Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman 2006

Here is an article I wrote for the December 2006 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine, with input from, among other luminaries, Oscar-winner Robert Benton.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Remembering Paul Newman

Back somewhere in 1975, just before Paul Newman started filming The Drowning Pool in and around my hometown of New Orleans, he joined a few of his co-stars (including his wife, Joanne Woodward), for a small press reception in a secure meeting room at the city’s main airport. (Looking back, I have to wonder if this little get-together occurred just a few minutes after Newman and company first arrived in The Big Easy.) Newman seemed amiable – perhaps because, judging from his long pauses and languid movements, he’d prepared for the reception by having a beer or two, or five or six – and more than a little mischievous. He sat on a chair near where Woodward was seated, facing me while she chatted with another journalist. And every so often while we talked, he’d turn around, make sure she wasn’t looking at him, and… and… well, reach out to grab her ass.

Newman never quite made full contact, however. Each time his fingers were in seriously close proximity to her derrière, Woodward somehow sensed it. And each time, she would briefly turn around and shoot him a look that read “Don’t you dare!” He would smile sheepishly, place his hand back in his lap, and wait for her to turn back to her interviewer. And then he would again begin the process of reaching slowly, slowly, ever so slowly…

I know I should have found this behavior boorish, or unprofessional, or whatever. But, truth to tell, I found myself richly amused, and hard-pressed to suppress a hearty laugh. (I thought: What the hell, if I had to choose between talking to me and grabbing Joanne Woodward’s ass, I know what I’d pick.) The interview, such as it was, didn’t last very long: After about 15 minutes, someone came by, beer in hand, to lure Newman over to another corner of the room – not incidentally, far away from Woodward – for a brief Q&A with another journalist. I got to ask a few more questions during our next encounter, 14 years later. But I kinda-sorta think he had a lot more fun during this first meeting. Hey, I know I did.

R.I.P.: Paul Newman (1925-2008)

If you’re going to introduce a younger movie buff to the unique charisma of the extraordinary Paul Newman – well, where do you begin? After all, you’re talking about a superstar who was active on screen over six decades. Here are some suggested movies to use while tutoring the uninitiated.

HUD (1963) – As an anti-heroic heel in Martin Ritt’s anti-Western, Newman is a smolderingly sexy hunk who defies his tradition-bound father (Melvyn Douglas) and disillusions his admiring nephew (Brandon de Wilde) while selfishly looking out for No. 1.

HARPER
(1966) -- Newman's self-assured star power has seldom been showcased as effectively as it is in this slick private-eye drama based on Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target. As Lew Harper (the detective known as Lew Archer in Macdonald's great series of crime novels), Newman cracks wise and dodges bullets with all the cynical élan of a classic movie shamus. (A somewhat lesser sequel, 1976’s The Downing Pool, is not without its charms.)

COOL HAND LUKE
(1967) -- This is the one that solidified Newman's status as a pop-culture icon of the 1960s. As a rebellious chain-gang prisoner who destroys himself while becoming a legend in the eyes of other inmates (including Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Oscar-winner George Kennedy), he combines anarchy, nobility and plain old cussedness in just the right measures. Little wonder that a frustrated warden (the late, great Strother Martin) complains: ''What we got here is failure to communicate!”

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
(1969) -- Newman and Robert Redford make the best pair of big-screen buddies since Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in this tongue-in-cheeky Western written by William Goldman (who also scripted Harper) and directed by George Roy Hill (who would later guide Newman and Redford through the stylish con-artistry of The Sting).

SLAP SHOT
(1977) – Rude and crude with apologies to no one, George Roy Hill’s profanely funny comedy about the misadventures of a third-rate, bush-league hockey team remains a much-quoted favorite of sports-talk radio hosts everywhere. Look beyond the surface hilarity, however, and you’ll better appreciate Newman’s risky and frisky performance as a middle-aged player-coach whose desperation mounts as he become increasingly aware that he won’t have much left when he hangs up his skates.

THE VERDICT
(1982) -- Sidney Lumet directed, and David Mamet wrote, this brooding courtroom drama about a malpractice case that brings out the best in an unlikely hero. Newman's masterful portrayal of a boozy, burnt-out lawyer who gets a shot at redemption ranks with his finest work as an actor.

BLAZE
(1989) -- Written and directed by Ron Shelton, who also gave us the equally robust Bull Durham, Blaze is a riotously funny and rigorously earthy romantic comedy about life, love and the pursuit of political mandates. Newman gives a big, boldly flamboyant performance as Earl K. Long, the three-term Louisiana governor who infamously romanced Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), a spectacularly endowed Bourbon Street stripper known affectionately as ''Miss Spontaneous Combustion.''

NOBODY’S FOOL
(1995) – Everyone has a favorite Paul Newman performance. But if you’re going to choose his very best performance, you’ll be hard-pressed to name one better than his Oscar-nominated turn in this quietly superb comedy-drama from writer-director Robert Benton (Places in the Heart). Based on the well-received novel by Richard Russo, Nobody's Fool is the story of Sully (Newman), an aimless and amiably impoverished construction worker with a banged-up knee, a who-cares attitude and a scolding landlady named Miss Beryl (Jessica Tandy). At age 60, however, Sully finds himself, much to his amazement, on the verge of finally becoming a responsible adult. Like just about everything else in his life, it just happens, without warning, and Sully has to deal with it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who's best equipped to handle the current economic crisis?

Hey, works for me.

The great of '68

Raymond Benson -- official James Bond novelist, film historian, and a New York Times-validated best selling author -- is running a series of posts at the Britannica Blog on the "Top Films of '68." And I've been asked to join the film writers and scholars who are adding their two cents on those posts. Mind you, we're talking about some heavy-duty cognoscenti -- the lineup includes several Pulitzer Prize winners and at least one Nobelist. In other words, if this group ever met in real life, I'd be the one they'd send out to fetch coffee. So, Mr. Benson, tell me: You want sugar or Sweet and Low with that java?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Don't know much about history

According to Variety, the Los Angeles-based Harbor Light Entertainment and the Tokyo-based Lotus outfit have joined forces to produce an updated and Americanized remake of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Excuse me, but didn't anyone warn these folks about how an earlier Americanized remake of this Kurosawa classic was received?

And while we're on that subject: Miramax has announced plans to produce something called Muchas Gracias, Bob Oppenheimer, reportedly a romantic comedy loosely based on a real-life 1966 incident involving the crash of a U.S. military B-52 bomber -- armed with no fewer than four hydrogen bombs -- near Palomares, Spain. Ahem. Did no one warn these people about an earlier comedy inspired by the same events?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

TIFF: Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

The fragrant aroma of magnolias is undercut by the distinct smell of mothballs throughout The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond (with Bryce Dallas Howard, above) an admirably earnest but curiously flat attempt to film a long-unproduced scenario by Tennessee Williams. Although Williams wrote the original script specifically for the screen decades ago, the final product comes across as ploddingly stagebound under the sympathetic but literal-minded direction of actress-turned-director Jodie Markell. Resembling nothing so much as a lesser American Playhouse TV-movie of the mid-1980s, this indie drama likely will be consigned to cable and public televsion venues.

Maybe it might have worked out better had Lindsay Lohan not walked away from the project? Who knows? In any event, you can read my full Variety review here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My Best Friend's Girl

Some movies are just good enough to make you wish they were a lot better. I obviously enjoyed My Best Friend’s Girl a good deal more than most other critics – just as I’ve been slightly more appreciative of Dane Cook, the star of this foul-mouthed rom-com – but I would have liked it much, much more had it continued down the dark and nasty path where it appeared to be heading during the first two-thirds of its running time.

Cook – who I believe would be perfectly cast as the bad-ass anti-hero, or even the villain, of some graphic-novel adaptation – is almost too credible for comfort in the lead role of Tank, a customer-service telerep who moonlights as “an asshole” – his own self-description – for fun and profit. (Insert joke about typecasting here.) In the world according to screenwriter Jordan Cahan, any fellow who’s dumped by his girlfriend can win her back simply by paying Tank to treat the unfortunate lady to the worst date of her life. All it takes is a single night out with the purposefully obnoxious and sexually aggressive lout, and the once and future girlfriend is ready to run back to the guy she left behind.

Tank is so adept at his avocation that his services are sought by Dustin (Jason Biggs), his roomie and best and friend. Hopelessly smitten with Alexis (Kate Hudson), a beautiful co-worker, Dustin proposes to her barely five weeks into their relationship. But Alexis isn’t ready to proceed so quickly, so she rebuffs his overeager overtures. To make her see what he sees as the error of her ways, Dustin entreats Tank to make Alexis appreciate how much worse off she would be with… well, someone like Tank.

Complications arise, however, as Alexis – actively encouraged by Amy (Lizzy Caplan), her randy roommate – realizes that, at this particular point in her relatively unexciting life, what she really, really wants isn’t Mr. Right, but Mr. Right Now. That is, a stud muffin who makes booty calls without demanding commitments. Which, of course, makes Tank the wrong man in the right place at the right time.

As I said: Up to a certain point, My Best Friend’s Girl comes across as an anti-rom-com – note the passing digs at Nora Ephron and Ghost – and there’s even a strong hint that, during a profanely funny sequence introduced with clever use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” one lead character is deliberately effecting an unhappy ending. But that only makes the final scene seem even more like a tacked-on compromise that may have been added after unsuccessful preview screenings. Truth to tell, it plays like the live-action equivalent of a moment in a cartoon where a character paints himself into a corner, then simply paints a door on a wall to magically escape a seemingly inescapable situation.

You can read my full Variety review here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Greetings from the Shore

According to production notes for Greetings from the Shore, producer Gabrielle Berberich – who co-wrote the script with director Greg Chwerchak – drew heavily from her own youthful experiences while spinning a familiar scenario about a resourceful young woman who spends her last summer before college working at a swanky yacht club on the New Jersey shore. Whatever its real-life roots, however, bits and pieces of this undemandingly pleasant dramedy seem inspired by, if not recycled from, several previous movies covering similar ground.

(Indeed, more than one scene recalls Experience Preferred... But Not Essential, a semi-obscure 1982 British comedy-drama produced by David Puttnam as part of his "First Love" series.)

Still, there’s no denying the appeal of newcomer Kim Shaw as Jenny Chambers, the agreeably plucky college-bound lass who’s bummed out by a recent tragedy – her father died a few months before the movie begins – but determined to fulfill dad’s dream of her attending the expensive college where he could never afford to finish his studies. While she waits to hear from the financial-aid office, Jenny waits tables at the aforementioned yacht club. She's also kept busy as an English tutor for busboys and waiters -- most of them Russians and Eastern Europeans -- whose legal status appears to be questionable at best.

You can read my Variety review of Greetings from the Shore here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Ike effect

At various points during the past two days, as I have coped with lack of electricity and air-conditioning, erratic battery-operated devices, and barely intermittent cell phone service, memories of The Trigger Effect have returned, unbidden, to my head. In 1996, I wrote: "On the day I saw The Trigger Effect, David Koepp's disquieting thriller about survival and suspicion in the wake of a massive power blackout, I spent several hours cajoling, coaxing and sometimes even cursing as I tried to talk an unreliable laptop into working properly. (Meanwhile, half a continent away, impatient editors fumed.) So in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I was especially susceptible to Koepp's paranoid vision of a world in which most of us rely much too heavily on technology that we know little about." To that, in the wake of Hurricane Ike, I have to add: Things have only gotten worse. Much worse.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ike aftermath

Since we're among the 95 percent of Houstonians left without electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, the long-suffering Mrs. L. and I loaded up the car and headed west to seek air-conditioned lodgings for the next couple days. Fortunately, we found a nifty place where I can use my AARP discount. Meanwhile, our beloved son -- George, a.k.a. Killah G -- is back in H-Town, playing Texas Hold 'Em to win enough money to repair our wind-damaged back fence. Life sure is complicated sometimes.

Off the grid

Well, since my Internet/Cable TV provider -- AT&T's U-Verse -- often conks out during even the lightest of rainfalls (and, sometimes, on perfectly sunny days), I should not be surprised that it went dead about a half hour ago. I have AOL dial-up as a back-up, which is how I'm able to post this. But it's taking a loooooooooooooong time....  

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike update, 10 pm

According to TV newscasters, more than 315,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in the Houston-Galveston area are without electricity right now. And these poor folks will be left in the dark until long after Hurricane Ike has passed. So if I stop posting for a while...

Hurricane Ike update

As of 7:30 pm Houston time, we're still being told that we don't need to evacuate. Indeed, according to the mayor and various other officials, if we haven’t evacuated by now, we’d be much better off staying put, lest we impede the traffic flow for people evacuating from Galveston and other areas expected to get hit REALLY HARD by Hurricane Ike. There has already been at least one reported death in Montgomery County – a child crushed by a wind-toppled tree – and I fear we will hear of more deaths, many more deaths, before it’s all over. Outside, it is drizzling, and the winds are picking up slightly. I live in an area of Houston that hasn't flooded at any time during my 25 years of living here. Still, I suspect I won't get much sleep tonight....

TIFF: Management

Neatly mixing whimsical quirkiness, straight-faced absurdity and affecting melancholy, Management -- starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Zahn -- is a slight but likable dramedy that signals a promising directorial debut for playwright-screenwriter Stephen Belber (Tape). You can read my Variety review here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

TIFF: Secret of Moonacre

Even the most industrious marketing wizards will be hard-pressed to conjure up box-office magic for The Secret of Moonacre, a tepid fantasy-adventure weighed down with annoying swaths of leaden whimsy. You can read my Variety review here.

Friday, September 05, 2008

From Toronto: RocknRolla rocks

After shipwrecking with Swept Away and misfiring with Revolver, Brit filmmaker Guy Ritchie bounces back to top form with RocknRolla, a cleverly constructed, sensationally stylish and often darkly hilarious seriocomic caper. You can read my Variety review here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Michael Moore's Internet Uprising

Far be it from me to question Michael Moore's motives, or even suggest that he's trying to put lipstick on a pig. But when he says he's releasing Slacker Uprising as a free Internet download -- and not as a theatrical feature -- because he thought it would be "a nice way to celebrate" his 20th anniversary as a filmmaker... Well, maybe, just maybe, the decision also had something to do with the critical response that greeted the film last year when it was shown at the Toronto Film Festival under the title Captain Mike Across America.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

On the scene at TIFF

Well, I've already had the first of the feasts I enjoy every year at The Foxes Den here in Toronto while covering the world's greatest film festival. Tomorrow, I start seeing movies. Tonight, while disembarking from the subway, I couldn't help noticing a genuinely clever ad -- apparently, not one circulated widely, if at all, in the United States -- for the irredeemably wretched Disaster Movie. If only the film itself had been this amusing...

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

R.I.P.: Jerry Reed (1937-2008)

Jerry Reed wrote songs for superstars such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and scored smash hits on his own with the likes of “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” 70’s chart-toppers distinguished by Reed’s rambunctiously raspy vocals and twangy guitar virtuosity. But it’s entirely possible that most people will remember the Atlanta native best as a scene-stealing character actor who specialized in Southern-fried sidekicks (Smokey and the Bandit, Hot Stuff, Bat-21). He was surprisingly effective as a deadly serious redneck crime lord in Burt ReynoldsGator, and a sassy/cynical cop in the short-lived 1977 TV series Nashville 99. But wait, there's more: He even managed to occasionally upstage Walter Matthau and Robin Williams as a domesticated hit man in Michael Ritchie’s under-rated The Survivors.

Of course, some moviegoers will never forgive Reed for being so mean and nasty to Adam Sandler in The Waterboy (Reed’s final screen credit). On the other hand, Reed shouldn’t be blamed for Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, arguably the most ill-starred “threequel” in movie history. When Burt Reynolds refused to take a third spin in his Trans Am, someone had the bright idea to cast Jackie Gleason as the blustery Sheriff Buford T. Justice and speedaholic “Bandit” Bo Darville. Unfortunately, preview audiences were hopelessly confused (if not downright enraged) by the double-dipping. Even more unfortunately, the producers didn’t let a sleeping dog lie. Instead, they deep-sixed the scenes with Gleason as Bandit, and hired Reed to revive his Cledus Snow character from the previous two Bandit comedies in last-minute re-shoots. Not surprisingly, ticketbuyers stayed away anyway. But, like I said: It wasn’t Reed’s fault.

For Sarah Palin bashers, a note of caution

Attacking a Presidential candidate's VP pick may be great fun -- and, in some cases, entirely justified -- but is it politically effective? There is ample evidence to suggest the answer is: Probably not. Take a look at two TV spots from campaigns past -- 1968 and 1988. On the '68 page, click, under the "Democrat" heading, on the seventh block from the top (or, if you prefer, the second block from the bottom). On the '88 page, under "Democrat," check out the eighth from the top. See what I mean? Be afraid. Be very afraid.