Hidden Netflix Gems – The Extra Man

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

The Extra Man is a rather unconventional film about a pair of very unconventional characters. Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a young aspiring playwright who moves to New York City after an embarrassing incident that forces him to quit his job. He meets and moves in with Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a former professor and playwright who now works as an “extra man,” which he stresses is not the same as a gigolo, or even a male escort; first of all, he doesn’t receive money for his services, and secondly, he doesn’t engage in anything sexual with the wealthy older women who hire him. Instead, he says, he brings a certain air of respectability and class to his engagements, in exchange for gifts and fine meals. In the meantime, he lives the sort of penniless existence that occasionally requires him to paint his ankles and calves with shoe polish in order to disguise the fact that he has forgotten to buy socks, which he says may have the added benefit of killing some of the fleas that inhabit him.

Louis is duly fascinated by Henry’s eccentric, acerbic ways, and Kline delivers one of the best performances of his career, mining big laughs from lines like, “I’m against the education of women. It dulls their senses and effects their performance in the boudoir.” He also rails against such practices as recycling and charity to the homeless, which makes an interesting contrast to Louis’ newfound job at an environmental magazine, where he develops a crush on his vegan, uber-green co-worker, Mary Powell (Katie Holmes). Louis is also fascinated by Henry’s mysterious, bearded neighbor, Gershon Gruen (John C. Reilly), who can be heard through the vents each morning singing beautifully as he showers. Louis is hiding his own eccentricity from his new friends, and without giving away too much about the course this particular character development takes, I will say it is perhaps the most sensitive, realistic exploration of heterosexual cross-dressing since Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

Co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, adapting a novel by Bored to Death scribe Jonathan Ames, clearly share Louis’ attraction to cranky oddballs such as Henry, as evidenced in their excellent first feature, American Splendor. Henry has much in common with that film’s protagonist, Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti), though there is a misplaced sense of class superiority in Henry that Harvey would undoubtedly abhor. Still, as mean-spirited and narrow-minded as Henry often seems to be, it is difficult as an audience member not to share in this fascination; as Louis says at one point, “You have a strange power over people, Henry,” to which Henry replies, “It’s my constant disapproval. People think it fatherly.” He might not be someone most of us would actually want to live with, but Henry is a wonderful cinematic creation, and probably Kline’s funniest role since A Fish Called Wanda. Though The Extra Man has much else to recommend it, it is this central character that buoys the film, and brings added life to all around him.

  

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Interview with Imogene Co-Director Shari Springer Berman

After years of directing documentaries, Shari Springer Berman made big waves in the independent film world with her first feature, American Splendor, co-directed with her husband and filmmaking partner Robert Pulcini. Since then, the pair has continued making narrative features such as The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, the HBO film Cinema Verite and the upcoming Imogene, starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. I had a chance to speak briefly with Berman on Wednesday evening, as part of Columbia University’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: I’ve noticed a strong fascination in your films for a sort of cranky and eccentric, but lovable, type of character, such as Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor or Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) in The Extra Man. From what I’ve read about your next film, Imogene, with the title character faking a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex, it sounds like that character fits the bill. What attracts you to these kind of characters, and what else can you tell us about Imogene?

Shari Springer Berman: I am attracted to cranky, lovable people. Bob and I … both are; I don’t know why, I guess my therapist could probably answer that question better than I could [laughs]. I guess I love the idea of someone who isn’t overtly nice, and I feel like so many movies, especially Hollywood movies, it’s so about people being nice. One of the biggest notes when I write for studio films … is that the character has to be likable, and I think that people can be completely lovable and not, on the surface, nice. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life are people who are a bit cranky, not necessarily traditionally nice, but underneath, some of the kindest, most giving people you’d ever want to meet … My grandmother was kind of a little bit cold, and very snarky, but I knew she loved me more than anything in the world, and when she said something kind, it was very real. So I like characters like that … and Imogene is definitely a continuation of the slightly brittle but completely lovable, root-for-them, character. Imogene’s mom [Annette Bening] is not one of those people; she’s very out there and wears a lot on her sleeve – who she is, is very available.

ES: You started out making documentaries, and certainly some of the techniques you brought to American Splendor reflect that background. What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you think documentaries have over narrative, and vice versa?

SSB: It’s completely different. I love documentaries because you don’t know what you’re going to get. When you make a narrative film, your whole goal is to know what you’re going to get … In a documentary, when you’re approaching it the way I like to approach it, you go in with sort of a general idea and then you allow it to happen to you, and you’re open to all kinds of things, and there’s something really thrilling about that experience. It takes you in directions you had no idea you would ever go … Docs take years, and you have to just give yourself over to it. Sometimes it’s really boring, but I like the adrenaline of shooting verite footage – not seated interviews … but just going out and covering events – it’s this really crazy adrenaline rush, and I love it … I miss that sometimes. In this movie, Imogene, that we just shot, we wanted to shoot a scene of a guy walking around with this strange outfit … in Chinatown, and my ADs [assistant directors] were stopping everybody and we were just putting this guy in a crowd and letting him walk, and I was like, ‘Okay, you know what? We have to shoot this like a doc.’ I told the Ads to go get a cup of coffee … I’m gonna take over … and we got all this stuff … genuine reactions to this guy walking down this massive street, and it was one of the most fun days … Working with actors is probably my favorite part – that or writing – is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

ES: How do you and your husband divide up the duties of directing a film? What is your working process like?

SSB: We have different strengths, and I think that’s why it works, because we sort of take different areas and run with it. I do a lot of … sort of organizational stuff, and he spends a lot of time with the camera, the shots. I used to be a casting director, so I do a lot of casting and, obviously, Bob’s involved in it and I’m involved in everything, too, but these are just the things that we each take the lead on … I talk to the actors, that’s my sort of arena, and if Bob wants something [from them], he’ll tell me … but usually, we see eye to eye. I mean, you have to have the same aesthetic approach; if you don’t see the world the same way and you don’t like the same films, then you’re gonna constantly be battling, so luckily, we tend to agree a lot.

  

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Ice-cold weekend box office news: “Inception” steals a dreamy threepeat

Leo and a guy named Joe in

Yeah, I’m really late on this — blame a big press day yesterday and three deadlines today and you’ve got your reason. On the upside, for once, we’re dealing in “actuals” from Box Office Mojo, not estimates. However, I’ll keep things short, which will be sweet.

Yes, Christopher Nolan fans, his thriller is apparently not at all too smart for movie audiences, once again showing some real legs with a nice weekend total for “Inception” of roughly $27.5 million. (I really need to see it, don’t I? You know I just caught up with “Kick-Ass” last week, however…) In second place, the new wide release, which might not be great cinema but which I found actually funny, “Dinner for Schmucks,” did a decent $23.5 million, though the movie feels pricey at a $69 million budget.

The week’s other new releases, which really did look weak to me on Friday, proved to be just that, coming in behind two other solid hits, “Salt” and “Despicable Me.” “Charlie St. Cloud” and “Cats vs. Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” had a photo finish at the fourth and fifth place spots, making roughly $12.4 and $12.3 million, respectively. Since “St. Cloud” cost about half as much to make as “Kitty Galore,” it’s definitely the lesser loser, but at $44 million it’s still got a long way to go to profitability.

I’m running out of steam quickly, but that’s not true for either of the two limited releases I’ve been dealing with here to various degrees, “Get Low” (which I seem to like the least of any critic) and “The Extra Man,” where I’m a tad more positive than most.  On the other hand, “The Kids Are All Right” performed well, but not brilliantly, in its first weekend in semi-wide release. (I need to see that, too.) Indiewire has the details for those of you who need specifics, like numbers and stuff.

  

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A roundtable chat with Kevin Kline of “The Extra Man”

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A highly accomplished stage actor, trained at Julliard under the tutelage of such exacting instructors as the legendary John Houseman, Kevin Kline pretty much started his film career as one of the best of the best, a genuine “actor’s actor” and also something of an old fashioned movie star with the presence to match. His first movie role was opposite Meryl Streep in Alan Pakula’s 1982 Oscar-winning film version of “Sophie’s Choice.” That was followed by Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-nominated ensemble dramedy, “The Big Chill,” and a leading role opposite Denzel Washington in Richard Attenborough’s portentous 1987 apartheid drama, “Cry Freedom.”

Though that was followed up by a part in Kasdan’s lighthearted homage to classic westerns, “Silverado,” Kevin Kline’s comic gifts remained under-recognized until his utterly ingenious, deservedly Oscar-winning turn as the murderous and hilariously insecure and pretentious Otto in the farce classic, “A Fish Called Wanda.” After that Kline became one of the screen’s most reliable comic leading men with parts in such high-quality mainstream comedies as “Dave” and “In and Out,” was well as the occasional part in such hard-edged tragicomic dramas as “Grand Canyon,” again with Lawrence Kasdan, and Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.”

Kline, who recently completed a successful stage run in Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Jennifer Garner, has — like other outstanding actors of his generation — gracefully moved from the A-list to the art-house. Though once noted for turning down movie roles in favor of stage work — John Stewart reminded him of his “Kevin Decline” nickname on his recent “Daily Show” “Colbert Report” appearance — Kline has been a busy and hugely reliable film actor for decades. More recent roles include the screen’s first correctly gay Cole Porter in the 2004 musical biopic “De-Lovely,” Garrison Keillor’s radio detective Guy Noir in Robert Altman’s 2006 swan song, “A Prairie Home Companion,” Jacques in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and the 21st century’s version of Inspector Dreyfus opposite Steve Martin‘s Inspector Clouseau in the rebooted “Pink Panther” series.

Add to those the role of the suave but irascible platonic male escort Henry Harrison in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novel, “The Extra Man.” Taking in a confused and nervous younger protegee (Paul Dano of “There Will Be Blood”), Harrison is an utterly reactionary self-made throwback to another time and place, and an ideal role for an actor gifted with the finest of old fashioned acting virtues.

Kevin Kline and Paul Dano in

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Weekend box office preview: PG/PG-13 comedies with veiled genitalia references take on “Inception”

cats&dog2

Yes, I’m going to be brief and terse today for, as you can see, we’re pretty busy here at Premium Hollywood right now. However, allow me me to tell you two things. As discussed at a recent press conference I attended, Paramount’s “Dinner for Schmucks” contains a Yiddish word literally meaning “penis” in its title and might just as easily been named “Dinner for Dicks,” if we were all living in a shtetl.  The 3-D kiddie sequel from Warner’s, “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” contains an at-one-remove non-reference to female genitalia that somehow seems a million times dirtier to me than the real reference contained in the wonderfully absurd name of the character played by Honor Blackman in the greatest-James-Bond-ever-made (aka, “Goldfinger”).

That being said, both movies have their potential commercial upsides and downsides as they struggle to top the predicted $25-$30 million dollar third weekend for Christopher Nolan’s brain-based blockbuster, “Inception.” I personally don’t know why any parents went to see the first “Cats & Dogs” beyond being dragged forcibly by little ones, but they went. I’m personally convinced watching ‘net videos of non-CGI assisted/created cats and dogs would be a lot more amusing.  The new film adds the 3-D factor and, as jolly Carl DiOrio notes, may be something of a test for the ongoing commercial appeal of the format-cum-gimmick.

Steve Carell has something to show Paul Rudd in I’ve seen “Schmucks” (been one, too) and, while I understand Dave Medsker’s more-negative-than-positive review — well, except for the part about Zach Galifianakis, who pretty much put me away — I myself come down more on the positive side. It’s not great film-making nor is it an example of great screenwriting, but it engaged me and made me laugh quite a bit, mostly based on the sheer invention of its cast, particularly the supporting players, most definitely also including Jemaine Clement. Considering the audience reaction the night I saw it, I’m willing to wager it’ll do the same for most rank-and-file film-goers and could perhaps over-perform on the ongoing appeal of stars Steve Carell and Paul Rudd.

There’s one more new major release, “Charlie St. Cloud,” a fantasy tearjerker for Zac Efron that apparently borrows a page or two from the Nicholas Sparks playbook and may perhaps set the hearts of some teens and tweens aflutter. It doesn’t seem likely to hit the big leagues. Of course, the reviews aren’t so hot.

There is also more than a little action on the indie/limited release front this week. The highly acclaimed “The Kids Are All Right” has a major expansion that could take it through to Oscar time.  There is “The Extra Man” which I’ve been covering here as you may have noticed (more is on the way) which I liked more than most critics. There is also the well-reviewed by nearly everyone but a few fine cinephiles, and me, “Get Low.” The Oscar talk is already flying about this one for the great Robert Duvall in his folksy mode, and we’ll see whether it allows the film some, forgive me, tender mercies from arthouse filmgoers.

Robert Duvall, getting low

  

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