WHEN was the last time you heard anyone get excited about a new film critic? That was my reaction when “Michael Clayton” director Tony Gilroy began raving to me about the review he’d seen on YouTube. “It was terrific,” he said. “I sent it to George [Clooney] right away.” On Ain’t It Cool News, Wes Anderson made a point of singling out a review of his film “Darjeeling Limited” from the same YouTube site.
Although it would surely be good for the profession if this new voice was a fresh-faced 23-year-old, things are rarely what we expect. The coolest new critics on the block turn out to be a pair of oldsters who were born before the arrival of talkies. Billed as the Reel Geezers, they post smart, delightfully acerbic reviews on YouTube (just type in “Reel Geezers” to find their latest efforts), where they’ve built a small but loyal following of both rank-and-file fans and Hollywood insiders.
They simply introduce themselves as Marcia & Lorenzo, showing pictures of themselves as little kids. But as Gilroy discovered when he went searching for them on IMDB, the Geezers are hardly amateurs.
Lorenzo is actually Lorenzo Semple, 84. One of Hollywood’s top screenwriters in the 1970s, he helped write movies for virtually every star of the day, notably Warren Beatty (“The Parallax View”), Robert Redford (“Three Days of the Condor”), Steve McQueen (“Papillon”) and Paul Newman (“The Drowning Pool”). His foil is Marcia Nasatir, 81, a longtime agent, pioneering woman production executive and producer of such films as “The Big Chill” and “Hamburger Hill.”
They aren’t husband and wife, as many online fans assume, simply old friends who were introduced in the ‘60s by the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. When Nasatir came to Los Angeles, she worked with the literary agent Evarts Ziegler, who repped Semple, Joan Didion and William Goldman. The duo have been friends ever since, even though they disagree about nearly everything. When they got into a verbal brawl at a party last year, a friend sarcastically told them they should “take the act out on the road.”
Instead, they took their squabbles to the Internet. They have exactly what you’d want from a great comedy team -- two distinctive personas. Nasatir is thoughtful, idealistic and an ardent feminist; Semple is gruff, sardonic and brazenly politically incorrect. Upset over Semple’s skewering of “Lars and the Real Girl,” Nasatir said, “My yoga class, who are real moviegoers, loved it.” Semple’s response: “They would. An aged yoga class, what a horrifying concept!”
Noting that “Juno” features a young pregnant girl who decides to have her baby and put it up for adoption, Nasatir wonders, “Is this going to be the favorite movie of the right-wing conservative Christian groups?” Semple puckishly retorts: “No, because they don’t think she should get knocked up at all, especially not [by having sex] in a chair.”
Those of us who are somewhat younger seem to forget that our elders are just as interested in sex as we are, as evidenced by the Geezers’ review of “Superbad,” which Nasatir panned (“It’s very hostile to women”) but Semple liked, saying, “it’s a good movie because it’s a totally honest imagination of what sex is like to a teenager.” Their review of “Lust, Caution” was enlivened by the following discourse inspired by the film’s NC-17 rating:
Nasatir: “I was so intrigued by watching the [sexual] gymnastics part of it. How do they do it? You never see his penis, by the way.”
Semple: “It’s incredible that you don’t. You think you do, almost.”
Nasatir: “But you don’t.”
Semple: “Did you look for it?”
The reviews often dig deeper. It’s hard to imagine a better description of the setting for “Into the Wild” than the way Semple puts it, saying, “Alaska is a very good place to lose yourself, but a very bad place to find yourself.” Later in the review, after Nasatir discusses the movie’s embrace of the idea of a natural man, Semple quotes Voltaire, who once told Rousseau, “I’d love to walk on all fours, but unfortunately, I lost that habit 40 years ago.”
THE Geezers’ repartee is erudite and iconoclastic, belying the notion that older people don’t embrace new ideas. In the midst of their review of “Lars,” Semple sagely observes that the film’s comic premise -- that everyone in town accepts the idea that Lars could be in love with a sex doll named Bianca -- is a time-honored American dramatic device of preserving illusion that dates to the plays of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
However, as Semple notes, “Delusion to me is quite different from illusion. I thought everyone in this town was incredibly stupid.” Nasatir disagrees. “I believed it entirely, in a Capra-esque way, that people would band together to help him.”
Semple is unswayed. “If I’d written the movie, I would have had one of the town thugs who didn’t believe rape Bianca. It wouldn’t have been so Capra-esque then.”
The sparks fly just as much in real life, as I learned when I visited Semple’s home to watch the duo tape a review of Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” an imaginary exploration of the life of Bob Dylan. Heather Finnegan, a young documentary filmmaker, films the discussion with two video cameras, then edits it to a five-minute YouTube clip. Before the taping began, we sat in Semple’s living room, listening to Nasatir recount a recent trip to China where she’d filmed a cameo in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”
“I’m an old Russian expatriate princess who got stuck in Shanghai,” she reports. “All I say is ‘Nastrovya!’ I got the job because I know [director] Rob Cohen.”
“She put him in the business,” Semple says with a laugh. “Marcia let him steal Mike Medavoy’s Rolodex.”
“I got Rob his first apartment,” says Nasatir.
“And now, 35 years later, you got a part,” says Semple. “It took a long time for the payoff.”
Nasatir spent a considerable time in the hair and makeup trailer. “That’s where you hear all the good gossip. If there’s a romance going on or if anyone’s had Botox, they know it all.” She met “Mummy” stars Brendan Fraser (“He was so sweet”) and Maria Bello, who she says “was lovely -- she’s from a real working-class family in Philadelphia.”
“That’s one of my biggest failings in my career,” Nasatir adds. “I wasn’t working class. We had live-in help. I wasn’t hungry enough.” Semple cackles. “Not hungry enough?” he says. “You’re a piranha!”
They both clearly love movies, but Nasatir believes they matter more than Semple does. “You like message movies,” Semple tells her. “It’s exactly what I don’t like about your politics. You want to fix everything.” Nasatir objects: “That’s not so. I just don’t want people to lie to themselves.”
Semple believes movies have little influence on social issues. “No one’s vote has ever been changed by a movie,” he says. “That’s why all the Iraq war movies failed. People who were against the war already knew it and people who supported the war didn’t want to see them. Movies are immediate. No screenwriter has ever been discovered after their death the way painters or novelists have been. If you don’t like a movie right away, it’s no good.”
If it weren’t for Semple’s cane and Nasatir’s gray hair, you’d completely forget you’re hanging out with an older generation. Nasatir is especially dispirited by Hollywood’s attitude about aging. “They’re scared to death to make movies with old people in them. It’s why every actress feels that once they turn 40 they have to get a face-lift.”
Semple says he is perfectly happy embracing whatever new comes along -- he has two iPods and spends hours surfing the Internet each day. A supporter of the writers strike, he rented a wheelchair to attend a recent rally, having his daughter, Maria Semple, a TV writer, push him around, half for convenience, half as a gag. “I thought it would be good PR to have two generations out there on the line,” he says.
Nasatir hopes people who watch Reel Geezers will gain an added respect for their elders. Semple isn’t so sure.
“It’s just entertainment,” he says. “What I think people really want is for Marcia to reach over and hit me with her handbag, except she doesn’t carry a handbag.”
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