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George Hickenlooper 1963-2010

November 19th, 2010 No comments

 

As we wrote earlier in For Bards Blog, film director George Hickenlooper died of natural causes in Denver on October 30, 2010. He was there to screen his latest film, “Casino Jack,” starring Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. George Hickenlooper’s cousin, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was just elected Governor of Colorado, made the sad announcement of George’s passing.

George Hickenlooper, apart from having a remarkably distinctive name, was a talented and driven film director – and a nice guy. I actually met George at Yale back in 1983, where I had returned after recently graduating to write an article about the study of film at the university for the alumni magazine. During my time in New Haven I met with several students who were producing films, including “Flashdance” star Jennifer Beals, but it was the young sophmore Hickenlooper who caught my attention. The other students I spoke with recounted their film experiences or offered to show me their work, but young Hickenlooper produced a polished ‘Press Kit’ of his film career, dating back to his days as a super-8mm director in his teens, replete with press clippings and reviews. At the time, Hickenlooper told me his current project was “Newark Needs Insurance,” an oddly prescient 16mm film “black comedy about the arms race.” As he described it, the 50 minute color and B&W sound film told the story of the theft of a nuclear device from a terrorist group, and involved a budget of $6,000.

After graduating Yale in 1986, Hickenlooper interned for low-budget king Roger Corman, then in 1988 he made his professional bow as a director with “Art, Acting and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper,” a short documentary for TV. His dealings with Hopper and Corman protege Francis Ford Coppola would pay off big-time for his next project, which is arguably the best ‘making-of’ documentary ever assembled. The film is “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” directed by Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola (whose on-set ‘home footage’ was the inspiration for the documentary), and is an incredible perspective inside the experience of filming Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that almost killed its star, nearly bankrupted its director, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes… Hickenlooper won an Emmy for ‘Hearts of Darkness,’ but the film, clearly an Oscar contender, was declared ineligible because of its HBO airings.

George’s next film, the 1994 short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” catapulted writer/lead Billy Bob Thornton to stardom once  Thornton took his own story and expanded it to feature length, replacing Hickenlooper with himself as director. Thornton won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an acting nod as well.

A TV-movie pilot followed for George, “Crosstown Traffic,” but the show was never picked up. Soon after, George made his theatrical feature directing debut with the Rory CochraneKyra Sedgwick-starrer “The Low Life,” about dissolute Yalies living in Los Angeles. His next film was a mystery drama, 1996’s “Persons Unknown,” starring Joe Mantegna. After that, Hickenlooper returned to short film filmmaking, sketching out “The Big Brass Ring”  in 1997, which would prepare George to make the feature length version of the story a few years later, in 1999. His next film was a documentary: a profile of iconic 60s filmmaker Monte Hellman in “Monte Hellman: American Auteur.” Equally adept at making fiction films and documentaries, Hickenlooper would alternate doing both for the rest of his career.

After the feature version of his “The Big Brass Ring” in 1999, which was based on an original story by Orson Welles, George set his sights on “The Man from Elysian Fields,” in 2001, which starred Andy Garcia as a writer who is seduced into a gigolo lifestyle by mysterious Luther Fox, played by Mick Jagger. The film was well-reviewed, and marked a welcome return to the screen for Jagger in a role that seemed custom-made for him.

George would only go on to make 7 other films, four of them documentaries: “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about L.A. radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer (perhaps the only personality with a name more distinctive than Hickenlooper’s) in 2003,  “Speechless,” in 2008, about the WGA Writers’ Strike, a 2009 short, “Out in the City,” and his 2009 documentary “‘Hick’ Town,” about his cousin John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor, as Hizzoner attempts to keep things moving smoothly during Denver’s hosting of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In between documentaries, George made the short “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in 2005, appearing onscreen as a director to whom actresses confess their sexual histories. His next feature film, 2006’s “Factory Girl,” starring Sienna Miller as ill-fated Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, revisited historical territory George covered in “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a pattern he repeated often in his directing career.

George Hickenlooper was in Denver to screen his latest feature film, “Casino Jack,” which relates the story of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his brazen influence peddling. Produced by star Kevin Spacey, the film, which opens on December 17, is already earning critical plaudits. Unfortunately, the driving force behind the project will not be present when his film opens.

George Hickenlooper is survived by his wife Suzanne and their son Charles. “The light that burns twice as bright burns but half as long.” He will truly be missed.

Hollywood’s Best at Last?

November 10th, 2010 No comments

Earlier this year, I wrote in For Bards Blog about Joe Queenan’s contention that 2010 was the worst year for movies ever. While For Bards Blog took a more cautious approach, citing box office champs “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” as quality successes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Queenan may have had a point. Despite the successes of a few films, quality pickings at the local multiplex or arthouse cinema have been few and far between. For every thought-provoking and poignant independent film like “Never Let Me Go,” or pedigreed Hollywood release like “The Social Network,” there are multiple go-for-the-quick-money, Hollywood-factory releases like “Salt,” “Jackass 3-D,” “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” or “Robin Hood.” And it’s no accident that so many kids’ movies are released in 3-D, since 3-D simply increases ticket prices, strengthening the studio’s bottom lines.

But there may be a glimmer of hope for serious filmgoers. The holiday film season is upon us, and with it comes a lot of big-budget and high-profile fare, including a 3-D sequel to Disney’s 1982 classic “Tron,” “Tron: Legacy,” along with Danny Boyle’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” the harrowing “127 Hours.” Action films are represented by Twentieth Century Fox’s “Unstoppable,” which goes head-to-head with Universal Pictures’ “Skyline,” in mid-November, but one week later the first part of the final Harry Potter adventure bows; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)” faces the latest Russell Crowe adventure, “The Next Three Days,” in which Crowe attempts to break his wrongly-accused wife out of prison. In December, the final film based on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” will open opposite a Ben AffleckChris Cooper dramatic comedy about corporate downsizing, “The Company Men.” Also opening the same week is “The Tempest,” a gender-bender version of William Shakespeare’s play, directed by Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe”), starring Helen Mirren. Another opener that week is the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” which combines Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) with equally-honored scribes Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects.”)

As Christmas nears, the mood lightens, and comedies enter the fray. The week of December 22, a 3-D retelling of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” opens with Jack Black in the title role, along with “Little Fockers,” the third go-round in the “Meet the Parents” series, featuring Oscar winners Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand as well as Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel. Also opening just before Christmas is “Somewhere,” writer-director Sofia Coppola’s insider Hollywood drama. Also, Paramount has  announced it is moving “True Grit,” the Joel and Ethan Coen re-telling of the Charles Portis novel, forward a few days from its originally-scheduled Christmas release date. Evidently the feeling at Paramount is that they’ve got a strong contender on their hands with last year’s Oscar-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, in the Rooster Cogburn role, (which won the original film’s Cogburn, John Wayne, his only Oscar) and hopes are a few extra days will help fuel Oscar buzz and the film’s bottom line.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… There’s a new James L. Brooks film, “How Do You Know,” coming out in mid-December, featuring Brooks’ good-luck charm Jack Nicholson in a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. For the serious moviegoer, there’s “Rabbit Hole,” a marital drama starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about the aftermath of a traumatic loss. And let’s not forget “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” a love-tale between prison convicts Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, or David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, “Fair Game” with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, “For Colored Girls,” “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman and “Love and other Drugs,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, in which a pharmaceutical rep falls for a Parkinson’s patient.

This doesn’t even touch the vast number of independent and ‘art’ films that will fill the theaters late this year. So – was 2010 the ‘worst movie year ever?’ It’s impossible to tell – let’s see what it still has to offer…

Finally, “Casino Jack,” the last film by director George Hickenlooper, who died last week at the age of 47, will open December 17. Based on the twisted tale of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the film is highly regarded by those who have already seen it, and only underscores the loss of director Hickenlooper at such a young age. More will follow about Hickenlooper, who I first wrote about 30 years ago when he was a student at Yale, soon in For Bards Blog.