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Britney Spears' New Pals Raise Questions

Britney's New Pals Raise Questions | 'Devil' of a Film | J-Lo Bottoms Out

Britney's New Pals Raise Questions

Britney Spears’ latest sidekicks are coming under scrutiny. I’m told there’s a lot of concern about her latest pal, Sam Lutfi, as well as her constant "cousin" Alli Sims. (They’re not blood relatives.) The latter has her own Web site and still has her sights set on becoming a pop star. The complaint among those who know all the players: It’s very "All About Eve."

As for Lutfi, to say Britney’s old friends are skeptical about him is an understatement. But he has become ubiquitous in Spears’ world. Sources say they were introduced by her mother, Lynn Spears.

What do they have in common? Lutfi is as used to the courtrooms of Los Angeles as Spears is. According to public documents, he’s had numerous tax liens and a couple of lawsuits brought against him.

In 2000, he lost a judgment of $34,246 when a San Francisco cleaning company sued him and his partner, D-movie producer Ted Collins (aka Edward W. Collins III). According to records, the judgment has not been satisfied.

Lutfi and Collins briefly were associated at the time through a company called Bulldog Pictures. According to IMDB.com, Lutfi was executive producer on a Collins movie called "Circles" and producer on another called "Bug Buster." The key words on IMDB are "blood splatter" and "horror," i.e. not exactly "The English Patient." Lutfi’s career in films seems to have ended in 2001.

Lutfi’s involvement with Spears comes just as her "Blackout" album is a week from release. Although she is not exactly a groundbreaking recording artist, Spears might have managed to dig up a hit record. A track called "Heaven on Earth" is the catchiest piece of radio pop I’ve heard in some time and much better than anything else on the otherwise uneven album.

"Blackout" — No. 33 on Amazon.com — contains 15 tracks. We already know "Gimme More" more than we want to. I’ve already told you about a few others, such as "Hot as Ice," in which Spears uses the F-word, "Break the Ice," "Radar" and "Piece of Me," in which she warbles about her friends the paparazzi.

The other tracks are "Get Naked," "Freakshow," "Get Back," "Why Should I Be So Sad," "Perfect Lover," "Toy Soldier," "Outta This World," "Ooh Ooh Baby" and "Everybody."

So far, "Gimme More" has been more of a cause celebre for the embattled young mother of two. Most of the other tracks are bland, electronically programmed dance music. But "Heaven on Earth" may be just what saves her if a couple of things happen:

First, of course, Spears would have to make a clever video. Second, she’d have to stay out of trouble, keep a low profile and avoid any more problems with her family court judge.

Can it happen? No one knows. It’s all up to Spears. But if she cut the hijinks for two minutes, took "Heaven on Earth" to radio stations and worked the room, as they say, she could be back on top in a second.

Oh, yes, and by the by: One week from her CD release, Britney still has no manager or publicist.

'Devil' of a Film Is Oscar-Bound

Sidney Lumet is 83 and already has an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His classic films include "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Equus," "Prince of the City,"
"The Verdict," "Q&A," "Running on Empty," "Daniel," "The Group" and the immortal "Fail-Safe."

Lumet’s last film, which I enjoyed but did no business, was called "Find Me Guilty" and starred Vin Diesel. It was an interesting but a failed attempt to do a genre movie with a '50s feel.

So nothing of recent times really prepares you for Lumet’s new film, "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead." It comes not from a big studio, but from little ThinkFilms, which does high-minded indie stuff and is run by an industry favorite, Mark Urman.

"Devil" premiered at Toronto, but I didn’t get to see it, thanks to scheduling conflicts. Of course, I’m kicking myself, because Lumet has made a little masterpiece, a film that despite its dark and twisted soul should garner him some award action. If nothing else, he should be nominated for Best Director. He could win. What he’s done is quite remarkable.

What’s even more remarkable is that "Devil" was written by someone he didn’t know. He took the script and reworked it, and apparently, the two met briefly on set. Lumet has drifted so much since his last actual commercial hit — "Q&A," 1990 — that he probably had low expectations about the project. Oddly, boxofficemojo.com doesn’t even list him among its top directors, but that will change.

"Devil" is a terrifying story that finds its basis in "Death of a Salesman." Imagine Biff and Happy plotting to steal their father’s goods and claim the insurance.

In this case, two ne’er-do-well brothers — Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke — decide to knock over their parents’ suburban jewelry store, collect the money and let the insurance save the old folks. The parents are hard-working, decent people played by Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris.

But the situation goes very wrong when Hawke attempts the robbery with a sketchy pal, the amazing Brian F. O'Byrne. The brothers then descend into a horrifying sequence of events that reveal Hawke’s affair with Hoffman’s wife — Marisa Tomei, spectacularly topless and deftly sorrowful in many scenes.

"Devil" is a character study in violence as the family’s life unravels with devastating consequences.

I don’t know if ThinkFilms can pull off a big Oscar campaign, but I am hoping it can. Hoffman, Hawke and Finney should be nominated.

Hoffman, of course, also will be pushed for his fine work in Tamara Jenkins’ "The Savages." He’s the lead in both films and outstanding beyond his "Capote" two years ago. He’s really the standout male actor of his generation. Everyone — Hawke, Tomei, etc. — benefits from being in scenes with him, and they’re very good to begin with.

Hawke, whose work is every bit as good as Hoffman’s, goes into Best Supporting Actor with a very competitive group including Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Finney, Irfan Khan, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson and others.

There’s one sequence in "Devil" that may put Hoffman over the top, awards-wise. Something bad has happened, and his character is supposed to trash his apartment. Lumet doesn’t send him into a rage but into a controlled fit of anger.

Hoffman takes a bowl full of decorative stones and turns it over onto a glass table. The stones drop one by one until the effect is like a waterfall. You know the character is angry, and this is his pent-up emotion starting to pour out. From then on, the character is out of control. It’s a brilliant scene.

What can I say about Sidney Lumet? He’s taken a bit of Tarantino, some Coen brothers, Mira Nair and other contemporary younger directors and blended them with his own vision of a modern classic.

This year he may be competing with the Coens, with Jenkins and some other whippersnappers who grew up idolizing him. But there’s nothing like an original, and Lumet has done something very powerful in "Devil" that may wind up surprising everyone.

J-Lo Bottoms Out as 'Brave' Takes Dive

Jennifer Lopez’s "Brave" CD is over. After two weeks in release, "Brave" has sold fewer than 75,000 copies. Most of those were sold in the first week. "Brave" already is down around No. 220 on Amazon.com. This is the shocking end of a relatively short, concocted recording career invented by Tommy Mottola less than a decade ago.

Lopez never was a singer, but she was a great diva. The furs, the shootouts, the high expenses, the temper tantrums. It was almost like she was playing a part.

Alas, she could never really tour because she wasn’t a musician, and that hurt her. Her last album, "Get Right," was a dud. But then staying away for three years after that meant losing whatever audience was left.

This isn’t to say Lopez is without talent. She always has been an interesting actress. Her best performance, cited always, was in Steven Soderbergh’s "Out of Sight." If she could get back to that, Lopez might have a dandy movie career. But this chapter is ended.

The big winner? Ashanti, who sang "back-up" on Lopez’s remixed "I’m Real." She got a career out of "assisting" J-Lo’s shrill warbling. Alas, even Ashanti isn’t around much these days. And Ja Rule, who rapped while Lopez barked? Gone the way of MC Hammer and so many others, I suppose...