Monday, January 16, 2017

Hail and farewell to Gene Cernan -- The Last Man on the Moon

Such has been my good fortune in life that, on certain rare occasions, I have been in the presence of historic figures. At the 2016 Houston Film Critics Society Awards, I was privileged to be honored alongside -- and to joke around with -- astronaut Gene Cernan, my fellow adopted Texan, who passed away Monday at age 82. Months earlier, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview him for Cowboys & Indians magazine at SXSW after the premiere of The Last Man on the Moon, the exceptional documentary based on his autobiography of the same name.

My favorite parts of our conversation:

Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case… 

Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal tranquility base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana – which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there. 

Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood? 

I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. And the closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out, and I swam to the surface – and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, “I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did what was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire], and then kick his way back to the surface.” And that’s what I did.

You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the new documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story? 

From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. And I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere...

Look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover, or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon – what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.

(You can read the rest of our Q&A here. And you can view The Last Man on the Moon on Netflix.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

La La Land, Hell or High Water big winners at Houston Film Critics Society Awards


La La Land continued its extended victory lap Friday — two days before  the Golden Globe Awards — by picking up top prizes at the 10th annual Houston Film Critics Society Awards extravaganza. The HFCS (of which I am a member) named La La Land the Best Picture of 2016, and filmmaker Damien Chazelle the year’s Best Director, during a program presented at H-Town’s MATCH performing and visual arts center. La La Land also picked up awards for cinematography (Linus Sandgren) and technical achievement (production design).

The acclaimed modern-day western Hell or High Water picked up a pair of prizes: Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan).

Elsewhere on the list of HFCS Award Winners:

Actor — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Actress — Natalie Portman, Jackie
Supporting Actress — Viola Davis, Fences
Animated FilmKubo and the Two Strings
DocumentaryO.J.: Made in America
Foreign FilmThe Handmaiden
Texas Independent Film AwardTower
Outstanding Cinematic Contribution — The Alamo Drafthouse
Lifetime Achievement — Margo Martindale


And to counterbalance all the honors, HFCS announced a dishonor: Zoolander 2 was named Worst Picture of 2016. Which, of course, should greatly enhance its chances at this year's Razzie Awards.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Prepare for 2017 with words of wisdom from Sir Michael Caine


I originally posted this back in 2011, but I think it's even more appropriate for today. 

From Sir Michael Caine, words to live by: "You are going to make every moment count. I mean, you better make every moment count. Live your life now; start in the morning. You mustn’t sit around waiting to die. When it happens you should come into the cemetery on a motorbike, skid to a halt by the side of the coffin, jump in and say: 'Great. I just made it.'"

Works for me.

And Sir Michael also said this: "You quite often see these middle aged people on television who’ve won the fight against cancer and now they want to live their lives differently and enjoy every moment. Before they just went along and now they’ve had this scare that they were going to die. I had that scare that I was going to die when I was nineteen when I was a soldier, so I have been living my life that way for sixty years now... 

"I was a soldier in Korea and I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die – like the people know they are going to die of cancer, except then we got out of it. But it lasted with me – I was nineteen. That formed my character for the rest of my life. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep."

By the way: Sir Michael is 83 years old, and he already has two movies in the can -- Going in Style and Coup d'Etat -- ready for release this year. I strongly suspect he and Keith Richards will outlive all of us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My titillating encounter with the great Debbie Reynolds


In November 1996, while I was free-lancing for NBC affiliate KRRC-TV, I drove to Austin to cover the junket for Albert Brooks’ Mother – and had a brief one-on-one sit-down with Debbie Reynolds. 

Funnily enough, I had asked her a question during a press conference for the very same movie a few weeks earlier at the Toronto Film Festival: “How would you compare working for Albert Brooks to working for Oliver Stone?” (Afterwards, I had to remind more than a few of my quizzical colleagues that she had played a supporting role in Stone’s Heaven & Earth.) And she was very gracious while saying nice things about both gentlemen. 

But in Austin, she displayed — well, a delightfully bawdier side of her character.

As I walked into the hotel suite where the videotaping would take place, Reynolds was talking with the production crew about her… her… well, OK, her breasts. Specifically: She was discussing how she had maintained her figure despite the passing of years — she was 64 at the time, the same age I am now — and the laws of gravity. And she wanted everyone within earshot to know: “I’m very proud of my tits.” When she realized a newcomer had entered the interview zone, she turned her gaze to me, and bluntly asked: “Don’t you think I still have great tits?”

For a second, I thought: “Just how does one respond to a question like that?”

And then I figured, what the hell, say what you think.

So I answered: “They look terrific, ma’am. And your ass looks pretty good, too.”

She laughed, but demurred. “Oh, no, that’s gone to hell. But my tits…”

I have dined out on that anecdote many times over the past two decades. And I thought about it again yesterday, when I learned of Carrie Fisher’s passing, and recalled how she was a fabulously and fearlessly funny woman who never shied away from making herself the butt of her own jokes. (Pardon the pun.) Tonight, I grieve for Debbie Reynolds, and find myself painfully reminded of the classic explanation of the difference between plot and story. (Plot: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died.” Story: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died — of a broken heart.”) At the same time, however, I take some solace and amusement in my happy memory: Like mother, like daughter.  

Happy 121st Birthday to 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 be called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Coming soon to a theater or scratching post near you: Kedi


As I wrote in my Variety review just a few months ago, after the film played at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 

"Early in Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s splendidly graceful and quietly magical documentary about the multifaceted feline population of Istanbul, a human inhabitant of the city notes: 'Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.' All of which might explain why so many of the movie’s four-legged subjects come across not as feral orphans who rely on the kindness of strangers, but rather as slumming royals who occasionally deign to interact with two-legged acolytes.

"Indeed, another interviewee here swears that, after his fishing boat was damaged during a storm, a beneficent cat led him to a lost wallet containing just enough money to pay for repairs. 'Whoever doesn’t believe this story,' the grateful beneficiary proclaims, 'is a heathen in my book.'

"Trust me: Kedi will make you a believer."

Thanks to Oscilloscope Laboratories, which proudly bills itself as the distributor "of the best in American independent, foreign, documentary, and cat films," Kedi is slated to start prowling in North American theaters February 10. Here is the trailer.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Godzilla flames again. And again. And again. And again.


‘Twas the weekend of Christmas, and all through the land, Godzilla was stirring and stomping and grand.

Yes, friends, it’s that time of year again: Time for The Original Gangsta Lizard to loom large and take charge during the annual Kaiju Christmas movie marathon on the El Rey cable network. Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah and other notorious notables also figure into the binge-worthy cavalcade of creature features, which kicks off at 6 am ET/PT December 23 with the original 1954 Gorjira, and knocks off at 4:30 am ET/PT December 27 with the classic Godzilla Raids Again (a.k.a. Gigantis The Fire Monster).

Big G — newly reanimated just a few months ago in Shin Godzilla — is the star of almost every movie in the El Rey lineup (Rodan is the sole exception), and the marathon as a whole serves as a testament to the wide range of his iterations. As I noted in my 2014 tribute:

“Much like Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Miley Cyrus, Godzilla illustrates a time-honored showbiz dictum: The best way to sustain your superstardom is to repeatedly reinvent yourself.

“During six decades of Japanese-produced low-tech monster mashes and made-in-America CGI-stuffed spectacles, Big G has remained au courant through the miracle of image makeovers. From nuclear-age nightmare to doting single parent, from freelance global defender to butt-kicking tag-team wrestler, he has evolved and developed, evincing a versatility that might make Meryl Streep turn green – or, perhaps more appropriately, charcoal gray – with envy.”

You can marvel at the many faces of Godzilla as you peruse titles in the Kaiju Christmas schedule here. And you can prepare for the marathon by viewing this preview.



Sunday, November 27, 2016

Remembering Fritz Weaver


Fritz Weaver -- the esteemed character actor who passed away Saturday at age 90 -- told me a lovely story about Ingrid Bergman when I had the pleasure to interview several years ago in New York. 

Back in 1970, he and Bergman co-starred in A Walk in the Spring Rain, a romantic melodrama about a would-be author (Weaver) and his wife (Bergman) who move from New York to the backwoods of Tennessee while he works on his long-delayed novel. While he scribbles away, the neglected wife drifts into an affair with an earthy neighbor (Anthony Quinn at his earthiest) -- and, while enjoying her middle-age craziness, refuses to serve as babysitter for her college-bound daughter, despite the daughter's attempts to guilt-trip her mom in accepting the task. (It doesn't help at all that the daughter insists mom really has nothing better to do because, well, she's old.) The affair, not surprisingly, ends badly.

On the first day they were to shoot a scene together, Weaver told me, Bergman knocked at the door of his trailer, and he invited her inside. He assumed she wanted to ask some questions about their scene, which she did. But then she did something totally unexpected: She asked, "Would you kiss me, please?" So Weaver did what any reasonably sentient heterosexual male would do if Ingrid Bergman asked for a smooch -- he gracious granted her request.

"There," she told him as the brief lip-lock concluded. "Now we have a past." 

And with that, she was ready to play his wife.

Some guys have all the luck.

I first became aware of Weaver when I was 14 years old, when I watched him give a standout performance as Rev. John Hale in a star-studded TV production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (George C. Scott was John Proctor, Collen Dewhurst was Elizabeth Proctor, and Tuesday Weld was Abigail Williams.) The telecast, oddly enough, had a major albeit indirect impact on me: When I saw a thoroughly second-rate stage production of the play (with professional actors) two years later, I couldn't help comparing it to the TV production, and realized that, hey, professional stage actors could be just as bad as professional movie actors.

Weaver laughed when I told him about this during our interview -- which was keyed to, of all things, his appearance in the 1982 movie Creepshow. And he accepted with modest gratitude my fanboy praise of his performance in another Arthur Miller drama, the acclaimed 1979 off-Broadway revival of The Price. Even now, I can still hear him delivering what I think is the key line of the play, one that continues to haunt me: "We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know."

During a stage and screen career that spanned seven decades, Weaver accumulated a prodigious number of TV, film and theater credits -- ranging from Fail-Safe (1964) to the original 1970 Broadway production of Child's Play (for which he won a Tony Award), from the 1978 miniseries Holocaust (which netted him an Emmy nomination) to a 2014 co-starring stint opposite Adam Sandler in The Cobbler. Trivia buffs, take note: He was the bad guy in the very first episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Sherlock Holmes (under the direction of Harold Prince) in the 1965 Broadway musical Baker Street. (And before you ask: Yes, I have the original cast album for the latter. On vinyl, no less.)

Fritz Weaver added something special, and substantial, to every production that employed him, even when he gave the production a lot more than it ever gave him. He will be missed. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And then there was the time Robert Vaughn told me...


While preparing a Cowboys & Indians magazine tribute to Robert Vaughn, who passed away Friday at age 83, I was reminded of two remarks he made during interviews I did with him decades ago. And I smiled at the memories because both illustrated his trademark dry wit — and, just as important, his ready willingness to make himself the butt of his own joke.

The first time we chatted was in my hometown of New Orleans, which he visited while on a promotional tour for The Towering Inferno (1974). Naturally, I asked a fair share of fanboy questions about The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) — hey, I was only 22 at the time — which Vaughn graciously answered. But when the conversation turned back to the star-studded disaster movie he was in town to hype… Well, to be honest, the only thing I recall his saying in regard to Towering Inferno is his bemused observation that he and another ‘60s TV star, Richard Chamberlain, played characters who existed primarily to increase the body count.

“I wonder,” he mused aloud with a perfectly straight face, “just how upset audiences will be to see Dr. Kildare and Napoleon Solo falling out of a burning skyscraper?”

Years later, at a movie junket for Superman III (1983), Vaughn amiably agreed that the super-hero sequel wasn’t exactly the crowing artistic achievement of his career. (It’s worth noting that the movie rates only a fleeting mention in his wonderfully entertaining autobiography, A Fortunate Life.) But never mind: The paycheck was substantial. Indeed, Vaughn admitted that he took a very pragmatic approach to acting gigs, given his then-current status as a journeyman actor who relied on the name recognition that was his legacy from a once-trendy television series.

“My wife and I were renovating our home a while ago,” Vaughn said, “and I took one job mainly because we needed a new porch.

“Not a new Porsche, mind you” he added with a grin, “but a new porch.”

Must admit: I think of Vaughn’s self-deprecating disclosure every time I see a talented actor playing a supporting part — or even the lead — in a movie that is in no way worthy of his (or her) talent. Before I make any hasty judgments, I consider: Maybe he (or she) got a way-cool veranda out of the deal. Maybe even a condo. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Does Doctor Strange make house calls?


Have to admit: I laughed out loud more than once while watching this clip. What really makes it work, I think, is Jimmy Kimmel's willingness to serve more or less as the straight man to Benedict Cumberbatch, while Cumberbatch plays the Sorcerer Supreme with pretty much the same subtly sardonic edge he brings to his performance in the actual Doctor Strange movie. The whole thing strikes me as an amusingly retro throwback to the days when celebrities would plug their movies by remaining in character while fooling around with Bob Hope or Johnny Carson. 
 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Words of wisdom from John Cassavetes: “You know, in this business, it's all jealousy.”


Jeffrey Wells posted an interesting commentary today over at Hollywood Elsewhere, postulating that Hollywood major players are far less supportive of their fellow filmmakers than their counterparts, past and present, in other countries. And got me to thinking about something the late, great John Cassavetes told me way during an interview way back in 1985. You can read the entire article I gleaned from our conversation in Gabriella Oldhman’s exceptional anthology John Cassavetes: Interviews, recently published by the University Press of Mississippi. (Mind you, I’m not saying it’s exceptional simply because she included something written by me — but, hey, that didn’t hurt.) This particular segment, however, I feel is especially relevant in light of Wells’ observation:

So, at 55, John Cassavetes is still a maverick, eh?

The question elicits a melancholy smile. Cassavetes stares at his soft drink for a moment as he calmly considers his answer. “People used to love to call me a maverick, because I had a big mouth, and I’d say, ‘That bum!’ or something like that when I was young. Mainly, because I believed it, and I didn’t know there was anybody’s pain connected to the business. I was so young, I didn't feel any pain. I just thought, ‘Why don’t they do some exciting, venturesome things? Why are they just sitting there, doing these dull pictures that have already been done many, many times, and calling them exciting? That's a lie — they're not exciting. Exciting is an experiment.’

“Now, from the point of view of a guy in his 20s, that was true. But when I look back on it, I think, yes, that man was a maverick. But...”

His words trail off into weak laughter.

“That reputation keeps with you, through the years. Once the press calls you a maverick, it stays in their files. I’ll be dead five years, and they'll still be saying, ‘That maverick son-of-a-bitch, he's off in Colorado, making a movie. As if they really cared.

“You know, in this business, it's all jealousy. I mean, this is the dumbest business I’ve ever seen in my life. If somebody gets married, they say, ‘It’ll never work.’ If somebody gets divorced, they say, ‘Good. I'll give you my lawyer.’ If somebody loses a job, everyone will call him -- to gloat. They’ll discuss it, they’ll be happy, they’ll have parties. I don't understand how people that can see each other all the time, and be friends, can be so happy about each other’s demise.

“I think people, studio executives and filmmakers, should hate each other openly, and save a lot of trouble. Its like me and actors. I never get along with actors, not on the level of friendship, because I don't believe in it. Only on a creative level. Now, through a period of years, Peter Falk and I have become very good friends, as have Ben Gazzara and I. But only after a period of years. That friendship came out of working on Husbands together, and the success that came out of that. And a lot of other films, too. Sometimes, we’ve been successful, and sometimes we've been unsuccessful. I mean, the creative part of it has always been successful. That’s been the bargain of it, our relationship.


“But I’m sure that, the moment I was no longer interested in anything artistic, Peter would not be my friend anymore. And that would be fair game. I probably wouldn’t be his friend, either, if I weren’t interested in art.” 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Wild Western: In a Valley of Violence


Ti West's In a Valley of Violence, as I have posted elsewhere, is a brutally gritty and slow-burningly suspenseful drama that is laced with elements of dark comedy, abounding in deadly serious mayhem, and loaded with tips of the Stetson to classic Spaghetti Westerns. The official plot synopsis:

A mysterious drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abbie make their way toward Mexico through the barren desert of the Old West. In an attempt to shorten their journey they cut through the center of a large valley, landing themselves in the forgotten town of Denton — a place now dubbed by locals as a “valley of violence.” The once-popular mining town is nearly abandoned, and controlled by a brash group of misfits and nitwits. Chief among them: the seemingly untouchable Gilly (James Ransone), who is the troublemaking son of the town’s unforgiving marshal (John Travolta). 

As tensions rise between Paul and Gilly, Denton’s remaining residents bear witness to an inevitable act of violence that starts a disastrous chain reaction, infecting the petty lives of all involved, and quickly drags the whole town into the bloody crosshairs of revenge. Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and Ellen (Karen Gillan), two bickering sisters who run the town’s only hotel, try to find the good in both men, while desperately searching for their own salvation. Only the world-weary marshal struggles to stop the violent hysteria. But after a gruesome discovery about Paul’s past, there is no stopping the escalation

The movie opens Friday in theatrical and VOD release. Here is an interview I did with lead player Ethan Hawke, and here is another Q&A I conducted with director Ti West -- both for Cowboys & Indians Magazine.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

There are bad movies, and then there are worse movies, and then there is... Max Steel


"That loud, dull thud you may have heard emanating from megaplexes Friday signaled the theatrical dump of Max Steel, a ponderous and preposterous sci-fi action-adventure that obviously was intended by folks aflame with misguided optimism as the curtain-raiser for a superhero franchise. Inspired, for want of a better term, by a Mattel action figure and its TV cartoon show spinoffs, this drearily lame time-waster plays like the origin story for a comic-book series about a teen who wields energy waves as an offensive weapon, and a techno-organic extraterrestrial that serves as his sidekick. Or something like that. Suffice it to say that if Nick Fury ever sized up these guys as potential Avengers, he wouldn’t even bother to draft them for the farm team."

You can read the rest of my Variety review of this misbegotten movie here.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Shin Godzilla: The Batman Begins of Zilla Thrillers


"The Original Gangsta Lizard gets a largely satisfying reboot in Shin Godzilla, a surprisingly clever monster mash best described as the Batman Begins of Zilla Thrillers. Co-directors Hideaki Anno (the cult-fave Evangelion franchise) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan), working from Anno’s genre-respectful yet realpolitik-savvy screenplay, draw basic elements from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Gojira and its many follow-ups — to the point of including a wink-wink, nudge-nudge reference to Goro Naki, a character who loomed large in two sequels — but update the familiar kaiju mythos to a 21st-century world where the sudden appearance of an immense, fire-breathing reptile in Japan can generate all sorts of inter-agency political wrangling, revive terribly unpleasant memories of the country’s militaristic past, and really, really wreak havoc on the value of the yen in global monetary markets.

"In short, Anno and Ishihara operate according to a classic sci-fi game plan: This couldn’t happen. But if it did happen, this probably is what would happen."

You can read the rest of my Variety review of Shin Godzilla — which Funimation Films will release Tuesday, Oct. 11, in theaters throughout North America here. And you can read my 2014 tribute to Big G here.

Phantasm: Ravager: A grand finale for the franchise?


Phantasm: Ravager began to roll out in limited theatrical release this weekend. As I reported for Variety last month from Fantastic Fest:

"It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs. And four-barrel shotguns. And, of course, floating, blade-bedecked silver spheres. Phantasm: Ravager — the fifth and purportedly final installment in the cult-favorite franchise launched in 1979 with writer-director Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm — most assuredly is the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests Last Year at Marienbad (or, better still, Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado. 

"Anyone unfamiliar with its predecessors in the on-again, off-again series (which includes two direct-to-video sequels) won’t be able to make heads or tails of what transpires here. Indeed, even dedicated Phantasm fanatics may be hard-pressed to discern anything resembling a unifying narrative thread. But the latter group — the film’s target audience — likely will be willing to eschew coherence for the opportunity to savor this chaotic reprise of familiar characters and concepts in the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album."

You can read the rest of my review here.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Middle School: Fun for all ages. No kidding.


There’s a very funny scene in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life where a plucky and brainy sixth-grader (Isabela Mona) explains to an endlessly resourceful fellow student (Griffin Gluck) the intricacies of an ancient technology known as VHS recording. She is enthusiastic in her instruction, but he remains dubious about… about… well, recording anything inside something that looks like nothing more than a small plastic box.

Obviously, this is a movie designed primarily for tweeners. But that doesn’t mean audiences with living memories of the pre-DVD era can’t enjoy it, too. To quote my Variety review:

“As Francois Truffaut sagely noted, adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember. So it’s entirely possible that even the folks who made Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life will be pleasantly surprised by the cross-generational appeal of their spirited comedy about a sixth-grader’s antiauthoritarian campaign of rule-breaking mischief. To be sure, every generation is entitled to its own revenge fantasy, and this particular wishdream — inspired by the series-spawning novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets — is aimed primarily at viewers who might not yet have a firm grasp on puberty. But Middle School also may resonate with older viewers who most certainly do remember adolescent angst.”

 You can read the rest of my review here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Chicken People is a pretty clucking wonderful documentary


OK, I'll freely admit it: When I first heard about Nicole Lucas Haimes Haimes' Chicken People -- the fascinating feel-good documentary I reviewed for Variety last spring at the Nashville Film Festival -- I expected something along the lines of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. With the emphasis on mock.

But no: As I wrote for Variety: Haimes "approaches her subjects — both human and otherwise — with equal measures of bemused curiosity and respectful empathy, with nary a trace of wink-wink condescension." Chicken People offers "an illuminating and amusingly entertaining look at the thriving subculture of competitive poultry breeders," and "as the film progresses, the sheer determination of the breeders who are Haimes’ primary focus commands respect, not derision."

After traversing the festival circuit, Chicken People opened Friday in limited theatrical release. And I'm happy to see I'm not the only critic who thinks it is something worth crowing about. Katie Walsh of the Los Angeles Times writes: "[T]he film proves to be more than just a glimpse into a world that’s easy to titter at. Haimes delves into the larger issues and psychological motivations that drive the kind of obsession that allows one to breed award-winning poultry." Helen T. Verongos of The New York Times adds: "Will fluffy, poodle-like chickens replace cats on the internet? Maybe not, but these chicken people, with deep connections to their birds, make for a fun and at times astonishing film."

Chicken People is well worth looking out for, even if you have to wait until it's available in digital and home-video platforms. As I noted months ago in an observation that didn't make the final cut of my Variety review, but did make the movie's trailer: Will you enjoy it? Well, you just have to ask yourself: Do you feel plucky?



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Remembering The Murder of Emmett Till


On this date 61 years ago, 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed by racist white thugs in Money, Mississippi. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounted this tragic episode in his exceptional 2003 documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, which currently is available for viewing on YouTube. As I wrote in my Variety review:

"Using archival footage, official records and well-shot (by Robert Shepard) contemporary interviews, Nelson fashions an evocative portrait of a life and death in a not-long-ago Deep South. While visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County during summer 1955, 14-year-old Till, a black, Chicago-born youngster, was brutally beaten, then fatally shot, by white racists. His killers, stepbrothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, pursued Till after the precocious youngster made the fatal mistake of whistling at Bryant’s attractive wife in a grocery store. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but later agreed — in return for a hefty fee — to admit their guilt in a Look magazine interview. 


"Emmett Till deftly places the tragedy of the youngster’s killing within context of an age when many Southern whites felt entitled to treat blacks any way they pleased, and were antagonistic toward locals or 'outside agitators' who supported integration. In one of several startling TV news clips from the period, an elderly white Mississippian insists that Bryant and Milam were framed as part of a 'Communist plot.' 

"Taking their cue from such paranoia, the murderous pair’s defense attorneys shamelessly argued that Till wasn’t really dead, and that the mutilated body found in a local river had been deliberately misidentified by the boy’s widowed mother. The jury — which, Nelson indicates, really didn’t require much exculpatory evidence — warmed to this theory while voting for acquittal. 

"Most devastating scenes focus on the discovery of Till’s corpse — which actually was difficult to identify, because the boy’s face had been beaten almost beyond recognition — and Mamie Till’s insistence that her son be displayed in an open coffin during his Chicago funeral service, so that the world would know what had happened to her boy. As hundreds of mourners passed the coffin, narrator Andre Braugher notes, 'One out of every five had to be helped out of the building.'

"[The documentary] persuasively argues that Till’s martyrdom served as an impetus for the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Overall, however, Murder of Emmett Till is more heartbreaking than uplifting, and will leave sympathetic viewers with an anguished sense of moral outrage."



Monday, August 22, 2016

Will they still need me, will they still read me, when I'm 64?


Today I am 64 years old. In other words:

I am two years older than John Wayne was when he starred in True Grit.

I am two years older than Cary Grant was when he retired from movies.

I am one year older than Walter Brennan was when he appeared in the first episode of The Real McCoys.

I am 14 years older than Claude Rains was when he appeared in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I am 10 years older than Bette Davis was when she starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

I am 11 years older than Warren Oates was when he died, seven years older than Humphrey Bogart was when he died, five years older than Clark Gable when he died.

And you know what? They’re all gone. All of them. But I’m still standing. I would do well to be grateful. I would do better not to waste any time I have left.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Farewell to Jack Riley


Sorry to hear the bad news about Jack Riley, the terrifically funny character actor who was an indefatigably snarky note of discord on The Bob Newhart Show -- and my co-star in a 1985 TV commercial for the gone-but-not-forgotten Houston Post. Riley, who passed away today in Los Angeles at age 80, was a classy gent throughout the long day's shoot at H-Town's deluxe Palm Restaurant. And, better still, he remained patient while I screwed up take after take after take...