Monday, October 30, 2006

Sandra Bullock

One of Hollywood's leading contenders for the coveted title of "America's Sweetheart" in the mid-1990s, the unconventionally beautiful, raven-haired Sandra Bullock first gained widespread attention as Sylvester Stallone's partner in the satirical sci-fi actioner "Demolition Man" (1993). The daughter of a German opera singer mother and an American voice coach father, she began performing on stage as a child extra in her mother's operas. After college, Bullock landed some Off-Broadway roles and a part in the TV-movies "Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman" (NBC, 1989) and "The Preppie Murder" (1989) before nabbing the lead in the short-lived TV sitcom version of "Working Girl" (NBC, 1990).

After snagging the female lead in a small indie "Who Shot Patakango?" (1989), Bullock saw her feature career began to excel. She co-starred in the romantic comedy "Love Potion No. 9" and delivered a superb performance as a cynical feminist artist in "When the Party's Over" (both 1992). "Demolition Man", coupled with her appearance as an aspiring country & western singer in Peter Bogdanovich's ill-fated "The Thing Called Love" (1993), introduced her to a wider audience, paving the way for her first taste of movie stardom as Annie, the reluctant bus driver opposite Keanu Reeves, in the blockbuster "Speed" (1994). Her innate wit, intelligence and general likeability helped elevate what could have been a standard "girl" role, allowing her to drive off with the film's best notices.

In a part originally intended for the overpriced Demi Moore, Bullock headlined the romantic comedy "While You Were Sleeping" (1995), a surprise hit co-starring Bill Pullman and Peter Gallagher as the other points of a love triangle. Now a full-fledged movie star, she was equally adept in a Julia Roberts-type role as a hapless computer operator stumbling onto a major conspiracy in "The Net" (1995). Bullock rebounded from the pallid caper comedy "Two If By Sea" (1996, opposite Denis Leary) with a dramatic supporting turn as a law student who finds herself attracted to a married Southern lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) she is assisting in Joel Schumacher's feature version of the John Grisham's best-seller "A Time to Kill" (also 1996). Unfortunately, Richard Attenborough's "In Love and War" (1996), based on the real-life romance between author Ernest Hemingway (Chris O'Donnell) and the nurse he fictionalized in "A Farewell to Arms", proved a disappointment with the actress miscast as the slightly older woman. Equally disappointing was the inevitable (and misguided) sequel "Speed 2: Cruise Control" (1997), which teamed her with Jason Patric on a luxury liner taken over by a madman. Bullock earned a reputation through interviews as a fun-loving type who nonetheless doesn't suffer fools gladly, and her mixture of brazenness and caginess only served to warm the hearts of audiences. Trying to shake the girl-next-door image with which she'd be saddled, she managed to make herself seem even more down-to-earth, still a girl-next-door, but a smart, edgy and witty one.

Bullock wrote, produced, directed and co-starred in (opposite McConaughey who shared producing duties) "Making Sandwiches" (1997), a 40-minute short screened at the Sundance Film Festival. As executive producer of "Hope Floats" (1998), she proved she had an eye for the type of Everywoman role that had earned her kudos in the past. The film garnered generally favorable reviews and generated a respectable box office. Later that year, the actress lent her vocal talents to the character of Miriam in DreamWorks animated biblical tale "The Prince of Egypt" and co-starred with Nicole Kidman as sisters who use witchcraft to solve their romantic problems in "Practical Magic" (which she also co-executive produced). Bullock continued to prove her savvy by teaming with Ben Affleck in the romantic road movie "Forces of Nature" (1999).

While prior and subsequent producing efforts were successful, Bullock and co-star Liam Neeson couldn't save the awkward and unfunny crime comedy "Gun Shy" (2000). She returned to form later that year as a NYC writer and party girl sentenced to "28 Days" of rehab. Here the actress capably portrayed both the often hard-to-watch human weakness as well as humor of her addict character. She next impressed moviegoers (if not many critics) with a turn as a tomboyish streetwise FBI agent posing as a polished beauty queen in the romantic comedy "Miss Congeniality". Paired with Benjamin Bratt, Bullock further proved to be a delightful comedic actress, flaunting her character's newfound grace with the appropriate gracelessness—she revised the role for the 2005 sequel, "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" (2005), this time posing as a Las Vegas showgirl. An active producer and actress, Bullock went forth into the new millennium with many projects on her plate, including strangely appropriate mentions for such iconic heroine roles as Wonder Woman and Lois Lane.

While she didn't play any superheroes, Bullock was very busy for the next few years taking on a variety of roles in rapid succession. In 2002, she starred as a homicide detective in "Murder by Numbers," and as a southern playwright in the film adaptation of "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." She next went back to her romantic comedy roots, starring with Hugh Grant in the underwhelming "Two Weeks Notice" (2002), with the actress playing the aide-de-camp to a reckless mogul who doesn't appreciate the doting care she gives him. At this point in her career, Bullock was entering dangerous Doris Day territory, playing winsome, klutzy roles that were better suited for someone younger. However, her very brief turn in the racially charged, multi-plot drama "Crash" (2005) was a step in the right direction, with Bullock playing a middle aged white L.A. woman of privilege who, after a traumatic carjacking, angrily acts out on all of her worst prejudices and racial fears.

The actress then played To Kill a Mockingbird author Nelle Harper Lee opposite Toby Jones as Truman Capote in the biopic "Infamous" (lensed 2005)--not to be confused with 2005's "Capote" with Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same roles—as they become involved with convicted killer Perry Smith (Mark Ruffalo) in a film based on Gore Vidal's oral biography. Bullock next re-teamed with her "Speed" co-star Keanu Reeves for "The Lake House" (2006), as a doctor and an architecture school dropout who live in the same house two years apart and fall in love via letters they exchange through a mailbox that mysteriously bridges time. She was then set to star opposite Julian McMahon in the thriller "Premonition" (lensed 2006), which follows a housewife whose husband dies in a car crash only to reappear alive the next day.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ben Stiller

Trying to cast the lead role of Mel Coplin, an adoptee searching for his biological parents in the wake of his own son's birth in the comedy "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), writer-director David O. Russell knew what he wanted: "a young Dustin Hoffman type, who was kind of urban, kind of smart and ethnic." Ben Stiller, the only son of the venerable husband-and-wife comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, convinced Russell that he could fill the bill.

Increasingly busy before and behind the camera, the curly-haired, quirkily handsome actor-writer-director seemed well poised to become the poster boy for Generation X era comedy--regardless of his stated discomfort with such a designation. With decisive roles played by nepotism, "Saturday Night Live" and MTV, Ben Stiller's swift career trajectory may be somewhat paradigmatic to those for whom the name "Barrymore" evokes "Drew" before "John" or "Lionel".

Stiller utilized his connections to land his first professional acting job in the 1985 Lincoln Center revival of John Guare's dark comedy "The House of Blue Leaves" (his mother was in the original production) after two years of struggling. During its run, he made a short comic film with the play's cast (which ended up airing on "Saturday Night Live"). In 1987, Stiller reprised the role of the son, Ronnie Shaughnessy, a would-be papal assassin, for the play's PBS "American Playhouse" production. In that same very productive year, he also made his film acting debut in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and his TV writing and acting debut in a ten-minute short parody of Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" for NBC's "Saturday Night Live", in which he offered a devastating caricature of Tom Cruise. He subsequently remained as a featured player and apprentice writer on "SNL" for about a year. (Stiller reportedly left due to creative frustration; the show had limited interest in him directing film clips.)

In 1989, he was given his own half-hour comedy/variety show on MTV entitled "The Ben Stiller Show". A prototype to his more elaborate network effort, the series suffered from music video interruptions and the lack of proper format that would have allowed Stiller to showcase his considerable talents. He also continued working in films, playing supporting roles in such diverse misfires and mediocrities as "Hot Pursuit" (1987, with his father), "Fresh Horses" (1988), "That's Adequate" (1989, with his parents and sister Amy), "Next of Kin" (1989), the Bette Midler weeper "Stella" (1990) and "Highway to Hell" (1992, another family get-together).

A career turning point came when Fox TV signed him for "The Ben Stiller Show" (1992-93), a sketch comedy program with an emphasis on pop culture parodies. An inspired spoof combining "The Munsters" and "Cape Fear" to create "Cape Munster" (which featured Stiller skillfully evoking a hybrid of Robert De Niro and Eddie Munster) was fairly emblematic of the show's irreverent sensibility. Other sketches, featuring skewerings of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Cruise, The Pig-Latin Lover, the amusement park Oliver Stoneland and the evil sock-puppet Skank made the show one of the hippest and funniest on TV, but it was canceled in its first season. Nevertheless, Stiller shared a writing Emmy for his efforts.

Stiller segued to the big screen as a filmmaker making his feature directorial bow with "Reality Bites" (1994), an old-fashioned romance marketed as a "Generation X" comedy. Co-starred with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, he played a neurotic, workaholic music TV exec who occupies one point in the love triangle. The film received some positive notices--especially for Ryder's performance--and Stiller was commended for his skill with actors but his command of narrative storytelling was deemed shaky in some quarters. In any event, the ostensible target audiences largely steered clear.

Though it still remains too early to make any sweeping generalizations about Stiller's screen persona, one may note that, in his choices, he has eschewed conventional romantic leads in favor of problematic eccentrics. Though occasionally (and from certain angles) quite handsome on camera, Stiller has tended to undercut or lampoon his looks. As a sketch performer, he delighted in mocking such presumed studs as Cruise and U2's Bono. A not atypical film role had him playing an obnoxious fitness guru, the baddie, in the inferior Disney comedy "Heavyweights" (1995). This project was notable for reuniting him with Judd Apatow, here a producer-writer and formerly Stiller's collaborator on his Fox series.

Stiller returned to the director's chair for (and played a small role in) "The Cable Guy" (1996). Though budgeted at a formidable $40 million (half of which went to its ascendant star), this Jim Carrey vehicle dared to offer a change-of-pace as the rubber-faced comic played a darker, more menacing variation of his usual persona. Though the film has its share of admirers, "The Cable Guy" proved to be the first flop of Carrey's career as a superstar and stalled Stiller's behind-the-scenes work.

Also in 1996, Stiller enjoyed a solid art-house success with the starring role in "Flirting with Disaster", a rare straightforward romantic lead. He also brought manic energy to his portrayal of a conceptual artist with designs on Sarah Jessica Parker in the unsuccessful romantic comedy "If Lucy Fell". He finished out the year with a (shrewdly?) uncredited turn in fellow "SNL" alum Adam Sandler's feature vehicle "Happy Gilmore", as the smarmy operator of a nursing home.

1998, however, proved to be Stiller's breakout year as a performer. He began with an understated turn as the partner of a reclusive investigator in "Zero Effect", directed by Jake Kasdan. On the heels of that comic portrayal, he played a nebbish haunted by his high school prom date who hires a private detective to track her down in the Farrelly brothers' low-brow surprise blockbuster "There's Something About Mary". Ironically, he was not the studio's first choice for the role and had to fight for it. But he proved to be perfect, willing to go to any lengths for the part. He captured the awkwardness of a gawky teenager (especially when he caught his private parts in his zipper on the night of the prom) and the odd, forlorn adult version of the same character. As an actor, he was willing to undertake potentially embarrassing scenes and mine them for their humor. Applying a similar technique to dramatic material, Stiller essayed a weaselly college professor who embarks on an affair with his best friend's wife in Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors" and capped the year with an all-out tour de force portraying drug-addicted screenwriter Jerry Stahl in "Permanent Midnight".

Stiller was next featured alongside longtime friend Janeane Garofalo in "Mystery Men" (1999), a disappointing comedy centered around a band of off-kilter superheroes. He rebounded the following year with a starring role in the oddly charming sleeper romance "Keeping the Faith", playing a rabbi who finds himself falling for the same childhood friend (Jenna Elfman) his best friend (Edward Norton as a Catholic priest) is also in love with. That same year he had a bona fide box-office hit with "Meet the Parents", starring as a man driven to desperation by the overprotective and overbearing father (Robert De Niro) of his would-be fiancée (Teri Polo). The feel-bad brand of slapstick comedy connected with a large audience, and Stiller proved not only as lovable a loser as he had in "There's Something About Mary", but a worthy screen partner of De Niro. Acting turns in the independents "The Suburbans" and the aptly named "The Independent" rounded out 2000 for the actor.

Stiller returned to the big screen in 2001 as a director and actor, helming and starring in the often riotous though somewhat poorly received "Zoolander", a send-up of the modeling world at once smart and silly. Released shortly after the tragic events of September 11th, the film lost some of its comedic steam but would find life as a cult favorite. He rejoined his "Zoolander" nemesis and frequent co-star Owen Wilson in "The Royal Tenenbaums", a masterful serio-comedy co-written by Wilson and director Wes Anderson and starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stiller and Luke Wilson as a family with great potential that slowly falls apart as they separate. Stiller's portrayal of anxiety-plagued, rage-ridden, red Adidas warm-up suit-garbed widower Chas featured some of the film's most honestly moving moments and garnered the performer critical accolades.

In 2002, after a cameo in Jake Kasdan's comedy "Orange County," Stiller appeared onscreen in "Run Ronnie Run", a feature adaptation of a popular sketch from the off-kilter HBO comedy series "Mr. Show Starring Bob and David". He next co-starred with Drew Barrymore in the flop "The Duplex" (2003), a black comedy about the lengths one will go to in order to rent the perfect apartment in New York City directed by Danny DeVito, but rebounded with mildly amusing and modest hit comedy "Along Came Polly" (2004), in which he played a risk assessment expert who, after his wife cheats on him during their honeymoon, learns to take chances when he falls for a free spirit (Jennifer Aniston).

Stiller had an amusing recurring stint on the 2004 season of the HBO sit-com "Curb Your Enthusiasm" playing himself as bedeviled by Larry David when the two are tapped to co-star in a stage production of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," and then he took on the role of TV cop Dave Starsky in the parody-minded 2004 version of the ABC cop drama "Starsky & Hutch" opposite his frequent collaborator Owen Wilson. While merely mildly amusing, that film was head and shoulders above Stiller's next effort, "Envy" (2004), an epic misfire co-starring Jack Black and directed by Barry Levison. Unfunny and incoherent in the extreme and begging the question why so many talented people agreed to make the film, "Envy" also relied too heavily on the most played-out elements of Stiller's now-familiar comedic persona.

The actor was slightly more amusing as the puffy-haired, mustached White Goodman, the ruthless if undereducated head of the Purple Cobras team, in the sports comedy "Dodge Ball" (2004). By this time, Stiller was clearly established as a central figure in what many characterized as a comedic Rat Pack-style clique of actors who frequently teamed up and/or cameoed in each other's films--the group also included Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Owen and Luke Wilson and actor Steve Carell.

The actor rebounded successfully at the end of the year with another stint as Gaylord "Greg" Focker in the popular comedy sequel "Meet the Fockers" (2004), which added his character's doting parents (played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) into the family fold. Stiller then lent his distinctive voice to “Madagascar” (2005), Disney’s animated adventure about four zoo animals who escape and inadvertently find themselves in Africa where the city slickers struggle to survive in the wild. His next project was "A Night at the Museum" (2007), a family comedy about a night security guard in the Museum of Natural History who unwittingly unleashes a curse that brings to life the bugs and animals on display.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Danny DeVito

Diminutive (5'), chunky, balding Danny DeVito parlayed his characteristically tough and harsh quasi-Brooklyn style of line delivery and formidable flair for the demonically comic into starring parts by the mid 1980s. His breakthrough film, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), marked his first collaboration with longtime friend Michael Douglas (who produced) and introduced him to Jack Nicholson who had grown up in the same Jersey Shore environs as had DeVito. Utterly believable as the touching and pathetic Martini, one of a fine ensemble of mental patients that included future "Taxi" (ABC, 1978-82; NBC, 1982-83) regular Christopher Lloyd, De Vito landed the part of tyrannical dispatcher Louie De Palma on that acclaimed TV comedy series and began developing his patented screen persona that has served him so well, that of the lovable sleaze.

DeVito's height combined with his million-dollar smile works against the meanness of his characters. At first glance, you expect him to be adorable, but when he turns out to be a monster, you still don't believe he's bad and laugh at the apparent contradiction. This explains why a scammer and a scoundrel ("Romancing the Stone" 1984; "The Jewel of the Nile" 1985), a husband reticent to ransom his wife ("Ruthless People" 1987), an insensitive businessman rapaciously gobbling up companies ("Other People's Money" 1991) and a scandal-mongering tabloid reporter ("L.A. Confidential" 1997) never entirely lose audience sympathy. Whether it's true or not, there is that belief that somewhere buried deep down beneath the nasty veneer is a nugget of a pure gold heart, allowing audiences to forgive him even the most egregious behavior.

After helming episodes of "Taxi" and "Mary" (CBS, 1985), DeVito made an acclaimed feature directing debut with "Throw Momma from the Train" (1987), a frenetic reworking of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" in which he starred as a childish man who tries to persuade his young writing professor (Billy Crystal) to "exchange murders" with him so he can be rid of his shrewish mother (Anne Ramsey). He turned to even darker material for his next directing venture, reuniting "Romancing" stars Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in "The War of the Roses" (1989), a pitch-black comic commentary on yuppie materialism in a marriage gone sour. Though many found the viciousness in this movie disturbing, others loved the flick, perhaps for that very reason. Turner and Douglas gave marvelous performances (as did DeVito in a supporting role), and the director's odd point of view and wild camera angles kept it interesting throughout. DeVito had acted in Jack Nicholson's "Goin' South" (1978), and Nicholson returned the favor in DeVito's "Hoffa" (1992) with the actor's portrayal of the Teamsters Union leader dwarfing both the director's and writer David Mamet's work.

DeVito has enjoyed notable box office successes in roles falling outside his traditional modus operandi, such as co-starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger with puppyish amiability in the silly comedy "Twins" (1988) and delivering a striking performance as the villainous Penguin in Tim Burton's surefire sequel, "Batman Returns" (1992). He enjoyed less success with more sentimental fare like "Jack the Bear" (1993) and "Renaissance Man" (1994) before trying for another hit with the comedy "Junior" (1994). Reuniting him with "Twins" co-star Schwarzenegger and director Ivan Reitman, the film suffered from being too much of a one-joke movie, despite enthusiastic performances by the stars (including Emma Thompson). DeVito has found favor as a voice actor in movies like "Look Who's Talking Now" (1993), "Space Jam" (1996) and "Hercules" (1997), but has scored best in more typically DeVitoesque portrayals like the actor who calls the tune in "Get Shorty" (1995) and the rude gambler in lime-green, shooting craps as the Martians blow up the world in Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996), a movie which afforded him the opportunity to work with Nicholson again.

In 1982, DeVito married actor Rhea Perlman whose character on TV's "Cheers" was virtually a female Louie De Palma. They had lived together since 1970 when she moved in to share an apartment her husband had once shared with Michael Douglas. Perlman played his girlfriend on episodes of "Taxi" that humanized Louie more than did any other events in the series, and before that, during the 1970s, the two had written and produced (DeVito directing) two short films together, "The Sound Sleeper" (1973) and "Minestrone" (1975). The pair starred together in the DeVito-directed "The Wedding Ring" (1986), the second season premiere of the NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories", and then duplicated the feat a decade later in the feature adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel "Matilda" (1996). Again directed and this time produced by DeVito, the picture was a disappointment at the box office, failing to recoup its cost. DeVito also produced "Sunset Park" (1996), starring Perlman, and then, following his critically-acclaimed turn as a sleazy tabloid journalist in "L.A. Confidential", acted the role of a paralegal in the Francis Ford Coppola-directed adaptation of "John Grisham's The Rainmaker" (both 1997), which reunited him with producer-friend Douglas.

As an actor he would continue straddle the line between DeVito the actor and DeVito the icon. The former delivered very effective and often moving turns, such as the karaoke-addicted middle aged romantic of "Living Out Loud" (1998), the aging and troubled salesman of "The Big Kahuna" (1999), Andy Kauffman's paternalistic Hollywood manager George Shapiro in "Man on the Moon" (1999) and a very able turn as a vile fence in writer-director David Mamet's serpentine caper drama "Heist" (2001), as well as in smaller turns like Dr. Horniker in director Sophia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" (1999). DeVito the icon--varying takes on his familiar, gleefully vicious persona--would fare less well in duds like "Drowning Mona" (2000), "Screwed" (2000) and "What's the Worst That Could Happen?" (2001) After a lengthy hiatus away from the director's chair, DeVito returned (also in a supporting role) to the helmer's seat for "Death to Smoochy" (2002), a comedy starring Robin Williams and Edward Norton intended to skewer the personalities behind kiddie TV shows. However, ostensibly attempting to revel in the film's mean-spiritedness, DeVito's heavy-handed often cartoonishly violent approach to the material was off-putting and the script seemed about two years too late to throughly mine and anti-"Barney" sentiment. Back in front of the camera, DeVito also had a nice comedy turn in the lesser-grade Woody Allen film "Anything Else" (2003), playing as Harvey, a manager whose client list has been whittled down to one client. Next as a director DeVito put Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore through homeowner hell in the broad comedy missfire "Duplex" (2003). After a supporting turn in Tim Burton's "Big Fish" (2003), DeVito reprised his role as actor Martin Weir for an amusing string of cameoes in "Be Cool" (2005), the amusing sequel to "Get Shorty." The actor also signed on to costar in the FX comedy "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" for its second season in 2006, playing a retiree who has moved back to the city to spend time with his children.

Co-founder of Jersey Films, DeVito earned his first producing credit for "Hoffa" and served more frequently as producer or executive producer than he has as an actor. Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1995) was arguably the most successful of the movies in which he did not act, but he also functioned in a similar capacity for the lesser-performing "Reality Bites" (1994), "8 Seconds" (1994), "Feeling Minnesota" (1996) and "Gattaca" (1997). As his reputation as a producer grew larger, DeVito was also responsible for shepherding director Steven Soderbergh's cool crime noir "Out of Sight" (1998); screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's well-reviewed directorial debut "Living Out Loud" (1998), in which DeVito also co-starred; "Man on the Moon" (1999) Milo Forman and Jim Carrey's slightly too-pat biopic of comic provocateur Andy Kauffman; Soderberg's Everywoman vehicle "Erin Brockovich" (2000), whicj earned Julia Roberts an Oscar; director Kasi Lemmon's "The Caveman's Valentine" (2001), the Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy "Along Came Polly" (2004) and actor Zach Braff's debut as a writer-director "Garden State" (2004), along with lesser endeavors such as the critically reviled comedy "Drowning Mona" (2000).

As an executive producer, DeVito struggled to make a mark on television, with such one-season wonders as "Kate Brasher," "UC: Undercover" and "The American Embassy," as well as the critically hailed but ratings challenged ABC crime drama "Karen Sisco" (2003 -2004) derived from the female lead character in the film "Out of Sight" and the Comedy Central cult favorite "Reno 911!" (2003- ).