Sunday, September 25, 2016

Chicken People is a pretty clucking wonderful documentary

OK, I'll freely admit it: When I first heard about Nicole Lucas Haimes Haimes' Chicken People -- the fascinating feel-good documentary I reviewed for Variety last spring at the Nashville Film Festival -- I expected something along the lines of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. With the emphasis on mock.

But no: As I wrote for Variety: Haimes "approaches her subjects — both human and otherwise — with equal measures of bemused curiosity and respectful empathy, with nary a trace of wink-wink condescension." Chicken People offers "an illuminating and amusingly entertaining look at the thriving subculture of competitive poultry breeders," and "as the film progresses, the sheer determination of the breeders who are Haimes’ primary focus commands respect, not derision."

After traversing the festival circuit, Chicken People opened Friday in limited theatrical release. And I'm happy to see I'm not the only critic who thinks it is something worth crowing about. Katie Walsh of the Los Angeles Times writes: "[T]he film proves to be more than just a glimpse into a world that’s easy to titter at. Haimes delves into the larger issues and psychological motivations that drive the kind of obsession that allows one to breed award-winning poultry." Helen T. Verongos of The New York Times adds: "Will fluffy, poodle-like chickens replace cats on the internet? Maybe not, but these chicken people, with deep connections to their birds, make for a fun and at times astonishing film."

Chicken People is well worth looking out for, even if you have to wait until it's available in digital and home-video platforms. As I noted months ago in an observation that didn't make the final cut of my Variety review, but did make the movie's trailer: Will you enjoy it? Well, you just have to ask yourself: Do you feel plucky?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Remembering The Murder of Emmett Till

On this date 61 years ago, 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed by racist white thugs in Money, Mississippi. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounted this tragic episode in his exceptional 2003 documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, which currently is available for viewing on YouTube. As I wrote in my Variety review:

"Using archival footage, official records and well-shot (by Robert Shepard) contemporary interviews, Nelson fashions an evocative portrait of a life and death in a not-long-ago Deep South. While visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County during summer 1955, 14-year-old Till, a black, Chicago-born youngster, was brutally beaten, then fatally shot, by white racists. His killers, stepbrothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, pursued Till after the precocious youngster made the fatal mistake of whistling at Bryant’s attractive wife in a grocery store. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but later agreed — in return for a hefty fee — to admit their guilt in a Look magazine interview. 

"Emmett Till deftly places the tragedy of the youngster’s killing within context of an age when many Southern whites felt entitled to treat blacks any way they pleased, and were antagonistic toward locals or 'outside agitators' who supported integration. In one of several startling TV news clips from the period, an elderly white Mississippian insists that Bryant and Milam were framed as part of a 'Communist plot.' 

"Taking their cue from such paranoia, the murderous pair’s defense attorneys shamelessly argued that Till wasn’t really dead, and that the mutilated body found in a local river had been deliberately misidentified by the boy’s widowed mother. The jury — which, Nelson indicates, really didn’t require much exculpatory evidence — warmed to this theory while voting for acquittal. 

"Most devastating scenes focus on the discovery of Till’s corpse — which actually was difficult to identify, because the boy’s face had been beaten almost beyond recognition — and Mamie Till’s insistence that her son be displayed in an open coffin during his Chicago funeral service, so that the world would know what had happened to her boy. As hundreds of mourners passed the coffin, narrator Andre Braugher notes, 'One out of every five had to be helped out of the building.'

"[The documentary] persuasively argues that Till’s martyrdom served as an impetus for the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Overall, however, Murder of Emmett Till is more heartbreaking than uplifting, and will leave sympathetic viewers with an anguished sense of moral outrage."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Will they still need me, will they still read me, when I'm 64?

Today I am 64 years old. In other words:

I am two years older than John Wayne was when he starred in True Grit.

I am two years older than Cary Grant was when he retired from movies.

I am one year older than Walter Brennan was when he appeared in the first episode of The Real McCoys.

I am 14 years older than Claude Rains was when he appeared in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I am 10 years older than Bette Davis was when she starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

I am 11 years older than Warren Oates was when he died, seven years older than Humphrey Bogart was when he died, five years older than Clark Gable when he died.

And you know what? They’re all gone. All of them. But I’m still standing. I would do well to be grateful. I would do better not to waste any time I have left.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Farewell to Jack Riley

Sorry to hear the bad news about Jack Riley, the terrifically funny character actor who was an indefatigably snarky note of discord on The Bob Newhart Show -- and my co-star in a 1985 TV commercial for the gone-but-not-forgotten Houston Post. Riley, who passed away today in Los Angeles at age 80, was a classy gent throughout the long day's shoot at H-Town's deluxe Palm Restaurant. And, better still, he remained patient while I screwed up take after take after take...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Paying respects to Francois Truffaut

Once again, I have uncovered lost treasures through the simple task of housecleaning. In 1990, while on my way to the Cannes Film Festival, I stopped off in Paris to interview Diane Kurys. And she very graciously directed me to the Montmartre Cemetery, where I could pay respects to Francois Truffaut. Someday, I keep telling myself, I want to go back.

Celebrating Alfred Hitchcock -- and revisitng Psycho -- on the birthday of The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock continues to entertain us, and sometimes astonish us, more than three decades after his death. But that doesn’t mean he ever really liked us. Indeed, there is ample evidence to the contrary — which, all things considered, might not be such a bad thing. Francois Truffaut, who famously interviewed and occasionally emulated the Master of Suspense, once spoke of his idol as “the man whom we are glad to be despised by.” And, mind you, Truffaut meant that as a compliment. 

Throughout his prolific and prodigious life, Hitchcock — whose Aug. 13, 1899 birthday we celebrate today — repeatedly preyed upon our ambivalent responses to violent death. In doing so, he slyly pandered to our baser instincts, implicating us in the machinations of his characters by exploiting our voyeuristic impulses. Thanks to him, we want James Stewart to be right when he thinks he witnessed a murder in Rear Window. We really want Farley Granger’s slatternly wife to get what’s coming to her in Strangers on a Train.

And we really, really want Anthony Perkins to dispose of that car with the fresh corpse inside its trunk behind the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Do we blame Hitchcock for bringing out the worst in us? Quite the contrary: We’re greatly amused, and grateful, for being so effectively worked over. And yet, when you remember the haughtily droll raconteur who quipped his way through countless interviews, promotional shorts and wrap-around segments for his long-running TV series, you may find yourself reading something like contempt in Hitchcock’s insolent smirk. He knew what his audiences wanted and, just as important, how to make them want more of it. And he made no secret of the ruthless methods he might employ to achieve his aims. “My love of film,” Hitchcock admitted in his book-length interview with Truffaut, “is far more important to me than any consideration of morality.” 

Which is part of the reason why he was ready, willing and able to make Psycho, arguably his most amoral movie. “I don’t care about the subject matter, I don’t care about the acting,” Hitchcock said. “But I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho, we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences... They were aroused by pure film.”

Or, perhaps more accurately, impure film. At once the granddaddy of all slasher movies and one of the blackest comedies ever concocted, Psycho was conceived and executed as something of a down-and-dirty stunt. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a feature film as quickly and cheaply as the B-movie moguls who produced low-budget, high-profit drive-in fare during the late 1950s. So he borrowed a production crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, drew upon impolitely lurid source material — a Robert Bloch novel very loosely based on the life and crimes of serial killer Ed Gein — and made a no-frills black-and-white thriller that overcame mixed-to-hostile reviews to become the second-highest grossing film (after Ben Hur) of 1960. 

Psycho is one of Hitchcock’s most enduring and influential masterworks. It also is the most cold-blooded and mean-spirited prank that any major filmmaker has ever pulled on an audience. The graphic violence of the infamous shower scene is more apparent than real because, thanks to Hitchcock’s celebrated genius for montage, we’re tricked into thinking we see much more than we’re actually shown. But there’s an even more significant sleight-of-hand to consider: Psycho is a movie that scores its most devastating impact by playing on assumptions and expectations informed by other movies.

Hitchcock blindsided moviegoers in 1960 by daring to switch gears from sexy crime story to shocking gothic horror, by insidiously luring the audience into sympathizing with a homicidal maniac -- and, even more audaciously, by daring to kill off a well-known leading lady (Janet Leigh) 50 minutes into his story. When asked to explain why he was drawn to Bloch’s novel in the first place, Hitchcock claimed he found the central gimmick – Norman, is that you? – only modestly clever. What really sold him on the story, he said, was “the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.” Obviously, he immediately recognized the sudden savagery as more than just a terrific device for scaring the yell out of people. The sequence also allowed him to pull the rug, and then the floor, out from under the audience. 

Ever since Hitchcock opened this trap door, dozens of other filmmakers have tried, with mixed success, to match the Master of Suspense in narrative duplicity. (The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects are only the most obvious examples.) And yet, as good or great as these other films might be, they cannot match the master’s work. Two generations after its premiere, Psycho continues to loom imposingly large in our collective pop-culture conscious. So much so, in fact, that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake never really had a chance to be judged on its own dubious merits, not even by people who never saw the original. Since everybody already knows what happens in Psycho, a shot-by-shot reprise isn’t merely redundant – it’s pointless.

For better or worse, Psycho is the title most people think about when they hear Hitchcock’s name. The association is more than a little ironic — in many respects, the film is the least typical of Hitchcock’s works — but maybe inevitable. The Master of Suspense prided himself on his ability to manipulate audiences. And he was never more masterful than when he checked us into the Bates Motel.

(By the way: The late Anthony Perkins once told me that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t always live up to his reputation as a steadfast control freak. But maybe his experience with Hitchcock on Psycho was the exception that proves the rule? You can decide for yourself after reading this.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Radio alert: Talking Monty Python on Houston Matters

The good folks at the Alamo Drafthouse locations here in H-Town will be hosting special "Quote-Along" screenings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on Wednesday (7:30 pm, Vintage Park) and Aug. 18 (7:30 pm, Mason Park). So, of course, I have decided to shamelessly gravy-train on the festivities the best way I know how -- by appearing on KUHF's Houston Matters program to talk about the greatness that is Monty Python with witty and erudite host Craig Cohen. The radio show airs at 12 noon, and repeats at 7 pm, on Wednesday. You can downstream here.

And in the unlikely event you've never actually seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here's an appreciation I wrote way back in 2001 to bring you up to speed. (Warning: If you don't read this, I may turn you into a newt. Or, worse, unleash the Killer Rabbit.)   

Monday, July 04, 2016

Sing it loud and proud: "Livin' in America!"

With all due respect to "The Star-Spangled Banner," this, in my humble opinion, would make a much better national anthem. Sing it, O Mighty Godfather of Soul: "You may not be lookin' for the promised land, but you might find it anyway -- under one of those old familiar names like New Orleans..."

Celebrating Independence Day again 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 the birthday of our great nation, I once again give you 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 before you ask: No, I haven't seen the sequel yet. I've been waiting for today, July 4. Seems appropriate, don't you think?)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stop the Hate: 49 Celebrities Honor 49 Victims of Orlando Tragedy

They had names. They had faces. They had stories. They were not just victims. Forty-nine celebrities -- including Jane Fonda, Connie Britton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gerard Butler, Lady Gaga and Cuba Gooding Jr. -- pay eloquent tribute to the fallen in this 18-minute video launched by the Human Rights Campaign. Take time to watch it all in one sitting. And even if you start crying, watch it until the end.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Trailer Park: Assassin's Creed

I am thoroughly convinced that, as an actor, Michael Fassbender can do anything. No kidding: In just the last two years alone, he's given credible and creditable performances as a Wild West gunslinger (Slow West), a Shakespearean icon (Macbeth), a comic-book villain (two X-Men movies) and Steve Freakin' Jobs (Jobs). And mind you, that's only counting the most recent additions to a resume that already included his exemplary work in 12 Years a Slave, The Counselor, Shame -- and, yeah, yet another comic book movie, X-Men: First Class.

So when I got my first look at this trailer for the upcoming Assassin's Creed, which opens in theaters and drive-ins everywhere Dec. 21, I thought: Well, I'm not the world's biggest fan of movies based on video games. But with Fassbender in the lead role -- along with Marion Cotillard, Brendan Gleeson and the great Jeremy Irons in supporting roles -- OK, I'll go there. Besides, it's hard to resist any movie that contains the line, "Welcome to the Spanish Inquisition." Which, as any Monty Python fan can tell you, no one ever expects.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Trailer Park: Doctor Strange

Way back when I devoured Marvel Comics on a regular basis -- during the Nixon Administration, actually -- I thought Doctor Strange was one of the coolest cats in all of comicdom. (Especially when he was drawn by the great Steve Ditko.) So I am unreasonably geeked about seeing this movie. Because, really, with all due respect to Sherlock fans, this looks like the role Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Happy Anniversary -- kinda-sorta -- to me (and All the President's Men)

Sometimes an anniversary passes without your being fully aware of it, until you’re reminded of it by another milestone. Consider this: Last month was the 40th anniversary of the start of my first full-time newspaper job, as arts and entertainment editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. (Alas, that also was the 40th anniversary of my departure from my beloved home town of New Orleans.) And one of the first movies I reviewed for the paper was All the President’s Men — which opened 40 years ago today in New York.

Even before I landed the Clarion-Ledger gig, however, I had already reviewed dozens, maybe hundreds of films for high school and college papers, and various small newspapers (as a free-lancer) in the New Orleans area — including, no joke, The Clarion Herald, a Catholic weekly paper that ran my reviews of Woodstock, The Thomas Crown Affair, Wild in the Streets, Yellow Submarine and several other films, beginning when I was a precocious high-schooler.

So, one way or another, I got to write about most of the major '70s movies (and quite a few '60s classics). Indeed, I still have a Clarion-Ledger tearsheet somewhere that has both my original review of Taxi Driver and my review of a Peter Fonda action movie titled Fighting Mad — whose young director, Jonathan Demme, I singled out for praise.

Now I'm old enough to cover many of those movies in film history courses I teach at University of Houston and Houston Community College. And the world keeps spinning in its greased grooves.

Welcome to the movie wonderland of the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival

If cinema is a universal language, then the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival — which will showcase 80 features and over 100 shorts Friday through April 17 at the AMC Studio 30 — may be distinguished by Chinese and Italian accents. According to festival founder/director J. Hunter Todd, the 49th annual edition of his movie extravaganza will host the 11th version of its Panorama Italia, a sidebar of recent features from Italy, and the second Panorama China, featuring 20 new Chinese films, many of them accompanied by their directors.

Other promising items on the WorldFest 2016 schedule include:

LAST MAN CLUB — This year’s WorldFest/Houston opening night attraction is an indie comedy-drama — directed by Bo Brinkman, a native of Pasadena, Texas — about the last remaining members of a World War II era B-17 bomber crew who rally to help an ailing comrade stuck in a veteran’s hospital. Co-star Barry Corbin, whose lengthy list of film and TV credits includes Lonesome Dove, Northern Exposure and No Country for Old Men, will be on hand to accept 2016 WorldFest REMI Lifetime Achievement Award. (8 pm Friday, 1 pm Saturday)

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP — Filmmaker Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) doesn’t make nearly enough films, so expectations are high for his latest, a stylish comedy-drama based on Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale (pictured above) has earned glowing notices for her performance as Lady Susan Vernon, a duplicitous and seductive widow who aims to find “suitable” (i.e., wealthy) husbands for herself and her daughter during an extended visit to her sister-in-law’s county estate in late 18th-century England. Unfortunately, if you want a real-life glimpse at Beckinsale, you'll have to wait until this summer, when she'll appear as one of several celebrity guests during the June 17-19 Comicpalooza here in H-Town. (7 pm Saturday)

NORTHERN LIMIT LINE — After earning a 2004 WorldFest/Houston Special Jury Award for Rewind, his debut feature about the romantic travails of a small-town video shop owner, filmmaker Kim Hak-Soon returns with a decidedly more ambitious project, a fact-based drama about the 2002 clash between North and South Korean naval forces near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. The movie, it should be noted, was a box-office smash in the director’s South Korea. (9 pm April 12)

FIVE GRAND — Hankering for a little Western action, pardners? Well, director Tyler Graham Pavey may have just what you’re looking for in his indie-produced horse opera about a desperate outlaw who impersonates the lawman he has killed, and the relentless Pinkerton agent hot on his trail. (7 pm April 13)

GOLAN: A FAREWELL TO MR. CINEMA — If you’re a movie buff fond of the wretched excesses (and, sometimes, excessive wretchedness) of Cannon Films, the astoundingly prolific production outfit that gave us everything from cheesy spectaculars (Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Masters of the Universe) to idiosyncratic indie fare (Barfly, Tough Guys Don’t Dance), schlocky sequels (Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) to Oscar contenders (Runaway Train, Street Smart), you’ll likely want to take a look at director Christopher Sykes’ third and final documentary about legendary Cannon co-founder Menahem Golan. (5 pm April 17)

A complete guide to features, shorts, seminars and other offerings of the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival is available at the WorldFest website.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Remembering Selena

Twenty-one years ago today, Texas-born Mexican-American singer-songwriter Selena Quintanilla -- a budding superstar poised to make a major breakthrough with first English-language album -- was taken from us all too soon at age 23. Here is a link to a 1996 Los Angeles Times story I wrote after visiting the San Antonio set of Selena -- the biopic that Gregory Nava intended as a tribute to the fallen star. Even though, as Nava admitted to me at the time, "this is a movie I wish I wasn't making." And here is Selena herself, live and in concert -- her last concert -- at the Houston Astrodome.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

TV Alert: Oscar post-mortem -- with me! -- Monday morning on Great Day Houston!

I won't be able to stay up too late after Sunday evening's Oscarcast -- because I've been tapped to join in an Oscar post-mortem bright and early at 9 am CT Monday with the lovely and talented Deborah Duncan on KHOU-TV's Great Day Houston.

Hey, there are far worse reasons to wake up early on a Monday.

Celebrate Mavis Staples on HBO

Mavis! -- filmmaker Jessica Edward's marvelous portrait of the great Mavis Staples -- premieres at 8 pm CT on HBO. As I said in my Variety review from SXSW last year:

Gospel music great, rhythm-and-blues icon, civil rights activist and all-around living legend Mavis Staples is celebrated with the infectiously joyful enthusiasm of a passionately devoted fan in Mavis!, a spirited and captivating bio-doc that richly deserves the exclamation point in its title. Director Jessica Edwards adroitly entwines archival material, newly filmed interviews and live performances to create a cinematic portrait quite capable of converting the uninitiated into acolytes, and elevating casual interest to flood-tide levels of respect and affection...

Of course, there’s more to the story of Mavis Staples than just Mavis Staples. Mavis! tracks back to the singer’s childhood in Chicago’s South Side — where her neighbors included Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield — and gives due props to Roebuck “Pops” Staples, her musically inclined father. Drawing on his background in blues and gospel, Pops joined forces with Mavis and her siblings (brother Pervis, sister Cleotha) to form the Staple Singers, the legendary group that sustained a slow, steady climb during the 1960s and ’70s from gospel performances at local churches to chart-topping with mainstream hits like “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” “Respect Yourself” and, yes, “Do It Again.”

But wait, there's more:

Edwards neatly folds into her Mavis! mash note a fascinating account of how gospel and folk music artists inspired, and were inspired by, the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the Staple Singers as entertainers and friends in 1962 after Pops wrote and recorded the plaintive “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” a heartfelt response to the abuse heaped on African-American children attempting to integrate schools in Little Rock, Ark. Pops in turn was impressed by what he immediately recognized as the pro-integration message of the folk song “Blowing in the Wind,” and reached out to its composer, a young singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan.

Dylan pops up periodically here as a relaxed and forthcoming interviewee, and the equivalent of a supporting player in the Mavis Staples story. Even before he met the family, he recalls on camera, he was profoundly affected by the Staple Singers’ recording of the haunting “Uncloudy Day.” (“That made me stay up for a week, after I heard that song.”) Later, he crossed paths with the Staples during production of a TV special titled (no joke) “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs!” — represented here with an ineffably hilarious clip featuring a boyish Dylan — and he was immediately smitten with Mavis. So smitten, in fact, that Dylan asked Pops for Mavis’ hand in marriage. Mavis recalls that her relationship with the future superstar stopped far short of wedlock. But, she coyly concedes, “We may have smooched.”

Here's a preview of Mavis! (And yes, that's my Variety review blurbed near the beginning. Because as we all know, it's all about me.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hail and farewell to Frank Finlay

You can thank Frank Finlay — the prolific and prodigiously talented British actor who passed away Saturday at age 89 — with saving audiences from the dreary spectacle of mediocre or worse performances by an infrequently employed character actor: Me.

No joke: There was a time in my life — very early in my life — when I wanted to be an actor. And I was so determined to be a stage and screen superstar that I let nothing, not even my painfully obvious lack of talent, stand in the way of pursuing my dream. Indeed, even after my clumsy performance as Shylock in a disastrous high school production of The Merchant of Venice — highlighted by a scene in which, while demanding my pound of flesh, I tossed a fellow student cast as Antonio onto a table that promptly collapsed under his weight — I opted to hone my craft as a drama major at the University of New Orleans (then known as Louisiana State University of New Orleans).

It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that I enjoyed my journalism courses much more than my drama courses, and that I had, despite persistant urges to act, a genuine fire in my belly for writing. Whatever lingering doubts I had about my true calling were pretty much banished the first time I saw a re-release of Othello, director Stuart Burge’s stripped-to-essentials 1965 film of the National Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s classic. I was greatly impressed by Laurence Olivier’s controversial performance as the Moor, and thoroughly enchanted by Maggie Smith as a sensual Desdemona. But I was downright astonished by Frank Finlay — by turns silkily beguiling and blunt-force brutal — in the role of Iago. 

All three of the lead actors received well-deserved Academy Award nominations, but Finlay’s was the performance that stayed with me for days, months and years afterward. And for a long time afterward, each time I thought about that performance, I also thought: “I can study acting all I want, and maybe even build a career as an actor — but I will never, ever, at any time in my life do anything that good.”

And that — along with my junior-year self-appraisal that I was the worst actor in all of Christendom — was what pushed me in what I hope has been the right direction.

Even so, I never held my rude awakening against Frank Finlay. In fact, I suspect his inadvertent vocational advice was part of the reason why I became such a fan, and why I always took such delight in seeing him not only in starring or co-starring parts, but as a supporting player (sometimes a scene-stealer, sometimes a fleeting presence) in movies as diverse as Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971), Alan Bridges’ The Return of The Solider (1982) and Norman Jewison’s The Statement (2003).

A personal favorite: His stylish swashbuckling turn as Porthos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). The first of these films — which also featured his amusing cameo as a jewelry maker — allowed Finlay an opportunity to commit first-degree alchemy, so that he could transform even throwaway dialogue into laugh-out-loud funny business through his dry-wit delivery. When reminded that discretion is the better part of valor, his Porthos airily disagrees: “I can’t be discreet about how valiant I am. Shouldn’t be asked.” At another point, as he and his comrades gallop off to a rescue, he asks, more annoyed than anxious, “Can someone please tell me just where we’re going?” For decades after seeing The Three Musketeers together, my wife and I quoted that line to each other, in Finlay’s quizzical tone, usually — but not always — during extended road trips.

Finlay also played Inspector Lestrade to two different Sherlock Holmeses — John Neville in A Study in Terror (1965) and Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) — and made the most of a bad situation (playing the straight-man part of a British police superintendent) while Alan Arkin tried his best to replace Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (1968). He was aptly seductive and affectingly wistful as the eponymous romancer in Casanova (1971), a six-part British miniseries written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), and relentless and resourceful as vampire slayer  Abraham Van Helsing opposite Louis Jourdan’s prince of darkness in Count Dracula (1977).

But wait, there’s more: Finlay was the breeder of The Deadly Bees (1966), the foil of Shaft in Africa (1973), Jacob Marley to George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), the ill-fated father of Adrien Brody’s title character in The Pianist (2002) — and the aged dad of Helen Mirren’s formidable Jane Tennison in the final two seasons of Prime Suspect (2003, 2006).

Here is an exhaustive and entertaining montage, obviously prepared by an informed and enthusiastic admirer, that offers an overview of Finlay’s many stage, screen and television credits. Watch and be impressed by the versatility of a man who played everything from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler, Shylock to Jean Valjean, Sancho Panza (opposite Rex Harrison’s Don Quixote) to Captain Bligh (in a 1985 stage musical of Mutiny on the Bounty titled – no kidding – Mutiny!) I don’t know if Finlay ever played Hamlet, but I am going to take my own first and last crack at the part by offering him the same tribute that the melancholy Dane paid to his father: “Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remembering Glenn Frey remembering Robert Duvall and Let's Get Harry -- and shooting down hopes for an Eagles reunion -- in 1986

(In 1986, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I had the privilege of interviewing Glenn Frey while he was on a promotional tour for his first film, Let's Get Harry. On the occasion of his passing at age 67, I want to share this piece that originally ran on October 30, 1986.) 

First, there was the popular video — a mini-movie, really — for his hit single, ''Smuggler's Blues.'' Then there was his well-received guest spot as a seedy pilot on the Miami Vice episode based on the same song. And now, Glenn Frey, the singer-composer who continues to soar on the charts long after leaving The Eagles, has a key supporting role in a feature film: Let's Get Harry, an action-adventure set to open Friday nationwide.

What's next? The romantic lead in a Hollywood blockbuster?

“If I could stretch that far,” Frey said a few days ago in his Inn on the Park suite, “I would like that. But with my limited experience in this field, I'm looking for safe parts right now. I don't want to overextend myself, or have a French accent, or do something I might not be able to handle at this early stage of my acting development.”

In Let's Get Harry, Frey plays Eddie Spencer, one of five small-town men who embark on a renegade rescue mission when their best friend, Harry, is kidnapped by drug smugglers while working on a dam project in South America. Led by a ruthlessly efficient mercenary played by Robert Duvall, the working-class commandos make their way into the wilds of Colombia.

When they reach the den of the drug smugglers, however, there's some doubt as to whether Frey's character, a cocaine abuser, will withstand the temptation of being near so much nose candy. With his background as a musician, Frey joked, “Maybe the producers thought I knew a little bit more about this subject than other people.

“But that didn't bother me. The thing that was attractive about Spence was, he's just a regular guy with a cocaine problem. And I think there's a lot of people like that. You know, you have the classic line, where Spence says, ‘It's cool, I can handle it.’ Which is what every junkie says. Even when they're doing five grams a day, they'll say, ‘It's cool, I'm not addicted, everything's fine.’”

Frey, a bearishly-built Detroit native with a lightly sandpapered voice and an ingratiating bent for self-mockery, looks at Let's Get Harry as an educational experience. He was especially eager to work with such respected actors as Duvall and Gary Busey. His enthusiasm waned only slightly when he found himself unnerved by Duvall's mercurial mood swings.

According to Frey, Duvall would often shatter the silence on the set in Mexico by shouting, without warning, What am I doin' in a movie with a rock star!?!” Frey couldn't tell for certain whether Duvall was joking. But the animosity, real or affected, brought a certain vigor to the scene where Duvall punishes Frey for opening a door without first determining who's on the other side.

“Yeah,” Frey said with a grin, “we had a real good time doing that one. That particular day, Duvall wouldn't talk to me. In between takes, he wasn’t around — he'd be standing outside in the hall, pacing back and forth. And then we'd do another take, and I'd open the door — and he’d slam me up against the wall. I think he wanted to do that anyway. It was always, ‘A (expletive deleted) rock star! I'd work with a million Gary Buseys before a rock star!’

“And then, when they filmed my reaction shot, he held this knife this far away from my throat, and yelled, ‘I could kill you right now, you . . . punk!’ And then he just let me go. They started rolling the camera — and I wasn’t acting. I was completely in shock.

“That was kind of interesting. But it wasn't exactly fun.”

So what does Frey think of his performance in Let's Get Harry? “I’d say I was adequate. I don't think I was terrific, but I certainly didn't stink it up.

“I was kind of pleasantly surprised, actually. I was very skeptical. While we were doing the film, nobody saw any rushes, nobody saw any dailies. So I really didn't know what to expect. But when I saw the first screening, I was a little bit surprised that I was able to just watch this guy with the mustache.”

As Frey sees it, the only serious drawback to working in movies is the lack of artistic control. “I'm not used to not having control,” he said. “When we make records, what I turn into the record company is what gets pressed, and what comes out. It's not like somebody at MCA Records says, ‘Well, I think we should edit the bridge out of that, and add some bongos.’

“But in the film business — and I was quite surprised by this — it's art by committee. After they shoot all the preliminary footage, and do the director's first cut, they bring in four or five people who know absolutely nothing about film, but are in charge.”

In the case of Let's Get Harry, Frey noted, director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Vilage) had his name removed from the film after producers insisted on re-cutting and re-shooting certain scenes. (The movie is now credited to the pseudonymous Alan Smithee.) That's the sort of artistic conflict Frey rarely has to worry about in his recording career.

When Frey recorded his last album, The Allnighter, Elektra-Asylum, his label at the time, was less than enthusiastic. (“One of their comments was, ‘You know, it's not very contemporary.’ And I said, ‘Exactly. And I don't want it to be.’”) Unperturbed, Frey brought the album — which featured “Smuggler's Blues” — to MCA Records, the label that eventually released it.

“Fortunately,” Frey said, “I was sort of vindicated. The Allnighter is sort of like Lazarus. It came out, and sold about 200,000 copies, and disappeared. And then Miami Vice, and the re-release of  'Smuggler's Blues,’ put the damn thing right back on the charts, and I ended up selling 300 or 400,000 more copies. So that was very gratifying.”

If he can continue releasing albums like that, Frey said, you can definitely forget all the wishdreaming rumors about a possible Eagles reunion.

“So if you hear about an Eagles reunion — you can bet your life that I've got income tax problems.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Want to see something really scary?

They saved the worst for last: This was the final image on the Image 3D Viewer I received in the mail today from the distributors of The Forest. As Count Floyd would say: "Scary stuff, kids!"