Monday, April 28, 2008

Remembering Jack Valenti

I'm extremely happy -- and, yes, proud -- to announce that the University of Houston will honor one of its most prestigious alumni by renaming the university's School of Communication after the late Jack J. Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America. Which means, of course, that now I can brag about receiving my master's degree from -- and serving as an adjunct professor at -- the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication. Sweet.

Friday, April 25, 2008

First word on Iron Man

Todd McCarthy of Variety is impressed: "Having an actor as supercharged as Robert Downey Jr. at the center of such a tech-oriented enterprise reps a huge plus, and Paramount should reap big B.O. rewards by getting out ahead of the summer tentpole pack with such a classy refitting of an overworked format."

NYT on Then She Found Me

Stephen Holden of the New York Times is dead on target (because, of course, he agrees with me): "Then She Found Me, a serious comedy, is more impressive for what it refuses to do than for its modest accomplishment. The directorial debut of Helen Hunt, who plays April Epner, an anxious 39-year-old kindergarten teacher in New York City, it has all the ingredients of a slick, commercial farce, which it emphatically is not... Ms. Hunt takes every opportunity to avoid easy comic shtick and cutesy-poo sentimentality in an effort to make her characters act and sound like real people."

NYT on Harold and Kumar

A.O. Scott of The New York Times is dead on target (because, of course, he agrees with me): "If you think the last seven years have been one long, dumb, dirty joke — or maybe if, sometimes, you just wish you could believe as much — then Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, just might be the perfect movie for you. That it is, quite unapologetically, far from perfect in every respect almost doesn’t matter. The simple fact that a movie exists with the title Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is cause for hope. Or maybe for alarm. In any case, for a few laughs."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Greetings from Nashville

Since I'm much too humble to report on how wonderful I was Tuesday evening while doing an on-stage Q&A with the great Patricia Neal when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Nashville Film Festival... well, I'll just link to this scintillating report on the evening's festivities.

Of course, I have to admit: I was upstaged by another participant in the tribute... Ms. Neal's co-star in Cookie's Fortune.

Friday, April 18, 2008

R.I.P.: Hazel Court (1926-2008)

As I confessed to a few years back: Throughout most of my impressionable adolescence, I had a serious crush on Brit actress Hazel Court. I think it had something to do with the acres of heaving d├ęcolletage she displayed in such movies as Curse of Frankenstein, The Premature Burial and Masque of the Red Death. To put it another way: Yes, she was the first big-screen hottie I was serious hot for.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

At WorldFest/Houston: Magazine Gap Road

As I've written for the Houston Chronicle: There’s something seductively fascinating about the chilly spareness and cryptic allusiveness of writer-director Nicholas Chin’s Magazine Gap Road, a formally precise yet emotionally resonant thriller about going to extremes while escaping the past. This well-crafted Hong Kong import, unspooling Wednesday and Friday at the 2008 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, demands and rewards patience with its unhurried entwining of suspense and sensuality, desperate measures and selfless gestures.

The tile refers to a tony Hong Kong enclave of wealth and privilege where Samantha (Jessey Meng), a strikingly beautiful ex-prostitute, has successfully re-invented herself as the invaluable assistant to the curator of a private museum. Possessing a nimble intelligence and an enigmatic smile, Samantha is at her considerable best while bargaining with collectors to obtain antiquities. (Wipe that smile off your face: She uses charm and persuasion, not tricks of her old trade, to achieve her goals.) Dr. Lee (Richard Ng), her proud mentor, knows everything about her background – and admires her all the more for transcending it. Indeed, there’s a very funny scene where one of Samantha’s former associates threatens to expose her to her boss, and Dr. Lee walks into the room to more or less tell the creep: “Yeah, I know what she was. And I hear she was pretty dang good at it. Now buzz off, punk.”

But all it takes is a frantic phone call from Kate (Ying Qu), another “escort” employed by the same flesh-peddler who once controlled Samantha, to remind our heroine that, as William Faulkner once noted, the past isn’t dead – it isn’t even past. Loyal to her friend, to a fault, Samantha helps Kate hide out long enough to kick her drug habit, with a little help from Mao (Elvis Tsui), a disgraced ex-cop who needs a shot at redemption. But when it comes to removing the final impediment to Kate’s happily-ever-aftering, Samantha takes a solo approach to problem-solving. This is a big mistake.

The plot also encompasses a mostly chaste romance between Samantha and Greg (Carl Ng, co-star Richard’s real-life son), the sensitive scion of a rich family, but there’s precious little heat generated during the scenes devoted to this subplot. Truth to tell, there’s rarely a genuinely warm moment throughout the entirely of Magazine Gap Road, a coolly realized drama charged with alternating currents of tragic inevitability and steely defiance. Even so, there’s a teasing hint of repressed passion percolating beneath the surface as Samantha and Mao willfully avoid acknowledging, for as long as possible, the mutual attraction between two damaged souls.

Stars come out in Nashville, part 2

Ladies and gents, the great Patricia Neal: The Nashville Film Festival has got her, and Bill Friskics-Warren of the Tennessean has interviewed her.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Oscar '09

File these dates away for next year's Academy Awards:

• Jan. 12: Nominations ballots due.
• Jan. 22: Nominees announced.
• Jan. 28: Final ballots mailed.
• Feb. 17: Final ballots due.
• Feb. 22: 81st annual Academy Awards.

And for your Hulu viewing pleasure....

And the hits just keep on coming at WorldFest/Houston '08

Anyone seeking a textbook example of a "festival movie" need look no further than The Metrosexual, a lightweight but likable comedy at the 2008 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. But if you're in the mood for some scary stuff -- check out They Wait.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

WorldFest/Houston update

The Fragility of Seconds, an exceptional Tex-Mex indie production, will have its world premiere Saturday at the 2008 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. Darkly fascinating and emotionally potent, it's an intricate and tightly-plotted drama about the evil that men do and the collateral damage it causes. Call it a tragic thriller, and you won't be far off the mark.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The stars come out in Nashville

Talk about your star-studded lineup: William H. Macy will visit the 2008 Nashville Film Festival for the festival's April 17 opening-night screening of The Deal. The next day, Al Gore will be on hand at NaFF '08 to present the festival's 2008 Reel Current Award to Mountain Top Removal, Michael O'Connell's documentary about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. And just one hour later, the NaFF '08 will present "Covering Film," a panel discussion focusing on print and Internet coverage of cinema, featuring... featuring... well, featuring me. And some other guys.

And, oh yeah, by the way: On April 22, I'll be conducting an on-stage Q & A with Patricia Neal, winner of the NaFF's first Lifetime Achievement Award, before a special festival screening of Hud. Life is good, God is kind.

Houston film festivities

The 2008 edition of the long-running WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival proceeds apace, with the irrepressible Hunter Todd again at the helm. Before the Rains, Friday's opening-night offering, didn't exactly set the world on fire. But there are promising titles in store. And, hey, if you haven't yet gotten your fill of Jessica Rose (a.k.a. lonelygirl15), have I got a fest film for you.

Prom Night: It doesn't suck

OK, I'll admit: On certain rare occasions, I will walk into a movie with expectations so low that the mere suggestion of competence on the part of the moviemakers will drive me to unseemly heights of irrational exuberance. But, honestly, the new Prom Night remake really does strike me as a better-than-average teen-skewing thriller, as I duly note in my Variety review.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

R.I.P.: Charlton Heston (1924-2008)

Back in the early 1980s, at the time when he and Ed Asner were very publicly clashing over matters concerning the Screen Actors Guild (and, yes, their diametrically opposed political leanings), Charlton Heston visited Houston to promote a new movie – Mother Lode (1982), I think – so, naturally, I agreed to interview him. But here’s the thing: Even though this wasn’t our first professional encounter, and even though he was the epitome of graciousness, I nonetheless felt slightly intimidated while in his formidable presence. So it was more than a little awkward for me to politely phrase a question about… about… well, about certain incendiary language Asner recently had used…

“You mean when he called me a cocksucker? Heston helpfully asked, subtly increasing the wattage of his Cinemascope smile.

“Well, uh, as a matter of fact, yes, Mr. Heston," I managed to stammer in reply. “Though I know I sure as hell won’t be able to quote you saying that…”

To this day, I can’t tell you which one of us laughed harder or longer.

Charlton Heston made a career out of being bigger than life, playing Biblical figures (Moses in The Ten Commandments, John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told), historical luminaries (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy, Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer) and legendary heroes (Ben-Hur, El Cid).

You could argue that he was every bit as impressive, if not more so, while playing flawed, vulnerable and altogether more life-sized characters. (Heston counted his role as an aging cowboy in Will Penny among his favorites.) And while he played more than his share of action-adventure leads (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man) and disaster-movie messiahs (Airport 1975, Earthquake), he also was splendidly effective in character parts – most notably, Cardinal Richelieu in Richard Lester’s Musketeer movies – that didn’t require undue derring-do.

Still, when I interviewed him in 1993, on the occasion of the reissue of El Cid in a restored version presented by Martin Scorsese, Heston admitted that, yes, he would always be most famous for his full-bodied performances in large-scale movies. At that time – before Gladiator, before 300 – he felt this placed him among the ranks of a dying breed.

''I've spent half my life in funny clothes,'' Heston said. ''And in other nationalities, other centuries. But there are actors who have never done any of these kinds of things. And if you're not used to wearing a cloak, to knowing where to put your cloak on your arm to get on a horse without getting the cloak tangled between your legs, you don't look at home in it.

''I am very right for [El Cid] and for parts like this. But I suppose since they can't afford to make these films anymore, there are no ways for other actors to learn to do them. So if they try to do something like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where they'll spend quite a lot of money, and do the period wardrobe, but they'll choose Kevin Costner, for what seems like sound financial reasons. And what did indeed turn out to be sound financial reasons.

“But, no, Kevin Costner is not right for Robin Hood.''

More important, Heston added, ''Kevin Costner couldn't play El Cid, either.''

It must be noted, of course, that during the final decades of his life, Heston effectively overshadowed his acting career with his off-camera activities as spokesman for the National Rifle Association and other conservative causes. (The headline for the New York Times obit: "Charlton Heston, Epic Film Star and N.R.A. Leader, Dies at 83.") Indeed, many people – most people? – were so accustomed to thinking of him as a right-wing grey eminence that it was all too easy to forget that, as a younger man, Heston was active in the civil rights movement – he marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King (along with Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier) during the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. – and campaigned for such decidedly non-conservative Presidential candidates as Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy.

I don’t pretend to have gleaned great insights into his psyche after a handful of conversations over a decade or so. But Heston was, I suspect, a much more complex fellow – politically, philosophically, whatever – than either his sneering critics or fawning admirers could ever fully appreciate. And I know he was a better actor than many of my bleeding-heart liberal brethren will ever admit.
Charlton Heston (right) with
Sidney Poitier (left) and
Harry Belafonte during the
1963 march on Washington, D.C.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


With all due respect to U2, it wasn't "early morning" -- it was early evening 40 years ago April 4 when the Rev. Martin Luther King was struck down by an assassin's bullet. On Saturday, VH1 will present The Night James Brown Saved Boston -- a documentary about The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and what he did to keep the peace after a man of peace was slain. I know I'll be watching.