Thursday, August 30, 2007

15 "Must-See Westerns"

Riding on the coattails of 3:10 to Yuma, which will have a nationwide sneak preview Sunday prior to a Sept. 7 opening, Entertainment Weekly offers an on-line list of 15 "Must-See Westerns." And partners, let me tell you: It's a pretty dadgum respectable line-up, ranging from Red River (1949) to Tombstone (1993), with room for at least one Budd Boetticher classic (1956's Seven Men from Now) and an epic miniseries (1989's Lonesome Dove).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Monday, August 27, 2007

You can kill the bogeyman

Looks like Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween is every bit as bad as I feared. But could it possibly be worse than some sequels to the original?

Playing Dallas for laughs

If you laughed when you first heard that John Travolta would be subbing for Larry Hagman (above) as Texas oil tycoon J.R. Ewing in a big-screen version of the 1978-91 TV soap Dallas -- well, looks like the folks making the long-delayed film actually want you to giggle. According to the showbiz trade paper Variety, Betty Thomas, the director who mined two successfully spoofy movies from The Brady Bunch, and a considerably less funny comedy from I Spy, is in discussions to direct. And Pam Brady, who most recently scripted Hot Rod, is writing the screenplay. Travolta remains attached to the project -- for now.

The shock of recognition


A friend alerted me to this clip, and asked: "Aren't you glad you don't have students like this?" The trouble is, well, God help me, I have had students like this...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

K.O. does NBC

Kudos to Keith Olbermann for neither dumbing down nor wimping out -- in short, for being every bit as brass-ballsy as I expected -- while giving broadcast TV viewers a taste of the tangy cable newscast that is Countdown. He brought his signature MSNBC show to NBC early Sunday evening for what I hope the sister networks envision as just the first in a series of synergistic showcases.

I pray to God this isn't true, but....

The National Enquirer is reporting (and the Drudge Report is linking the report) that Owen Wilson attempted suicide today. Yeah, I know: Consider the source. Still...

Update, 11:43 p.m.: Now Fox News is running the story -- or at least linking to the National Enquirer's website. Just spoke on the phone with a colleague who knows Wilson, and says he can't believe Wilson is the type of guy who would want to kill himself. Again, I am hoping for the best. But, really, who knows what color of darkness someone else sees when they shut their eyes at night?

Update, 1:14 a.m.: Variety.com is running with the story now, as are other outlets. At the risk of sounding brutally unfeeling, I can't help wondering how all this will affect critical and audience reaction to The Darjeeling Limited, which is slated for a late September opening in New York.

Update, 8:53 a.m.: Strangely enough: While the Drudge Report site continues to prominently feature the Owen Wilson story, the much bigger story of the day -- Alberto Gonzalez's resignation -- has yet to be posted as of 8:53 am CDT. Read into that what you will.

Summer 2007: Money-making, not record-breaking

Superbad has remained No. 1 at the box-office on the final weekend of what is estimated to be Hollywood's first $4 billion summer. But as Harvey Keitel famously warned his co-stars in Pulp Fiction, don't be too quick to celebrate the record-breaking. David Germain astutely notes: "Factoring in higher admission prices, Media By Numbers estimated about 606 million movie tickets will have been sold this summer — a solid figure but only the sixth-best for modern Hollywood."

A 'Ken Burns guilt trip' at PBS?

The controversy over Ken Burns' The War may be fueling a sudden spike in Latino-skewing programs (including Brown is the New Green: George Lopez and the American Dream) on PBS. Read all about it here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Let's do the Star Trek time warp again!


Thanks to my faithful source for pop-culture phenomena, John Guidry of the Crescent City.

Ebert hangs on to his thumbs

From the Associated Press: "Roger Ebert has turned thumbs down on thumb reviews for At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.

"Ebert, who is negotiating a new contract with the syndicated TV show's distributor, Disney-ABC Domestic Television, is a copyright holder on the signature 'thumbs up-thumbs down' judgment that's part of each film review.

"He has 'exercised his right to withhold use of the "thumbs" until a new contract is signed,' the Walt Disney Co.-owned company said in a statement released Friday to The Associated Press."

As you likely know, Ebert has not appeared on the TV show for more than a year because of health problems. During this period, guest co-hosts have filled in. According to the AP, "In the new season starting this weekend, co-host Richard Roeper will be joined for the first few months by movie critic Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer."

"First few months," eh? Sounds a bit long-term, wouldn't you say? Could that have something to do with Ebert's negotiating stance?" In any event, here is Ebert's response to the AP story.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Auto mishap

From the Associated Press: Oscar-nominated director John Singleton, director of Boyz N the Hood and Four Brothers, was driving a Lexus SUV when it struck and killed a jaywalker who stepped in front of the car, police said Friday.

Will 3:10 arrive even earlier?

First, Lionsgate announced that 3:10 to Yuma, originally set for an Oct. 5 release, would get pushed up for a Sept. 7 opening. Now there's word that the hard-edged Western starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale will get a national sneak preview in theaters throughout North America on Sept. 2. Gee, do you think this means Lionsgate is bullish on the movie's box-office prospects?

Viva Yuma

From the Associated Press: "[A]n Arizona desert town near the borders with California and Mexico is Cuba's most talked-about American locale." And it's all because of the original 3:10 to Yuma.

Kamp Katrina

A worthy addition to the steadily increasing array of documentaries about life and strife in post-Katrina New Orleans, Kamp Katrina is a frequently affecting but scrupulously nonjudgmental look at a makeshift mini-community of survivors. Filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon may catch grief in certain PC quarters for focusing almost entirely on working-class and lower-middle-class whites -- specifically, the sort of New Orleaneans often referenced in local slanguage as "yats" (as in, "Where yat, darlin'?"). Oddly enough, however, the movie winds up being all the more fascinating because race isn't an issue as tensions rise among earthy folks in close quarters.

I reviewed Kamp Katrina for Variety after its premiere last spring at SXSW, and I subsequently was honored to introduce the film and the filmmakers at the Nashville Film Festival. And, yes, I am a New Orleans native -- born and raised in the Ninth Ward. (Most of movie was shot just a few blocks away from the Alvar Street Branch of the New Orleans Public Library -- the first of the city library system's storm-damaged branches to reopen its doors after Katrina -- where, as a youngster during the '60s, I first encountered a collection of reviews by Pauline Kael.) So I've taken more than a casual interest in how this insightful film has fared elsewhere. And so far, I'm happy to say, the reponse has been good. GreenCine Daily offers an invaluable update that includes links to Matt Zoller Seitz's favorable appraisal in the New York Times, and the Kamp Katrina website, where you can see whether or not it's coming soon to a theater near you. If it isn't, maybe you should ask the appropriate people in your area to rectify that situation.

What is it good for? Well, not quite absolutely nothing, but...

The teaming of action stars Jet Li and Jason Statham may raise audience expectations for a lean, mean ass-kicking machine, but War turns out to be a flabby and formulaic programmer. Early scenes appear to promise a clever commingling of elements from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (by way of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) with Michael Cimino’s disreputably rousing Year of the Dragon. But the flick quickly devolves into a standard-issue crime drama laced with routine martial artistry.

You can read my full Variety review here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

'Mindset' tip No. 34: They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

Each year, Beloit College publishes a “mindset list” to clue professors into what incoming freshmen may know or assume – and, just important, may not know or assume – about life. As a part-time academic, I must admit to frequently referencing this cheat sheet. My favorite entry on this year’s list is No. 45: "They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee." Yeah, probably.

John Lone: M.I.A.?

That's Jason Stratham (left), Mathew St. Patrick (center) -- and John Lone (right) in War

The lovely and talented Nikki Finke says we can expect another weekend at No. 1 for Superbad -- and a debut "in the high teens" for War, good enough for the No. 2 spot. But here's the odd part: I didn't realize until just a couple hours ago that John Lone -- yes, that John Lone, star of The Last Emperor (1987) -- plays a supporting role in the latter film. Prior to War, he last appeared on U.S. screens in Rush Hour 2 (2001) -- and that was his first major movie gig since The Hunted (1995). Now, I know he pops up in Asian movies now and then -- but even those credits are few and far between. And War looks like it could be major-league kick-ass fun, but still...

I guess what I'm asking is: Jeez, happened to that career? In movies as diverse as Year of the Dragon (1985), The Moderns (1988) and, of course, Last Emperor, Lone had screen presence potent enough to power a mid-size city. Did he just piss off the wrong people, or what?

Street scene: Muggers target Cinema Paradiso director

From the Associated Press: "[D]irector Giuseppe Tornatore... was taken to a hospital in the Italian capital after two young men attacked him Tuesday evening, the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera quoted the director as saying. He suffered head trauma as well as several minor injuries, the news agency ANSA reported.

"Tornatore was taking a stroll after leaving his office when the two men asked him for directions. While one thanked the filmmaker for the help, the other hit him on the head from behind, Corriere della Sera said. After that 'I don't remember anything,' he said. The two men made off with Tornatore's wallet, mobile phone and watch, the paper reported.

"The Sicilian-born director, whose Cinema Paradiso [starring the late, great Philippe Noiret] won the Academy Award for best foreign film in 1990, underwent a CT scan after being hospitalized and was scheduled to have another scan on Thursday, ANSA reported."

Trailer park: The Assassination of Jesse James


The above trailer for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has been available on line for several weeks. But now there's a new trailer on the Internet -- and, to my mind, it's even more encouraging. Can't wait to see this Western when it opens in limited release Sept. 21. Literally: I can't wait. That's why I hope to catch it early next month at the Toronto Film Festival.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

War redux

From the Associated Press: "Condemning the Fox News Channel as a warmonger that's agitating for a U.S. attack on Iran, documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald and independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders announced an 'online viral video campaign' Wednesday calling on television news organizations 'not to follow Fox down the road to war again.'"

Illegal Tender: Red hot mama(cita) knows best

As I say in my Variety review, Wanda De Jesus is a knockout in Illegal Tender as Millie DeLeon, a Latina lioness who's determined to keep her two sons safe from the vengeful drug lord who betrayed and murdered her husband two decades earlier. The movie itself is just so-so, but it does feature -- in addition to De Jesus' strong performance -- a muy bueno soundtrack that effectively fuses hip-hop, salsa and Reggaetón. I suppose I should note that Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter likes the flick more than I do. But, then again, maybe I should also note that Rechtshaffen misidentifies Reggaetón great Tego Calderon as the chief villain of the piece. (Actually, Calderon plays an ambitious underling who figures prominently in a final plot twist. Gary Perez -- who's a tad bit more, um, light-complexioned -- is the badass drug lord named Javier Cordero) Yeah, I know: That's a pretty petty thing for me to call another writer on. But what the hell, if even a hopelessly rhythm-challenged gringo like me can tell the difference... (In Rechtshaffen's defense, however, the info available on the movie's offical website is a bit, how we say, skimpy.)

(Note: This is Tego Calderon.)

Caddyshack III: The Stockholm Syndrome

Bill Murray has been a bad, bad boy in Sweden.

Good news on my birthday


You have no idea how happy I am to hear about this today.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Heaven hit home for me

Maybe I’m feeling nostalgic because I’m facing a birthday – my 55th! – tomorrow. Or maybe all the hoopla over the horny teens in Superbad has made me recall my own misspent youth. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking the past few days about a relatively minor film that had a major impact on me: Heaven Help Us, a 1985 comedy about growing up absurd – and, more important, Catholic – in the 1960s. As I wrote in my original review: “Speaking as the product -- some might say the victim -- of a Catholic elementary and high school education, I must say I found Heaven Help Us an uproariously funny and painfully accurate comedy. Mind you, one doesn’t have to be Catholic to enjoy the movie, which is set in and around a Brooklyn parochial school in 1965. But it helps to have the right background, to realize even those elements that seem most far-fetched are not so exaggerated at all.”

Insightfully written by the late Charles Purpura (whose only other feature credit of note is 1988’s less-than-noteworthy Satisfaction) and subtly directed by Michael Dinner (whose decidedly non-subtle Hot to Trot, a 1988 talking-horse comedy with Bobcat Goldthwait, remains a guilty pleasure of mine), Heaven Help Us features Andrew McCarthy (still flush with the fresh bloom of teen-fave stardom), Kevin Dillon (scarcely a year before his appearance in Platoon) and Malcolm Danare as three students at an all-boys Catholic high school (or, as we called them back in the day, “a parochial school”) in 1965 Brooklyn. I don’t think I’m spoiling any surprises to reveal that a generous portion of screen time is devoted to young lust and puppy love. (McCarthy’s character has a sweet romance with a candy-store clerk played by Mary Stuart Masterson, while Dillon’s character is… well, on the make for anything that moves.) But for me, the best parts of the movie are those that depict the day-to-day indignities and more-than-occasional terrors endemic to life as a Catholic school student of the era. I vividly remember seeing the movie on a Sunday, then going home and calling my best friend from high school to tell him about it. Only I really didn’t have to alert him: By the time I reached him, he’d already seen the movie – which had opened two days earlier –-three times. No kidding.

I don’t know whether contemporary teen-agers (or twentysomethings) would, after exposure to the free-wheeling raunch of the explosively funny Superbad, find the comparably restrained Heaven Help Us terribly amusing as entertainment, or even mildly interesting as an artifact (of the ‘80s and the ‘60s). Maybe, maybe not. Truth to tell, I strongly suspect it would seem as quaint yet remote to them as Depression Era musicals and screwball comedies sometimes seem to me. Nostalgia, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

In any event, here's a scene from the movie for your perusal:

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Teen spirit

It should be noted that, as popular as Superbad was this weekend, more people -- a lot more people -- were interested in teen-agers who aren't quite so potty-mouthed.

Honoring Groucho


When Groucho Marx died 30 years ago today, his passing was largely overshadowed by continuing coverage of Elvis Presley's utimely demise (which occurred just three days earlier). Indeed, even Time magazine paid scant attention to the comic great's final exit, sparking unhappy responses from Woody Allen and Dick Cavett.

Flash forward three decades, and we find... well, "Elvis has left the building" continues to get more attention than "Hello, I must be going." To partly compensate, I've posted a snippet from Animal Crackers. Not Groucho's best movie, to be sure, but this sequence showcases him at his incomparable (though oft-imitated) best. Excuse me, now, while I have a strange interlude...

Macho love

David Poland has an interesting thread on his blog tied to his provocative Friday column about machismo – or, more specifically, the lack thereof – in this summer’s movies. To quote Poland: “The top five movies of this year are [movies with] male leads [played] by Tobey Maguire, Mike Myers, Johnny Depp, Shia LeBeouf, and Daniel Radcliffe. There might be plenty to love or lust at for any of these men, but machismo is not a part of the equation. They might outthink you, but don't expect to see a fist from a-one of them.”

Poland may have a point (though I would dispute his take on Maguire, if only on the strength of the actor's performance in Ride with the Devil.). But if he does, I would argue that the status quo Poland describes stems from a phenomenon that’s bigger than mere machismo, or the ability to look comfortable (and, more important, effortlessly authoritative) while handling guns. Rather, I would argue that there’s a dearth of contemporary actors in their 20s and 30s who have sufficient gravitas to be taken altogether seriously as…. well, adult males. Even when -- no, make that especially when -- it comes to something as seemingly simple as conveying sufficient self-assured virility to be believable as a grown-up romantic comedy lead.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with producer Lynda Obst just before the release of her How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. She noted that, as odd as it might sound, it was extremely difficult to cast the lead role in her movie, and that Matthew McConaughey – OK, go ahead and laugh if you insist – is one of only a handful of his contemporaries who could make the part work.

Now, remember, we’re not talking about a role of tremendous depth and complexity here. We’re talking about a part that, in his heyday as a rom-com lead, Rock Hudson could have played in his sleep. (Please spare me the closeted-gay jokes – go back and look at Pillow Talk and you’ll see what I mean.) As Obst said: “These days, the hardest thing about making romantic comedies is casting the guy. Casting the woman? Easy. But you always have the same scripts chasing the same six guys – most of whom can’t do it, won’t do it, are afraid to do it [my emphasis added], or can’t get hired by the studio.”

Don’t get me wrong: I think there are plenty of young guys out there right now who can kick ass as efficiently as Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne did in their respective primes. And I've been told by women whose opinion that I respect that Seth Rogan comes across as a cuddly teddy bear. But who among The New Breed is ready to play rakish charmers like Cary Grant or Clark Gable or even James Garner in modern-day rom-coms? Who could do sensitive-yet-substantial like James Stewart? What the hell, who’s got the chops to tackle the Rock Hudson roles? Keanu Reeves made a tentative move in that direction with the unfortunate Sweet November, but he’s over 40. So are George Clooney and John Cusack, two guys who can, when the spirit moves them, do light comedy with Old Hollywood flair. But as for those guys 39 or younger? Well, there’s Will Smith (though, age-wise, he just makes the cut). And maybe (no kidding) LL Cool J, yes, Matthew McConaughey. And…. ?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A casting coup for The Dark Knight

From the Associated Press: "Holy Beltway, Batman! Sen. Patrick Leahy has a part in the next Batman movie." But, gee whiz, doesn't this guy have to deal with enough villainy in his regular job? I mean, really, how can The Joker hope to faze someone who's already had to spar with Alberto Gonzalez?

What does the film industry do for Louisiana?

Pretty much what every other industry does for my home state: Provide more opportunities for city and state officials to wheedle bribes and kickbacks.

Early b.o. report: Big bad Superbad

According to Fantasy Moguls, Superbad is doing much better than anyone expected, The Invasion is doing much, much worse than anyone feared -- and The Last Legion (which, as I note in my Variety review, isn't half-bad) isn't doing much of anything at all.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

First rave for 3:10 to Yuma

Todd McCarthy of Variety has weighed in with the first rave review for 3:10 to Yuma.

The verdict: "3:10 to Yuma is a tense, rugged redo of a film that was pretty good the first time around. Reinforced by a strong central premise, alert performances, a realistic view of the developing Old West and a satisfying dimensionality in its shadings of good and evil, James Mangold's remake walks a fine line in retaining many of the original's qualities while smartly shaking things up a bit." McCarthy waxes enthusiastic about the lead performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale -- and singles out for special praise "a wonderfully leathery characterization by Peter Fonda as a supremely tough old bounty hunter."

3:10 to Yuma opens Sept. 7 at theatres and drive-ins everywhere. You can read all about it in the October issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine, which hits newsstands Sept. 4 with a cover story by.... by.... well, by me, actually.

Silent movie quiz

I scored 73 percent on this test. Not that I'm bragging, mind you. (Because, sheesh, that's not really a score to brag about.) And no, the above is not a photo of Barry Bonds in a 'roid rage.

Worst. Remake. Idea. Ever.

A remake of Enter the Dragon? Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Boll goes Postal, Part II

My Variety colleague Dennis Harvey reports that Uwe Boll's latest may -- gasp! -- actually be worth seeing. Postal, Harvey writes, is an "energetic if scattershot farce" that "aims to be the It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of bad-taste satires on an out-of-control post-9/11 world. Like that non-classic, its sheer exertion often impresses more than the number of actual laughs scored. Still, this anything-goes exercise isn't dull... " Based loosely -- apparently, very loosely -- on a series of videogames, Postal "is equal-opportunity cartoonish in embracing and sending up stereotypes and sacred cows, though most mainstream viewers -- not the target demo here -- will be appalled by certain ideas being used for comedy. They range from an opening 9/11 hijacker cockpit sequence to a fade with secret allies George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden skipping hand-in-hand into the nuclear explosion-riddled sunset."

Jeez, wait until Bill O'Reilly and Michael "Mad Dog" Medved hear about this one

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Ben and Mary-Kate sitting in a tree....

First, he nails Tea Leoni in You Kill Me. Now, he's locking lips with Mary-Kate Olsen in The Wackness. At this rate, I suppose we can expect any day now the announcement that Ben Kingsley will be co-starring with Abigail Breslin.

Making chicken salad out of...

Here is my Variety review of Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare, which I describe as a stunningly maladroit indie that "plumbs the lower depths of awfulness to a degree unmatched by pics merely inept and/or pretentious." Did that stop its maker from quoting the review in on-line advertising? Hell, no. I should be annoyed, I suppose, but it's hard not to admire (albeit grudgingly) such enterprise. Not since Ed Wood...

But, on the other hand...


Sometimes, women are scary.

Women on film


I know this has been around for a while, but I wanted to share. Francois Truffaut was right: Women are magic.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Resources

A new addition to this blogsite: Resources. Take a look down the right side of the screen, and you'll see this new set of links. First on tap: Cover Browser, for all you fans of comic book movies (because I'm assuming you're fans of comic books as well), and Australian Screen, which should keep you au courant regarding all things pertaining to Australian cinema.

Bush Vs. Zombies


This just in from New Orleans-based pop culture maven John Guidry, my reliable source for all things related to zombies: "You have nothing to worry about. The government is protecting us."

But remember: We must hang tough in our war on the living dead. If you question our Commander in Chief, the zombies have won.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A fox among the chickens

Certain malcontents have complained because the Toronto Film Festival has moved its press office back to the Sutton Place, the swanky hotel that served more or less as Festival Central back in the 1980s and '90s. But I must say: I'm very, very happy for the press center to be back on Bay Street, close to my favorite pub -- excuse me, my favourite pub -- in all of Toronto: The Foxes Den, where the beer is cold, the wings are hot, and the mood is mellow. Well, except when there's a Jays game on the TV. Then the mood has been know to turn, well, less mellow. But never mind: You'll likely find me there during this year's fest, munching on fowl and either quaffing brewskies or sipping Merlot after a hard day of moviegoing, and occasionally raising a glass to my dear, departed buddy, Sid Adilman.

Hey, do you think that maybe I can sleaze the pub management into spotting me for some free grub if I agree to lead film discussions on premises...? Nah, I didn't think so, either. But it's like my son always says: You dribble and you shoot, and you hope you score...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rush Hour is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick

As I indicated in what Jeff Wells has puckishly dubbed my “video-clip thingie,” sitting through Rush Hour 3 is a lot like watching a great right-fielder during the final season of a long career, or attending an oldies concert showcasing well-known bands that haven’t charted in decades: You can’t help noting that the smooth moves are slower these days, and you don’t get many surprising deviations from a playlist of crowd-pleasing riffs. But if you had a great time with the first Rush Hour, and at least a mildly enjoyable experience with Rush Hour 2, chances are good that this genially slapdash threepeat will float your boat. As Roger Ebert aptly notes in his review: “Once you realize it's only going to be so good, you settle back and enjoy that modest degree of goodness, which is at least not badness, and besides, if you're watching Rush Hour 3, you obviously didn't have anything better to do, anyway.”

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker are back as an odd couple of crimebusters who bridge their cultural gap – one’s an earnest Hong Kong lawman; the other, a motor-mouth L.A. cop – in order to combine their respective talents for ass-kicking and trash-talking. This time, they’re in Paris, seeking a list of names of Chinese Triad crime lords. But, really, that’s just an excuse for Chan to speak softly and carry a big kick while Tucker speaks loudly and does comic shtick. If that's the sort of thing you like, you probably will like Rush Hour 3.

To be sure, it’s mildly distressing to see Chan leaping and lunging a bit less gracefully (and a lot less frequently) than he used to. And it’s slightly unsettling to see a magnificently ravaged Max Von Sydow (cast here as a character whose true colors are too obvious by half) so soon after the recent death of Ingmar Bergman. But director Brett Ratner, following the same formula he used for the two previous films, laces the largely irrelevant action-adventure plot with bits and pieces of genuinely amusing nonsense. (Note Tucker’s very funny frustration during a cheeky variation of “Who’s on First?”) And the two leads continue to find ways of wringing big laughs from the running gag of their mismatched partnership, even when they're gleefully defanging racial stereotypes through shameless, self-aware exaggeration. (When the two buddies briefly split after a quarrel, Tucker comforts himself by ordering Chinese take-out while Chan dines on fried chicken and soul food.) Indeed, the laughter they elicit is just enough to almost completely drown the tell-tale sound made by franchise participants as they they scrape the bottom of the barrel after returning to the well one last time.

BTW: At one point in Rush Hour 3, there’s a scene in which a comically surly French cabdriver indulges in anti-American mockery of Tucker’s character. “You lost in Vietnam!” he rants. “And you lost in Iraq!” I realize, of course, that it’s always a risky task to parse a popcorn movie for explicit or implicit political commentary. But maybe it says something about the zeitgeist that neither Ratner nor Tucker saw the need for Tucker’s character to dispute the cabdriver’s taunt.

R.I.P.: Merv Griffin (1925-2007)

Merv Griffin’s most enduring contributions to American pop culture may be Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune – and, arguably, one of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures ever recorded, “I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” – but Baby Boomers of a certain age also will fondly recall his many stints as a genuinely engaging TV talk show host.

Indeed, there was a stretch in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when CBS programmed him as a late-night alternative to Johnny Carson. Not surprisingly, he didn’t provide much real competition for The King Of Late Night. During his CBS run, however, Griffin did play a major role in a notorious on-air incident that involved a “wardrobe malfunction” quite unlike the one that, decades later, exposed Janet Jackson. I actually remember watching Griffith’s show on the night when… well, let me let Paul Krassner do the honors:

“What is perceived as desecration of a flag depends on the subjectivity of the beholder. In 1970, Abbie Hoffman -- co-founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party) with Jerry Rubin and myself -- wore a red-white-and-blue shirt resembling the American flag (made in France) when he was a guest on The Merv Griffin Show. At the taping, Griffin had asked him, ‘How can you claim that there’s so much repression in America if you’re allowed on my show?’

“But CBS censors blacked out Hoffman’s image prior to broadcasting the program, which began with an apology: ‘It seemed one of the guests had seen fit to come on the show wearing a shirt made from an American flag. Therefore, to avoid possible litigation, the network executives have decided to mask out all visible portions of the offending shirt by electronic means. We hope our viewers will understand.’ Hoffman’s disembodied voice could be heard clearly, however. On that same show, there was a fast-food commercial in which Roy Rogers wore a similar shirt.”

If you weren’t around at the time, you may find it difficult to fathom that, as absurd as this incident may sound now, it was reflective of a dead-serious political divide that polarized the U.S. population. It was a time when, yes, even wearing the “wrong” kind of shirt on a talk show might be enough to upset those timid TV censors who want to keep programs as scrupulously inoffensive and politically neutered as possible. Have things really changed that much? Well, you tell me.

BTW: Merv Griffin enjoyed a fleeting career as an actor, but I must admit I don't remember anything about his contributions to Roy Del Ruth's Phantom of the Rue Morgue or Michael Curtiz's The Boy from Oklahoma. On the other hand: just think of how many "six degrees of separation" scenarios you can spin with Merv Griffin and Michael Curtiz so neatly linked.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Me on YouTube


One of my more ambitious students at the Town & Country campus of Houston Community College has been producing segments for HCC-TV. Unfortunately, because there's no money involved, he can't be too picky about who he uses as "talent."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Good news, bad news

The Houston City Council has bestowed historic landmark status on the River Oaks and Alabama movie theaters and shopping centers. Unfortunately, that might not count for much.

Disturbia

As many before me already have noted, Disturbia -– newly released on DVD -- is Rear Window for the You Tube generation, a clever commingling of a classic Hitchcockian concept (a homebound voyeur suspects a neighbor of homicidal activity) with more state-of-the-art electronic gizmos (camera phones, iPods, X-Boxes, you name it, they got it) than you’d find in a Best Buy advertising flyer. But wait, there’s more: Director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) and scriptwriters Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth also add to mix a heaping helping of "The Boy Who Cried Murder," a Cornell Woolrich short story that has inspired everything from Sudden Terror (a.k.a. Eyewitness, a nifty little 1970 thriller with a post-Oliver! Mark Lester) to, no kidding, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. (Not incidentally, Woolrich also wrote the story on which Alfred Hitchcock based Rear Window.)

Shia LaBeouf continues his current winning streak with an engagingly callow and effectively skittish turn as Kale, a troubled teen-ager who’s outfitted with an ankle-bracelet monitor and sentenced to house arrest after he punches out a thoughtless teacher (who, truth be told, really deserves it). Left to his own devices during the long summer days after his hard-working mom (Carrie-Anne Moss of Matrix fame) pulls the plug on his video games, Kale amuses himself by spying on neighbors.

At first, he spends most of his time with his binoculars focused on Ashley (Sarah Roemer), a sassy teen hottie who just moved into the house next door, where she spends most of her time swimming and sunbathing and swimming and sun... well, you get the idea.

Eventually, however, Kale turns his attention to the nocturnal activities of Mr. Turner, a neighbor who just might be a psycho killer. Actually, there’s never any real doubt that this guy is accumulating corpses, since he’s played by David Morse, an actor whose specialty is soft-spoken, spooky-eyed menace whenever he isn’t in a movie directed by Sean Penn. But Kale has a hard time convincing anyone other than his best buddy Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) and his new sweetie Ashley (who, fortunately, is a good sport about being the object of Kale’s surveillance) that Turner is the chief reason why several local women have gone missing.

I appreciate the way Caruso refrains from rushing things while revving up the plot mechanics during the first half of Disturbia. We get just enough time to develop a sympathetic interest in Kale –- while, of course, he is developing an attachment to Ashley – and that makes the movie all the more pleasurably suspenseful and anxiety-inspiring when the thriller elements kick in big time. I would be willing to bet that at some point during post-production – or maybe even pre-production -- the suits suggested Caruso delete the prologue sequence that begins with Kale and his devoted dad (Matt Craven) bonding during a day of fishing, and ends with the unfortunate father dying in an auto mishap. (“Gee, D.J., couldn’t you just refer to the death so you can get the story started quicker?”) But I’m glad the prologue is there. Not because the death is shocking, because it isn’t. (Trust me: In this kind of movie, people never enjoy that level of happiness very long.) But the scene achieves a surprisingly potent emotional impact, and goes a long way toward enabling the audience to accept some fairly extreme behavior – like punching out teachers, or spying on neighbors – that might otherwise be fatally off-putting.

Disturbia might have been even more fun had Caruso and his scriptwriters allowed Kale to discover other dark secrets in sunny suburbia. (He does get a glimpse at adultery in the house across the street, but that’s not quite enough. James Stewart enjoyed much greater variety in his voyeurism throughout Rear Window.) Still, the movie pushes all the right buttons when it comes to ratcheting up suspense, and the well-cast supporting players are persuasive even when, as in Morse’s case, they’re not exactly stretching themselves.

I have to admit that, when I first heard about Disturbia, I figured, hey, I’ll wait for this one to be released on video. If you felt the same way -- well, like me, you waited too long. Take my advice: Don’t wait any longer.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Price of Poe

Roy Rogers isn’t the only luminary who’s getting a day-long tribute this month on Turner Classic Movies. This Friday, Aug. 10, Vincent Price will be remembered with a mini-retrospective that includes five – count ‘em, five! – of the stylish, small-budget Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Price famously filmed in the ‘60s with director Roger Corman: House of Usher (6:30 pm EDT), The Pit and the Pendulum (8 pm EDT), Tales of Terror (9:30 pm EDT), Masque of the Red Death (11:15 pm EDT) and the Tomb of Ligeia (1 am EDT).

Pit arguably is the spookiest of the lot, but I must confess to my preference for Masque, if only because it features the va-va-voom Hazel Court, whose heaving decolletage loomed large in my adolescent fantasies. Tales of Terror, a three-part anthology, contains an episode that's a splendidly seriocomic gem, a tongue-in-cheeky mash-up of Poe’s The Black Cat and The Cask of Amontillado featuring a roly-poly Peter Lorre as an alcoholic ne’er-do-well who gets medieval on a wine connoisseur (a self-parodying Price) when the latter makes moves on the ne’er-do-well’s improbably voluptuous wife (Joyce Jameson).

Also worth TiVoing: The Last Man on Earth (3:30 pm EDT), a budget-challenged version of the Richard Matheson story that recently inspired a rather more lavish sci-fi flick starring Will Smith.

Roy Rogers rides again (and again and again and...)

Listen up, buckaroos: Roy Rogers will honored Aug. 28 with a day-long retrospective on Turner Classic Movies. Among the attractions: Young Bill Hickok, Young Buffalo Bill and Jesse James at Bay, three sagebrush sagas featuring The King of the Cowboys as Wild West legends; Dark Command, Roy's only co-starring stint with John Wayne; and The Cowboy and the Senorita, the 1944 classic that paired Roy for the first time with a lovely leading lady named Dale Evans. The couple remained together for decades, on screen and off, roaming along many happy trails while making sweet music together.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Mueller-Stahl gets medieval


After seeing this trailer, I am so pumped to see Eastern Promises. Not just because it reunites Viggo Mortensen and director David Cronenberg. Not just because it features Naomi Watts. But because... because... because it has freakin' Armin Mueller-Stahl kicking ass. I would stand in line for this. There's always room in life for this.

Coming soon: Appaloosa

Maybe there really is hope for a revival of the Western: Variety, the showbiz bible, reports that Ed Harris, Oscar winner Renee Zellweger and Viggo Mortensen will co-star in Appaloosa, an adaptation of Robert B. Parker's novel about two lawmen hired to protect a lawless town from the machinations of a renegade rancher. Filming is set to start Oct. 1 in New Mexico, with Harris doing quadruple duty as director, co-scriptwriter, producer and star. Take it from me: The novel was pretty doggone good. And these folks could turn turn it into a terrific movie.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mauling Micheaux

Essayist, poet and film scholar Phillip Lopate isn't exactly unstinting in his praise of Patrick McGilligan's biography of pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. ("McGilligan’s prose style may be pedestrian, but he organizes his biographical materials into a lively, readable tale.") But, then again, Lopate isn't all that impressed by the book's subject. Consider this quote from his New York Times review of McGilligan's tome: "Micheaux was simply not a very good filmmaker, on any technical level. Two-thirds of his movies have been lost, and the surviving ones are hardly intact; but what remains borders on the campy. Their strongest suit is their subject matter: Micheaux dealt with important issues of the black community — passing, intermarriage, lynching, voting rights — and courageously challenged censors by doing so. But even his best pictures... suffer from hammy acting, preposterous melodrama, confusing continuity, stiff dialogue and clumsy lapses in film grammar." Ouch.

R.I.P.: Lee Hazlewood (1929-2007)

Judging from his amusingly spooky performance as Richard Widmark's dim-but-deadly trigger man in Richard Quine's largely forgotten The Moonshine War -- a 1970 oddity which scriptwriter Elmore Leonard adapted from his own novel -- Lee Hazlewood conceivably could have had a career as a character actor. But I think it's safe to safe that pop culture was better served by his decision to remain focused on music. As a songwriter, he achieved a kind of immortality with the oft-covered '60s classics "Some Velvet Morning," "This Town" (recently included in the soundtrack for Ocean's Thirteen) and, of course, "These Boots Are Made for Walking," which sold about a jillion records for Nancy Sinatra, and has been used in movies as diverse as The Mexican, Full Metal Jacket and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. The reason for its enduring popularity? Well, with all due respect to the dearly departed, maybe it's the singer, not the song. According to The Guardian: Back when he and Sinatra were in the recording studio, Hazlewood reportedly instructed her to sing it "like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers." Hey, whatever works.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bourne again

During this summertime surfeit of sequels, one threepeat stands alone. The Bourne Ultimatum is a sensationally entertaining rush of wall-to-wall, wire-to-wire, pedal-to-metal excitement, an uncommonly satisfying mix of pulp-fiction plotting, dead-serious emotion, steel-trap intelligence and razzle-dazzle technique. If you want to call it a popcorn movie for discerning adults, you’ll get no argument from me. Judging from its opening-weekend box-office gross, however, it’s clear the movie has almost as much cross-generational, multi-demographic, four-quadrant appeal as, well, Transformers.

The latest and greatest in a series of turbo-charged thrillers based on novels by the late Robert Ludlum, Ultimatum begins at full gallop, then gradually accelerates to warp speed, while chasing after Jason Bourne (compellingly played, again, by Matt Damon), an amnesiac assassin who’s still haunted by fragmented memories of his murderous past, and still hunting for the black-op masterminds who turned him into such a lethal weapon. Since he does achieve a certain amount of enlightenment at the end of his globe-hopping here – and, I promise, those are all the beans I will spill -- it appears we should trust the reports that the Bourne saga will be a self-contained trilogy, not an ongoing franchise. If so, however, there’s an amusing irony to savor: Just a few months after the 007 series got a potent rebooting with Casino Royale, a first-rate flick that demonstrated (among other things) how James Bond learned to be an ice-cold killer, here we have an even more impressive action-adventure – allegedly a grand finale -- that shows how another secret agent tries to unlearn the very same thing.

Jason Bourne’s obsession with gaining and renouncing knowledge – that is, an obsession with learning who he is, so he can become somebody else – has fueled all three of the Bourne films. The big difference in Ultimatum, as New Yorker film critic David Denby astutely notes, is that the drama is at once redemptive (“How can I escape who I am?”) and, in every sense of the term, reflective: “The creators of the black-ops program are shown to have used such techniques as hooding and waterboarding to break down and remake Bourne’s personality, and he wants to find them. Commenting acidly on current interrogation techniques, the filmmakers suggest that such games were played with Americans as well as with outsiders. This may be a fiction, but it’s a sinister thought.”

It is, of course, a tricky thing, this business trying to slip thinly-veiled political commentary into a popcorn movie. But, then again, as Manohla Dargis writes in her New York Times review, the Bourne films tend to be “unusually smart works of industrial entertainment,” even when – no, make that especially when – they deal with rock-’em, sock-‘em violence: “Death becomes the Bourne series, which, in contrast to most big-studio action movies, insists that we pay attention and respect to all the flying, back-flipping and failing bodies. There’s no shortage of pop pleasure here, but the fun of these films never comes from watching men die. It’s easy to make people watch — just blow up a car, slit someone’s throat. The hard part is making them watch while also making them think about what exactly it is that they’re watching.”

True enough. For me, the most powerful image in the entire trilogy is in a scene that appears early in The Bourne Supremacy (and is reprised, briefly, in Ultimatum), as Jason Bourne sees the woman he loves literally floating out of sight, becoming a mere memory even as he helplessly watches. (It’s an image I suspect Jean Cocteau would have been proud to include in his Orpheus.) These days, it’s not uncommon for an action movie to post a three-digit body count, and make a joke about it. But this scene in Supremacy puts the sting back into death, and none-too-gently reminds us that such carnage is something we blithely take for granted, and usually accept unthinkingly, in films of this sort.

Dargis writes of a similarly significant scene in Ultimatum, “which caps a beyond-belief chase sequence in which Bourne runs and runs and runs, leaping from one sun-blasted roof to the next and diving into open windows as the cops hotfoot after him. He’s trying to chase down a man who’s trying to chase down Bourne’s erstwhile colleague, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). When Bourne comes fist-to-fist with the other man, [director Paul] Greengrass throws the camera, and us along with it, smack in the middle. It’s thrilling at first, and then — as the blows continue to fall, the bodies slow down, and a book is slammed, spine out, into one man’s neck — ghastly.

“An intentional buzz kill, this fight succeeds in bringing you down off the roof, where just moments earlier you had been flying so high with Bourne. (Look at the dude go!) Mr. Greengrass knows how to do his job, and there’s no one in Hollywood right now who does action better, who keeps the pace going so relentlessly, without mercy or letup, scene after hard-rocking scene.

“But he, along with the writers (here, Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi), also wants to complicate things, mix some unease in with all the heart-thumping enjoyment. Not because he’s a sadist, or at least not entirely, but because the Bourne series is, finally, about consequences, about chickens coming home to roost.”

Let me second the high praise for Paul Greengrass, who assumed the directorial reins from Doug Liman -- after the latter kicked off the series with The Bourne Identity – to take control of first Supremacy, and now Ultimatum. (In between, he also did a little movie called United 93, which maybe you’ve heard about.) There are extended chase sequences in Ultimatum that likely will be studied by film students for decades to come. (In addition to the one mentioned by Dargis, there’s a splendidly suspenseful shootout in London’s Waterloo Station, and an amazingly harrowing auto chase through Manhattan that actually puts us inside a vehicle brutally rammed by another car.) It’s way past time to call him promising: Greengrass firmly establishes himself here as the best action-movie auteur to appear since John Woo blasted out of Hong Kong.

But while Woo’s trademark style veers toward operatic flamboyance, Greengrass favors an approach that shatters time and movement into jagged shards – even when someone does something as simple as getting out of a car, the action is deconstructed into a dozen or so jump cuts, as if the director just could not bloody wait to show you what happens next -- while somehow sustaining a skittish sense of up-close intimacy you normally associate with cinema verité.

It is a perfect match of style and substance: As The Bourne Ultimatum ricochets between dizzying disorientation and in-you-face specificity, you cannot help but be drawn deeper into its story about a man who’s frantically trying to put the pieces of his psyche back together, but who at the same must remain hyperaware and unceasingly attuned to every new danger that must be must survived, each new opponent who must be neutralized.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Jack Rabbit Bauer in 24


Maybe I need to stop washing down my sinus medication with Merlot, but this is the funniest thing I've seen all all week. Maybe it's because this Jack Bauer doesn't have to torture anybody.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A modest proposal

While meditating this morning on the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, I found myself remembering something Billy Crystal, of all people, said to me during a 1992 interview. We were talking about show business – appropriately enough, since he was promoting Mr. Saturday Night at the time – when Crystal, sounding more amazed than egocentric, remarked: ''When The Tonight Show ended, when Johnny Carson's reign ended, show business as I knew it stopped, and a new show business began. And my group of contemporaries -- Robin (Williams) and Jay (Leno) and (David) Letterman – we are now show business. Like it or not, it's us, until our faces start to fall. You know what I'm saying? We're show business now.”

True enough. And when Jay Leno steps down as Tonight Show host two years from now, I assume there will be yet another changing of the guard, or passing of the baton. But let’s focus on right now: Who are the heirs to those esteemed filmmakers – some living (such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer), most dead (Bergman, Antonioni, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, many others) – who came to prominence during the post-WWII era, who I would label The Art House Elders? And looking ahead: Who’s next? Who will be the Conan O’Briens to those Jay Lenos?

In my view, the natural heirs to the Art House Elders are those filmmakers I would collectively define as members of The Renaissance – as in “Hollywood Renaissance.” That is, filmmakers who came to prominence during the period roughly defined by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as the 13-year stretch between Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Heaven’s Gate (1980). Mind you, that definition should, I feel, be sufficiently elastic to include auteurs who, strictly speaking, started making movies prior to ’67 – think Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and John Cassavetes – but completed many (if not most) of their best and most enduring works during the 1967-80 period. Among the other MVPs, living or dead, in this division: Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, Bob Fosse, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood and, near the unofficial cut-off point, Ridley Scott (whose Alien was released in 1979) and Oliver Stone (who made his directorial debut with 1974’s Seizure, but remained best known as a scriptwriter until 1981’s The Hand).

Yeah, I know: That list – a tentative one, by the way; please feel free to add other names – doesn’t include many international directors. That’s why I also propose a separate but equal grouping – The Cannes Club – for other influential filmmakers of the same period. Such as? Milos Forman, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog… and, of course, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But if you want to lump both groups together under Renaissance (or some other label), fine by me. Either way – these are, I repeat, the natural heirs to the Art House Elders, because theirs are the movies that, collectively or separately, have equal (if not greater) impact and influence on audiences and other filmmakers today. They are the Jay Lenos of the movie world. (Well, OK, those of them who are still alive.) Indeed, you could argue they've claimed that position for a decade or two -- only now, it's more or less official.

And after them? Well, excuse me while I suggest another label: The Sundance Generation. (A disclaimer: I’m talking more about a state of mind, or a filmmaking philosophy, than a literal Sundance Festival connection.) In this category, I would include Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Hal Hartley and, arguably, John Sayles (whose 1980 Return of the Secaucus 7 can be viewed as a seminal influence for the entire group). Once again, I’d also propose a separate but equal category – The Toronto Generation – for equally prominent international filmmakers (many of whom work, periodically or frequently, in the U.S.) who have been either launched or elevated at the You-Know-Where Festival: Ang Lee, John Woo, Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai, Patrice Leconte, Tom Tykwer and others. (Cannes would like to claim them, too, but never mind: That festival already has its own category.) These are filmmakers who, while continuing to produce outstanding and (here’s the key word again) influential work, are ensuring that they, too, will have their day as grey eminences. Or Conan O’Briens.

Are these categories arbitrary? Absolutely. Could some names be shifted from one category to another? Well, if you can make a strong case for it, sure. (It's like, some folks want to group Jean-Pierre Melville with the French New Wave; most don’t.) And should other names be added? Almost certainly. (Where do we put undeniably influential directors such as John Hughes? Or James Cameron?) All I have tried to set out here is a modest proposal for a new way of looking at generational shifts and lines of succession in regard to classic and contemporary cinema. Your suggestions and (constructive) criticisms are most welcome.

And, of course, if anybody would like to toss an advance my way to develop all this into a book, what the hell, I'm willing to take a meeting.