All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

TAO OF STEVE, THE






You’ve really got to admire a picture that can incorporate
references to “The Bugaloos,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Six
Million Dollar Man” on the one hand, and to Soren Kierkegaard,
Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Elaine Pagel’s “The Gnostic
Gospels” on the other, without becoming stilted or precious
in the process. But this debut feature from Jenniphr (no,
that’s not a misprint) Goodman manages the trick; though
employing an utterly conventional romantic design, it tweaks
the formula sufficiently, and populates it with enough likably
quirky characters, to come across as charmingly distinctive
rather than tiredly imitative.

Despite its impenetrable title (which, unfortunately, will
probably scare off more viewers than it attracts), and the
fact that the script is actually based on the real-life
experiences of one Duncan North, “The Tao of Steve” is
basically a spiffy modern reworking of the old plot (used, for
instance, in virtually all the Tracy-Hepburn pictures) about
two obviously incompatible people who nevertheless fall in love.
In the present case the guy is a chubby slacker named Dex
(Donal Logue) who, despite the loss of his hunky collegiate
appearance and an unsexy job as a kindergarten teacher, has
been regularly successful with the ladies (he’s enjoying, for
instance, an ongoing affair with a friend’s wife). While
reluctantly attending a ten-year school reunion, he’s smitten
with Syd (Greer Goodman, the director’s sister), a musician
and designer for the Santa Fe opera who’s staying with some
mutual friends. Before long circumstances throw Dex and
Syd together in a car-pooling scheme, and his pursuit of her
begins. The clever script lets us in on Dex’s amatory technique
by having us listen to the advice he offers to sad-sack,
love-starved roommate Dave (Kimo Wills): that’s the meaning
of “the tao of Steve,” a jokily philosophical concept that
has do do with the “art” of attracting women by being “cool”
(like such hipster Steves as McQueen and Austin)–which means,
in effect, letting girls come to you by not pursuing them too
hard. But Syd proves decidedly resistent to Dex’s strategems.
Will he eventually win her over?

To be honest, the answer to that question isn’t remotely
difficult for anyone who’s seen a movie before; nor is the
reason for Syd’s initial antipathy to Dex terribly surprising.
But “The Tao of Steve” works anyway, because the dialogue is
fresh, the central characters articulate and personable, and
the lead performances winning. Donal Logue is especially
fine, gently fashioning a portrait of the shambling, sloppy Dex
which makes him affable rather than annoying, as he
might so easily have become. (Just compare John Belushi’s
failed attempt at restraint in the similarly-themed 1981
misfire “Continental Divide” to see how easily such a figure
can slide into crude axaggeration.) Goodman’s Syd isn’t nearly
as fully realized a creation, but the actress makes her
sufficiently spiky to serve as a good foil for Dex. The
supporting players are at best adequate except for Wills, who’s
sure to be an audience favorite as the goofily good-natured
Dave.

One probably shouldn’t make too much of “The Tao of Steve”–
it’s basically a piece of romantic fluff without any real
depth or poignancy. But at a time when Hollywood’s attempts
in the same genre generally prove to be crushingly cutesy
and stale, it’s refreshing to find a little picture that can
reinvigorate the formula so agreeably. It may be fluff,
but it’s bright, funny fluff.

ROBERT GREENWALD ON “STEAL THIS MOVIE!”






“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far,” producer-director Robert Greenwald said of making the new film biography of sixties activist Abbie Hoffman, “Steal This Movie!” In Dallas for a screening of the picture at the USA Film Festival, the long-time independent filmmaker, who has originated more than thirty pictures over the last decade and a half and won some thirty Emmy, Golden Globe, Cable Ace and DGA nominations for his work, spoke of his commitment to putting the story onto the screen but also of the difficulty in doing so.

Greenwald’s effort obviously sprang from a personal belief in the subject and its relevance to today’s audiences. “Here’s somebody who made a lifelong commitment to things outside of his own self-interest, things that weren’t about greed,” he said of the activist, who died in 1989. “This is a man who has a real passion about something, and it’s not a passion about a promotion or a paycheck. And that’s a great story, and that’s the story I want to tell, and I can do it without being preachy, hopefully–a story that can reverberate for any generation or age group.”

Greenwald actually met Abbie Hoffman years ago, when the radical was still underground, pursued by law officials. “I got to know Anita Hoffman [Abbie’s wife] in Venice, California, where I live and where, fifteen or sixteen years ago, she and her son played with my younger daughter,” he explained. Soon Hoffman himself contacted Greenwald by phone, and arranged a meeting. “He was incredibly courageous and charismatic and brilliant–the fastest mind,” the director recalled. “Of course,” he added, “I didn’t know he was also manic,” going on to describe Hoffman as “troubled, difficult, and complex” too. (The activist was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive.)

More recently, Greenwald was talking about the sixties with his daughter, and became reacquainted with Hoffman’s book, “Letters from the Underground.” It suddenly struck him that Hoffman’s was an important story, for its social and political themes as well as its personal elements, and so he got back in touch with Abbie’s widow about doing a film about him. Anita was originally concerned about turning her late husband’s life into a typically cliched Hollywood movie–when a studio, long ago, sent a proposed script about himself to Hoffman, Abbie was so incensed by the treatment that he promised to go to every theatre where the picture showed and burn it down–but Greenwald assured her that “no studio will make this movie anyway,” and she agreed to cooperate.

Greenwald set to work fashioning a script, which proved a considerable struggle. “You can’t just do the sixties using traditional form–we had to, in some way, find a form that could capture the energy of it,” he explained. Ultimately the writers settled on a screenplay that fell into two distinct parts, the first dealing with Hoffman’s activist phase and the second with his time underground and after, using the character of a reporter to serve as the audience’s eyes and ears as he researched Abbie’s story. “At one time,” Greenwald mused, “we used to [describe it as] ‘Citizen Kane’ meets ‘GoodFellas,’ because there was a lot more voiceover.”

Finally Greenwald had a script which “at least on paper, was something that I felt had life, vitality, energy, something to say and hopefully was not too preachy, but yet talked about what I strongly believe–that Abbie and these other people made a real commitment to values outside themselves. That was the single most important message of that period of time, the sixties–that you didn’t just have to worry about a bigger paycheck or a bigger promotion, or more millions of dollats on the Internet.” He then set about raising money to make the picture, but even as he went about doing so was faced with two large problems–casting, and making sure that he could get the “feel” of the period right on celluloid.

The first difficulty he solved by signing Vincent D’Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo for the lead roles of Abbie and Anita. Actually, he was contacted by Vincent’s agent. “I had not thought of him for the role, and I didn’t know who could do it,” Greenwald remarked. But though D’Onofrio didn’t much resemble Hoffman externally, the director became convinced that he could capture the character’s essence, and eventually saw him undergo an “amazing transformation” in portraying Abbie. “Now, I can’t think of anybody else” in the role, Greenwald said with satisfaction. As for Garofalo, she too read the script and contacted Greenwald about playing Anita. “‘Look, you’re never going to hire me, but I love this script,'” the director remembered Garofalo telling him. “I never get the roles I want.” When he finally called her to say she’d won the part, the actress was first disbelieving, but then immersed herself in the role so completely that she was able to improvise answers that, as Anita, she gave to the reporter in the finished picture. “Because she had the research, and by that point she had connected to the role, she had the creativity [to do it],” Greenwald remembered with a touch of amazement. “Most of the answers that you see are improvised.”

The texture of the film was also hard to capture exactly. “I was terrified that I would not get the feeling of the sixties right,” Greenwald remarked. “Script aside, story aside, there’s a smell, there’s a feel–it’s almost tactile, that sense of it–and I looked at really good filmmakers who had not gotten it. And that began two months of sleepless nights. And then a series of steps that I took–four or five key decisions–hopefully helped me to capture it as closely as possible.” Part of the process was to use found footage, but carefully to insert new shots into it “to create the world,” as Greenwald put it: “The way…[was] to edit this documentary footage like it was going to be a movie but have spots where my first-unit stuff would go.” Through careful storyboarding and editing, as well as exacting preparation with the costume and production designers, Greenwald was able to mesh together his new material with old footage with remarkable success. “There are times now when I watch the movie that I cannot remember certain shots–like particularly the gassing [by the police]. I’m looking, I’m saying, ‘Was that my shot?’ I actually cannot remember,” he enthused.

Now he hopes that a small, character-and-issues driven film like “Steal This Movie!” can attract enough publicity to let its intended audience learn about it before its release by Lions Gate Films later this month. Whatever the boxoffice outcome, however, Greenwald clearly feels that all his effort was worth it. “When you can combine your social values with your work, you’re lucky,” he said. “If you do things that you believe in, you hope they’ll have a positive…effect on people.” His attitude represents a rare and refreshing instance of social consciousness in today’s megahit-obsessed filmmaking community.