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."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Flashback: Cannes '89

It's amazing what you can find under stacks of books and papers in your home office when you attempt to bring order out of chaos. This is a pocket calendar I kept during the 1989 Cannes Film Festival -- way, way back in the days before smartphones and PDAs. (Note: That's Personal Digital Assistant, not Public Displays of Affection.) I suspect my younger colleagues who currently are covering the Cannes extravaganza will find this... well, quaint. But for those who remember the bygone era when appointments were hastily scribbled and/or crossed out while on the run up and down La Croisette from screening to press conference to interview -- maybe it will jog some pleasant memories.

This was the day Spike Lee shook up the festival with the world premiere of Do the Right Thing, a movie that seemed to shock, if not terrify, some members of the U.S. press in attendance. I opted to attend all of the post-screening press conference in the Palais du Festival instead of leaving early to see a nearby market screening of Bill Forsyth's Breaking In (which I caught, and greatly enjoyed, two days later). A wise move: The press conference (which can be viewed in its entirety on the Criterion Collection DVD of Do the Right Thing) turned out to be classically confrontational in the grand Cannes tradition, with a few (white) U.S. journalists voicing concern that Lee's film would somehow incite race riots when it opened in urban areas across America a few weeks later. (BTW: It did no such thing.) But wait, there's more: Some more or less accused Lee of offering an inaccurate view of inner-city life because none of his African-American characters indulged in drugs. Not surprisingly, Lee had some choice words for his more outspoken critics.

Around noon, the mood was somewhat lighter during a luncheon on the private beach of the Majestic Hotel for Wired, the ill-starred film version of Bob Woodward's controversial book about the late John Belushi. Mind you, the movie had for all practical purposes been declared dead on arrival after its world premiere screening (and subsequent press conference) the day before. And there already was talk that friends and admirers of Belushi would make sure Michael Chiklis -- who played the self-destructive comic star in the reviled biopic -- never worked again. (And we all know how successfully that turned out, right?) But I must admit: I had a very pleasant time sharing a table with Woodward and Roger Ebert, chatting about the life and legend of Belushi, and all the while thinking (not for the first or last time in my career): "And just think -- I'm getting paid for this."

A busy morning of back-to-back interviews with James Spader, who would go on to win the festival's Best Actor prize for Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape (which was honored with the prestigious Palme d'Or); and Rod Steiger and Tom Conti, who were promoting something called That Summer of White Roses, a WWII drama I have never seen, or been encouraged to see. What I remember most vividly about this day is the moment when Conti told me his next project was a film version of Noel Coward's Private Lives. (Never happened, unfortunately.) Before I could tell him how promising that sounded, Conti proceeded to tell me what the play was all about -- and just who Coward was. Under normal circumstances, I might have felt insulted by his presumption of my ignorance. But I knew better than to take it personally: After all, this was Cannes, and Conti had likely spent the better part of the day talking with journalists who really didn't know, or care, who Noel Coward was.

I'm a tad surprised to see so little on my schedule for the penultimate day of Cannes '89. I mean, one lunchtime interview and a single evening screening? (Maybe I was writing, or packing, the rest of the time?) But never mind: My most cherished Cannes memory is my long chat with French film icon Phillipe Noiret. As I wrote nine years ago on the occasion of the great actor's passing:

We were supposed to chat primarily about his performance as the projectionist who brings magic and memories to a small Sicilian village in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (which had received a standing ovation after its festival premiere on the previous evening.) But the conversation – lubricated, I must admit, by some splendid wine – weaved and wandered lazily among other items on his lengthy resume. I tried very, very hard not to gush, and I think I may have succeeded. But if I didn’t, Noiret was too kind to make sport of me. Indeed, as we parted, he leaned over the table, looked deep into my eyes and graciously murmured: “You asked very interesting questions.” Short, dramatic pause. “And I do not say that to all of your colleagues.” I think I saw other movies, and interviewed other people, during the remainder of the festival. But I don’t remember any of them. All I recall is people asking me why I had such a goofy, glowing grin on my face.

I have not been to the Cannes Film Festival since 1990. (That was the year David Lynch's Wild at Heart won the Palme d'Or -- and caused an even greater freak-out than Spike Lee did.) Have I ever wanted to return? I would be a liar if I said no. But each time I remember my close encounter with Philippe Noiret, I tell myself: Be grateful for the memories you already have.

Memories like... being at that Do the Right Thing press conference.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Don't make Lewis Black put his foot down

Once again, the folks at Alamo Drafthouse have come up with a blunt-force PSA to dissuade thoughtless cretins from talking and texting during a movie. Take it away, Lewis Black.

Friday, May 15, 2015

R.I.P.: B.B. King (1925-2015)

"The Thrill is Gone." But B.B. King is forever. In our hearts, in his music -- and, alongside Eric Clapton, in this wonderful music video.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Eat your hearts out, Avengers: Brad Paisley is "Crushin' It" as a singing superhero

"Completely and totally drawn, animated and created by Brad Paisley." No joke: The multi-platinum musician and dynamic multitasker takes full credit -- or, if you prefer, full blame -- for this hilarious music video, in which he cast himself and a slew of other country superstars (including Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and "George Freakin' Strait") as superheroes fighting for truth, justice and the Grand Ole Opry. (Looks closely, and you'll see cameo appearances by Jimmy Kimmel, Beavis and Butthead, and the Nashville skyline.) 

Could this Paisley's sly but none-too-subtle way of auditioning for a role in the next Avengers movie? Well, if Robert Downey Jr. ever does decide to hang up his Iron Man outfit...

Monday, May 04, 2015

Dave & Barack talk retirement

I wish David Letterman and Barack Obama could hold on to their jobs a lot longer. But all good things must come to an end. Dammit.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Star Wars: "Chewie, we're home!"

Must admit: After viewing the last few seconds of this trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even I am super-geeked to see the movie. And remember -- I am old enough to have seen (and reviewed) the first Star Wars adventure during its original theatrical release many moons ago.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dennis Quaid gets pissed off

Dennis Quaid and I aren't exactly BFF's, but I have interviewed him on several occasions, and he always has impressed me as an unfailingly gracious and unaffectedly down-to-earth professional. So I can't help thinking that whatever made him angry in this video is something that would try the patience of a saint. Seriously.

Update: Well, of course it was a joke

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

About damn time: Animals opens May 15

Over a year after David Dastmalchian's semi-autobiographical drama Animals premiered at the SXSW Film Festival -- where it received a Special Jury Award, and garnered a thumbs-up review from yours truly -- the impressive indie is set to open May 15 in theaters and drive-ins everywhere. If you're a venturesome cineaste, you might want to check it out. In my Variety review, I must admit, I expressed doubt that the movie had much commercial potential. So go ahead -- prove me wrong.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is Bambi! (And he's pissed!)

I laughed so hard at this instant-classic Saturday Night Live sketch -- showcasing the lovely and talented Dwayne Johnson -- I frightened my cats and nearly spilled my Merlot.

Friday, March 13, 2015

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


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
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.