s American Zoetrope company interested. Benson’s buddy Sizemore, who slept on his couch as a starving actor, had been attached all along, but his success in True Romance and Natural Born Killers brought some much-needed name recognition. Sizemore passed the script to his True Romance costar Penn, who in turn passed it to his Reservoir Dogs mate Madsen whose sister, Virginia, was staying with him after her divorce. She read the script and signed on, making this the first time she and her brother had acted together onscreen. Robert Mitchum expressed interest in playing Smitty, but he was too ill by the time the movie could be made.
Stagliano now says he can’t imagine anyone in the role but Holbrook, whose mid-film monologue about his lost lovethe movie’s highlightbrought younger actors Perry and Jeremy Davies to the set on a day they weren’t scheduled to work. The shoot was marked by good feelings. At the end of his long, poignant scene with his sisterwhich Stagliano covered in a single unbroken takeMichael Madsen took two shot glasses from the set and poured a shot for himself and the director. When time came to compile the soundtrack, Stagliano lucked into cuts by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Nashvillians Lucinda Williams and Matthew Ryan“mostly,” Stagliano says with a laugh, “because I didn’t know enough not to ask.”
The trouble started when the movie was in post-production. Initial Entertainment Group, the company that backed The Florentine, wanted to trim the moviestarting with Holbrook’s monologue. “I said, ‘The first person who walks through the [editing-room] door I don’t recognize, I’m shooting him in the knee,’ ” Stagliano recalls. Worse, the company went through a corporate turnover, and it began to focus on developing $30 million to $60 million projects. “Do the math, and see where The Florentine fits in,” the director says ruefully. The film’s theatrical release fell by the wayside; it is now out on video and DVD, and it will likely bow on HBO, Cinemax, and Starz! this fall.
Stagliano is currently developing projects with Nashville screenwriters Will Akers, Dub Cornett, and Peggy Walton-Walker. “I got the feeling that Nashville is very unique and original, very unexploited,” he says. “I did Matthew [Ryan]’s electronic press kit there, so I know there are plenty of facilities.” As for The Florentine, it at least left Nick Stagliano with a creed.
“It’s like Whitey says in the movie,” he says. “Life’s not about having all the right cards. It’s about playing what you’ve got.”
Hail to the cheese
Films about politics rarely do well in America, with the exception of films about fictional presidents. In the past decade, Dave and The American President made money while Nixon did not, mainly because we prefer to see the highest office in the land idealized, not rendered tawdry or tragic. We want the charismatic, visionary prez who wields power frequently and judiciously. Even on TV, The West Wing has become a hit based on a high-energy portrait of a White House burning with passion for the issues of the day, where staffers utilize executive leverage with the ruthlessness of Mafia button men.
Rod Lurie’s film The Contender features a first-class fictional president. Jeff Bridges plays President Jackson Evansa poised, seemingly distracted, but actually finely tuned strategist with a weakness for snacks. Too bad The Contender’s not really about him; it’s about his nominee to replace a deceased vice president. Joan Allen plays that nominee, Sen. Laine Hansona converted Democrat and, of course, a woman. Gary Oldman plays Sen. Shelly Runyon, who once lost to President Evans in a bitter campaign, and who would prefer a better candidate: Virginia Gov. Jack Hathaway (played by William Petersen), who made national news by diving into a lake in a failed effort to save a woman from drowning. Runyon chairs the committee that will confirm Hanson’s appointment, and he takes it upon himself to take her down by uncovering old photos of the nominee at a college frat house orgy.
Lurie indulges all of this luridness so that he can ask questions about the double standards for men and women in leadership roles, so that he can decry the way that personal attacks have become such an integral part of politics, and so that he can ponder how we know whether people will be great before they’re tested. These are all interesting considerations, which would be more interesting if Lurie allowed viewpoints other than his own a fair hearing; instead, he creates trumped-up situations with clear heroes and villains, and he resolves them with contrived last-minute revelations.
The thing is, despite his petty obstinacy, Runyon appears to be right: Besides her gender, there doesn’t seem to be a decent reason to recommend Hanson. But then, the deep political convictions of the men and women in this movie aren’t explored too deeply. Instead, they state their positions in long lists and leave their reasons out of the discussionwhich leaves the audience to ponder questions like, “Would an atheist who believes in banning all guns really have a shot at the vice presidency?”
Lurie’s nods to the complexity of politics tend to be shallow switcheroos in which Republican characters take stands against hate crimes and prayer in schools, while the fresh-faced young Democrat (Christian Slater, no less) speaks up for God. As in his debut film Deterrence, Lurie’s sophomore effort relies overmuch on scenes that cut off before characters can hold more than the simplest plot-advancing conversations, enabling the director to withhold key information from the audience so that he can “shock” us with it later. He even delays telling us that Hanson is a womaneven though we’ve all seen the trailerand if you groan at that awkward revelation, pay attention. Lurie does it throughout the movie, and acclimated viewers should easily be able to predict every plot twist.
The Contender is still marginally entertaining, mostly because of the stellar performances, but also because it’s so shamelessly melodramatic. Lurie films everything in close-up and lets music swell at inappropriate moments, and he sets up an ending that’s like something out of a Sherlock Holmes mysteryPresident Evans gathers all the suspects in a room and fingers the real killer. If The Contender defies the odds and does well at the box office, get ready for a new genre of political movie: the crime-solving commander-in-chief.
Robert Altman’s new film Dr. T and the Women could be accused of having a misleading title. From one point of view, he ought to have named it Dallasin reference not to the TV show, but to his masterful 1975 epic Nashville. The director is clearly interested in exploring, satirizing, and deconstructing the Big D, just as he did with Music City.
But the proposed new title would also be misleading, in more ways than one. Unlike Nashville, Dr. T doesn’t take on a wide range of civic targets. It concentrates on the rather limited world of upper-crust Dallas females: shopping at a mall location of Tiffany’s, leaving the kids with Latino maids, and obsessing over their reproductive health in the waiting room of Dr. Travis, the city’s foremost OB-GYN. And unlike Nashville, the new film has a central plot line that follows Sully Travis (Richard Gere) through his own private gynecological maze.
Dr. T (as he encourages his patients and staff to call him) thinks that every woman is unique, special, and magical, but the scores of women in his life are testing that faith. His wife (Farrah Fawcett) is suffering from a mental breakdown caused by being loved too much; his older daughter (Kate Hudson) is planning a wedding while trying to become an alternate Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader; his younger daughter (Tara Reid) is hatching conspiracy theories far beyond the scope of her job leading tours of the grassy knoll; and his sister-in-law (Laura Dern) is gulping down champagne like lemonade. All the while, his waiting room pulsates with the shrieks of Dallas’ coiffed, feathered, and behatted distaff set.
When Dr. T meets Bree, the new golf pro at his club (played by Helen Hunt), it’s instantly clear that she’s different. She drives her own cart, wears low-heeled shoes, and takes the initiative in starting a romantic liaison. The movie is different when they’re together toonone of Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue, no jokey pans to signage that comments on the action. Hunt is so good at simply being different from “the women” that she makes us believe in Gere as a truly tortured soul. Their scenes together ripple quietly outward, keeping the film from flying apart under the (literally) hysterical pressure of its diva-laden cast.
But much of the rest feels like something from 25 years ago, something that’s hard to imagine being meaningful today, even as satire. Altman has taken the screenplay by Anne Rapp (who also wrote his last comedy, Cookie’s Fortune) and has skewed it in such a self-consciously “Altmanesque” direction that it plays like self-parody to even the most sympathetic viewer. Although there are pleasures to be had in the film’s uproar of farce and exaggeration, they are no longer the fresh and vital pleasures of Altman’s golden age. They are stale at best, and rank with bitterness at worst. Perhaps it would have been better if Dr. T hadn’t reminded us of Nashville at all.
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