Saturday, December 07, 2013
Sometimes, all you have to do is direct one film -- one singular film -- to guarantee your shot at immortality.
Chances are good you've never seen (or even heard about) French filmmaker Edouard Molinaro's only Hollywood-produced effort -- Just the Way You Are, a slight but likable 1984 dramedy best remembered (by the few who remember it at all) as a highlight of Kristy McNichol's short-lived movie career. And it's extremely likely you've never seen most of the many movies he directed in his homeland.
But even if you're the type of moviegoer who avoids subtitles as avidly as Superman keeps his distance from Kryptonite, you've surely heard of, and have likely enjoyed, his all-time most successful French flick: La Cage aux Folles, the enormously popular 1978 international hit that spawned two sequels, a Broadway musical, and a high-grossing Hollywood remake.
Molinaro's La Cage is emblematic of a time in US art-house history when a savvy distributor (in this case, United Artists Classics) might be able to keep a movie planted in theaters long enough to slowly but steadily build a crossover audience, and possibly turn a popular entertainment into a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon. Indeed, in Houston, La Cage ran long enough at the now-shuttered Greenway 3 Theatre -- the better part of a year, actually -- to build an audience loyal enough to keep coming back to that venue for more alt-film fare for 20-plus years.
Not incidentally, La Cage aux Folles did its bit to make straight moviegoers less uncomfortable with the concept of same-sex marriage, decades before many of those moviegoers were able to accept such unions in real life. Which, of course, is another good reason to pay due respect to Edourad Molinaro, who passed away Saturday at age 85. Many better-known directors have left behind less significant legacies.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
For those of you who have always wanted to bury a film critic -- and you know who you are, so don't be coy about it -- please consider making a donation to the funeral fund for my late colleague and fellow founding member of the Houston Film Critics Society: Eric Harrison, formerly of the L.A. Times and more recently film critic for The Houston Chronicle.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
In Hours, writer-director Eric Heisserer’s suspenseful indie drama, Walker plays Nolan Hayes, a loving husband who rushes his pregnant wife to a New Orleans hospital just before sunrise on Aug. 29, 2005 – just as Hurricane Katrina begins its brutal assault on the Crescent City. Unfortunately, Nolan’s wife dies during childbirth. Even more unfortunately, his prematurely born daughter must remain inside a ventilator for at least 48 hours.
As I wrote in Variety after the drama’s SXSW Film Festival premiere last March: “Hours is practically a one-man show, with Walker alone on camera for lengthy stretches as Nolan passes time talking to his baby, or himself, and dashing hither and yon between battery-cranks while on beat-the-clock explorations and supply runs.” Walker “capably and compellingly rises to the demands of the role,” and “gracefully balances the drama on his shoulders.”
But the thing was, once we got rolling, it was good. It wasn’t until I got home at night, and looking at the next day’s work, what was in store for me, that self-doubt would creep in. But once you get there, and you get into it, it was like, “I’m there. This is OK.” Being away from it was tougher than being in it.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
According to CultureMap.com: Now whenever I ask for a lap dance at an H-Town club, I'll be doing my bit in the war against human trafficking. Is this a great country, or what?
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Whenever I speak with an alumnus of Saturday Night Live -- especially a recent graduate of the show -- I find it difficult, if not impossible, to refrain from asking a question or two about their experiences as a member of the comic ensemble that old fogeys like me still call the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. So when Will Forte appeared a few weeks ago at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival for a screening of Nebraska -- which, not incidentally, is my favorite movie of 2013 so far -- I couldn't help myself.
Fortunately, Forte is a gracious gentleman as well as a great comedy-sketch artist -- and, as you'll see in Nebraska, an exceptionally fine actor -- so he indulged me. We talked a great deal about his movie for CultureMap.com. But we also shared some words about SNL, which I will share with you.
Did you ever see Saturday Night, James Franco's documentary about a typical week of production for Saturday Night Live?
Oh, sure. Definitely.
Because the movie makes a point that many other folks often raise regarding SNL: Viewers always think the best cast in the show's history is the one they saw when they first watched the show. Which means, I guess, is that by the time you were cast as part of the ensemble, you weren't just worried about comparisons to John Belushi or Chevy Chase or Dan Aykroyd. You were standing on the shoulders of several giants.
It is really interesting to see the different waves. Because I was born in 1970. And when I was just a kid, I watched the beginnings of SNL. I would watch it for Mr. Bill – but I would also see the other stuff. And when I got older, I loved the Eddie Murphy era – I was such an Eddie fan. And every step of the way, there was a new cast that I would love.
Of course, you’re right: I always looked back to that original cast as, well, there would be no show without them. And they were untouchable. I don’t say that to demean any of the other casts, because there have been so many other wonderful, wonderful casts. And I have so many comedy heroes that come from each era.
And now you are viewed as a comic hero by other people. It reminds me of the final part of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, when the son of one of the earthlings who colonized Mars asks his father to show him some Martians. So dad takes him down to the river, and tells him to look at his reflection -- to show him, in effect, "Hey, we are Martians now."
Well, when I came in, it was right after Will Ferrell had left. And I had been such a huge Will Ferrell fan. There were still some wonderful people there. But he had been such a major part of that show, and now the show seemed to be searching for its new identity. And there were a couple years there when it seemed like people were down on the show.
But when that influx of new blood came in, with Bill [Hader] and Andy [Samberg] and Jason [Sudeikis] and Kristen [Wiig], we really started to jell together. You could just feel this new identity forming. I could still sense a lot of criticism of the show. But it didn’t matter to me because I was really proud of it. And you could feel the tide starting to turn -- people starting to catch on a little bit, giving us a chance. And then when people are finally OK with it again – everybody leaves.
So it’s interesting now to read things where people are going like: “Oh, this is nothing like the Bill Hader days!” But it’s just the natural ebb and flow of the show. Because that show is in really good hands right now. These new people are fantastic. And it’s going to be fun to see the identity that they create. And it seems like people are very optimistic, which is great. So I hope they get the benefit of the doubt. Because it’s really exciting to see what path the show is going to take. There’s always an element that’s similar, because there’s that same structure. But it’s different at the same time.
It’s interesting, though, what you said about the Martians. Because the first several years I was there, I – I don’t know how to describe it, but, yeah, I was very nervous. It’s like coming into this Nebraska situation. I was telling myself: “What an honor it is to be here. Don’t ruin these wonderful heroes of mine. Don’t take their show and ruin it.” So I felt this pressure.
And I realize I put pressure on myself. This show was very special to me even before I got there. That’s why it’s such a unique place. It’s been there so long that people feel an ownership over it, you know? The fans feel an ownership. So it was interesting to get in there and – well, for a couple of years, I didn’t really feel like I was part of the show. I felt like, oh, I’m just kind of in here. But then I got to a certain point, and I got to this place – a really exciting place – where I felt, “Hey, you know what? I’m on freakin’ Saturday Night Live. I’m part of this thing. I’m part of the history of this thing, for good or for bad. And no matter what you think of me as a fan of the show – I got to do this. I got to be here. What a unique opportunity.”
I look back at my time on that show as, it was my dream job coming into comedy – and I got to do my dream job. And I have nothing but wonderful, wonderful memories. Everyone should be so lucky as to do their dream jobs.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
And no, I don't want to even think about whether our current POTUS has this on his mind. I mean, sure, I have no doubt that he does, but I just don't want to think about it. Not this weekend, not ever.
If you're of a certain age and remember that long Sunday, you know this dance of death by heart. The anxious hubbub of straight-arrow reporters in dark suits and white shirts, jostling with notebooks and cameras, craning their necks and thrusting microphones at the first glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald. He appears ridiculously frail for someone who -- allegedly, we would say today, but 1963 is a different time -- murdered the President of the United States just 48 hours ago. He is handcuffed to one policeman, surrounded by others and on the way to a waiting car that will take Oswald across town to a more secure cell.
Oswald won't make it.
Out of the corner of the frame, there emerges, as inevitable as the grave, Jack Ruby. Scuttling out of obscurity and gate-crashing into history, he squeezes off a single round from his .38-caliber revolver. Oswald screams. The police lunge. Someone wrestles the revolver from Ruby's hand. But it's too late.
Back in 1991, I visited Dallas for the Los Angeles Times to do a free-lance story on the making of Ruby, a speculative drama -- produced to ride on the coattails of Oliver Stone's JFK -- about Jack Ruby (played by Danny Aiello) and his possible motives for killing Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the JFK assassination. Looking back, I have to assume that the real Jack Ruby didn't have to make his way through nearly as many security people as I did in '91 when he entered the police headquarters basement on Nov. 24, 1963.
You can read my Los Angeles Times story here, and my review of Ruby here. Here is the original trailer:
The Onion Reviews 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
This is the future of film criticism. Or the past. One or the other. Or both, maybe.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Must admit: There was a period during my high school days when I was at least slightly agnostic while weighing the official verdict of the Warren Commission against all the alternative explanations and conspiracies. But that was a long time ago. Today I believe, as I have believed for decades, that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, and only Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired the shots that changed the world on Nov. 22, 1963.
Yes, I know there are many people – some of them apparently quite reasonable and intelligent, and doubtless worthy of respect – who believe otherwise. They believe that some group or groups of nefarious individuals – rogue CIA operatives, Castro-directed hit men, agents of the military-industrial complex, whatever – colluded to plot and commit the crime of the 20th century, perhaps with, but more likely without, Oswald serving as either willing participant or luckless patsy.
But I seriously doubt any conspiracy of the size and sort that such an enterprise would have required could have remained a secret this long. To be blunt, if not crass: By now, somebody, anybody, involved in such a conspiracy surely would have popped up on Fox News or MSNBC or the New York Times Best Seller List or all of the above. If, of course, that conspiracy actually existed.
As recently as last Saturday, when I viewed the fascinating CBS documentary As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years hosted by Bob Schieffer, I found myself again swayed by the evidence presented by computer animator and JFK assassination expert Dale K. Myers, whose digital enhancements of the original 8mm footage shot in Dealey Plaza by Abraham Zapruder make a pretty convincing case against claims of a second (or third) gunman.
Also on Saturday, Schieffer very graciously took time to talk with me about (among other things) the JFK assassination while he prepared for the next day’s Face the Nation telecast from the site of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. During the interview, we had this exchange:
If there was any sort of cover-up, I think, it was a cover-up after the fact by people who should have had Oswald on their radar before he could pull the trigger.
Schieffer: Well, the FBI and the CIA both withheld information from the Warren Commission. And we now know that through the reporting in recent years. But, again, it was a CYA deal. They were not part of a conspiracy. They were just afraid they were going to be blamed for not keeping [Oswald] on their radar, as you say.
Would you agree that, for a lot of people, the notion that JFK was killed because of an elaborate conspiracy isn’t nearly as frightening as the likelihood that a single crazed gunman had such an impact on history?
Schieffer: In a funny kind of way, yes. It was hard for them to accept and process that somebody who was a total loser was able to kill the person who held the most powerful office in the land. And I think that’s one reason why we have all of these rumors and all of these tales of conspiracy – it just didn’t fit into people’s plotline that something like this could possibly happen. But I think it probably did.
As fate would have it, I viewed the film just a few hours after hearing reports about the passing of author Norman Mailer – who, while researching his 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, came to believe that Oswald was indeed a solo act. Mailer was interviewed for the documentary, and his commentaries had quite an impact on me when I heard them for the first time so soon after his death. Out of respect for Mailer – who also was very gracious to me, many years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, when we spent a long afternoon drinking Scotch and trading ideas and occasionally talking about his movie version of Tough Guys Don’t Dance – I will let the late author (quoted here from the documentary transcript) have the last word about the lone gunman:
The more I studied him, the more I came to know him, Oswald's character became more and more defined for me. He had a great many political ideas and he wrote long passages about the ways in which society should be designed. He was a futurist and a utopian to a degree. I think what he believed was that the route to power was not closed as far as he was concerned. So that by himself, whether he was talking to conspirators or not, Oswald came to the conclusion that he could bring this off. That he could commit this crime. That he could yet be a very, very powerful man. And that was worth it 'cause he was leading a miserable life…
[Marina, Oswald’s wife] for years has been haunted by the fact that was she to some degree responsible. But I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. And he would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history even if he was executed. So there he was, he knew that he had this opportunity, that Kennedy was going to drive by the Texas Book Depository.
One can only imagine the terror, and the excitement, and the inspiration, and the woe that sat on him with the knowledge that he could do it, that it was possible to do it. That there were conspiracies being contemplated, attempted, even attempted on that day, I am perfectly willing to accept. But the conclusions I came to were for me rational ones, because he had a motive for doing it, because he was capable of doing it, because he wanted to do it.
When he shot [Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit], I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, "I'm a patsy." Oswald is a ghost who sits upon American life, the ghost that lay over a great many discussions of what are some of real the roots of American history. What's abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this, or is it that? You can't know, 'cause a ghost doesn't tell you.
Monday, November 11, 2013
I really like this poster for Hours (which, as you can see, kicks off a limited theatrical run Dec. 13). But, then again, maybe that's because I really, really liked writer-director Eric Heisserer's indie drama, a skillfully suspenseful and impressively plausible thriller starring Paul Walker as a father desperately trying to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in an abandoned New Orleans hospital during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In case you missed it, you can read my Variety review -- filed when the flick had its world premiere at SXSW -- here. And you can view the trailer here:
Saturday, November 09, 2013
I had the pleasure and privilege to briefly chat with Michael Morton -- the subject of Al Reinert's documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story -- when the stirring film about his wrongful murder conviction and 25-years-later exoneration had its world premiere last March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. And I will tell you now what I told him then: He is a far better -- and much, much more forgiving -- man than I could ever be. Seriously.
You can read more about his extraordinary story in my Variety review here, and my CultureMap interview with Al Reinert -- the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (For All Mankind) and Hollywood scriptwriter (Apollo 13) -- here.
An Unreal Dream will be presented by the Houston Cinema Arts Festival at 7 pm Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And it'll air Dec. 5 on CNN. Take my advice: See this movie.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Way back in 2006, I took a look at all eight movies in the original Halloween movie series. Some folks say I never fully recovered from the experience. They may be right. In any event, here's what I wrote. Just keep telling yourself: It's only a blog post, it's only a blog post...
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
At 9 am CT Thursday, I'll join the lovely and talented Deborah Duncan on Great Day Houston to talk about scary movies -- like Rosemary's Baby, Halloween and Her Cry: La Llorona Investigation (pictured above) -- just in time for, well, Halloween.
Update: And here's how it turned out:
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
“Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house?” Good question. So good, in fact, it may have inspired an entire movie.
Friday, October 25, 2013
On the occasion of the passing of Hal Needham, here is a slightly revised version of a chapter from my 2004 book Joe Leydon's Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.
A textbook example of a hand-tooled star vehicle that forever labels the star in its driver’s seat, Smokey and the Bandit also is noteworthy for being the movie most often credited – or, perhaps more precisely, blamed – for kicking off an action-comedy subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.
Two lesser sequels and at least one long-running TV series (The Dukes of Hazzard) can be traced directly to this broadly played hodgepodge of high-speed driving, lowbrow humor and spectacular car crashes. But wait, there’s more: Smokey and the Bandit, the debut feature of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, also inspired literally dozens of other pedal-to-the-metal extravaganzas – mostly redneck melodramas and cornpone comedies, along with Needham’s own in-jokey Cannonball Run movies -- throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Decades later, its very title still serves as shorthand for a particular type of undemanding crowd-pleaser with smart-alecky heroes, dim-bulb authority figures and more high-octane action than a month of NASCAR events.
The thin plot is a serviceable excuse for stringing together scenes of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress.
Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).
Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.
Even moviegoers not yet born when Smokey and the Bandit first screeched into theaters reflexively think of the hard-driving, trash-talking trucker whenever they hear Reynolds’ name. Part of that can be explained by the virtually nonstop exposure of Needham’s movie on cable and home video. But it’s instructive to consider Reynolds’ own role in erasing the lines between actor and character, man and mythos.
In the wake of his becoming an “overnight success” after years of journeymen work in television and movies, Reynolds embraced typecasting – and tongue-in-cheeky self-promotion – with unseemly fervor. For the better part of a decade, he chronically reprised his Bandit shtick – winking insouciance, naughty-boy sarcasm, zero-cool self-assurance – in motion pictures and TV talk shows. It was funny, for a while, and then it wasn’t. Trouble is, by the time it stopped being funny, the image was firmly affixed in the public’s collective pop-culture consciousness. So much so, in fact, that even after demonstrating his versatility in a wide range of character roles -- most memorably, as the prideful porn-film director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) – Reynolds appears destined to always be remembered best for one indelibly defining character.
On the other hand, there are far less pleasant ways for an actor to ensure his immortality. When asked about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after playing the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.
“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’
“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”
Of course, if the audience loves a character (and, better still, the actor playing that character) the character can get away with practically anything, even coming off as a bona fide egomaniac. Midway through Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds recalled, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who (Bandit) was, what he was all about.”
The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
And yes, before you ask: I still have the above-pictured LP in my closet somewhere. Better still, I also have vinyl and digital recordings of these, too:
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Glad to see Capital -- which I covered for Variety back at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival -- finally getting some theatrical exposure in the United States. (It opens Oct. 25 in New York, as you can see in the above NYT ad.) As I wrote in my original review, Costa-Gavras' slickly produced and sensationally effective thriller is "a persuasively detailed tale of boardroom politics, international banking, remorseless backstabbing and billion-dollar wheeling-and-dealing," focused on the "the sudden rise and relentless plotting of Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), a hard-driven up-and-comer who becomes CEO of France’s (fictional) Phenix Bank after his predecessor suffers a heart attack on the golf course."
As the gladhanding but hot-tempered head of a U.S. hedge fund with a large stake in Phenix, Gabriel Byrne is in fine form, devouring huge swaths of scenery with uninhibited relish. As for lead player Elmaleh... Well, to again quote my Variety review, "[I]t will be interesting to see how many U.S. critics comment on Elmaleh’s physical resemblance to Rick Santorum, and how many will insist [Capital] echoes sentiments expressed in Mitt Romney’s notorious '47%' comments."
Take a look at this trailer, and you'll see what I mean:
Friday, October 18, 2013
Forgetting the Girl -- My Variety review of the indie thriller that impressed me last year at WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. Unfortunately, I was far less impressed by the filmed-in-Texas Red Wing.
Big Ass Spider! -- Director Mike Mendez spins a few stories about his surprisingly clever creature feature. (Yes, you guessed it -- that's my "surprisingly clever" quote on the above poster.)
2013 Houston Cinema Arts Festival -- Coming soon to an H-Town venue near you. Read all about it here. And here.
Muscle Shoals -- Greg Camalier's fascinating documentary about making music in the eponymous Alabama town where, hey, maybe's there's something special in the air that enhances artistry.
Lost for Words -- Another indie from another WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Among the most pleasant experiences I have enjoyed in recent years was a long, leisurely lunch with Ed Lauter, one of my all-time-favorite character actors, last November at the Starz Denver Film Festival. For the better part of two hours before we engaged in an on-stage, post-screening Q&A after the Denver Fest premiere of Ed Burns' delightful The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we chatted about the highlights of our respective careers -- and he was graciously polite enough to indicate he found my anecdotes almost as interesting as his.
Mind you, it wasn't like we were in any sort of "Can you top this?" competition. Because, really, what could I possibly say that could top his account of being cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Family Plot after The Master of Suspense spotted him in The Longest Yard ? Lauter impressed Hitchcock so much that he was set to co-star in The Short Night, Hitchcock's next film -- the film, alas, Hitchcock didn't live to make.
Lauter passed away Wednesday at age 74, leaving behind a body of work that ranges from The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and French Connection II (1975) to The Artist (2011) and Trouble With the Curve (2012). "When I first started out,” he said in Denver, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to work with this great actor, or that great director.’ All these wonderful dinosaurs. Well, now I’ve become one of those dinosaurs, I guess.” I would be a liar if I didn't admit I felt immensely flattered when he told me that, because I'd singled him out for special praise in my Variety review of Fitzgerald Family Christmas, I'd helped get him "back in the game." I just wish he'd stuck around to play a little longer.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Plus, you can see his Sons of Anarchy co-star in drag... and Mr. Big in a jockstrap... in Frankie Go Boom.