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!"

Saturday, January 02, 2016

A lifetime achievement award for... me?!?!


I have just learned -- seriously, I got the email only a few minutes ago -- that I am going to receive a tribute next weekend from a group of my peers, fellow members of the Houston Film Critics Society, for my "long and important contribution to film criticism and education." This award will be given during the annual HFCS awards show, during which far more prestigious people also will be honored.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I don't believe in fake modesty -- or any other kind, for that matter. Still, I feel very humble, immensely grateful and altogether unworthy. I can only assume I am getting this award primarily because, at 63, I have somehow attained the status of gray eminence while I wasn't looking. 

Right now, I am reminded of something Roger Ebert wrote about our friendship back in 2009: “I first met my old friend Joe Leydon when he was the film critic of the Houston Post. When we see each other at the Toronto Film Festival, we are usually the oldest active critics in the room.” I also am reminded of John Huston's classic line in Chinatown: "Of course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

The annual Houston Film Critics Society awards show will be at 4 p.m. January 9 at the Sundance Cinemas in downtown H-Town. Admission is free and open to the public. And don't worry: My tribute is only a small part of the program, and I promise to keep my acceptance speech reasonably brief. Remember: I'm old, so I can't stay on my feet too long anymore. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top Ten of 2015

To begin, as I do every year, with my standard disclaimer: This may be my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2015 – but it’s not necessary a rundown of the year’s 10 Best Movies. Because, quite frankly, I haven’t seen every single movie released anywhere in the U.S. during the past 12 months. But this most certainly is a list of my favorite films to open in U.S. theaters in 2015.

These are, of course, purely arbitrary and totally subjective choices. And I’ll freely admit that, a decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2015 releases that impressed me most. And best. So there.

In alphabetical order:

Assassination -- Choi Dong-hoon's thrilling period drama, set in 1933 Korea during the Japanese occupation, is a sensationally entertaining mash-up of historical drama, Dirty Dozen style shoot-‘em-up, Spaghetti Western-flavored flamboyance, and extended action set pieces that suggest a dream-team collaboration of Sergio Leone, John Woo and Steven Spielberg. Wowser.

Best of Enemies -- A thoroughly engrossing and surprisingly entertaining documentary about the notorious 1968 televised clash between conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal gadfly Gore Vidal. It's fascinating as a glimpse at the not so distant past -- and provocative as an account of what arguably was an early step in the decline of political discourse on television.

The Big Short -- Adam McKay's brutally brilliant dramedy about the catastrophic 2008 financial meltdown is by turns hilarious and horrifying, amusing and infuriating. Call it the year's most essential movie, and you won't get an argument from me.

The Hateful Eight -- Quentin Tarantino's shamelessly overstated and immensely entertaining revisionist Western truly is a movie with something to offend everyone. But it's also a balls-out masterwork of robustly impolite swagger.

I Believe in Unicorns -- Filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff's debut feature is a sensitively observed and arrestingly impressionistic coming-of-age drama that feels at once deeply personal and easily accessible. But wait, there's more: Natalia Dyer gives an unforgettable performance as a fantasy-prone teen who falls for a bad boy (Peter Vack) laden with emotional baggage.

Spotlight -- The very best movie about investigative journalism since All the President's Men? Absolutely.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- A wonderment, pure and simple.

Steve Jobs -- Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin elicited many comparisons to Citizen Kane with their stylistically audacious and dramatically compelling film about the complex and controversial Apple co-founder. And with good reason: Much like Orson Welles' classic, their multifaceted portrait reminds us that some people, no matter how much we discover about them, will forever remain elusively unknowable.   

Trainwreck -- Judd Apatow strikes again -- and, better still, launches Amy Schumer's movie stardom -- in a wild and crazy rom-com (which Schumer scripted) that deftly balances uproarious R-rated hilarity and stealthily endearing sincerity.

Youth -- Michael Caine very likely has other great performances left to give, because he is, after all, Michael Caine. But it is difficult (albeit not impossible) to imagine that any of those performances will be greater than the one he gives in Paolo Sorrentino's exquisitely crafted and profoundly affecting drama as Fred Ballinger, an 80-something retired composer-conductor who discovers, much to his surprise, he continues to derive fresh satisfaction from his art -- and his life. 

Runners-up, in no particular order: Brooklyn, The Lesson, All Things Must Pass, The Revenant, Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Inside Out and The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of County Music.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy 120th Birthday, 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 called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Next summer: Independence Day: Resurgence


Glad to see Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Brent Spiner back in the mix. And Sela Ward always is a welcome addition to any cast. I just hope Pullman gets as stirring a speech in this one as he did in the original Independence Day.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Coming soon: The Legend of Tarzan


First, The Green Hornet kicked his ass. Then, James Bond messed him up. And now it looks like Tarzan will be the latest hero to bitch slap Christoph Waltz. I hope the poor guy is getting well paid for all this.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

TV Alert: Thanksgiving morning on MSNBC


When it's Thanksgiving, we think of turkeys, right? Which might explain why MSNBC has asked me to come on between 8:30 and 9 am CST Thanksgiving Day to talk about holiday movies -- like, among other others, Creed. Better get that DVR warmed up now.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Caine + Colbert = Cool


I have seen and read dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews with Michael Caine. (I have even conducted one or two of them.) And I must say: Stephen Colbert's 11/21 chat with Sir Michael ranks with one of the very best. My only complaint: Too short. Maybe they'll talk again after Sir Michael lands his Oscar nomination for Youth?


Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Here's my latest ploy to exploit Star Wars: The Force Awakens for blog traffic


A shameless confession: Carrie Fisher still looks pretty smoking hot to me. Of course, my wife still gets all swoony when she sees Harrison Ford, so I guess it all averages out.


Sunday, November 01, 2015

R.I.P.: Fred Dalton Thompson (1942-2015)


It could be argued that politician-turned-actor (and failed Presidential candidate) Fred Dalton Thompson more or less played himself each time he stepped before the cameras for a film or TV role. Indeed, he actually did play Fred Dalton Thompson in Marie, Roger Donaldson's fact-based 1985 drama about Marie Ragghianti, the former head of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles who lost her job after refusing to play along with corrupt superiors. Sissy Spacek played Ragghianti, while Thompson, in a bold stroke of casting, appeared as Ragghianti's attorney, Fred Dalton Thompson. Not surprisingly, Thompson was very convincing in his role. Very surprisingly, he proved to be a natural-born actor, earning respectful reviews for his ability to effortlessly convey homespun wisdom and moral authority, attributes that would facilitate his enjoying an improbably successful. decades-long acting career.

Before Marie, Thompson -- who died of lymphoma Sunday in Nashville at age 73 -- was best known for his role in another real-life drama. As a minority counsel to Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, he was the one who famously asked, during a nationally televised 1973 hearing, former White House aide Paul Butterfield: "Mr. Butterfield, were you aware of the existence of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?" Which, of course, signaled the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon's presidency.

In 1994, Thompson re-entered the history books by getting elected in Tennessee to finish the Senate term of Al Gore, who had vacated his seat to serve as vice-president. By that time, Thompson already had established himself as a journeyman character actor in a variety of film and TV gigs -- including No Way Out, Days of Thunder and The Hunt for Red October -- that came his way in the wake of Marie

But it was not until after he left the Senate in 2002 that Thompson landed his signature role: Arthur Branch, the firm but fair-minded (and unabashedly conservative) Manhattan district attorney who occasionally clashed (though never for very long) with his more left-leaning ADA, Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), in Law & Order. Thompson played Branch for five seasons, both in the "mothership series" and its various spin-offs (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, etc.). And while the part certainly did nothing to enhance his stature during the 2008 Presidential campaign -- he was an early flame-out in the race for the GOP nomination -- it did solidify his image as a blunt-spoken authority figure with a disarmingly folksy manner, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a steel-spined, rock-ribbed determination to do the right thing.

I have no doubt that some of my snarkier colleagues will mark the occasion of Thompson's passing to make rude comments about his thwarted political ambitions, his sideline as a TV commercial spokesperson for reverse mortgages and, most unfairly, his allegedly limited range as an actor. Fine. But this bleeding-heart Leftie would prefer to remember Thompson as a reliable workhorse who consistently managed, especially in his later years, to infuse major and minor roles with an air of no-frills gravitas and, yes, a sense of moral authority, without ever spilling over into sanctimoniousness. He didn't grandstand, he didn't (well, OK, hardly ever) steal scenes. Rather, like a classic character actor, he served his characters, and the movies in which they were contained, very well.

Two recent examples: In The Last Ride (2012), a fanciful indie drama about the last days of Hank Williams (Henry Thomas), Thompson appeared fleetingly but effectively as Williams' stressed manager, economically but vividly conveying the profoundly mixed emotions of those who knew and loved but frequently were driven to distraction by the self-destructive country music star.

More recently, Thompson co-starred in 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015), his final film, a faith-based drama based on Baptist minister Don Piper's account of his near-death experience. For a lengthy stretch of the film, as he recovers from horrific injuries sustained in an auto mishap, Piper (Hayden Christensen) is wracked by near-constant pain, beset by bouts of depression (at one point, he stops trying to breathe on his own), and bedeviled by guilt and shame as he feels altogether unworthy of the prayers and attention paid by family and friends. As I wrote in my Variety review: "[I]t  takes a stern tough-love admonishment from an old friend and fellow pastor (played by Fred Dalton Thompson with all the authority he conveyed during his years as a D.A. on TV’s Law and Order) before Piper begins to realize that he’s doing the people who care about him a grave disservice by hindering or repulsing their efforts to provide support and encouragement. Yea, verily: When Thompson issues his soft-spoken but straightforward warning — 'You really need to get your act together!' — his words have the impact of divine revelation."

I am sure there are lots of other actors -- "real" actors, versatile guys who get nominated for Oscars and other glittering prizes -- who could have played that scene just as well as Thompson. But, truth to tell, I can't think of many who could have done it better.

Fred Dalton Thompson was an under-rated, ever-dependable professional. He'll be missed.