Monday, May 26, 2008

R.I.P.: Sydney Pollack (1934-2008)

This is my favorite Sydney Pollack memory: It’s December 1982 in New York, during a press junket for Tootsie. Pollack approaches the roundtable of critics and feature writers with a spring to his step and a grin on his face. He knows, based on what he’s been told about the audience reaction at last night’s press screening, that all the hard work during the troubled production was worth it, that he has a hit – a really, really big hit – on his hands.

But the smile fades from his face when one of his interviewers – no, not yours truly – casually refers to a minor glitch that occurred during the screening: For a good two or three minutes midway through the movie, the soundtrack was silenced, and the only voices that could be heard in the screening room were those of grumbling audience members. Pollack listens to an account of the technical mishap with silent but obvious displeasure. He politely excuses himself, walks to the door, and motions for two or three studio reps to join him in the hallway outside. Back at the table, we can’t quite make out the precise words that are being screamed. But there’s no mistaking who is doing the screaming.

After what seems like an eternity, Pollack opens the door, and returns to the table. He is smiling again, and the group interview resumes. He is unfailingly polite, engagingly amusing -- and refreshingly candid about the difficulties he endured during the arduous Tootsie shoot. (Dustin Hoffman evidently was not the most pliable of collaborators.) But no one at the table makes the mistake of asking him, or telling him, anything else about last night’s screening.

And you know what? Even though I interviewed Pollack on several other occasions – over the phone and face to face, in small groups and one-and-one situations – and never found him to be anything but gracious and forthcoming, I never had the nerve to ask: “Hey, Sid, remember that time at the Tootsie junket when….?”

As a director, Pollack served his apprenticeship in ‘60s TV (he earned an Emmy for a memorable episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre) before graduating to feature films with The Slender Thread (1965). I first noticed him in 1969, the year I transitioned from high school senior to college freshman, when he directed two of my favorite movies from that period: The under-rated Castle Keep and the still-potent They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He got terrific performances from ensemble casts in both films – Horses co-star Gig Young picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – and went on to make a number of exceptional films in an impressive variety of genres. I remain unreasonably enchanted by the romanticism of two Pollack films – Havana and Sabrina – that were roundly rejected by most of my critical brethren. On the other hand, I also appreciate the filmmaker’s more highly regarded Absence of Malice, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, The Yakuza, The Electric Horseman, The Firm – and, of course, Tootsie.

Another Sydney Pollack memory. It’s March 1986, Oscar night in Los Angeles. Backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, several of my fellow ink-stained wretches are frankly rooting for John Huston to win a Best Director trophy for Prizzi’s Honor. When Barbra Streisand rips open the envelope and announces that Pollack (who had directed her a few years earlier in The Way We Were) is the winner for Out of Africa – which would later win the Best Picture award -- some disappointed folks in the press room actually start booing. When Pollack appears backstage a few minutes later for a press conference, he displays remarkable poise and humility while fielding a few borderline-snarky questions. At one point, he bluntly remarks: “It was a strange night. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought Mr. Huston would get it.” He gets noticeably more applause when he leaves the press room than when he entered.

As for his work on the other side of the camera – well, I wish Pollack had received more props, and maybe an Oscar nomination or two, for his first-rate performances in Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes and Michael Clayton. I wish he’d had time to produce more excellent films like The Quiet American, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Flesh and Bone and Sense and Sensibility. Of course, I also wish he were still alive. He’ll be missed.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

R.I.P.: Dick Martin (1922-2008)

Dick Martin was the blissfully self-assured doofus to Dan Rowan's bemusedly incredulous straight man as the dapper duo hosted Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968-73). And if you're old enough to remember phrases like "You bet your sweet bippy!" and "Look that up in your Funk and Wagnall's!" -- and, of course, "Sock it to me!" -- you'll remember what a full-blown, 24-karat phenomenon that series was in its heyday. The fast-paced, hour-long comedy revue -- launched on Jan. 22, 1968 by NBC as a midseason replacement for a burnt-out Man from U.N.C.L.E. -- was considered rather risque in its time (a very young Goldie Hawn, clad in a bikini and splattered with graffiti, danced provocatively in many early episodes) and often trafficked in political humor that veered leftward. (Even so, Richard Nixon dropped by for a memorably self-mocking cameo during the 1968 Presidential election.) If I viewed a rerun today, I quite possibly would find it more antiquated than edgy, and not nearly as audacious as a contemporary show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-69). On the other hand: For a variety of reasons, I can't imagine any broadcast TV network daring to air anything like Laugh-In in prime time right now. Yes, not even in an election year. Especially not in an election year.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones makes Russian communists see red

You knew this was coming, didn't you?

Olbermann is not amused

Hillary said a bad, bad thing.

Nashville blues

An unfortunate turn of events in Music City: Brian Gordon is stepping down as artistic director of the Nashville Film Festival, where attendance reportedly has doubled during his seven-year tenure.

More bad news about Speed Racer

According to Advertising Age, the much-hyped under-achiever isn't selling many Happy Meals.

Shreveport: Hollywood South?

The Austin Chronicle this week offers an exhaustive and distressing report on the state of the Texas film industry. But, I must admit, what really stood out for me while I was reading the piece is this indication -- the second I have spotted this week -- that Shreveport, my stomping ground during the late 1970s, has become a major center of filmmaking activity:

"Louisiana has proved that incentives are mightier than the storm. New Orleans was on track to be a major U.S. film hub when Hurricane Katrina tore it apart in 2005. Into the void stepped Shreveport, a former oil town now best known for its riverboat gambling. With a population somewhere between Waco and Corpus Christi, it has fashioned itself now as Hollywood South. Jerry Henery, a film construction coordinator from the Terrell, Texas, area, now keeps an apartment in Shreveport, claims dual residency, and is looking at buying land there after more than 20 years in the Texas film business. 'I've basically been working in Shreveport for the last three or four years,' he says. "There's been no work in Texas. Last year I was [in Texas] for two months. The two years before that I wasn't there at all except for holidays.' He brings with him to Louisiana a construction crew of four and sees familiar Texas faces in other departments, like paint and props. 'Lots of people are doing the same thing with dual residency,' he says.

Jeff Nightbyrd glimpsed the film industry's Louisiana future and opened a second office of his Austin-based Acclaim Talent in New Orleans in early 2005. When Katrina hit, the city of Shreveport offered him free offices there until he found the space he wanted. Since then, he's also opened the Actors' Cafe, bringing to Shreveport a touch of the arts scene of the 'weird' Austin. Nightbyrd, a longtime Austinite (and occasional Austin Chronicle contributor), thinks Shreveport took advantage of New Orleans' loss in a way savvier Texas cities might have. 'Austin could have jumped on it,' he says. 'The improbable thing is Shreveport did. Strangely this has become the third film production center in the country. Los Angeles, New York, and Shreveport? That's absolutely jaw-dropping. We have more than 30 films on our boards, and they're shooting three Hollywood films right now in a city about the size of Waco – actually a little larger than Waco. I've had people doing table reads with Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker.' In one cruel twist, Shreveport is doubling for New Orleans, still considered an iffy filming location, in Microwave Park, a story set among post-Hurricane Katrina gangs."

In light of this, I'm adding a new link to my Resources lineup: Louisiana Movies Blog.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Linus Roache: "We're all replaceable at the end of the day!"

So, Linus Roache, tell me: Weren’t you just a teeny bit nervous about being one of no fewer than three new cast members this season on the long-running Law & Order? I mean, if the ratings had suddenly started to tank, well…?

“That’s why I’m so grateful that Sam Waterston stayed in the show,” Roache says. “Because if he’d left, and I had to just replace him – that’s more than any man could bear. It’s beautiful that he’s gotten to evolve into a new position. I get to come in with a new energy – and get to spar and work with him. He’s been so brilliant with me. And he’s still teaching me the ropes.

“But I also knew that (L&O producer) Dick Wolf created something that’s bigger than any individual. The show is the star. I’m like the 24th or 25th replacement in the cast. But that proves it’s actually the formula of the show, and the story and the plot, that’s way more interesting than any one individual. We’re all replaceable at the end of the day. Which is humbling. And appropriate.”

Roache talks more about Law & Order – and about his new movie, Before the Rains (above) – in my Q&A in Friday’s Houston Chronicle.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

2008 is going to be very, very good for Frank Langella

Later this year, we'll see Frank Langella repeating his Tony Award-winning performance in Ron Howard's film version of Frost/Nixon (above). And in September, New York theatergoers will get a glimpse of him as Thomas Moore.

What's this? Another posting tied to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Well, uh, yes...

Eric Harrison and I join forces, kinda-sorta, to preview the new Indy movie in The Houston Chronicle. If this goes over well, we'll try our luck as the next WWE tag team. Hmmmm. Maybe we could call ourselves Critical Mass?


When I reviewed the documentary Oil Crash – a.k.a. A Crude Awakening – at the 2006 SXSW Film Festival, I noted that, among the movie’s many dire warnings, one especially troublesome forecast stood out: In the not-so-distant future, an authoritative academic opined, spikes in jet fuel costs could make airline travel too expensive for all but the wealthiest. This leads me to fear that, maybe, the future isn't distant at all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

From the New York Times: The stars shine in Shreveport

Shreveport? “From what I was told to expect, I pulled up looking for a dirt road and a McDonald’s, and it was nothing like that,” said Jerry Jacobs, a producer of Disaster Movie. Several other producers also have discovered the many advantages of shooting in the North Louisiana city where, no kidding, I was gainfully employed during the late 1970s as entertainment editor for The Times. Indeed, Oliver Stone currently is shooting his eagerly awaited W on location there. (Because they wouldn't let him shoot in Texas, maybe?) (Just kidding, just kidding!)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Yet another transparent attempt to draw readers to this site by posting something vaguely connected to that new Indiana Jones movie

Harrison Ford is the narrator of Lord of the Ants, a profile of ant expert E.O. Wilson. I'm sure it's only a coincidence that PBS is airing this NOVA documentary on Tuesday, May 20, just a couple days before the opening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. You know, that movie where Indy and his buddies are menaced by some really, really nasty ants.

Trailer park: Australia

OK, I have to admit: This gets me all geeked to see Australia. But do my ears deceive me, or is that a sampling of "Ecstasy of Gold" from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly on the soundtrack?

Ebert does Indy

Roger Ebert on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: "I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you." Sounds right to me.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

First thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The immensely entertaining Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull gives you the same sort of pleasurable rush – a potent mix of nostalgia-fueled glee and in-the-moment excitement -- that you can get from a really great concert by a favorite band that first started charting in the 1980s. That is, provided it’s a concert where (a) the original players are obviously and unashamedly older, but still at the top of the their form, (b) they play both the oldies and the new stuff with the same full-out, rock-the-house energy, (c) the new members of the group fit in seamlessly because they’ve got the same beat, and (d) a bandmate who left the group a few albums back makes a welcome return midway through the performance.

Here’s a tip of the fedora to Steven Spielberg for offering no fewer than three sly tributes to the late, great Denholm Elliott, the actor who played Indy’s friend and colleague in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And another hat-tip to Cate Blanchett, who isn’t content merely to be a good sport while playing the villain of the piece. Instead, she insists on being a good actor – and makes Irina Spalko, a Cold War-era Soviet femme fatale, an altogether worthy opponent for the whip-cracking, wisecracking hero. Take my advice: Go. Now. Enjoy.

What ever happened to Karen Allen?

The lovely co-star of the original Raiders of the Lost Ark was kinda-sorta retired from show business when Steven Spielberg called to chat about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But that doesn't mean she wasn't keeping busy with other pursuits.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

R.I.P.: John Phillip Law (1937-2008)

A journeyman actor for over four decades, John Phillip Law achieved cult-figure status primarily on the basis of two '60s movies based on European comic strips: Barbarella, in which he played a blind angel who has a hell of a time with a sex-kittenish Jane Fonda; and Danger: Diabolik, a Pop Arty comedy caper that effectively cast him as a masked criminal mastermind. Depending on your tolerance for high camp (The Love Machine), steamy-pulpy melodrama (Hurry Sundown), and second-rate spaghetti Westerns (Death Rides a Horse), you may fondly recall some of his other, ahem, career highlights. But I prefer to remember him as the innocuous Russian seaman who falls for an American beauty in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Norman Jewison's enduringly amusing 1966 Cold War comedy. And I have to give him props for being a good sport about cameoing in CQ, Roman Coppola's uneven 2001 homage to the sort of tacky European-produced B-movies that provided gainful employment for Law during his heyday in '60s and '70s.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

R.I.P.: Ron Stone (1936-2008)

The word “legend” gets tossed around entirely too freely during discussions of television luminaries. But, really, when you’re talking about Ron Stone, the Houston broadcasting legend who passed away today, no other word will suffice. Ron was a great man and a grand gent, a consummate pro who evidenced equal measures of aw-shucks folksiness, probing intelligence and rapier-sharp wit throughout his two decades as news anchor for Houston's KPRC-TV/Channel 2.

When I first moved to Houston in 1982, I opted to make Channel 2's 10 pm newscast my local newscast of choice based entirely on my first impression of Stone as an ace interviewer -- I serendipitously tuned in on the night he did a long one-on-one with Leon Jaworsky -- and authoritative anchor. Years later, when I was a semi-regular on his afternoon talk show, I made the mistake of trying to get all serious by telling him – on the air – how much I respected his work. Ron looked at me, smiled that avuncular smile of his – and then, with all the mischief he could muster, said: “OK, Joe. You’ve already got the gig. You don’t need to butter me up anymore.” It’s a memory I probably would treasure even more dearly had I not made a fool of myself by cackling like a hyena in response. Fortunately, I managed to regain my composure in time for Ron to turn to the camera and say, “Well, Joe will be back – maybe – next week…”

As you can see here, I’m not the only one with Ron Stone stories to share.

They all look alike

A few years ago, I brought my Korean-born son with me to Fort Worth, to attend a World Cup game pitting South Korea against Germany. We stopped in a sporting-goods store, where I asked the salesclerk if she had any World Cup caps and/or T-shirts emblazoned with "Korea." She said, well, gee whiz, no, but she had some "China" shirts and caps. And, no kidding, she asked: "That's the same thing, isn't it?" Well, no.

I couldn't help remembering that when I read this involving actor Karl Yune of the ill-starred Speed Racer.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can you feel a brand new day?

I strongly suspect that even Sidney Lumet wouldn't speak too highly of The Wiz. But this homegrown music video, I think, eloquently expresses the exuberant hope of those of us who those who want Barack Obama to take us -- all of us -- to higher ground.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Happy 100th for the man who gave the world Bond, James Bond

To celebrate the May 28 centennial of Ian Fleming's birth, Penguin UK and Doubleday in the US will publish a brand new James Bond novel -- by another author, of course. According to Amazon. com, Devil May Care, written by Sebastian Faulks, "is set in the Cold War, picking up where Fleming left off in 1966 with Octopussy and The Living Daylights. Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming, has created the perfect continuation of the James Bond legacy. Devil May Care features all the glamour, thrills, and excitement that one would expect from any adventure involving Bond . . . James Bond." Well, let's hope so.

BTW: Speaking as someone who'll turn 56 later this year, I'm more than a little shaken (not stirred) to be reminded that Fleming was the same age when he died of a heart attack in 1964. (No, that's not a typo: Octopussy and The Living Daylights -- a collection of short stories -- was published posthumously.) He lived to see only the first two 007 movies: Dr. No and From Russia With Love.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Just in case you can't wait for the upcoming biopic diptych from Steven Soderbergh... and you've always wanted to see Omar Sharif as Che Guevara...

Kal does Countdown

Kal Penn of Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay talks to Keith Olbermann about... well, about the movie one brilliant film critic likened to a "scatological remix of a Keith Olbermann tirade." Hey, maybe this will maybe Jeff Wells think better of him.


After this weekend's smashingly successful launch of Iron Man, Marvel Studios has wasted little time in announcing an ambitious slate of other films based on Marvel Comics. Naturally, there will be an Iron Man II (set for April 30, 2010). Also upcoming: Thor (June 4, 2010), The First Avenger: Captain America (May 6, 2011), The Avengers (July 2011) -- no, not those Avengers -- and Ant-Man (date to be announced). All this, in addition to The Incredible Hulk, due June 13 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

This is great news for comic book geeks (and former geeks, like myself) everywhere. But am I the only one who's wondering how Marvel will avoid catching flack from fundamentalists with a movie about a super hero who is identified as... well, a god?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

What Happens in Vegas

I know that some people tend to get bent out of shape when I don't come down like the hammer of God on frothy entertainments of little consequence. But, really, there's nothing wrong with something instantly disposable but lightly likable now and then. Besides, What Happens in Vegas sure as hell has a lot more going for it than, say, Just Married. That should count for something, right?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Go Speed Racer

Says Todd McCarthy: "True to its origins as a '60s Japanese animated kiddie favorite, Speed Racer blasts into cultural prominence four decades later as an ultra-cartoony actioner defined by its Day-Glo colors, resistance to any laws of physics, and notions of good and evil that go no further than having the hero drive a white car. Aimed squarely at family audiences, the Wachowski Brothers' return behind the camera for the first time since the Matrix trilogy is a blur of video action painting and very loud sounds notable solely for its technical wizardry. In every other respect, it's pure cotton candy -- entirely non-nutritious but too sweet and pretty for young people to resist. General audiences worldwide look to make this Warner Bros. release a substantial hit in all formats, from IMAX to eventual homeview sales, with extra coin assured from moppets of a certain age who require repeat viewings."