Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Houston's International House of Cinema

Consider this: On Friday, the AMC Studio 30 megaplex here in H-Town will be showing, in addition to mainstream and much-hyped Hollywood studio fare, Assassination, a terrifically entertaining South Korean action-adventure that I viewed and reviewed for Variety; Go Away Mr. Tumor, a Chinese romantic comedy that was a smash hit in its country of origin; The Love Affair, a romantic drama from The Philippines; and no fewer than four features -- Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Brothers: Blood Against Blood and Drishyam -- from India. (Also on tap: Two English-language, VOD-ready  indie features -- After Words and Some Kind of Beautiful -- each screening only twice daily.)

Now, mind you, we're not talking about a gone-to-seed theater in a fallen-from-grace shopping theater. We're not even talking about a theater in a neighborhood where any single immigrant group traditionally dominates. Rather, we're talking about a megaplex in the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the United States. Leading me to wonder: Is this situation unique to Houston, or increasingly commonplace? That is: Have we already reached and actually gone past the point where it is standard operational procedure for theater chains to program in big-city megaplexes scads of movies that require English subtitles but aren't, strictly speaking, "art-house movies" -- that are, you know, just movies?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Austin. Sunday. Miracle Mile. Be there, or be square.

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will be screened at 7:20 pm Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin. But wait, there's more: It's my great pleasure and privilege to announce that I'll be serving as host (or facilitator, or whatever the hell they call it) for an on-stage Q&A with De Jarnatt after the screening.

I am especially geeked about the occasion because... well, this isn't the first time I'll be involved with a public showing of De Jarnatt's devastating flick. Back in 1989, I introduced it as my critic's choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival (then known simply as the Houston International Film Festival), where it wound up rocking the house and winning best of fest honors. 

A few weeks later, during a Cannes Film Festival reception, I was told by one of the muckety-mucks at Hemdale -- the outfit that had originally bankrolled the film -- that because of the enthusiastic response at the H-Town fest, his company was giving Miracle Mile a wider theatrical release than originally planned. He also said my rave review -- blurbed in all the original advertising and, later, on the homevideo packaging -- was another factor considered when the Hemdale brass made their decision. 

Maybe he was telling me the truth, maybe he was stoking my ego. But consider: De Jarnatt recently thanked me in a Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film. So I can only assume that I played some role, however small, in getting Miracle Mile out into the world. And that makes me very happy.

So what's it all about? As I wrote in my 1989 review:

Miracle Mile is an audacious doomsday thriller with a 20-megaton impact. Deceptively simple and relentlessly gripping, it represents American independent moviemaking at its most exciting and accessible for mainstream audiences. Be prepared to be blown through the back of the theater...

Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds) and Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire) are the lead players, and they are exceptionally well-cast. Edwards is excellent as Harry, a soft-spoken, sweet-natured would-be jazz musician who moves to Los Angeles in search of a musical career and, perhaps, romance. Like most newcomers to Los Angeles, he checks out the sights on the Miracle Mile, the long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that runs from the towering skyscrapers of Century City to the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits. On a museum tour near the pits, Harry meets Julie (Winningham), a lovely waitress who just happens to be fond of jazz. Love blooms, instantly.

Unfortunately, Harry oversleeps, and arrives at the diner where Julie works three hours late for their midnight date. He tries to call her from a pay phone, but she doesn’t respond -- she has taken a sleeping pill, turned on her answering machine, and dozed off. Harry is depressed. Worse, he doesn’t know exactly where Julie lives, so he can’t drop by to apologize.

Then the pay phone rings, and Harry picks up the receiver. On the other end is an anxious young man calling from a missile base somewhere in North Dakota. It’s a wrong number -- the caller was trying to reach his father in another area code, to warn him that World War III is about to begin, that nuclear missiles will likely hit Los Angeles in 70 minutes.

Harry thinks the caller is a practical joker. But then he hears gunshots. And then he hears a stern voice on the line, warning him to “forget everything you’ve just heard, and go back to sleep.” 

This is not a dream. This is not a test. This is an actual alert.

And that is all the detailed plot synopsis you will get from me. Suffice it to say that Harry moves heaven and earth to get to Julie, so she can join him for a last-chance flight to safety. Naturally, several obstacles, and not a few people, get in his way. And even when the lovers are reunited, they have to contend with the panicky mobs who have been tipped off about the approaching apocalypse.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt draws you slowly, steadily into his frightfully plausible plot before he yanks you by the lapels and drags you onto a high-velocity roller coaster. Better still, even while he skillfully, even mercilessly, escalates the suspense, he develops a credible, compelling love story. Edwards makes a strong impression as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, while Winningham is attractive, persuasive and, particularly in the final scenes, achingly poignant. The supporting players are strong, and the dialogue, often darkly comical, rings true.

Miracle Mile flies economy class, with more emphasis on human drama than special effects, but it never looks or sounds cheap. The first-rate cinematography is by Theo Van de Sande, and the ominous musical score is by Tangerine Dream.

And if all of that is not enough for you, take note: Cherry 2000, De Jarnatt's only other feature, a 1987 sci-fi action-adventure in which a badass Melanie Griffith makes things blow up real good, also will be screened Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. And, yes, De Jarnatt will be answering questions about that one, too.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trailer Park: Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight

How much badassery can a single motion picture contain? That burning question likely will be answered by Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited The Hateful Eight, the upcoming Western action-thriller starring Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum (allegedly) -- and Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who has, hands down, the best line in this trailer: "Move a little strange -- you're gonna get a bullet. Not a warning. Not a question. A bullet."

Get ready to mount up and ride hard when The Hateful Eight hits theaters -- in "glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision" -- on Christmas Day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trailer Park: Vin Diesel (and Michael Caine) in The Last Witch Hunter

"Know what I'm afraid of? Nothing." Vin Diesel probably could have delivered that line in any movie he's ever made. (Well, maybe not The Pacifier -- but almost every movie he's ever made.) Yet he has waited until The Last Witch Hunter to utter this particular announcement of his badassery. 

As you can see in the trailer, Diesel's character matches words with deeds while fearlessly demolishing all manner of supernatural foes. (Gee, I wonder if the movie is intended as the kickoff for a new franchise?) But I must admit: Since I'm kinda-sorta a Michael Caine completist, the primary appeal this movie has for me is the opportunity to see Sir Michael playing a priest. I could be mistaken -- and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I am -- but I think this may be the very first time in his 50-plus-year career that Caine has played a man of the cloth.

The Last Witch Hunter opens Oct. 23 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015: Bone Tomahawk rides the first wave

Kurt Russell battles cannibalistic troglodytes in the Wild West.

Hmmm. This sounds like a scenario fit for... Fantastic Fest.

And sure enough: Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler's long-awaited horror Western, has been announced as the closing night attraction for the 2015 edition of Fantastic Fest, the bountifully stocked cinematic smorgasbord that immodestly but accurately bills itself as “the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world.”

This year's event takes place Sept. 24 through Oct. 1 in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.

Also known as The Geek Telluride, Fantastic Fest takes pride in bringing out the stars as well as amping up the weird. Which explains why festival founder Tim League is hard-pressed to constrain his excitement when announcing that both the director and the ensemble cast of Bone Tomahawk will descend upon Austin for the world premiere. "Bringing Kurt Russell back to the Alamo is something we've been trying to do for a long time," said League. "And to do it with Bone Tomahawk, a quintessential Fantastic Fest film, means we're in for one hell of a closer. Huge thanks to Caliber Media for making it all happen."

So what's it all about? According to the official Fantastic Fest plot synopsis: "Kurt Russell stars in this character-driven and at times horrific Western about a group of men (including Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins) who set out to rescue a local woman and a young deputy who’ve been kidnapped by a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes."

Bone Tomahawk was just one of the titles included Wednesday in Fanatastic Fest's "first wave" announcement of its 2015 lineup. You can read the full announcement here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Trailer Park: Joy

Joy reunites Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) for what has been described as an idiosyncratic comedy-drama "inspired" by the life and adventures of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. But, really, I didn't need to know any of that to be knocked out by this trailer. As soon as I heard the unmistakable sound of The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," I was sold. Christmas can't get here quickly enough.

Friday, July 03, 2015

My July 4th tradition: Rocking with Bill Pullman and Independence Day

I am an immigrant's son, and I get paid to go to the movies. Truly, this is the land of opportunity. And so, to celebrate the birthday of our great nation, I once again give you the ridiculously corny yet tremendously affecting speech given by a beleaguered U.S. President (potently played by Bill Pullman) to rally a final push against invading extraterrestrials in Independence Day. Let freedom ring.

Another opportunity to celebrate Independence Day with 1776

Eight years ago this week, I rediscovered 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. At 3 ET/ 2 CT Saturday afternoon, you, too, can re-evaluate (or see for the very first time) on TCM a restored version of the movie -- one of the last Old Hollywood adaptations of a hit Broadway musical. And take it from me: Even if, like me, you were none too impressed by it back in the day, you'll find it was substantially improved by the restoration of scenes and songs that had been deleted by producer  Jack Warner  before its ’72 theatrical release. (No less a notable than then-President Richard Nixon "requested" the deletion of a tune that tweaked conservatives.)

As I noted in 2007: "1776 still is something less than an unadulterated masterwork. (Although director Peter H. Hunt manages some impressive wide-screen compositions, he’s a tad too literal-minded in some aspects of his stage-to-screen translation.) Taken as a whole, however, the movie is wonderfully entertaining – and, better still, undeniably inspiring -- as it offers an intelligently yet playfully romanticized account of events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But wait, there’s more: The cast includes most of the major players from the original 1969 Broadway ensemble – including William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), all at their finest – along with an absolutely luminescent Blythe Danner (who was pregnant with Gwyneth Paltrow during filming) as Martha Jefferson. And the heated debates over individual rights and tyrannical rulers are, alas, every bit as relevant today as in 1776 or 1972." Or 2015.

More pertinent than ever: The reluctant agreement by Adams, Franklin and Jefferson to delete a key paragraph from their original draft of the Declaration

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blast from the Past: My 1985 TV commercial

In the summer of 1985, you might have seen this Houston Post spot airing on local TV stations or -- no joke -- displayed on the massive Astrodome video screen during Astros games. (Yes, I actually attended a game where I saw myself looking larger than life. The experience was... weird.) I know I claim to be enjoying myself in Hollywood, but this actually was shot in H-Town's deluxe Palm Restaurant. And yes, that's the great Jack Riley from The Bob Newhart Show as my own private buzzkill.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dwight Howard: Superstar

Just how cool is Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard? Consider: After torrential rains descended upon H-Town May 25 while he and his teammates were fighting the good fight against the Golden State Warriors, Howard opted to stick around and interact with fans stranded inside Toyota Center after the game. And yesterday, Howard served as genial host -- and generous popcorn dispenser -- at a special screening of Inside Out (sposnored by Fandango and Relativity Sports) for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston.

While interviewed before the screening at Santikos Palladium AVX, Howard revealed that he's an enormous fan of Pixar-produced animated features. ("I'm just a big kid trapped inside a big man's body.") Which, of course, came as no suprise to anyone who'd seen Howard waxing nostalgic about his all-time favorite movie, Pixar's Finding Nemo, as part of Fandango's "I Love Movies" on-line series.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Coming to CNN, DVD and VOD: Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

Many celebrities – maybe most celebrities -- would reflexively draw away from the public eye, to avoid public scrutiny and personal embarrassment, after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Not Glen Campbell.

In June 2011, two months after his 75th birthday, Campbell revealed to the world that he had the terrible and terrifying disease that gradually, relentlessly, decimates the memory. At the same time, however, the enduringly popular country-pop star announced plans for a series of farewell concerts. Later that fall, Campbell began what was originally scheduled to be a five-week tour – a tour that eventually extended to 151 shows over 15 months.

Kim Campbell, the singer’s wife, accompanied her husband on the tour, and three of his children – Ashley, Shannon and Cal – performed in his backup band. Some performances went surprisingly smoothly. Others didn’t. “It was almost like a game of roulette,” Ashley Campbell told the New York Times in a 2014 interview. “You’d have a great show and then a difficult show, and you’d start to wonder, ‘Oh no, is this getting towards the end?’ ”

The same question occasionally occurred to director James Keach and producer Trevor Albert as they followed Campbell on and off stage during the filming of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, their critically acclaimed behind-the-scenes documentary that is by turns heartbreaking and spirit-lifting as it charts the decline and defiance of an artist struggling to transcend his affliction while continuing to do what he does best and loves most.

The film -- which had its world premiere at the 2014 Nashville Film Festival, and features admiring commentaries by Paul McCarthy, Brad Paisley, Steve Martin, Blake Shelton, Bill Clinton and other notables -- will be shown at 9 pm ET Sunday, June 28, on CNN. It will be available on digital platforms starting Aug. 18, followed by a DVD and VOD release on Sept. 1.

Keach says Campbell impressed him as “a real-life hero” during the lengthy production of I’ll Be Me, which he views as not only a tribute to “one of the greatest musicians this country has ever known,” but also a group portrait of a family bravely united in a common cause. The film does not stint on showing Campbell traversing wild mood swings while raging against his incurable disease, or struggling to recall song lyrics, and recognize once-familiar friends and surroundings. Time and again, however, I’ll Be Me also emphasizes the ties that bind, the music that delights, and the spirit that endures. “The making of this film has been an exhilarating, joyous and inspiring ride,” says Albert. “I attribute that entirely to the heroic spirit of Glen Campbell and his extraordinary family.”

Following the Nashville Film Festival premiere of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, I had the privilege of hosting a post-screening Q&A with Keach and Albert. You can read some excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity, here.

I wish I could rock a western shirt as well as James Keach (at the 2014 Nashville Film Festival)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Farewell to Patrick Macnee -- The real original Avenger

As a tribute to Patrick Macnee, the dapper Brit actor and original Avenger who passed away Thursday at age 93, I wanted to share some snippets from a luncheon interview I did with the gentleman back in 1987, when he passed through Houston to promote a movie titled Shadey. The film, I must admit, was instantly forgettable. But the conversation was an unadulterated delight.

During a visit to Toronto a few years ago, Patrick Macnee ran into an old friend, Peter O'Toole, in the lobby of his hotel. ''And while we went up in the lift together,'' Macnee recalls, ''he said to me, 'Well, what have you been up to?' And I said, 'I'm doing The New Avengers.'' And he said, 'Oh, Patrick, you're always doing The Avengers. . .' ''

Macnee joined in the hearty laughter of his lunchtime companions when he finished the anecdote during a recent Houston visit. But he's the first to agree there was more truth than jest to O'Toole's comment. Even so, he remains greatly pleased by what other actors might bemoan as typecasting.

''As a matter of fact,'' Macnee said, ''I think they're going to do a new Avengers series. And I shall be the oldest living Avenger. But I don't give a damn -- it's a good pension.''

During his four decades as a professional actor, Macnee has appeared in hundreds of movies, plays and TV productions, playing everything from a psychiatrist who moonlights as a werewolf (The Howling) to a mystery writer who plots to kill his wife's lover (during the original Broadway run of Sleuth). He has been the boss of Napoleon Solo (The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.), a confidant for James Bond (A View to a Kill), and a music mogul who signs a heavy-metal rock band (This is Spinal Tap). In Shadey, an off-beat black comedy he visited Houston to promote, he co-stars as Sir Cyril Landau, a corrupt British industrialist who lusts after his grown daughter (Leslie Ash).

But Macnee remains, now and perhaps forever, best known as John Steed, the suave British superspy who spent almost all of the Swinging '60s as one of The Avengers.

During the show's original run, he was teamed with such attractive partners as Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman and Linda Thorson. For the better part of a decade, though, it was Macnee as Steed who remained the show's constant. (''I had to stay -- I had two little children with ever-open beaks, and I had to send them to college.'') When the series was revived in the mid-1970s as -- what else? -- The New Avengers, Macnee took his brolly and bowler hat out of storage, and once again slipped into the Steed role.

''I think,'' Macnee said, ''I will probably still be playing John Steed shortly after I'm dead… I can come down like Hamlet's father, through a mist and everything.''

Between 1966 and 1969, The Avengers was shown, sporadically, to U.S. viewers on the ABC network. But it wasn't until the series went into syndication in the '70s that it attracted a serious cult following. (CBS briefly aired The New Avengers as a late-night offering in the early '80s.) Today, the original episodes co-starring Macnee and Diana Rigg still are shown in many major TV markets. The Avengers cult continues to thrive, spawning newsletters, magazines and paperbacks.

And, yes, there's a good possibility the original cast will return for one of those ''grand reunion'' TV movies.

The proposed plot, Macnee said, calls for Steed's four former partners to take center stage. ''It's from their point of view,'' he said. ''I've disappeared, and they think I'm dead. So all four of the girls attend my funeral, and open the casket -- and I'm not there.

''It's a bloody good idea, and I'll tell you why. Because Honor Blackman is still beautiful. Di Rigg is gorgeous. Linda Thorson, whom a lot of people despised, is now half-way through a new situation comedy in Hollywood where she's gonna be the new Gracie Allen. She is wonderful. And Joanna Lumley, who was on The New Avengers, is a big star in England now. Can you imagine having those four girls, coming in and sleuthing from a woman's point of view?

''And then I can ponce about a little bit behind a tree or something. As long as they pay me a lot of money, I wouldn't mind.''

Lest he give the wrong impression, Macnee is quick to emphasize that money isn't everything. It's a lot, but not everything.

Besides, he added, ''You don't become an actor to make money. I earn money on commercials. I do all those in-house things for IBM, when they have new things for the computers and all that… I stand about in a bowler hat, and make a fortune.

''I did one with Don Johnson the other day for General Motors, about seatbelts, for kids. They'll show it in all the schools. And we had a lot of fun.

''If you do about five of those a year, it's good. They pay you an enormous amount of money for one day's work. Consequently, I can do work that I like to do.''

Macnee, a wonderfully entertaining raconteur over a long lunch, speaks of acting the way most other people might speak of a part-time business that's little more than a hobby. To hear him talk, he's pulling a grand scam on producers and directors everywhere: He gets to make films and TV-movies with marvelous people, travel all over the world, and have a great time. And he gets paid for it. What a deal!

''I've just been in Rome doing a film, which I adored,'' Macnee said. ''I was playing some poncy old priest, inveighing against AIDS or something, in some galaxy in 2021. And, you know, doing that, you earn more money, and have more fun, in three weeks than you do in four months on Broadway.''

To be sure, Macnee said, being so closely identified with the John Steed character has limited the diversity of roles that come his way. ''But it works two ways, that. Because I can fill a theater -- I've just played six months in the West End, in Dick Levinson and Bill Link's play, Killing Jessica. And you can always fill a theater based on the fact that people know you.

''And by sheer luck, people like Joe Dante, for whom I did a film called The Howling, and Rob Reiner, who directed This is Spinal Tap -- they remember me, because they were little kids when they saw The Avengers. So they cast me as mad scientists and crazy uncles and all that lot. So I really can't complain. I really can't.''

But Macnee can complain -- and be quite vocal about it -- when he must suffer those he considers fools and pretenders. He almost didn't do Shadey because it was directed by Philip Saville -- a long-ago boyfriend of Diana Rigg.

''During all the time she was doing The Avengers,'' Macnee recalled, ''he was frightfully grand… and spent all of his time saying to Diana Rigg, 'You shouldn't be doing this cheap, common series. Somebody who played Cordelia opposite Paul Scofield in King Lear, playing in this thing?' So every day, she used to turn up, terribly bad-tempered. And she left after 18 months, inveighing against all male chauvinism, the producers, the fact that she was paid less than the makeup man…”

So Macnee was less than eager to play Sir Cyril, the millionaire with a daughter fixation, for Saville. In the end, though, Macnee was impressed by Snoo Wilson's script, and signed to make the movie.

''But once we started filming,'' Macnee said, ''Philip came up to me and said, 'It's all improvisation, you know, Patrick -- if you know what I mean.' I said, 'Yes, I do know what you mean. You want me to improvise incest, right?' He said, 'Well, yes.'

''So I went to Leslie Ash and pulled her top down, exposed her naked, and I said, 'You mean like that?' And he said, 'Well, you don't have to do it, really. . .'

''There are so many frauds about, aren't there?''

Macnee, who was born and raised in London, has lived in Palm Springs, Calif. for nearly two decades. (He became a U.S. citizen eight years ago.) He refuses to be coy about his age -- rather, he cheerfully admits he's ‘‘an old-age pensioner who gets Medicare,'' with two grown children.

''But I take care of myself. I walk a lot. And I got very miserable at one time, and got very fat. But now I'm getting thin again, thank God. And I keep reasonably fit. I gave up drinking and smoking -- which for a 65-year-old is a good idea, because then you stand a chance of reaching 75. Unlike most of my compatriots. As much as I loved them, and they're infinitely more talented, they're now resting their little bones underneath the cross.

''I've lived a lot of life, which is rather fun. Career-wise, I suppose I could have done a lot better, really. But you can't think about those sorts of things, I don't think.''

Not when you're still having so much fun. Not when you're Patrick Macnee.

Unfortunately, the Avengers reunion movie Macnee described never made it past the planning stages. Even more unfortunately, Macnee lived long enough to see the disastrous 1998 feature film reboot of The Avengers starring Ralph Fiennes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. On the other hand, that movie did provide a tidy paycheck for Macnee, who cameoed as an invisible secret agent who was heard but never seen. I have no doubt that, even if he was disappointed by the movie in general and Fiennes’ performance in particular, he kept his criticism to himself – and laughed while sauntering all the way the bank.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Thanks to Seth Rogen and Kim Jong-un, I got to see a Robert Altman movie tonight

A funny thing happened on my way home to Houston from the CMA Music Festival in Nashville: My departure was delayed, so I got to see Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park -- a singularly idiosyncratic 1969 feature I had not seen since its original release -- at a major Altman retrospective organized by the Belcourt Theatre here in Music City.

But wait, there's more: At the end of the screening, I got so speak with two very special Belcourt guests: Kathryn Reed Altman, the filmmaker's widow, and frequent Altman collaborator Michael Murphy, who played a small but key role in the 1969 film. Cowabunga.

Actually, this was my second sampling of the Belcourt's Altman retrospective during this Nashville sojourn. Last Wednesday, I had the irresistible opportunity to see Nashville on the 40th anniversary of that 1975 classic's theatrical opening. And again, the Belcourt offered a special added attraction: Vintage TV news footage of the movie's local premiere, an extravaganza attended by several real-life country music stars (including Minnie Pearl, who seemed impressed by the acting but not by Nashville itself) and a few stars cast as country artists in Altman's epic. (Henry Gibson, evidently sensing that many locals were less than impressed by the film's depiction of Music City denizens, diplomatically told TV reporters how much he really, really enjoyed shooting Nashville in Nashville.) 

The Robert Altman retrospective continues through July 7 at the Belcourt Theatre, Nashville's premier art-house cinema. In a brochure prepared for the series, Belcourt programming director Toby Leonard credits Seth Rogen and Kim Jong-un for making it all possible. No, seriously.

Leonard writes:

The week between Christmas and New Year's has always been a tricky one in the art house world. Dominated by big-budget studio pictures with visions of gold statuettes dancing in their heads, what's an independent cinema to do? In 2013, we had a major success in that period with Inside Llewyn Davis on one screen and the opening of a three-week Hitchcock series on the other. In 2014, our plans were to have a solid run of Birdman going, with a series of Capra restorations tacked onto the end of our yearly holiday run of It's a Wonderful Life. By Thanksgiving, the Belcourt was already on track for a record year for ticket sales. But there were strange rumblings afoot. 

On Monday, Dec. 22, as friends and relatives were dialing down for the holidays, Sony Pictures -- at the behest of major multiplexes, fearful of North Korean retaliation -- had already put its planned Christmas Day release of The Interview on hold. By that point, many independent theaters had made offers to Sony to screen the film. I'd made my own inquiry, perhaps as some sort of joke. After all, what does a mainstream bro-comedy have to do with our mission anyhow? But by Monday evening, with the aid of the Alamo Drafthouse chain and the leadership committee of the Art House Convergence (upon which we sit), it seemed that a last-minute release of The Interview could actually happen. On Tuesday, it became a reality. Since Sony had restored the Capra films we'd planned for that week, we had no issue cutting showtimes from that to allow The Interview to open two days later. Local and national media descended. The rest is history and is totally on Google.

So, why rehash this story at all? It goes back to misgivings about the film itself and why, at the end of a banner year, would we alter plans to accommodate this movie (which was ultimately validated by an amazing outpouring of support). As programmer of the theatre and nonetheless still conflicted, I resolved to use our cut of the ticket sales for good. I decided on Robert Altman.

Many larger-scale repertory series have been underwritten by generous donors who have allowed us to really go out on a limb with some of our larger projects: Hitchcock, Bresson, the Coen Brothers, just to name a few. However, this one is different.

So, here it is, 19 features covered entirely by the proceeds from one truly remarkable folly. Thank you, Robert Altman. Thank you, Seth Rogen. And thank you, Nashville, for 90 years of support.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Review: Melissa McCarthy kicks ass in Spy

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear – specifically, the mid-to-late 1960s – when the line between madcap spy spoofery and serious secret agentry often was smudged in slick flicks pitched somewhere between the edgy exploits of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer and the antic excesses of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm. 

Spy, the latest collaboration between Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy and filmmaker Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is a satisfyingly amusing and sporadically hilarious throwback to the era when 007-spawned comedy-adventures were as ubiquitous as comic-book epics are today, and notables as diverse as David Niven, James Garner, Dirk Bogarde, Cliff Robertson and rotund stand-up comic Jack E. Leonard (who played a dual role opposite Jayne Mansfield and Phyllis Diller in 1966’s aptly titled The Fat Spy) slipped into James Bondage with varying degrees of success.

Like many, if not most, of those Swinging ‘60s curios, Spy is a mashup of broad comedy, sci-fi gadgetry, brutal mayhem – broken limbs and lethal weapons are utilized as punchlines – and snappy/snarling one-liners. Unlike all but the best of its predecessors, however, it manages the difficult feat of maintaining a pleasing ratio of funny business to rough stuff.

McCarthy is perfectly cast and consistently engaging as Susan Cooper, a modestly frumpy but exceptionally adroit CIA systems analyst who, from her desk in the Langley headquarters basement, monitors, directs and warns far-flung agents in the field. She issues her info – culled from surveillance satellites and super-duper computers – through earpieces worn by such licensed-to-kill daredevils as Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a lethally smooth operator who has become the object of Susan’s unrequited desire. Behind every successful secret agent, Spy indicates, there is an unsung desk jockey – a set-up, the movie none-too-subtly suggests, that mirrors the bond between overpaid male corporate executives and their underpaid but unquestioningly loyal female underlings.

But when bad guys hack into the files at Langley to access names and faces of every CIA spook with field experience, it’s up to the heretofore underappreciated and, better still, conveniently anonymous Susan to get off the bench and enter the spy game. Eager for the glamorous, globe-hopping life of a Jane Bond, she initially is disappointed to find she’s expected merely to observe and report as she zigzags throughout Europe while decked out in guises – a bespectacled cat lady, a champion Mary Kay Cosmetics salesperson, etc. – that are equal parts demeaning and demoralizing.

(By the way: Since we are living in the age of political correctness, when the professionally outraged are constantly on the alert for things to be outraged about, I fully expect someone to complain that Spy actually is trafficking in sexual stereotypes that are demeaning to cat ladies and Mary Kay salesepeople. Yes, I really do.) 

Only gradually does Susan get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to express her inner badass, after she fortuitously gains the trust of Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), a cunning and condescending arms dealer with a stereotypical crew of incompetent underlings. Trouble is, even with the help of a gawky Langley co-worker (Miranda Hart of Call the Midwife), an inappropriately touchy-feely Italian agent (Peter Serafinowicz), and an incessantly self-aggrandizing and unabashedly sexist CIA operative (Jason Statham, robustly spoofing his own tough-guy image), Susan may have a hard time keeping Rayna from sealing the deal on a compact weapon of mass destruction.

Working from his own screenplay, Feig keeps Spy moving at such a brisk clip that it’s difficult to make sense of the byzantine plot, and unlikely that’s you’ll really care. He relies a bit too heavily – and too often -- on scenes in which McCarthy (evincing blue collar brass) and Byrne (exuding mean girl haughtiness) swap profanity-laced insults that, apparently, are meant be at least mildly shocking in their gender-reversed ferocity. (Wow! Look at that! Gals can be just a vulgar as guys!) On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see that, for once, McCarthy’s plus-size physique is cannily employed for something more than the occasional sight gag. 

At the risk of spilling a few beans: After a certain point in Spy, you have to believe Susan can make the transition from wisecracking to ass-kicking. And, trust me, I mean it as a compliment to say McCarthy makes it very easy to believe that the seemingly mousy desk jockey is quite capable of beating the living hell out of men who make the fatal mistake of taking her too lightly. And because of that, Feig is able to make the leap from flat-out farce to comedy-laced thriller – and then back again – with relative ease. Again: That’s not something you can say about a lot of the Swinging ‘60s spy capers.

Indeed, as I sauntered out of the multiplex on my way to the parking lot after a preview screening of Spy, I found myself thinking: In the real-life world of international espionage, the men and women who do the actual heavy lifting probably are low-profile, deceptively unprepossessing pros who look and sound a lot more Melissa McCarthy than, say, Scarlett Johansson. 

No joke: As much as I enjoyed Spy, I now want to see McCarthy in a (relatively) serious action-adventure in which she cracks heads and shoots straight and surprises everybody.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

LeBron James is ready for his close-up -- in Trainwreck

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader are billed as the stars of Trainwreck because… well, because they are the stars of Trainwreck. And no doubt about it: They are nothing short of amazing in director Judd Apatow’s wild and crazy rom-com (which Schumer scripted), striking a dead-solid-perfect balance of uproarious R-rated hilarity and stealthily affecting sincerity while playing, respectively, a commitment-averse magazine writer who views love roughly the same way Superman views kryptonite, and a renowned sports-medicine surgeon with an all-star lineup of satisfied customers.

But while Trainwreck (which opens July 17 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere) is bound to earn copious kudos for the above-the-title leads – and for Apatow, who’ll add the film to a sterling resume that already includes The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up – don’t be surprised if critics and audiences also heap praise on the star-making performance by a supporting player who’s already a superstar: LeBron James.

Yes, that LeBron James, the celebrated Cleveland Cavaliers power forward who’ll be leading his team this week and next against the formidable Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

But no matter how things shake out on the hardwood courts this week, you can take this to the bank: The superstar known as King James already is establishing himself as an MVP in a whole different game.

At least, that’s the early scouting report by critics who viewed Trainwreck last March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Variety film critic Scott Foundas said the film’s “biggest surprise is indeed James, who plays himself — or, rather, a self-aggrandizing, penny-pinching version of himself — to deadpan perfection.” Ryan Bort of agreed, noting: “[James’] role is larger than anyone could have imagined, and his performance is certainly the best and most substantial foray into acting we've seen from a sports superstar of his magnitude.”

In the world according to Trainwreck, LeBron James is a sage and sensitive soul whose deep and abiding friendship with Dr. Aaron Connors (Hader) is strained only when he fears his buddy might make him miss an episode of his favorite TV series, Downton Abby. (“Listen, I’m watching it tonight,” he tells Aaron, “because I’m not going to practice when all the guys are talking about it – and I’m left out!”)  He’s initially happy to hear that Aaron has, well, scored. (“My boy got intimate! Sexual intercourse! Whoa-ho!”) But he frets that someone as anti-monogamy as Amy Townsend (Schumer) might break Aaron’s heart. And when Aaron does indeed find that love is a hurtin’ thing, King James is quick to stage an intervention with a back-up team that includes Marv Albert.

Yes, that Marv Albert.

When I caught up with Judd Apatow in Austin the morning after Trainwreck premiered at SXSW, we spoke about many things – the brassy wit of Schumer’s screenplay, the seriocomic grace of Hader’s career-best (so far) performance, his own history of supporting fresh talents like Schumer and Lena Dunham, etc. But I made sure I saved enough time during the interview to ask: So, Judd, tell me -- what was it like to work with LeBron James?

“When Amy wrote his name in the script – well, that was the dream,” Apatow said. “In a situation like this, you never think you’re going to really get LeBron James – you think you’re going to get somebody who retired from the NBA in 1968."

But thanks in large part to Bill Hader, an alumnus of Saturday Night Live, the dream became a reality.

“Bill had meet LeBron when he hosted Saturday Night Live, and told us that he was a great guy and super funny,” Apatow said. “So Bill and I took him out to lunch, and we talked a little about his part, which in a lot of ways is the Bruno Kirby part in When Harry Met Sally… We thought that it would be really funny if that person just happened to be the greatest basketball player in the world. And LeBron really laughed.”

Which isn’t to say King James took his movie debut lightly. Indeed, “LeBron showed up as a very well-prepared actor,” Apatow said. “He was very loose, he was willing to experiment and improvise just like everybody else, and he revealed himself to be riotously funny -- which we are all jealous of.”

But wait, there’s more: LeBron James arrived just in time to make his “character” a very eloquent and passionate spokesman for Cleveland.

“His shooting days started a week after he announced that he was going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Apatow said. “So we quickly added that to the script.

“But, you know, he’s always telling people he’s the mayor of Cleveland.”

Trainwreck also features a very funny cameo performance by another NBA notable, Amar’e Stoudemire, as another of Aaron's patients. Ironically, he filmed his part before he moved from the New York Knicks to the Dallas Mavericks – at a time when he doubtless had no qualms about saying “Dallas sucks!” on screen.

“We watched all these different athletes on Letterman,” Apatow said, “because we figured if they're funny with Letterman, we know we can make them funny in the movie. Amar'e was so charming and witty -- and he also turned out to be a great guy to work with. And he carried off some difficult moments, like where he’s doing that whole bit when he’s supposed to have just come out of surgery.”

So what is Judd Apatow’s secret? How does he get such effective performances -- such funny performances – out of superstars who are, essentially, non-actors?

“My favorite thing with any actor or actress,” Apatow said, “is to let them know that they have enough time to figure it out. I think when people are rushed, they can't act. And when they feel under pressure to make it perfect right away, that's when people panic. I always tell them, ‘Look, you have plenty of time, we are going to do a lot of takes." And usually just that information gets them almost all the way there.

“The nightmare that a lot of people have is that they’re only gonna get one take, some crappy shot, and someone's gonna say, 'OK, check the gate! We're done!' But I always just say, 'We're not going to move on until you're happy.'"

Friday, May 29, 2015

I Believe in Unicorns director Leah Meyerhoff

When I first saw first-time feature filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns at SXSW 2014, one of the things I loved most about it was, just about every time I was afraid the plot would kick in – it didn’t. 

The indie drama, which debuts simultaneously this weekend in New York and on VOD platforms, is a sensitive and engrossing drama about Davina (Natalia Dyer), a naive young beauty who tries to make her dreams come true – only to find how easily dreams turn into nightmares. 

As I wrote in my Variety review, Davina “often seeks refuge from the universal anxieties of adolescence and the specific demands of caring for her handicapped mom (Toni Meyerhoff) by escaping to a fairy-tale world where unicorns frolic, dragons lie in wait, and a lovely princess like herself can gracefully traverse the landscape. Prince Charming is nowhere in sight, so Davina is drawn instead to Sterling (Peter Vack), a slightly older, punkish skateboarder who casually deflowers her in the back room of a music club, then treats her with stinging indifference the next time they meet… 

“The heartbroken girl is elated when Sterling changes his attitude yet again: He behaves tenderly, even lovingly, and invites her along for the ride when he impulsively opts to take an open-ended drive toward ‘anywhere but here.’ The longer they’re together, however, the more Davina realizes that mood swings aren’t Sterling’s only unattractive quality.”

Think you know what happens next? Well, you’re probably wrong. 

Again, as I said in my Variety review: “There are moments here and there — during an instance of shoplifting, for example, or an argument that dangerously escalates — when the filmmaker appears ready to impose a traditional doomed-lovers-on-the-run plot on her freeform scenario. As it turns out, however, this is not that kind of movie.” Indeed, I Believe in Unicorns is something unique and enchanting – and, as befits a movie that includes elements of fantasy and fairy tales, more than a little magical.

At the 2014 Nashville Film Festival, I had the privilege of hosting a Q&A session with Leah Meyerhoff after a screening of her debut feature. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her. And I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her.

Back when you were in the pre-production phase, did you have trouble explaining to people what your movie would – and wouldn’t – be about?

Well, obviously, this script does not have a very traditional plot-based structure. So it did take some convincing, particularly to some of our investors and producers, to say this vision will work even though it's execution-dependent. Even though the script doesn't have these traditional plot points that you’ve seen before again and again and again. Visually, it's going to create this world and this feel.

So how did you convey this? 

Actually, in the screenplay process, I wrote both a traditional screenplay and I also did a visual lookbook. I did a lot of photographs [to illustrate] what the feel of the film is going to be. It's going to be very visceral, and very subjective, and in this girl's head. By doing that, I was able to shut down some of those people who said, "Oh, you need to have a gun be introduced there. It’s a lovers-on-the-run story.” Those sorts of things. 

Which is not to put down, say, Badlands or anything like that. But this isn't that kind of movie. 

Yeah. It's a different film. 

Of course, I would imagine that, right after you finished the script and you’re feeling very proud of yourself, it hits you: “OK, now I have to find someone who’s actually capable of playing Davina.” How did you find Natalia Dyer? 

She’s really fantastic, isn’t she? And she’s actually from here, from Nashville. It took me a long time to find her. Our casting process was really extensive. I knew that I wanted to cast a teenager to play a teenager. Traditionally -- or often, in Hollywood -- you see a 25-year-old playing 16, that sort of thing. We did as much of a nationwide search as we could. I went to high school plays, I watched short films. I called up every casting director I knew and said, "Who are the best teenagers out there?" The casting directors from True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ film, actually recommended Natalia. They said, "There's a girl in Nashville that you should be aware of." 

We met via Skype originally. We Skyped together, and then she ended up flying out to LA. We had an audition. And I just fell in love with her. She just brings so much of herself to the character and to the performance, and was so brave, and so vulnerable. She’s so intelligent as an actress that it made my job easy while working on the set with her. The male actor, Peter Vack, who plays Sterling -- I found him more traditionally. My agent connected me to his agent. He came in for an audition. And I knew that he would play well with her. They just had this fantastic chemistry. 

What led you to cast your own mother as Davina’s mom? 

That's kind of an autobiographical thread in the film. While I was writing the script, I just kind of naturally drew upon memories from my own childhood. I had an unusual childhood in that my mom has MS. And she has been in a wheelchair since I was born. I grew up taking care of her, was the caretaker in the family -- and never really had a childhood of my own, so to speak. 

In collaboration with Natalia, we kind of fleshed out what happens when you have a girl, a teenager, who has grown up quickly and never really had a childhood. She's kind of clinging to this lost childhood and these unicorns. These kinds of very girly, young childhood objects. Yet, at the same time, she’s wanting to escape from that and wanting to become an adult. She’s often very selfish and really very much in her own world -- as sometimes happens when you're a teenager.

Just how autobiographical is I Believe in Unicorns? 

I would say maybe 50 percent autobiographical. I think it comes from a personal place. Not just making the film, but wanting to be a filmmaker in the first place. When I was growing up, there weren't that many films that spoke to me, that I related to. That had a female as a lead character. That’s what drove me to be a filmmaker. I think we need more films that have alternative portrayals of young women. I brought as much of my own experiences as I could to this film. [Laughs] And then a bunch of fictional as well. Like, obviously, the dragon and the unicorn. 

How difficult was it to do the stop-motion animation in the fantasy sequences? 

We did it the hard way -- we did it on film. We literally built a miniature forest in my living room. Then, built puppets. The dragon puppet is made out of the jacket that the Sterling character wears. The unicorn is made out of ribbons that Davina's character has in her outfit. We would take these puppets and shoot one frame of film. Then move them. An hour would go by in the real world. Then another frame of film. Ad nauseam. Eventually, we would have enough to put on screen. 

There are some very affecting – well, I guess I would call them privileged moments throughout the film. Like, the day after Davina loses her virginity to Sterling, we see her reaction when he's more or less brushing her off. I've got to tell you, that hurt. I'm a guy in my early 60s, so I have no idea how a 16-year-old girl would feel in that situation. But you made me feel her pain while watching this movie. How do you direct an actress to give us that privileged moment? 

Natalia and me, we just bonded. Physically, she looks quite young. But emotionally and intellectually, she’s very intelligent and mature. We communicated so clearly ahead of time about, "How are we going to navigate some of these delicate scenes?" We created a really safe space. We had a lot of closed sets. We talked through it all of the time. In terms of our working method, both actors, Natalia and Peter, came out to California in advance. We just hung out and got to know each other. We kind of blocked everything out and figured out, "How can we get through the technical aspects of filmmaking?" So that while we're actually rolling film, we can allow there to be these moments that feel really fresh and vulnerable. 

I think it helps that I’m a female director. Honestly, I think this is a female-driven film. That goes all the way to a lot of our crew as well. A lot of the people really connected to the film through their own coming-of-age experiences. So it was a really safe environment for the actors. 

Finally, I’d like to ask about the look of the film. In addition to animated sequences, you experiment with varying film stocks. Did you indicate this in your shooting script, or…?

 Like I mentioned, I had a traditionally formatted script. But I also had this visual lookbook. I have a visual art background as well. I'm a photographer. What ended up on the screen – I would say it was maybe 80 percent scripted. But by doing the film in stages, we were able to have what we called this “fantasy shoot,” where we did allow ourselves to do some visual experimentation. 

When I worked with a couple of cinematographers, we bought expired film on eBay. We're like, "We don't know what this will turn out like." We did some time-lapse photography, where we weren't sure what it was going to look like. Even the animation, like I said, we did it on film. Which no one does anymore. We wouldn't know until we got it back from the lab how it was actually going to look. A lot of it was from the gut. Like, "I know this will work." Luckily, some of those experiments were some of my favorite moments. Maybe that 20 percent of the film was just left to magic.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Omar Sharif before he is a memory

The Associated Press confirmed the bad news late Monday afternoon: Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor who shot to superstardom in the 1960s after scoring back-to-back-to-back hits with Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl, is battling Alzheimer's disease.

And here's a bittersweet irony: In what likely will be his last feature film, Laila Marrakchi's amusing dramedy Rock the Casbah, Sharif gives one of his finest performances of recent years -- as a ghost who invites us to join him at his own funeral.

As I wrote in my Variety review from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival:

Omar Sharif — who’s appropriately acknowledged in the credits for his “exceptional participation” — suggests a tone of magical realism during the pic’s opening minutes, as he playfully introduces himself to the audience as Moulay Hassan, a recently deceased industrialist who’s eagerly awaiting the gathering of his clan for three days of mourning at his palatial villa in Tangiers. With a beaming smile and a courtly stride, Hassan offers to serve as a combination narrator and master of ceremonies, in the manner of those who hosted public movie screenings — and repeatedly warned audiences not to take anything they see too seriously — ages ago in Morocco.

Sharif makes such a winning impression as Hassan during this prologue, it’s actually disappointing that the role turns out to be little more than a sporadic cameo. Even so, Marrakchi makes clever use of the iconic actor as comic relief whenever the plot threatens to turn too soap-operatic...

Sharif leaves the audience wanting more. But, then again, perhaps Marrakchi figured that if she gave him more screen time, he might fold the pic into his pocket and jauntily stroll away with it.

As fate would have it, I've had only one opportunity to speak with Sharif, during a 2003 interview graciously arranged by the folks at Sony Pictures Classics to promote Monsieur Ibrahim (for which Sharif would win a 2004 Cesar award as Best Actor). The conversation would also serve well as background material for a profile of Viggo Mortensen I later wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. Sharif and Mortensen had co-starred in Hidalgo, the 2004 adventure drama about an American cowboy who competes in a long-distance horse race across the Arabian Desert. During the on-location filming in Morocco, the two men developed a mutual admiration society that greatly enhanced their on-screen interplay.

“Not only was I working with this wonderful actor I knew best from Lawrence of Arabia," Mortensen told me. "We were working in some of the (Moroccan locations) where they shot some of that movie 40 years ago. That was an amazing experience for me. I mean, to be working there with the man himself, Omar Sharif, was great just in terms of being a witness to film history.

“But it was even better to get to know that man as a human being. He’s a very generous, extremely professional actor. But it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to tell that he’s also a genuinely intelligent, well-read person. And he’s got this aura about him that’s beyond anything a lighting designer or a cameraman can do. He just has a certain gleam in his eye, and that smile of his. He’s so in the moment, and so alive. He just radiates a love of life.”

I dearly hope I captured some of that spirit in a 2004 piece I wrote about Sharif. Here it is, in a slightly expanded version.

Omar Sharif is on the phone, calling from his home in Paris -- specifically, a suite in the luxurious Hotel Royal Monceau, near the Champs-Elys̩es Рand cheerfully confiding that, all things considered, life is good.

At 72, the Egyptian-born actor and perennial bon vivant devotes most of his days to leisurely meals and animated conversations with close friends, and spends most evenings at favorite restaurants, or attending the theater or the opera. “I still gamble,” he admits with a chuckle, “but only very, very lightly, on the horses. Because I love horses, I love going to the races, and being with racing people. I love the company of jockeys and trainers.”

Despite his international reputation as a bridge player, he rarely touches cards anymore. “But I still play sometimes for charity,” he admits. “I put myself up for auction, and people bid for the right to play with me.”

Occasionally, filmmakers still bid for his services as well. He bluntly disparages most of the movies he has made during the past three decades as insubstantial, disappointing or, in more than a few instances, just plain godawful. During recent months, however, he has appeared in two much worthier features: Hidalgo, Joe Johnston’s period drama about an American cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) in an Arabian horse race, and Monsieur Ibrahim, in which Sharif plays the title role. Both films are worth a visit to your friendly neighborhood video store. And while you’re there, you also can check out Omar Sharif in such career highlights as David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), James Clavell’s The Last Valley (1971), Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974), Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974) – and, of course, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1965).

Has anyone in movie history ever had a better entrance scene than you did in Lawrence of Arabia? When you appear from out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, and ride that camel right toward the camera? 

It’s not only a great entrance for the character, but also for a new actor. That was my first American movie. And after that, I couldn’t put a foot wrong. I always say that any actor who would have played that part with that entrance would have succeeded.

And now you’re back in the desert in Hidalgo. The big difference is, this movie looks like a Western.

Actually, it’s more of an adventure film, set in the late 19th century. And it’s a true story. Viggo Mortensen plays a [former U.S. Cavalry scout] who comes to Arabia to compete in the “Ocean of Fire,” a long-distance race in the desert. I play a sheik who bets on the race.

Did director Joe Johnston ever mention why he wanted you for the role?

[Laughs] Well, really, if I don’t get the part of an old Arab, what am I going to get? I might as well throw myself out the window. I mean, if they don’t cast me, who are the going to cast? After all, Anthony Quinn is dead. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination for them to choose me.

You actually did appear in a Western called Mackenna’s Gold back in 1969. How did that come about? 

I had a son who at that time was 8 or 9, and he hated all my films because he hated love stories. He wanted me to be in a Western, so that he would enjoy it. So I put the word out in Hollywood that I wanted to do a Western. That’s why I did that picture. I played a bandit named Colorado. The movie wasn’t very good, I’m afraid. But can you imagine the cast that was in that film? I remember I had a scene by a sort of campfire or something. And there was Gregory Peck, there was Lee J. Cobb, there was Edward G. Robinson, there was Eli Wallach and Telly Savalas and Raymond Massey. All these great actors were sitting around the campfire, and I was making a speech to them. The thrill of just meeting these people – that’s a thrill that can’t be duplicated.

Speaking of stars: How did you get along with Viggo Mortensen during the making of Hidalgo?

It’s so important when you’re making a film to get along with your partner. And I must say, I found Viggo Mortensen to be a very quiet, very gentle person. I know he’s becoming a very big star, but he is not at all big-headed or somebody who thinks he’s everything in the world. He even gave me copies of books he’s written, with his poetry and photographs, and signed them for me. We got along so well because he was so charming and nice.

He appears to be very serious about his work. Do you think actors of his generation might be a tad too serious? 

I think young actors today are really terrific. They’re much better than young actors were in my day. But, yes, they do take their work much too seriously. They get into trances almost. For actors of my generation, when we used to play scenes and work at films, we used to have a laugh before the shot and be relaxed about it. And when the time came to shoot, we concentrated and did the job. We didn’t have to go into a trance and sit in a corner and go into a whole mood-altering thing to do a scene.

So you’re saying that, as an actor, you can be a professional while still enjoying yourself?

Look, for me, acting is a vocation. From when I was 13, that’s all I’ve wanted to do, I didn’t consider anything else. I feel like the only way you can get away from it is when you don’t get any opportunities at all. I think there are people who are born and die and who are great actors, but who never get an opportunity to act. If you’re fortunate enough to have people to hire you and give you parts, you’re very lucky. And you shouldn’t throw it away. You should take advantage of that luck that you have. So it’s not like actors of my generation don’t take it seriously. It’s just that we had fun doing it.

Were you always so happy with your co-workers when you started making Hollywood movies in the ’60s?

My thought was that I wanted always to work with good directors. That was my ambition. Whatever genre it was, all I wanted to do was work with a good director. And I started off my American career by working with the greatest directors in the world. After Lawrence of Arabia, I worked with Fred Zinnemann on Behold a Pale Horse. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t successful. I later worked with Anthony Asquith [on The Yellow Rolls Royce] and Anatole Litvak [The Night of the Generals] Maybe they weren’t successful films, either, but these are things that you don’t turn down. I mean, you can’t turn down co-starring with Ingrid Bergman, can you? Unfortunately, too many of these movies flopped, and that’s what killed my career at that point.

Still, you continued to make movies for decades afterward. But didn’t you announce you were retiring a few years ago?

I never said I wasn’t interested in making movies anymore. I said I wasn’t interested in making bad movies. That’s something completely different.

You’ve been known to be quite critical of most films you’ve made.

That’s true, I have a very low regard for a lot of them. When you’re a box-office draw, they can change things around, and cast you in any sort of thing. But when you’re not a draw anymore, and you’re an old guy, it’s difficult to find parts. So I decided not to do any rubbish anymore, just to keep some self-respect. It got to the point where my grandchildren were making fun of me. I only continued to get good work as long as I did because I made three consecutive films – Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl – that were big box-office hits. It took a long time for me to get knocked down from there. Because I went up so many stairs, there were a lot of stairs to come down.

I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that, back when my wife and I were dating, one of our favorite movies -- one we saw time and again -- was The Tamarind Seed, the 1974 romantic thriller you made with Julie Andrews and her husband, director Blake Edwards.

[Laughs] That was the last thing anywhere near-decent that I did.

Still, you seem very pleased with Hidalgo. And you’ve gotten some of the best reviews of your career for Monsieur Ibrahim. You play an elderly Arab shopkeeper who becomes a surrogate father for a neglected Jewish youngster in ’60s Paris. It is a politically charged drama?

It’s political only because of the actual situation. In other words, if the Arabs and the Jews were at peace now, it would be irrelevant that boy is Jewish and the old man is an Arab, a Muslim. It’s just the story of two lonely people, really. One lonely old man, and one lonely little boy. But it’s relevant because all the problems we have now between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I wanted to make the statement that it is possible to live together and to love each other. That religion or race has nothing to do with love or friendship. But, really, I never have profound reasons for doing something. If I read something and if strikes me as something I’d like to do, I just do it. This was something beautifully written, I think. And I’m very suited for it. The character that I play has the same opinions that I have. And I thought it would be a nice little film. I thought it would be a labor of love.

Does “labor of love” mean you were working on a limited budget? 

We did have a very small crew – maybe 10 people – and a hand-held camera. We were very intimate the whole time while we just went around shooting scenes. But it was a great experience for me, because I’d never done this sort of thing before. You had to always be in character, because you never knew when they were going to turn the camera on you. The director held the camera, and he could decide to look at you, or look at the boy, or he could pan from one to the other. You don’t know when he’s going to focus on you, so you have to be always in character, always concentrated. Which is a very good thing. It helps you in playing your role.

 You and your young co-star, Pierre Boulanger, develop a very affecting chemistry together. But don’t you remember what W.C. Fields warned about acting opposite children? Weren’t you worried about being upstaged?

Well, this boy is very good, and he does steal all the scenes. But that’s OK, because the film’s really about the boy, it isn’t really about me.

At this point in your career, what does it take to get you interested in signing on for a film?

A good part. A good scene. One good scene. When they send me a script, I need to have one good scene. I don’t want to appear all during the film and have nothing to do, or saying nothing interesting. I want to have something to do that excites me, that makes me work hard. That makes me dig into myself, and get something out of myself.

You seem to be enjoying life a great deal these days.

Listen, I’m at an age now where if I don’t make myself happy all the time, I’d be an idiot. You have to live for the moment and be happy. And love people – I love people all the time. That’s why I want people to see Monsieur Ibrahim. I hope that people will see it and learn how to love each other just a little bit. Even if just one person learns how to love – if one Arab learns to love a Jew, if one Jew learns to love an Arab – it will be OK for me.

It's sad to think that the time will come -- hopefully not for a while, but it will come, just as sure as the turning of the earth -- when Omar Sharif remembers none of these things. That's not only tragic, it's more than a little unfair -- because many of us will continue to have so many fond memories of him. Strangely, yet perhaps appropriately, I am reminded of the orginal advertising slogan for, of all things, Heaven's Gate: "What one loves in life are the things that fade."