Sunday, October 29, 2006

Boldly going where no casting director has gone before

Ryan Phillippe as Capt. Kirk? Keanu Reeves as Spock? John Leguizamo as Chekov? Those are some of the suggestions offered by Houston Chronicle readers in a poll to determine casting of "an upcoming, brand-spanking-new Star Trek film rumored to feature fresh young actors in the original roles." I would heartily agree with at least one inspired selection: the va-va-voom Angela Bassett as Uhura. But, then again, I happen to believe that just about any movie would be improved with Ms. Bassett in a prominent role. Hell, I think even that godawaful movie version of The Avengers could have been at least watchable if Bassett had been cast as Emma Peel.

'Borat' bombast

Would it be rude to suggest that maybe, just maybe, Jeff Wells is going a tad over the top in his hyperbolic praise of Borat? I mean, he's saying that the film's commercial reception should be "read as a referendum on the American character circa 2006." Excuse me, but isn't there a slightly more important "referendum" -- one that really will reflect the "American character circa 2006" -- coming up just a few days after Borat opens?

And speaking of Borat: GreenCine offers a roundup of on-line items about the comedy. Scroll down a bit to catch it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Corker ain't miscegenated

Is the RNCC's controversial campaign ad for Bob Corker too subtle to reach its intended audience? Well, maybe this one will be more effective.

R.I.P. Arthur Hill (1922-2006)

Even if you don't recognize his name, you likely have seen the under-appreciated but ever-reliable Arthur Hill in one of his many film and TV appearances dating back to the 1960s and '70s. And if you do remember him from such movies as Harper, The Andromeda Strain and A Bridge Too Far, or from his TV series Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, or from his award-winning turn as the masochistically henpecked George in the original 1962 Broadway production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- well, you may wonder: Hey, where has he been all this time? Alas, Alzheimer's disease kept him from working in his chosen field for several years. He is at peace now.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Speaking of Target

For those of you who might snicker at the very thought of my patronizing a place so déclassé, consider that the Independent Film Channel has its very own shelf space at many Target stores – such as the one I frequent – where IFC-branded “Indies” ranging from Sexy Beast to The Notorious Bettie Page to Junebug are proudly displayed. And, dammit, they’re cheap, too.

Random thoughts while in the checkout line at Target

While waiting tonight to wheel my shopping cart toward the cashier, I couldn’t help noticing a display for DVDs marked down to $13.78 each. Among the titles: Brokeback Mountain, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Crash, The Producers, Pride and Prejudice, Wedding Crashers, Memoirs of a Geisha, Jarhead, Prime and on and on. There they were: big hits alongside also-rans, Oscar winners alongside box-office busts, popcorn flicks alongside critical darlings, instant classics alongside the instantly forgettable. And I couldn’t help thinking of that final line from Barry Lyndon: They are all equal now.

The incredible shrinking release pattern?

Has Fox really started to panic over the box-office prospects for Borat? Or is the Daily Mail simply over-hyping news already covered by David Poland and others?

Law & Disorder

If Jerry Orbach were still watching his back, this never would have happened.


Could Homer Simpson tip the balance against Republicans in the mid-term elections?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

'You can't kill the bogeyman!'

During the final, frantic minutes of Halloween, John Carpenter's seminal slasher thriller, baby-sitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) tells the grade-schoolers in her care that they shouldn't worry, that she has slain the masked murderer who has been slicing and stabbing his way through the neighborhood.

But one of her young charges isn't easily convinced. As he puts it: "You can't kill the bogeyman." No kidding.

Sure enough, Michael Myers, the menace in the mask, quickly reappears. Laurie runs, but she cannot hide. Michael is impeded, but never quite defeated. It takes a few gunshots from Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), a psychiatrist who diagnoses Michael as "pure evil," for Laurie to avoid seemingly certain death. But in the very last moments before the closing credits, the movie once again illustrates the elemental doctrine of the Halloween mythos: You can't keep a bad man down.

Throughout six of seven subsequent sequels -- Halloween III: Season of the Witch doesn't really count -- Michael Myers periodically resurrected himself to make the world unsafe for oversexed teens and innocent bystanders. Unfortunately, even the best of these sequels (except, arguably, 1998’s Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later) have been formulaic fright fests. And the worst -- did I hear someone say Halloween 5? -- have been scarcely better than the repetitive rampages of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.

The good news is, director Carpenter's 1978 original has lost none of its power to fascinate and frighten, even after two decades of imitations, follow-ups and blatant rip-offs. You can see for yourself next week, Oct. 30 and 31, when a digitally remastered, high-definition version of Halloween plays in 150 theaters across North America.

So what’s the bad news? Well, there are all those sequels…

The first Halloween relies heavily on the power of suggestion, the logic of a wide-awake nightmare, and the engagingly androgynous charisma of then-19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie. Unlike most other examples of slasher cinema, Halloween actually devotes some time to character development, so that the brainy and tomboyish Laurie comes across a resourceful and sympathetic individual, rather than just another bosomy co-ed on the business end of a sharp object. Indeed, Halloween is all the more unsettling because it seems so unfair, so absurd, that such a nice person would be threatened with the same fate that befalls her sexually precocious and vaguely unpleasant friends. The audience can't help wondering: Why her? What did she ever do to deserve this?

Unfortunately, Carpenter and co-screenwriter Debra Hill felt compelled to answer those questions in Halloween II (1981), a more graphically violent sequel that diminishes the mystery of the original by trying to "explain" Michael Myers.

Directed by Rick Rosenthal, Halloween II begins just a few minutes after the first Halloween ends, with Laurie (once again played by Curtis) whisked away to nearby hospital for trauma treatment. Judging from the size of the staff and the scarcity of other patients, the hospital is seriously under-financed. That likely explains why there are so few functioning electric lights in the place, making it easy for the revived Mad Mikey to pop into and out of shadows while annihilating employees on the graveyard shift.

In the first movie, we learned Mad Mikey killed his older sister when he was just a sinister 6-year-old. In Halloween II, we're told he is stalking Laurie because -- are you ready for this? are you sitting down? -- Laurie is his long-lost younger sister. Fortunately, the redoubtable Dr. Loomis returns to save Laurie, this time by setting off an explosion that appears to incinerate both the psychiatrist and the psychopath.

Yeah, right.

After the totally unrelated Halloween III (1983), a foolish flop starring Dan O'Herlihy as an evil industrialist who boobytraps Halloween masks, the franchise faded for a few years. In 1988, however, director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) (but, on the other hand, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid) unleashed the aptly titled Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.

An even more apt title might have been Halloween: The Next Generation, since this sequel focuses on Laurie Strode's nine-year-old daughter, Jamie (an in-jokey homage to you know who), played by Danielle Harris. Once again, the indestructible Mad Mikey (who, naturally, survived the Halloween II inferno) cuts a bloody swath through the supporting cast, while Dr. Loomis (who, just as naturally, also survived) tries to warn everyone that evil on the hoof is back in town.

(Where's Laurie? According to Halloween 4, she died years earlier in an auto mishap. But don't worry: This minor detail is neatly finessed in Halloween H20.)

Halloween 4 is a thoroughly second-rate piece of work, and it seems a great deal worse than that each time we're treated to the sick spectacle of Mad Mikey stalking a screaming little girl. (Let's face it: There are some things even horror movies shouldn't show us.) There's an even sicker twist at the every end, where it looks like little Jamie has been infected by Michael's madness, to the point of fatally stabbing her own adoptive mother. The producers obviously had second thoughts about this development, however, because Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) makes it very clear that the infection wasn't permanent, little Laurie is back to normal -- except for the trauma-induced loss of her voice -- and, hey, mom wasn't really killed, just seriously wounded.

Halloween 5 marks the nadir of the franchise, and often resembles nothing so much as a bad imitation of a Friday the 13th gore fest. Even Donald Pleasence, a thoroughgoing professional who adds a touch of class to the picture, gives the impression that he is getting very tired of repeating himself. Near the end, when he's unable to fully subdue Mad Mikey with tranquilizer darts, he simply picks up a large piece of lumber and repeatedly batters the bad guy, as if to say: "Enough is enough! Why don’t you just freakin’ die, already?"

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) doesn't have a number in its title. But it does have a stunningly absurd explanation for Mad Mikey's long-running resilience: The masked bogeyman has been supernaturally-enhanced by modern-day Druids. (This is not a complete surprise -- there is a brief hint of a Druid connection as far back as Halloween II -- but that doesn't make the plot twist any less ridiculous.) In return for granting him immortality, the Druids expect Michael to sacrificially murder every member of his family. At this point, the audience is supposed to respond: "Oh, so that is why Michael has been stalking his relatives...." Or something like that. Whatever.

Early in Curse, Michael finally does kill the grown-up Jamie (J.C. Brandy). But he's not through with his bloody work: He must also find and destroy Jamie's newborn baby. Fortuitously, the infant falls into the hands of an eccentric young man with an encyclopedic knowledge of Michael's life and crimes. Paul Stephen Rudd, who would later shorten his name (Paul Rudd) and select better roles (The Cider House Rules, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), plays Tommy Doyle -- an older and wiser version of the grade-schooler who, way back in the first Halloween, warned Laurie Strode about the bogeyman. Like Dr. Loomis, Tommy is tired of having to deal with such an indestructible monster. And, again like Dr. Loomis, he takes a brutally direct approach to his Mikey bashing. Instead of a wooden board, however, he uses a metal pipe.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers has some moments of visual pizzazz, but it is fairly close to completely incoherent. Once can't help suspecting that Donald Pleasence, who looks exceedingly frail throughout the film, died before director Joe Chappelle was able to film a few key scenes. On the other hand, it should be noted that Chappelle was the uncredited director of Hellraiser: Bloodline (1997), another horror sequel that makes little or no sense.

The series enjoyed a brief renaissance with Halloween H20 -- not so much a sequel as a respectful homage to John Carpenter's 1978 trend-setter. The film's creators -- including director Steve Miner (Lake Placid) and co-executive producer (and Scream screenwriter) Kevin Williamson -- wisely returned to the original roots, ignoring almost everything revealed in the sequels following Halloween II. Better still, they found a way to bring back Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, to stage a final rematch between the one-time baby-sitter and the full-time psycho killer. Indeed, most franchise fans were immensely pleased by the overdue just deserts served at the film’s end. At long last, Laurie Strode went medieval on her older brother, bringing a hugely satisfying sense of finality to the long-running slasher series.

All of which, alas, made Halloween: Resurrection (2002) seem even more uselessly redundant and shamelessly money-grubbing than most other third-rate horror sequels. The first 15 minutes were especially painful for fans who had come to know and love Laurie Strode, and who were tempted to shout rude things at the screen when the poor woman met a grisly demise. Of course, it’s hard to be sure that anyone ever will remain dead in this franchise, but still…

Once Laurie is out of the picture, the focus shifts back to Michael's hometown of Haddonfield, Ill. A couple of "reality television" entrepreneurs are plotting a live remote from the now-decrepit Myers family home, where Mad Mikey began his bloody career many years ago. Not surprisingly, nothing good comes of this.

The producers of Dangertainment (catchy name for a TV show, eh?) select six slices of fresh meat… er, I mean, six attractive college students to spend the night in the Myers home. Each is equipped with a digital video headset and Internet uplinks. And several video cameras have been placed in strategic places throughout the house. This way, Internet viewers will be able to see all the action from multiple perspectives, or choose to focus entirely on one or two subjects. Or, better still, they'll be able to zoom in for a close-up when Mikey -- who, wouldn't you know it, just happens to be living in the basement -- begins to exterminate the intruders.

The multiple-camera video gimmick, which suggests a cross between The Real World and The Blair Witch Project, is a reasonably clever idea. Trouble is, director Rick Rosenthal (who, you may remember, also did Halloween II) does next to nothing with it. Very quickly, Resurrection devolves into the kind of bloody mess critic Roger Ebert was thinking about when he coined the term "dead teenager movie."

It remains to be seen whether rocker-turned-auteur Rob Zombie can pump fresh blood (so to speak) into the franchise as director of the next Halloween flick, which is set for a 2007 release, has been described variously as a remake of Carpenter’s original -- Dear God, please let it not be so! – or, more likely, yet another sequel. In any event, the bogeyman remains, as always, incredibly, if not impossibly, hard to kill. Even when the sequels are hard to watch.

Monday, October 23, 2006

'Payback' playback

From Jeffrey Wells comes word that a long-overdue "Director's Cut" DVD of Payback will be coming soon to a video store near you. But even if Mel Gibson is as nasty as he wants to be, could he possibly be a bigger bad-ass than Lee Marvin?

Worth every damn penny (or ha'penny)

Even as Ron Howard prepares to film Nixon/Frost, Peter (The Queen) Morgan's smash-hit London play about the fateful face-off between the disgraced U.S. president and the career-stalled Brit TV talk-show host, Sir David Frost has admitted he paid a bundle for the rights to interview Richard Nixon. And he has never regretted picking up the tab.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Expressing paranoia: 'Dr. Caligari'

He’s really dead. She’s really a he. He is his mother’s killer. She is her sister’s mother. All of them did it. No one gets out alive.

And then there’s the all-time favorite surprise ending: It was only a dream. Or a nightmare.

You can trace the latter trick all the way back to the dawn of the silent-movie era, and follow its various permutations even beyond the audacious turnabout that signaled Bobby Ewing’s return to Dallas. But when you’re cataloguing the most significant cinematic deceptions, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – which will screen Friday and Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with live musical accompaniment -- deserves special mention. This 1920 German fantasia represents the first meaningful attempt to fuse Expressionistic style and conventional substance in a commercial film. Just as important, however, is the movie’s seminal success at pulling the rug out from under its audience.

Indeed, even the people who wrote it claimed they were surprised by what happens in its final scene.

Caligari begins prosaically enough, with handsome Francis (Friedrich Feher), seated next to a stranger on a park bench, promising to tell a stranger about an adventure he shared with Jane (Lil Dagover) – his beautiful fiancée, who just happens to be passing by -- in their small German town of Holstenwall.

Once Francis begins his tale, however, the film shifts into a phantasmagorical fantasyland, as characters go through their paces in an Expressionistic universe of distorted perspectives, asymmetrical doorways, crooked windows, sloping chimneys -- and streaks of light and shadow painted across tilted walls. Officious bureaucrats sit atop enormously high stools, frowning down upon fawning supplicants. Sleepwalkers stagger across impossibly slanting rooftops, and through forebodingly twisted forests.

Take note of the many angled shapes and pointed objects that, right from the start, are sprinkled throughout the film. (Visual allusions, perhaps, to the dagger wielded lethally in key scenes?) These sharp geometric figures convey a pervading sense of danger and evil, serving as exceptionally potent portents in a movie teeming with scenery that often threatens to chew up the actors.

(In his audio essay for the film’s DVD release, scholar Mike Budd persuasively argues that Caligari was the first moving picture to introduce Expressionism to the masses, and movies to Europe’s intellectual elite. On the other hand, critic Pauline Kael was no less persuasive when she noted that, while Caligari is “one of the most famous films of all time” and “a radical advance in film technique,” the German masterpiece “is rarely imitated -- and you’ll know why.”)

Against this bizarre backdrop, director Robert Wiene unfolds a comparatively mundane horror story about Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss in outlandish make-up and Mickey Mouse gloves), a sideshow charlatan who causes murder and mayhem in Holstenwall with the help of his star attraction, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would later cause trouble for Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca).

These prototypical bogeymen – cinematic templates for succeeding generations of manipulative mad scientists and, more recently, Halloween-style indestructible death-dealers -- are perfectly in sync with the stylized make-up and scenic design. At least, that’s the view espoused by film historian Lotte H. Eisner in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (1952). Insisting that the “characters of Caligari and Cesare conform to Expressionist conception,” Eisner elaborates: “The somnambulist, detached from his everyday ambience, deprived of all individuality, an abstract creature, kills without motive or logic. And his master, the mysterious Dr. Caligari, who lacks the merest shadow of human scruple, acts with the criminal insensibility and defiance of conventional morality which the Expressionists exalted.”

Cesare -- whose unnaturally white face, heavily mascaraed eyes and black-on-black wardrobe suggest a Goth-influenced bit player from Night of the Living Dead, or a first draft of Edward Scissorhands – pops out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet to answer audience questions during a fairground show. Unfortunately, Francis and Alan (Hans Heinrich), Francis’ friendly rival for Jane’s affections, are among the curious onlookers when Cesare makes his Holstenwall debut. Even more unfortunately, Alan asks an imprudent question (“How long have I to live?”) and gets an immediate answer: “Until tomorrow’s dawn…”

Sure enough, Alan comes to an untimely end shortly after staying too long at the fair. Francis, no fool, figures things might not be on the up-and-up with the good doctor and his black-clad accomplice. So he returns to the fairground, only to glimpse a heartwarming tableau: Dr. Caligari, fawning over Cesare like a kindly mother, feeding broth to his charge in the privacy of their caravan. Hardly anything incriminating, Francis figures. More to the point, with Alan out of the picture, Francis now has exclusive dating rights to the beautiful Jane.

As the body count mounts in Holstenwall, however, Francis feels compelled to avenge his late friend -- and, naturally, protect his beloved Jane – by joining the local police in a hunt for whoever’s behind the killing spree. The clues lead to Cesare, and beyond him to Caligari. The trail ends at an insane asylum, where Caligari is revealed as not merely a patient, but rather the deeply disturbed director of the institution.

But then, just when it looks like everyone – except Cesare and Dr. Caligari, of course – will live happily ever after, the movie opens a trapdoor: The entire melodrama is the product of Frances’ fevered imagination. In the final scene, we discover the nominal hero is in fact a delusional patient in a loony bin operated by a benevolent Director who looks just like – ta-dah! – the malevolent Dr. Caligari. “At last,” the Director exclaims, “I understand the nature of his madness. He thinks I am that mystic Caligari. Now I see how he can be brought back to sanity again…” Authority is validated, order is restored.

In 1920, this climactic twist stunned audiences – and infuriated the film’s screenwriters.

Austrian scenarist Carl Mayer and Czech poet Hans Janowitz originally conceived Caligari as a cautionary allegory aimed at audiences still recovering from the ravages of World War I. As far as they were concerned, Caligari personified an unlimited state authority that idolizes power, while Cesare represented, in Janowitz’s words, “the common man who, under the pressure of military service, is drilled to kill and be killed.” When Francis unmasks Caligari, his triumph shows that – again, in Janowitz’s words – “reason overpowers unreasonable power.”

Trouble was, neither director Wiene nor producer Erich Pommer felt altogether comfortable with the ramifications of the original script. They feared retaliation by any powerful people who might interpret the allegory as a personal attack. More important, they worried that audiences would respond unfavorably to anything that reminded them, even indirectly, of the everyday horrors lurking just outside the movie theater.

You see, during the 1919-1933 heyday of the Weimar Republic, a period now widely recognized as a golden age for German cinema, many of the filmmakers’ countrymen felt they were living a wide-awake nightmare. A sudden spurt of inflation could impoverish almost anyone in a matter of weeks, if not days. Women and children were driven to prostitution, often with the tacit approval of their needy families. Street brawls between Communists and National Socialists occurred frequently enough to qualify as spectator sports. The grand experiment in postwar democracy simply wasn’t working. Or, perhaps more accurately, wasn’t allowed to work.

Much like audiences in Depression-ravaged America, Weimar-era Germans sought escape from harsh realities by seeking escapism at the movies. Historical romances, costume dramas and lavish epics based on ancient legends were prime box-office attractions. Equally popular, however, were dramas of the macabre and fantastical – tales of horror, phantasms and science fiction – that allowed audiences a safe way to savor catharsis through the playing out of worst-case scenarios.

At such a time, in such a place, folks might like to exorcise their worst well-founded fears by enjoying a scary melodrama about a modern-day wizard and his murderous cat’s-paw. What folks most assuredly wouldn’t like, Wiene and Pommer decided, was a movie that could inspire “dangerously radical” notions about government and the governed.

Which is why, despite fervent protestations by Mayer and Janowitz, the allegorical nightmare was transformed into a striking but safely apolitical dreamscape. Specifically, Wiene and Pommer – aided by filmmaker Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis), who freely offered detailed script suggestions, and had originally considered directing Caligari himself – contrived the device of wraparound scenes that identify Francis as a paranoid fantasist.

With the invaluable collaboration of production designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, Wiene offers in Caligari a boldly stylized rendering of “reality” as viewed through the eyes of a madman. And if the director undercuts his own “explanation” by depicting the supposedly “real” reality of the opening and closing scenes in the same unrealistic manner, well, chalk it up to Wiene’s compulsive showmanship.

But consider this: A decade or so after the 1920 premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Adolf Hitler underscored the prescience of Mayer and Janowitz by demonstrating just how easily a mesmerist could cloud the minds of the masses. As German film historian Siegfried Kracauer notes in his aptly titled From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), the Expressionistic silent classic “is a very specific premonition, in the sense that (Dr. Caligari) uses hypnotic power to force his will upon his tool – a technique foreshadowing, in content and purpose, that manipulation of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale.”

Thereby proving, alas, that the scariest nightmares are those from which you cannot awaken.

Dragon tale

When I saw this poster tonight, I couldn't help thinking: Doesn't anyone remember what happened the last time Jeremy Irons co-starred with a dragon?

Another thrilling episode of 'Stuff I Wouldn't Dare Make Up'

Is this a sign that folks at the Republican National Committee are growing desperate? Or scared? Either way, it plays like something from The Daily Show. Or maybe even an outtake from The Groove Tube. All of which reminds me: Several years back, while I interviewed scriptwriter William Goldman during the Toronto Film Festival premiere of The Princess Bride, we drifted into a brief conversation about satire. And we agreed that, given the way the world was working, it must be getting ever-more-difficult, if not impossible, for a writer to invent anything more absurd than real life. That was back in 1987. Looks like satire is an even tougher gig these days.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


From Nikki Finke: "There was some sleight of hand at the box office Friday as the audiences vanished for the expected No. 1 movie, Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima epic Flags Of Our Fathers, which finished only No. 3. Instead, Christopher Nolan's turn-of-the-century period pic about rival magicians appeared in first place thanks to a gripping trailer and heavy promo by star Hugh Jackman."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Damn! If only 'Slither' and 'Miami Vice' had made more money!

The Associated Press reports that NBC Universal plans to cut $750 million in operating expenses by eliminating scads of jobs, slashing its news budget -- look out, Keith Olbermann! -- and decreasing the number of scripted shows in prime time. Money quote: "NBC Universal said it will stop scheduling high-priced dramas and comedies during the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot. Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal's television group, said he'll focus on cheaper programming." Like, maybe, seven nights a week of Deal or No Deal?

BTW: The cutbacks "will also affect movie production," so I guess we can forget about ever seeing Miami Vice II.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Currently No. 1 on Kim Jong Il's Netflix queue

Will life imitate art?

War is hell

We saw a lot of movies (and TV dramas) about "crazed Vietnam war vets" throughout the 1970s and '80s. Is it possible that this real-life horror story will inspire the first "crazed Iraq War vet" film? Money quote: "Friends said he served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and displayed both pride and bitterness over that experience."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

R.I.P. Sid Adilman (1937-2006)

Sid Adilman, one of the most gracious gents I’ve ever had the privilege of calling a friend, passed away Saturday after a long battle with heart and kidney ailments. A long-time entertainment journalist for The Toronto Star, and one of the Great White North’s most impassioned champions of Canadian cinema, he…

Excuse me, but I think I hear Sid trying to contact me from the other side:

Sweetheart, what are you doing? You’re not going all soft and sentimental, are you? I mean, come on. "A long battle with heart and kidney ailments"? Why don’t you just go ahead and say "a valiant and courageous struggle" while I was walking on water or something? And what’s with this "Great White North" business? I wasn’t a star of SCTV, eh?

Sorry, Sid. After nearly a quarter-century of knowing you, I should know better than to write something that might fuel your prickly wit and acerbic mischievousness. That’s the way you’ve always been – equal parts Addison DeWitt and hectoring mentor – even as you opened your home and heart to me, even as you, your beautiful wife and your extraordinary sons made me feel like a member of your family for two weeks every year while I covered the Toronto Film Festival. Literally: For the past several years, I was your houseguest during the fest. And we remained in contact during the months in between each event, through phone calls and e-mails that, alas, will continue no longer.

I know you’ll accuse me of sappiness…


But I can remember the first time we met, when I covered my first Toronto Fest back in 1982, when you expressed equal measures of shock and amusement that “some kid from Texas” had come all the way to your city to cover what you affectionately called “Ca-nay-dian movies.” You made a special point of recommending all the right films – including a few that actually weren’t Canadian – and demonstrated uncommon professional courtesy while introducing me to all the right contacts. But, hey, you did even more during my first year at the Cannes Film Festival, when you took time to walk me up and down La Croisette to introduce me to every publicist I needed to know, every contact I wanted to meet.

But are you going to tell them the story about You Know Who?

Well, I wasn’t going to, but since you insist…

Sid and I permanently solidified our friendship at the ’83 Toronto Festival, when we shared an interview with a certain actress who had appeared in some classic films during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but had deteriorated badly – mentally if not physically – due to excessive substance abuse. Very early in our shared conversation, it became painfully obvious that the poor woman was too skittish and confused – hell, too freakin’ brain-fried – to be entirely coherent. You allowed me to take command of the situation by simply reaching across the restaurant table and caressing her shaky right hand as I calmed her down by gently asking the most innocuous of questions. You took notes, but never used them. I recorded the interview, then destroyed the tape. Neither of us wrote a story, because both of us knew it would be bad form to quote the poor woman.

But, of course, the conversation was a private joke we shared for decades afterwards.

Just like we shared Neil Young, eh?

Yep. When I arrived for the 2003 festival, your health had already begun its slow and steady downward spiral. You’d already quit working for the Star on a full-time basis and, truth to tell, even your family feared you no longer were your chipper and scintillating self.

Chipper? Moi?

Well, you did seem pretty damn morose as you moped around the house. So, naturally, the first thing I did when I hit Toronto was take you to a rock concert. Thanks to Jeff Dowd, the real Big Lebowski, I was able to score great seats for the concert Neil Young gave during the first weekend of the festival. (Did I blow off movies screened that night? Sure. Life is short, and one must set priorities.) And even though you needed a wheelchair to traverse some of the concert site, you had a great time once you were able to sit down and let Young work his magic. Rejuvenating magic, actually. Because just a few days later, I saw you wandering around the hotel that served as the festival’s headquarters.

With a cane, sweetheart, remember?

Sure. But the important thing was, you were up and around again – much to the delight of your family and friends. So right before I left that year, I gave you a couple of Neil Young CDs. And right before I took the cab from your house to the airport, I told you: “Look, man, you’re going to go through all kinds of treatments and take all sorts of medications to get through this. And there are going to be times when you get down again, get morose again, and you’re going to want to quit. So whenever you feel that way, I want you to play one of these CDs really fucking loud and get over it. Because, that way, if Death knocks at the door, you won’t hear him.” You laughed so loud that I feared you might have a heart attack then and there. But you didn’t. In fact, you recovered to such a degree that, at the 2004 festival, you were around and about, reviewing films and interviewing filmmakers for the Star, and giving me insider tips about what movies to see. Thank God for the healing powers of Neil Young, eh?

And keep rockin’ in the free world.

I have many acquaintances, but very few friends. And it greatly pains me right now to know I have lost a friend who gave me much more than I could ever repay. On the other hand, I am immensely grateful that I had him as a friend for as long as I did. Because, after all, no one belongs to you. You only get to borrow them for a while.

And I leave you, blog readers, with this: I had planned to see Sid again a few weeks ago at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. Indeed, he had, as usual, extended another invitation to stay in his home during the event. But I wound up having to decline his offer, because – for various reasons – I couldn’t make it to Toronto this year. I had intended to call him to get an after-the-fact report on the festivities but – well, one thing came up, then another, and I never got around to making the call. And then I got a call last night with the bad news. So please: Take this as an object lesson. There may be someone in your life you really should call – not tomorrow, not next week, but right now – because you won’t get a second chance. I was lucky in this respect: Throughout the years, every time we’ve talked, I’ve always remembered to tell Sid how much I love him, how grateful I am for what he’s done for me as a friend and colleague.

Oh, puh-leeze, sweetheart.

Hush, Sid, I’m not talking to you.

Anyway: I’m just upset that I wasn’t able to tell him how much he meant to me one more time. One last time.

Don’t make my mistake, eh?

Hot stuff

Tastefully provocative hype for a new Houston night spot. I like.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Boston illegal

No doubt about it: The Departed is one of the best movies of 2006, and a definite Oscar contender. But isn't it time that audiences showed a little more love to an equally fine (and, arguably, even grittier) filmed-in-Boston crime story? Denis Leary is drop-dead perfect in Monument Ave., the late Ted Demme's sharply observed and vividly evocative drama about low life and sudden death on the mean streets of Charlestown, a working-class Irish-American neighborhood of Beantown. And the suppoting cast -- including a truly scary Colm Meaney, Departed co-star Marin Sheen and the chronically under-rated Famke Janssen -- is damn near flawless.

Check it out: Going to the Pictures

Two film fanatics launch their promising blog with valuable links to early shorts by two master moviemakers.

R.I.P. Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-2006)

Most of Friday's obituaries for Gillo Pontecorvo duly noted that because of his relatively meager oeuvre -- he made only a handful of features during a career that spanned decades -- the Italian-born auteur earned the nickname of "lazy director." (A confession: I thought the guy had died decades ago.) But, really, he needed only one masterwork to ensure his immortality: The Battle of Algiers (1966), his stunning documentary-style drama about the violent uprising of Algerians against French colonial forces in the 1950s.

Nominated for three Academy Awards -- including Best Director and Best Screenplay -- and often cited as a major influence by directors as diverse as Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh, Algiers demonstrated its undiminished impact just three years ago when Pentagon officials screened the film for employees and associates as an object lesson in dealing with insurgents and terrorist cells.

Noted the New York Times: "The Pentagon's showing drew... [an] audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film - the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans. As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: 'How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.'"

All of which prompted's Charles Paul Freund to offer a perceptive primer on Pontecorvo's incendiary epic.

And before you ask: No, there's never been any indication that President Bush ever has requested a special White House screening of The Battle of Algiers. Maybe, in honor of Pontecorvo's memory, someone should send him a copy of the DVD?

Early box-office report from Nikki Finke

Horror sells big-time on Friday the 13th weekend -- of course! -- while Scorsese's latest continues to hold impressively. But Robin Williams isn't getting much mileage from his new star vehicle.

A (rare) kind word for the star of 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

I know how the poor guy feels.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ebert writes from rehab

Roger Ebert writes: "I have discovered a goodness and decency in people as exhibited in all the letters, e-mails, flowers, gifts and prayers that have been directed my way. I am overwhelmed and humbled. I offer you my most sincere thanks and my deep and abiding gratitude. If I ever write my memoirs, I have some spellbinding material. How does the Joni Mitchell song go? 'Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone'? One thing I've discovered is that I love my job more than I thought I did, and I love my wife even more!"

A good sign that Roger's really on the mend: He's written a review of The Queen, which will be posted on his website this weekend.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Judging from this early trailer, it looks like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have captured the garishly lurid look and exuberantly sleazy spirit of '60s and '70s exploitation pictures. But will their double bill of faux B-movies -- Death Proof, a pedal-to-the-metal slasher flick, and Planet Terror, an over-the-top zombie thriller -- appeal to anyone other than film geeks (like yours truly) and fanboys? Jeffrey Wells has his doubts.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

God is Green

If Al Gore couldn't reach Evangelicals with his environmental message, maybe the Rev. Richard Cizik has sufficient superstardom to spread the good word. Hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways, right?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Top 12 of World War II (plus 1)

As the days dwindle down to a precious few before Clint Eastwood unveils Flags of Our Fathers, AP movie writer David Germain marks the occasion by saluting twelve of the finest movies ever made about World War II, a list "covering combat, prison camps, the Holocaust, espionage and sabotage, life on the homefront, homecomings and even the dreary boredom of war for some of its combatants."

To his lineup, I would add -- if only for its historical importance and subsequent influence -- Guadalcanal Diary (1943), among the first and best of the flag-waving, crowd-pleasing WWII combat dramas designed to honor U.S. soldiers, boost homefront morale, and enhance America's image abroad during wartime. Based on Richard Tregaskis' best-selling book about the U.S. Marine invasion of the Solomon Islands -- one of the earliest American victories against Japanese forces -- this reasonably gritty and generally well-acted drama is remarkably persuasive for a movie supposedly set in the South Pacific, but shot on location at Camp Pendleton, California. Its episodic depiction of day-to-day survival under enemy fire has been repeatedly used as a template for similar jungle-combat scenarios filmed during and after WWII. More important, its introduction of a fighting unit comprised entirely of archetypes is the first significant employment of a lineup that would reappear, with only minor variations, in countless other war films.

Yes, friends, we're talking about the multi-ethnic platoon, the emblematic band of brothers that purposefully epitomizes the demographic diversity of America. It's a convention that has long been razzed and satirized by critics, academics and stand-up comics. During World War II, however, the cliche was a deadly serious element of many Hollywood movies. Indeed, the cliche was actively encouraged by the Office of War Information's Bureau of Motion Pictures, the government agency charged with advising and influencing the film industry's contributions to America's war effort. Why? Because during wartime, doggone it, all good Americans should transcend their differences and unite in common purpose against a common enemy.

For audiences accustomed to more graphically violent and morally ambiguous renderings of men at war, Guadalcanal Diary may seem like a quaint relic from a distant past when the Greatest Generation fought the good fight. (I don't have to tell you that one of the soldiers adopts a stray dog, do I?) But even cynics must admit that the movie has quite a few undeniably affecting moments. Chief among them: William Bendix, representing the common man as citizen soldier, improvises a prayer during a long dark night of Japanese bombardments. It's worth noting how the character's words were echoed more than a half-century later by Tom Hanks' schoolteacher-turned-soldier in Saving Private Ryan (No. 1 on Germain's Top 12).

Anything you'd care to add to the list?

Suppressing 'Porgy'

Ever wonder why it's almost impossible to see Otto Preminger's 1959 film version of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess? According to Bill Reed, the reason is simple: The Gershwin estate really, really dislikes the movie.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Six years after its release, 'Dogma' is STILL pissing people off

But I really don't think we can blame this on Kevin Smith.

Nothing to do with movies, but...

After dialing one of those 800 numbers to request tech support, or explain an overdue credit card payment, have you ever wondered what really goes on at those call centers in India? Well, would you believe dating, drinking and partying? Damn. No wonder I can never understand what those on-line advisors tell me about software installation: They can't be coherent because their minds have been fogged by their "licentious lifestyles."

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Oh, Mary!

Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), the youngest Best Actress nominee in Oscar history, will next be seen on screen as the Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story. Which makes it more than a little ironic that... that...

Sorry, I was briefly overcome with a fit of uncontrollable giggles. I'm OK now, so let me continue...

It's more than a little ironic that the 16-year-old actress has announced that she is pregnant by her 19-year-old boyfriend. Which, of course, will greatly endear her to many folks in the target audience for Nativity Story, a New Line Pictures release set to open Dec. 1 in theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

Mel TV

Viewing tip for Oct. 12 and 13: After a successful sneak preview in Austin, Mel Gibson’s redemption tour is heading to Good Morning, America. Which just happens to air on ABC. Which just happens to be owned by Disney. Which just happens to be releasing Gibson's upcoming Apocalypto.

BTW: I wonder how long it will be before some irate non-fan accuses Gibson (accurately or otherwise) of padding Apocalypto with "borrowed" bits and pieces from J. Lee Thompson's Kings of the Sun, a half-forgotten (well, OK, nine-tenths-forgotten) 1963 epic starring George Chakiris as a young Mayan king, Shirley Ann Field as shapely Mayan princess, Richard Basehart as a chonically inaccurate soothsayer -- and Yul Brynner as a non-cooperative candidate for human sacrifice.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Can Fernando Meirelles save Brazilian cinema?

According to the Associated Press: Maybe. But he'll need a little help from Universal Pictures. Sure, the trade papers have already covered this story in some detail. But credit AP's Peter Muello for providing some interesting background material, including a mini-history of the Brazilian film industry.)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

'Night of the Lepus, Part II: Hopping Mad'

Or: More stuff I wouldn't dare make up. Frankenbunny, anyone?

R.I.P. Cleopatra Jones

Tamara Dobson, the strikingly statuesque stunner who became a blaxpolitation icon during the 1970s, died Monday. But thanks to the camp classics Cleopatra Jones (where she tangled with an ultra-butch Shelley Winters) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (which featured a va-va-voom Stella Stevens as a lipstick-lesbian villianess), she remains immortal.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Taking Pride after 'Moan'

The Hustle & Flow duo of actor Terrence Howard and director Craig Brewer will reunite to film a biopic of Charley Pride, the first (and, some would claim, only) African-American country music superstar. It's obviously a dream project for Brewer, who spoke enthusiastically about its possibilities when I conducted a Q&A with him and producer Stephanie Allain last spring before a capacity crowd at the Nashville Film Festival. And speaking of possibilities: It's positively titillating to consider what might be waiting for us in Brewer's next film, the steamy Black Snake Moan.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Missing Roger

According to Crain's Chicago Business, loyal fans of Roger Ebert aren't the only ones who are mourning his absence. Indeed, it's entiely possible that bean-counters at the Chicago Sun-Times might miss Roger even more than his readers do:

"Mr. Ebert, who is recuperating from surgery for salivary-gland cancer, took a leave of absence at the end of June. Since then the number of visitors to the Sun-Times' has fallen 65%, to 378,000 in August from 1.1 million in June.

"That's a problem for the Chicago tabloid and its parent, Sun-Times Media Group Inc. After Mr. Ebert's last column, in June, the Sun-Times' overall visitors fell 25%, to 1.9 million in August.

"'For every newspaper, and more so the Sun-Times, a large percentage of their traffic comes from their personalities,' says Shawn Riegsecker, president of Centro LLC, an online ad buyer based in Chicago. 'The Sun-Times' (leading) personality happens to be Roger Ebert.'"

No kidding.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A very, very bad idea

In the final paragraph of a story about The Weinstein Company, Variety drops this bombshell: "TWC also has hired Rob Zombie to direct a remake of John Carpenter's Halloween." Uh-oh.

Life ain't easy for aging indies

In the Sunday New York Times, John Clark has a rather distressing piece about "the mostly sideways career path followed by many of the generation of independent filmmakers who made a splash in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. When these directors, mostly now in their 40’s and 50’s, got started, the indie business was full of mom-and-pop operations with nickel-and-dime aspirations. Now the corner stores have been edged out by studio specialty divisions with far larger appetites and needs. Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, said that in the early 90’s an independent film was considered a hit if it grossed $1 million. Now it’s $25 million." The worst of the bad news: Distributors are increasingly risk-averse, producers of edgy projects need stars to obtain financing, and even established heavyweights like Errol Morris and John Sayles must moonlight to make ends meet.

Paging Samuel L. Jackson

Here's the plot for that sequel we know you're just dying to do.