Friday, April 12, 2019

The Star Wars trailer

Yeah. I’ll cop to it. I’m geeked. By the way, here is a ranking of Star Wars movies I prepared for Variety around the time The Last Jedi was released. Guess I’ll be updating it to include this one and Solo… eventually.

Looking back at Trust, looking forward to “A Conversation with Hal Hartley”

Back in 1991, I selected Hal Hartley’s Trust to present as my Critic’s Choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. I am pleased and honored to report that on Saturday, April 13, I will be hosting “A Conversation with Hal Hartley” (10 am at the Westin Houston Hotel), and joining the director for a special screening of Trust (3 pm at the Memorial City Cinemark Theatre) for WorldFest/Houston. Here is my original 1991 review of that film.

Hal Hartley has done something altogether extraordinary for a filmmaker with just two films to his credit. With last year’s The Unbelievable Truth, his debut feature, and Trust, which opens today at the Cineplex-Odeon River Oaks Plaza, he has firmly established himself as a true original, an artist with a distinctive and impressive style.

Hartley is a humane satirist, a sly and compassionate trickster who illuminates his dark comedies with wary skepticism and reluctant optimism. He has a unique vision of life’s absurdities, and a well-tuned ear for the words we use to express and repress our true feelings. And, perhaps most important, he is able to make us laugh out loud at, and with, his sometimes hopelessly confused, sometimes misguidedly resolute characters.

In Trust, Hartley once again sets his story in a drab neighborhood of his native Long Island, and once again focuses on an anxious young woman played by Adrienne Shelly, the leading lady of Unbelievable Truth. As Maria, a 17-year-old high-school senior noted for her purple lipstick and surly attitude, Shelly makes one hell of an entrance. The movie begins with Maria’s informing her parents that she has dropped out of school, plans to marry her jock boyfriend — and, by the way, is pregnant. Her father, understandably upset, snarls: “Slut!” Maria slaps his face, and walks out the door. Dad has a sudden heart attack, and falls down dead.

Meanwhile, over at a nearby computer assembly plant, Matthew — a decade or so older than Maria, with an even worse attitude — is disgusted with the shabby merchandise he is building, and contemptuous of the foreman who wants to keep production flowing. When the foreman gets a little too insistent for Matthew’s taste, Matthew grabs the foreman’s head and clamps it in a vise.

And then things get really grim.

Maria is rejected by her mother (Merritt Nelson), dropped by her football-playing boyfriend (he doesn't want anything, least of all parental responsibilities, to interfere with his scholarship prospects), and nearly raped by a convenience-store clerk. Worse, she inadvertently witnesses a baby-snatching by an even more desperate character.

Matthew's day is somewhat less traumatic, but every bit as debilitating. He is the grudgingly dutiful slave of his father (Jim MacKay), a blue-collar manic-depressive who's never quite satisfied with Matthew’s housekeeping efforts. Matthew drowns his sorrows — or at least douses his pent-up rage — at his local tavern, where the wiser regulars know they had better keep out of his way. Then he wanders into his favorite haunt, a deserted house where, of course, Maria has sought refuge.

At its simplest, most emotionally affecting level, Trust is a love story in which the leads are profoundly skeptical about the very existence of love. At first, Maria and Matthew are exceedingly mistrustful of each other. And even when they let their guard down, there are problems. Matthew shows her his prized possession, a hand grenade that he says he carries with him at all times. “Why?” she asks. “Just in case,” he responds. “Are you emotionally disturbed?” she inquires.

As it turns out, both Maria and Matthew bear some serious psychological scars. Each is responsible, albeit inadvertently, for the death of a parent, and each is being guilt-tripped about it. And, yes, each is the product of a dysfunctional family, though that sort of jargon doesn’t begin to describe the full extent of their bummed-out, mixed-up condition. “A family’s like a gun,” Matthew notes. “You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody.”

Trust – can you think of another recent movie more aptly named? —begins with Maria and Matthew each realizing that the other needs saving, and gains richer, ever more intriguing complexities as each realizes the need for more self-directed rescue work. There is a quietly brilliant scene where Maria realizes how insignificant she must have seemed to her ex-boyfriend, and a heart-wrenching one where Maria writes in her diary: “I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid.”

For his part, Matthew decides that he needs to be mature, and accept adult responsibility, if he will provide for Maria. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a way that is practically guaranteed to trigger his tripwire temper. And his hand grenade.

Trust has the stark, no-frills look of a small-budget, grimly serious independent production, which only serves to make its deadpan hilarity all the more jarring and amusing. Everyone speaks with a rapid-fire intensity, as though each character is determined to cram the most information, or the greatest threat, into a listener’s limited attention span. Almost all of the supporting actors are perfectly attuned to Hartley's offbeat rhythms, playing their roles and conveying their ill-proportioned passions with the utmost sincerity. And the leads are even better.

Martin Donovan has just the right air of rumpled, seething self-loathing as he plays Matthew as a man who doesn’t really care that he’s drowning, but is determined to toss someone else a life preserver. Matthew doesn’t want Maria to misunderstand — he respects and trusts her, and that’s not love, but it should be enough. Donovan makes it very clear that Martin isn’t any better at convincing himself than he is at convincing Maria.

As Maria, Adrienne Shelly has the more challenging role — her character evolves from mini-skirted bimbo to self-effacing victim, and from there to something far more formidable — and she plays it with uncommon skill, grace, intelligence and conviction. Trust is probably the only movie ever made where the heroine must put on, not take off, her glasses before the hero even thinks of kissing her. Shelly makes braininess, and budding confidence, very attractive indeed. When she smiles, you get the feeling she could inspire a man to do anything. She might even get him to give up his hand grenade.

Postscript: Adrienne Shelly was cruelly and abruptly taken from us in 2006. But her films — including Waitress (released in 2007), a charming comedy she wrote and directed, and which later was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical — remain forever in the present tense.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Wishing Happy Birthday to Jakie Chan with two more blasts from my KRPC-TV past

I interviewed Jackie Chan for the first time back in July 1996, during a New York junket for Supercop, at a time when he was making a major push to expand his international superstardom to the United States in the wake of Rumble in the Bronx. He was extremely ingratiating, but seemed just a tad anxious. Two years later, however, he came across as appreciably more self-confident while launching his first bona fide U.S. blockbuster, Rush Hour. (On both occasions, you'll note, he was quite the spiffy dresser.) My favorite parts of the interviews: He talks about idolizing Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, and studying Fred Astaire before choreographing a comic fight scene.

Extending birthday wishes to Russell Crowe with two blasts from my KPRC-TV past

As a birthday tribute to Russell Crowe, I have delved into the archives to post two interviews dating back to my days at KPRC-TV. In the first, I chat with the Oscar-winning actor (before he actually won, you know, the Oscar) about working with Denzel Washington and director Brett Leonard on the 1995 sci-fi thriller Virtuosity. In the second…

Well, before the cameras started rolling, I jokingly complained about “all you Australian actors coming over here and stealing jobs away from Americans.” He laughed — but I think he took the remark semi-seriously, because this triggered a long conversation about international cinema circa 1997. We had relatively little time left to talk about the movie he was on the junket to promote — L.A. Confidential. (At the very end of the clip, by the way, I owe up to my passion for Judy Davis. It was a different time, and you could do such things.) 

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

A free seminar with three indie filmmakers: This weekend at WorldFest/Houston. (I did say free, didn't I?)

To kick off the opening weekend of the 2019 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, fest ramrod J. Hunter Todd has slated a free seminar showcasing three directors — Steve De Jarnatt, Kevin Sorbo and Richard Krevolin — who have movies on tap during this year’s H-Town cinematic smorgasbord. The event is scheduled for 2 pm Saturday, April 6, in the Water Fall “024” Lounge of The Westin Memorial City Hotel. And because a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, I’ll be hosting conversation, and encouraging questions from the audience.

De Jarnatt will be at WorldFest 2019 for the 30th anniversary screening of his cult-fave thriller Miracle Mile. (You can read more about that here.) Popular film and TV actor Sorbo (God’s Not Dead, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) is director and star of Miracle in East Texas (pictured above), one of the dozens of features in the festival lineup, while Krevolin is director and co-scripter of Attachments, which will have its world premiere at WorldFest 2019.

So what is Attachments all about? According to the official WorldFest synopsis:

One millennial I.T. nerd plus one computer illiterate senior citizen equals one unlikely attachment. Attachments stars Academy Award nominated actress Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Donnie Darko) as Eileen Roth, a widow who needs to learn how to use a computer in order to communicate with her beloved granddaughter in China. As a result, she ends up reaching out to a young, socially awkward I.T. professional. It’s a warm, funny love story about two alienated and lonely people who change each other’s lives. Control. Alt. Cute meet.

And Miracle in East Texas?

Inspired by a true story, “Doc” Boyd (Kevin Sorbo) and “Dad” Everett (John Ratzenberger) are Bible-quoting con-men in the 1930’s. After being run out of Oklahoma, they set up their oil-rig scam in Texas, seducing wealthy widows and the members of the only black church in the county. But just as their plan comes to fruition, everything suddenly goes awry, and they are faced with the most important decision of their lives. Funny, engaging and uplifting, this is the incredible story of two men discovering the good buried within themselves.

All WorldFest 2019 films will be shown at the Memorial City Cinemark Theater. Complete info about plotlines and showtimes is available at the festival’s website

30 Years Later: Miracle Mile returns to WorldFest/Houston -- And director Steve De Jarnatt will be on hand for a Q&A with yours truly

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will return this weekend to the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, for 9 pm Saturday screening at the Cinemark Memorial City Theater here in H-Town. But wait, there's more: It's my great pleasure and privilege to announce that I'll be serving as host (or facilitator, or whatever the hell they call it) for an on-stage Q&A with De Jarnatt after the screening. I am especially geeked about the occasion because, back in 1989, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I introduced De Jarnatt's devastating thriller as my critic's choice at WorldFest/Houston, where it wound up rocking the house and winning best of fest honors. 

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

Maybe he was telling me the truth, maybe he was stoking my ego. But consider: De Jarnatt thanked me in a 2015 Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film shortly before I conducted a post-screening Q&A with him in Austin. So I can only assume that I played some role, however small, in getting Miracle Mile out into the world. And that makes me very happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can take a look at the entire April 5-14 WorldFest/Houston lineup here.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Darkness Visible: My 1986 review of Agnes Varda’s Vagabond

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond has the chilly clinical detachment of an autopsy report, and the profoundly unsettling reverberations of a vivid nightmare. It begins in the south of France, as farmers discover in their field the body of a young woman who has frozen to death. Who was she? How did she come to such an end? A faceless narrator, determined to answer these questions, seeks clues by investigating “the last weeks of her last winter.”

What follows is a series of spare, elliptical flashbacks, as the narrator interviews — or, to be more precise, quietly listens to — various people who crossed the young woman’s path. But in those flashbacks, we’re told precious little. Her name, she claims, is Mona. She used to work as a secretary, but quit because she hated the job. “People bugged me for a long time,” she says. “But that's over now.”

She says nothing of relatives, friends or lovers. She has no plans, no ambitions. Occasionally, she latches on to a man for food, or a warm place to sleep. More often, though, she prefers to stay on her own, sleeping in abandoned buildings, or in a tent she pitches in the damp woodlands.

Her aimless wandering evokes diverse responses. A girl vaguely resentful of her mother’s possessiveness speaks with envy of Mona’s “freedom.” An ex-hippie, now gainfully employed as a goatherd, chastises Mona as selfish, lazy and irresponsible. (“You’re not a dropout — you’re just out! You don’t exist!”) A buttoned-down agronomist, patiently awaiting the demise of his wealthy, elderly aunt, is terrified by Mona’s matter-of-fact anarchy. A derelict who camps with her in a deserted mansion is bitter about her sudden disappearance — but grateful that, after all, she didn’t steal his transistor radio.

And so it goes, anecdote linking anecdote, as we trace Mona’s path from a dip in the ocean to a stumble into darkness. She travels in silence along wintry landscapes, as solitary as the bare trees clawing at overcast skies. She seeks nothing more than the next ride, the next resting place, or the next place to cadge a meal. She merely shrugs off the trauma of being raped by a passing stranger, or the disappointment of a short-lived relationship with a vineyard worker. For a while, she seems beyond pain, beyond humiliation. But even Mona has her limits.

The severely beautiful Sandrine Bonnaire gives an excellent 
performance as Mona, betraying not a single trace of personal vanity as she slips seamlessly into her role. Every physical detail — everything from the dirty fingernails to the tattered leather jacket — is just right. More important, though, is Bonnaire’s impressive ability to convey Mona’s surliness and cynicism without obscuring the character’s naked vulnerability.

Vagabond doesn't try to explain Mona. Indeed, the narrator’s inability to comprehend Mona’s motives, or to discover the wounds that fester in the dark corners of her heart, is the whole point of the film. In Varda's view, some people quite simply are unknowable. They plod lemming-like toward self-destruction with the ruthless efficiency of a guided missile. And nothing anyone can do or say can deter them from their course.

There are few things in life more disturbing — and, yes, more threatening — than the spectacle of someone who just doesn’t give a damn. But, much like a violent traffic accident or a spectacular natural disaster, the spectacle has a mesmerizing fascination.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Remembering Akira Kurosawa's cinema -- and his laughter -- on his birthday

On this date in 1910, Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo. And I remain ridiculously proud of the fact that, during a Manhattan press conference tied to the 1985 New York Film Festival premiere of his masterwork Ran, I made the sensei of cinema smile.

I was asking a question, through a translator, about his reputation as a director of unforgivingly harsh and often brutally fatalistic dramas. And I wanted to know if he thought that was a bad rap, because there actually were some upbeat movies on his resume — like the sweetly romantic One Wonderful Sunday, a deeply affecting 1947 tale of life and love in post-WWII Japan that did not get wide US release until the early 1980s.

“Now, I’m not saying that you’re a party kind of guy…” I continued. But then I had to pause, because at that point, Kurosawa exploded into laughter. Which, of course, made me wonder how much he really needed that translator.

But seriously folks: Here is an appreciation of Akira Kurosawa and his work — tied to a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — that I wrote back in the day for CultureMap Houston

Friday, March 15, 2019

See Captive State now. Don’t wait for the cult to coalesce.

From my 3.14.19 Variety review: Given the allusions to literal and thematic Trojan Horses that pepper its third act, one probably shouldn’t be surprised that Captive State — which opened cold on March 14 after Focus mysteriously canceled screenings for critics — actually is something of a purposefully camouflaged interloper. Although the TV ads and other promotional material appear to promise a megaplex-ready thrill ride about space invaders and rebellious Earthlings, this rigorously intelligent, cunningly inventive, and impressively suspenseful drama plays more like a classic tale about a disparate group of resistance fighters united in a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force. 

You can read the rest of my Variety review here

Monday, March 11, 2019

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are The Highwaymen

From my 3.10.19 Variety review: "Arriving more than a half-century after Arthur Penn’s violent folk-ballad Bonnie and Clyde tapped into the zeitgeist and caught lightning in a bottle by portraying the Depression-era gangster couple in a manner that recast them as anti-establishment rebels, The Highwaymen aims to set the record straight with a respectfully celebratory depiction of the two lawmen most responsible for ending their bloody crime wave. Bosley Crowther, among others, likely would have approved of such revisionism. Still, this workman-like Netflix production — set to kick off a limited theatrical run March 15 before streaming March 29 — commands attention less as historical counterpoint than as a sturdy showcase for the neatly balanced lead performances of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson."

You can read all of my Variety review here.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Vincent D'Onofrio's The Kid is a dang good Western!

From my 3.7.19 Variety review: "The extended dance of death played out by lawman Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid has inspired countless accounts of varying authenticity in literature, cinema and prime-time TV, ranging from Sam Peckinpah’s violently elegiac 1973 Western (featuring a singularly hunky Kris Kristofferson as the desperado also known as William Bonney) to The Tall Man, a 1960-62 NBC series which fancifully imagined Garrett (Barry Sullivan) and Billy (Clu Gulager) as frontier frenemies in Lincoln, N.M.

"It’s to the considerable credit of actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham that they’ve come up with a satisfyingly fresh take on this familiar mythos in The Kid, a consistently involving and often exciting drama in which the two Wild West icons are presented from the p.o.v. of an impressionable adolescent who weighs the pros and cons of each man as a role model."

You read all of my Variety review here, and my interview with Vincent D'Onofrio here.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Luke Perry: The man who loved Truffaut

That headline is, I admit, a slight exaggeration. But Luke Perry — who passed away Monday at the ridiculously young age of 52 — really did express high regard for Francois Truffaut while I interviewed him for Cowboys & Indians magazine a few years back. Which, of course, was enough to transform me from an admirer to an ardent fan.

We were talking about Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (2013), the third in a trilogy of Hallmark Channel western films in which he starred as John Goodnight, a straight-shooting circuit court judge who dispenses justice with eloquence, compassion and, when necessary, lethal firepower. (Fun facts: 2011’s Goodnight for Justice was directed by Jason Priestly, Perry’s co-star in the original Beverly Hills 90210 TV series — and was, at the time it aired, the highest-rated made-for-cable movie in the history of the Hallmark Channel.) The official plot synopsis: “Between dealing with difficult defendants and dealing cards at saloons, John crosses paths with a stagecoach under attack. Drawing his gun, he comes to the rescue of the only surviving passenger, a beautiful woman named Lucy Truffaut (Katharine Isabelle, pictured above with Perry), who John doesn’t realize is actually a convicted con artist on the run.”

But wait, there’s more. Lucy doesn’t realize – at first, anyway — that John’s an honest judge. The bad news: Lucy is being pursued by Cyril Knox (Ricky Schroder), a wealthy aristocrat who wants her jailed. The good news: Lucy manages to convince John to help her escape – and board a riverboat where passengers are encouraged to indulge in high-stakes gambling.

Naturally, I had to ask:

Your lead female character is named Lucy Truffaut – like Francois Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who famously claimed, “Women are magic.” Did you intend this as a kind of wink-wink tribute to him?

Perry: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. When I sat down to come up with this one, the one sort of request that the [Hallmark Movie Channel] had made was that – well, in the past, I hung a guy, and shot a couple of other guys, and beat up a guy pretty badly in the last one.

Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

Perry: [Laughs] Well, being the judge and jury and sometimes the executioner, that’s all part of his job. But the Hallmark people said, “Luke, our audience would also like to see you do some romantic stuff.” And at first, I couldn’t figure out what would be romantic about this character so much. But then I thought, when it comes to meeting a beautiful woman —historically, we’ve seen it — that’s when we men make our worst choices. While we’re thinking of ways to woo a beautiful woman, they just get into our heads. And I just wanted to do a story about that. And Truffaut knew all about that.

By the way: Has anyone else who’s interviewed you for this film noticed the Truffaut hat-tip?

Perry: You’re the only one who’s caught it, you’re the only one who’s asked. And I so appreciate it.
(Note: Francois Truffaut also was 52 when he died in 1984. And also gone way too soon.)

Friday, March 01, 2019

You must remember this: Katherine Helmond in Brazil

No doubt about it, Galveston native Katherine Helmond — who passed away Feb. 23 at age 89 — was an accomplished comic actress in such popular TV sitcoms as Soap, Everybody Loves Raymond, Coach and Who’s the Boss? But I must admit: I will always remember her best for her absolutely fearless performance as Ida Lowry, the plastic surgery-obsessed mother of protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in Terry Gilliam’s audacious dystopian farce Brazil (1985).

Helmond talks about working with Gilliam — and enduring some painful make-up magic — in this clip from a 2008 interview. (You can view the entire interview here.)

Al Pacino might have played John Rambo. And Rambo might have died in the first Rambo movie. But...

After hearing yesterday’s announcement about the Sept. 20 release of Rambo: Last Blood — the fifth and purportedly final chapter in the long-running franchise featuring Sylvester Stallone as troubled yet tenacious Vietnam War veteran John Rambo — I was reminded of a conversation I had back in 2012 at Fantastic Fest in Austin with director Ted Kotcheff (pictured above with Stallone), the director who helped start it all with the original First Blood (1982).
Kotcheff reminded me that he came to the project after it had been offered to other actors — including, no kidding, Al Pacino — and before the fateful decision had been made to keep John Rambo available for a string of sequels, Yes, it’s true: At one point, First Blood was envisioned as a one-and-done melodrama.
Here are some highlights from my 2012 conversation with Kotcheff.
John Rambo actually dies at the end of the novel that inspired First Blood. And I understand that’s also what happened in early drafts of the script. Have you ever wondered what a different sort of pop-culture impact the character would have had if you’d offed him like that – and not allowed him to survive for sequels?
What happened was, originally, the movie was conceived as the story of this Vietnam veteran who’d been kicked around from pillar to post. He didn’t feel there was any room for him in American society anymore – he was a piece of machinery that was broken. But then something happens. When he returns to that town where he’d been told to leave, he’s on a suicide mission. This was it — he had to die. Because he didn’t want any more of America.
And I take it that’s how the character came across in scripts that went out to people like Al Pacino, who was offered the project before Sylvester Stallone came on board.
When I cast Sylvester, we worked on the script together. And thing about Sylvester is – he has a very good populist sense. While we were shooting the film, we had a pretty good idea what it was all about. But we rewrote the ending various ways – something like 16 times – until we came up with the idea that the colonel, the character Richard Crenna plays, comes in there to put him out of his misery, to shoot him. And when he can’t do it, Rambo commits hari-kari. That’s the “alternative ending” you can see on some of the DVDs.
It’s really quite shocking in its abruptness. Stallone just pulls the gun while it’s still in Crenna’s hand – and pow!
And after we shot that, Sylvester comes over to me and says, “God, we put this character through so much. He jumps off cliffs, he gets shot and has to sew himself up, dogs are sicced on him – and now we’re gonna kill him? The audience is really gonna dislike this.”
And then he said, “Also, looking at it from a crass commercial point of view, I’m sure that whoever distributes this film” – because we didn’t have a distributor yet, we made it independently – “they’re not gonna want him to die at the end.” And I said, “You got a point, Sly. I have an idea – I know how to do this.”
And that’s when you shot the ending where he survives.
And the funny thing is, the producer wasn’t happy. He asked, “What are you doing, Kotcheff? What are you shooting? We already agreed, this is a suicide mission. We can’t have him surviving.”
And I said, “Just leave it to me, it’ll only take two hours, we can shoot this other ending.” And he was like, “We’re already over-budget. We can’t afford two hours of shooting.” But I finally convinced him to allow me to do it.
And then?
We had the first test screening in a suburb of Las Vegas. And I have to tell you, I never had another audience respond like that. They were yelling: “Great! Get him! Get him!” They were so involved with the action, it was just amazing. And then, he commits hari-kari. Well, you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema. And then a voice rang out: “If the director of this film is in this moviehouse, we should grab him and string him up from the nearest lamppost.” So I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of here before they string me up.”
So it was a no-brainer to make the change?
All the response cards we got back had things written on them like, “This is the best action film I’ve ever seen, but the ending…” And all you saw were exclamation marks. Every card had the same reaction. So I just turned to the producers, and said, “Boys, I just happen to have this other ending.” That’s how it happened.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hail and farewell to André Previn

As the New York Times duly notes, André Previn "wrote or arranged the music for several dozen movies and was the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to receive three nominations in one year (1961, for the scores for Elmer Gantry and Bells Are Ringing and the song “Faraway Part of Town” from the comedy Pepe)." The multitalented composer-conductor and bon vivant -- who died Thursday at age 89 -- also collected Oscars for scoring Gigi (1959), Porgy and Bess (1960), Irma La Douce (1964) and My Fair Lady (1965). He did not write famous songs like ‘Summertime’ and ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ — he arranged and orchestrated them, creating the versions heard on the soundtracks."

Lest we forget: He also composed the score (or at least that part of it that wasn't composed by Tchaikovsky) for Ken Russell's deliriously unhinged The Music Lovers, a film that played off and on for nearly two years at the Gentilly-Orleans, my favorite New Orleans art house during my college years. And, yeah, there was that Mia Farrow connection.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Answering for a friend: Who will win the Oscars?

OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one: You decided weeks ago to forego any serious Academy Award prognostications — indeed, you’re not entirely sure you’re going to actually watch the Oscarcast — when you get an anxious email on the day before Oscar night from a dear friend who’s entering an Oscar betting pool, and really needs your help with handicapping. So you sit down, look over the list of nominees, pick your favorites — except, of course, in those categories where you don’t really have a favorite — and then forget about what you’d pick because your friend wants to know what Academy voters will pick, dammit. 

And here’s the result.

Best Picture:

SHOULD WIN: BlacKkKlansman
WILL WIN: Green Book

Lead Actor:

SHOULD WIN: Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
WILL WIN: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Lead Actress:

SHOULD WIN: Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
WILL WIN: Glenn Close, The Wife

Supporting Actor:

SHOULD WIN: Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
WILL WIN: Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Supporting Actress:
SHOULD AND WILL WIN: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk


SHOULD WIN: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
WILL WIN: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma

Animated Feature:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Animated Short:

WILL WIN: Bao, Domee Shi

Adapted Screenplay:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee

Original Screenplay:

SHOULD WIN: First Reformed, Paul Schrader
WILL WIN: Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly


SHOULD WIN: Cold War, Lukasz Zal
WILLWIN: The Favourite, Robbie Ryan

Best Documentary Feature:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: RBG, Betsy West, Julie Cohen

Best Documentary Short Subject:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry

Best Live Action Short Film: 

WILL WIN: Marguerite, Marianne Farley

Best Foreign Language Film:


Film Editing:

SHOULD WIN: BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
WILL WIN: The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis

Sound Editing:

SHOULD WIN: First Man, Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
WILL WIN: Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst

Sound Mixing:

WILL WIN: Bohemian Rhapsody

Production Design:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: Black Panther, Hannah Beachler

Original Score:

SHOULD WIN: BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
WILL WIN: Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman

Original Song:

SHOULD WIN: “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
WILL WIN: “Shallow” from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice

Makeup and Hair:


Costume Design:

SHOULD AND WILL WIN: Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter

Visual Effects:

WILL WIN: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Friday, February 08, 2019

A brief story about Albert Finney, oral sex, Jack J. Valenti, and me

In Charlie Bubbles (1968), the only movie the late, great Albert Finney ever directed, Finney affectingly plays an author who, for a goodly portion of the film, is on a road trip with his adoring secretary, played by a very young, pre-Sterile Cuckoo Liza Minnelli. (She’s pretty terrific, by the way.) There is a scene where it’s fairly clear, though not explicitly depicted, that because he’s too enfeebled by ennui or just plain exhausted, she scoots down between his legs in a hotel room bed to fellate him. That’s one of the reasons why Universal had to release Charlie Bubbles through a subsidiary distributor — the studio couldn't get a production code seal for it.
Something similar happened the same year with Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's'isname, a movie that has a scene in which it’s heavily implied that Oliver Reed performs cunnilingus on Carol White. The minor controversies sparked by both films are amusingly detailed in Jack Vizzard's 1971 memoir See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor —  a book, not incidentally, that I cited as a reference in the long-delayed master’s thesis I wrote more than a decade ago for my MA degree at the University of Houston.

Oddly enough, both Charlie Bubbles and I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname played for months on a double bill at the Gentilly-Orleans, an art house in my hometown of New Orleans, during my senior year of high school. And I viewed the double bill multiple times — not because of the risqué scenes (though, I must admit, they weren't exactly a deterrent) — but because, for reasons I still don't fully understand, I felt extremely simpatico with the alienated characters played by Finney and Reed. (Yeah, I was a strange kid.)

What I had no way of knowing at the time is that both films provided early headaches for Jack J. Valenti, who took over as head of the MPAA in 1966 — and wound up replacing the Production Code with the vastly more flexible MPAA Ratings System in November 1968.

Now I teach at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at University of Houston. And the world keeps spinning in its greased grooves.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

R.I.P. Al Reinert -- Co-scripter of Apollo 13, director of For All Mankind and An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

Very sad to pass on some bad news: Al Reinert, the former Houston Chronicle crime beat reporter and Texas Monthly feature writer who earned Academy Award nominations for directing the Apollo space mission documentary For All Mankind (1989) and co-scripting Ron Howard’s fact-based drama Apollo 13 (1995), passed away at age 71 on the morning of New Year’s Eve at his home in Wimberly, Texas. 

At the time of his death, he was preparing another interstellar feature: Above It All, a documentary about the International Space Station. But he also made an impressive impact back here on earth, with his remarkable 2013 documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.

Back in 1990, I interviewed Reinert about For All Mankind, which earned the top jury and audience documentary awards at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival — and which Reinert was inspired to construct, without any formal training as a filmmaker, after serendipitously discovering vast quantities of NASA archival footage.

I figured, hey, we could make this movie real cheap and simple,” he told me nearly 30 years ago. “I mean, the government’s spent all this money to shoot the film, so there’ll be nothing to it. It’s like, we thought we had discovered a goldmine.”

Of course, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that. And the finished product proved to be something far more substantial than a found-footage collage. Indeed, even viewers who watched every televised detail of the epochal Apollo space program of the 1960s and ‘70s found themselves amazed and engrossed by the out-of-this-world spectacle that Reinert artfully assembled.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: For All Mankind offers a single, composite narrative culled from NASA archival footage of nine 1968-72 lunar missions. Audiences accustomed to thinking of astronauts as white-bread bland were (and still are) delighted by the unexpected hilarity: Frat-house horseplay in the spacecraft, exhilarating joyrides on the lunar surface. (One astronaut bursts into song: “While strolling on the moon one dayyyyy…”) But the movie is more than fun and games: Reinert balanced the hijinks with images that, despite their familiarity, had (and still have) an undiminished ability to astonish. And those images were underscored with haunting music by Brian Eno, and enthralling interviews with Apollo astronauts.

Reinert, a self-described fortysomething “ex-hippie” at the time of our 1990 conversation, admitted that he “never was much of a space buff” before stumbling across the NASA film-clip treasure trove more than a decade earlier. At that time, he was researching a Texas Monthly article about the 10th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“But I didn't cover space, I wasn't particularly interested in space,” he said. “In fact, the reason I did my first space story when I did was because nothing was going on in space. I went to NASA after Apollo, and before the space shuttle, when NASA was sort of in limbo. And that’s what intrigued me about NASA at the time: Like, hey, what are all these people doing down there?”

His timing was impeccable.

“I met my first astronauts when they weren’t busy, and they had time to talk. It was years after they’d gone to the moon, and they weren't being hounded by interviewers like they were when they first came back, when they really had nothing to say. And when everybody — including me — was completely convinced that they were boring.

“When I hit ‘em, eight years later, not only had all this percolated a lot, and they had a lot of things to say — when I hit ‘em, nobody had asked them anything about this in years. So I dragged my tape recorder down there, and I’d just sit around for hours with these guys. Nobody would interrupt us, and they had nothing better to do.”

Reinert accumulated over 80 hours of taped interviews, in which the Apollo astronauts spoke of their in-flight impressions, their on-the-moon memories, and their post-mission dreams. Among his favorite anecdotes: ''Ken Mattingly [of the Apollo 12 mission] went to see 2001: A Space Odyssey eight times in the six months before he blasted off, just to get himself psyched up.”

On a hunch, Reinert visited the NASA film and video archive, to view footage of an incident described by one of the astronauts. The underworked archivists were more than willing to find the footage Reinert requested.

"I looked at it, and I said, ‘Hey, that's great!’ And they said, ‘Yeah? Well, we got a lot more, you know.’”

Lots and lots more, as it turned out. The footage was freely available to anyone -- TV news directors, documentary filmmakers, anyone -- willing to pay the fee for 16mm or videotape copies. But hardly anybody had taken the time to view as much of it, over extended periods, as Reinert did.

“NASA really has very little to say about it, Reinert said. “Anybody can walk in there and order footage. I mean, people can use it in porno movies. In fact, they have used it in porno movies.

 “The trick is, knowing what you want. You can’t just walk in and say, oh, I want to order 2,000 hours’ worth of film. Because that will cost you hundreds of millions of dollars. The trick is knowing what you want out of those 2,000 hours.”

Reinert made his first visit to the NASA archives “two or three years before the shuttle really got going,” and made repeated visits during the next few years, “driving down there whenever I had nothing else to do.”

“And I found myself thinking, ‘Why has this never been seen on the big screen? Why haven’t I seen this movie?’ And I just stupidly thought — well, it was the Judy Garland syndrome of, ‘Hey, let's put on a show.’ Only with me, it was, ‘Hey, I can make this! I'm a writer — so how hard can this be?’”

Actually, the hardest part — harder than blowing up the scratchy 16mm copies to clean 35mm prints, harder even than coaxing money from investors — was creating the illusion of a continuous narrative.

“Because, essentially, it was random film,” Reinert said. “It was never designed to be cut together. I mean, like, in the movie, we’ll cut from Apollo 13 straight to Apollo 14 to Apollo 16, all in one scene.

“Like the bathroom scene — that came from an astronaut’s description of going to the bathroom in space. I thought, ‘That's funny!’ But, OK, then the task was to go find pictures of it. In the film, the scene consists of three pictures, one of which is printed backwards — and it’s cut in the middle to the picture of the guys putting on their gasmasks.”

It’s a funny image, Reinert says, “but it's really a test of the emergency oxygen system.”

I had another welcome opportunity for an extended chat with Reinert in 2013, this time at the SXSW Film Festival, where An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story — his stirring documentary about the wrongful conviction and ultimate exoneration of a Texas man accused of brutally killing his wife in 1986 — was voted the audience award in the Documentary Spotlight division.

Again, for latecomers: Morton, then gainfully employed as an Austin grocery store inventory manager, was convicted (mostly on the basis of circumstantial evidence) of beating his wife Christine to death in their home — allegedly in front of their 3-year old son.

Mind you, the youngster told an investigator that his father was not home at the time of the slaying —  and that someone else, described by the child as “a monster,” really killed his mom. But this evidently meant little to then-Williamson County district attorney Ken Anderson. The prosecutor never gave a transcript of the child’s interview to Bill Allison, Morton’s defense lawyer. Nor did he turn over other evidence that might have persuaded the jury not to render a guilty verdict during Morton’s 1987 trial.

Thanks to the efforts of Houston attorney John Raley and members of the New York-based Innocence Project, Morton finally was freed from prison in 2011 after DNA testing exonerated him —and, not incidentally, implicated Bastrop, Texas dishwasher Mark Alan Norwood, who was convicted of Christine Morton’s murder in March 2013. Norwood received his guilty sentence just a few days after An Unreal Dream had its SXSW premiere — which was attended by Reinert and Morton.

Some highlights of my conversation with Reinert nine months after SXSW, and one month before An Unreal Dream premiered on CNN:

At what point did the Michael Morton case pop up on your radar as a potential subject for a documentary?

Pretty much around the time Michael got released from prison. I had a couple of friends who had told me about this story. And while I was living in Los Angeles at the time, I was able to watch him on the Internet. I’d already known a little bit about the case – but, really, it didn’t seem all that different to me. I mean, he’s not the only person who’s been wrongly convicted and then exonerated with DNA. It’s just that I had a friend who knew John Raley, and told me this was an especially interesting case, and I should be paying attention to it. 

So I saw Michael on the day he was released from prison. And I saw him on camera talking for the very first time – he was interviewed on TV that day, and we even have a little bit of that in the film. And right away, I thought this is not your average guy. This is an interesting guy. He’s got a certain charisma to him. And I kind of wanted to know more. So about a month later, I flew to Houston to meet John Raley, and had lunch with him, and started to learn more about this story. And the story kept getting more interesting the more I learned about it. 

The remarkable thing about Michael Morton – this comes through in your film, and when you meet him in person – is that he seems so remarkably composed and equanimous for someone who spent more than two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He comes across as someone who is so – well, there’s no other word for it – forgiving. 

He does. And it is remarkable. I know I couldn’t do it. Even if I could say the words, I couldn’t pull it off like he does. He’s very genuine about it. I think he came to terms with it while he was still in prison. And I know he gives a lot of credit to his Christian faith. I mean, he doesn’t talk a lot about Christ or Jesus that much. So it’s almost like a Zen kind of a thing. But I think he really did become a different person while behind bars. 

What about you? Did you find yourself getting angry while you were researching this case? 

Oh, sure. All of us who worked on the film were angry. Because a lot of this was still going on during the production. You had Ken Anderson basically blaming the system instead of himself. And the more we learned about it, the more everybody but Michael got angry. 

Largely because of the injustice he endured, the Texas legislature passed in May 2013 the Michael Morton Act, which requires prosecutors to give defense attorneys any evidence relevant to their clients’ cases. 

Yeah, I know – it’s been one astonishment after another with this case. To think that a Tea Party legislature could unanimously pass a reform bill that’s one of the strongest in the country – it’s just amazing. I don’t know how to account for it, other than the fact that a lot of these Tea Party types listened to Michael and believed his story. And it moved them. I know he lobbied for it pretty hard. It wasn’t like he was off in the sidelines while this bill that was named for him was floating around the capital. 

When did you film the interviews for An Unreal Dream

Most of the main interviews we did over Memorial Day weekend [in 2012]. That was our first weekend of shooting, really. And here’s the thing: We went in search of an old-fashioned kind of courtroom, because we wanted to put Michael in a courtroom that had that kind of To Kill a Mockingbird feel to it. And we scouted about a dozen courtrooms in Texas looking for one that looked right. And it turned out that the best-looking one of all was the one in Georgetown — where the original trial had actually happened. 

We did not go there first. But we were fortunate, in that that courthouse is now a museum, as opposed to a working courthouse. Which meant the courtroom was available to rent. But you could only do that when the museum wasn’t open. And on Memorial Day weekend, they were closed for three days. So we were able to take over the courthouse, and shoot in there. That’s where we filmed Michael and John Raley and [defense lawyer] Bill Allison and the two jurors. Probably the heart of the movie was filmed that very first weekend. 

Right there where it all happened.