Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hail and farewell to Frank Finlay

You can thank Frank Finlay — the prolific and prodigiously talented British actor who passed away Saturday at age 89 — with saving audiences from the dreary spectacle of mediocre or worse performances by an infrequently employed character actor: Me.

No joke: There was a time in my life — very early in my life — when I wanted to be an actor. And I was so determined to be a stage and screen superstar that I let nothing, not even my painfully obvious lack of talent, stand in the way of pursuing my dream. Indeed, even after my clumsy performance as Shylock in a disastrous high school production of The Merchant of Venice — highlighted by a scene in which, while demanding my pound of flesh, I tossed a fellow student cast as Antonio onto a table that promptly collapsed under his weight — I opted to hone my craft as a drama major at the University of New Orleans (then known as Louisiana State University of New Orleans).

It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that I enjoyed my journalism courses much more than my drama courses, and that I had, despite persist urges to act, a genuine fire in my belly for writing. Whatever lingering doubts I had about my true calling were pretty much banished the first time I saw a re-release of Othello, director Stuart Burge’s stripped-to-essentials 1965 film of the National Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s classic. I was greatly impressed by Laurence Olivier’s controversial performance as the Moor, and thoroughly enchanted by Maggie Smith as a sensual Desdemona. But I was downright astonished by Frank Finlay — by turns silkily beguiling and blunt-force brutal — in the role of Iago. 

All three of the lead actors received well-deserved Academy Award nominations, but Finlay’s was the performance that stayed with me for days, months and years afterward. And for a long time afterward, each time I thought about that performance, I also thought: “I can study acting all I want, and maybe even build a career as an actor — but I will never, ever, at any time in my life do anything that good.”

And that — along with my junior-year self-appraisal that I was the worst actor in all of Christendom — was what pushed me in what I hope has been the right direction.

Even so, I never held my rude awakening against Frank Finlay. In fact, I suspect his inadvertent vocational advice was part of the reason why I became such a fan, and why I always took such delight in seeing him not only in starring or co-starring parts, but as a supporting player (sometimes a scene-stealer, sometimes a fleeting presence) in movies as diverse as Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971), Alan Bridges’ The Return of The Solider (1982) and Norman Jewison’s The Statement (2003).

A personal favorite: His stylish swashbuckling turn as Porthos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). The first of these films — which also featured his amusing cameo as a jewelry maker — allowed Finlay an opportunity to commit first-degree alchemy, so that he could transform even throwaway dialogue into laugh-out-loud funny business through his dry-wit delivery. When reminded that discretion is the better part of valor, his Porthos airily disagrees: “I can’t be discreet about how valiant I am. Shouldn’t be asked.” At another point, as he and his comrades gallop off to a rescue, he asks, more annoyed than anxious, “Can someone please tell me just where we’re going?” For decades after seeing The Three Musketeers together, my wife and I quoted that line to each other, in Finlay’s quizzical tone, usually — but not always — during extended road trips.

Finlay also played Inspector Lestrade to two different Sherlock Holmeses — John Neville in A Study in Terror (1965) and Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) — and made the most of a bad situation (playing the straight-man part of a British police superintendent) while Alan Arkin tried his best to replace Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (1968). He was aptly seductive and affectingly wistful as the eponymous romancer in Casanova (1971), a six-part British miniseries written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), and relentless and resourceful as vampire slayer  Abraham Van Helsing opposite Louis Jourdan’s prince of darkness in Count Dracula (1977).

But wait, there’s more: Finlay was the breeder of The Deadly Bees (1966), the foil of Shaft in Africa (1973), Jacob Marley to George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), the ill-fated father of Adrien Brody’s title character in The Pianist (2002) — and the aged dad of Helen Mirren’s formidable Jane Tennison in the final two seasons of Prime Suspect (2003, 2006).

Here is an exhaustive and entertaining montage, obviously prepared by an informed and enthusiastic admirer, that offers an overview of Finlay’s many stage, screen and television credits. Watch and be impressed by the versatility of a man who played everything from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler, Shylock to Jean Valjean, Sancho Panza (opposite Rex Harrison’s Don Quixote) to Captain Bligh (in a 1985 stage musical of Mutiny on the Bounty titled – no kidding – Mutiny!) I don’t know if Finlay ever played Hamlet, but I am going to take my own first and last crack at the part by offering him the same tribute that the melancholy Dane paid to his father: “Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Remembering Glenn Frey remembering Robert Duvall and Let's Get Harry -- and shooting down hopes for an Eagles reunion -- in 1986

(In 1986, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I had the privilege of interviewing Glenn Frey while he was on a promotional tour for his first film, Let's Get Harry. On the occasion of his passing at age 67, I want to share this piece that originally ran on October 30, 1986.) 

First, there was the popular video — a mini-movie, really — for his hit single, ''Smuggler's Blues.'' Then there was his well-received guest spot as a seedy pilot on the Miami Vice episode based on the same song. And now, Glenn Frey, the singer-composer who continues to soar on the charts long after leaving The Eagles, has a key supporting role in a feature film: Let's Get Harry, an action-adventure set to open Friday nationwide.

What's next? The romantic lead in a Hollywood blockbuster?

“If I could stretch that far,” Frey said a few days ago in his Inn on the Park suite, “I would like that. But with my limited experience in this field, I'm looking for safe parts right now. I don't want to overextend myself, or have a French accent, or do something I might not be able to handle at this early stage of my acting development.”

In Let's Get Harry, Frey plays Eddie Spencer, one of five small-town men who embark on a renegade rescue mission when their best friend, Harry, is kidnapped by drug smugglers while working on a dam project in South America. Led by a ruthlessly efficient mercenary played by Robert Duvall, the working-class commandos make their way into the wilds of Colombia.

When they reach the den of the drug smugglers, however, there's some doubt as to whether Frey's character, a cocaine abuser, will withstand the temptation of being near so much nose candy. With his background as a musician, Frey joked, “Maybe the producers thought I knew a little bit more about this subject than other people.

“But that didn't bother me. The thing that was attractive about Spence was, he's just a regular guy with a cocaine problem. And I think there's a lot of people like that. You know, you have the classic line, where Spence says, ‘It's cool, I can handle it.’ Which is what every junkie says. Even when they're doing five grams a day, they'll say, ‘It's cool, I'm not addicted, everything's fine.’”

Frey, a bearishly-built Detroit native with a lightly sandpapered voice and an ingratiating bent for self-mockery, looks at Let's Get Harry as an educational experience. He was especially eager to work with such respected actors as Duvall and Gary Busey. His enthusiasm waned only slightly when he found himself unnerved by Duvall's mercurial mood swings.

According to Frey, Duvall would often shatter the silence on the set in Mexico by shouting, without warning, What am I doin' in a movie with a rock star!?!” Frey couldn't tell for certain whether Duvall was joking. But the animosity, real or affected, brought a certain vigor to the scene where Duvall punishes Frey for opening a door without first determining who's on the other side.

“Yeah,” Frey said with a grin, “we had a real good time doing that one. That particular day, Duvall wouldn't talk to me. In between takes, he wasn’t around — he'd be standing outside in the hall, pacing back and forth. And then we'd do another take, and I'd open the door — and he’d slam me up against the wall. I think he wanted to do that anyway. It was always, ‘A (expletive deleted) rock star! I'd work with a million Gary Buseys before a rock star!’

“And then, when they filmed my reaction shot, he held this knife this far away from my throat, and yelled, ‘I could kill you right now, you . . . punk!’ And then he just let me go. They started rolling the camera — and I wasn’t acting. I was completely in shock.

“That was kind of interesting. But it wasn't exactly fun.”

So what does Frey think of his performance in Let's Get Harry? “I’d say I was adequate. I don't think I was terrific, but I certainly didn't stink it up.

“I was kind of pleasantly surprised, actually. I was very skeptical. While we were doing the film, nobody saw any rushes, nobody saw any dailies. So I really didn't know what to expect. But when I saw the first screening, I was a little bit surprised that I was able to just watch this guy with the mustache.”

As Frey sees it, the only serious drawback to working in movies is the lack of artistic control. “I'm not used to not having control,” he said. “When we make records, what I turn into the record company is what gets pressed, and what comes out. It's not like somebody at MCA Records says, ‘Well, I think we should edit the bridge out of that, and add some bongos.’

“But in the film business — and I was quite surprised by this — it's art by committee. After they shoot all the preliminary footage, and do the director's first cut, they bring in four or five people who know absolutely nothing about film, but are in charge.”

In the case of Let's Get Harry, Frey noted, director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Vilage) had his name removed from the film after producers insisted on re-cutting and re-shooting certain scenes. (The movie is now credited to the pseudonymous Alan Smithee.) That's the sort of artistic conflict Frey rarely has to worry about in his recording career.

When Frey recorded his last album, The Allnighter, Elektra-Asylum, his label at the time, was less than enthusiastic. (“One of their comments was, ‘You know, it's not very contemporary.’ And I said, ‘Exactly. And I don't want it to be.’”) Unperturbed, Frey brought the album — which featured “Smuggler's Blues” — to MCA Records, the label that eventually released it.

“Fortunately,” Frey said, “I was sort of vindicated. The Allnighter is sort of like Lazarus. It came out, and sold about 200,000 copies, and disappeared. And then Miami Vice, and the re-release of  'Smuggler's Blues,’ put the damn thing right back on the charts, and I ended up selling 300 or 400,000 more copies. So that was very gratifying.”

If he can continue releasing albums like that, Frey said, you can definitely forget all the wishdreaming rumors about a possible Eagles reunion.

“So if you hear about an Eagles reunion — you can bet your life that I've got income tax problems.”

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Want to see something really scary?

They saved the worst for last: This was the final image on the Image 3D Viewer I received in the mail today from the distributors of The Forest. As Count Floyd would say: "Scary stuff, kids!"

Saturday, January 02, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top Ten of 2015

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

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

In alphabetical order:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy 120th Birthday, Cinema!

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Next summer: Independence Day: Resurgence

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

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Coming soon: The Legend of Tarzan

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

TV Alert: Thanksgiving morning on MSNBC

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

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Caine + Colbert = Cool

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

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

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

Sunday, November 01, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tab Hunter returns to MFAH -- sort of -- in The Loved One

When Tab Hunter was in Houston last summer for the QFest screening of Tab Hunter Confidential at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I was fortunate enough to be included among the invitees at a private brunch where the semi-retired '50s heartthrob was the guest of honor. We chatted about various aspects of his stage and screen career, including his co-starring stint apposite Tallulah Bankhead in the ill-starred 1964 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (a play eventually filmed in 1968 by director Joseph Losey as Boom!, an equally ill-starred Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle). The production was a resounding flop, but Hunter continues to speak highly, and respectfully, of its director, the late Tony Richardson.

Hunter credits Richardson -- who also directed Tom Jones, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and several other notable films -- for tossing him a lifeline during a low point in his career during the early 1960s. As he notes in his autobiography:

"Just when it seemed I might never make another movie, Tony Richardson came to the rescue. He'd been hired to adapt Evelyn Waugh's black comedy [novel] about the mortuary business, The Loved One, He stocked the cast with stars in cameo roles. Mine was only two days' work, playing a cemetery tour guide.

"How oddly fitting, considering that my movie career was dead."

Unfortunately, Hunter had to wait a few years -- until 1981, when John Waters cast him opposite Divine in Polyester -- before he made anything resembling a movie comeback. The Loved One, aptly advertised as "The motion picture with something to offend everyone," was roasted by critics and ignored by moviegoers during its initial theatrical run in 1965, and did precious little for the careers of Robert Morse, Rod Steiger and everyone else involved. 

But when I first saw The Loved One, when I was around 13 years old, I thought it was absolutely hilarious. (Yeah, I was a weird kid.) Subsequent reviewings during my adulthood have only reinforced my original impression that it was a movie way ahead of its time. (Steiger, it should be noted, seemed genuinely amused years ago when I told him during an interview how much I enjoyed his performance as Mr. Joyboy, a flamboyant mortician with mother issues.) Indeed, I am pleased to see that The Loved One has gained an admiring cult following over the years, and is periodically screened in classy venues like... well, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it will be presented at 7 pm. Monday, Oct. 26

Take a look at the trailer, and tell me, honestly: How could you possibly not want to see this one?

Obama does Grumpy Cat

President Obama obviously is taking my advice and preparing for a profitable post-White House career doing stand-up in Las Vegas. No longer content merely to crack jokes and sing, he's expanding his repertoire to do impressions. Seriously: Here he is doing Grumpy Cat yesterday at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Let's see Rich Little top that. (Hat-tip to Talking Points Memo.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pimping for blog traffic once again by putting Star Wars in a headline

I just went on line to purchase my luxury-reclining-chair tickets for a Dec. 18 opening-night 3D screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Houston iPic Theater. Because that's how I roll.

BTW: In the highly unlikely event you haven't already seen it, here's the trailer.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Here's the poster for the new Star Wars movie and... Wait! Where the hell is Mark Hamill?

Is he the dude in the funny helmet next to Harrison Ford and just below R2-D2 and C-3PO? Damned if I know. But I can tell you that tickets go on sale for the eagerly awaited (yes, even by me) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Star Wars VII, or whatever they've going to wind up actually calling it) Monday at the classy new iPic Theater here in Houston, and presumably at other theaters and drive-ins here and everywhere else it's set to open Dec. 18. Now where did I put my Visa card? 

But wait, there's more: A new trailer is supposed to be unveiled during tomorrow's Monday Night Football matchup between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles on ESPN. Funnily enough, that's right around the time I will be screening Casablanca for my Art of Filmmaking students at Houston Community College. Looks like I better set my DVR right now.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Remembering Ed Lauter

Ed Lauter passed away two years ago today -- but I still keep his last voice mail message to me on my cellphone. Mind you, I don't listen to it very often, for fear I will do something clumsy and stupid and wind up erasing it. But I must confess: I do occasionally listen, just to enjoy the sheer enthusiasm in his voice as he expressed his hope "to be lifting a glass" with me "sometime soon" after I introduced him and Edward Burns' The Fitzgerald Family Christmas at the 2012 Starz Denver Film Festival.

As I wrote on Oct. 16, 2013:

Among the most pleasant experiences I have enjoyed in recent years was a long, leisurely lunch with Ed Lauter, one of my all-time-favorite character actors, last November at the Starz Denver Film Festival. For the better part of two hours before we engaged in an on-stage, post-screening Q&A after the Denver Fest premiere of Ed Burns' delightful The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we chatted about the highlights of our respective careers -- and he was graciously polite enough to indicate he found my anecdotes almost as interesting as his.

Mind you, it wasn't like we were in any sort of "Can you top this?" competition. Because, really, what could I possibly say that could top his account of being cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Family Plot after The Master of Suspense spotted him in The Longest Yard ? Lauter impressed Hitchcock so much that he was set to co-star in The Short Night, Hitchcock's next film -- the film, alas, Hitchcock didn't live to make.

Lauter passed away Wednesday at age 74, leaving behind a body of work that ranges from The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and French Connection II (1975) to The Artist (2011) and Trouble With the Curve (2012). "When I first started out,” he said in Denver, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to work with this great actor, or that great director.’ All these wonderful dinosaurs. Well, now I’ve become one of those dinosaurs, I guess.” I would be a liar if I didn't admit I felt immensely flattered when he told me that, because I'd singled him out for special praise in my Variety review of Fitzgerald Family Christmas, I'd helped get him "back in the game." I just wish he'd stuck around to play a little longer.

So what will I do with the voice mail message? Well, I am reminded of an episode of another all-time favorite, Harry O, the 1974-76 TV series starring the late, great David Janssen as private eye Harry Orwell. In the Feb. 27, 1975 episode titled "Elegy for a Cop," Harry's buddy on on the San Diego police force, Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), is killed by drug dealers. Harry brings the culprits to justice but, in his typical melancholy fashion, he remains seriously bummed by the death of his friend. So he goes to his favorite bar, and asks his favorite bartender to keep a bottle of his favorite whiskey -- which he has purchased, for an inflated price -- on a shelf for easy access. Says Harry:  

"Every once in a while, somebody will come in here – and you’ll see that you like ‘em right away. Because they’re decent, and just good people. So give ‘em a drink out of this bottle. It doesn’t matter whether they have money or not. Tell 'em the drink’s on Manny Quinlan. Maybe they’ll remember him. If you feel like it, tell 'em he was a friend of mine."

The bartender readily agrees, but asks: "What’ll I do when the bottle runs out?"
"Nothing," Harry wistfully responds, clinking his glass in a toast against the side of the bottle. "Nobody lives forever."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

First there was King Kong vs. Godzilla. Now... Godzilla vs. Kong?

I have no idea why they've changed the billing for the new flick, Godzilla vs. Kong, which was announced today as a project set for 2020 release. (Wow! Just five years to wait!) But I have to ask myself: Can the new and presumably improved (as far as special effects go) monster mash be anywhere near as entertaining as the original 1963 mega-smackdown?

Hail and farewell: Philip Wuntch

When I landed a gig as all-purpose writer/critic for the arts and entertainment department of The Dallas Morning News in 1979, Philip Wuntch already was comfortably ensconced as the paper's film critic. Of course, I wanted his job. And, of course, he knew it.

But here's the thing: Philip -- who passed away Monday at age 70 -- was so comfortable and confidant in his position, and with ample reason, that he viewed me not so much as a rival as a resource. And so he was impossibly decent to me, encouraging me to serve more or less as his backup -- when I wasn't busy backing up the theater critic, the TV critic, the dance critic, etc. -- by allowing me to review the movies he had neither time nor interest to review. This meant that, while he concentrated on the major releases by the big studios -- and wrote, among many other memorable pieces, one of the very best reviews of Raging Bull I recall reading during that classic's initial theatrical run -- I got to review the B-movies and exploitation flix at one extreme, and documentaries and other art-house fare at the other. Seriously: It was not uncommon for me to review, say, the original Friday the 13th and then, just a few days later. cover the latest Ingmar Bergman opus. I am not absolutely sure about this, but I think that because of Philip's laissez-faire  attitude, my review of Francois Truffaut's The Green Room got bigger play in the Morning News than any other U.S. critic got for his or her review  back in the day. 

In short: Philip -- who was film critic at the Morning News for a staggering 37 years -- is one of the handful of people I can thank for my having any kind of career as a film critic. And I would like to think he was so kind to me, so supportive of me, because he recognized in me someone who loved movies as much as he did. And trust me: He loved movies. A lot. To pay him the highest compliment I can imagine: He left this world a more entertaining place than it might have been without him in it.