Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Remembering Brandon Lee... Gone Too Soon

On this date in 1993, Brandon Lee — the then-28-year-old son of the legendary Bruce Lee — was killed in an accident while filming The Crow.

When I interviewed him for Rapid Fire in 1992, he told me how much he was looking forward to making The Crow -- and to breaking stereotypes by becoming a bankable Asian-American leading man.

Few things in life are sadder than a promise forever unfulfilled.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Forty Years Ago...

Forty years ago yesterday, I interviewed Lee Marvin at the USA Film Fest in Dallas. I joked with him that he had shot the President – Ronald Reagan – back in The Killers (1964), Reagan’s last movie “Yeah,” he responded with a wolfish grin, “but he wasn’t President yet when I shot him.”

Forty years ago today, John Hinckley tried to gatecrash into history by taking aim at the Commander in Chief. I was interim A&E editor for The Dallas Morning News, so I wound up working on the first and only “Extra” edition of my newspaper career. (It hit the streets that afternoon.) People may forget this now, but the early reports indicated Reagan was a goner. Film critic Philip Wuntch was out in L.A. for the Oscars, and he filed an absolutely brilliant overview of Reagan’s movie career on about one hour’s notice. And our theater critic Diane Werts went over to SMU where the USA Film Fest was taking place, to get a quote from Marvin. Team work, folks.

I forget who it was, but someone showed up that afternoon, along with their publicist, for a previously scheduled interview to promote their next movie. I think I may have raised my voice few octaves when I explained that we had more important things going on. They left, but only reluctantly. Priorities, people.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Update: Talking About (Another) Possible Closing of the River Oaks 3 Theatre

Looks like the Landmark River Oaks 3 — not just the last remaining vintage movie theater in Houston, but H-Town’s last dedicated arthouse of any sort — is in danger of closing again. I’ve been invited by genial host Craig Cohen to join him and Houston Film Critics Society president Doug Harris to discuss this dire situation Thursday on the KUHF radio program Houston Matters

The conversation begins around the 36:44 mark here.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Yes, it's true: Bill & Ted Face the Music qualifies for this year's AARP Movies for Grownups Awards. And so do Nomadland, Land, One Night in Miami...

I am now old enough to see Spike Lee, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ethan Hawke and a Bill & Ted movie all nominated for the Movies for Grownups Awards annually bestowed by AARP The Magazine. And I’m feeling good about that. No, seriously. 

Nomadland, One Night in Miami, News of the World, Minari, Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Land and Mank are among the titles appearing in multiple categories for the latest edition of the Movies for Grownups Awards, a two-decade-old program that aims to champion movies for grownups, by grownups, by advocating for the 50-plus audience (of which I have been a member for cough-cough many years), fighting industry ageism, and encouraging films that resonate with older viewers. 

But wait, there’s more: This year, the MFG organizers have expanded their horizons to honor standout TV programs in new categories. 

 “Each year at Movies for Grownups,” AARP film and TV critic Tim Appelo said Monday in a prepared statement announcing the nominees, “we spotlight films that feature today’s crucial issues and top grownup talents. In this pandemic year, when movies loomed larger than ever in our lives, we are excited to have such a bumper crop of masterworks — and to recognize achievements on TV for the very first time.” 

Hoda Kotb of NBC’s Today will host the AARP awards ceremony aired by Great Performances at 8 pm ET Sunday, March 28 on PBS. And if you just can’t wait that long, don’t sweat: The MFG Awards winners will be announced March 4 here.   

Here is a complete list of nominees for the AARP Movies for Grownups Awards. But remember: As David Letterman used to say, this list is for informational purposes only. No wagering, please. 

Best Picture/Best Movie for Grownups: Minari, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The United States vs. Billie Holiday 

Best Actress: Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Sophia Loren (The Life Ahead), Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Michelle Pfeiffer (French Exit), Robin Wright (Land

Best Actor: Ralph Fiennes (The Dig), Tom Hanks (News of the World), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods), Gary Oldman (Mank

Best Supporting Actress: Candice Bergen (Let Them All Talk), Ellen Burstyn (Pieces of a Woman), Glenn Close (Hillbilly Elegy), Jodie Foster (The Mauritanian), Yuh-Jung Youn (Minari

Best Supporting Actor: Demián Bichir (Land), Bill Murray (On the Rocks), Clarke Peters (Da 5 Bloods), Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), Mark Rylance (The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director: Lee Daniels (The United States vs. Billie Holiday), Regina King (One Night in Miami), Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods), Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7), George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Ensemble: Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7 

Best Intergenerational: Hillbilly Elegy, Minari, On the Rocks, The Father, The Life Ahead Best Buddy Picture: Bad Boys for Life, Bill & Ted Face the Music, Da 5 Bloods, Let Them All Talk, Standing Up, Falling Down 

Best Screenwriter: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods); Paul Greengrass, Luke Davies (News of the World), Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Time Capsule: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, One Night in Miami, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, The Trial of the Chicago 7 

Best Grownup Love Story: Emma, Ordinary Love, Supernova, Wild Mountain Thyme, Working Man 

Best Documentary: A Secret Love, Crip Camp, Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy, Dick Johnson Is Dead, Sky Blossom: Diaries of the Next Greatest Generation 

Best Foreign Language Film: Another Round (Denmark), Bacurau (Brazil), Collective (Romania), The Life Ahead (Italy), The Weasels’ Tale (Argentina) 

Best Series: Perry Mason, Succession, Ted Lasso, The Crown, This Is Us 

Best TV Movie/Limited Series: Mrs. America, Small Axe, The Queen’s Gambit, Unorthodox, Watchmen 

Best Actress (TV/Streaming): Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), Cate Blanchett (Mrs. America), Regina King (Watchmen), Laura Linney (Ozark), Catherine O’Hara (Schitt’s Creek

Best Actor (TV/Streaming): Jason Bateman (Ozark), Ted Danson (The Good Place), Hugh Grant (The Undoing), Ethan Hawke (The Good Lord Bird), Mark Ruffalo (I Know This Much Is True)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Nomadland Voted Best Picture By Houston Film Critics Society


As a founding member of the Houston Film Critics Society, I am proud to say director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland has been designated a multiple winner during final balloting for the 14th annual HFCS Awards. In addition to copping the Best Picture prize, Zhao’s artful mix of fact and fiction — inspired by the nonfiction bestseller of the same title by Jessica Bruder — earned top honors in the categories of Best Director and Best Cinematography (Joshua James Richards).

Searchlight Pictures currently plans to open Nomadland Jan. 29 in a limited number of IMAX locations nationwide, expand to more IMAX theaters over the next two weeks, and then add other theaters Feb. 19 with simultaneous streaming on Hulu.

Other HFCS winners include:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Best Original Screenplay: Promising Young Woman

Best Animated Feature: Soul

Best Documentary Feature: My Octopus Teacher

Best Foreign Language Feature: A Sun (Taiwan)

Best Original Score: Soul

Best Original Song: One Night in Miami, “Speak Now”

Best Visual Effects: Tenet

Best Stunt Coordination Team: Tenet

Best Movie Poster Art: Da 5 Bloods

Outstanding Cinematic Achievement: Sound of Metal (for its Immersive Sound Design)

 “While 2020 may have seen changes in how we view movies,” HFCS President Doug Harris said Monday while announcing the organization’s awards, “the year should be remembered for the quality of those films that ultimately reached audiences. “It may have been a bit tougher to see some of these remarkable films, but the wait and the effort were worth it.  And that’s the message our Society members take to their listeners, viewers and readers.

“We look forward to further spotlighting all of our award winners,” Harris added, “during our first television broadcast on January 31, 4 p.m. CST, on Houston’s KUBE 57.  That programming will also celebrate our Texas Independent Film Award nominees and feature the announcement of the winners of our special honors for filmmaking in the state.”

This year’s nominees for the TIFF honor include Boys State, Miss Juneteenth, Ready or Not, The Vast of Night, and Yellow Rose.

The 40 members of the Houston Film Critics Society are working film journalists for television, radio, and online outlets, and in traditional print. Together, they reach millions of people each week across the United States with their critiques and commentaries on film. The organization’s mission is to promote the advancement and appreciation of film in the Houston community and beyond. For a list of members, visit the HFCS website.

And if you would like to cast a ballot of your own in this year’s awards race, remember: You can vote for the Fourth Annual Cowboys & Indians Magazine Movie Awards here. How do I know this? Because in my other life, I am a cowboy.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Minari leads nominees for Houston Film Critics Society Awards

This just in from the Houston Film Critics Society — an organization of which I am a founding member:

Minari – director Lee Isaac Chung’s study of a family from Korea starting a farm in Arkansas – leads nominees for the 14th annual awards from the Houston Film Critics Society (HFCS). The film is nominated for seven HFCS honors including the Best Picture of 2020.

Three female filmmakers – Chloé Zhao (Nomadland)Regina King (One Night in Miami) and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) – are nominees for Best Director. Some 18 categories of film excellence will be recognized by the prestigious body of film journalists and announced on January 18th. The winning films, along with nominees and winners in the Society’s Texas Independent Film Awards, will be spotlighted in the Society’s first televised awards programming on January 31, 2021, at 4 pm CT on Houston’s KUBE 57.

“From a year that most of us would love to forget, comes an impressive collection of movies we will always remember,” says Doug Harris, HFCS President. “For the film industry, 2020 will be recalled as much for works that nourished our souls as for the ways world events changed movie habits. The impact of the artistic expression from this year’s nominees reminds us that the size of a screen, or where we view it, matters less than the quality of what we see.”

In addition to Best Picture, Minari is nominated for Director, Actor (Steve Yeun), Supporting Actress (Youn Yuh-jung), Screenplay, Cinematography and a Cinematic Achievement honor for seven-year-old actor Alan S. Kim. Following the film in overall nominations is Sound of Metal – the chronicle of a heavy metal musician’s hearing loss – with six nods including Picture, while three films – Nomadland, One Night in Miami and The Trial of the Chicago 7 – received five nominations each, also including Picture. Other contenders for that top award are Da 5 Bloods, The Father, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Promising Young Woman and Soul, also a nominee for Animated Feature.

The late Chadwick Boseman is a double nominee for Leading Actor for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Supporting Actor for Da 5 Bloods. His performance in the lead category joins Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Anthony Hopkins (The Father), Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods) and Yeun; Sacha Baron Cohen (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Bill Murray (On the Rocks)Leslie Odom, Jr. (One Night in Miami) and Paul Raci (Sound of Metal) are also nominated for supporting honors.

“The performances of our nominees bring to life, through film, the strength of the human mind, body and spirit,” observes Harris. “We are invited to walk in the steps of an incredible range of people who demonstrate their resilience in the face of challenge. Imagine what this work says about the strength of the human soul in a year filled with tragedy and uncertainty.”

Competing for the 2020 award for Leading Actress are Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; and Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman. Nominees for the Supporting Actress honor are Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman; Olivia Colman, The Father; Amanda Seyfried, Mank; and Youn Yuh-jung for Minari.

The 40 members of the Houston Film Critics Society are working film journalists on television, radio, online and in traditional print. Together, they reach millions of people each week across the United States with their critiques and commentaries on film. The organization’s mission is to promote the advancement and appreciation of film in the Houston community and beyond. For a list of members, visit

2020 Houston Film Critic Society Nominations

(With Outstanding Cinematic Achievement, Best Movie Poster Art and the HFCS Lifetime Achievement Award winners to be subsequently announced)

Best Picture

Da 5 Bloods; The Father; Minari; Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Nomadland; One Night in Miami; Promising Young Woman; Soul; Sound of Metal; The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Director

Lee Isaac Chung, Minari; Chloé Zhao, Nomadland; Regina King, One Night in Miami; Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman; Darius Marder, Sound of Metal; Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal; Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Anthony Hopkins, The Father; Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods; Steven Yeun, Minari

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always; Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman; Frances McDormand, Nomadland; Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods; Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7; Bill Murray, On the Rocks; Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami; Paul Raci, Sound of Metal

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm; Ellen Burstyn, Pieces of a Woman; Olivia Colman, The Father; Amanda Seyfried, Mank; Youn Yuh‑jung, Minari

Best Screenplay

MinariNomadlandOne Night in Miami; Promising Young Woman; Sound of Metal; The Trial of the Chicago 7

Best Animated Feature

The Croods: A New Age; Onward; Over the Moon; Soul; Wolfwalkers

Best Cinematography

Mank; Minari; News of the World; Nomadland; Tenet

Best Documentary Feature

Boys State; Collective; Dick Johnson is Dead; My Octopus Teacher; Time

Best Foreign Language Feature

Another Round (Denmark); Bacurau (Brazil/France); Beanpole (Russia); La Llorona (Guatemala); A Sun (Taiwan)

Best Original Score

Mank; The Midnight Sky; News of the World; Soul; Tenet

Best Original Song

All In: The Fight for Democracy, “Turntables”; Life Ahead, “Lo Si”; One Night in Miami, “Speak Now”; Over the Moon, “Rocket to the Moon”; The Prom, “Wear Your Crown”

Best Visual Effects

Tenet; The Invisible Man; The Midnight Sky

Best Stunt Coordination Team

Birds of Prey; Mulan; The Old Guard; Tenet; Wonder Woman 1984

Texas Independent Film Award

Boys State; Miss Juneteenth; Ready or Not; The Vast of Night; Yellow Rose 

Friday, January 08, 2021

Happy Birthday to The King: Elvis Presley's Top 10 Movies

Elvis Presley should have turned 86 today. Of course, maybe he will, and we don’t know it. But in any event: Back in 2017, I compiled a list of his ten best movies for Variety on the 40th anniversary of his (alleged) passing. Maybe we can argue over some of the rankings. But I still insist that his all-time greatest film is… well, you’ll find out here

Monday, December 28, 2020

Happy 125th 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.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Hanging Chads, Jumping Couches and Other Memories of Election Day 2000 in Florida


On Election Day twenty years ago, I was at Ground Zero in Florida’s Broward County when the chads started hanging. And thereby hangs a tale.

I was in the area to attend the 2000 Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, one of several regional festivals that once invited me to partake of their hospitality — and their films — back when I used to be somebody. On Election Day, however, a colleague and I slipped away from the festivities (at her urging, I must admit, though she didn’t have to work hard to convince me) so we could do volunteer work at the local Florida Democratic Party headquarters. Mostly, I fielded phone calls from senior citizens who needed transportation to voting places. Later in the day, I also went door to door to pass out flyers, in the hope of driving late deciders to the polls.

That night, as my colleague and I watched the election returns in my hotel room, I… I… well, I went absolutely nutzoid when the first reports came in that Al Gore had won Florida, and therefore was projected as the next President. You think Tom Cruise did some couch jumping back when he was sweet on Katie Holmes? Hah! My colleague actually tried to quiet me down, for fear people in other rooms would complain about the racket while I hopped up and down on the couch, the coffee table, the kitchen breakfast bar, etc.

But then, of course, the first reports were “corrected,” and the Florida projection was withdrawn. And then... Well, that’s when I put down my glass, and picked up the bottle. And when that one was empty, I picked up another one. And after my colleague left, I uncorked a third.

The next day, I awoke with a very bad hangover. My condition improved only slightly when colleague called to awaken me with what, at the time, seemed like very good news:  Gore had withdrawn his concession. Everything was still up in the air when I left Fort Lauderdale, but there was hope. A hope that was not dashed until a few weeks later, when, while I was at a movie junket in New York, I turned on the TV in another hotel room to learn Gore had turned in the towel.

I am not at all ashamed to admit that, for days and weeks and months and, yes, years afterward, I sporadically caught myself thinking: “Dammit! If only I had managed to get more vans out for voters! If only I had placed flyers on more doors! If! If! If!” Yep, another textbook example of Catholic guilt experienced by the eldest child of a dysfunctional family: It was all my fault.

Postscript: Seven years later, I was introduced to Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival. Someone told him I had written a rave review of his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth  as a free-lancer for the Tennessean newspaper — no, really, it was somebody else who did the mentioning, not me — and he smiled graciously while shaking my hand.  In fact, I swear to God, he actually bowed slightly. For about a nanosecond, I thought of telling him the story of my seven-year guilt trip. But then I came to my senses, and made polite small talk instead during our brief encounter.

So now I am telling you the story I lacked the nerve to tell Al Gore. Because as much as I feel optimistic about Election Day 2020, I can’t totally banish nagging fears that Election Night might have some nasty surprise in store. I have champagne on hand to celebrate. But I also have a few bottles of the cheap stuff to dull the pain of possible disappointment. On the other hand, this time I know: If something terrible does happen, it won't be my fault. Honest.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Yep, You Heard Right: That's Sam Elliott Narrating a Joe Biden Ad

 Saw it for the first time tonight during the World Series broadcast. Bet it won’t be the last time we see it before Election Day. Joe Biden abides.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Zooming and Broadcasting About POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief

Along with fellow members of the Houston Film Critics Society, I am spreading the good word about our latest project: POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief, an overview of movies about real or fictional Commanders in Chief. And as part of that project, I’ll be taking part in a Zoom discussion about depictions of American Presidents in motion pictures at 3 pm CT Sunday, Oct. 25, with my HFCS co-conspirators Joshua Starnes (Coming Soon) and Donna Copeland (Texas Art & Film). The discussion will be accessible at no charge to those who reserve a ticket — while supplies last — here

But wait, there’s more: At 9 am CT Tuesday, Oct. 20, I’ll be on the wireless with host Craig Cohen of Houston Matters on KUHF to talk even more about POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief. You will be able to live stream the show here.

POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief gives movie buffs and political junkies the opportunity to view comments and reviews by HFCS members on the organization’s website about movies dealing with U.S. Presidents (like Thirteen Days, with Bruce Greenwood as JFK, pictured above). Participating members are choosing these films — ranging from docudramas to fictional narratives — based on ways they illuminate the demands, disappointments and determination that define our Chief Executives.

“Movies take us places we may never visit in person,” says HFCS president Doug Harris, “and that includes the Oval Office… [W]e are in the middle of an extraordinary period in American politics.  And by extraordinary, I mean bizarre, unpredictable, and off the rails crazy. Another look at these exceptional films might help reset the public’s expectations of what could be.  Or should be. Maybe.” 

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Now Streaming: The naughty but nice Yes, God, Yes

From my 3.13.19 Variety review: “You don’t have to be Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, to be amused by Yes, God, Yes, writer-director Karen Maine’s semi-autobiographical account of a Catholic high school girl’s coming-of-age experiences with self-discovery and self-gratification. On the other hand, the gentle shocks of recognition afforded by this engaging indie comedy likely will be all the more enjoyable (when they aren’t mildly discomforting) for anyone, male or female, who remembers having to confess impure thoughts to an inquisitive priest, or fearing the consequences of actions so forcefully proscribed by nuns and lay teachers during religion (and, sometimes, biology) classes.

“The movie received a special jury prize for best ensemble after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. But there can be no dispute that Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) is first among equals here as Alice, a 16-year-old virgin who has already experienced her first stirrings of sexual turn-on after watching — repeatedly — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet steam up the windows of an automobile below deck on a VHS copy of Titanic.

“After that, it’s only a matter of time before Satan’s minions — well, OK, a couple cruising for a threesome in a dial-up AOL chat room that Alice inadvertently enters — coax her into her first exploration of masturbation. (VHS tapes? Dial-up AOL chat rooms? That’s right: The precise year is never announced, but these artifacts, along with pop tunes on the soundtrack, suggest a time period somewhere between the late 1990s and the early 2000s.)

“Dyer — who also made an impact at SXSW five years ago with her remarkably nuanced performance in Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns — is exceptionally adept at persuasively portraying Alice as simultaneously ingenuous and inquisitive, easily embarrassed but obviously intelligent, while she grapples with both an awareness of her sexuality and the aftermath of a nasty rumor spread by an obviously insecure classmate. (Don’t worry: He eventually gets what’s coming to him.)” 

Yes, God, Yes is now available on digital and VOD. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Infamous should be

From my 6.11.20 Variety review: “There’s something perversely fascinating about a film as aggressively off-putting as Infamous, a lovers-on-the-run crime drama that practically defies you to develop a rooting interest in its two dim-bulb lead characters [played by Bella Thorne and Jake Manley, pictured above]. Writer-director Joshua Caldwell borrows freely and indiscriminately from several earlier and superior examples of its sub-genre — particularly Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers — while attempting to craft some kind of cautionary tale about the many and varied ways social media can turn the dangerously discontented into sociopathic celebrity-seekers. But as he indefatigably underscores the obvious while steadily escalating the violence, he does little to sustain the attention of his audience while taking an unconscionably long time to arrive at a thoroughly predictable conclusion.” You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On the Radio: Yesterday and today at the Drive-In

Had fun this morning talking with Craig Cohen of KUHF Radio’s Houston Matters about the colorful past — and current renaissance — of drive-ins. You can hear that segment of the program here. 

No joke: The first movie I ever saw at a drive-in really was The 30 Foot Bride Candy Rock, in Mobile, Alabama. And yes, my wife and I really did see Gone with the Wind at a New Orleans drive-in during one of its many theatrical reissues back in the day.

On a related note: Here is the story I wrote for The Houston Post back on Feb. 29, 1992 — Leap Year Day — to mark the closing of Houston’s last drive-in.

FOR ALL OUTWARD appearances, it will be business as usual tonight at the I-45 Drive-In. You can stock up on popcorn, pizza and Pic insect repellent in the concession shack. And you can take your pick of the boffo box-office hit Wayne's World, or the multiple-Oscar-nominated Bugsy, or four other major studio releases.

But once the final frames flicker across the outdoor screens sometime past midnight, the projector will shut down for the last time. Because tonight, the main attraction is The Last Outdoor Picture Show.

The I-45 Drive-in — the largest outdoor cinema in Texas, if not the entire United States, and the last of its kind in Houston — will close down for good after tonight's screenings. The admission, as always, is $6 per adult, children 11 and under free.

The 46-acre theater site, at I-45 North and West Road, has been obtained by Weber & Co., a Dallas-based development group that wants a K-Mart and a Builder's Square, not six battleship-size movie screens, on the property.

“We had originally hoped to stay open until Sunday,” says manager Jan Bettis, “and had a March 1 closing date in our ads. But then they sent us a letter saying that we needed to vacate by March 1. So we’ll be closing Saturday the 29th — Leap Year Day.”

The I-45 Drive-in will close just seven years after opening its gates — and nearly six decades after entrepreneur Richard Hollingshead opened the first U.S. drive-in in Camden, N.J. Camden's theater closed four years after its 1933 debut, a victim of public indifference. The I-45 closes tonight after fighting the good fight against home video, steadily increasing operating and film rental costs, and Daylight Savings Time — but finally losing to the rules of the real estate game.

Ironically, says Bettis, the I-45 was enjoying a slow but steady upsurge in business at the time she received the bad news of its impending close.

Bettis’ father, Cotton Griffith, has operated the I-45 through his Griffith Theaters Co. since 1987, when he leased the drive-in from its original owner, the Dallas-based McLendon Co.

“When we took over,” says Bettis, ''we heard that there had been trouble in the past, as far as rough crowds go. And they had kept kind of B-class movies showing. So when we came in, we added security, and we started doing our best to keep a first-run feature all the time, and just really built up a family atmosphere to where it is now.

 “It’s kind of sad to see it go, because a lot of the baby boomers are coming out with their kids. Like, your parents used to bring you to the drive-in in your pajamas, and they watched the movies, and you went to sleep. Well, that’s what’s happening all over again.”

Bettis smiles when reminded that drive-ins have traditionally been viewed as “passion pits” rather than family affairs.

“I’m sure that was true for some people,” she says. “You always have people that come and tell you, ‘My first child was conceived at the drive-in.’ But I think that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Drive-ins enjoyed their heyday during the 1950s, and continued to attract large audiences well into the early '70s. At one point, Houston moviegoers could choose among such outdoor picture shows as the Market Street Drive-In, the Tidwell, the McLendon 3 and the Thunderbird, where double (and sometimes triple) bills were always available at cut-rate prices. And because drive-ins always needed movies for the bottom half (or two-thirds) of their bills, some movies (especially cult favorites like Thunder Road, Vanishing Point and Walking Tall ) remained in continual circulation long after their initial release.

By the '80s, however, drive-ins were in a state of free-fall decline. Movies began to appear on home video and pay-cable, sometimes even before they made the bottom half of drive-in bills.

“Daylight Savings Time did a lot to hurt drive-ins,” says Bettis. “Because a lot of times, people just don't want to stay up that late. In the summer, we don’t start showing until almost 9 p.m. And by the time that’s over, most people want to be home in their beds.”

“At one time,” says Cotton Griffith, “there were over 20 drive-ins in Houston alone. At the I-45, we’re the Last of the Mohicans, in a sense.”

The target audience for the I-45?

“Anybody and everybody,” Bettis says. “We have grandmas and grandpas that come out here and bring their grandkids, and sit in lawn chairs. And then we have the younger couples that come out with their kids.

“And then we have teen-agers — a lot of teen-agers. Since most of the drive-ins in Houston closed in the early '80s, they’ve never been to a drive-in before. We’ve had several that just drive through the box-office, and just park on the lot. And you go out, and say, ‘Well, did you plan on paying, or what?’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, doesn’t somebody come out to your car to get your money? How do you do this?’”

Joe Bob Briggs, the nationally syndicated drive-in movie critic, has waxed wroth and waxed nostalgic about the closing of Houston’s final outdoor cinema.

“I’ll never forget my happiest moment at the I-45 Drive-In,” says Briggs, “at the world premiere of Yor: The Hunter from the Future, in 1984. The whole thing was staged by Columbia Pictures so that I would see the movie, but none of the indoor movie critics would. And their efforts paid off. Because of my review, Yor: The Hunter from the Future made $15, instead of the mere $5 it would have made.

“Also, I can't think of the I-45 without remembering that it was the last drive-in built by the late Gordon McLendon, the godfather of the drive-in, the man who built more drive-ins than any man in America. If Gordon could see what’s happening to the I-45…

“Actually, now that I think about it, Gordon would be happy to see what’s happening to the I-45, because Gordon always regarded his drive-ins as investments in raw land. And when it’s time to sell, it’s time to sell.”

On a more serious note, John Bloom, Joe Bob Briggs' more sober-sided alter ego, suggests that economics, not home video or Daylight Savings Time, is the chief culprit in the decline of drive-ins nationwide.

“When most drive-in were built in the 1950s,” Bloom says, “they were on the edge of town so they could be away from the lights. As the towns grew, especially during the 1970s, the town would grow out and surround the drive-in. Depending on what was built around it, the land would become more valuable and the offers for the property would become so big that eventually the owners would sell out.”

And even if the drive-in site itself isn’t sold, Bettis says, the development of surrounding land can hurt business.

“Like, with the I-45,” Bettis says, “you have all the surrounding light that we have out here now. When they put in these freeway lights, that really killed us. And then they built the Wal-Mart, and took down our fence.”

Griffith would like to see some bold entrepreneur take a stab at filling the void that will be left with the I-45’s demise. But he doesn’t hold out much hope for that happening.

“It’s very doubtful,” Griffith says, “because of the land costs and the installation costs. And the film rentals are extremely high. These days, the only way a (drive-in) makes money is with the concession stand. That’s why popcorn prices are so ridiculous.”

So, in all probability, tonight will mark “The End” for outdoor moviegoing in Houston. There are no sequels in store. That’s all, folks.

“That's the drive-in way,” says Joe Bob Briggs. “It's also the Texas way. They can rip down those six drive-in screens, but they can’t take away our memories. We’ll always have Yor.”

Friday, May 08, 2020

Rewind: Yana's Friends

This is my July 2002 review of Yana’s Friends, a movie that might  strike you as pertinent and appropriate for our anxious age of shelter-in-place.

Here’s the pitch: Russian émigrés endure romantic and financial upheavals after arriving in Israel just before the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Sounds like a scenario for heavy drama, right? Guess again.

Writer-director Arik Kaplun plays the cultural and emotional clashes mostly for laughs in Yana's Friends, an engaging romantic comedy that earned nearly all of the glittering prizes at the 1999 Israeli Academy Awards.

It has taken more than two years for this free-spirited and life-affirming film to gain wide exposure on the U.S. art-house circuit, which says a lot -- none of it good -- about the bottom-line mentality that prevails even among supposedly “independent” distributors. In one key respect, however, the timing of the delayed release is fortuitous: After 9/11, perhaps American moviegoers will be all the more receptive to this intelligently heartfelt celebration of love and resilience in the shadow of war and catastrophe.

Lovely young Yana -- winningly played by Evelyne Kaplun, the director’s real-life wife – arrives in Tel Aviv to start a new life with Fima (Israel Damidov), her wheeler-dealer husband. Unfortunately, Fima soon decides to wheel and deal his way back to Russia. Yana is left to fend for herself, penniless and pregnant, while continuing to share an apartment with Eli (Nir Levi), a womanizing would-be filmmaker who supports himself as a wedding videographer.

Predictably, one thing leads to another, and the roommates fall in love. Unpredictably, the lovers and their neighbors manage to survive and thrive while only slightly inconvenienced by the demands of life during a state of war. Air-raid sirens wail, designated rooms are meticulously sealed – to provide safe havens from poison-gas attacks – and everyone wonders if the next sound they hear will be a Scud missile fired from Iraq. Even so, life goes on.

Another Russian émigré, a hotheaded hustler named Alik (Vladimir Friedman), stumbles into a profitable scam that requires the exploitation of his seemingly senile father-in-law (Moscu Alcalay). An accordion-playing street musician (Shmil Ben-Ari) tries to maintain his prime location on a well-traveled thoroughfare. And Rosa (Dalia Friedland), the cranky landlady of the apartment building where most of the main characters live, enjoys a sentimental reunion that proves it's never too late for happily-ever-aftering.

Yana's Friends isn't a black comedy, strictly speaking. But it somehow manages to find a surprising amount of humor in deadly serious and even potentially tragic situations. Typical of the movie's cheeky impudence is a scene in which Yana and Eli, brought together in a sealed room during an air raid, impulsively make love while still wearing their gas masks.
Hey, it's like I said: Life goes on. So does love.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Thirty Years On with Variety

During an especially affecting moment in Spring Forward, one of my favorite films, Ned Beatty – playing a parks and recreation worker on the verge of retirement – marvels to a younger colleague played by Liv Schrieber that, somehow, when he wasn’t looking, several years slipped away: “Time goes by, and it seems like a little time. You turn around, and it was a big time.” How true.

Thirty years is a big time by anybody’s measure. But I’ve had a mostly grand time during my past three decades as a free-lance film critic (and, periodically, essayist and listicle compiler) for Variety, the venerable trade paper that I still think of as The Show Business Bible. That it actually has been three decades is a little disconcerting – has it really been that long? – but never mind. This weekend, it’s also a cause for celebration.

To be precise: My first three free-lance reviews – all of them for films shown at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- appeared in the weekly edition of Variety dated May 2, 1990. One of the movies just happened to be Red Surf, a melodrama about drug-dealing surfers starring a very young George Clooney. (For the record: the other two were Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter and something called A Girl’s Guide to Sex.) One week later, Variety ran my review of another WorldFest/Houston offering, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, a spoofy sci-fi B-movie that showcased a very young Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role. And two weeks after that, I reviewed yet another WorldFest feature: Across the Tracks, a dysfunctional family drama co-starring a very, very young Brad Pitt.

So you see: Right from the start, I’ve specialized in spotting fresh talent for The Show Business Bible. Well, OK: I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to spot fresh talent. Thanks to Variety.

I already was gainfully employed as a film critic for the late, great Houston Post when I was approached – by no less a luminary than Peter Bart himself -- to serve as a Variety stringer. But in my mind, writing for Variety – even back when I started, at a time when film critics didn’t receive a full byline – was not just a step up but a leap forward. To put it simply and hubristically, it was, to my way of thinking, a sign that I had arrived. I had made the grade, passed the test, completed my apprenticeship – and somehow gained entry inside a very select circle. I felt I had become part of a grand tradition. And you know what? I still feel that way.

Blame it on my misspent youth. Back in the mid-to-late '60s, when I was a high school student in New Orleans, I fortuitously discovered The Show Business Bible in a library and was instantly smitten. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that, while I was growing up, there was something truly magical to me about Variety, my own private gateway to Hollywood and beyond.

On Fridays -- after school or, quite often, very early in the morning, before classes -- I would take the bus downtown to buy Variety at a newsstand. (It took two days for the weekly edition, then published on Wednesdays, to reach N.O.) I would devour all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, all the news about movies in production and box-office hits and misses, and gradually master the Variety-ese slanguage so I could fully understand what to the uninitiated must have seemed like indecipherable code. And, of course, I would marvel at the colossal special-edition issues dedicated to film festivals and year-end wrap-ups, all them filled with dozens of full-page ads for forthcoming movies.

I continued to be awestruck by The Show Business Bible well into my twenties and beyond. I still have a photo somewhere that my wife took of me during our first trip together to New York in the mid '70s, long after I had begun my professional writing career. It's a picture of me standing in front of the old Variety office near Times Square -- the one with the big Variety logo emblazoned on a huge ground floor window.  I am smiling a great big goofy kid's smile in the picture, like a True Believer enraptured by his proximity to some hallowed shrine.

So, of course, when Peter Bart called more than 15 years later…

I know, I know: Some of you will be quick to dismiss all of this a sentimental blathering, or shameless self-aggrandizing, or both. And that’s your prerogative. For others, it may seem odd, if not downright incomprehensible, for anyone to still feel so emotionally bound to anything so seemingly antiquated as a newspaper. But, hey, that’s my prerogative. Besides: I’ve also been writing web-only reviews for for several years now, so it’s not like I’m exclusively an ink-stained wretch. But I remain, deep down, an analogue guy in a digital world, as my heart continues to beat to the rhythm of a printing press. That may change – well, actually, that must change, eventually – but not too soon, I hope.

This is probably where I should write something about all the notable filmmakers whose first films I reviewed for Variety at various and sundry film festivals. And after that, I guess I should toss out ten or twenty titles of films that I got to review before anybody else thanks to my Variety affiliation. But that really would be self-aggrandizing, and I would deserve every brickbat tossed in my general direction. So I’ll leave it at this: I am deeply grateful that I’ve been a part of the Variety team for the past three decades. And I look forward to my next 30 years with the organization. (Assuming, of course, that they'll have me.) Because even though I know that the day may come when print media as we now know it will go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies, I’m sure that Variety, in some form, will survive and thrive. And I hope to remain part of its ongoing tradition.