Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Must-see screenings: Sir Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob at MFAH

This weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the retrospective tribute to Sir Alec Guinness continues apace with screenings of The Ladykillers (7 pm Friday) and The Lavender Hill Mob (7 pm Saturday). Here's what I wrote about films back in 2000 on the occasion of an earlier MFAH tribute to the late, great British actor.

The Ladykillers (1956): Try to imagine a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Dr. Caligari, and you're ready for Guinness's weirdly stylish turn as a would-be criminal mastermind in this mischievously sardonic farce. Outfitted with enormous teeth -- even bigger than Matt Dillon's choppers in There's Something About Mary -- Guinness plays Professor Marcus, a vaguely creepy fellow who presents himself as an amateur musician when he rents an upstairs room in the shabbily genteel home of Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a seemingly harmless old lady. Marcus hopes to use the room, and the old lady, while conducting a heist with a motley crew of co-conspirators. (Chief among the cohorts: Peter Sellers as a chubby-faced teddy boy and Herbert Lom, who would later play straight man to Sellers's Inspector Clouseau, as an excitable tough guy.) But the tables are turned -- repeatedly, hilariously -- as the improbably resilient Ms. Wilberforce sparks a chain reaction of comic mayhem. The Ladykillers may start out as a conventional comedy about dumb crooks and cute geezers, but the humor turns progressively harsher and darker as the thieves fall out and the body count rises. Trivia note: After directing Guinness in this movie and The Man in the White Suit, Alexander Mackendrick moved to America to make the deliciously cynical Sweet Smell of Success.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951): A whimsical caper comedy with a touch of magic and a sprinkling of melancholy, The Lavender Hill Mob finds Guinness in one of his very best roles. As Mr. Holland, a mousy, middle-aged Bank of England employee whose innocuous manner is a brilliant disguise for his criminal intent, Guinness eloquently expresses the dreamy daredevil that lurks in the heart of every anonymous wage slave. With the help of a souvenir manufacturer (Stanley Holloway) and a couple of small-time crooks (veteran British character actors Sidney James and Alfie Bass), Holland swipes a gold bullion shipment, then smuggles the booty to France in the form of miniature Eiffel Towers. The humor is mostly low-key and character-driven under Charles Crichton's direction. At the end, though, there's a dandy high-speed car chase that's fresher and funnier than many similar scenes in more recent comedies. Pay close attention during the opening scene -- yes, that really is a young Audrey Hepburn who briefly dallies with Guinness.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Recalling a time when Martin Landau recalled his experiences with Steven Spielberg, Peter Falk, naughty fan mail and, of course, Space: 1999

I had the pleasure of chatting with the late, great Martin Landau on several occasions — including a 1996 TV junket for The Adventures of Pinocchio, a movie he made just two years after his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. (As I wrote in my Variety review: “Martin Landau plays Geppetto, the aging puppet-maker who becomes a father for the first time after his latest creation magically springs to life. It’s a role that could have been played with broad gestures, cheap sentiment and other easy acting tricks. It is much to Landau’s credit that he takes a more restrained approach, in a largely successful attempt to make the character seem more endearingly poignant than boisterously amusing.”) But when I heard of his passing Saturday at age 89, the encounter I remembered most vividly was a 1980 interview I did with him for The Dallas Morning News, where I was employed at the time, when he came to Big D to promote a movie called The Last Word.

Mind you, there was nothing very memorable about the movie itself. (Truth to tell, I had to double check my files a few minutes ago to ascertain that I had actually seen it.) But I do recall that Landau was engagingly gracious and entertainingly loquacious, and that our free-wheeling tête-à-tête took some interesting detours. Like, when he talked about what he described as several instances of “bad timing” in the years following his departure from the Mission: Impossible TV series.

To quote my Dallas Morning News article:

“‘I made a movie with Peter Falk and Jason Robards called Operation Snafu… I thought it was hilarious when I read [the script]. But it came out the same year as M*A*S*H and Kelly’s Heroes, two other war comedies. I thought we were going to be first, but we wound up third.’

“As a result, Landau noted, the comedy… received a pitifully limited release, and was quickly dropped into the television market.

“Two years later, Landau and [his then-wife Barbara Bain] teamed for Savage, a 90-minute pilot film for a projected series about an investigative reporter.

“’That was before Watergate, before 60 Minutes,’” he said. ‘Nobody wanted a series about an investigative reporter. They were afraid of the show’

Ironically, the failed pilot was an early effort of a director whose time had not yet come — Steven Spielberg.

“’I had to fight to get Spielberg,’ Landau said. ‘At the time, he hadn’t done a whole lot. He was 23 at the time. It was right after he did Duel, but he had a reputation of going over budget.

“‘He did go over budget [on Savage]. But he’s always been talented. 1941 was one of his few less-than-successful ventures.’ Landau smiled wanly and added, ‘Savage was the other.’”

“In 1975, Landau and his wife teamed again for a slightly more successful television venture. Space: 1999, a production of Britain’s flamboyant Sir Lew Grade, featured Landau as the commander of a moon base where nuclear wastes were stored. When the waste material exploded, the moon — and some 300 people stationed on the base — went spinning off into outer space.

“The show, which depicted the misadventures of the people on the prowling planet, attracted a sizable audience in the United States, and an even greater following in Europe. After two years, however, the producer opted to pull the plug on the program when its ratings dipped slightly.

“‘Lew Grade got into motion pictures,’ Landau said. “The $7 million it would have taken to continue our show was what he needed for the advertising budget for Voyage of the Damned, The Eagle Has Landed and The Cassandra Crossing.’

“So Grade decided to end production on Space: 1999 — just a matter of months before Star Wars hit the world’s movie screens and kicked off a brand new science-fiction craze. Had Space: 1999 been able to hold out for a bit longer, it conceivably could have capitalized on the Star Wars mania and vastly improved its ratings.

“Even so, the series has been thriving in reruns. ‘There’s a whole cult around it,’ Landau said. ‘Not as big as the Star Trek cult, but still a cult… I get all kinds of things in the mail. Fan mail. Marriage letters. Divorce letters — things that read, “Divorce that broad and marry me.” Sometimes you even get pictures that are a little indecent — but that’s very rare.’

“‘At science fiction conventions, outtakes from the show, single frames of film, go for $10. I went to a convention in Columbus, Ohio — and 10,000 people showed up. A uniform I wore went there for something like $400. I thought, “My God. I wish I had kept my suits.” But it was too late.’”

Undeterred, Martin Landau pressed on, racking up an astonishing number of TV credits over the next three decades. He earned Academy Award nominations for his pitch-perfect performances in Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) — and finally took home the Best Supporting Actor prize for Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). 

Obviously, there are other credits on his resume that bespoke of a working actor’s incessant need to pay his rent and maintain his visibility. But consider this: Landau’s resume ran the gamut from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest to Entourage (both the HBO series and the movie spin-off). He appeared as a regular or guest star on many TV series, and even managed to make a strong impression in something as otherwise unremarkable as The Evidence, a short-lived 2006 police procedural that, I confess, I continued to watch (just to watch Landau) even after ABC consigned it to ignominious burn-off on Saturday nights.

In short, he had a hell of a run, because he was a hell of an actor. And while I can’t claim we were close friends, I strongly suspect, based on my experiences on those occasions when our paths crossed, that he was a hell of a nice guy. Even when his timing may have been off.

My tribute to George Romero and a Night to remember

For a variety of reasons, I have never seen any of the sequels to George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead — well, unless you want to count Dan O’Bannon’s gruesomely amusing The Return of the Living Dead (1985) — perhaps I’ve always considered it a tough act to follow. Or, more likely, because I don’t think any audience response to any sequel (or remake) — at any time, anywhere — could top the one I noted, and shared, when I first saw Romero’s classic 1968 horror opus during my college days.

While I was attending Loyola University in New Orleans back in the 1970s, I attended an evening screening in a large auditorium on campus. The crowd (including me) was impressed and attentive. Indeed, at least one of my fellow students may have been a little too impressed and attentive.

The first time a group of the shambling undead appeared on screen, a shriek rang out from the darkness: “Don’t let them get me! Don’t let them get me!” At first, I figured someone was goofing off, or encouraging some kind of audience participation. (Little did I know that, only a couple years later, such behavior would become commonplace at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) But then it happened a second time. Louder. And a third time. Louder still. By that point, it was quite obvious that whoever was screaming was totally, unabashedly, nearly-scared-to-death terrified.

After the third outburst, two people — friends? faculty? security personnel? I never found out — more or less lifted this frightened fellow from his seat and carried him (gently, as far as I could tell) out of the auditorium. But not before the guy had managed to make some of us (again, including me) even more uneasy while watching Romero’s masterwork.

Maybe his fear was a natural reaction, maybe it was, ahem, chemically enhanced. But, either way, that fear obviously was contagious. And how do I know this? Well, here’s the thing: None of the other people in the audience laughed when he screamed the second and third times. Come to think of it, as I recall, no one told him to shut the hell up, either.

George Romero passed away Sunday at age 77. He often is credited with starting the zombie movie genre – even though no one in his Night of the Living Dead ever actually uses the term “zombie” to describe the reanimated corpses that makes such nuisances of themselves. I’ll leave it up to others whether he deserves that acknowledgement. All I can say is, all these years later, I smile whenever I think of the night he enabled me to experience something that was, you know, really scary.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Spider-Fan! Spider-Fan! I'm your friendly neighborhood Spider-Fan!

And that's why my editors at Variety asked me to write this rundown of all six Spider-Man movies, ranking them worst to last. Naturally, the new Spider-Man: Homecoming figures into the mix.

Monday, July 03, 2017

One mo' time: Celebrating Independence Day with Bill Pullman

I am an immigrant's son, and I get paid to go to the movies. Truly, this is the land of opportunity. And so, to celebrate tomorrow's birthday of our great nation, I once again present the ridiculously corny yet tremendously affecting speech given by a beleaguered U.S. President (potently played by Bill Pullman) to rally a final push against invading extraterrestrials in Independence Day. Let freedom ring.

(And yes, I appreciate the fact that this fictional president probably would be more effective than the current Commander in Chief in uniting us against a foreign threat.)

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Mom goes time-tripping in Chinese-produced thriller Reset

The Korean filmmaker known as Chang does the time warp again, and again, in the Chinese-produced sci-fi thriller Reset, a film best described as the fair-to-middling realization of a cleverer-than-average high concept. The MacGuffin here is a “data module” that contains info about technology capable of sending people way back into the past — make that back 110 minutes or so — through artificial wormholes leading to parallel universes. But that’s merely the impetus for repeated time-jumps by research physicist Xia Tang (Yang Mi), whose five-year-old son is kidnapped by bad guys demanding ownership of the aforementioned module, and who must go to extremes on two different occasions when her little boy is killed twice.

Reset — which won Best Picture and Best Actress prizes last April at the WordFest/Houston International Film Festival — opened Friday in theatrical and digital release. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

TCM celebrates July 4 with 1776. And so should you.

Ten years ago this week, I rediscovered 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. At 10:15 pm ET/ 9:15 pm CT Tuesday, July 4, you, too, can re-evaluate (or see for the very first time) on TCM a restored version of the movie -- one of the last Old Hollywood adaptations of a hit Broadway musical. And take it from me: Even if, like me, you were none too impressed by it back in the day, you'll find it was substantially improved by the restoration of scenes and songs that had been deleted by producer  Jack Warner  before its ’72 theatrical release. (No less a notable than then-President Richard Nixon "requested" the deletion of a tune that tweaked conservatives.)

As I noted in 2007: "1776 still is something less than an unadulterated masterwork. (Although director Peter H. Hunt manages some impressive wide-screen compositions, he’s a tad too literal-minded in some aspects of his stage-to-screen translation.) Taken as a whole, however, the movie is wonderfully entertaining – and, better still, undeniably inspiring -- as it offers an intelligently yet playfully romanticized account of events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But wait, there’s more: The cast includes most of the major players from the original 1969 Broadway ensemble – including William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), all at their finest – along with an absolutely luminescent Blythe Danner (who was pregnant with Gwyneth Paltrow during filming) as Martha Jefferson. And the heated debates over individual rights and tyrannical rulers are, alas, every bit as relevant today as in 1776 or 1972." Or 2017.

More pertinent than ever: The reluctant agreement by Adams, Franklin and Jefferson to delete a key paragraph from their original draft of the Declaration

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ranking all 13 Michael Bay movies

Yes, I viewed them all. And I actually liked some of them. You can read my Variety countdown here. (Spoiler: No. 1 is not a Transformers movie.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

Way down below the ocean: 47 Meters Down

Recounting the basic plot of 47 Meters Down doesn’t do the film many favors, since any detailed synopsis likely will make it sound like one of those cheesy Jaws knock-offs that served as drive-in fodder in the 1970s. Indeed, it’s ridiculously easy to imagine the sort of breathless taglines and lurid poster art that might have been used decades ago to hard-sell this scenario about two vacationing sisters who are stranded in a shark-cage way below the waves while hungry Great Whites loom large all around them. (Lynn Lowry and Claudia Jennings are Shark Bait!’) But credit must be given where it is due: Director Johannes Roberts’ mostly underwater thriller is a compact and sturdily crafted B-movie that generates enough scares and suspense to qualify as — well, maybe not a pleasant surprise, but a reasonably entertaining one.

You can read the rest of my Variety review here

Good-bye to John G. Avildsen, who scored a knockout by directing Rocky

It’s hail and farewell to John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of Rocky, who passed away Friday in Los Angeles.
To be sure, Avildsen had several other notable films on his resume — including  Joe (1970), his discomfortingly prescient drama (propelled by Peter Boyle’s career-launching lead performance) about the murderous rage of the so-called Silent Majority; Save the Tiger (1973), a powerful portrait of a morally compromised businessman, for which Jack Lemmon received his own Oscar as Best Actor; and, of course, all three of the original Karate Kid movies.
But Rocky is the career-highlight achievement most likely to give Avildsen a fair shot at immortality. More than four decades after the scrappy small-budget 1976 movie about a never-made-it boxer came from out of nowhere to score Oscar gold, top box-office charts and rouse audiences to full-throated cheers, it continues to entertain movie fans – and influence moviemakers – with the undiminished force of an enduring pop-culture phenomenon.

To fully appreciate its vast and enduring popularity, consider this: A decade or so ago, Sylvester Stallone told me about an amazing image he remembered from early news coverage of the Iraq War. “I saw some Iraqi in some town hold up a flag with Rocky on it,” he said. “And I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me! Where did he have this flag for the past 20 years? Under his bed?’
“I mean, what was he thinking? ‘Oh, yeah, the day they come here to free us, I’m gonna pull out my Rocky flag!’?”
When I spoke with Avildsen back in 2014 — shortly before a Texas appearance to promote The Films of John G.Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs I related this anecdote to the director. He was amused — but not surprised.
“That’s another indication,” Avildsen said, “of just how pervasive that movie’s been around the world.”
Here are some other highlights from our 2014 conversation.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many people misremember the ending of Rocky – that they actually think Rocky Balboa won the big fight. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, I would occasionally get phone calls at The Houston Post from people who wanted me to settle bar bets regarding whether Rocky or Apollo Creed won.
That’s funny. But, really, I never thought it was important whether they knew it or not. And if they thought it was important, they missed the point.
When I interviewed Sylvester Stallone a few years back, he indicated that while you were making Rocky, expectations weren’t very high for the film.
We thought it was going to be on the bottom half of a double bill of a drive-in in Arkansas. There was no expectation of what it became.
Do you think you could get it green-lit in today’s blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood?
It would depend whether George Clooney were going to play Rocky. I mean, seriously, it all boils down to who’s going to play the guy. The people who financed Rocky had no idea who Sylvester Stallone was. And they were shown Lords of Flatbush – a terrific movie, and Sylvester was very good in it. They saw it, and they said, “OK,” and they okayed it.
So now the movie’s being made, and they look at the first dailies. And they say, “So, where’s Stallone?” And I say, “That guy’s Stallone.” And they say, “No, Stallone is a blond.” See, they saw Lords of Flatbush – and they thought Perry King was Stallone. They said yes to Perry King. That gives you some idea how well everything is organized in life.
Do you still re-watch Rocky from time to time?
Oh, if I come across it while I’m channel-surfing and, you know, if nothing else is on, I might. But I don’t go out of my way. [Laughs] I’ve already seen it a few times.
Well, you already know how it ends, right?
It wasn’t supposed to end that way, though.
Originally, it was written where the crowd carries Apollo out, and the crowd carries Rocky out. And as Rocky’s going by Adrian, who’s at the end of the aisle, he leans down and pulls her up and they go out on everybody’s shoulders. That’s how it was written, and that’s how we shot it with Apollo being carried out.
But then the assistant director came to me and said, “We don’t have enough extras to carry out Rocky.” And Sylvester heard this, and he said, “Well, you know, Rocky didn’t win, so maybe nobody carries him out. Maybe he just walks down the aisle, and he sees Adrian, and they hold hands and they walk off.” And I said, “Gee, that sounds pretty poetic. Let’s do that.” So we did do that. And if you remember, the original poster had the boy and the girl walking away from the camera.
So what made you decide to change that ending?
Well, I’m cutting the thing together, we’re almost done, and (composer) Bill Conti brings me the last cue, the last piece of music for the movie. And I was knocked out by it. I said, “Boy, that is absolutely sensational. But I don’t have any footage to go with that. I’ve got this boy and girl walking away like they’re going to a funeral. And this music is not that.” So what I think we ought to do is, we keep Rocky in the ring, and have (Adrian) battle her way through the crowd. He’s bellowing: “Adrian! Adrian!” And she gets there, and they clinch, and it’s “I love you,” and we’re out.
Well, nobody wanted to hear about that. Because, you know, if they hear that we’re reshooting, people will think you’ve got a turkey. So I played this music and cut the film that I had, and then I told (the producers), “Instead of seeing this, imaging her battling her way through the crowd to get to the man she loves.” And they said, “Well, OK, you have half a day.”
These are the same producers who are about to start shooting on New York, New York, a Marty Scorsese picture with DeNiro and Liza Minnelli. And Marty’s camera package was sitting in their office. So we borrowed it – unbeknownst to Marty, I think. That’s what we shot that ending with.
If we didn’t have that ending, and we didn’t have Bill Conti’s music – I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Trailer Park: Black Panther

OK, I admit: This has me unreasonably geeked. (And it doesn't hurt that Angela Bassett looks pretty smoking hot here with gray hair.) I’ll likely see Black Panther on opening weekend -- after all, I’m old enough to remember when the character first appeared in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four back in 1966, and I want to see whether he’s still as badass as I remember. (He certainly seemed that way last year in Captain America: Civil War.) The movie, starring Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up) and directed by Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station), is set to hit theaters February 16, 2018.

Opening today at (very few) theaters everywhere: The Hunter's Prayer

From my Variety review: "Echoes of Leon: The Professional and the Jason Bourne franchise resound throughout The Hunter’s Prayer, a briskly paced and instantly forgettable cut-and-paste thriller about a conscience-stricken assassin who becomes the target of other killers when he refrains from terminating a 16-year-old girl on his hit list. 

"Sam Worthington is Lucas, a drug-addicted combat veteran who makes his living as a lethal weapon, and Odeya Rush is Ella, the innocent teen who’s been marked for death because her dad embezzled money from Richard Addison (Allen Leech), a criminally inclined business tycoon. It’s unfortunate that the co-stars generate zero chemistry together, since the plot — adapted by scripters John Brancato and Michael Ferris from Kevin Wignall’s novel — pivots on the development of a surrogate father/substitute daughter bond between the hit man and the hunted girl. But never mind: Director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3) provides enough hairbreadth escapes, extended shootouts, crash-and-dash auto chases, and hand-to-hand combat sequences to make the movie modestly diverting for undemanding audiences."

The Hunter’s Prayer opened today in theaters and on digital platforms. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Take 27: Celebrating my Variety anniversary

Seven years ago, I celebrated my 20th anniversary as a Variety critic with the following post. I'm still around, and so is Variety, so I'm taking this opportunity to re-post the post. Why? As Willie Nelson sings on his latest album: “I woke up still not dead again today.” 

During an especially affecting moment in Spring Forward, one of my favorite films, Ned Beatty – playing a parks and recreation worker on the verge of retirement – marvels to a younger colleague played by Liv Schrieber that, somehow, when he wasn’t looking, several years slipped away: “Time goes by, and it seems like a little time. You turn around, and it was a big time.” How true.

Twenty years is a big time by anybody’s measure. But I’ve had a mostly grand time during my past two decades as a free-lance film critic (and, periodically, theater critic) for Variety, the venerable trade paper that I still think of as The Show Business Bible. That it actually has been two decades is a little disconcerting – has it really been that long? – but never mind. This weekend, it’s also a cause for celebration.

To be precise: My first three free-lance reviews – all of them for films shown at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- appeared in the weekly edition of Variety dated May 2, 1990. One of the movies just happened to be Red Surf, a melodrama about drug-dealing surfers starring a very young George Clooney. (For the record: the other two were Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter and something called A Girl’s Guide to Sex.) One week later, Variety ran my review of another WorldFest/Houston offering, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, a spoofy sci-fi B-movie that showcased a very young Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role. And two weeks after that, I reviewed yet another WorldFest feature: Across the Tracks, a dysfunctional family drama co-starring a very, very young Brad Pitt.

So you see: Right from the start, I’ve specialized in spotting fresh talent for The Show Business Bible. Well, OK: I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to spot fresh talent. Thanks to Variety.

I already was gainfully employed as a film critic for the late, great Houston Post when I was approached – by no less a luminary than Peter Bart himself -- to serve as a Variety stringer. But in my mind, writing for Variety – even back when I started, at a time when film critics didn’t receive a full byline – was not just a step up but a leap forward. To put it simply and hubristically, it was, to my way of thinking, a sign that I had arrived. I had made the grade, passed the test, completed my apprenticeship – and somehow gained entry inside a very select circle. I felt I had become part of a grand tradition. And you know what? I still feel that way.

Blame on my misspent youth. Back in the mid-to-late '60s, when I was a high school student in New Orleans, I fortuitously discovered The Show Business Bible in a library and was instantly smitten. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that, while I was growing up, there was something truly magical to me about Variety, my own private gateway to Hollywood and beyond.

On Fridays -- after school or, quite often, very early in the morning, before classes -- I would take the bus downtown to buy Variety at a newsstand. (It took two days for the weekly edition, then published on Wednesdays, to reach N.O.) I would devour all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, all the news about movies in production and box-office hits and misses, and gradually master the Variety-ese slanguage so I could fully understand what to the uninitiated must have seemed like indecipherable code. And, of course, I would marvel at the colossal special-edition issues dedicated to film festivals and year-end wrap-ups, all them filled with dozens of full-page ads for forthcoming movies.

I continued to be awestruck buy The Show Business Bible well into my twenties and beyond. I still have a photo somewhere that my wife took of me during our first trip together to New York in the mid '70s, long after I had begun my professional writing career. It's a picture of me standing in front of the old Variety office near Times Square -- the one with the big Variety logo emblazoned on a huge ground floor window.  I am smiling a great big goofy kid's smile in the picture, like a True Believer enraptured by his proximity to some hallowed shrine.

So, of course, when Peter Bart called more than 15 years later…

I know, I know: Some of you will be quick to dismiss all of this a sentimental blathering, or shameless self-aggrandizing, or both. And that’s your prerogative. For others, it may seem odd, if not downright incomprehensible, for anyone to still feel so emotionally bound to anything so seemingly antiquated as a newspaper. But, hey, that’s my prerogative. Besides: I’ve also been writing web-only reviews for for quite some time now, so it’s not like I’m exclusively an ink-stained wretch. But I remain, deep down, an analogue guy in a digital world, as my heart continues to beat to the rhythm of a printing press. That may change – well, actually, that must change, eventually – but not too soon, I hope.

This is probably where I should write something about all the notable filmmakers whose first films I reviewed for Variety at various and sundry film festivals. And after that, I guess I should toss out ten or twenty titles of films that I got to review before anybody else thanks to my Variety affiliation. But that really would be self-aggrandizing, and I would deserve every brickbat tossed in my general direction. So I’ll leave it at this: I am deeply grateful that I’ve been a part of the Variety team for the past two decades. And I look forward to my next 20 years with the organization. (Assuming, of course, that they'll have me.) Because even though I know that the day may come when print media as we now know it will go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies, I’m sure that Variety, in some form, will survive and thrive. And I hope to remain part of its ongoing tradition.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My 1988 conversation with Jonathan Demme

As a tribute to filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who passed away today at age 73, I am posting this interview I did with him back in 1988, shortly before the release of Married to the Mob. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with him — I had pegged him as a promising director  when I saw Fighting Mad (1976), and subsequently enjoyed seeing that promise fulfilled in Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980). My only regret is that our paths never crossed again. 

The cinema of Jonathan Demme is a vibrantly colored patchwork quilt where the rural Middle Americans of Fighting Mad enjoy Sunday chicken dinner, where the Utah Mormons of Melvin and Howard cling fast to dreams fed by pop culture, where the funky reggae princess of Married to the Mob hires the widow of a Long Island Mafioso to work in a Lower East Side beauty shop.

Demme works in riots of color and freeze-frames of eccentric details, insisting on the importance of what lies at the edges of his frame and the fringes of our society. And he will not be boxed in by fashion or genre. As a filmmaker, his enthusiasm is as boundless and indefatigable. He will focus on a one-man show (Swimming to Cambodia) that's large enough to contain multitudes, then pull back to encompass the curves and twists of a romantic road movie (Something Wild) that detours into harrowing violence. He can stalk David Byrne and the Talking Heads all around a concert stage (Stop Making Sense), or scramble along the highways, and smash through the defenses, that separate small-town folks who are connected only by their C.B.’s (Citizens Band, a.k.a. Handle with Care).

Call him Demme eclectic and he will smile, grateful for the compliment.

A 44-year-old graduate of producer Roger Corman’s school of low-budget, fast-profit moviemaking, Demme knows how to grab an audience. “Rule No. 1,” he says, quoting his mentor, “is to never forget that the eyeball is the primary organ involved in the experience of movie watching. And if you don’t keep the eye stimulated, there’s no way you can keep the brain engaged.

“Of course, Roger said this before the advent of stereo sound, so I guess the ear is almost as important now. But that's OK. I’ve always liked to play special effects louder than they should be, because they’re fun that way. Whether it’s a burp, or a knuckle crack, or a punch — it’s just more fun to hear it loud and crisp, not at the realistic level.”

But if you take a close look at Demme’s labors of love — the “Sun City” video of Artists United Against Apartheid, an "impressionistic documentary” called Haiti Dreams of Democracy — you realize there's more than sound and fury to his sensibility.

Along with Martin Scorsese and Danny De Vito, Demme recently established Filmmakers United Against Apartheid, a group of more than 100 filmmakers who want to involve their films in the cultural boycott of South Africa. And even in a frankly commercial project like his latest film, Married to the Mob, a darkly humorous romantic comedy about a Mafia widow and a straight-arrow FBI agent, Demme projects his optimistic view of America as a richly multi-ethnic society, a percolating melting pot where white bread can soak up tasty foreign influences.

“In this day and age, with so much strife, any opportunity to visualize cooperation between people who are different is an opportunity that can’t be missed,” Demme said a few days ago in his Plaza Hotel suite.

“I get mad at a lot of movies that have the same old white-bread America in the background of the story they’re showing, instead of trying to catch up with the way this country is. There are a lot of people getting off the planes and boats every day, and becoming part of this country, whether we like it or not. And it’s important to go back to the basic spirit of America — that, in theory, it is a melting pot, and that’s part of what makes it great.”

Clearly, Demme is a filmmaker with a well-developed social conscience. Just as important, though, he also has a healthy sense of humor. Even back in the early ‘70s, when the New York-born, Miami-raised filmmaker was churning out schlock like Caged Heat and Crazy Mama for Roger Corman, Demme brought a touch of populist politics to his work. But that's only because “Corman said you should always make sure you have action, humor, a degree of sex, and a touch of social comment” in a good drive-in movie, Demme said.

Demme used all the elements for his first film released by a major studio: Fighting Mad (1976), a populist revenge saga in which peaceful farmer Peter Fonda waged war against wicked strip miners. Humor? A few laughs. Sex? A degree. Social comment? A touch. Action? Plenty. And pretty violent action at that.

Nothing Demme has done since Fighting Mad has turned quite so bloody. But his films often treat the possibility of violence as a constant undercurrent in the melting pot. And sometimes, the promise is brutally fulfilled. The jarring climax of Something Wild turned off more than a few audiences. And even though the gunplay in Married to the Mob is played for laughs, as counterpoint to the frisky romance between feisty widow Michelle Pfeiffer and G-man Matthew Modine, characters do indeed die.

“I have real complicated feelings about that,” Demme admitted. “I did my high-school years in Miami, Florida. And it was a wide-open kind of place. There was a lot of fighting — and I saw a lot of fights while growing up. And even got stuck in the middle of one or two of them myself. So I have a first-hand understanding of how this stuff really sometimes happens.

“I’m really very much a pacifist. And I hate violence. But I have — well, you can’t use any other word, you have to come back to fascination. It’s a bad word, because it implies appreciation. Which, of course, there isn’t. I wish there were a hard-edged synonym of fascination to describe the way I feel.”

Some critics yearn to find soft-edged, thoroughly appreciating adjectives to describe Jonathan Demme's movies, if only to encourage moviegoers to buy tickets. Unfortunately, despite the awards and rave reviews that have greeted many of his best works, Demme remains more a cult favorite than a mainstream moneymaker. He thought he had a chance at a mass-audience hit with Swing Shift (1984), his admiring view of the women who kept the assembly lines rolling while their men were off fighting World War II. But Goldie Hawn, the film’s star, insisted on changes that, in Demme’s view, sabotaged the film. Whatever the reason, Swing Shift was a fast flop.

After that experience, Demme said, “I don't want to work with any superstar, regardless of how good an actor they are, if they picture themselves as a product with a group of avid consumers out there, waiting to consume the latest manifestation of, say, the Goldie Hawn product. That’s what it boiled down to on Swing Shift: ‘My audience is going to want to see more of me. My audience wants to laugh at me.’”

Still, Demme won't deny his desire to have a full-scale, across-the-boards box-office hit. Married to the Mob, with its idiosyncratic rhythms and oddball exuberance, may not be the sort of film that grosses $100 million. But it should appeal to a wider audience than Demme heretofore has enjoyed. And, better still, it won’t disappoint his loyal fans.

“I've always loved this kind of escapist movie — if it’s a good one — and still do. And I also have a taste for more unusual fare, like Swimming to Cambodia. I’m just happy that, so far, I've been able to do a variety of things. And I hope I can still continue to do that, because it keeps recharging my batteries.”

Demme felt more charged-up during the making of Married to the Mob than he has during the making of any other movie. But, then again, his free-floating cheeriness might have had more to do with the birth of his first child, Ramona, now 6 months old.

His wife, painter Joanne Howard, “was pregnant while we were shooting the movie. And I feel like I did my best work that I’ve done on Married to the Mob. And I feel that I channeled my energies better than I ever did before.

“And part of that was, I wanted to be as effective as possible, so that I could go home and be with my pregnant wife. And then in the cutting room, I wanted to be as articulate and as clear, and push myself as much as possible, so I could go home and play with the baby.

“I'm a late-blooming daddy, and I'm loving every minute of it. And I feel like I’m really applying myself. Not in a stronger way, but in a much more effective way. I’m not schmoozing around as much as perhaps I was.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The nuns who taught me back at St. Vincent de Paul School would not approve

In fact, I'm pretty damn certain they would tell me I'm going to hell just for watching this NSFW trailer for Jeff Baena's The Little Hours, a wild and sexy riff on Boccaccio's The Decameron that may very well be the most outrageous thing anyone has done with that literary classic since Pier Paolo Pasolini got his hands on it.

The official plot synopsis: "Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry."

Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Jon Gabrus, Lauren Weedman, Paul Weitz, and Paul Reiser also are featured in this comedy of blasphemy, which opens June 30 in limited theatrical release. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to confession.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Furiouser and Furiouser: Ranking the Fast and Furious Franchise

For Variety -- The Showbiz Bible -- I have ranked, by testosterone level, all films in the Fast and Furious franchise. Yes, all of them, including The Fate of the Furious. You can read all about it here.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two great Johnny Cash music videos to watch on The Man in Black's 85th birthday

The great Johnny Cash would have turned 85 today had the Grim Reaper not intervened. But never mind: He remains immortal anyway.

To celebrate his birthday, I am looking back at two extraordinary music videos featuring The Man in Black. The first, completed after Cash’s passing, is for “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” It was the brainchild of Justin Timberlake, but directed by Tony Kaye, who was on hand to introduce it when I first saw the video at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival. (I have a fond memory of helping him fold up a recalcitrant baby carriage for his young daughter after the screening.) Look closely, and you’ll see celebs ranging from Woody Harrelson to Dennis Hopper to Chris Rock to Keith Richards paying tribute to the gone-but-not-forgotten superstar.

The second — my all-time favorite music video of any sort — is director Mark Romanek’s emotionally wrenching video for “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song that Cash claimed as his own when he covered it for his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around. I first saw it late one night years ago while net surfing in my home office, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept so hard and noisily when it concluded that I woke my wife, who rose from bed to check whether I was having some sort of health issue. More recently, I saw it for the umpteenth time last week during my second visit to The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. (Spoiler alert: It's the last exhibit you see before the exit door.) I was able to keep from crying that time, but just barely. 

As Bono notes in this “Making Of” mini-documentary: "Trent Reznor was born to write that song. But Johnny Cash was born to sing it. And Mark Romanek was born to film it." True dat.

Remembering Bill Paxton... and Frailty

To pay my respects to the late, great Bill Paxton, who passed away Saturday at the ridiculously young age of 61, I am reprinting here my original 2002 review of his feature film directorial debut, the criminally under-rated Frailty

You might not immediately recall his name, but you almost certainly would recognize Bill Paxton for his solid and unassuming performances in Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan and Twister. Chances are good, however, that Paxton will become far better known as a filmmaker if enough people see Frailty, a directorial debut that is not merely promising but highly accomplished.

Evidencing the same uncomplicated, matter-of-fact naturalism that informs his best work on the other side of the camera, Paxton tells a complex and compelling story in frills-free, straightforward style that only serves to intensify the movie’s steadily escalating suspense and clammy sense of impending doom. And he’s smart enough to cast a first-rate actor – himself – in a demanding role that calls for a delicate balance of homespun charisma and soft-spoken insanity.

Frailty is, at heart, a horror movie, but almost all of the violence occurs off camera, and the chief bogeyman is all too human and, at times, almost perversely plausible and sympathetic. To its considerable credit, the film gets more mileage from the power of suggestion than any thriller since The Blair Witch Project. Better still, the camerawork is a lot less vertigo-inducing here.

So go see it, and have a great time. I’ll just sign off now and….

Oh. You want to know more, do you? Well, I was afraid of that.

You see, Frailty may be a fine movie to watch, but it’s terribly tricky to review. For one thing, I have to be very careful not to give away, or indirectly suggest, the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing plot twist. Come to think of it, even warning that there is such a switcheroo may be telling you too much. 

I guess it’s safe to tell you that most of the narrative is related in flashback – appropriately enough, on a dark and stormy night – as a seriously spooked-out fellow named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) explains to a Dallas-based FBI agent (Powers Boothe) how his recently deceased younger brother grew up to be a most-wanted serial killer. Evidently, young Adam Meiks (Jeremy Sumpter) learned his lesson well while observing his father (Paxton), a sweet-tempered mechanic and loving father who occasionally slaughtered folks with a well-aimed swing of his trusty axe.

Don’t misunderstand: Dear old Dad wasn’t your everyday, plain-vanilla psychotic killer. In the flashbacks, we see that Dad sincerely believes he is doing the Lord’s  work – indeed, is following God’s personally delivered orders – by slaying “demons” who walk the world undetected by lesser mortals.

Young Fenton (played in flashbacks by Matt O’Leary) begs to differ, and warns his zealous father that, hey, murder is murder, no matter how demonic you think your victim might be. Not surprisingly, Fenton suffers dearly for offering this perfectly reasonable advice. To save himself, he must pretend to accept the notion that the family that preys together stays together. Nothing good comes of this.

OK, that’s all I can tell you about the plot. Actually I’ve told you one or two things that aren’t entirely true, but you’re supposed to accept them as the real deal until Paxton pulls the rug, and then the floorboards, out from under you. Frailty may remind you of The Night of the Hunter (or even To Kill a Mockingbird) in its ability to sustain a frightened child’s point of view. It definitely will leave you stunned and breathless, and perhaps fully prepared to argue with friends and total strangers about the meaning of the final scenes. Have fun.