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. 

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Arriving just in time to be even more relevant: From Nowhere

After seeing the provocative and powerful From Nowhere last year at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, I wrote: 

Arriving in the middle of an election season when debates over U.S. immigration policy have devolved into sloganeering and shouting matches, From Nowhere feels all the more urgent and relevant as it applies human faces to abstract statistics and arguments. Writer-director Matthew Newton (Three Blind Mice) neatly avoids predictability and melodramatic excess in focusing on three undocumented teenagers nearing graduation at a Bronx high school, effectively using the specifics of their individual situations to illustrate opportunities and obstacles in the path of anyone pursuing the American Dream while hiding in plain sight. Credible and creditable performances by a fine cast of promising newcomers and familiar veterans enhance the emotional impact of this low-key but compelling indie...

I know: It sounds a bit like one of those “Eat your spinach, it’s good for you” movies. But trust me: From Nowhere is not just a noble gesture — it’s also a compelling, well-crafted and impressively acted drama that arguably is even more relevant right now than it was last March. The movie begins its theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles February 17 before (I hope) rolling out to theaters nationwide. Here is my original Variety review, and here is a trailer.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Me and Steve Bannon go way back

While reading Ann Hornaday's Washington Post piece about interviewing Steve Bannon last year at the Cannes Film Festival -- back when he was doing nothing more threatening than making right-wing agitprop documentaries -- I was reminded that I actually reviewed for Variety one of his more popular efforts as an auteur: The Undefeated, his 2011 feature-length mash note to Sarah Palin -- which co-starred, no kidding, Andrew Breitbart.

A sample paragraph: Faster than the speed of thought, The Undefeated is a history lesson designed for students with minimal attention spans. Bannon strives to give every scene an insistently propulsive pace, relying heavily on smash cuts, skittish pans and self-conscious switches between color and black-and-white. [The director] overhypes much of his archival footage and almost drowns out some of his interviewees with the sort of thunderous music one normally hears only in movies when astronauts are preparing to blow up meteors. The interviews are shot in a swervy, jerky manner that may be intended to come across as dynamic, but actually appear to indicate the videographer was barely suppressing nature’s call.

The funny thing is, my review was one of the more positive ones. But I bet that doesn't keep me off Trump's White House Enemies List. Especially if that list is ghost-written by, well, you know.

By the way: In her Washington Post, Hornaday notes that, over 25 years ago, Bannon served as executive producer for The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's first effort as a film director. Think those two guys still hang out together? 

Friday, February 03, 2017

It's about damn time: The Blackcoat's Daughter (a.k.a. February) opens March 31

It was a different time, perhaps a better time. The sky was bluer, friends were truer. Most people — not me, mind you, but most other people — still thought Donald Trump would never, ever get the GOP nomination for President.

It was September 2015. And at the Toronto Film Festival, I saw a chilling little film called February. As I wrote in my original Variety review:

“Let’s address the obvious right off the bat: Yes, [February] is the first feature written and directed by Osgood Perkins — son of Anthony Perkins, the late, great actor who made his stab at immortality as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — and yes, this, too, is a thriller that generates a shock or two through the grievous misuse of cutlery. (Come to think of it, it also features a portentous close-up of water swirling down a bathtub drain.) But rest assured, this slow-burning, sure-footed scary movie is likely to prompt discussions about things other than family traditions — or, if you prefer, bloodlines. An atmospheric and suspenseful indie with a subtle but unmistakable retrograde feel, it should score with sophisticated genre aficionados and anyone else inclined to savor a stealthy, unsettling escalation of dread before full-bore horror kicks in.” 

Not very long after the Toronto fest wrapped, February was renamed The Blackcoat’s Daughter. (That’s the title under which you’ll now find my review on the increasingly popular website.) And then… well, not much. Until now.

A24, arguably the most venturesome distributor in the movie business right now, has announced a March 31 theatrical release date for February… er, I mean The Blackcoat’s Daughter. And if you can’t wait that long: It will be available exclusively on DirecTV starting February 16 before opening at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. 

So what’s it all about? That’s difficult to say. In my revised Variety review, I explain:

“The challenge facing those eager to talk or write about The Blackcoat’s Daughter is simple yet daunting: You can’t provide too many details without spilling an inordinate number of beans. Indeed, it’s hard to praise the three lead performances [by Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton] — which, not incidentally, are very good indeed — without spoiling the pleasure of appreciating how each actress approaches her role.”

Here is the trailer for The Blackcoat’s Daughter — which, I am happy to note, doesn’t give too much of the game away. (And yes, before you ask: My Variety review is quoted here. Twice.)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Charlie Chaplin: Another immigrant banned from the USA

I try to make all the college courses I teach as, well, relevant for my students as possible. (Yes, I didn’t think I’d ever again be using that ‘60s/’70s buzzword either.) Most of the time, that requires a lot of time, effort and, most important, research on my part, to find direct (or even indirect) links to the current zeitgeist to make whatever material I’m covering – whether it be in a film studies course, or a journalism course, or Media and Society 101 – seem less like dry and dusty and, worst of all, irrelevant history.

And then there are times when God just throws something into my lap.

Today I screened Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in a History of Film class. As usual, I pointed out that the term “Chaplinesque” continues to be used to describe everyone and everything from Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy to Zach Galifianakis’s Baskets. I also said they might be amused to know if they watched old black-and-white reruns of The Addams Family — and you might be surprised how many of them are familiar with that ‘60s sitcom through reruns on digital networks — that Jackie Coogan grew up to be Uncle Festus.

But today was a bit different. Today, I pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was demonized by J. Edgar Hoover and others because of his supposed “subversive” activities (which included, among other things, Chaplin’s directing and starring in The Great Dictator). And that in 1952, after he voyaged from the US to his native England for the premiere of Limelight, Attorney General James Patrick McGranery revoked his re-entry permit, and announced Chaplin would have to submit himself to interviews about his political leanings if he didn’t want to be permanently banned from returning. (You can read more about this shameful episode, and Chaplin’s response to McGranery’s threat, here.)

After telling my students all of this, I paused a few seconds, then added: “Gosh, aren’t we glad this sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore?” The general response: Laughter. And no one laughed louder, I should note, than two female students wearing hijabs.

By the way: Later this week, I am screening for another class Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel over the White House, a truly bizarre 1933 fantasy — which I scheduled before the November election — in which a US President suspends the Constitution, imposes martial law, dissolves Congress, summarily executes perceived enemies of the state — and is viewed as a hero.

Think I’ll have any trouble making that one seem relevant?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hail and farewell to Gene Cernan -- The Last Man on the Moon

Such has been my good fortune in life that, on certain rare occasions, I have been in the presence of historic figures. At the 2016 Houston Film Critics Society Awards, I was privileged to be honored alongside -- and to joke around with -- astronaut Gene Cernan, my fellow adopted Texan, who passed away Monday at age 82. Months earlier, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview him for Cowboys & Indians magazine at SXSW after the premiere of The Last Man on the Moon, the exceptional documentary based on his autobiography of the same name.

My favorite parts of our conversation:

Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case… 

Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal tranquility base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana – which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there. 

Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood? 

I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. And the closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out, and I swam to the surface – and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, “I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did what was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire], and then kick his way back to the surface.” And that’s what I did.

You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the new documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story? 

From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. And I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere...

Look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover, or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon – what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.

(You can read the rest of our Q&A here. And you can view The Last Man on the Moon on Netflix.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

La La Land, Hell or High Water big winners at Houston Film Critics Society Awards

La La Land continued its extended victory lap Friday — two days before  the Golden Globe Awards — by picking up top prizes at the 10th annual Houston Film Critics Society Awards extravaganza. The HFCS (of which I am a member) named La La Land the Best Picture of 2016, and filmmaker Damien Chazelle the year’s Best Director, during a program presented at H-Town’s MATCH performing and visual arts center. La La Land also picked up awards for cinematography (Linus Sandgren) and technical achievement (production design).

The acclaimed modern-day western Hell or High Water picked up a pair of prizes: Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan).

Elsewhere on the list of HFCS Award Winners:

Actor — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Actress — Natalie Portman, Jackie
Supporting Actress — Viola Davis, Fences
Animated FilmKubo and the Two Strings
DocumentaryO.J.: Made in America
Foreign FilmThe Handmaiden
Texas Independent Film AwardTower
Outstanding Cinematic Contribution — The Alamo Drafthouse
Lifetime Achievement — Margo Martindale

And to counterbalance all the honors, HFCS announced a dishonor: Zoolander 2 was named Worst Picture of 2016. Which, of course, should greatly enhance its chances at this year's Razzie Awards.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Prepare for 2017 with words of wisdom from Sir Michael Caine

I originally posted this back in 2011, but I think it's even more appropriate for today. 

From Sir Michael Caine, words to live by: "You are going to make every moment count. I mean, you better make every moment count. Live your life now; start in the morning. You mustn’t sit around waiting to die. When it happens you should come into the cemetery on a motorbike, skid to a halt by the side of the coffin, jump in and say: 'Great. I just made it.'"

Works for me.

And Sir Michael also said this: "You quite often see these middle aged people on television who’ve won the fight against cancer and now they want to live their lives differently and enjoy every moment. Before they just went along and now they’ve had this scare that they were going to die. I had that scare that I was going to die when I was nineteen when I was a soldier, so I have been living my life that way for sixty years now... 

"I was a soldier in Korea and I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die – like the people know they are going to die of cancer, except then we got out of it. But it lasted with me – I was nineteen. That formed my character for the rest of my life. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep."

By the way: Sir Michael is 83 years old, and he already has two movies in the can -- Going in Style and Coup d'Etat -- ready for release this year. I strongly suspect he and Keith Richards will outlive all of us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My titillating encounter with the great Debbie Reynolds

In November 1996, while I was free-lancing for NBC affiliate KRRC-TV, I drove to Austin to cover the junket for Albert Brooks’ Mother – and had a brief one-on-one sit-down with Debbie Reynolds. 

Funnily enough, I had asked her a question during a press conference for the very same movie a few weeks earlier at the Toronto Film Festival: “How would you compare working for Albert Brooks to working for Oliver Stone?” (Afterwards, I had to remind more than a few of my quizzical colleagues that she had played a supporting role in Stone’s Heaven & Earth.) And she was very gracious while saying nice things about both gentlemen. 

But in Austin, she displayed — well, a delightfully bawdier side of her character.

As I walked into the hotel suite where the videotaping would take place, Reynolds was talking with the production crew about her… her… well, OK, her breasts. Specifically: She was discussing how she had maintained her figure despite the passing of years — she was 64 at the time, the same age I am now — and the laws of gravity. And she wanted everyone within earshot to know: “I’m very proud of my tits.” When she realized a newcomer had entered the interview zone, she turned her gaze to me, and bluntly asked: “Don’t you think I still have great tits?”

For a second, I thought: “Just how does one respond to a question like that?”

And then I figured, what the hell, say what you think.

So I answered: “They look terrific, ma’am. And your ass looks pretty good, too.”

She laughed, but demurred. “Oh, no, that’s gone to hell. But my tits…”

I have dined out on that anecdote many times over the past two decades. And I thought about it again yesterday, when I learned of Carrie Fisher’s passing, and recalled how she was a fabulously and fearlessly funny woman who never shied away from making herself the butt of her own jokes. (Pardon the pun.) Tonight, I grieve for Debbie Reynolds, and find myself painfully reminded of the classic explanation of the difference between plot and story. (Plot: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died.” Story: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died — of a broken heart.”) At the same time, however, I take some solace and amusement in my happy memory: Like mother, like daughter.  

Happy 121st Birthday to Cinema!

On December 28, 1895, cinema in projected form was presented for the first time to a paying audience by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere (pictured above), owners of a photographic studio in Lyons. They went to Paris to demonstrate their cinématographe -- the name they'd given their combination camera and projector -- by showcasing short films they had shot with their hand-cranked innovation.

According to legend: At the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines, a man stood outside the building all day on December 28, handing out programs to passers-by. But cold weather kept many people from stopping. As a result, only 33 tickets were sold for the first show.

When the lights went down that evening in a makeshift theater in the basement of the Grand Café, a white screen was lit up with a photographic projection showing the doors of the Lumiere factory in Lyon. Without warning, the factory doors were flung open, releasing a stream of workers... and, wonder of wonders, everything moved. The audience was stunned.

This first film was entitled La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Ten more short scenes followed, each reel roughly 17 meters in length, including Baby's Dinner (kinda-sorta the first home movie by proud parents, later echoed by Spike Lee in Lumiere & Company) and The Sprinkler Sprinkled (arguably the first slapstick comedy, involving a man, his garden hose and a practical joker).

Within a week, with no advertising but word of mouth, more than 2,000 spectators visited the Grand Café each day, each paying the admission price of one franc. The crowds were so huge, police had to be called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.