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Auto Focus - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

ONE of Hollywood’s sleaziest unsolved mysteries is the subject of a new film called Auto Focus, directed by Paul Schrader (the man who wrote Taxi Driver).

Based on the biography, The Murder of Bob Crane, the movie tells the story of Hogan’s Heroes star, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), who became obsessed with capturing his sexual conquests on video in the years after his popular show was cancelled.

Together with long-time friend and video technician, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), Crane toured strip joints and seedy venues galore during the late Seventies, before being found, bludgeoned to death, in a motel in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1978.

Carpenter was subsequently arrested for the murder but was acquitted, following an eight-week trial. The case remains one of Hollywood’s darker unsolved mysteries.

Needless to say, Kinnear (in the role of Crane) raised several eyebrows after agreeing to appear in the project. Even director, Schrader, confessed that the star of films such as Nurse Betty, You’ve Got Mail and As Good As It Gets, had gotten into something of ‘a box’ with his career.

Yet the trick of transforming himself has worked, with the majority of US critics praising the change of direction and hailing the film as Schrader’s most accomplished film, as director, to date.

Kinnear, though, admits to having to do some serious thinking before taking on the role, which required a lot of nudity, as well as some fairly kinky material - scenes are said to include Kinnear and co-star, Dafoe, masturbating while watching home-made porn together and a fantasy sequence involving a three-way between Colonel Klink, Sergeant Schultz and Hilda.

The makers even had to remove some of the naughtiest moments (digitally) to avoid getting the NC-17 rating - which generally sounds the death knell for any film’s commercial chances.

Kinnear, though, remains proud of the efforts, and dismisses notions that the on-screen sex is explicit, saying it’s ‘not Monster’s Ball’, but still ‘pretty disturbing’.

He even let his wife, former model, Helen Labdon, choose a body double for him during some of the orgy scenes, confessing to Entertainment Weekly that she ‘went a little bigger than I would have’.

But Schrader is equally impressed with the results of the casting gamble. The man behind equally disturbing movies, Hardcore and Affliction, describes the role as a ‘really smart choice’ for Kinnear and says the option of casting someone like Mickey Rourke in the role would have been too ‘predictable’.

Referring to Kinnear as ‘a slice of white bread’, he believes his appearance makes the movie seem ‘even more perverse’.

Yet it is not without its fair share of controversy. According to the New York Times Magazine, Crane’s real-life sons, Bobby and Scotty, are divided over the film’s merits.

Older son, Bobby, likes it and describes it as an accurate representation of his father, while the younger, Scotty, claims it has ‘destroyed’ his father’s reputation.

US reaction

Given the controversial nature of its subject matter, it is hardly surprising that reaction was mixed among critics, although there seemed to be more positives than negatives.

E! Online awarded it a B and praised both Kinnear and Dafoe for making ‘this trip to the dark side worth it’, while LA Weekly said the ‘movie is one of [Shrader's] most accomplished, and most entertaining’.

Reel Views referred to it as ‘a compelling motion picture that illustrates an American tragedy’ (awarding it three out of four), while Rolling Stone felt that it is ‘potent and provocative’.

Salon even felt that ‘Kinnear pulls off the feat of making us feel something for Crane’.

Less positive, however, were the likes of Hollywood Reporter, which felt that the film ‘leaves one with a slightly sick, unclean feeling’.

FilmCritic.com felt that it has ‘so many flaws, it’s hard to recommend’, while the New York Times felt that it ‘amounts almost to a clinical case study in joyless, desperate compulsion’.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, felt that ‘it never answers the key question: Why should we care?’

However, the Chicago Sun-Times felt that it was ‘a hypnotic portrait of this sad, compulsive life’, while the Los Angeles Times opined that it was ‘strangely wonderful and weirdly touching’.

Variety wrote that ‘this true-life saga of sex, lies and videotape is one of director Paul Schrader's best films, and like Boogie Nights ranks as a shrewd expose of recent Hollywood's slimy underside’, while Entertainment Weekly awarded it a B+ and wrote that ‘the performances are vividly alive’.

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