Saturday, September 30, 2006

Early b.o. info

According to Nikki Finke, toon creatures rule at the megaplexes this weekend -- and "[Kevin] Costner's career is definitely toast." Yikes.

Friday, September 29, 2006

'The Guardian'

Cliches and conventions from several generations of basic-training scenarios are proficiently recycled in The Guardian, Andrew Davis' shrewdly updated version of classic (and not-so-classic) military-themed movies about grizzled, blunt-spoken vets who transform cocksure hotheads into coolly efficient professionals. With Kevin Costner well cast as a demanding mentor haunted by past failures, and Ashton Kutcher surprisingly effective as a brash recruit dealing with his own demons, the overlong but involving drama about U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers could very well turn out to be the sort of mass-appealing, four-quadrant hit that is razzed by cynical hipsters but embraced by mainstream moviegoers.

Did I enjoy it? For the most part: Yes. But, then again, I was more amused than annoyed by the film's shameless sampling of plot details and character quirks from dozens of similar dramas. As Kutcher divides his time between romancing a sexy schoolteacher (Melissa Sagemiller) during off-duty hours, and trying to prove his prowess to a cynically incredulous Costner, The Guardian is more than a little reminiscent of An Officer and a Gentleman. Indeed, the audience is practically invited to make the comparison when director Davis (still best known for The Fugitive) visually quotes the earlier film by having Costner spray Kutcher with a water hose during an especially grueling training regimen. The big difference here is, the romantic elements are scarcely more than window dressing. (Sagemiller has relatively little to do, and Sela Ward, as Costner's estranged wife, even less.) Bookended with thrilling rescue sequences enhanced with persuasive special effects, The Guardian focuses primarily, if not exclusively, on the edgy conflict between stern instructor and callow trainee. A conflict, of course, that eventually, inevitably, gives way to mutual respect.

Stuff I wouldn't dare make up

Faced with the choice of showing jackass number two or a blank screen to his customers, the owner of two moviehouses in small-town Illinois decided blank is better.

Meanwhile, over in Kazakhstan, the owner of that country's biggest theater chain has opted to pass on a movie that may be "offensive" to his countrymen. Evidently, he's not the only person in that part of the world who can't take a joke.

And on the mean streets of New York, Liza Minnelli is set for a guest spot on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But unlike Chevy Chase -- who's guesting next month on the original Law & Order series as a celeb who has a Mel Gibsonesque meltdown while raving anti-Semitic rant -- Minnelli isn't doing a thinly-disguised riff on a real-life person. Presumably, that means she won't portray a fading superstar who's accused of smacking around her estranged husband.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Olbermann on fire

If Frank Capra were around right now, he might make a movie that would climax with a hero giving a speech like this.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Remember when, just a few weeks ago, I wrote about Peter Morgan's Nixon/Frost, the drama based on the fateful face-off between the disgraced U.S. president and the career-stalled Brit TV talk-show host? Well, it now looks like the play -- currently a smash hit in London -- will be brought to the screen by Ron Howard. No word yet, however, as to whether Frank Langella will get to repeat his acclaimed performance as Tricky Dick for the movie version.

Fade to black

Another single-screen art-house bites the dust. Such is life.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Die even harder

More than a decade after Die Hard with a Vengeance, Bruce Willis once again will do derring-do as the reluctantly heroic John McClane in yet another sequel to 1988's Die Hard. In Live Free or Die Hard -- slated to start shooting this month with director Len Wiseman (Underworld) at the helm -- McClane matches wits with a villain who tries to undermine the United States' computer infrastructure. Who's he gonna call for help? Well, how about a dude who's most famous for playing a computer on TV?

Weekend viewing tip

The Manchurian Candidate -- the classic original, not the inferior remake -- can be seen at 7 pm CST Saturday and 5 pm CST Sunday on Turner Classic Movies. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Anyone who charts the development of thrillers throughout the history of American cinema must reserve a place of honor for John Frankenheimer’s masterwork, the not-so-missing link between grimly paranoid, seriously noirish melodramas of the Cold War-fixated ’50s, and darkly ironic, brazenly fantastical superspy escapades of the swinging ’60s.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

'You’re talking to a person who knows his drugs'

Insert joke about Capt. Jack Sparrow here.

Right place, wrong time

Filmmakers Danny and Oxide Pang were lucky enough to get Nicolas Cage to star in Bangkok Dangerous, a remake of the slam-bang thriller that the Hong Kong-born, Thailand-based brothers co-directed in 2000. Unfortunately, while they were filming on location in Bangkok this week...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

R.I.P. Sven Nykvist (1922-2006)

The cinematographer known as "The Master of Light" died Wednesday after a long illness. Sven Nykvist memorably collaborated with filmmakers as diverse as Woody Allen (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Bob Fosse (Star 80), Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), Alan J. Pakula (Starting Over) and Lasse Hallstrom (What's Eating Gilbert Grape), and earned Academy Awards for two of his many films with Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander). A melancholy note: His final film, a featherweight comedy titled Curtain Call (1999), barely received theatrical release -- despite the presence of such notables as Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, James Spader, Marcia Gay Harden and Sam Shepard in the cast -- and wound up going the direct-to-DVD route in the United States. According to Internet Movie Data Base, Nykvist already was enduring the early stages of Alzheimer's disease while working on this ill-starred project. But he didn't stop working until he had to.

AFI in Big D

The American Film Institute -- working in concert with, among other heavy hitters, Todd Wagner (co-owner of HDNet, 2929 Entertainment and Landmark Theatres) -- has announced plans for a new film festival in the Lone Star State. The AFI Dallas International Film Festival, slated to kick off March 22, 2007, will present an estimated 150 features and shorts over 10 days in various Big D venues. AFI grad Michael Cain, founder of Dallas' Deep Ellum Festival, is on board as artistic director. In a prepared statement, he says he views his new posting as "an opportunity to work with the Dallas film and film festival community to bring the international cinema spotlight on Dallas."

It should be noted, however, that some members of that community -- including folks associated with the 36-year-old USA Film Festival in Dallas, and the 19-year-old Dallas Video Festival -- are not exactly embracing the AFI event. Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News writes:

"Bart Weiss, director of the more avant-garde Dallas Video Festival, worries that the city's film reputation will be hurt if AFI Dallas can't cut it. And he wonders about the new festival's curatorial vision.

"'I would be fully supportive if there was a top-notch programmer in there who could draw some really wonderful things,' he said. 'I don't think the artistic director in place has the skill set, the reputation and the chops to pull off a big international event like this.'"

So there.

In any event, it remains to be seen just how the AFI Dallas Festival may or may not affect programming at the long-established SXSW Festival in not-so-faraway Austin. The 2007 edition of SXSW is set for March 9-17, meaning it will wrap just a few days before the inaugural AFI Dallas Festival. It's hard to believe there won't be some extremely intense power-playing and backroom-dealing when the two festivals start competing for world premieres of major indie and mainstream movies.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Jesus saves, Fox films

From Fox, the same company that gave us Temptation Island, Married... With Children, Fight Club and Freddy Got Fingered, we'll soon get... well, would you believe Christian movies?

UK Linkage

Speaking as someone who never really "got" the cult-fave Withnail & I, I must concede that Liz Hoggard's thoughtful re-evaluation of the 1987 film (and, perhaps more important, her account of its troubled production history) in The Independent is sufficiently fascinating to make me suspect that, hey, maybe it's worth a second look. And even a third.

In The Telegraph, Kate Beckinsale speaks candidly -- and movingly -- about how reaching age 32 has rekindled memories of her father, British TV sitcom star Richard Beckinsale (Porridge, Rising Damp), who died at the ridiculously young age of 31 (when his daughter was just 5).

And in The Guardian, an obit for French screenwriter Gerard Brach, who memorably collaborated with the likes of Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Cul-De-Sac) and Claude Berri (The Two of Us, Jean de Florette).

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Shedding light on noir

"Noir is not a time period or wide neckties or a way of talking or specific plots or characters. Noir is a tone, a state of mind, an atmosphere." Louis B. Parks illuminates dark cinema in a perceptive Sunday Houston Chronicle feature (complete with clever A-to-Z sidebar). If you want to know more, check out the film noir primer at GreenCine Daily.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Life imitates art?

Is it just me, or is this real-life crime story more than a little reminiscent of Dial M for Murder?

Thong you very much, thong you very much

It's always nice to see a local official doing his best to encourage filmmaking in his community. But a Tennessee mayor may be in hot water for allowing scenes for something called Thong Girl 3: Revenge of the Dark Widow to be shot in his City Hall ofice. All I can say is: Geez, how did I manage to miss Thong Girl AND Thong Girl 2?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Reeling in Louisiana

A $200-million deal designed to encourage filmmaking in Louisiana -- and, not incidentally, boost the state's Katrina-ravaged economy -- has been struck by Los Angeles-based Element Films and New Orleans-based LIFT Films. But wait, there's more: Major players involved are taking great pains to emphasize that movies made under this arrangement will not be direct-to-DVD fare (like Road House 2: Last Call -- no, I'm not making that up -- which was shot in Sherveport earlier this year). Rather, the goal is to produce as many as 15 theatrical features -- each with "a production budget in the $10 million to $20 million range" -- over a three-year period.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


The Los Angeles Times has launched Scriptland, a Calendar section column hyped as "a new weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters." Unfortunately, the debut piece by free-lancer Jay A. Fernandez reads more like... well, like a gushy, gossipy attempt to mimic those film-geek websites where would-be experts "review" screenplays in various stages of production.

Nikki Finke is not amused: "Simply put: You can't review screenplays. If you want to get all artsy about it, you're reviewing a work-in-progress akin to the sheet music for a Sinatra song, or the first draft for an Updike book. If you wanna get all Hollywood about it, then you need to know which draft you are reading. The first draft turned in by the writer? The second draft after the studio gave its notes and the mid-level exec who shepherded something awful like Alien vs Predator now actually rewrites scripts from top to bottom because he thinks he's some kind of boy genius? The third draft after being worked over by the actor's private screenwriter and the director's therapist now being arbitrated by the Writers Guild?"

And David Poland is positively apoplectic: "Why is the Los Angeles Times starting a gossip column about scripts? What is the news value in this? What is the morality of this?"

And then again, maybe He did...

Representatives for Air America are denying that the Left-skewing, financially challenged radio network will declare bankruptcy this week. So who knows? Maybe Al Franken might eventually get paid after all. Meanwhile, Al Franken: God Spoke -- which details, among other things, the founding of Air America -- gets nice play as interviews Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus, co-directors of the documentary. Unfortunately, when you read the piece, it's not always clear just who said what. It would be nice to know which filmmaker described their m.o. thusly: "For the first months the budget consisted of buying a few DV tapes and an occasional Au Bon Pain sticky bun for Al, which he adores."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Maybe 'God Spoke,' but He didn't invest

Ironically, just as Al Franken: God Spoke begins its theatrical run in New York, rumors indicate the cash-strapped Air America -- the Left-skewing radio network that Franken helped establish, and heavily promotes in the film -- is on the verge of bankruptcy. Ouch.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Duel of the digital titans

Steve Jobs says his dandy new iPop video dingus will allow you to download movies at a TV quality resolution of 640x480 . Which sounds pretty sweet -- until you realize that's not quite up to the level of the DVD-quality resolution of downloads promised by the rival service. Right now, I would have to say: Advantage, Amazon. That is, unless you want to watch those downloaded movies on anything other than a PC.

The last word -- honest! -- on 'The Path to 9/11'

Succinctly summing it up for the Associated Press, Frazier Moore says the controversial docudrama offered a valuable lesson to viewers (and non-viewers): "A TV network is just as quick to betray our trust as any public servant."

Monday, September 11, 2006

Disaster movie?

The overnight ratings for The Path to 9/11? Not bad enough to qualify as awful, but...

Spike Lee does New Orleans (again)

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Spike Lee plans to follow up When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts -- his monumental documentary about Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans -- with a scripted TV drama about life and strife in a post-Katrina Big Easy. Tentatively titled NoLa -- local slang for New Orleans, Louisiana, get it? -- the proposed NBC series is being described as a multicultural ensemble piece that will follow the lives of N.O. residents from various racial and economic backgrounds. But wait, there's more: Lee promises NoLa will be filmed in the gritty, semi-documentary style of such Italian Neorealist classics as Open City and The Bicycle Thief. And like those films, the TV series will use non-professional actors -- including, possibly, Katrina survivors profiled in When the Levees Broke -- in supporting roles. Sounds promising.

BTW: On Saturday, When the Levees Broke received the prize for Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Chronicles of Houston: The Last Picture Shows

In Sunday's Houston Chronicle, arts editor Lisa Gray neatly balances wit and reportage while suggesting ways to save two endangered Art Deco moviehouses: The River Oaks 3, the city's oldest functioning moving picture palace, and the Alabama, which was successfully converted into a Bookstop store several years back. Unfortunately, both theaters may be demolished by developers in the not-so-distant future.

Also in the Sunday Chronicle: Entertainment writer Louis B. Parks weighs in with a fascinating profile of Allen Coulter, the Texas-born director of Hollywoodland.

The last 'Path to 9/11' posting (until the next one)

Look like Harvey Keitel was so dubious about The Path to 9/11 that he hired his very own researcher to vet the script, and insisted on dialogue changes throughout filming.

Meanwhile, over at Talking Points Memo, there's a report about the disclaimer that's supposed to run "throughout" the controversial docudrama. Apparently, it all depends on how you define "throughout."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Chilean cinema verite

From the Associated Press: "Sixteen years after the end of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, emboldened Chilean filmmakers are shrugging off the cloak of silence to release documentaries detailing hidden stories of his reign's dark years." Well, it's about time.

Breaking news: Michael Moore pisses off some people

What you must remember, however, is that some people deserve to be pissed off.

'The Path to 9/11' is paved with dubious intentions

Tom Shales nails ABC's controversial The Path to 9/11 as being, quite simply, not worthy of its subject: "The docudrama -- allegedly produced as a warning to the United States that the attacks, or something like them, could happen again -- falls clumsily into traps that await all those who make fictional films claiming to be factual. Except this time, the event being dramatized is one of the most tragic and monstrous in the nation's history, not something to be trifled with."

In the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten surveys "the smoking ruin that is ABC's reputation after the Path to 9/11 debacle," and pronounces that the "lacerating controversy surrounding the network's docu-dramatic re-creation of events leading to Sept. 11 is an entirely self-inflicted wound." At the same time, however, Rutten rightly questions whether censorious Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate are guilty of "a stunning affront to 1st Amendment freedoms."

Some critics are praising Harvey Keitel's performance as FBI counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill, whose efforts to contain the al-Qaida threat were rebuffed repeatedly by those above him. (An irony no scriptwriter would dare invent: Two weeks after he retired at age 49 to become director of security for the World Trade Center, O'Neill was among the unfortunates killed when the planes hit the Twin Towers.) It should be noted, however, that even Keitel isn't happy about the way the docudrama turned out.

Meanwhile, Doug Elfman indicates that, inaccuracies aside, there's another reason to dis The Path to 9/11 -- the docudrama sucks.

Blah b.o.

Nikki Finke has the early word on weekend box-office estimates. Looks like, once again, a teen-skewing horror movie that wasn't screened for critics will claim the No. 1 spot.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Linkage: 'Truth,' goof and 'Sleuth'

The improbably popular An Inconvenient Truth -- Al Gore's surprisingly fascinating and compelling eco-conscious documentary -- will be released Nov. 21 in what's being described as "earth-friendly" packaging. Well, of course.

Meanwhile, over at FishBowlLA, an indelicate question is raised: Why did Fox decide to dump Mike Judge's Idiocracy?

And what's all this, then? Jude Law starring in another remake of a Michael Caine movie? Actually, Caine himself also is slated to appear in the new version of Sleuth, playing the flamboyant mystery writer memorably essayed by Laurence Olivier in the 1972 original. Law will take over the character originally portrayed by Caine, a hunky hairdresser who has designs on the writer's wife. Kenneth Branagh will handle the directing chores for the remake -- which, like the '72 version (directed by Joseph Mankiewicz) -- is based on the ingeniously plotted play by the late Anthony Shaffer (whose 1973 screenplay for The Wicker Man recently was recycled, with unfortunate results, as a Nicolas Cage vehicle). All of which raises another indelicate question: How can the remake possibly hope to score the same impact as the '72 movie? In this Internet era of spoiler-filled blogs and fansites, it will be almost impossible to keep the play's (and the original film's) jaw-dropping plot twist a secret from the uninitiated until the remake hits megaplexes.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Marxist theory

Interesting piece by Alessandra Stanley in Wednesday's New York Times about Katie Couric's debut as the new CBS news anchor chair, and Rosie O'Donnell's addition to ABC's The View. But I have to ask myself: How many readers under the age of 50 will understand the (apt and amusing) allusion to Zeppo Marx?

Breaking news: Some people in showbiz have big egos

"Celebrities have more narcissistic personality traits than the general population, and people with narcissistic tendencies seem to be attracted to the entertainment industry rather than the industry creating narcissists, according to a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers Drew Pinsky of the Keck School of Medicine of USC and S. Mark Young of the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC Annenberg School for Communication."

Well, d'uh!

'Fountain' tanks?

Over at Green Cine Daily, David Hudson has posted a report on the world premiere of The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's long-awaited sci-fi fantasy, at the Venice Film Festival. The critics were not kind.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Just a few days ago, I was interviewing country music superstar Trace Adkins for Cowboys & Indians magazine. And being the gent that he is, he agreed with me that Mark Romanek's video for Johnny Cash's rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" is -- well, one of the greatest music videos, in any muscial genre, of all time. So I have to say that it's a little disconcerting to hear from David Poland that Cash's recording is now being used for a Nike commercial in Europe.

What a glorious feeling!

The American Film Institute officially proclaimed Sunday evening something most of us already knew: Singin' in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made.

Mind you, many of the other musicals on the AFI's all-time Top 25 list also can lay claim to being considered classics. (I'm especially happy to see Bob Fosse's audacious All That Jazz made the cut at No. 14.) But Singin' in the Rain is by far the best of the best. Why? Well, as I've noted in my Guide to Essential Movies, you can take your pick: (A) The virile grace, infectious enthusiasm and self-mocking good-sportsmanship of Gene Kelly; (B) the canny co-direction of Kelly and Stanley Donen, fortuitously teamed dance masters who warmed up with On the Town (No. 19 on the AFI list) before ensuring their immortality with this masterwork; (C) the splendiferous supporting performances of antic Donald O’Connor and endearing Debbie Reynolds; (D) the scintillating screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which artfully commingles spoofery, sentiment and showbiz mythos; (E) the astute conceptualization of producer Arthur Freed, the brilliantly eclectic mastermind who supervised two decades’ worth of musical extravaganzas during the golden age of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; or (F) all of the above.

If you chose (F) -- give yourself an A-plus. Better still, count yourself among the savvy film aficionados who recognize Singin’ in the Rain as one of the more decisive exceptions to the auteur theory. A theory, it should be noted, that Stanley Donen himself has dismissed as simplistic. “Anyone who says that every picture is not a collaboration is an idiot,” he insisted in a late ’60s interview. “It’s a question of how much you collaborate, and who you collaborate with.”

In the case of Singin’ in the Rain, producer Freed – a former Vaudevillian who worked his way up from staff songwriter to Grand Kahuna of musical production at MGM – lays claim to the title of Most Valuable Collaborator. After all, it was Freed who assembled the other members of the creative dream team for this classic, and whose multifaceted showbiz experiences informed both the story and the storytelling.

Long before Baz Luhrmann ransacked a half-century of pop music history to collect the playlist for his razzle-dazzling Moulin Rouge (No. 25 on the AFI list), Freed commissioned a similar, smaller-scaled job of recycling: He directed Comden and Green to concoct a script that would incorporate several tunes Freed had written with composer Nacio Herb Brown for dozens of earlier MGM movies.

“Singin’ in the Rain,” the best of the lot, had been introduced in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a patchwork of songs, sketches and dances that was hurriedly thrown together at MGM during the early, awkward days of talking pictures. How appropriate, then, that the tune would provide a title – and cinema’s grandest solo production number – for the smart and sassy Comden-Green scenario about the madcap misadventures that ensue as moviemakers make the transition from silents to talkies.

The fun begins at the Hollywood premiere of a silent swashbuckling epic, then segues to an extended flashback as superstar Don Lockwood (Kelly) gives a fawning interviewer a self-serving account of his salad days. Even as Don insists that he and best buddy Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) adhered to a simple motto – “Dignity, always dignity!” – the richly amusing montage shows how they barely made the grade as Vaudeville song-and-dance men (like Freed, perhaps?) until Don stumbled into movies as a stuntman, and Cosmo tagged along as an on-set musical accompanist.

Singin’ in the Rain maintains its puckishly playful tone as we’re introduced to Lina Lamont (the great Jean Hagen), Don’s frequent co-star and (according to the fan magazines, which Lina accepts as gospel) his off-screen love interest.

Lina looks like a fetching goddess – and sounds like a screeching harpy. Like many others in the Hollywood firmament, she runs the risk of becoming a fallen star as talking pictures become the rage. Fortunately, the producers of her first talkie are able to disguise her vocal deficiencies: They arrange for Lina’s singing and speaking to be dubbed by Kathy Seldon (Reynolds), an aspiring actress (and sometime chorus girl) who just happens to be the real off-screen apple of Don’s eye. When she learns of the deception, however, Lina vows to keep Kathy behind the scenes – and away from Don.

Singin’ in the Rain vividly conveys heady atmosphere of panic, promise and improvisation that prevailed in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, often alluding to real-life mishaps and missteps that have become the stuff of showbiz legend. (Note the hilarious struggles to camouflage microphones and record audible dialogue.) Indeed, this enduringly entertaining musical merits inclusion in the syllabus of any college-level film history course. But don’t let that scare you off: Donen, Kelly and company never allow facts to get in the way of telling a wonderfully entertaining story, and casting an irresistibly captivating spell.

Because of that, and so much more, Singin' in the Rain continues to shine more than a half-century after its initial theatrical release. Now and forever: This one's No. 1.

Gibson nailed by Hebrew Hammer?

Mel Gibson meets a grisly end in the opening scene of the script for a proposed sequel to The Hebrew Hammer. No, I'm not making that up. Hey, if they can bump off President Bush in a mockumentary, why not waste Mel in a Jewish-skewing action-comedy?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Caine complains

Michael Caine tells The Times of London that most contemporary Hollywood movies are "stunningly banal and formulaic." Which, of course, is true. But his criticism might carry just a teeny bit more weight if Sir Michael didn't refer to How to Eat Fried Worms as a horror movie. Or was that mistake made by the reporter interviewing him?

Can 007 save Hollywood?

Or will it be a blue Christmas for the major studios? Josh Friedman of the Los Angeles Times takes a look at what it will take for the industry to enjoy "a full-scale box-office rebound."

Sunday viewing tip

Several years ago, a colleague at the now-defunct Houston Post wrote a story about movies that some people – celebrities, mostly – like to watch over and over and over again on videocassette. (Hey, I told you this was several years ago.) When he ran out of really well-known folks to interview, he collared me in the newsroom and asked: “What movie do you watch repeatedly?” And so I told him: “There’s something about Tender Mercies that deeply and profoundly affects me on so many levels that, yes, I’m addicted to watching it. Whenever I get depressed, I want to pop the tape into the VCR, and hear Robert Duvall say: ‘I don’t trust happiness. Never did, never will.’ God, I know exactly how he feels.”

Flash-forward a few weeks: I am at Houston’s Stages Theatre for the opening night performance of Talking Pictures, a play by the great Horton Foote, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Tender Mercies (and To Kill a Mockingbird). There’s a post-performance party, and I’m off in a corner, munching on fried chicken I obtained from the bountiful buffet, when I spot Foote – who I’ve met maybe once or twice before that evening – across a crowded room. I nod, give him a thumb’s up – the play actually was quite good, and deserves to be revived – and go back to eating. Much to my surprise, however, Foote cuts short a conversation he’s having with someone, walks across the crowded room, makes his way over to me and, without a hint of irony, says: “Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry you get depressed…”

Bless you, Mr. Foote. And thank you again for writing Tender Mercies, which can be seen Sunday evening on Turner Classic Movies. Masterfully directed by Bruce Beresford, this is a spare, subtle film that speaks in a quiet yet compelling voice about faith and despair, regret and redemption, lower depths and second chances, while considering the restorative potential of human and divine love. Duvall earned his own Academy Award for his heart-wrenching performance as Mac Sledge, a down-and-out country singer who’s redeemed by the love a good woman (Tess Harper), then pushed back to the brink by a devastating tragedy. If you can remain dry-eyed during his final scene here, you’re made of sterner stuff than me.

Historical footnote

If you're of a certain age, you know exactly where you were on Nov. 22, 1963, when you heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. The last words JFK ever heard -- "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you!" -- were spoken by a woman who died Friday. The Associated Press reports that Nellie Connally, the former Texas first lady who was riding in President Kennedy's limousine when he was assassinated, was the last living person who had been part of that fateful Dallas drive. Some of you might ask: Is there a movie connection here? Well, she does have her very own credits page on Internet Movie Database....

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Tutto Fellini!

Should have posted this days ago, but better late than never: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is hosting a 22-film retrospective of Federico Fellini masterworks through Oct. 8. The series kicked off last night with La Strada, and runs the gamut from early classics (Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita) to late obscurities (Intervista, The Voice of the Moon). And for the benefit of the uninitiated, Eric Harrison offers a "Fellini Made Easy" intro here.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Olbermann rules

Set for release next week: The must-read book of the year, if not the decade. But who will star in the movie version of this budding best-seller? Well, you know, Jon Stewart really hasn't had a decent big-screen gig since Playing By Heart, so if they haven't cast the lead yet...

'Wicker' causes snickers

It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when Neil LaBute's remake of The Wicker Man completely jumps the tracks. For some, it will be the scene where Nicolas Cage, in dire need of transportation, turns a gun on a passing bicyclist and melodramatically commands: “Step. Away. From. The Bike." For others, it will be the fight scene that ends with Cage delivering a karate kick to a feisty Leelee Sobieski. (That that, bee-yotch!) But for most, the point of no return will arrive during an extended climactic sequence that calls for Cage to pad about in a tacky bear costume. It’s so hilarious, it’s almost, well, unbearable.

As I note in my Variety review: When a major studio release with two Oscar-winning stars (Cage and Ellen Burstyn) opens without press previews, one usually assumes the distributor is trying to hide the picture from critics. But in the case of Wicker Man, which wasn't screened until 10 pm Thursday here in Houston, it's entirely possible that Warner Bros. wanted to hide a ludicrous misfire – for as long as possible, at least – from audiences as well. Much funnier by accident than many intentional comedies, it’s bound to spark outbreaks of spontaneous laughter wherever it’s exposed to paying customers. Once derisive word of mouth starts to spread, only connoisseurs of high camp and curious devotees of disasters will be queuing up at the box-office.

After writing all that, and worse, and seeing it posted online, I was prepared for a dose of vitriolic sarcasm when I received an e-mail from LaBute this afternoon. Lo and behold, however, the note was a graciously polite missive in which the writer-director acknowledged my criticism with a philosophic shrug, and encouraged me to "keep up the good work."

But you know what? I've read this note again and again, and I still can't helping thinking of Aaron Eckhart in LaBute's In the Company of Men, and Jason Patric in his Your Friends and Neighbors -- charming fellows both, until they dropped their masks. Yeah, LaBute may be all grace and good manners now. But if I look out in my backyard tomorrow, and see a towering figure constructed from wicker, well....

Bush on film

Spike Lee couldn't resist dissing George Bush while promoting When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts at the Venice Film Festival. And that, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Lee's extraordinary documentary, which takes several well-aimed potshots at the Bush Administration's failure to provide speedy and sufficient aid to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Even so, it's questionable whether even the incorrigibly feisty Lee would make anything so incendiary as Death of a President, an audacious faux documentary set to screen this month at the Toronto Film Festival. The movie, according to the Toronto Sun, is fashioned as a future look back at the repercussions that follow President Bush's assassination in October 2007. Predictably, conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh already are attacking the film (without, it should be noted, bothering to actually see it).

On the other hand, another Bush-related project is receiving glowing advance praise from Limbaugh.