Saturday, April 5, 2008

Here's 'what just happened' with DeNiro and company at film fest


By PHILIP WUNTCH
Movie Critic Emeritus

The AFI Dallas International Film Festival continued its winning streak Friday with Robert DeNiro's onstage appearance at the Inwood following a work-in-progress screening of "What Just Happened?".

Accompanying DeNiro were the film's director Barry Levinson, screenwriter Art Linson and co-producer Todd Wagner. Festival artistic director and CEO Michael Cain moderated the lively session with grace and ease.

For veteran film reporters, the Q&A panel held some surprises. Ask any of us to name our five worst interviews, and Levinson's name probably will pop up. But he was forthcoming and even humorous when discussing this searing comedy about the chaotic process of making a movie.

For his part, DeNiro was mellow and jokey though not exactly jocular. Linson and Wagner were both pleasant and polished.

"What Just Happened?" continues DeNiro's string of comedies, which he insists was not a conscious career move.

"Things just came along in comedy," he said. "I've always seen the comic side of my characters. Some of the things I did in 'Taxi Driver' I thought were very funny."

Unlike, say, Daniel Day-Lewis, DeNiro never gets completely immersed in a character.

"I never get so caught up in characters that I can't shake free of them," said the star of such heavy dramas as "Raging Bull" and "The Deer Hunter."

"I've never had to smack myself to get back into reality. I don't actually need much down time. There's already a lot of down time for actors when making a movie. You wait for camera set-ups and all that. Not even with Jake LaMotta [in "Raging Bull"] did I need more down time than was provided on the set."

"What Just Happened?" presents moviemaking as a parade of colossal egos and outlandish circumstances.

"I've been close to a lot of things in real life that would seem too preposterous to put into a movie," DeNiro said. "All of us have had enough experiences to fill in the blanks of 'What Just Happened?' with people we know."

DeNiro plays a harried movie producer, and one of the film's funniest scenes involves a disastrous test screening.

"Test screenings can be horrifying and completely perplexing," says Levinson, whose credits includes "Diner," "Rain Man," "Bugsy" and "Wag the Dog" (which also starred DeNiro). He compared test screenings to "turning in a term paper and having 700 people grade it."

In "What Just Happened?," both Bruce Willis and Sean Penn play themselves. For Willis especially, it's a less-than-flattering self-portrait.

"Bruce was a great sport to be in this film," Linson said. "He was willing to make fun of himself." (Actually, some of Willis' excesses were easily traced to Alec Baldwin, with whom Linson worked on "The Edge.")

The cast also includes Catherine Keener, Robin Wright Penn, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci. Wagner considers it an independent film.

"Hollywood only thinks in terms of formula films," Wagner said. "I once sat through a story meeting at Warner Bros. where 18 executives had piles of notes they had taken to justify their high salaries. Talk about too many chefs.

"Actually, the phrase 'indie film' basically just means a film that was probably turned down by five major studios. What really sets an indie film apart from a studio film is passion. We have passion for all our films."

SATURDAY "CIRCUS": In a festival rich with strong documentaries, "Circus Rosaire" is one of the most delectable. It will be repeated today, 4 p.m., at the Angelika, with personal appearances not only by members of the Rosaire family but also by Ricky the Chimp, who plans on wearing a tuxedo.

"Circus Rosaire" inspects the dying industry of the traveling circus and the loving enterprise of the Rosaire family, who have been in the entertainment business for nine generations. Some ancestors held the office of court jesters.

Animal lovers, which include all Wuntches, have no reason to panic, much less picket. The Rosaire clan love their animals and never treat them with anything resembling harshness. But professionally, times are difficult.

"We work whenever we can, but it's a dying business," said Pamela Rosaire-Zoppe. "Fuel prices are killing us, just like they are everyone else. But God bless everyone who has sawdust in their veins.

"We never get rid of our animals," she said. "We keep them for all of their lives."

Their cast of characters includes lively lions, handsome horses, agile canines and extremely intelligent chimpanzees. Although family members refuse to name their favorites, the movie suggests that chimps occupy a special place in their affections.

In fact, a chimp named Newton could fix them bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner. And it is Newton who supplies the film's saddest moment. His fate reminds the family and the audience that animals frequently do not outlive their owners.

"Chimps are incredibly human," Rosaire-Zoppe said. "They love to play tricks on us. Once they locked us out of the car, turned on the radio and just had a great time. We stood outside the car, watching them."

GREAT DOC: Another outstanding documentary is "I.O.U.S.A.," to be repeated today, 9:15 p.m. at the Magnolia.

With colorful graphics and humorous yet probing narration, it inspects our growing national deficit and how it will affect future generations. Never fear that it will play like a civics lesson. The tone is sprightly and enlightening, even while the facts are disturbing.

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