"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The Playlist doesn’t break news all that often, merely seeing fit to be a one-stop shop for the movie news that everyone else breaks during the day (I don’t mean that as an insult, the Playlist is the site I go to if I only have time to surf one movie news site in a given day). So it’s somewhat of a big deal that the Playlist broke a pretty major story last week, confirming that director Gary Ross will not be back to helm the second and/or third films in the “Hunger Games” franchise. There had been rumblings all week about contract negotiations, and Ross has now politely passed. The site chalks it up to Ross’ lack of desire to stay in the same universe for the next several years combined with a somewhat low-ball offer from Lionsgate. Whatever the case, Ross is gone and the hunt for a new director is on.
While editing my “John Carter” obituary a few weeks ago, I removed a large paragraph dealing with the trend of giving young white male filmmakers with barely a feature credit to their name the keys to $100 million-$300 million franchise films while seasoned pro women and/or minorities remain noticeably absent from the “wish list” (yes, I was glad to see F. Gary Gray on the Marvel wish-list for “Captain America 2″). And while I wouldn’t consider “The Hunger Games” a “female film,” it would be a great opportunity to make a point that female directors can indeed handle the kind of big-scale filmmaking that studios are all too willing to offer to mostly untested male directors as a matter of course. So, perhaps arbitrarily, perhaps to prove a point about how inaccessible the wish list is for female directors, here are nine directors who happen to be women who also belong on the wish list as Lionsgate hunts for a second director. These are in alphabetical order, with the exception of the final entry who would be my top choice.
Duh. In fact, she’ll probably make the wish list as a token nod to gender diversity, and all she had to do was become the first female in history to win a best director Oscar. I don’t really have to explain this pick. She’s been directing hard action pictures for 30 years. She’s helmed the likes of “Near Dark” (a dusty vampire thriller that still holds up 25 years later), “Point Break” (which is really better than its camp-fueled reputation), the underrated “Blue Steel,” “Strange Days,” “K19: The Widowmaker,” the two-part guns-ablaze sixth-season finale of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” and of course the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker.” If Lionsgate wants instant critical respectability without breaking a sweat, Bigelow will be at the top of the list, regardless of gender.
“North Country” is the definition of the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. As recently as 2005, Warner Bros. gave Caro the reins to an all-star drama detailing a landmark 1984 sexual-discrimination/harassment suit. Lead Charlize Theron and supporting actress Frances McDormand both justifiably received Oscar nominations for the little-seen October 2005 release. The picture is a straight-up social issues drama, filled with character turns from Richard Jenkins, Sean Bean, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson and then-unknowns Amber Heard, Michelle Monaghan and Jeremy Renner. In 2005, it was one of any number of big studio dramas battling it out for Oscar glory. Today, it would be a front-runner purely by virtue of its existence. Caro’s picture personifies the sort of high-quality big-studio adult drama that is all but an endangered species, and she also helmed the dynamite “Whale Rider” back in 2002 as well. If every studio release were at least as good as “North Country,” I imagine most of us wouldn’t feel the need to constantly whine about the state of studio movies these days.
Yes, “Red Riding Hood” was an entertaining whiff. I like it even while admitting it’s pretty bad (it’s certainly never boring and Gary Oldman is a hoot). But go back and watch the first “Twilight.” Here’s a dirty secret: It’s actually pretty good. It’s light on its feet, quirky, self-deprecating and utterly aware of its melodramatic nature. Unlike the self-serious sequels, which treat their respective source material like holy tombs (and probably would have cut “vampire baseball” out of fear of irreverence), the first “Twilight “is genuinely fun, willing to change little details and add character beats to keep the film engaging. Kristen Stewart is quite compelling as a more self-aware Bella while Robert Pattinson is allowed to be just a little goofy in the opening act (his biology class freak-out is pretty hilarious). Most important for the purposes of this current franchise, the supporting characters are wonderfully fleshed out and brought to life, giving the film a pulpy lived-in quality that none of the sequels can match (Bella’s friends are actually charming and have their own lives). Point being, if you’re among the many critics who wished that even a few of the supporting characters were a little more fleshed out in the first “Hunger Games” installment, why not bring on someone who knows how to build an aggressively lively supporting cast, one that arguably superceded the stars in at least one film? She wouldn’t be my top choice, but there would be some poetic justice to it nonetheless.
Has any movie made in the early 2000s, save perhaps ”Requiem for a Dream,” aged as tragically well as ”American Psycho”? The film got mixed reviews in its day, with many critics unable to look past the grotesque subject matter (and the even more grotesque source material) to notice that the film’s sex and violence were all but beside the point. Christian Bale turns in what will probably be the best performance of his career (certainly Patrick Bateman is as defining a turn as Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle) in a brutal satire of the 1980s “greed is good” corporate mind-set that tragically proves even more topical today as the ghosts of Reagan came back to haunt us in the guise of George W. Bush and corporate giants like Goldman Sachs. Had the film been better received in its time, perhaps Harron wouldn’t have just now helmed a theatrical follow-up, the upcoming ”The Moth Diaries” (she directed an HBO Bettie Page biopic in 2005). Not to repeat a theme (and it won’t be the last time I bring this up), but had “she” been a “he,” Harron probably would have a half-dozen features to her name by this point.
She was supposed to be the mold-breaker. Hired late last year to direct Marvel Comics’ “Thor 2,” Jenkins was supposed to become the first female director to helm a mega-budget comic book tent pole (Lexi Alexander’s “Punisher: War Zone” cost just $30 million). But the rather mysterious “creative differences” excuse sent her packing, replaced by longtime television director Alan Taylor (director of the heartbreaking “Homicide: Life on the Street “series finale and the “Mad Men” pilot), which in turn led to a national grumbling among feminist film pundits and a very pissed-off Natalie Portman. Jenkins’ career is a perfect demonstration of the gender disparity in Hollywood. In an age where Marc Webb is handed the reins to “The Amazing Spider-Man ” after directing one moderately successful low-budget romantic comedy (“500 Days of Summer”), Jenkins has barely worked since directing the Oscar-winning “Monster” nine years ago. She recently won an Emmy for directing the pilot for AMC’s “The Killing,” but that’s pretty much all she’s done since 2003. If you haven’t seen “Monster” in a while, it’s a pretty great movie, and it’s certainly more than just Charlize Theron’s deservedly-Oscar-winning star turn (Christina Ricci is just as good). Call it poetic justice or merely good sense, but Lionsgate would be wise to snap up Jenkins and give her the keys to an even bigger franchise.
In the late 1990s, Mimi Leder was on her way to becoming one of the biggest female directors in modern history. But while male directors get whiff after whiff until their eventual “comeback film” (think Scorsese in the 1980s, from “Raging Bull “to “Goodfellas”), Leder was out after just one high-profile miss. Never mind that “The Peacemaker” was a frighteningly ahead-of-its-time action drama (and a painfully underrated one at that), never mind that “Deep Impact” was at the time the highest grossing film in history directed by a woman. The critical and artistic disaster of “Pay It Forward” pretty much killed everyone involved, ending the film careers of Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment while fatally damaging Kevin Spacey’s prestige. Leder hasn’t directed another theatrical feature since that 2000 disappointment (she helmed the 2009 Morgan Freeman/Antonio Bandaras direct-to-DVD action flick “Thick as Thieves”). She just started preproduction on a remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which, if it comes to pass, will be her first theatrical release in 12 years. If you want a female director who knows how to craft top-notch action, why not hire Leder?
In a gender-neutral world, Lynne Ramsay would be on all of the wish lists right now. After all, she made a splash last year with the fantastic “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” coaxing a career-peak performance from Tilda Swinton and crafting a powerful psychological horror drama that defies easy description or even common interpretation. It’s a powerful and gripping picture, her third feature no less. If “Chronicle’s” Josh Trank can end up with a dozen high-profile choices after making one terrific film, then Ramsay deserves her pick of the litter as well. Of course, the fact that Trank made his mark with a superhero deconstruction and was then offered a bunch of comic book superhero films is in itself a sign of Hollywood’s lack of imagination, which is why Debra Granik (who would also be on various wish lists in a just world) won’t be on this list. There is no escaping the several similarities between “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games” and I’d argue that choosing the helmer of the former is every bit as lazy as choosing Jennifer Lawrence to basically reprise her Oscar-nominated character in the first place. But Ramsay would be an inspired and outside-the-box choice, and arguably someone who can bring suspense and intensity to a franchise that lacked requisite tension the first time around.
With all the seemingly justified hubbub about Brenda Chapman getting canned from Pixar’s “Brave” last year, no one seemed to notice that Dreamworks (who hired Chapman to direct “The Prince of Egypt” 14 years ago) gave one of its prize franchises to a South Korean female director who promptly knocked it out of the park. I assume you don’t need me to remind you how much I loved “Kung Fu Panda 2.” It was my favorite film of 2011 and a splendid action dramedy that absolutely stands with “Toy Story 2,” “The Dark Knight” and “X2: X-Men United” on the list of all-time great genre sequels from the last 15 years. The only reason she isn’t my top pick is because I wouldn’t want her taking the “Chasing Fire” gig to stand in the way of her directing “Kung Fu Panda 3.” But she absolutely deserves a spot on every genre wish list from now until she retires.
And my personal pick…
Yes, it would be groundbreaking/cool/etc. if the reins to today’s biggest new franchise were handed off to an African-American woman. But it would also be just-plain-cool if “Chasing Fire” were handed to the person who happened to direct “Eve’s Bayou” and “Talk to Me.” She directed three features between 1997 and 2007 (the middle one being the not-that-great “The Caveman’s Valentine” in 2001, which still featured a fine star turn from Samuel L. Jackson). But “Eve’s Bayou” is a terrific period drama that features one of Jackson’s best performances, period. ”Talk to Me” is a fine and thoughtful biopic about 1960s Washington, D.C., radio DJ Ralph “Petey” Greene (played by Don Cheadle), which features strong supporting work from Chiwetel Ejiofor (his pool hall conversation with Cheadle is the stuff of acting-class gold), Taraji P. Henson and Martin Sheen (even if Sheen’s best scene ended up on the DVD deleted scenes reel). I don’t pretend to know why she has worked so little in the last 15 years, but her lack of output has always (to me) personified the difficulty that minority and female filmmakers face in terms of having a steady output of movies even after they’ve had one or two successes. Tokenism and/or affirmative action accusations aide, Lemmons has made two awfully good films and deserves a shot at the big leagues at least as much as the likes of Josh Trank and Marc Webb.
OK, your turn to pick. Who would you want to see helm the next “Hunger Games” film? It doesn’t have to be a woman or a minority, but try to be a little creative.
Scott Mendelson is a blogger for Open Salon.More Scott Mendelson.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)