Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jean-Luc Godard? Jack Palance wasn’t impressed.

So there I was in my hometown of New Orleans in 1991, attending the junket for City Slickers and seated at a table with Jack Palance. I wanted to ask a question I figured that he hadn’t been asked a zillion times before, so I tossed him this one: What was it like to work with Jean-Luc Godard in the 1963 international co-production Contempt?

Palance smiled at me — indeed, almost winked at me — and replied.

“Godard, I thought, was a good filmmaker, but he was so… Well, I remember, we had a question about a scene that we were doing, and I thought maybe there was something I should be doing, and he said, blatantly, ‘You know, of course, that I am considered one of the great filmmakers today.’ And I said, ‘No, I didn’t know that. Why don’t you tell me about it?’ And so he goes on like this.

 “He was one of those guys, one of those directors — I’ve worked with a few of them, and my God, they’re infuriating! Because suddenly he’s walking out there, and he’s throwing things, saying, ‘And then you will do this! And then you will do that!’ And you stop and say, ‘Hey! I'm not going to do what you’re showing me anyway. So don’t show me!’

“See, he was doing that with all the actors. Like, ‘And now, I think if you touch the glass on the table…’ And you know you’re not going to touch the glass after he’s shown you something like that.”

And yet, for all that, Palance said Contempt had its funny moments. Sort of.

“I think one of the most memorable things for me in that film was doing a scene with Brigitte Bardot. We were in that red car, a little red car, and we had a scene where she and I just drive away. We’re going off to something. No dialogue. And we’re set up somewhere in Italy, and Godard’s got his camera way over there. He’s sitting on a box, hunched over, and he wore a hat, looking like a very, very artistic picture of a director.

“And so, we start to drive. We drove by, and we could hear his voice saying, ‘All right, we will do an encore. We will do it again, please.’ So you come back — there’s no explanation of what went wrong — and you do it again. And then you do it again. And do it seven, eight times — just driving by the camera, nothing else. And nobody says, ‘Faster,’ or ‘You're looking at the wrong direction,’ or some goddamn thing.

“So, as we got back this time, I said to Bridget, ‘Look, if he says we’re going to do it again, you and I are going to lunch.’ And as we drove by, we heard the voice saying, ‘Tell them we will do it again’ — well, we just kept driving.

“It’s true. We went off into the mountains, had a nice lunch, came back — and so help me God, he had not moved! He was sitting there, and as we approached, he said, ‘Tell them we will do it again!’

“And that was Jean-Luc Godard…”

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Must-See TV for Me: Netflix’s Clusterf**k: Woodstock ‘99

Yes, I will be watching when Netflix premieres the docuseries Clusterf**k: Woodstock ’99 on Aug. 3. My son probably will be watching, too. Because, well, back in 1999, we were there. And on the final evening, I was very sacred.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

First Look: The Last Out Follows Cuban Hopefuls on Trail to MLB Glory


Talk about savvy timing: On the day of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, filmmakers Sami Khan and Michael Gassert have released the poster and trailer for their award-winning documentary The Last Out, an up-close look at three Cuban hopefuls who dream of taking part in The Great American Pastime.

Specifically, the film, set to open theatrically on Aug. 19, focuses on Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González, and Victor Baró — as well Gus Dominguez, the Cuban-American recruiter who, in the words of Moneyball author Michael Lewis,  “invented the market for Cuban baseball players.”

According to the press release announcement: “Set amidst the dark side of professional sports and the migrant trail, The Last Out tells the inspiring story of Oliveros, González, and Baró, three Cuban baseball players who risk exile to train in Central America with Dominguez as they chase their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues… Filmed over more than four years, The Last Out focuses on people caught between countries who want nothing more than to make a better life for their families.”

In the interest of full disclosure: Houston's Minute Maid Park looms large in the trailer. So, to paraphrase Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, the press release aroused my curiosity — but this trailer grabbed my attention.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Something about abortion

I have posted this before, and if you don't care to read it again, I won't be offended if you scroll by.
While I was in college, a girl I was dating told me she was pregnant — and that I had to be the father. This was in the early 1970s, the pre-Roe era, when abortion was illegal in most places – especially in New Orleans, one of the most Catholic cities in America, where we were living at the time. Still, with relatively little difficulty, we found out about a legit doctor in town who routinely performed abortions for $200. I borrowed the money, and the problem was solved.
Years later, I discovered, well, there’s no lead in my pencil, and I could not have been the father. I should have suspected something was amiss when the girl more or less vanished from my life soon after the procedure. But I never blamed the girl, because at the time I was so traumatized by the episode that the campus shrink wrote me a letter to bring to my draft board, saying I should never be in the military. (Believe it or not: I actually got my draft notice the day of the abortion.) I would joke afterwards that I probably was the only person you’d ever meet who beat the draft by fucking. But a gay friend corrected me: “Well, by fucking a WOMAN, maybe.” LOL.
Now I look back, however, and I suspect — no, make that, I KNOW — that no Supreme Court ruling, no law passed by a state legislature, will ever completely end abortions, or prevent doctors from performing them. All you have to do is know the right people, and have enough money. If you don’t, however, you really are fucked. And that shouldn't happen to anyone.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

First Look: Alex Winter’s The YouTube Effect

In his other life, actor Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame is an accomplished documentarian. Among his credits: Downloaded (2013), a fascinating study of Napster and the filesharing revolution; Deep Web (2015), an illuminating overview of the Internet’s non-indexed substratum, with special attention paid to the (alleged) Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht; and Zappa (2020), the definitive cinematic biography of maverick musician and Mothers of Invention founder Frank Zappa.

And now Winter has a new one: The YouTube Effect, which will have its world premiere June 11 at New York’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

What’s it all about? According to the PR announcement:

“The feature documentary takes viewers on a timely and gripping journey inside the cloistered world of YouTube and its parent company Google; investigating YouTube's rise from humble beginnings in the attic of a pizzeria to its explosion onto the world stage, becoming the largest media platform in history and sparking a cultural revolution, while creating massive controversy in the age of disinformation. In the fourth quarter of 2021 alone, YouTube brought in 8.6 billion dollars in advertising revenue, a 25 percent increase in its year to year results. While traditional media is struggling, YouTube is thriving.

The You Tube Effect examines how the platform has become a lightning rod for online radicalization, surveillance, algorithmic capitalism, the proliferation of misinformation, and of course, influencers and cat videos.

 “The feature doc is thrilling, shocking and hilarious, but always highly compelling, and above all, entertaining. YouTube is a world populated by some of the most brilliant minds in tech, business, media and politics, as well as pranksters, trolls and conspiracy theorists. The YouTube Effect gives viewers exclusive access to all of the key players.”

 And speaking of cat videos on YouTube: 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Power of the Dog Takes a Big Bite Out of the Houston Film Critics Awards

This just in: The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s sweeping study of family dynamics set against a background of the American West, has swept the top honors given this year by the Houston Film Critics Society. (Full disclosure: I am a founding — and voting — member of this group.) 

In addition naming Dog the Best Picture of 2021, HFCS has honored Campion for Best Director and Screenplay; Benedict Cumberbatch as Best Actor; and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Best Supporting Actor.

But wait, there’s more: In the Original Score category, Jonny Greenwood’s score for Campion’s drama tied with Hans Zimmer’s score for Dune.

“As a year of uncertainty in movies concludes,” HFCS president Doug Harris said while announcing winners of the organization’s 15th annual awards, “one sure thing is how quality and creativity create screen magic at any time. No matter how we savor film, creative movies that portray people confronting challenge and change will continue to find an audience that appreciates them.”

Among the other winners: Jessica Chastain was voted Best Actress for recreating Tammy Faye Baker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, while Ann Dowd was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actress prize for her heart-wrenching portrayal of a grieving mother in Mass. That film also received the first HFCS award for Best Ensemble Cast.

The winner of the Texas Independent Film Award – for the best film made in Texas – is Sean Baker’s Red Rocket, which was filmed in and around Texas City, Kemah, and Galveston. The HFC’s Cinematic Achievement Award, given to the person, enterprise, or Texas-based operation that the group feels has contributed the most to film culture in Texas, goes to Well Go USA. Releases in 2021 by this Plano-based company included Escape from Mogadishu and Raging Fire

 “Each year,” Harris said, “the Society presents our awards after thoroughly reviewing the year’s films. We select our nominees in December before casting final votes early in the new year. As professional journalists who believe in the power of film, we are thrilled with the range and substance of this year’s winners.”

Here is a full list of winners for the 15th annual Houston Film Critics Society Awards. 

Picture: The Power of the Dog. 

Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog. 

Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog. 

Actress: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. 

Supporting Actor: Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog.

Supporting Actress: Ann Dowd, Mass. 

Screenplay: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog.

Cinematography: Greig Fraser, Dune.

Animated Feature: The Mitchells vs. the Machines.

Original Score: (tie) Hans Zimmer, Dune; Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog. 

Original Song: “Wherever I Fall – Part I,” Cyrano: music by Bryce Dessner and Asron Dessner; lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser .

Foreign Language Film: Drive My Car. 

Documentary Feature: Summer of Soul. 

Texas Independent Film Award: Red Rocket. 

Visual Effects: Dune: Paul Lambert, Tristan Myles, Brian Connor, and Gerd Nefzer. 

Stunt Coordination Team: No Time to Die.

Ensemble Cast: Mass: Reed Birney, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Martha Plimpton; Breeda Wool, Michelle N. Carter, Campbell Spoor, Kagen Albright, Michael White.

 Cinematic Achievement Award: Well Go USA.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Ten Reasons Why I Won't Miss 2021

Why I won’t miss 2021:

Had to battle prostate cancer again.


Dealt with a month-plus scare when it looked like I might also have lung cancer.


Pipes froze and burst in my attic during February Freeze, causing water damage throughout my house.


Spent over two months living alone in Extended Stay while waiting for insurance adjuster's estimate, searching for a contractor, and getting repair work done. 


Anne stayed with our son and his girlfriend with our cat; I needed to stay where I had reliable WiFi for writing, Zoom interviewing, and long-distance teaching.


Needed to have my doctor up the dosage of my antidepressants.


Even with the drugs, I had anxiety attacks -- many, but far from all, attributable to the ongoing COVID pandemic -- that caused me to bust multiple deadlines and sorely test the patience of my incredibly patient editors.


While at Extended Stay, I tripped one night on my way back from the bathroom. Wrenched my arm while breaking my fall, but it could have been worse: One inch or so further to the right, and I would have banged my head on a dresser and likely killed myself. 


Had to comfort my son when his and his girlfriend’s dog died of old age while his girlfriend was out of town.


Never forgot for a moment during ANY of this the hard lesson I learned during my formative years as a welfare worker: There were MANY people who were having a MUCH worse time than me. God bless and keep them – and me – during a (hopefully) better and COVID-free 2022.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

In Response to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Bush League Shenanigans


In the interest of full disclosure: I am a member of the Critics Choice Association, so I cannot claim to be at all objective in this matter. However, since I share the sentiments of CCA CEO Joey Berlin — and have his permission to reprint this message sent to me and other members of the organization today — here goes.

And by the way: Views expressed are not necessarily those of any other publication or organization with which I am affiliated.

Also: Go to hell, Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Go directly to hell. Do not pass Go. Do not collect any TV network money.


To the Membership,

Perhaps you saw the Friday afternoon news dump from the scandal-ridden Hollywood Foreign Press Association announcing that it plans to present Golden Globe awards on the very day that we will be presenting the 27th annual Critics Choice Awards at the historic Fairmont Century Plaza.  This comes despite the fact that we announced the date of our show back in May — and the fact that we had been presenting our awards on the second Sunday in January for several years running (not counting last year, when COVID pushed everyone back a couple of months).

The purpose of this memo is to reassure every CCA member that our 27th annual Critics Choice Awards show is going to be our biggest and best yet and can only be helped by this hostile announcement from the new leadership of this other group.  If it is appropriate, I encourage you to share the gist of this message with your viewers, listeners, readers and followers, the louder the better.  Our friends in the industry understand all of the above, but it would be wonderful if the greater public did, too.

I believe this desperate move by the HFPA to try and undercut the Critics Choice Awards and the tremendous support we are receiving from all the major studios, networks and streamers is...really good for us!  For years we’ve been trying to draw the comparison between the tainted HFPA and the legitimate Critics Choice Association — which has five times as many members and no stink.  Our awards are the considered judgment of almost 500 active critics and entertainment reporters who cover film and television and collectively reach virtually every entertainment consumer in the US and Canada every day.  While the CCA proudly lists and displays pictures of all its members on our website, the HFPA has long hidden its tiny membership.  Only now is it attempting to come clean after having been very publicly disgraced for its prejudice, its crassness, and it's highly questionable business practices.  So, yes, let's make those comparisons!

In fact, in their desperate search for new legitimate members, some of you have been approached about joining them.  From their perspective, that makes sense.  After all, CCA members are already vetted and proved to be respected working critics and journalists.

From our perspective, we do feel bad for those HFPA members who are legitimate members of the foreign press and are suffering from the fact that so many companies have chosen to stop working with them.  We are even more sympathetic with the many members of the foreign press who have been unwelcome in the HFPA for decades, despite the fact that their collective reach is probably greater than the 80-some odd members of the HFPA who blackballed them when they sought membership.  This is why the CCA created its new International Branch, to accredit important and influential members of the foreign entertainment press who had been unable to join HFPA.

And please note that while that other group is entirely about their one big television show (and dispensing the riches it has generated), the CCA has long been a diverse and inclusive organization that is true to our mission all year long - to help audiences find the good stuff, and to help the people who make the good stuff find their audiences.  That's why we are presenting the Critics Choice Documentary Awards on November 14, and why we are hosting the Celebration of Black Cinema & Television on December 6 and the Celebration of Latino Cinema on December 9, as well as our other Critics Choice events.

Onward and upward!


Joey Berlin


Friday, October 08, 2021

Zooming with Mye Hoang — Director of the A-Meow-Sing Documentary Cat Daddies

Call it Kedi — American Style, and you won’t be far off the mark.

Cat Daddies, Mye Hoang’s irresistibly appealing documentary, is so insightfully observed, beautifully crafted and warmly empathetic that even normally feline-averse viewers will want to sing its praises and hold it close to their hearts.

Not unlike Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s splendidly graceful 2016 film about the multifaceted feline population of Istanbul, Cat Daddies will be pure catnip for anyone who can’t get their fill of their favorite four-legged friends on YouTube and Instagram. In sharp contrast to Kedi, however, Hoang’s documentary is less about the fiercely independent critters themselves than the bonds that form between men (and, sometimes, the women in their lives) and the cats who deign to be their comrades.

Hoang, a Dallas-born, Los Angeles-based producer and director, turns her camera on a diverse array of guys, ranging from a cross-country trucker to a homeless New Yorker to a movie stuntman whose romance with a stuntwoman is sparked by their shared love of cats. Much of the movie is light, even celebratory, as it pushes back against stereotypes of various sorts, and shows how companionship with cats can be therapeutic, inspirational — and in at least one case, high remunerable.

However: Cat Daddies was filmed largely over the course of 2020, a year when COVID-19, California wildfires, and other disasters amped stress levels, all of which Hoang duly acknowledges — sometimes as as subtle allusions, sometimes as front-and-center threats — in many of the multiple narratives she interweaves throughout her film. It’s a tricky balancing act, but she pulls it off with wit, intelligence, and compassion.

As Hoang says in her director’s statement:

“We all know the stereotype of the crazy cat lady. And many of us have that friend, the one with the Instagram feed dedicated exclusively to cats. Self-described ‘Crazy Cat People’ are a force to be reckoned with — a community that’s here to stay and has only grown stronger in the age of social media.

“I watched over the course of a few years as my husband [filmmaker Dave Boyle] transformed into a bona fide crazy cat person after we adopted our first cat. However, something else changed inside him — something deeper. He seemed to grow into a softer, more patient and compassionate person. This inspired me to find more men who had undergone a similar transformation, and document their stories.

“As I dug deeper on ‘Cat Instagram,’ I discovered dozens of men who seemed to be living their best life with their feline companions. Their stories ran the gamut — from firefighters in South Carolina who unapologetically dote on their ‘fire cat,’ to an unhoused immigrant on the streets of New York who always puts the needs of his cat above his own. Many of the subjects are the very embodiment of the traditional definition of ‘manliness’ — the aforementioned firemen, a stuntman, a truck driver. All of them unapologetically dote on their beloved pets in a way that I found very touching.

“I see Cat Daddies as both a collective portrait as well as a time capsule, documenting a challenging year in which people desperately needed hope, relief, and companionship. It may not convert everyone to love cats, but I hope seeing images of men caring for these little creatures wins over a few skeptics and becomes a catalyst for compassionate change.”

Cat Daddies will premiere this weekend at the Dallas International Film Festival, followed by screenings at the Newport Film Festival and the Tallgrass Film Festival. Here is my Zoom interview with Mye Hoang.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The Harder They Fall is a wild, wild Western

The Harder They Fall puts the wild back into the Wild West.

Imagine a dream team collaboration of Sergio Leone, John Woo and Spike Lee, and you’re ready for director Jeymes Samuel’s audaciously stylized and brazenly entertaining western, an exhilarating mashup of New School hip-hop swagger, Old West revenge melodrama, heist-movie double- and triple-crossing, and Spaghetti Western visual and narrative tropes. After its Wednesday premiere as the opening night presentation of the prestigious BFI London Film Festival, this sensational shoot-‘em-up will be available Oct. 22 in select theaters — arguably the ideal place to fully savor and enthusiastically share such a rock-the-house concoction — and Nov. 3 on Netflix. 

You can read the rest of my rave over at the Cowboys & Indians website   

Monday, September 06, 2021

Remembering Jean-Paul Belmondo in Les Miserables

In the wake of the great Jean-Paul Belmondo’s death at age 88, most tributes, I am sure, will emphasize — justly — his iconic performances in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave landmark Breathless (1960), Philippe De Broca’s seriocomic adventure That Man from Rio (1964), Jacques Deray’s stylish gangster drama Borsalino (1960), and several other classics.

But the Belmondo performance I treasure most is the one in my favorite Belmondo movie: Claude Lelouch’s 1995 masterpiece Les Miserables. As I wrote decades ago:   

“Claude Lelouch's audacious and exciting epic is neither a film version of the long-running musical nor a traditional adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. Rather, it is a sweeping and sensationally passionate drama that succeeds brilliantly on its own merits as a celebration of storytelling (and, of course, moviemaking) as inspiration and illumination. 

“A magnificently ravaged Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Henri Fortin, an ordinary man whose life spans an extraordinary period in French history: Born at the turn of the century, he lives long enough to endure the cruelties of the Nazi occupation. Rootless and illiterate, he is introduced to Les Miserables at an early age — in a silent movie! — and embraces Jean Valjean as his hero, mentor and alter ego. So much so, in fact, that Henri agrees to help a Jewish family escape from Paris, setting into motion a fateful series of betrayals, reconciliations, reversals of fortune and triumphs of the spirit.

“There are images in Les Miserables that are as hauntingly beautiful as any in the history of cinema. And there are entire sequences that are nothing short of astonishing. Lelouch is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who remains capable of the grand romantic gestures that made many of us fall in love with movies in the first place.

Unfortunately, the last time I checked, Lelouch’s Les Miserables is not currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United States. (I have a Laserdisc, gifted by a colleague.) Don’t know if this is the result of rights issues, or what. But as another tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo, maybe someone could rectify that situation? 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Flashback: Virginia Madsen on Candyman

From the archives of The Moving Picture Show

October 26, 1992 |  The good news is, Virginia Madsen got to go back to her native Chicago to shoot scenes for her new movie, Candyman.

The bad news was, those scenes were shot in and around Cabrini-Green, a housing project once known to locals as “Little Hell.”

“When they told me that’s where we’d be working,” Madsen said a few days ago in a telephone interview, “that scared me more than knowing I would do a scene with live bees all over me.

“And I'm allergic to bee venom, so that should tell you something.”

Just a few days ago, USA Today ran a front-page story on Cabrini-Green, graphically describing the urban blight as “arguably the nation’s most notorious public housing project…  a 70-acre, 7,000-person ‘city’ of isolation and despair.”

The “rubble-strewn, graffiti-covered war zone” is just a few blocks “from the some of the richest downtown real estate in the USA.” But as far as most Chicagoans are concerned, Madsen said, the place might as well be on another planet, or in some lower circle of hell.

“They have other notorious housing projects there,” said Madsen, a 31-year-old actress whose credits include The Hot Spot, Slamdance and Highlander II. “But Cabrini is staring everyone in the face, because it’s literally three blocks from the Gold Coast. And it never should have been built, it’s way too big, it looks like a prison. And there’s never been anything done to make life better there. So it’s just got a terrible history — and a terrible present day as well.

“While I was growing up there, I never went near the place. And the dialogue you hear in the film — like, 'Yeah, I don't even want to drive by there!' – that’s all very true.’

All of which enhanced the scariness of the fiction that is Candyman, a high-voltage shocker based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser). Writer-director Bernard Rose (Paperhouse) took Baker’s story, “The Forbidden,” and transported the plot from Liverpool to Chicago. But he preserved Barker’s basic premise: The Bogeyman is alive and well and willing to make personal appearances.

Madsen gives her finest screen performance to date as Helen Lyle, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in search of “modern urban folklore.” Unfortunately, she finds just what she's looking for in Candyman (Tony Todd), a legendary hook-handed killer who’s claiming a very real body count in Cabrini-Green.

Who is Candyman? The vengeful spirit of a handsome black artist who was killed by a mob of racist white thugs in 1890. He pops up whenever anyone, black or white, is foolish enough to say his name aloud five times while looking in a mirror.

Helen inadvertently summons him during her research. Candyman takes one look at the beautiful blond academic, and offers to make their relationship a permanent one.

And that, Madsen said, is why she thinks of Candyman as “a gothic love story,” not a mad-slasher movie.

“I think it would be different if Tony Todd’s character were a monster. But he’s not a monster —  he’s a phantom. He is like Dracula, a romantic phantom. He’s beautiful, he's seductive, he wants you to join him in immortality.”

Laughing, she added: “Yes, he does have this thing where he likes to disembowel people. But all lovers have some little annoying thing about them, some bad habit — don't they?”

The Candyman crew spent a week filming in Cabrini-Green. (The rest of the picture was shot on L.A. soundstages.) Not a very long location shoot, to be sure, but long enough for Madsen to realize there are far more frightening things in this life than movie monsters.

“The most frightening thing about a place like Cabrini-Green is the bleakness,” she said. “It makes you feel so terribly ignorant, that you know absolutely nothing about these people. And you couldn’t even begin to understand what it's like for a kid to grow up there.

“And since we were there in winter, it gets dark very early, around 4 o'clock. Well, let me tell you: After 3:30, people disappear. They stay inside. And you can feel the vibes starting.”

Still, even in the midst of such despair, you can sometimes find hope. While doing research for Candyman, writer-director Rose met Henrietta Thompson, a Cabrini-Green resident who offered her services as consultant. She quickly became the real-life model for one of Rose’s characters, Anne-Marie McCoy (played by actress Vanessa Williams), a single mother struggling against the odds to be a good provider and an upright citizen.

“A character like Anne-Marie is a really important character,” Madsen said, “because that’s what 90 percent of the people who live there are like. It’s a very small percentage of people that really rule that place. There are three different gangs that rule various territories. And the middle, neutral ground is the only free zone.

“You know, we’re not doing the right thing by these people. And you can make all the speeches in the world about, ‘Well, why don't they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?’ But, you know, a lot of them, that’s exactly what they are doing. That's why they’re still alive. They’ve been pulling themselves up by their bootstraps all their lives.” 

Flashback Review: Candyman (1992)

From the archives of The Moving Picture Show.

October 16, 1992 | Candyman is unique among mad-slasher monster melodramas, in that it has a brain in its head as well as blood on its hands. There’s enough  full-bore gore to satisfy genre fans, but not so much that it obliterates the movie’s flashes of savage wit and crafty intelligence.

Written and directed by British filmmaker Bernard Rose, who offered subtler, scarier thrills in PaperhouseCandyman is based on ”The Forbidden,” a short story by horror master Clive Barker. The setting has been changed from Liverpool to Chicago, but the story’s basic premise — the bogeyman is alive and well — has been retained.

Virginia Madsen, an actress heretofore best known for playing femmes fatale and assorted other hot babes, gives her most impressive screen performance to date as Helen Lyle, a doctoral candidate in search of “modern urban folklore.”

The good news is, she finds exactly what she’s looking for in the Cabrini Green public housing projects, where a legendary hook-handed killer is claiming a very real body count. The bad news is, Candyman, as the dread fellow is known, wants to add Helen to his hit list.

One of the more pleasant surprises in Candyman is that, unlike many far more prestigious movies, it is up-front and evenhanded in its approach to inner-city racial tensions. Not all of the low-income black residents of Cabrini Green are gang members or drug dealers. Indeed, most of them are honest, hardworking people trying to get by despite the presence of gangs, dealers and a hook-handed killer in their midst.

Candyman himself, played with lordly malevolence by Tony Todd, is an educated black man who became a monster only after his violent death at the hands of a racist mob.

The movie is a bit fuzzy, to put it politely, when it comes to explaining exactly how this transformation occurred. For that matter, it’s never made very clear just why Candyman appears each time anyone, black or white, says his name aloud five times while looking in a mirror. But, hey, this is a monster movie based on a Clive Barker story, not a docudrama based on Helen Lyle’s thesis.

Candyman becomes increasingly less logical and much bloodier as it races toward its climax. But the scary stuff is very scary, and Philip Glass’ high-toned gloom-and-doom musical score makes it all the more spooky.


Flashback Review: Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

From the archives of  The Moving Picture Show

March 9, 1990 |  If, as the poet noted, most men lead lives of quiet desperation, then Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) truly is an exceptional fellow: His desperately unhappy life is as noisy and dirty as it is oppressively, soul-killingly bleak.

Joe works as an assistant catalogue clerk for American Panascope, a company that claims hundreds of thousands of “satisfied customers” for its chief  product, petroleum jelly. In his grim, gray office in the factory  headquarters, the fluorescent lighting is relentlessly irritating, the air circulation is stiflingly poor, and the coffee is unspeakable sludge. His boss is a stony-faced despot who gruffly dismisses Joe’s complaints of poor health: “After childhood, nobody feels good. It’s a fact of life.”

One day, when his shakes and headaches are even worse than usual, Joe visits a doctor. And that’s when he gets some good and bad news. The good news is, none of Joe’s varied symptoms is a sign of serious illness. The bad news  is, an intense examination reveals Joe has something called a “brain cloud,” a malady entirely unforeseen and inevitably fatal.

Joe, ashen-faced and amazed, tries to make sense of the diagnosis: “I’m not sick, except for this terminal disease.” The doctor, played with just the slightest shading of lunacy by a straight-faced Robert Stack, nods sagely. “Your brain will fail,” he tells Joe, “followed shortly by your body.”

Most men would be hopelessly distraught, maybe even suicidal, after hearing such news. But, once  again, Joe is an exceptional fellow: He accepts the diagnostic death sentence as the start of his personal liberation. And that liberation in turn is the propelling force behind Joe Versus The Volcano, an epic comedy of goofiness triumphant and nuttiness unbound.

This fine madness is the masterwork of John Patrick Shanley, the esteemed playwright (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea) and Oscar-winning scriptwriter (Moonstruck) who makes his film directing debut with the first great movie comedy of the ‘90s.

There are hints of Metropolis to the Germanic expressionism of the early scenes, and touches of Joseph Campbell to the extended myth-spinning that leads Joe on a quest to live like a king before he dies like a man. And here, there and everywhere, there are bits and pieces of ArthurThe Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz.

More often than anything else, however, there is the imprint of John Patrick Shanley, a writer with a perfect-pitch ear for comically off-kilter dialogue, and an indefatigable gift for inventing full-bodied, vitally  contradictory characters.

Shanley’s last effort as a scriptwriter, The January Man, was a shaggy-dog story posing, unsuccessfully, as a cops-and-killer thriller, though the comic elements almost redeemed it. Joe Versus The Volcano wisely avoids all genre conventions and restrictions — it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is. And what that is, is so exhilaratingly absurd, so outrageously  inspired, it is a tonic guaranteed to lift even the most crestfallen spirits. Even Joe might have laughed at it after a particularly lousy day at the office.

As Joe, Tom Hanks gives a beautifully precise and grandly funny reactive performance, responding to the eccentrics and oddities around him with equal measures of excitement, amusement and anxious befuddlement. Hanks is an extremely generous actor throughout, instinctively withdrawing to his corner of the screen whenever a co-star or a cameo player has a moment of glory.

Not long after Joe has his fateful medical exam, he’s approached by an overwhelmingly vivacious businessman, Graynamore, played with delightfully crackpot zest by Lloyd Bridges. Graynamore has a meticulously logical, financially alluring and altogether ridiculous proposition: Since Joe is going to die anyway, why doesn’t he do Graynamore a favor, and help the superstitious natives of a remote South Seas island, by jumping into an active volcano?

But wait, here’s the beauty part: Graynamore will pay all of Joe’s expenses, give Joe unrestricted use of gold-plated credit cards, offer Joe first-class travel and accommodations until he reaches the island of Waponi  Woo. (“The name means ‘Little island with a big volcano.’”) Once he arrives, the Waponi tribesmen will treat Joe like visiting royalty — and be really, really grateful that Joe, and not one of them, will make the big leap to appease the angry, lava-spouting god.

Graynamore, who figures to gain mineral rights to the island by providing a human sacrifice, makes a splendidly energetic pitch. Joe considers it for a few seconds, and says, in the matter-of-fact tone of someone agreeing to accompany friends to a ballgame, “Aw right, I’ll do it.” Hanks is generous, yes indeed, but he can swipe back an entire scene with a single line.

Shanley is every bit as generous, spreading the funny stuff around to everyone in the cast. Meg Ryan gets more than her fair share, but that’s because she plays three different roles: DeDe, a mousy secretary who briefly  basks in the glow of Joe’s new-found verve; Angelica, Graynamore’s glossily affected daughter, a would-be artist and half-hearted libertine; and Patricia, Angelica’s disapproving half-sister, the heroine who eventually tries to woo Joe away from his date with the volcano.

Ryan artfully rearranges the equation of sexiness, silliness and sensibility for each woman, so that each adds up to a very specific characterization. If When Harry Met Sally. . . made her a star, then Joe Versus The Volcano will keep Ryan in orbit.

In addition to Stack and Bridges, the wonderful supporting cast includes Ossie Davis as a chauffeur who’s reluctant to offer educated guesses about the meaning of life; Dan Hedaya as Joe’s preternaturally sour boss; and Barry McGovern, an Irish stage actor, as an intensely solicitous salesman who says luggage “is the central preoccupation of my life.” A good thing, too, since the trunks he recommends to Joe come in very handy.

Joe Versus The Volcano is a fairy tale in the old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, informed by a subversively absurdist sensibility. Shanley and  production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice) have created their strange new  worlds on studio sound stages, so that everything — shipwrecks, tropical islands, a glorious moonrise at sea — is flagrantly artificial, and altogether magical.

The Waponi Woo natives are among Shanley’s most inspired inventions: Tribesmen who guzzle orange soda, count Hebrews, Druids and Polynesians among their mixed ancestors, and greet visitors to their island with a hearty rendition of “Havah Nagila!”

Joe Versus The Volcano is so audacious in its daffiness, you may have to see it twice. The first time, you might not believe anything could possibly be that funny.

Review: Lily Topples the World

If we could all agree on a working definition of the term “nice” — one that implies bemused appreciation more than condescending disparagement — it could easily apply to Lily Topples the World, Jeremy Workman’s cheery documentary about a celebrity “domino artist” whose infectious enthusiasm and ingratiating can-do spirit are almost enough to make you forget, or willingly ignore, that the film makes little attempt to sustain dramatic tension or even indicate troublesome obstacles while following its subject on her path to success. Almost.

Of course, if Workman’s film truly is an honest portrait and not an authorized biography, it’s difficult to blame him for not manufacturing cruel doubts or crushing defeats like someone trying to hyperbolize an inspirational docudrama. Based on the what we see here, life appears to have been (so far, at least) an unbroken string of triumphs for Lily Hevesh, a 20-year-old Chinese adoptee raised in small-town New Hampshire who has written her own version of the American Success Story by becoming a world-famous domino toppler and, not incidentally, the only significant female in her field.

If Lily were any less unaffectedly charming — if she didn’t comes across as, well, so nice — it wouldn’t  be nearly so pleasant to watch her evolution from obsessed hobbyist to Internet superstar (recording more than more than 1 billion YouTube views for her domino videos) to a role model who routinely attracts hordes of awestruck admirers at public appearances. (Her eagerness to put nervous strangers at ease and encourage their own domino endeavors is, to use another hard-to-define term, quite sweet.) And when Workman offers extravagant examples of her artistry — thousands of intricately designed strings of meticulously positioned, multicolored plastic rectangles that, when push comes to shove, become chain-reaction spectacles of slow-motion, rainbow-hued visual fireworks — it’s well-nigh impossible not to empathize with her obvious sense of accomplishment.

(Of course, if you feel one display of domino toppling is pretty much like another, your mileage may vary.)

 Workman generates a surprising amount of suspense as Lily carefully navigates about her creations-in-progress, displaying a dancer’s grace in her stockinged feet while lithely stepping over and around lines of dominos, always just one miscalculated move away from disaster. On the other hand, Lily’s indefatigable determination is such that, when one project does accidentally collapse during set-up, she registers disappointment for maybe five seconds, tops — and then immediately starts to rebuild. 

So what makes Lily tick? The film fleetingly hints at childhood feelings of insecurity and abandonment after being placed in an orphanage as an infant — a result of China’s One Child Policy — which Catherine Hevesh, her adoptive mother, movingly describes when she recalls the time when Lily, then barely a toddler, tearfully begged her mom not to let anyone “take me away.” There are references to her “outsider” status while growing up in community with few if any other Asians. And it’s more-than-casually mentioned that, during her early string of YouTube videos, she remained unseen and identified only as Hevesh5, suggesting not only shyness but also a keen awareness that sexism might impede her seemingly irresistible rise. 

And yet, these revelations — which really aren’t explored as possible motivations — are practically the only dark clouds to ever appear on the blue skies as Workman’s relentlessly upbeat documentary, filmed over a period of three years,  charts Lily’s tightly focused (but somehow never off-putting) campaign to invent herself as an Internet influencer and savvy businesswoman while pursuing her art.

 That art has enabled Lily to hang with the likes of Will Smith (at 17, she created the domino sequences for his film Collateral Beauty) and Jimmy Fallon (for whom she designed an especially ambitious display to mark his reaching his 20-millionth YouTube subscriber), and empowered her to negotiate with toy manufacturers to produce her very own brand-name product — H5 Domino Creations. It should be noted that Lily conducts deal-making meetings while accompanied by Mark Hevesh, her proudly supportive dad. It should also be noted that there’s no doubt at any point about whether father or daughter has the final word on career-building decisions. By the end of Workman’s film, it’s clear Lily has earned it. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Some thoughts on turning 69 (With Musical Accompaniment by Lyle Lovett)

On this, my 69th birthday, I cannot help recalling William Holden’s line – well, OK, Paddy Chaveysky’s line, but Holden said it – in Network: “All of a sudden, it’s closer to the end than it is to the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me – with definable features.”

In other words, I can no longer consider myself middle-aged. Unless, of course, I plan on making it to 140. To put it another way: I am now 17 years older than Francois Truffaut when he died, 12 years older than Humphrey Bogart when he died, 11 years older than George Harrison when he died, 10 years older than Clark Gable when he died, 6 years older than Lee Marvin when he died – and, not incidentally, 6 years older when William Holden died. 

And yes: 33 years older than my mother when she passed away.

Every time a major holiday rolls around, I find myself thinking: How many more Christmases will I get to see? How many more Thanksgivings?  How many more Independence Days?

And, perhaps more important: How many more film festivals do I get to scam someone, anyone, into picking up my tab so I can attend? (Priorities, people!)    

On the other hand: I have already fought cancer, and cancer lost. And if the SOB wants a rematch, hey, I’m ready, even if my friend Roger Ebert is no longer around to be in my corner. I remain reasonably sentient and, despite arthritic knees, ambulatory. I am still paid to do two things I love to do – writing and teaching – even though it doesn’t look like I’ll ever make the grade as full-time college faculty, and I gave up on winning a Pulitzer Prize way back when The Houston Post shut down. I can’t really think of retiring, because I owe too many people too much money. So I will press on, like those damn boats that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes at the end of The Great Gatsby, and continue to enjoy the ride whenever possible, as much as possible.

Besides: Not only do I still get paid to go to the movies, I get paid to talk about movies (to students, who have to listen). And thanks to my status as senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, I still get to interview notables like Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Matthew McConaughey and Bruce Dern. Truly, as my immigrant father recognized, this is the land of opportunity.

Looking ahead, I see books yet to write (and/or revise), movies yet to see (and review), students yet to teach, people yet to meet and interview, and places yet to go. (But no friends to mourn – only lives to celebrate.) I once wrote that, if I had any choice in the matter, I would like to shuffle off this mortal coil while in the line of duty – preferably at a film festival, after seeing something absolutely terrific, or at least really, really entertaining. On the other hand, if I wind up being shot by a jealous husband at age 90, well, that wouldn’t be too shabby, either.

There’s another bit of movie dialogue I’m remembering today. From Citizen Kane: “Old age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.”

I’ll drink to that. And to this. Take it away, Lyle Lovett:

In the darkest hour, in the dead of night, 
As the storm clouds gather, and the lightning strikes,
And the thunder rolls, and the cold rain blows,
The future it holds, what God only knows.

And I will rise up, and I will rise up, 
Though I be a dead man, I said yes and amen. 
And I will stand tall, and I will stand tall, 
Until I meet my end, until I meet my end.