Friday, April 03, 2020

Some random thoughts about Robert Duvall, Horton Foote, Tender Mercies and COVID-19

Today I received an advance copy of the May/June Cowboys & Indians magazine featuring my cover-story interview with Robert Duvall. And I must admit: When I opened the FedEx envelope, I felt at once extremely happy and unspeakably melancholy.

I felt happy, of course, because I always enjoy interviewing Robert Duvall — and not just because he always insists on my calling him “Bobby.” (Which I do, even though I cannot help thinking: “I am not worthy! I am not worthy!”) And seeing the cover reminded me of our most recent conversation, when we talked about everything from his plans to attend the Western Heritage Awards celebration at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City — where he was slated to receive a lifetime achievement honor — to his experiences working with director Steve McQueen on 2018’s Widows. (“He’s a terrific director — one of the best I've ever worked with! I love working with that guy!”)

But I also felt sad when I remembered that we’d had that conversation before the full fury of COVID-19 began to be felt in this country — and, indeed, before the Western Heritage Awards had to be cancelled because, as long as we’re stuck in this Brave New World of The New Normal, such events are being postponed indefinitely, if not cancelled altogether.

So my mind started to wander. And I couldn’t help thinking of something I wrote about my favorite Robert Duvall movie of all time — Tender Mercies, the 1983 drama that earned Academy Awards for Duvall’s lead performance and Horton Foote’s original screenplay — just three years before Foote’s death in 2009.

“Several years ago, a colleague at the now-defunct Houston Post wrote a story about movies that some people – celebrities, mostly – like to watch over and over and over again on videocassette. (Hey, I told you this was several years ago.) When he ran out of really well-known folks to interview, he collared me in the newsroom and asked: ‘What movie do you watch repeatedly?’ And so I told him: ‘There’s something about Tender Mercies that deeply and profoundly affects me on so many levels that, yes, I’m addicted to watching it. Whenever I get depressed, I want to pop the tape into the VCR, and hear Robert Duvall say: “I don’t trust happiness. I never did, and I never did, never will.” God, I know exactly how he feels.’

“Flash-forward a few weeks: I am at Houston’s Stages Theatre for the opening night performance of Talking Pictures, a play by the great Horton Foote, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Tender Mercies (and To Kill a Mockingbird). There’s a post-performance party, and I’m off in a corner, munching on fried chicken I obtained from the bountiful buffet, when I spot Foote — who I’ve met maybe once or twice before that evening —across a crowded room. I nod, give him a thumb’s up — the play actually was quite good, and deserves to be revived — and go back to eating. Much to my surprise, however, Foote cuts short a conversation he’s having with someone, walks across the crowded room, makes his way over to me and, without a hint of irony, says: ‘Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry you get depressed…’”

To this day, I cannot understand why I didn’t break down crying right on the spot.

Masterfully directed by Bruce Beresford, Tender Mercies is a spare, subtle film that speaks in a quiet yet compelling voice about faith and despair, regret and redemption, lower depths and second chances, while considering the restorative potential of human and divine love. Duvall is absolutely heart-wrenching in his portrayal of Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who’s redeemed by the love a good woman (Tess Harper), then pushed back to the brink by a devastating tragedy.

But as much as I admire his performance, and the movie that contains it, I’m not sure I can watch Tender Mercies again anytime soon. (And I am pretty damn certain I can't watch 1918, the 1985 film version of Foote's play that deals in part with the Spanish Flu epidemic.) Because, really, it’s no longer a matter of not trusting happiness. Rather, it’s a question of: When are we going to be happy, really happy, again?

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Turner Classic Movies Pays 100th Birthday Tribute to Toshiro Mifune

No, it’s not an April Fool: Turner Classic Movies really is celebrating the centennial of Toshiro Mifune’s birth Wednesday with an all-day, all-night marathon of the iconic Japanese actor’s collaborations with the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. There are ten titles in total — I wish they’d had room for The Bad Sleep Well, but let’s not be greedy — and here is a guide to my five favorites in the lineup.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1959) — At once a straight-faced spectacle and a mischievously sly put-on, The Hidden Fortress follows a fugitive princess (Misa Uehara) and her loyal general (Toshiro Mifune) as they maneuver through enemy territory during the civil wars of the 1500s. Skillfully employing wide-screen compositions for the first time in his career, Kurosawa alternates between elaborate set pieces — a slave revolt, chases on horseback, fire-festival celebrations, hairbreadth escapes —and broadly played comic relief. Much of the latter is provided by two bickering bumpkins (Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara) who go along for the ride without knowing the princess’ true identity — and who  greedily plot to steal the gold hidden among the firewood transported by the general.

George Lucas has made no secret of  his drawing upon Hidden Fortress as an inspiration for Star Wars. The bumpkins, of course, are precursors of R2D2 and C3PO, just as the headstrong heroine — who looks like a rough draft for Lara Croft of  Tomb Raider fame — is the model for the feisty Princess Leia. (It requires a bit of stretch to see Mifune’s general as Han Solo, but never mind.) Lucas learned some important lessons from the master, enabling him to create his own masterwork. But as critic David Ehrenstein has reminds movie buffs in home-video liner notes, Hidden Fortress stands on its own merits as a rousing adventure set “a long time ago’ in a land “far, far away.” (10 am ET/9 am CT)

HIGH AND LOW (1963) — After finding inspiration in the classics of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa turned to a decidedly more contemporary source: King’s Ransom, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct thriller about the kidnapping of a Manhattan businessman’s young son. With the aid of three co-screenwriters, Kurosawa transferred the story to Japan, and infused it with his vision of a modern society undermined by the erosion of traditional values. But even while the film can be appreciated as an absorbing morality play, High and Low also can be enjoyed as a first-rate, noir-flavored police procedural.

The astoundingly versatile Toshiro Mifune is Kingo Gondo, a lordly shoe-company executive who mortgages everything he owns to launch a hostile takeover of his own firm. Pride, not greed, his motive — he’s  determined to defeat rival board members who want to produce cheaper shoes for higher profits. But before he can complete his risky stock deal, Gondo gets a call from a stranger who claims he has kidnapped the businessman’s only son. The good news: The kidnapper mistakenly abducted the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. The bad news: He demands a 30-million-yen ransom anyway. “You're a fool to pay,” he cruelly taunts the bound-by-honor Gondo. “But you will.” And he’s right.

Kurosawa skillfully intensifies the tension inside Gondo’s lavishly-appointed mansion by evoking a sense of claustrophobia. Some individual widescreen shots are framed so that even while other characters — policemen, the anxious chauffeur, Gondo’s loyal wife — circle the businessman, he remains apart in the terrible isolation of his moral dilemma. When Gondo finally leaves his home to deliver the ransom, the movie switches gears to become a visually eloquent and dramatically gripping account of the manhunt for the kidnapper, an embittered medical student who views his crime as fair play in class warfare. Ginji Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the villain of the piece, remains a baffling enigma until his climactic confrontation with Gondo. Takeuchi made a conscious decision to commit evil, he tells the businessman he has bankrupted, because he felt he already was living in hell. In the end, nothing — not his eminent execution — terrifies him as much as the possibility that he was mistaken. (5:30 pm ET/4:30 pm CT)

SEVEN SAMURAI (1956) — Kurosawa’s stunning epic is one of those rare indispensable films that practically everyone has heard about, regardless of whether they've actually seen it.  Indeed, even if you haven't, you may think you've seen it, given its strong influence on so many other films and filmmakers. Directors ranging from John Sturges (who remade it as The Magnificent Seven) to John Sayles (who borrowed the basic plot while writing a cult-fave Roger Corman B-movie called Battle Beyond the Stars) have drawn from this tale of honor among warriors in 16th-century Japan.

By turns sage and savage, avuncular and authoritarian, Takashi Shimura is Kambei, an unemployed samurai who agrees to help peasants defend their village against marauding bandits. Even though the pay is meager — a few handfuls of rice — Kambei is able to recruit other hired swords who have little else to do after being cast adrift by the lords they once served. By appealing to their pride and sense of justice, he attracts such tough customers as Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a taciturn professional who never wastes a word or gesture, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a bearish hot-head who takes great pains to hide his less-than-noble ancestry.

Seven Samurai shows Kurosawa at the top of his form, demonstrating an absolute mastery of his medium with an inspired balance of formal precision and kinetic exuberance. His epic opens with fast pans of bandits riding over hills, and climaxes with the chaos of a rain-soaked, mud-and-blood battle. In between, there is scarcely a single shot that does not contain motion. Even when people within the frame are stationary, the camera itself glides, thrusts and recoils. More than a half-century years after its initial release, Seven Samurai makes most other action movies seem positively pokey. (8 pm ET/7 pm CT)

RASHOMON (1950) — A bandit subdues a nobleman in a secluded woodland, and forces himself on the nobleman's beautiful wife. The nobleman dies, the wife flees, the bandit is captured -- and everything else in Rashomon remains open to conjecture. Decades before The Usual Suspects warned moviegoers not to accept subjective testimony as verifiable fact, Kurosawa’s breakthrough masterpiece suggested that no eyewitness can be entirely trusted, that truth itself may be forever elusive.

Four different accounts of the crime — including one offered by the late nobleman through a court-ordered medium — are considered by three strangers stranded under the Rashomon gate by a raging thunderstorm. Was the nobleman truly a man of honor?  Is his wife an innocent victim or a guilty participant? Could the bandit (Toshiro Mifune at his most swaggeringly uninhibited) be twisting the truth for a selfless reason? The possibilities are perplexing. Each testimony is dramatized in flashback, and none seems more credible than the others.  Indeed, Kurosawa strongly hints that all four stories are, to varying degrees, deceptions born of self-delusion. “Human beings,” he wrote in his memoir, “are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”

Rashomon has spawned many imitators, including director Martin Ritt’s 1964 Americanized remake, The Outrage, a Western with Paul Newman filling in for Mifune as a Mexican outlaw. But Kurosawa’s film continues to be paradigm for this sort of  beguilingly simple but provocatively complex drama. Even now, the title is used to describe anything from Senate hearings to Seinfeld episodes in which a story is told from multiple — and often contradictory — points of view. (11:45 pm ET/10:45 pm CT)

YOJIMBO (1961) — The steely-eyed stranger rides into a lawless town where bad men rule, loyalty is bought and sold, and the coffin-maker never sleeps. With equal measures of ruthless cunning and lethal proficiency, he cuts a bloody swath through the corruption. In the end, as he prepares to ride off to another adventure, he takes a moment to appreciate his handiwork: “Now it will be quiet in this town.” No kidding: Thanks to the stranger, just about everyone who once lived there is dead.

Yojimbo, Kurosawa's darkly comical Samurai Western, takes the hard-boiled premise of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest — a tarnished hero encourages two rival gangs to destroy each other — and outfits it with the trappings of traditionally Japanese jidai-geki. But there is nothing traditional about the cynical tone or the sardonic humor of this gleefully savage self-parody.  Sanjuro, the sword-slinging anti-hero played by Toshiro Mifune, is prepared for the worst upon his arrival, when he sees a stray dog trotting down the dusty street with a human hand in its mouth. Later, after he temporarily signs on as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for one of the town’s two warring clan leaders, he overhears the leader’s shrewish wife urging her feckless son to kill Sanjuro: “Do it from behind, and it’ll be quite easy enough!” When Sanjuro finally gets around to pitting one clan against the other, he isn’t motivated by moral outrage. Rather, he simply delights in exploiting the villainy of lesser men to produce an amusing spectacle. The one time Sanjuro performs a selfless act — he reunites an enslaved woman with her husband and young son — he pays dearly for generosity.

Yojimbo has been remade twice, with Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars) and Bruce Willis (Last Man Standing) filling in for Mifune as the impassive protagonist. But even though each of the recyclings has something to recommend, the original remains in a class by itself as an exuberantly misanthropic masterpiece. And by the way: Yes, this is the movie that Kevin Costner takes Whitney Houston to see in 1992’s The Bodyguard. (1:30 am ET/12:30 pm CT)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

On the Radio: Movie and TV Tips for the Housebound

The folks at KUHF-FM’s Houston Matters invited me today to phone in a few suggestions for movies and television shows to watch during The Great Shutdown. Host Michael Hagerty and I covered a lot of ground in a short period as we discussed, among other things, the joys of binging on the Rocky and Fast and Furious franchises; watching some of the Westerns I’ve been recommending on the Cowboys &Indians Magazine website; setting up your own compare-and-contrast double bills (like Rear Window and Number 37); using social media for virtual group viewings of everything from Airplane! to Citizen Kane; and tracking down obscure TV series — like Raines, the short-lived, intriguingly quirky cop show starring Jeff Goldblum (pictured above) — on Amazon Prime and

And yes, we did mention, briefly, Contagion and Outbreak — and recalled a scene from the latter film that was spooky even before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Here's the audio. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Live on Tape: Roger Corman and Me at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Talking with Roger Corman about Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, taking "a nice trip," and missing the chance to direct Orson Welles. (Of course, I look so huge here, he must have thought his dream finally came true.) The last time I had so much fun, I was interviewing Corman at the Bahamas International Film Festival for Variety.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Coming soon to Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra: Tread, a strange and extraordinary documentary.

When I was asked by my Variety editor to contribute a blurb about one of the best films I saw at SXSW 2019, I had this to say about Tread:

“Paul Solet’s remarkably absorbing and suspenseful documentary plays like the flip side of some 1970s rural revenge movie — think Jonathan Kaplan’s White Line Fever, or Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad — in which a besieged protagonist turns the tools of his trade into weaponry while battling oppressors. But Marvin Heemeyer, the vindictive welder at the heart of this true-life drama, gradually comes into focus as a delusional sociopath, not a plucky underdog, as he uses a steel-and-concrete-armored bulldozer to cause damage and settle scores in a Colorado mountain town during a 2004 rampage.

It will be my privilege to introduce the Houston premire of Tread at 7:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 25, at the Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra. But wait, theres more: After the film, director Paul Solet will join us via Skype for a Q&A.

Check out my full Variety review, check out the trailer -- and then check out the movie.

Friday, January 31, 2020

F9 -- They're still fast! They're still furious! And they're coming back May 22!

“No matter how fast you run,” chrome-domed Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) says at one point in this super-amped trailer for F9, “no one outruns their past.” Maybe so. But really, these guys don’t even appear to be trying very hard, right?

Not that I’m complaining, you understand. I’ve seen all the other flicks in the Fast and Furious franchise. So I’m sure I’ll be in line when the latest one opens May 22.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Roger Corman and Me

It will be my pleasure and privilege to conduct a Q&A with the legendary Roger Corman on Friday, Jan. 3, following the 7 pm screening of his classic Masque of the Red Death at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And I’m even happier to report this will occur just one night after the Houston Film Critics Society — of which I am a founding member — honors Corman with a special lifetime achievement tribute during HFCA’s annual awards show at MFAH.
You can purchase tickets for both the awards show and the Masque of the Red Death screening at the MFAH website. Or you can opt not to attend either event, and spend the rest of your life tortured by gnawing regret. The choice is yours.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late…
(Cue the cut-and-pastings from the mini-bio I have prepared for my film studies students.)
Roger Corman has earned millions and entertained millions more throughout his decades-long career as a director, producer and/or distributor of over 300 highly successful small-budget, high-concept films, and continues to regale audiences with a steady output of similar fare for theatrical, home video, streaming and cable platforms. Indeed, just three weeks ago, the remarkably spry 93-year-old legend presented his latest effort as an executive producer, the sci-fi action-thriller Abduction, at the Bahamas International Film Festival — where, not incidentally, he and his wife, producer Julie Corman, conducted mentoring sessions with budding screenwriters.
The titles of many of Corman's 1950s films -- The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), War of the Satellites (1958) and A Bucket of Blood (1959) -- indicate why he earned early on the nickname “King of the Drive-in.” (In 1960, he produced and directed the cult classic Little Shop of Horrors, which reportedly was shot in two days and one night on a leftover set).
During the 1960s, however, he began to attract serious critical attention, domestically as well as internationally, as the auteur of several stylishly gothic horror films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), and, of course, The Masque of the Red Death (1964), featuring such established actors as Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Ray Milland, and Peter Lorre. (If you are of a certain age, these films are more likely than all the English classes in the world to have sparked any interest you’ve ever had in Poe’s literary output.) But Corman is equally proud of The Intruder (1962), his socially conscious indie drama about a charismatic demagogue (brilliantly played by a young William Shatner) who stokes racial tensions in a small Southern town. The movie was boldly progressive for its time, and remains, in the words of critic-historian  Wheeler Winston Dixon, “one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.”
In 1970, Corman formed New World Pictures, an independent mini-major that produced the work of such up-and-comers as John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, and Peter Bogdanovich. New World's first film, The Student Nurses (1970), was shot in three weeks for $150,000 and grossed more than $1 million. Other early New World releases included horror, biker, and women-in-prison films. The profits from these low-budget features allowed Corman to act as the American distributor for a number of prestigious foreign films. In a 10-year period, New World released three Academy Award winners in the Foreign Language Film category: Federico Fellini's Amarcord (1974), Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (1975) and Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum (1979). It should be noted that when Corman told Ingmar Bergman that he had attempted to expand the potential audience for the latter’s 1972 masterwork Cries and Whispers by releasing it in some drive-ins, Bergman approved.

Corman’s influence on American cinema has been incalculably enormous, both as a filmmaker — his Poe films continue to inspire many directors of gothic horror movies — and as a nurturer of up-and-coming, destined-for-prominence actors, screenwriters and directors. (In addition to those previously mentioned, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Fonda, Sylvester Stallone, Pam Grier, Bruce Dern, Gale Ann Hurd, Ron Howard and Robert Towne are among the luminaries he gave significant early-career boosts.) In 2009, the Motion Picture Academy’s Board of Governors voted to give Corman an honorary Oscar “for his unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match.”

In short: Roger Corman has made an immeasurable impact on American movies — on movies, period — as a maverick and a mentor. And I would venture to say the secret of his success has been his savvy as an entertainer. He has always known that audiences will respond to a wide variety of films — everything from low-budget horror flicks to socially conscious dramas to slam-bang B-movies to challenging art-house fare — if they have access to, and are encouraged to sample, the full scope of that variety. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Roger Corman understands and appreciates that cinema is large — it contains multitudes.  

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Happy 124th Birthday to Cinema!

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood and Marriage Story loom large among nominees for Houston Film Critics Society awards

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the leader of the pack — but Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is not too far behind as they head toward the homestretch .

That’s the takeaway for anyone handicapping the 13th annual awards of the Houston Film Critic Society. Nominations for the organization’s accolades were announced late Sunday evening, with winners to be revealed during a Jan. 2 extravaganza at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Tarantino’s audaciously entertaining and wish-fulfilling comedy-drama picked up a total of seven nominations — including one in the HFCS’s Best Movie Poster Art Category — while Baumbach’s intimate view of marital discord scored six nods. Both films have been nominated for Best Picture, along with 1917, The Farewell, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Knives Out, Parasite, and Uncut Gems.

“We’re a passionate, adventurous group,” says HFCS president Doug Harris. “This list of nominees represents the thousands of screening hours our members have devoted to uncovering the year’s most distinctive films so that we can bring the best of cinema from around the world to the audiences we serve.”

Because of unusually close voting tallies, Harris added, some categories have six, rather than the customary five, nominations. For example, six actresses will compete for Best Actress, including Charlize Theron of Bombshell, Awkwafina of The Farewell, Renée Zellweger of Judy, Scarlett Johansson of Marriage Story, Saoirse Ronan of Little Women, and Lupita Nyong’o of Us

Johansson is also up for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit, along with Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell; Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Florence Pugh, Little Women; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; and Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell.

Best Actor nominees include Leonardo DiCaprio for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Adam Driver for Marriage Story, Eddie Murphy for Dolemite is My Name, Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, and Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems.

Earlier this month, the HFCS announced its nominees for the Texas Independent Film Awards which honor films made in Texas: Bull, Building the American Dream, Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub, Seadrift and Sleeping in Plastic.

Winners in 18 categories will be presented at the Jan. 2 event. But wait, there’s more: Legendary producer, director and talent nurturer Roger Corman will be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award. (The following evening, Jan 3, Corman will return to MFAH for a screening of his 1964 classic The Masque of the Death, and a post-screening Q&A conducted by... by... well, actually, by me.) And Ellyn Needham, wife of the late movie stunts pioneer Hal Needham, will present the HFCS’s inaugural award for Best Stunt Coordination Team.

Tickets for the 13th annual HFCS Awards can be purchased on the MFAH website. Ticketholders will be invited to attend, at no additional charge, an after party across the street from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at the Ultimate Ransom Room at the Hotel ZaZa Houston Museum District. 

The Houston Film Critics Society’s 13th Annual Movie Awards are underwritten in part by Leonard Courtright and the Keystone Family of Companies, with additional support provided by Balcones Distilling. 

2019 Houston Film Critics Society Nominations

Best Picture
1917; The Farewell; The Irishman; Jojo Rabbit; Joker; Knives Out; Marriage Story; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite; Uncut Gems

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite; Sam Mendes, 1917; Martin Scorsese, The Irishman; Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Lulu Wang, The Farewell

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Adam Driver, Marriage Story; Eddie Murphy, Dolemite is My Name; Joaquin Phoenix, Joker; Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

Best Actress
Awkwafina, The Farewell; Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story; Lupita Nyong’o, Us; Saoirse Ronan, Little Women; Charlize Theron, Bombshell; Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Supporting Actor
Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse; Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes; Al Pacino, The Irishman; Joe Pesci, The Irishman; Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell; Laura Dern, Marriage Story; Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit; Florence Pugh, Little Women; Margot Robbie, Bombshell; Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell

Best Screenplay
Knives Out; Marriage Story; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite; The Farewell

Best Cinematography
1917; The Irishman; The Joker; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite

Best Animated Feature
Frozen II; How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World; I Lost My Body; Missing Link; Toy Story 4

Best Original Score
1917; Joker; Little Women; Marriage Story; Us

Best Original Song
Glasgow, Wild Rose; Home to You, The Aeronauts; I Punched Keanu Reeves, Always Be My Maybe; (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again, Rocketman; Into the Unknown, Frozen II; Stand Up, Harriet

Best Foreign Language Film
Atlantics; Corpus Christi; Les Miserables; Monos; Pain and Glory; Parasite

Best Documentary Feature
American Factory; Apollo 11; Biggest Little Farm; For Sama; Hail Satan; They Shall Not Grow Old

Texas Independent Film Award
Bull; Building the American Dream; Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Bar; Seadrift; Sleeping in Plastic

Visual Effects
1917; Ad Astra; Avengers: Endgame

Best Stunt Coordination Team
Crawl; Ford v Ferrari; Furie; John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum; Shadow

Best Movie Poster Art
Birds of Passage; John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite; Portrait of a Lady on Fire; The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Last Black Christmas

I have not yet seen the new Black Christmas — curiously enough, it was not programmed for the Bahamas Film Festival, which I am currently attending — but I can only hope, for the sake of those who do see it, that it is better than the version I reviewed for Variety before reporting on that unpleasant task back on Christmas Day 2006.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Remembering Robert Evans: The Kid Stayed in the Picture

As a tribute to Robert Evans, who passed away Saturday at age 89, I offer this 2002 interview, which I wrote prior to the theatrical of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary film adapted from his best-selling autobiography.

“OK,” says I, lapsing into my best approximation of a Hollywood hard-sell tone, “there are these teen-agers at this posh British boarding school, and they're feeling rebellious in regard to their oppressive teachers and their bullying classmates, and so they fantasize about getting these automatic weapons and blowing people away on graduation day, only maybe they're not fantasizing because we've blurred the line between fantasy and reality, you know what I mean?”

Robert Evans smiles, his eyes fairly twinkling behind his trademark tinted, oversized glasses as he relaxes in his condo at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. He knows exactly what I mean, because the movie I'm pretending to pitch, If…, was one of many outstanding films released by Paramount Pictures during his storied tenure as head of production in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In its time, this particular movie — a remarkably lyrical yet darkly troubling fantasia by the late, great Lindsay Anderson — was hailed as a visionary masterwork, and earned top honors at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. Better still, from Evans’ point of few, it earned a tidy sum for Paramount.

But what would happen if I would pitch If… today?

“You'd be stopped before you’d finish the sentence,” Evans says in his raspy, rumbling baritone. “And the meeting would be over. Immediately.

“And you never get another meeting. At Paramount or anywhere else.”
Which should tell you all you need to know about the difference between the take-no-chances timidity of today’s corporate-micromanaged moviemaking by committee, and the go-for-broke venturesomeness that fueled the filmmaking machinery  — and even infused Hollywood studio decision-makers — during Evans’ heyday three decades ago.

“But If… isn't the only one,” Evans says. “How about Harold and Maude, eh? An 18-year-old boy falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. I actually had to keep that a secret from (Charles Bludhorn, head of Gulf + Western, then owner of Paramount). I just told him it was a love story.

“And then there was Medium Cool,” Haskell Wexler’s audacious semi-documentary drama about political protests and anti-war activism at the 1968 Democratic convention. Evans may have been a close buddy of Presidential advisor Henry Kissinger, but he didn’t let friendship — or the angry response of board members at Gulf + Western — get in the way of his dropping the hot-potato picture into theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

“I even tried to bring Henry Miller to the screen, in 1970. You ever see Tropic of Cancer, with Rip Torn? You did? Well, then you're the only one at this festival who ever had, I’ll bet. It was a half-assed film, I admit. But it was exciting to try it.”

Evans described many highlights of '70s moviemaking in general, and his Paramount output in particular, in The Kid Stays in the Picture, his best-selling 1994 autobiography that has been turned into a uniquely candid and captivating documentary film

Of course, Evans also wrote about the many women he has wooed, wed or otherwise encountered, and catalogued several misadventures involving chemically-enhanced activity, and that helped to broaden the appeal of his book beyond movie buffs and film historians. (The audio version of the book, read by Evans himself, became a cult item and popular Christmas gift among Hollywood insiders and up-and-comers.) 

But his first-hand accounts of green-lighting productions during his Paramount regime —Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, The Conversation, Serpico, Harold and Maude and the first two Godfather epics, among others — are what really make the book required reading for anyone who's serious about cinema as art and entertainment. More important, those stories, and those experiences, are what continue to make the 72-year-old Evans such an influential figure and sought-after adviser in the eyes of much-younger moviemakers in the New Hollywood of the 21st century.

“You go over to Bob's house in Beverly Hills any evening,” says Nannette Burstein, co-director of Kid Stays in the Picture, “and you're likely to find people like Wes Anderson or David O. Russell there, asking questions or just hanging out. Because he made a lot of the movies that we watched while we were growing up, that made us want to become filmmakers.”

Co-director Brett Morgan is even more hyperbolic: “Bob Evans is one of the most fascinating men who ever lived in the 20th century. Without a question. And the more time I’ve spent with him, the more confidant I am to make that statement.”

Robert Evans came to Paramount in 1966 best known as a semi-successful businessman — “I was into women's pants,” he says, jokingly referring to his family’s fashion business — and failed actor. (The title of the book and movie come from producer Darryl Zanuck’s angry response when Evans’ director and co-stars tried to get him booted from a key role in the 1957 film version of The Sun Also Rises.) At the time, little was expected of him because Paramount, then a minor, money-hemorrhaging property of Gulf + Western, was dead last among Hollywood studios. He was dealt a free hand. And with extraordinary frequency, he came up aces.

“Bob was there,” says Morgan, “during a period between the studio system and the corporate conglomerates. It was like the Wild West.”

“It wasn't a multi-billion-dollar business at that time,” says Burstein. “When Robert came into Paramount, is was like, ‘OK, this company is about to go into the graveyard — let’s make some movies, and try not to lose too much on our stock value.’  The thing is, Robert turned it around, and they ended becoming fiscally sound. And a result — and this happened at a lot of other studios as well — the movie business became very important, very profitable. So it became very corporately run.”

Evans eventually stepped down as Paramount chief to work as an independent producer. But he fell out of favor in Hollywood during the 1980s after his arrest for cocaine possession — with typical shrewdness, he avoided jail time by producing a prime-time TV anti-drug extravaganza — and his innocent-bystander involvement with a highly-publicized murder. (He has nothing to with the killing of Roy Radin, a potential investor in The Cotton Club, but he was linked to the crime by newspapers, and endured guilt-by-association consequences.) He began to make a comeback in the 1990s, but was sidelined by a 1998 stroke.

“My right side was totally paralyzed,” Evans says. “But you know what? Now I can play tennis. The doctors thought I’d never be able to walk again without a cane. But I can.”

And so he’s back in the game, planning new films to produce, working on another book – and, yes, he frankly admits, basking in the adulation he’s receiving for the film based on his autobiography.

Evans received a standing ovation after the Sundance premiere of The Kid Stays the Picture. During a post-screening Q&A session, when someone asked if there’s anything he would change about his life, he replied: “The second half.” But, then again, maybe not. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby he brought to the screen during his Paramount era, Evans believes there really are second acts in American lives.

“We're in a world of three-act plays now, that's the difference,” Evans says. “You know, at one point, I wanted Warren Beatty to star in The Great Gatsby, and he said, ‘No, I’ll direct it — and you'll play Jay Gatsby.’ Maybe he was right.

“My life has been easier to read or to see than to live. And there’s been a lot of hurt. It’s a cliché, but it's true: You live by the sword, you die by the sword. I lived well by the sword. And I’ve died hard by the sword. Much of it I deserved, though some of it I didn’t. And much of the good I deserved, but some of it I didn’t. But I know one thing: I did it the only way I know how.

“That's why I wanted to do the movie Popeye years ago. That’s what I’ve stood for: I am what I am, that's all that I am.”

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Preview: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman

In the unlikely event you weren’t already geeked to see The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus featuring the dream-team cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino. Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, Netflix amped the must-see quotient today by dropping a riveting trailer for the film.

What’s it all about? According to Netflix, The Irishman is “an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran [De Niro], a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.

The Irishman will open in limited theatrical release Nov. 1, and debut on Netflix Nov. 27. Here is the trailer. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Happy Birthday to Robert Redford!

Back in 2012, the folks at Houston Cinema Arts Festival honored Robert Redford for his many and various achievements as actor, director, producer, and film festival overlord. But let’s face it: For most folks, he remains — then and now, first and last — an old school, much-beloved movie star.

Sure, even the stargazers will agree, the guy has done a lot off-screen as a passionate spokesperson for assorted environmental and sociopolitical causes. And, yeah, he fully deserved his Oscar for directing Ordinary People. In fact, he probably should have gotten another one for the even-better Quiz Show.

But did you ever see him in…?

What follows is an unapologetically subjective list of movies (and one TV drama) I compiled in 2012 — and I’m repeating here today on the occasion of his 83rd birthday — that I think demonstrate the diversity and quality of Redford’s work as an actor.

NOTHING IN THE DARK (1962): In this classic half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone, Redford relies more on boyish good looks and charm than heavy-duty thesping while playing a police officer who seeks help from an eccentric old lady (Gladys Cooper) as he lies seriously wounded near her front door. Trouble is, the lady is reluctant to allow anyone inside her tenement apartment – even a wounded cop – because she’s convinced that, if she lets down her guard, “Mr. Death” will appear in one of his many guises to kill her with his touch. I don’t have to tell you what happens next, do I? Suffice it to say that Redford is well cast and, thanks in large part to the aforementioned looks and charm, extremely convincing. 
BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1967): This bright and breezy adaptation of Neil Simon’s once-ubiquitous stage comedy about New York newlyweds may be a particularly pleasant surprise for any first-time viewer too young to remember the days when co-stars Redford and Jane Fonda were sleek and sexy rising stars best known as actors, not activists. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not criticizing either icon for his or her politics. But a large part of the movie’s enduring charm is its quaintness as an amusing artifact from a more innocent age. 
DOWNHILL RACER (1969): “How fast must a man go to get from where he’s at?” That question, provocatively raised as the movie’s original advertising tagline, seems to serve as an unspoken mantra for Redford’s obsessively self-directed Dave Chappelet, a small-town skier dedicated to earning Olympic gold. Chappelet’s humorless, tightly focused intensity doesn’t win him many friends among his teammates – even his coach (Gene Hackman) doesn’t really like the guy – and he seems incapable expressing any emotion but the joy of victory. Which, of course, is what makes Redford’s implosive performance all the more fascinating. (Director Michael Ritchie later teamed with his star for another sharply observed movie about competition – The Candidate.)  
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969): It’s easy to forget that, back in the day, many critics were downright frosty toward director George Roy Hill’s semi-revisionist, seriocomic Western. (Academy voters, however, gave it four Oscars, including awards for William Goldman’s screenplay and Best Song – “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”) But even the naysayers couldn’t deny the immensely appealing chemistry generated by relative newcomer Redford and established superstar Paul Newman as two rollicking, wisecracking outlaws who can’t ride far or fast enough to escape their own obsolescence. Their casting was, quite simply, a match made in movie heaven.

LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSEY (1970): Redford fearlessly portrays an irredeemable son of a bitch (arguably for the last time in his movie career, unless you count Captain America: Winer Soldier) in director Sidney J. Furie’s criminally under-rated road movie about two motorcycle racers – a naïve novice (Michael J. Pollard) and a studly braggart (Redford) -- who go nowhere fast while trying to transcend their status as small-timers. Redford’s Halsey is such a smugly and shamelessly manipulative jerk that, eventually, even Pollard’s timid Fauss rejects him. In typically self-centered fashion, Halsey responds as though unjustly affronted: “If this is friendship, I am aghast.” To which Fauss replies: “I never said I was your friend, Halsey. I don’t even fuckin’ like you.” When I saw this flick for the first time in a theater, the audience roared its approval of Fauss’ put-down. 
THE CANDIDATE (1972): Every political junkie’s very favorite movie seems more prescient with each passing year as it vividly details the image-buffing, compromise-demanding process through which a handsome young Senate hopeful (Redford, at the absolute top of his game) is transformed, with his reluctant acquiescence, from idealistic long-shot to pragmatic campaigner. Redford’s anxious query after his character manages an upset victory – “What do we do now?” – is one of the greatest curtain lines in all of movie history. But it’s only a small sample of the pitch-perfect dialogue in the Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a novelist (Drive, He Said) who gained unique insights into the U.S. political process while working as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
THE STING (1973): Four years after they went out in a blaze of glory as Butch and Sundance, Redford and Paul Newman reteamed with director George Roy Hill for this Oscar-winning seriocomic caper about two Depression Era con artists – a sly old pro (Newman) and an eager young grifter (Redford)– who plot an elaborate revenge against the menacing mob boss (Robert Shaw) who murdered the younger man’s mentor. Redford hits the perfect balance of righteous anger and self-awareness when he explains why he’ll settle for conning, rather than killing, the object of his ire: “’Cause I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” But, truth to tell, he’s never more believable than in the scene where Shaw’s intimidating badass unexpectedly punches him. There’s a moment – just a moment – when Redford’s expression reads: “Geez, he does remember this is just a movie, doesn’t he?” 
THE WAY WE WERE (1973): Beginning with 1966’s This Property is Condemned – and continuing, rather more auspiciously, with Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Three Days of the Condor (1975), and the Oscar-winning Out of Africa (1985) – Redford and director Sydney Pollack developed a fruitful working relationship and a mutual admiration society. Many critics (including yours truly) might insist that The Way We Were wasn’t the finest of their collaborations. But it’s impossible to deny the irresistible and enduring appeal of this bittersweet romantic drama about a WASPy golden boy (Redford) and a fiery left-wing activist (Barbra Streisand) who are united by their love, but divided by their politics. Redford manages the difficult feat of remaining likable, if not admirable, even as his character, a novelist turned TV scriptwriter, gradually is revealed as a man who so easily and often compromises his ideals that you wind up wondering if there’s anything other than ambition driving him. (Shades of Downhill Racer!)  

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976): Redford served as producer as well as co-star of director Alan J. Pakula’s potently low-key and meticulously detailed adaptation of the nonfiction best-seller written by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein about their doggedly determined investigation into various aspects of the Watergate scandal. (Screenwriter William Goldman won a well-deserved second Oscar for his part in cinematically translating what many thought was an unfilmable book.) The movie abounds in memorable moments. But Redford’s very best scene by far is the one in which his character makes a cold call to a GOP official, and is so amazed when the official himself actually answers the phone that he’s momentarily lost for words. He vamps, none too effectively, by twice introducing himself as “Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.” If you’ve ever worked as a journalist, and you’re at all honest, you can’t help thinking while watching this scene: “Been there. Done that.” 
HAVANA (1990): OK, it’s my list, so they’re my choices. And even though I realize this is a minority report, Havana – Redford’s last collaboration with the late, great Sydney Pollack – has always impressed me as a forgivably flawed, ultimately affecting attempt to do a Casablanca-style romantic drama set in 1958 Cuba. And I have taken an unreasonable amount of delight in savoring Redford’s dawn-of-middle-age charisma as Jack Weil, a cynical gambler who’s entirely aware that he’s been at the tables too long. (“A funny thing happened to me last week,” he says, only half-jokingly. “I realized I wasn't going to die young.”) Will he be capable of doing the right thing when he falls for an idealistic beauty (Lena Olin) whose revolutionary husband (Raul Julia) needs her sweet inspiration? What do you think? Here’s looking at you, Bob.