Friday, March 13, 2015

Back in the saddle at SXSW


So many movies... so little time... Fortunately, my Variety colleagues, as always, know where the buzz is

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Michele Bachmann stars in Sharknado 3. No, really. Seriously.


Yes, it's true: Water really does seek its own level. After demonstrating her entertainment value as a Presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann gets her big shot at stardom. Or something like it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

But seriously, folks: My last-minute, what-the-hell Oscar predictions

And remember: These are predictions, not preferences.

PICTURE: American Sniper

DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

ACTOR: Michael Keaton, Birdman

ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: The Grand Budapest Hotel

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: The Imitation Game

EDITING: American Sniper

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Grand Budapest Hotel

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

SONG: "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

ORIGINAL SCORE: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar nominee Robert Duvall: On losing control in The Judge, taking charge in Wild Horses


In the unlikely event you’ve ever doubted Robert Duvall’s fearlessness as an actor, take another look at that scene in The Judge where his character – Joseph Palmer, an aging magistrate who’s suffering through the side effects of chemotherapy -- is embarrassingly incontinent.

Clad only in his undershorts, Duvall looks every minute of his 80-plus years as Joseph struggles, and fails, to regain his footing after collapsing while upchucking into the toilet of his upstairs bathroom. At first, he pridefully pushes aside an offer of assistance from Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), his hot-shot lawyer son. But he relents – reluctantly – and manages to get to his feet, just as he starts to soil himself. Awkwardly, Hank and his father gravitate toward the shower, where Joseph – alarmingly pale and frail, sadly resigned to his humiliation – must rely on his son’s help to wash away the mess.

It’s an impressively powerful scene in a criminally under-rated film, one that reveals both the weakness and resilience of Duvall’s character – who, not incidentally, can’t remember whether he’s actually guilty of a murder he stands accused of committing – and the forging of something like a nonaggression pact between Hank, who’s serving as Joseph’s defense attorney, and his long-estranged father.

And it’s the scene that caused Duvall to very nearly pass on The Judge.

“Yeah,” Duvall told me over lunch last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, “I turned it down. “I said, ’A guy who shits himself? I don’t want to do that.’ But my agent, Nigel Meiojas -- he talked me into doing it, Nigel did. If it weren’t for him, I probably would be saying, ‘I don’t want to do it’ to this day. “But once I decided to do it, I had to really jump in and just do it.”

Indeed, Duvall did it so well that he earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor – and could score an upset Sunday evening during the Academy Awards presentation. (That would make Duvall a two-time Oscar winner, after his Best Actor prize for Tender Mercies.)

But was there another reason for his initial reluctance to play the title role in The Judge? Specifically: Did he view the ailing and incontinent Joseph Palmer as a worst-case-scenario future version of Robert Duvall?

“I gave that a fleeting thought, maybe,” Duvall conceded. “But, look: My wife looks after me, and I try to keep in shape. My younger brother died of cancer, got a disease, and I know that’s a pretty terrible thing. But I try to, each day, face the day in a positive way, hopefully.”

During our long lunch break, Duvall repeatedly praised co-star Robert Downey Jr. – “I really like him. A good man, a good man.” – and expressed gratitude for the rehearsal time the cast was granted by director David Dobkin.

“Actually,” he recalled, “we sat down one afternoon at a hotel, and we started an improvisation. And we did it for an hour and fifteen minutes, all of us -- Downey, too -- talking about different subjects as the characters. It really worked out, helping us unify ourselves, and meld, you know? Dobkin was willing to sit back and watch that, to see how that formed. It was nice, to form friendships as actors and as the characters, too, so that really helped.

“Sometimes, during rehearsal period, you just keep going over the lines. ‘What does that mean? What does this mean?’ You try different things. But that one improvisation was a great, great thing to do.

“I think that some of the modern-day directors are a little more appreciative of the actor, rather than trying to control them. Some of the old guys – well, I still tell the story about Henry Hathaway, I worked with him on True Grit, and he said to [Glen Campbell], ‘When I say action, tense up, goddamnit!’ It’s not a good thing to do.

“But you know,” Duvall added with a soft bark of a laugh, “even now, it’s still the same: They say action, and they say cut – and you’ve got to come up with something in between, right? It’s kind of like playing house. Kids play house. We play house as adults for money. It’s the same thing: make-believe. You play the father, I play the son – you know? And now I’m the judge, you’re my son. But it’s the same as when you were a kid.”

Now 84, Duvall maintains his youthful enthusiasm for acting – and continues to extend his resume with credits on both sides of the cameras. In fact, he almost didn’t make it Toronto to publicize The Judge because, at the time, he was working as director on another project: Wild Horses, a small-budget drama in which he appears alongside his wife, Luciana Duvall, and co-stars James Franco and Josh Hartnett.

“Warner Bros. wound up paying for an extra day of shooting [on Wild Horses],” Duvall said, “and they offered to fly me up here on their private jet. I figured that would be as close as I’d ever come to their private jet, so I said OK.”

For all his complimentary words about The Judge in general, and Downey and Dobkin in particular, it’s obvious that Wild Horses – which is slated to have its world premiere next month at the SXSW Film Festival – is a film much closer to Duvall’s heart.

“We had a wonderful cast, but we only had $2 million to do it, and 23 days. But we did it, and I think it worked. It is kind of a complex story about a guy who has a ranch, and he runs his son off the ranch, at gunpoint, 15 years ago, because his son is gay. The son comes back, 15 years later, for the reading of the will. We got Franco to play that part. That was a quirky part.”

So what is James Franco really like?

“A bit of a whacko,” Duvall replied without hesitation – and with, it should be noted, a wide grin. “But you ought to see him ride a horse. Terrific. And he can do many things, like take a page of dialogue and know it in six minutes. He is very, very, very, very quick. We only had him for five days. We couldn’t get him for six or seven. So we really had to hustle.”

Duvall reportedly is set to reunite with Franco and Judge co-star Vincent D’Onofrio for In Dubious Battle, a drama (directed by Franco) based on the John Steinbeck novel of the same title. After that? There had been talk – lots of talk, actually – that he would star in Terry Gilliam’s long-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Now, however, it appears that project is going in a different direction, with a different actor. But never mind: Duvall doesn’t seem to be a man who spends many sleepless nights in dread of long-term unemployment.

“Sometimes things are planned,” he said, “and then something will come around the corner and be better than what you’re planning. Like a surprise, you know?”

Monday, February 16, 2015

I want to hear the lamentations of the Oscar bloggers!


What do I want to happen Sunday night during the Oscarcast? Total chaos. Astounding upsets. Epochal disruptions of the space-time continuum. Weeping and wailing, heads exploding, dogs and cats living together...

In short: I want the bloviating Oscar bloggers to be battered and flabbergasted. After lo these many months of endless handicapping, it's no longer a question of who I think will or should win. No: At this point, to paraphrase Michael Caine in The Dark Knight, I want to see the world of the Oscar bloggers burn.

Yes, that's right: I want American Sniper -- or, better still, Selma -- to claim Best Picture. I want Benedict Cumberbatch to snatch the Best Actor prize, and Rosalind Pike to strike Oscar gold as Best Actress. I want to see Wes Anderson tell his fellow Best Director nominees: "Back off, bitches! This motherfucker is mine!" I want Meryl Streep to go for the gusto and grab the Supporting Actress award.  And I really, really want Robert Duvall to wrap his fingers around the Supporting Actor statuette, and tell anyone who doesn't like it to kiss his 84-year-old ass. 

So there.

Think I'll go lie down now.


The classic Saturday Night Live sketch I really wanted to see during the 40th anniversary show


"I'm Norman Bates from The Norman Bates School of Motel Management..." Anthony Perkins once told me how much he loved doing this sketch. And his delight is obvious, even as he plays it perfectly straight. Well, perhaps "straight" isn't precisely the correct term to use in this context, but you get the idea.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Why I am always willing to cut Kanye West an inordinate amount of slack


Being a proud New Orleans native, I felt compelled to watch NBC's A Concert for Hurricane Relief when it aired in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nearly a decade ago. And I must admit, I was absolutely gobsmacked when, without warning, Kanye West dropped his infamous 20-megaton dis on George W. Bush. Don't misunderstand: I didn't really question West's claim that Dubya "doesn't care about black people." But I was shocked by the angry intensity-- and, yes, the utter fearlessness -- of his off-the-cuff comment. 

And I was convinced -- absolutely convinced -- that West would immediately be targeted for a boycott by outraged right-wingers. There would be pressure brought to bear on advertisers, who would in turn pressure radio and TV outlets to ban West's music and music videos. And, of course, major retail chains would be pressured to stop selling West's CDs.

So even before the TV special ended, I got up from my couch, ran out to my car, drove over to the nearest Best Buy store -- and bought a copy of every Kanye West CD I could find. In the interest of full disclosure: I think, at that point in his career, West had only released two studio albums, so we're not talking about a huge cash outlay on my part. But, hey -- it was the principle of the thing.

At the checkout counter, the polite young African-American cashier had a hard time hiding his amusement as this gray-haired white dude placed the CDs onto the counter. But his smile faded when I told him what I had just witnessed on NBC. He, too, thought Kanye West was going to suffer mightily -- professionally, and maybe even personally -- for his outburst.

Of course, when I got home, I started playing the CDs in my office. And right around the time I had "Gold Digger" (West's bodacious duet with Jamie Foxx) blaring from my speakers, my son George walked through the front door with a few of his college buddies. They had to file past my office door to get back to George's room, for a long evening of video-gamesmanship. And it was my turn to be amused as I noted the amazed looks on their faces. Fortuitously, I turned down the sound just in time to hear one of my son's friends tell him: "Damn, George! Your dad is fuckin' cool!" George, it should be noted, didn't indicate disagreement with that appraisal.

And that's why, even when Kanye West misbehaves at The Grammys, I can't get too upset at him.   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Now that the nominations are in, here are the Oscar odds


Courtesy of Bovada, here are the Oscar odds laid down by sports publicist Jimmy Shaprio.

Best Picture

Boyhood 1/14
The Grand Budapest Hotel 12/1
Birdman 14/1
Selma 18/1
The Imitation Game 20/1
Theory of Everything 25/1
Whiplash 50/1
American Sniper 50/1

Best Director 

Richard Linklater - Boyhood 1/14
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu - Birdman 13/2
Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher 25/1
Morten Tyldum - The Imitation Game 25/1
Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel 25/1

Best Actor 

Michael Keaton - Birdman 4/5
Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything 1/1
Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game 12/1
Steve Carrell - Foxcatcher 25/1
Bradley Cooper - American Sniper 33/1

Best Actress 

Julianne Moore - Still Alice 1/20
Reese Witherspoon - Wild 10/1
Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl 20/1
Felicity Jones - The Theory of Everything 20/1
Marion Cotillard - Two Days One Night 33/1

Best Supporting Actor

JK Simmons - Whiplash 1/18
Edward Norton - Birdman 9/1
Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher 12/1
Ethan Hawke - Boyhood 20/1
Robert Duvall - The Judge 33/1

Best Supporting Actress 

Patricia Arquette - Boyhood 1/25
Emma Stone - Birdman 12/1
Keira Knightley - The Imitation Game 20/1
Laura Dern - Wild 20/1
Meryl Streep - Into the Woods 25/1

Call me a sentimentalist, but I'm putting my money down on Robert Duvall (pictured above) for an upset. Of course, when I was in Las Vegas last August, I wagered $100 for my beloved New Orleans Saints to win the Super Bowl this year, so you might want to think twice before heeding my handicapping.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Boyhood sweeps Houston Film Critics Society Awards


The Houston Film Critics Society (of which I am a member) announced its annual awards for cinematic achievement Saturday at H-Town's Sundance Cinemas. And, not entirely unexpectedly, home-town boy Richard Linklater's Boyhood picked up a passel of prizes -- including the Texas Independent Film Award for outstanding indie shot in the Lone Star State. (Other nominees in that category: Above All Else, Hellion, Joe, No No: A Dockumentary and Stop the Pounding Heart.)

Other winners:

PICTURE - Boyhood

DIRECTOR - Richard Linklater, Boyhood
ACTOR - Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
ACTRESS - Julianne Moore, Still Alive
SUPPORTING ACTOR - JK Simmons, Whiplash
SUPPORTING ACTRESS - Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
SCREENPLAY - Richard Linklater, Boyhood
ANIMATED FILM - The Lego Movie
DOCUMENTARY - Citizenfour
FOREIGN FILM - Force Majeure
SONG - "Everything is Awesome," The Lego Movie
SCORE - Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel
POSTER - Annie Atkins, The Grand Budapest Hotel
TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT - Boyhood 
WORST FILM - The Identical

(I know HFCS president Joshua Starnes has kittens whenever a member publicly questions any of our awards -- but, really, I saw The Identical, and it wasn't that bad. Trouble is, I don't think many of my fellow HFCSers saw Premature, Best Night Ever or Jinn.)

The Houston Film Commission was given a special award for Outstanding Contribution to Cinema. And it was my pleasure and privilege to introduce a Lifetime Achievement award for Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter Larry McMurtry.


Unfortunately, due to technical problems, the exceptionally inventive montage of 2014 movies prepared for the event by HFCS member Travis Leamons... well, couldn't actually be played at the event. But you, dear reader, can feast your eyes upon it here.






Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Back when Columbia wasn't afraid to offend foreign dictators: You Nazty Spy!


Months before Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator reached theaters, The Three Stooges took their own potshots at the posturings of Adolf Hitler in their 1940 short You Nazty Spy! Just how ballsy was this movie in its time? To quote Wikipedia:

The film satirized the Nazis and the Third Reich and helped publicize the Nazi threat in a period when the United States was still neutral about World War II, and isolationist sentiment was prevalent among the public. During this period, isolationist senators such as Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye objected to Hollywood films on grounds that they were anti-Nazi propaganda vehicles designed to mobilize the American public for war. According to the Internet Movie Database, You Nazty Spy! was the first Hollywood film to spoof Hitler...

The Hays Code discouraged or prohibited many types of political and satirical messages in films, requiring that the history and prominent people of other countries must be portrayed "fairly" [but] short subjects may have been subject to less attention than feature films.

BTW: Both Moe Howard and Larry Fine reportedly cited You Nazty Spy! as their favorite Three Stooges short. No kidding.


Mitt Romney stands up for The Interview. No, really.

Before there was The Interview, there was... Hitler -- Dead or Alive


With all the current hue and cry over The Interview -- the comedy that Sony won't be releasing on Christmas Day -- I am once again reminded of Hitler -- Dead or Alive, an ultra-low-budget 1942 B-movie starring Ward Bond as an ex-con who tries to collect a bounty on Adolf Hitler. No, I'm not making that up.

Back when I taught a college course focused on war movies, I often screened the final minutes of this obscure oddity, to give students an inkling of American attitudes during the early days of US involvement in World War II. Because even though the movie was an unabashedly cheesy Poverty Row production --  it dared to be a fantasy-fulfilling slice of cheese: At the end of the flick, Hitler is shot by Nazis who don't recognize him after Bond and his buddies shave off Der Führer's  mustache. Again: I'm not making that up. Start looking around the 1:04 point in this video, and you'll see what I mean.

When I saw Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and marveled at the movie's climactic killing of  Der Führer, I couldn't help thinking of Hitler -- Dead or Alive. But I swear: I didn't know Tarantino actually was a fan the '42 film until he spilled the beans to Playboy in a November 2012 interview:

When it came to Inglourious Basterds, there was a movie done in 1942, Hitler —Dead or Alive. It was just as America had entered the war. A rich guy offers a million-dollar bounty on Hitler’s life. Three gangsters come up with a plan to kill Hitler. They parachute into Berlin and work their way to where Hitler is. It’s a wacky movie that goes from being serious to very funny. The gangsters get Hitler, and when they start beating the fuck out of him, it is just so enjoyable. They shave his mustache off, cut off that lock of hair and take his shit off so he looks like a regular guy. The Nazis show up, and Hitler, who doesn’t look like Hitler anymore, is like, “Hey, it’s me!” And they beat the shit out of him. I thought, Wow, this is fucking hysterical.

Yes, it is. Unfortunately, it looks like we'll have to wait a while before we see whether Seth Rogen or James Franco do anything comparably comical in The Interview.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guess the North Koreans didn't see the Red Dawn remake


In the wake of the (alleged) North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures -- a crime (allegedly) triggered by a fictional assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Sony's upcoming The Interview -- one thing seems certain: The folks who made and released the Red Dawn remake must be very, very happy right now that their film flew so low under the radar.

As I noted in Variety when reviewing the remake at Fantastic Fest in 2012:

China was depicted as the aggressor when this Red Dawn was shot in 2009. But after MGM, its original distributor, declared bankruptcy, the producers opted to make the pic more appealing to other distribs (particularly those wary of offending Chinese government officials) by re-filming scenes, relooping dialogue and digitally altering flags and military insignia to transform the bad guys into war-mongering North Koreans.

Thank goodness the North Koreans didn't know about that. At least, I think they didn't know about it. I mean, the fact that the remake premiered in Austin... that wouldn't have anything to do with Austin being on North Korea's must-nuke list, would it?

BTW: I guess the North Koreans didn't see Olympus Has Fallen, either.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My dream comes true in the Kingsman trailer



For years -- decades, really -- I've thought one of the extended "nah-nah-nah-nah" riffs in Deep Purple's cover of "Hush" (a '60s hit originally recorded by Billy Joe Royal) would work terrifically well on the soundtrack of some kick-ass action flick. Particularly in a scene where there's a great deal of, well, ass-kicking.

Lo and behold, my wish finally has been fulfilled -- sort of -- in the new trailer for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Mind you, they didn't use the Deep Purple version of "Hush" -- instead, they chose Kula Shaker's take, which ain't chopped liver -- but the "nah-nah-nah-nah" stuff works just as well as I've always thought it would. I don't know if this musical selection was approved by the film's director, Matthew Vaughn. But it should be noted that one of the guy's previous credits is.... wait for it... Kick-Ass.

By the way, when I went looking for a video clip of Deep Purple performing "Hush," I found this 24-karat oddity, shot on location at the Playboy Mansion.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe and the real-life drama of his Evolution of a Criminal


This weekend, award-winning filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe returns to the scene of his crime.
The Houston native will be back in H-Town for screenings of Evolution of a Criminal, his extraordinary autobiographical documentary, at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park. But wait, there’s more: His attendance at post-screening Q&A sessions Friday and Sunday will cap off what has turned out to be a week of singular achievements for the University of Houston graduate. Just two days ago, Monroe successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a wider release for his film. A few hours later, the International Documentary Association announced his selection as winner of the IDA Emerging Filmmaker Award, a prestigious honor that provides $5,000 in cash and a donation of post-production services valued at $50,000.
As one of Monroe’s former teachers – he was in my Broadcast and Film Writing Class at UH a decade ago – I am unabashedly proud of what has he has done. And, yes, frankly astonished by how far he has gone.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Darius Clark Monroe was a straight-A honors student at a Houston high school until the morning in 1997 when, along with two companions, Pierre Murphy and Leroy “Trei” Callier III, he held up a Bank of America in nearby Stafford, Texas. Brandishing an unloaded shotgun, and disguised with Halloween masks, the neophyte bandits made off with $140,000 in cash. But Monroe didn’t get to enjoy his ill-gotten gain for every long. Four weeks after the crime, he was arrested.
He was 16 years old at the time.
Artfully entwining dramatic re-creations, archival photos and footage, blunt-spoken narration, and interviews with many participants (ranging from Monroe’s mother and stepfather to the  assistant D.A. who prosecuted his case) in this real-life tale of crime and punishment, Monroe has fashioned a uniquely fascinating and pitilessly self-critical film that serves as both a cautionary object lesson and a heartfelt plea for forgiveness. (We actually see Monroe tracking down people who were in the bank that day, and attempting to apologize for the terror he caused them.) But, hey, don’t take my word for it: Writing in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody hailed Evolution of a Criminal as “a great film” that signals “the birth of an artist.” Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice agreed: “Vital, thoughtful, and deeply personal, first-timer Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical doc stands as a testament to the power of movies to stir empathy.” 
Monroe was tried as an adult, and served three years of a five-year sentence. After that? Well, to paraphrase one of Strother Martin’s more colorful lines from Cool Hand Luke, he got his mind right. He graduated with honors from University of Houston, then went on to attend film school at New York University – where he studied under Spike Lee, who served as an executive producer for Evolution of a Criminal.
Spike and I were on hand to cheer our former student when the documentary had its world premiere last spring at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Three days after the screening,  I sat down with Monroe to talk about what he did, what he’s doing – and what he hopes to do next.
OK, as bad as the bank robbery turned out for you – and I would say having to serve three years in prison, and picking cotton out in the hot Texas sun, is pretty damn bad -- there are two ways this could have turned out much worse for you. One, somebody in the bank could have been packing heat, and shot you very dead. In Texas, let's face it, that's a very real possibility.
Darius Clark Monroe:  Absolutely.
The other way it could have been a lot worse is -- you could have gotten away with it. You ever spend a lot of time thinking about those two possibilities?
Monroe:  The third possibility is someone else -- Pierre or someone -- could have got shot as well. I have thought about all three, especially the first one you just mentioned. When I think back about the fact that we walked in there -- it's almost frightening. Because I could never do it now, at 33. We were sitting ducks. The fact that somebody was not shot and killed... wow. Had a customer or had an undercover cop been inside the bank and shot and killed myself or Pierre, they would have had the right to. They would have had the absolute right to.
They wouldn't have known the shotgun wasn't loaded.
Monroe:  They would not have known it. They would not have known it. That response would have been warranted. That sits with me the most because it's not uncommon for that to happen, for somebody who's already in there having a concealed weapon ‑‑ especially in the state of Texas. There's something about youth and being reckless, I guess. Reckless abandonment. Because I have no idea how we thought it would be safe to just walk in, run in. We tried to rationalize it, but it haunts me to this day. I feel very fortunate that I am alive, and that everyone inside the bank is alive, that no one was physically harmed. Because the odds of that happening were astronomical.
I believe that something in the universe, something much greater than me, was in charge that day for whatever reason. [Laughs] I think about that all the time. All of the time.
Not getting caught is also something that fascinates me. I always wonder, what does that mean? [Pause] You know what, Joe? The thing is, I just know my personality. I'm one of those people who need to... Well, when I was 16, at the time, when I made a mistake, I needed to see a harsh punishment before I learned my lesson sometimes. I'm not saying [a punishment] as harsh as picking cotton in the prison. But a slap on the hand? I would not have learned my lesson. You see what I'm saying? Had I just walked into that bank and we robbed it, and I would have never been charged and nothing ever happened -- I probably would have stumbled into crime again. It would have felt too easy. It would felt like, "This is something we could get away with." I can see how that would have just opened up this monstrous side of me that I wasn’t aware of. I could just see how that would not have been a good thing. [Laughs] I tell people, "As much as I hated to go to prison, that experience really did reorder and realign my life in the right direction." Because otherwise, I probably would have gone down a path of crime.
Where were you incarcerated?
Monroe:  I was in Midway, Texas, which is 40 minutes outside of Huntsville, for three years.
At what point in that three‑year period did the light bulb go off over your head, and you thought: "You know, I could make a movie out of this?"
Monroe: Never. When I was in the place, I had no idea that I was going to ever make a movie about this whole situation. The truth is, once I got out, I did not want to talk about the situation. I feel like I was just driven, like I was almost on some type of high, some drug. I really wanted to distance myself further and further away from the robbery, the prison, everything that had happened. I was trying my best to do it, and then it just came full circle in film school. In film school, they talk about getting personal and digging deep. I realized there was this thing weighing on me and that I wanted to talk about, finally.
I knew nothing about your past when you were in my class at University of Houston. But I will say this – and I’m not stroking you: I’ve been teaching there for nearly 15 years, and I think I could count on the fingers of one hand how many students I’ve had who were as diligent about turning in their work, and concerned about their grades, as you. And I told Spike this the other night after the premiere ‑‑ you're the only student who's ever gone to the trouble of seeking me out and wanting to go over every single assignment to make sure you got the right grade for each assignment. All of which makes me think: Once you decided to go down the straight and narrow path, you weren't going to take any detours.
Monroe:  No.
You were going to keep your pedal to the metal.
Monroe:  That’s the truth. I was just telling the two guys from the National Film Society that the idea that I wrote down, the feature treatment idea that I wrote in your class, was the feature treatment idea that I submitted to NYU for the application. It's a feature film that I want to do in the next three years. It's not something that has gone away. These are just things I just keep filed in the back of my head. After the doc, I want to do a feature titled The Year of Our Lord, but then after that, it's the feature film I want to do next. [Laughs] In that class of yours, I was working on the treatment and trying to figure it out. I'll never forget pitching it to the class. Like I said, I believe the universe works in very auspicious ways. Even when we took that picture at the premiere, I was just saying, "This is so..." It was an out‑of‑body experience.
In the documentary, you talk to Spike and some of your other teachers at NYU about how they were surprised when they learned about your background. In fact, one of them says he might have had second thoughts about making you a  graduate assistant. Were there people who didn't want to talk on camera about what their response was to your record? Who actually had started to, you know, treat you in a different way after you told them?
Monroe: No. At NYU, I could have interviewed anyone. It really is a weird situation. Again, I think about perception. They had known me for many years at that point. I had been a teaching assistant, a graduate assistant. I was a resident assistant. Even after they found out about the whole story ‑‑ I had my pre‑thesis review ‑‑ it was difficult for them to have a knee‑jerk reaction, like, "I can't trust this guy." We've had drinks. It's a very familial environment because it's such a small faculty and small student body. I don't think there was one professor who would have turned down an interview request. And even since then, after I did the interviews, back in 2007, NYU hired me on as a full‑time TV studio manager, with a felony on my record. It wasn't like they didn't know what was happening. They knew exactly what was going on, yet they still trusted me to do the job that I'd been doing since I got there.
To get back to the first question: Do you really think you would be here now if you hadn’t been caught?
Monroe: No, I don’t think so. [Pause] I don’t think so. Do I think I would be here now had I not done the robbery? Maybe. But if I was not caught, I’m sure I would be in prison for something else right now. I’m pretty confident in saying that I wouldn’t be here.
But at 16, bank robbery seemed like it might be a viable option.
Monroe:  Well, like it says in the film, I was really bothered by the whole situation at home. It was annoying to me. I was young, and I knew that there was something in me that was exhausted by the whole financial strain. I was willing to go to lengths that probably were completely unnecessary -- but for me, it felt like in my head that this could be done. This is something that could be done to help out. This was something that could be done.
But I don't want people to think this is just some Robin Hood story. I was still a kid. I still wanted some nice sneakers. I still wanted some nice clothes of my own. I think getting arrested and going to prison straightened me out.
Of course, the funny thing is, even back then, you already were a director. This robbery was your idea, was it not?
Monroe:  [Laughs] It was.
You did mastermind it. I used to tell people when I first heard about the robbery, "Well, I guess he fell in with bad companions back then, because he was such a great student when I had him." But then I'm watching the documentary, and I’m thinking, "Damn. Darius was a little budding criminal mastermind at 16." But also, it’s like, "Hey, he was already writing the script and directing it."
Monroe: In my mind, it didn't feel like, oh, I'm going to be the mastermind behind it. I was like, "I want to plan it out and get you all to follow along with it." But it's so funny, Joe: A lot of people, when they hear about the story, they're like, "Well, so who influenced you? I know you fell in with the wrong crowd." I'm like, "I didn't fall into the wrong crowd." Again, I always think about perceptions. We really have this bogeyman, in terms of what we think a criminal is or who we think a criminal is. Folks say, "When I would meet you, you don't look like a criminal." I always say, "Can you describe to me what that looks like?"
Hopefully, the film debunks and demystifies, and forces people to think, "Oh, well, maybe I don't know who's capable of committing a crime." I feel like more people are capable of doing something illegal or criminal, something they would never think they’re capable of doing, than we might think. I think a lot of people, most people, want to follow the law. But I think some folks, when their back is pushed against the wall, may make a choice that is illegal.
Who do you hope this film reaches?
Monroe:  I really, really, really want to get this film to a lot of young men -- black, brown, white, Asian, just a lot of young men --  who feel like they have been left behind, who are on the road to making a mistake. I hope the film can get them before that happens. And if they've already made a mistake, they're already in juvenile, if they're already in prison, if they already are on parole, have a record --  I'm hoping that the film also inspires them not to be stuck in that space where this mistake consumes them and is their life. I've met a lot of guys who have a record, have a felony on their record, and just feel like, "I can't do anything. I can't. I can no longer dream. I can no longer move away from this." I don't believe that. I really, strongly don't believe that. And not just crime. I feel that people just should not be forced to suffer for any mistake for the rest of their lives.
Outside of that audience, I'm hoping on a wider level that [the documentary] helps individuals understand that forgiveness and compassion are two things that we should start practicing in reality, as opposed to just speaking about it. We should think about that. And I know it's not easy. Look, there are people that I have a hard time forgiving myself.
Are you a religious person?
Monroe:  I'm spiritual.
Do you believe God has a plan for you?
Monroe:  I do. Absolutely I do. Absolutely.
I look forward to screening this movie for my students down the road. But I'm going to tell you something: After I screen the movie, I plan on saying, "OK, now you've seen this. I want you to understand my attitude: None of you have any excuses."
Monroe:  It's the truth. [Laughs] I agree, I agree, I agree.
I just hope you don't mind being used as a teaching tool.
Monroe:  No, not at all. [Laughs] Not at all.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

News flash: Matthew McConaughey was praising thermostats before he was driving Lincolns (in commercials)


I find it more than a little comical that certain scolds are getting their shorts in a twist because Matthew McConaughey is hawking Lincolns in TV commercials. Don't know how to break it to you, gang, but the Oscar-winning actor has been doing TV-ad voiceovers with that instantly recognizable drawl of his for quite some time now.

Indeed, when I caught up with the native Texan last year at the Toronto Film Festival -- way before he brought home the gold for Dallas Buyers Club -- I joked with him that whatever he was earning from advertising must have helped make it a little easier to cut back on the rom-coms and do more indies.

McConaughey laughed -- but he didn't deny it. And, really, why should he have to? 

BTW: Here's another sweet spot he did for Reliant Energy.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Dead is my favorite John Huston movie


Why is The Dead my favorite John Huston movie? Well, I could direct you to my original review of Huston's adaptation of the classic James Joyce story. Or I could just show you the final scene. Back in the day: I cried so hard at the end of this movie, two colleagues had to help me out of the theater. No kidding.



Friday, October 17, 2014

And now, a word from my articulate and well-spoken former student: Darius Clark Monroe, director of Evolution of a Criminal


As I mentioned a couple weeks ago: Darius Clark Monroe, a former student of mine -- and, perhaps more important, of Spike Lee -- has launched a Kickstarter campaign to generate $60,000 for a wider  release of his critically acclaimed debut feature, the autobiographical documentary Evolution of a Criminal. The good news: As of today, the campaign already has raised more than $20,000. The bad news? Well, as Monroe recently told interviewer Michael Galinsky, he's has some less-than-pleasant experiences while touring with his film on the festival circuit:

I've been on the circuit for most of the year, and I've only met three other documentary filmmakers of color. That number is jarring because people of color are quite prominent in documentary films. It's strange to see filmmakers who have no direct relationship to a community, document said community, and then share that work in theaters filled with people who aren't from that community.

Cultural bias is very real. In addition to noticing a dearth of stories by and about people of color, some questions and/or comments from fellow filmmakers and audience members would leave me speechless. I've been told repeatedly that I'm "well spoken" and "articulate"—which isn't a compliment, by the way. At SXSW, a small, cute white woman, who looked to be in her 50s, gave me a warm hug before asking me how it felt to be an "educated black man." I've been told that my film is "too black" and "not relatable."


You wondered if I felt like I could be myself traveling with the film. I don't know how to be anything other than myself. As a society, we live in a constant state of denial. Navigating the truth is a fraught and contentious experience, but it's the only way to grow. I will always speak truth to power.


I truly hope that all of my students, of all colors, will go on to be as uppity as Monroe. If that doesn't happen, I'm not doing my job right. But I must admit: Given my own spectacularly untidy family history, I had no trouble whatsoever relating to Evolution of a Criminal. Maybe that, even more than my personal interest in Monroe, is why I've already made my Kickstarter contribution.

Live from Houston: It's The War of the Worlds


What's this? A live reading of the original Orson Welles radio production (scripted by Howard Koch) of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds? With a free screening of a "classic" '70s or '80s horror movie thrown in for good measure. Now that is my idea of a Halloween celebration. (My only cavil: The term "classic" gets tossed about rather loosely when it comes to descriptions of '70s and '80s horror movies, so beware.)

And just to get you in the right mood: Here is a link to a Slate.com piece on another notable radio broadcast, one featuring H.G. Wells, Orson Welles -- and a plug for the latter's upcoming movie. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Before there was Killing Patton there was... Brass Target


Professional bloviator Bill O'Reilly isn't being treated very kindly by the critics and academics passing judgment on his latest book, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General, a speculative historical mashup based on the dubious theory that the legendary military leader was terminated by Soviet assassins. But wait, there's more: Richard Cohen of The Washington Post and  Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC have taken their own jabs at O'Reilly's presumptive best-seller, insisting the author should have should have included info about Patton's alleged anti-Semitism.

But here's what I want to know: Why aren't more pundits noting the similarity between O'Reilly's paranoid scenario and the plot of Brass Target, a deservedly obscure 1978 thriller that also claimed Patton's death was anything but accidental? Could it be that few people actually remember this cheesy movie? Or, more likely, that anyone who actually saw it back in the day has tried very hard ever since to forget it?

As I wrote in 1977:

This lethargic copy of Day of the Jackal spins a fantastic yarn about a plot by corrupt US Army officers to kill Gen. George S. Patton shortly after World War II. The plotters are worried that Patton, played with unconvincing swagger by George Kennedy, will uncover their duplicity in a $250-million gold theft that left over two dozen American soldiers dead. The poor soldiers were knocked out by gas, a fate akin to that which may befall anyone trying to stay awake during this plodding claptrap. 

Brass Target is slick, to be sure, but it’s also so lifelessly directed by John Hough (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), and so unimaginatively scripted by Alvin Boretz, that it lacks even the giddy excitement of an outrageously bad movie... This is the sort of routinely acted TV-movie-style tripe in which two villains are depicted as gay merely to provide them with some kind of distinguishing characteristics. A woman (Sophia Loren) appears in a few scenes only to provide a feminine name in the credits. And the assassin (Max Von Sydow, more or less reprising his Three Days of the Condor character) makes a lot of smug comments to the hero (John Cassavetes) about how silly morality is. Patrick McGoohan hams it up briefly as a colorful cynic, but his character winds up dead all too soon. 


At the end, Cassavetes pieces together the assassination plot, finds the murder weapon – a gun used to break Patton’s back with a rubber bullet – and polishes off the bad guys. Then the movie just ends. The closing credits reveal that Patton’s death was officially listed as the result of a car accident, and the $250 million in gold was never recovered. My guess is, Cassavetes decided to keep the gold and Sophia Loren, and never mind about who killed Patton. That sounds cynical, I admit, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in Brass Target.


Looking back, I think it's fair to say Brass Target can be at least partially justified as one of the easy-paycheck projects that allowed John Cassavetes the wherewithal to make his own indie movies. I'll leave it to others to come up with a similar justification for Killing Patton.