Sunday, April 29, 2007

The ongoing battle for survival of the Brattle

The Brattle Theatre -- "the birthplace of foreign film appreciation in North America, a continent that prior to World War II knew Europe and Asian largely through skewed Hollywood lenses" -- continues to muddle through as a single-screen showcase in an era when even megaplexes are becoming endangered species. But the question remains: How long can this historic Harvard Square theater -- the hallowed site where Humphrey Bogart was elevated beyond mere superstardom, to the pantheon of pop culture icons -- remain open?

The Brattle has "expanded its foundation board," writes Peter Howell, "and it has an advisory board that includes filmmakers David Lynch, Albert Maysles and Miguel Arteta, plus cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather)." But even so, "[e]very bit as important as the money is the belief that art houses like the Brattle are still needed in a wired and cocooned world. And if a cinema as storied as the Brattle has this much trouble staying afloat in an elite college town like Cambridge, next door to Boston, then what hope is there for lesser-known art houses in other towns?"

By the way: I can testify that it's a great place to see classic movies. Former Newsweek correspondent Joanne Harrison brought me there a few years ago while I was visiting Boston, so we could see the fully restored version of Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One. (Before the screening, Harrison regaled me with her memories of repeatedly attending Casablanca revivals at the Brattle -- along with hundreds of other area college students -- during her Boston childhood.) I seriously doubt that Fuller's sprawling masterwork would have had quite the same impact on me if I'd viewed it for the first time on DVD.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The 'Raines' came... and left

I strongly suspect that my favorite new TV series of the season -- actually, my favorite series to premiere since House -- aired its last original episode Friday night. So while you still can, take a look at Raines. Pay particularly close attention to the pilot, which deftly establishes the premise -- and pulls off an ingenious twist during the final minutes. (It was directed, by the way, by Frank Darabont.) Then check out the ineffably melancholy "Reconstructing Alice" with the great Laurie Metcalf (who, in a perfect world, would be a slam dunk for an Emmy nomination). As Michael Raines, the L.A. cop who imagines he can converse with murder victims (who, in actuality, are projections of his brilliant -- albeit unstable -- ratiocinative mind), Jeff Goldblum hits the perfect balance of hard-boiled and soft-hearted, sharply witty and wistfully sad. At his frequent best, he makes me think of David Janssen's Harry O -- if only Harry could have seen dead men (and women) talking.

Spinal Tap Reunites for Live Earth To Fight Global Warming

Al Gore, eat your heart out!

A three-peat for 'Disturbia'

From Nikki Finke: It's another downbeat weekend at the box-office.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

R.I.P.: Jack J. Valenti (1921-2007)

Because of his involvement with the establishment of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system -- to say nothing of his decades-long stint as MPAA president -- Jack J. Valenti had, for better or worse, as profound an impact on American cinema as almost anyone this side of Orson Welles.

And while I know it remains fashionable to dis Valenti (and the MPAA itself) for allegedly stifling free speech and repressing freedom of expression and blah, blah, blah, I nonetheless find myself begrudgingly grateful for his efforts during the 1960s, when he found himself (in the words of AP correspondent David Germain) "caught between Hollywood's outdated system of self-censorship and the liberal cultural explosion taking place in America," and yet somehow "abolished the industry's restrictive Hays code, which prohibited explicit violence and frank treatment of sex, and in 1968 oversaw creation of today's letter-based ratings system."

Trust me: Without the MPAA ratings system, we likely would have seen dozens (if not hundreds) of local censorship boards popping up throughout the United States from 1966 onward. (Indeed, at least one local ratings board -- empowered to supercede the MPAA system -- existed in Dallas well into the 1980s.) And I suspect that, given today's political climate, many of those boards still would exist -- and still be censoring.

Roger Ebert lives!

Yes, he looks like hell. So what? He doesn't give a damn, and neither should we. Roger Ebert is still at large, and I, for one, am immensely grateful. Just keep getting better, man, and I'll keep lighting the candles.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The calm before the summer storm?

Weekend b.o. figures appear to be soft, according to David Germain. He quotes Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers, as theorizing: "People are just holding their breath waiting for summer to start, and while they're holding their breath, they didn't go to the movies in big numbers." (Rough translation: They're holding onto their bucks until Spider-Man 3 arrives.) Still No. 1: Disturbia.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Jeffrey Wells: Impudent upstart

Jeffrey Wells, the aging Hipster King who hosts Hollywood Elsewhere, dares to take issue with my rave review of Knocked Up. (I've been told, by the way, that said review already has been blurbed on lobby displays in megaplexes throughout this great land of ours. Uh-oh. Looks like I'm rejoining the ranks of quote whores.) You can humor Wells by reading his comments here.

Opening today: WorldFest/Houston

Charles Durning will be provding a little star power for the 2007 edition of the WorldFest/Houston Film Festival, which kicks off tonight for a 10-day run in Space City. The closing night film next weekend -- specifically, 7:15 p.m. April 29 -- will be The Dukes, a hugely enjoyable dramedy starring and directed by Robert Davi. I'll be hosting a Q&A with Davi immediately after the WorldFest premiere. So be there, or be square.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Louder than words

I can't blame the folks at NBC for wanting to hype their exclusive. But why do I have the horrible, horrible suspicion that this image -- clearly a pose inspired by action movie iconography -- soon will be seen on T-shirts everywhere?

The faces and the names

In the wake of terrible events such as those that unfolded Monday at Virginia Tech, we far too often learn more about the killer than his victims. Thank you, MSNBC, for attempting to remedy the balance by introducing some of the folks who should be the real "stars" of the inevitable TV movies.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Something to think about the next time you hear about a drop in movie attendance, or read about a decline in voting, or...

This distressing factoid was buried below the lede in a Bloomberg news report yesterday: “U.S. newspapers' daily circulation fell 30 percent to 43.7 million in September from 62.3 million in 1985...”

Now, of course, many of the lost readers may now be reading newspaper websites instead. Or they may be reading the sites operated by CNN, MSNBC, etc. Some, I am sure, no longer “read” news at all, but still listen to radio and/or watch TV newscasts. And, yes, of course, many have died.

But how many million have simply unplugged, tuned out or otherwise disengaged, and simply stopped giving a damn?

(And before anyone asks: Yes, I admit, I'm thinking a lot about such news about newspapers right now, since tomorrow marks the 12th anniversary of the closing of The Houston Post.)

What ever happened to Harvey Weinstein?

Patrick Goldstein misses Harvey Weinstein: "Not the Harvey Weinstein you see today, the slimmed-down mogul who's acquired the Halston fashion brand, invested in a MySpace-style website for the rich and famous and bought the Ovation arts channel. Not the Harvey Weinstein who told the Hollywood Reporter last year that 'we are focused on other areas outside of film.' The Harvey Weinstein I used to know — the Oscar impresario who collected gifted young filmmakers the way Tiger Woods accumulates golf titles — was truly, madly, deeply in love with movies...

"I feel like putting Harvey's picture on a milk carton. Has anyone seen the crazy, spittle-spewing, chain-smoking hustler who would bellow insults, twist arms and shamelessly hype whatever movie was due that week? I miss the old Harvey, the man who would've locked Grindhouse auteurs [Quentin] Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez in an editing room until they cut 40 minutes out of their movie. I miss the old Harvey, the cinema carnival barker whose passion for film was often indistinguishable from his paranoia, abusive behavior and vitriol."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Weekend b.o. report: Oh, Shia!

Nikki Finke: "It's official: Shia LaBeouf, the 20-year-old handpicked by Steven Spielberg to co-star in Indiana Jones 4 can open a movie. He helped DreamWorks/Paramount's teen thriller Disturbia open No. 1 this weekend with $23 million on 2,925 screens."

Friday, April 13, 2007

R.I.P.: Barry Nelson (1920-2007)

Barry Nelson was indeed "the answer to the trivia question: Who was the first actor to play James Bond? Before Sean Connery was tapped to play the British agent on the big screen in 1962's Dr. No, Nelson played Bond in a one-hour TV adaptation of Casino Royale in 1954." (The TV drama has been available on VHS and DVD for several years, and appears as a "Special Feature" on the DVD edition of the mega-spoofy 1967 version of Ian Fleming's novel.) But Nelson also will be remembered by many as a reliable MGM contract player of the 1940s and, later, an accomplished stage actor in and around New York. I had the great good fortune to see him opposite Deborah Kerr, Frank Langella and Maureen Anderman in the original 1975 Broadway production of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning Seascape. He was pretty damn good.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

This just in, from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

I'll be conducting a Q&A session with multi-hyphenate Steve Oedekerk (pictured above) next week at the Nashville Film Festival, one of my favorite events of its kind in the whole wide world. There are plenty of other stellar attractions on the April 19-26 fest schedule -- including a few world premieres I'll be reviewing for Variety, and other films I'll be blogging about here -- but, hey, this is my blog, so it's all about me, right? So here's an unabashed plug: You can order your tickets to A Conversation with Steve Oedekerk STARRING JOE LEYDON at... OK, I admit, that's not how the event is billed. But here's where you can get the tickets anyway.

And yes, I promise: I will ask Oedekerk about those udders...

'Running' With Linklater

Houston's very own Richard Linklater will return to his hometown next week to wrap up the Movies Houstonians Love series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He'll introduce one of his personal faves -- Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (that's right, the one where Dean Martin wears his hat while relaxing in the bathtub) -- at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, in the Brown Auditorium Theater of the MFAH's Caroline Wiess Law Building.

BTW: MFAH's second annual Movies Houstonians Love series kicked off in October with former Houston Astros star pitcher, manager and announcer Larry Dierker’s presentation of Casablanca, followed by former First Lady Barbara Bush’s introduction of Life is Beautiful and rapper Bun B's appearance for Style Wars. All of which proves once again that, yes, cinema really is a universal language

And another one bites the dust

The Tampa Tribute has laid off film critic Bob Ross, and will run wire-service movie reviews to fill the gap. Seems to me I've heard this song before. And before that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

R.I.P.: Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007)

From Variety: "[Kurt Vonnegut's] 14 novels included races he invented, impossible sci-fi phenomena and outlandish religions. While several were adapted for films, his vivid imagination sometimes proved difficult to translate to the screen, with George Roy Hill's Slaughterhouse-Five one of the more successful attempts."

Another was Keith Gordon's under-rated Mother Night. But then, alas, there was Breakfast of Champions...

R.I.P.: Roscoe Lee Brown (1925-2007)

Roscoe Lee Brown possessed the sort of mellifluous voice that can guarantee an actor a thriving career doing commercial voiceovers and movie narrations. (Anyone remember Babe?) But for many film buffs, he'll be best remembered as the camp cook who led John Wayne's young proteges in a mission of revenge in The Cowboys. Even in this role, however, Brown evidenced flawless diction -- much to the consternation of some white critics who, truth to tell, may have been channeling their inner Don Imus. "Some critics complained that I spoke too well to be believable" in the cook's role, Browne told The Washington Post in 1972. "When a critic makes that remark, I think, if I had said, 'Yassuh, boss' to John Wayne, then the critic would have taken a shine to me." Of course, maybe that critic had never seen The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), in which Brown's dignified businessman refused to take any guff from any white guy, even at the cost of his life.

Ring of fire

The late, great Johnny Cash's longtime lakeside home in Tennessee burned to the ground Tuesday. The 13,800-square-foot house -- where Johnny and his wife, June Carter Cash, lived from the late 1960s until their deaths in 2003 -- was a showcase where he wrote many of his best songs and entertained U.S. presidents, music royalty and visiting fans. It was also where director Mark Romanek filmed most of Johnny's most famous music video -- for my money, maybe the greatest and definitely the most affecting music video ever made -- available for viewing here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

'Grindhouse' post mortem

This is what I wrote about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, the co-directors of Grindhouse: “Tarantino and Rodriguez are kindred spirits, Generation X film brats who view lurid B-movies of the past three decades with the same reverence that their immediate predecessors once reserved for the likes of Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows. It will be interesting to see if these determinedly hip but undeniably talented young filmmakers ever move beyond recycling the cheap thrills of yesteryear. (In movies as much as in fashion and pop music, hipness has a very short shelf life.) Right now, the sheer gusto that Rodriguez and Tarantino take in hot-wiring tired clich├ęs and overly familiar archetypes is highly entertaining, if not downright addictive. But even while [their current collaboration] is most exciting, most deliriously kinetic, it is hard to shake the impression that, sooner or later, these filmmakers really should seek inspiration in something other than other people's films.”

When did I write this? Well, would you believe eleven years ago? When I reviewed From Dusk to Dawn, which Rodriguez directed from Tarantino’s script?

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m reluctant to join the blame game that has ensued ever since Grindhouse opened to mostly appreciative reviews but disappointingly low grosses last weekend. Because, truth to tell, I rather liked both halves of this faux double bill, each for different reasons. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is an exuberant mash-up of dozens of sci-fi cheapie-creepies from the ‘60s and ‘70s; Tarantino’s Death Proof takes too long to get started, but gradually revs up to become the best damn car-chase flick this side of Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry – ‘70s guilty-pleasure cult-faves that, of course, Tarantino lovingly acknowledges.

But, then again, maybe part of my pleasure stems from the shock of recognition: At 54, I’m old enough to remember actually paying to see –- in first-run theaters as well as drive-ins – many, if not most, of the B-movies, action films and exploitation quickies that are referenced throughout the three-hour-plus magnum opus that Tarantino and Rodriguez concocted. If audiences did indeed stay away in droves this weekend -– well, could it be that they just didn’t get the references? That schlocky ‘70s cinema holds no allure for the overwhelming majority of contemporary ticketbuyers (i.e., people considerably younger than 54)?

I’ll go a few steps further: I doubt that even the most rabid B-movie fans in my demographic have seen some of the more obscure items that Tarantino and Rodriguez riff on in Grindhouse. (Exhibit A: The Crazies, a 1973 George Romero opus that clearly inspired bits and pieces of Planet Terror.) And while this may seem like a niggling point, some so-called B-movies actually are fondly remembered by Baby Boomers as respectably entertaining mainstream features. (It’s worth remembering: Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry were released by 20th Century Fox, not New World or American-International.) And some of my fellow geezers likely have no desire to see those movies mocked (even if the “mockery” is more like an affectionate homage).

What it all boils down to, I think, is this: The appetite for ‘70s recycling has greatly diminished during the past decade. (Unless, of course, you’re doing a straightforward rock-the-house action flick with a ‘70s flavor, ala Four Brothers or last year's Assault on Presinct 13 remake.) Audiences have moved on to other things. Maybe it’s time for Tarantino and Rodriguez to do likewise. Maybe long past time.

BTW: Maybe the intention was to evoke a newspaper ad for a '70s era grindhouse, but I'll be damned if that poster art doesn't look more like something for a mid-'60s drive-in double bill. Indeed, as I have posted elsewhere: Maybe the movie might have fared better if it had been called Drive-In instead of Grindhouse?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tabloid TV is good for you

Jack Shafer insists that nobody who reported the Anna Nicole Smith story or viewed it on TV need apologize. Money quote: "Fat, no-talent, bleach blondes from Texas with breast implants aren't rare. But add a little show-business success to that package and top it with a potential half-billion dollars, and you've got a story."

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Yet another story about yet another John Travolta comeback

And once again: Since Roger Ebert is still recuperating, and other "informed sources" of equal importance could not be found before deadline, yet another writer has to settle for interviewing...

'Metal Men' movie

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: Not another comic book movie! But I must confess to having very fond memories of Metal Men, an obscure DC Comic of the '60s that evidently has acquired a fervent cult following. It's been years -- well, OK, decades -- since I've glanced at an issue. But I remember the robotic heroes as being among the very few DC characters of the time who seemed as complex and compelling as the dysfunctional superheroes in Marvel titles. So the prospect of a film version strikes me as, at the very least, promising. I mean, how could you not look forward to a movie that may feature the sexiest fembot since Maria of Metropolis?

Oh, no! O'Brien's out!

How could they do this to her after her superb performance in Spike Lee's movie last year? And how will this affect her next collaboration with him?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Roger Ebert: 40 years is not enough

Roger Ebert: "As I look at the date, I realize I was named film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times 40 years ago Sunday. I had no idea I was embarking on a lifelong career, but I was, and I can't think of a better one.

"Now here I am with another milestone. Nine months ago I was leaving Northwestern Memorial Hospital after surgery for salivary-gland cancer. I was planning to be back in action in a few weeks, but unfortunately, there were complications, and more medical procedures resulted. I was in bed so long that I experienced serious deconditioning that led to a stint at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"I began my rehabilitation there, and I am continuing it, along with an overhaul of my general health, at the Pritikin Center in Florida. Also, because of a tracheostomy, my speaking voice is on hold until my upcoming completion surgery. I am feeling better every day and my wife, Chaz, says we can see the light at the end of the tunnel...

"I plan to gradually increase my duties in the months to come. I still love writing about the movies. Forty years is not enough."

Damn right it's not. Not for you, not for us. So keep the recovery going, Roger. I'm still lighting the candles for you.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Before there was 'Grindhouse,' there was 'The Independent'

If you’re not familiar with the ‘60s and ‘70s exploitation flicks that inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to make Grindhouse, you might want to take a peek at Stephen Kessler’s The Independent to prepare yourself for the three-hours-plus epic opening Friday at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. And if you are a connoisseur of schlock cinema – that is, if you’re a guilty-pleasure-seeker who fondly recalls the low-budget, high-concept quickies of New World Pictures, American-International and other now-defunct manufacturers of full-tilt, down-and-dirty B-movies – well then you, too, likely will enjoy Kessler’s overlooked and under-rated pastiche.

As I wrote back in 2001: “A genially slapdash mix of sketch-comedy riffs, faux-documentary interviews and traditional sitcom-style narrative, The Independent surveys the life and career of Morty Fineman (Jerry Stiller), a notoriously prolific multi-hyphenate whose credits include Groovy Hippie Slumber Party, LSD-Day and Teenie Weenie Bikini Beach.

“Friends, admirers and former co-workers characterize the maverick moviemaker as an influential artist who somehow transcended tight budgets, marginal talent and an unfortunate tendency to put moves on his leading ladies…

“Not surprisingly, the funniest scenes in The Independent are the snippets and coming-attraction trailers used to illustrate the highlights of Morty's less-than-illustrious career: Brothers Divided (conjoined twins – one a pacifist, one a gung-ho warrior – are drafted for Vietnam duty), Christ for the Defense (a courtroom drama with a truly miraculous defense attorney), The Foxy Chocolate Robot (blaxploitation sci-fi with Fred Williamson and a mechanical co-star) and The Eco-Angels. The latter segment, a hilariously precise parody of 1968's The Miniskirt Mob, is a small gem of persuasive verisimilitude: The actors look, dress and sound just like regulars in mid-'60s B-movies, and the faded color appears to have degenerated for three or four decades.

“Working from a hit-and-miss script he co-wrote with producer Mike Wilkins, director Stephen Kessler strives for a similar kind of plausible fakery during the ‘interviews’ with Karen Black and other real-life notables. Maintaining a reasonably straight face, Peter Bogdanovich claims Morty ‘would try something, and two years later, somebody would copy it and win an Oscar.’ Ron Howard, Roger Corman and Nick Cassavetes also weigh in with testimonials.

“To link the inspired bits and pieces, Kessler and Wilkins spin a mildly amusing story about Morty's umpteenth comeback effort. Still doing what he does best (or, more precisely, worst) in the fifth decade of his filmmaking career, Morty is unable to complete his latest opus -- Ms. Kevorkian, the saga of a gun-wielding sexpot who supports assisted suicide -- because he is, once again, flat broke. Worse, his creditors want to claim his 427-film library, and sell off the individual titles – yes, even The Eco-Angels and Christ for the Defense -- for $8 a pound.

“Morty needs a miracle. What he gets is Paloma (Janeane Garofalo), his long-estranged daughter, who reluctantly takes command of her father's failing production company. Meanwhile, Ivan (Max Perlich), Morty's faithful assistant and tireless gofer, tries to elevate his mentor's profile by talking a film festival – any festival, anywhere – into honoring Morty with a retrospective tribute.

“Trouble is, few festivals are sufficiently desperate to even consider sponsoring such an event. The only encouraging response comes from a brand-new festival in a small Nevada town where, since the closing of a nearby military base, the only local industry of note is legal prostitution. Which, naturally, makes it the perfect spot for a tribute to Morty Fineman.

The Independent doubtless would have worked better with a few more ersatz coming-attraction trailers and much less filler between the really funny bits. Even so, Stiller gives a robustly comical performance as the most enthusiastically self-deluded Hollywood fringe-dweller since Ed Wood. No obstacle, not even his own ineptitude, gets Morty down. Told that he's bankrupt, he cheerfully responds: ‘Then our creditors are screwed!’

“Garofalo shines as a dry-witted, common-sensible realist who can't help wanting to help her father, if only to repay him for producing Cheerleader Camp Massacre after she failed to make the grade as a high-school pom-pom girl. And Perlich brings a hangdog sweetness to scenes in which he dutifully recites words of wisdom he has received from Morty. On the subject of loyalty: ‘Milk the cow until it's dry. Then make hamburger and wallets.’”