Monday, June 30, 2008

Caught in the draft


If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not... well, I'd have to at least consider taking the job, wouldn't I?

"I am not a number. I am a free man."

The Prisoner -- Patrick McGoohan's classic 1967 TV series about a secret agent who learns just how difficult it can be to get out of the spying game -- is being "reinvented" for a new generation. But not, as many of us long expected, as a feature film.

A moment of zen

While joking with Jeff Wells today about pop-culture allusions and readership demographics, some troubling thoughts popped into my head. This fall, the typical incoming college freshman will have no living memory of a time when M*A*S*H was a first-run, prime-time series -- and Law & Order wasn't. And Back to the Future, Top Gun and The Breakfast Club are movies his/her parents might have seen in theaters while they were dating... back in high school. Yikes.

The graying of broadcast TV

From Variety: The broadcast networks have grown older than ever -- if they were a person, they wouldn't even be a part of TV's target demo anymore. According to a study released by Magna Global's Steve Sternberg, the five broadcast nets' average live median age (in other words, not including delayed DVR viewing) was 50 last season. That's the oldest ever since Sternberg started analyzing median age more than a decade ago -- and the first time the nets' median age was outside of the vaunted 18-49 demo.

You can download a .pdf copy of Sternberg's report here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Un-Stuck

According to Fort Worth-based film critic Michael H. Price, looks like Stuck won't be returning to the scene of the crime (so to speak) any time soon.

There are no small parts, only small actors... Well, wait, maybe that's not quite right...


This is just... so wrong...

Hal Ashby lives!


The rediscovery of Hal Ashby continues apace, with the Northwest Film Forum offering a retrospective that celebrates the late, great filmmaker's "incredible streak from 1970 to 1979", and Jennifer Watchell rounding up some admiring and eloquent commentaries from directors who revere Ashby's oeuvre. (I meant to post a link to the latter days ago -- thanks to David Hudson of Green Cine for the reminder.) I was especially amused by Judd Apatow's idiosyncratic ode to Being There. Money quote:

I prefer to watch shitty movies so I can feel good about myself. There is nothing better than sitting in bed and enjoying a shitty comedy. I laugh at the bad jokes and I smile as I convince myself, as I often need to, that my work doesn’t suck as bad as what I am watching. It gives me the confidence to make movies. I call them movies to have the flu by—movies that are great if you need to kill time while sitting in bed with the flu.

Being There is not one of those movies. It is completely original. The screenplay, by Jerzy Kosinski, based on his novel, is stunning. It is by turns hilarious, insightful, mysterious. I wish it inspired me to want to write that well, but it just inspires me to consider another career. It’s as if you were a member of Soft Cell and someone played you U2 for the first time. You would have to give up.

Not surprisingly, Apatow and other auteurs in Watchell's roundup politely avert their eyes from Asbhy's films of the '80s, which are widely viewed as disappointments of varying degrees. But while it's true that most are undeniably dismissible -- Let's Spend the Night Together has the rare distinction of being the most boring Rolling Stones rockumentary ever made -- it should be noted that 8 Million Ways to Die, Ashby's final completed feature, is not without its admirers. Indeed, I remember once speaking with an Oscar-winning director (not one you'd expect) who only half-jokingly told me that he'd love to swipe one of the movie's more offbeat conceits -- a warehouse shootout that had the shooters screaming profanities as well as firing bullets at each other -- and use it in one of his own films. He was reasonably sure he could get away with the petty larceny (or, depending on your POV, grand theft) because few people saw, and no one remembered, Ashby's critically mauled flick. PS: So far, that other director hasn't aped Ashby's effort. At least, not yet.

After Raines, Goldblum cops another role

Despite the disappointing response to Raines -- his quirky, criminally under-rated series that fleetingly appeared last season on NBC -- Jeff Goldblum is taking another crack at playing a TV cop: He's on deck to replace Chris Noth for the eighth season of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

For me, this is a good news/bad news thing. I'm a fan of Criminal Intent, which seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance during its current USA Network run. (I was particularly impressed by a recent episode that played like a homage to Sweet Smell of Success.) And I'm glad to see Goldblum coming aboard. Noth will be missed, of course, but maybe he thinks, after the success of Sex and the City, that now is the time to pursue a movie career.)

And yet: I'm still sorry that Raines came and went so quickly, without finding the audience it deserved. (Go ahead: You can see all seven episodes for yourself over at Hulu.) And I can't help hoping that Goldblum actually will carry his Raines character over to Criminal Intent, kinda-sorta like Richard Belzer transplanted his Det. John Munch from Homicide: Life on the Street to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Sure, I know that's not likely going to happen. But I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Really, really bad TV

Gee, where's Leonard Pinth-Garnell when you need him? Houston independent TV station KTBU/Channel 55 is looking for a few bad shows -- really, really bad shows -- to fill "three, maybe four hours" of prime time on Saturdays starting in October. No kidding.

You could argue, of course, that NBC, CBS and ABC already take a similar approach to programming, since the networks stopped offering original epsidoes of scripted dramas and comedies on Saturday nights a long time ago. But Channel 55 president Matt Reiff wants to go beyond merely marking time with a lineup of cop show reruns and third-run movies. As he tells the Houston Chronicle's Ken Hoffman, "We're looking for the worst shows, I'm talking sitcoms and movies, in the history of television" for a weekly marathon of Bad TV.

"When people think of bad TV, the shows that come to mind are usually My Mother the Car, where a guy's mother dies and is reincarnated as a car, and Supertrain, which was Love Boat on tracks. We're considering everything. I actually think My Mother the Car and Supertrain are available. I have a long list of shows that we can get our hands on, and we're going over them all."

You can offer your suggestions to Reiff by going to the Channel 55 website and clicking on the "Want Bad TV?" link. My suggestion? Well, there were all those episodes of Sneak Previews co-hosted by Michael Medved and Jeffrey Lyons...

The summer so far

According to John Horn, there's good news (Iron Man) and bad news (Speed Racer). The big picture: "While this year's cumulative box-office grosses are about even with last year's at this time -- $4.27 billion versus $4.26 billion a year ago -- actual admissions are down about 3% compared with 2007, according to Media By Numbers. Within the summer season, though, attendance is actually up about 2.5% from a year ago, the research service says, with total summer grosses up more than 5%, due to higher ticket prices."

Monday, June 23, 2008

R.I.P.: George Carlin (1937-2008)

Despite his occasional co-starring gigs in comedies over his 40-plus years in showbiz, George Carlin never really made much of a mark in movies. Still, I have very fond memories of his inspired comic turn in Kevin Smith’s Dogma as Cardinal Glick, a character I described in my 1999 review as “a media-savvy huckster who's determined to make the Catholic Church more consumer-friendly. As part of an image-enhancement program, the cardinal wants to replace the traditional crucifix (which His Eminence views as, well, kind of creepy) with ‘a new and inspiring symbol’ --- The Buddy Christ, a smiling dude who encourages the faithful with an enthusiastic thumbs-up.” (Carlin also appeared in Smith’s Jersey Girl – but, hey, I never held that against him.)

Ironically, I first became aware of Carlin when he and Richard Pryor were conservatively dressed (i.e., coat and tie), ever-so-polite stand-up comics during their weekly stints on the 1966 Kraft Summer Music Hall hosted by – no, I’m not making this up – John Davidson. (And, boy, do I wish I could see some YouTube clips from that show right now.) I remained amused as he evolved into a hipper (and hippier) comic performer, and even tried to repeat some of his more memorable monologues – Hippie-Dippy Weatherman: “Tonight’s forecast: Dark!” – to high school classmates. I cannot say I ever became a diehard fan – I attended just one of his live shows -- but whenever I did catch up with him over the years, he never failed to make me laugh out loud with his trademark mix of bemused curiosity and blunt-spoken iconoclasm. He’ll be missed.

Westerns get the White House vote

Will Dean of the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper notes: Only three modern U.S. Presidents -- Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford -- didn't list a Western when each was asked to name his favorite movie of all time. Indeed, three Presidents -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon -- placed the same movie atop their personal-fave lists: High Noon. What are we to make of this? Well, Dean wonders whether a perference for romantic comedies might have "drastically altered U.S. foreign policy throughout the 20th century." But, then again, maybe not.

Arthur Penn rides again

Director Arthur Penn likely will forever be best known for Bonnie and Clyde. But as Henry Cabot Beck of True West reminds us, the 85-year-old filmmaker also has three notable Westerns on his resume. Cabot chats with Penn here.

Indie arbitration on The Dark Side

From IndieWire: Documentarian Alex Gibney claims ThinkFilm botched the release of his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side -- and is demanding $1 million in damages. Not surprisingly, ThinkFilm's Mark Urman disputes Gibney's claims.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The future of movies: Less kid stuff?

Entertainment Weekly's Mark Harris has several pithy things to say about so-called "niche " audiences in his "Final Cut" column. But this, IMHO, is the money quote:

"Here's a genuinely surprising piece of news about the summer of 2008: In a season expressly designed to appeal to the hordes of kids who are out of school, two of the kiddiest movies so far, Speed Racer and Prince Caspian, have fizzled. And next summer, and for several summers to come, there'll be fewer kids going to the movies, because there'll be fewer kids, period. Apparently (this is the U.S. Census talking), we had a mini-baby boom between about 1981 and 1995. And then came a dip — a substantial dip — in the kid population. In other words, that mammoth group of youngsters that has reliably fueled movie grosses for almost 15 years is now looking less kidlike: They're between 13 and 27. And getting older. And looking for movies that appeal to them. And they're really not going to like being called a niche."

Friday, June 20, 2008

"Stairway to Heaven"


Take the Leningrad Cowboys (the tres outré Finnish rock group showcased in Aki Kaurismaki's Leningrad Cowboys Go America). Mix with the Red Army Choir. Add the Led Zeppelin anthem. Here is the result -- which you should play very, very loud. No, seriously.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Confirming your worst suspicions

Movies may not be getting better, but they're certainly getting longer.

Shane: No. 1 with a bullet

According to members of Western Writers of America, a nonprofit organization of more than 600 professional scribes, the greatest Western movie ever made is -- drum roll, please! -- Shane, George Stevens' 1953 classic starring the late, great Alan Ladd as a weary gunfighter forced to take sides in a Wyoming land war. The writers also have announced their choices for the all-time Top Ten cinematic sagebrush sagas, a list that also includes:

"It's not the Top 10 I would come up with," says incoming WWA president Johnny D. Boggs, "but that's the fun of lists like these. It prompts lively debate, and members of Western Writers of America can be as passionate about Western film as they are about literature of the West."

In any event: Congratulations to Kevin Costner for making the final cut with both Dances With Wolves and Open Range -- here is a link to my 2003 Cowboys & Indians interview, in which Costner talks about his high regard for Westerns -- and thanks to WWA for also listing what might be described as 90 runners-up.

Blogs: Threat or menace?

Over at Portfolio.com, Howell Raines has posted a feature/essay about media-industry blogger Jim Romenesko. If you remember the role Romenesko’s blog played in Raines’ departure from the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal – a role Raines readily acknowledges – that simple statement alone should be all the incentive that news junkies need to click over there immediately. The piece is, not surprisingly, provocative. Listen closely, and you'll hear the sound of an axe being grinded. Read carefully, however, and you'll derive some food for thought. Among the money quotes:

“Newspaper publishers assumed that even if the printing press disappeared, the internet would still have an insatiable need for their basic product—verified facts, hierarchically arranged by importance. But Romenesko’s rapid growth showed that even newsrooms are part of the emerging market for an unprocessed sprawl of information, delivered immediately and with as few filters as possible between the fingertips of one laptop user and the eyeballs of another. In short, it’s not technology per se that’s killing newspapers; it’s plummeting demand for quality information…

“In little more than a century, journalism has been conducted under a variety of short-lived labels. Yellow journalism begat objective journalism, which begat investigative journalism, which begat advocacy journalism. To some of us, the New Journalism looked like a destination, but that was before the passage through gossip journalism to our next stop: fact-free journalism…

“[Romenesko has] proven that speedily aggregated, often unsubstantiated information is marketable. Both the Huffington Post and the investors behind Tina Brown’s proposed aggregation site are also betting on that."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Cowboys and aliens and Downey, oh my!

Fresh from his success as the super-heroic Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. may continue riding tall along the comeback trail as the star of... no kidding... Cowboys & Aliens. Based on the graphic novel by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, the sci-fi Western centers on a battle between Apache warriors and paleface settlers that is interrupted by the crash-landing of a spaceship near Silver City, Arizona. Downey currently is in negotiations to play Zeke Jackson, a notorious gunslinger (and Union Army vet) who leads an alliance of settlers and Apaches in a counter-attack against invading extraterrestrials bent on enslaving (or destroying) all Earthlings. The movie is tentatively set as a 2010 release.

Update, June 17: Evidently, some folks aren't too happy about the "allegorical" content of this "liberal Hollywood" movie. They're also unhappy about the "blatant foolishness" of the equally offensive Tombstone. No kidding.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Damn!

Gone too soon. Gone too damn much soon. My heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Tim Russert. And, yes, my thoroughly selfish whine that the Presidential election won't be nearly as exciting without him.

All the news that's fit to print may not be printed

Business Week columnist Jon Fine sees some newspapers drastically shrinking, and others disappearing altogether, in the not-so-distant future. Indeed, he believes "one or more major American markets will lose their daily newspaper within 18 months." The good news: Bloggers and websites will pick up some of the slack. The bad news: "Newspapers still do some things that can't be replaced. Unfortunately, we're about to find out exactly what those things are." I would argue that we already know what one of those things is: Making the general public (as opposed to diehard movie buffs and sophisticated cineastes) aware of underhyped indie and art-house movies that aren't backed by mega-expensive multimedia ad campaigns.

10 reasons why Speed Racer sputtered

Anne Thompson offers insightful analysis. Money quote: “'We made an effort to do something real distinct and different,' says one Warners exec. 'It was so different no one wanted to see it.'”

Coming soon: Punisher: War Zone

Back when I reviewed Hooligans -- a.k.a, Green Street Hooligans -- the impressive debut feature of filmmaker Lexi Alexander -- I predicted that the German-born director (and prize-winning kickboxer) "has the chops to bring a fresh take to onscreen rough stuff. Hollywood will beckon." Judging from this trailer for her second film, Punisher: War Zone, I called it right.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Art and commerce and balloons

Maybe I made the wrong career movie back when I decided to become a film critic. Maybe, just maybe, I should have trained to be a balloon artiste instead.

This painful self-reappraisal has been sparked by my exposure to Twisted: A Balloonamentary, an amusing and enlightening documentary that reveals, among other things, that a professional balloon twister can make a surprisingly comfortable living from his or her art. As one interviewee notes: "If you can pay your bills, and have a little to put away every month, and it's all from balloon twisting -- hey, that's great!" Yes, indeed. Sounds like a steadier gig than movie reviewing ever has been for me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

WTF?

OK, I admit it: I'm just egocentric enough to sometimes think that, even if I haven't actually seen every movie ever made, I've certainly heard of every movie ever made. But then, every great once in a while, I run across something like this, and I think: Where the hell did that come from? I mean, Jeez Louise, how could I have never heard anything about a movie with that freaky-deaky cast? Produced by John Wayne, no less? Until just a few minutes ago, I had no idea this film ever existed. And now? I'm almost curious enough to buy the damn DVD.

Fading star

The ongoing media coverage -- some of it highly speculative, all of it unspeakably sad -- of Paul Newman's battle with cancer reminds me of a line from Edward Albee's play All Over. Early in the drama, as hordes of journalists maintain an attentive vigil off-stage, an intimate of a fatally ill notable remarks: "That’s the final test of fame, isn’t it, the degree of it: Which is newsworthy, the act of dying itself, or merely the death?" To put it another way: When you're admired, the press covers your death. But when you're beloved, the press covers your dying.

And so, alas, the death watch continues...

Reeling down memory lane with Rusty from Down Under


Before they turned the cameras on, I tried to break the ice with Russell Crowe by asking, in what I intended as a tone of mock-outrage: "What the hell is it with you Australians coming over here and taking jobs away from American actors?" Really: I meant it as a joke. Honest to God. After all, we weren't even really "over here" -- we were in Canada, for cryin' out loud, for the 1997 Toronto Film Festival premiere of L.A. Confidential. Unfortunately, Crowe didn't immediately catch on to the gag, and cast a Tommy-Lee-Jones-ish glare at me. Very fortunately, he didn't have any telephones in easy reach before he realized that, oh, the frightened-looking bloke sitting before him was just fooling around. He smiled, broadly. I smiled, gratefully. And the mini-interview went on from there. (Thanks again to filmmaker Robert Clark.)

Reeling down memory lane with Leo and Jimmy





Thanks to the restorative work of filmmaker Robert Clark, I can offer you these two mini-interviews I taped with Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron during the 1997 New York press junket for Titanic. I feel a little guilty while watching these, since they expose my... my... well, my faking enthusiasm for a movie (and, yeah, a performance) that underwhelmed me. But, hey, that's the game you have to play sometimes during the junket ritual. Just in case you're wondering what Cameron and I were chatting about before the cameras were turned on: Our first meeting, 14 years earlier, on the "Tech Noir" bar set while I was doing a location story about a low-budget sci-fi movie called The Terminator.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What we're watching

Courtesy of Cynopsis, some interesting factoids from a new Nielsen study of TV viewing trends:

U.S. homes now receive on average 118.6 total television channels and the average household watches 16 channels or 13% of the total average number received for at least 10 minutes per week.

Based on the total U.S. composite, African Americans watch more television overall, while Hispanics watch the least. Among all U.S. households, total TV viewing is at 31 hours and 55 minutes per week while African American households watch 45 hours and 22 minutes and Hispanic households watch 27 hours and 13 minutes.

The advertising commercial mainstay in primetime is the 30-second commercial resulting in 55% of all units across all networks. 15-second commercial units come next and account for 53% of all commercials on English-language networks in daytime.

The average U.S. TV home is populated with 2.5 people and 2.8 TV sets; 31% of U.S. TV homes have digital cable; 61% of homes have wired cable service (down from 68% in 2000) and 27% have satellite or specialized antenna systems (up from 19% in 2005).

Crawford

I'm sure the makers of Crawford appreciated my favorable review from the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. But I'm equally certain they were more concerned about the reaction from folks in the Texas town where they filmed their engrossing documentary.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Oh, really?

Well, this certainly explains a lot, doesn't it?

Death of an immortal

Some folks can make a bid for immortality with a single role, in a singular film. Consider, if you will, Bob Anderson – whose name, I’ll bet, you didn’t remember until you were reminded of his part in a movie you’ll never forget.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Unforeseen

At once tightly focused and microcosmic, The Unforeseen -- Laura Dunn's prize-winning film about the clashes between developers and environmentalists in and around Austin -- is by turns rapturously beautiful and unspeakably sad while considering the consequences of unchecked urban sprawl. My Houston Chronicle review is here.

Dark -- really, really dark -- comedy

Stephen Rea on Stuck: "It's appalling. But you can't help but laugh." He's right. My Houston Chronicle Q&A with Rea can be found here.

Who do you love?


In honor of the late, great Bo Diddley...

Friday, June 06, 2008

40 years ago


I was 15, going on 16, and it was during my summer break as a student at St. Aloysius High School, in New Orleans. Since September, I'd been reviewing movies for the school paper, The Aloysian. (My first review: In the Heat of the Night.) The vice-principal evidently was impressed: He recommended me to the entertainment editor of the city's weekly Catholic newspaper, The Clarion Herald, as someone who could occasionally fill in as a second-string critic. And so, on the morning on Wednesday, June 5, when the issue officially dated June 6 started popping up in people's mailboxes throughout the city, I could see the very first review I ever wrote for a professional publication -- a thumbs-up rave for Wild in the Streets. This should have been the happiest day of my life.

But, of course, it wasn't. And then, alas, the next day was worse.

I love movies. But, from an early age, I have been forced to admit: Some things are more important.

Yeah! That's the ticket!

Perfect casting. And Andrew Sullivan agrees.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Coming soon to a theater near me (but maybe not one near you)

From The New York Times: "On June 13, Sony Pictures Classics, one of New York’s wilier distributors of independent films, plans to open its little comic thriller Baghead... in Austin, Tex., where its writer-directors, the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, got their filmmaking careers in gear. Then Baghead will probably move on to Dallas, Houston or, maybe, Portland, Ore. — cities that, in the words of Tom Bernard, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, 'tend to connect with what’s new and different.'"

Damn. I had no idea I was living in such a way-cool place...

Well, actually, that's a lie: I did know that. But the sheer coolness of my home base tends to surprise some visitors.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Just how cool is Iron Man?

You can't walk into a Bourbon Street souvenir shop without seeing him on a T-shirt.

Blogging interruptus



Having a great time back in New Orleans... especially on Bourbon Street. Will resume posting... whenever.