Thursday, December 31, 2009

OK, this explains everything...

This must be why I haven't been able to get another full-time newspaper job since The Houston Post shut down in 1995. Well, either this, or I really suck as a writer.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The other Point Blank

No, not the 1967 classic with the preternaturally badass Lee Marvin kicking butt and taking lives. This one is the 1998 version -- one of several direct-to-video clunkers that provided semi-steady employment for Mickey Rourke before his Oscar-nominated comeback in The Wrestler last year. Think about this whenever you find yourself wondering in 2010 why Rourke is grabbing after easy paychecks in Iron Man II and The Expendables. Trust me: He is one great actor who has bloody well earned his right to sell out.

Stamps of approval

Four legendary "Cowboys of the Silver Screen" -- Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and William S. Hart -- are among the luminaries who'll be honored on U.S. postage stamps in 2010. Release date: April 17. Also due on commemorative stamps next year: The legendary Katharine Hepburn (whose stamp portrait is a publicity still from Woman of the Year) and pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.


This just in from As of yesterday -- just the seventh day of its theatrical release -- Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel had grossed $100.2 million. Has it really been so long ago when that sort of box-office performance would have been considered... well, like, newsworthy? Like, a great big freakin' deal?  (Oh, and by the way: Avatar made a lot of money yesterday, too.)

Suggested for mature audiences

In this, uh, revealing music video for Massive Attack's "Paradise Circus," legendary porn star Georgina Spelvin -- who's now, believe it or not, 73 -- waxes eloquent about her sexcapades as a lusty multi-tasker in The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), arguably the second most famous porn movie ever made. Be forewarned: The video includes vintage footage of Miss Spelvin in action as Miss Jones. Guess they weren't shooting for heavy rotation on MTV with this one.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Green Monday

According to, three movies -- Avatar, Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and Sherlock Holmes -- made history yesterday. Seriously: All three were added to the list of all-time top-grossers on a non-holiday Monday. And here the's really mind-boggling part: The lowest-grossing of the trio still managed to grab the No. 13 spot. In other words, throughout the entire history of motion pictures, only twelve other movies ever made more money on non-holiday Monday than.... Well, it's elementary. (And, mind you, two of those movies were Avatar.)

The end of free TV as we know it?

In a fascinating story posted today, Associated Press business writer Andrew Vanacore warns: "For more than 60 years, TV stations have broadcast news, sports and entertainment for free and made their money by showing commercials. That might not work much longer." Indeed, Vanacore quotes Fitch Ratings analyst Jamie Rizzo as predicting "at least one of the four broadcast networks 'could explore' becoming a cable channel as early as 2011." Why? To cut out the middle men -- i.e., owners of local affiliate TV stations -- while collecting fees from cable and satellite companies. But wait, there's more: If broadcast TV stations currently affiliated with networks are forced to go independent, Vanacore writes, the affiliates "would have to air their own programming, including local news and syndicated shows."  All of which means that, in the not-so-distant future, you may have to pay to see programs like American Idol or NCIS -- or make do with reruns of Boston Legal and The Andy Griffith Show.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

If critics picked the Oscars...

Richard Corliss of Time Magazine has made a list, and checked it twice, to see who and what would win if film critics -- or, to be more precise, film critics' organizations -- had the final say in picking Academy Award winners. Keep in mind, though: Avatar might demand a recount.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Now this is a Christmas movie I'd like to see...

From CNN: "It may be the first modern Christmas movie ever made for audiences in Turkey, a mostly Muslim country that does not celebrate Christmas. Neseli Hayat or A Cheerful Life is the story of a down-on-his-luck, working class Turk who is hired to work as a mall Santa. The trouble is he doesn't really know who Santa Claus is, and needs some very basic lessons. In one scene, a manager drills the main character, Riza, and several other hired Santas on how to give Saint Nick's hearty bellow, 'Ho-ho-ho.' In another segment, a bearded, costumed Riza enters a waiting room and extends the traditional Muslim greeting 'A salam aleyekum' to four other mall Santas, who answer back without looking up 'Aleyekum salam.'"

CNN goes on to report Yilmaz Erdogan, the film's writer, director and lead player, "says his character is a metaphorical bridge between two worlds in Turkey: Wealthier, upper class Turks who live a 'Western' lifestyle and have adopted the trappings of Christmas to celebrate the new year, and poorer Turks who have emigrated from the Anatolian heartland to the big city and are more familiar with traditionally 'Middle Eastern' customs."

No word on whether the plotline involves an angel trying to earn his wings. (Hat-tip to Joanne Harrison for the find.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

You can take the lesbians out of Lesbian Vampire Killers, but...

As I wrote a few months ago from SXSW: "Not since Snakes on a Plane has a movie borne a title that so succinctly encapsulates its high concept as Lesbian Vampire Killers. Trouble is, there's little else that's remarkable about this agreeably goofy but surprisingly mild horror-comedy, a technically polished showcase for Brit TV faves James Corden and Matthew Horne that's several guffaws short of a laff riot." Looks like the movie is going direct to video in the U.S. But it also looks like something got lost during its transatlantic journey from Great Britain.

Death doesn't take a holiday

Every year, it seems to me, editors and writers in print and digital outlets want to complete their year-end wrap-ups a little earlier. In fact, I’m pretty sure there were Thanksgiving leftovers still relatively fresh in my refrigerator when Entertainment Weekly released its “Late Greats” cover-story tribute to showbiz luminaries who shuffled off this mortal coil in 2009.

But here’s the thing: Over the years, I have noticed that, during the last week of every December, long after the year-end wrap-ups are complete, another notable or two (or three or four) will join the Choir Invisible. And, unfortunately, these folks tend to get penalized for their untimely departures. For openers: When the bad news is broken on cable news networks, they get tributes only from B- and C-list talking heads, because the A-listers are on holiday. For much the same reason, the newspaper and magazine obits are scanty, because only second- and third-stringers – many of them too young to fully appreciate many older notables -- are still on the job.

(Maybe this is why, when Philippe Noiret died on Thanksgiving Day in 2006, my respectful tribute to the great French actor attracted more readers to this blog than almost anything else I've ever posted, before or since.)

Worse, the late celebrities leave this world too late to be included prominently in the really cool year-end newspaper, magazine and website tributes. And, really, they’re disqualified from being honored in wraps for the following year. As a result of their underpublicized departures – well, I have only anecdotal evidence to support this theory, but I suspect that, in many cases, the general public isn’t actually aware that an individual has died until the dead person pops up in one of the montages at the Emmys and Oscars.

Consider these dates of departure, chosen at random during a cursory riff through Wikipedia: Dean Martin, Dec. 25, 1995. Eartha Kitt, Dec. 25, 2008. (Hell, for that matter, Charlie Chaplin, Dec. 25, 1977.) Jason Robards, Dec. 26, 2000. Alan Bates, Dec. 27, 2003. Hal Ashby, Dec. 27, 1988. Sam Peckinpah, Dec. 28, 1984. Jerry Orbach and Susan Sontag, Dec. 28, 2004. Andrei Tarkovsky, Dec. 29, 1986. (OK, I realize that’s a bit of a reach, but still…) Lew Ayres, Dec. 30, 1996. Rick Nelson, Dec. 31, 1985. Donald Westlake, Dec. 31, 2008.

And now think about this: The odds are very good that, between now and 11:59 p.m., Dec. 31, at least one more significant showbiz figure will check out. And will not get the send-off he or she deserves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's this? Sherlock Holmes tangling with a dinosaur?

It's elementary: Those wild and crazy guys over at The Asylum are at it again. Brian Rafferty of Wired has taken a close look at the company that will give us Sherlock Holmes -- no, not that one, this one -- and previously gave us Snakes on a Train and Transmorphers. Such low-budget, direct-to-video knock-offs have come to be known as mockbusters. But Rafferty is not of a mind to be too critical of them. "While mockbusting may seem disreputable," he writes, "it’s merely an extension of the sort of cultural cannibalization that fuels the entertainment and media industries. Every hit property, whether it’s American Idol or Twilight or Harry Potter, spurs its own parallel economy, a nebulous cosmos of TV specials and publications that attempt to dry-hump the zeitgeist for all it’s worth. Some of these efforts are subtler than others — putting a sitcom star on a magazine cover, for example — but all take advantage of a cultural momentum they didn’t create. In the end, is there really much difference between the Asylum’s Da Vinci Treasure and the countless unsanctioned Da Vinci Code TV specials, books, and tours?"

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A year-end prize for Summer Hours

Olivier Assayas' sharply observed and subtly affecting Summer Hours has been voted the best movie of 2009 in indieWIRE's annual poll of more than 100 film critics and bloggers. And while it wasn't my very first choice for top honors, I'd agree with my fellow voters that the film -- Assayas' best since Late August, Early September, a movie that, for various reasons, I've been thinking about a lot recently -- it's an altogether worthy choice. (As for indieWIRE's choice for best film of the decade... well, let me be diplomatic and say I didn't take part in that balloting, so I have no comment to make.) Summer Hours is a ruefully melancholy tale about three adult siblings (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier) dealing with their late mother's estate -- and, by extension, with their increasingly tenuous ties to their shared past, and to each other. As Roger Ebert has sagely noted: "[T]he film builds its emotional power by stealth, indirectly, refusing to be a tearjerker, always realistic, and yet observing how very sad it is to see a large part of your life disappear... The actors all find the correct notes. It is a French film, and so they are allowed to be adult and intelligent. They are not the creatures of a screenplay that hurries them along. The film is not about what will happen. It is about them."

Worst. Avatar. Review. Ever.

Of course, I can laugh at this because none of the reviews I ever wrote for my college newspapers are available on-line. So nyah, nyah, nyah!

R.I.P.: Arnold Stang (1925-2009)

Alas, the voice of Top Cat -- and Herman, of Herman and Katnip fame -- has been stilled. Of course, I'm sure some of you whippersnappers might not know who the late, great Arnold Stang was. So here is a link to an avid fan's appreciative essay on the Beware of the Blog site of listener-supported radio station WFMU.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A greater gross for Avatar

According to Variety, James Cameron's sci-fi spectacle didn't just make more money than you can shake a stick at -- it made the stick as well.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

If you enjoyed Alvin and the Chipmunks -- which I did, partly for sentimental reasons -- you'll likely want to double your pleasure with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. You can read my Variety review here.

R.I.P: Brittany Murphy (1977-2009)

I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Brittany Murphy or her grieving loved ones when I say that, for the past several years, I could never read or hear her name, not even today, without thinking of 9/11.

Mind you, it wasn't her fault: She just happened to be one of the stars of Edward Burns' Sidewalks of New York, a Woody Allenesque comedy that was supposed to open during the summer of 2001 -- but was shifted to Sept. 21, as I explained in my original review of the film, "based on the debatable yet not-unreasonable notion that movies made by, for and about grown-ups get more attention in the fall, after the youth-skewing popcorn pictures of summer have run their courses." Unfortunately "the terrible events of Sept. 11 made the Paramount decision-makers more than a little skittish. They were nervous about how audiences might respond to any movie, even one as innocuous as this one, with 'New York' in its title." So they wound up pushing it back to November -- at which time, alas, it opened and closed very quickly.

But wait, there's more: During the summer press junket for Sidewalks, Murphy spoke enthusiastically about another upcoming project, Don't Say a Word, a thriller in which she played -- as you can see in the above photo -- a severely traumatized  mental patient. She was proud of her performance (and rightly so, I later discovered) and hoped the film -- which, like Sidewalks, was set in New York, would be appreciated by critics. But, again, unfortunately: Don't Say a Word hit theaters nationwide on Sept. 28. It sold a lot of tickets, but it also upset a lot of viewers. As A.O. Scott of The New York Times noted in his opening day review:  "Like a lot of other movies opening this fall, Don't Say a Word suffers from the timing of its release. After Sept. 11 there may not be much appetite for a thriller about a day of stress and distress in Manhattan. A climactic scene in which a bad guy is buried alive in an avalanche of dirt, dust and falling beams inadvertently conjures up some horrific associations..."

Even so, let me reiterate: None of this could, or should, be blamed on Murphy, an actress whose work I generally admired -- and I use the qualifier "generally" only because I saw Just Married. She was sensationally sexy yet also affectingly poignant in 8 Mile -- and similarly impressive in offbeat indie efforts such as Spun and The Dead Girl. Her death this weekend at the ridiculously young age of 32 reminds us that few things are more tragic than a promise that will remain forever unfulfilled.

Remembering Patrick Swayze at the HFCS Awards

The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air were the big winners Saturday when the Houston Film Critics Society announced the winners of its annual awards for excellence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But I kinda-sorta felt like I'd grabbed a big prize myself when I was selected to offer a tribute to the late Patrick Swayze, who was honored with this year's HFCS Lifetime Achievement Award. Just before the audience viewed a deeply moving montage (assembled by Jose Del Toro and Travis Leamons) of clips from Swayze's most memorable movie performances, I got to say:

I met Patrick Swayze for the first time back in 1983, when he dropped by the hotel where I was staying in L.A. that weekend to talk about his upcoming role in Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders. It was supposed to be a brief chat, but it turned into a long, leisurely conversation. I remember thinking at the time this guy certainly seemed to have enough drive, determination and charisma to succeed in a very challenging field. I also remember being very envious of this guy, because when the valet finally brought around his car – it was a DeLorean.

I won’t pretend that Patrick and I were close confidants or bowling buddies. But we did wind up talking several other times over the years. And we got to the point where I think we enjoyed each other’s company – and even shared a couple private jokes. Right from the start, I noted his habit of describing how busy he might be at the moment, and how determined he was to get the next gig – and how he’d always end up shrugging, smiling, and saying: “Hey, you work hard, and then you die.” Up until the very end, Patrick never stopped working -- never stopped fighting. He struggled against expectations and preconceptions – and narrow-minded casting directors -- to get cast against type in movies like City of Joy and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. And even though, ultimately, he lost that final battle we’re all destined to lose, he fought the good fight long and hard with uncommon grace and inspiring dignity. But here’s the thing: A man can die, but his movies are forever in the present tense. And I’m sure Patrick would be pleased to know that, even though he’s left us, he’s still with us. Because Patrick – with all due respect, wherever you are – you were only half right. If you work hard enough, you just might live forever.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Critics' choices

I am a proud member of the Houston Film Critics Society -- but don't hold that against the organization, it's a classy outfit anyway. We're going to be handing out awards for 2009's best achievements in film this Saturday, Dec. 19, starting at 4 p.m. in the Brown Auditorium Theater of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And unlike those snobby wankers over at the Hollywood Foreign Press or the Motion Picture Academy, we're open to having everyone join in the festivities. Well, OK, maybe not everyone -- but at least as many people as can fit into Brown Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public, followed by a reception in the museum galleries. I'll be on hand to intro a special HFCS tribute to the late, great Patrick Swayze. And actor G.W. Bailey will be honored with a well-deserved Humanitarian Award for his work with the Sunshine Kids Foundation.

BTW: Nominees for the HFCS Best Picture of 2009 award include (500) Days of Summer, Avatar, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Invictus, Precious, Star Trek, The Hurt Locker, Up and Up in the Air. I'd tell you in advance which movie is the winner, but then HFCS president and co-founder Nick Nicholson would kill me. Suffice it to say that HFCS prides itself on surprising. Last year, for example, the Best Film prize went to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. So expect the unexpected.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Across the (Golden) Globes

My first thought when I read the list of Golden Globe nominations: Damn! No love for Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun! My second through ninth thoughts: Here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

R.I.P: Gene Barry (1919-2009)

How cool was Gene Barry? So cool that, when I was a mere broth of a lad growing up in New Orleans, I faithfully watched every episode of Bat Masterson -- and scraped enough money together to purchase by mail from the TV show's sponsor, Sealtest Milk, my very own Bat Masterson cane. (Which, alas, I broke within days after its arrival.) As I grew older, I watched Barry in Burke's Law with the same fidelity, and marveled at the unabashed lust he inspired in my usually prim and proper Aunt Madge, who -- always a tad too fond of Tom Moore bourbon -- once blurted out after a few stiff belts: "He could kick his shoes under my bed anytime!")

Barry was an affable and ingratiating journeyman actor who brought an air of authoritative integrity to his recurring role as a magazine editor in the way-cool late '60s/early '70s TV series The Name of the Game -- in one especially memorable episode, a sci-fi fantasy, he was directed by a young Steven Spielberg -- and, as Washington Post blogger Adam Bernstein reminds us, he was not afraid to ruffle the feathers of his more conservative fans when took one of the lead roles in the original 1980s Broadway production of the musical La Cage aux Folles.

"I'm not playing a homosexual," Mr. Barry told the New York Times. "I'm playing a person who cares deeply about another person. The role is loving another person onstage. It doesn't matter whether it's a man, a woman or a giraffe. It has nothing to do with sexuality, as far as I'm concerned. I play the dignity of the man, his concern for his lover and his concern and love for his son."

Chief among Barry's movie credits: Two films by cult-fave auteur Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns, China Gate), The Houston Story (directed by -- no kidding! -- William Castle), Thunder Road and -- of course -- the original 1953 version of The War of the Worlds. Barry was so closely associated with the latter that Steven Spielberg -- years after their first collaboration on Name of the Game -- respectfully hired him for a cameo part in Spielberg's own 2005 version of the H.G. Wells novel. It was, quite simply, a classy tribute to a classy actor.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Go to jail, go directly to jail

The next time someone tries to talk me into lending them one of those "For Your Consideration" screeners that I always get during year-end awards season, I'm going to show them this story so they'll understand just how serious studios are taking their anti-piracy campaigns. Jeez, this is so... well, harsh.

It's elementary: Dressed to Kill

As we await, with equal measures of eagerness and trepidation, Guy Ritchie's revisionist reboot of Sherlock Holmes, I thought it might be fun to take a nostalgic look back at Basil Rathbone's distinctive portrayal of the Baker Street sleuth before seeing what Robert Downey Jr. has done with (or to) Arthur Conan Doyle's character. While you watch Rathbone do the deducting in Dressed to Kill, see if you can spot any signs to support the provocative new theory that Holmes may have been... bipolar.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

TV Alert: Leonard Maltin chats with Hal Holbrook

Better warm up your TiVo: Hal Holbrook will be talking about That Evening Sun (among other things) with Leonard Maltin on the next episode of Maltin's Secret's Out TV series, at 6:30 p.m. ET Friday (Dec. 4) on the ReelzChannel cable network. And if you don't have a video recorder, don't fret: Multiple reruns will follow.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Remembering Truffaut

To mark the 50th anniversary of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows -- and the 25th anniversary of the great director's death -- the editors of MovieMaker Magazine asked me to write a tribute to The Man Who Loved Movies. But here's the catch: You can't read it on the Internet. You'll actually have to buy a copy of the magazine -- what a concept! -- and read it the old-fashioned way.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Hailing Norman Jewison (again)

Two years ago, it was my great privilege and honor to conduct an on-stage Q&A with filmmaker Norman Jewison at the Starz Denver Film Festival, on the occasion of his receiving the festival's 2007 Mayor's Career Achievement Award. Today comes word that Jewison soon will have another prize to display on his mantelpiece: He will receive a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Directors Guild of America during the 62nd annual DGA Awards Jan. 30 in Los Angeles. Good for him. As DGA president Taylor Hackford aptly noted: “There are very few filmmakers whose body of work moves so fluidly between romantic comedy and political thriller, musical and satire, with an ease and an eloquence that few could hope to match. Norman well deserves to stand among the giants of cinema whom we have honored in the past.” Yes, he does.

From 'Wolverine' to the Nashville scene

Filmmaker Gavin Hood is nothing if not versatile. After directing the Oscar-winning Tsotsi and the fanboy-friendly X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he's tackling a TV pilot for the recently launched EPIX cable network. Tough Trade, which starts shooting in Nashville this week, features Sam Shepard as patriarch of the Tucker family, a three-generation Nashville music dynasty. The bad news: Drink, debauchery and divorce have left the once-mighty Tuckers on the verge of bankruptcy. The worse news: Ol' Man Tucker's grandson, an exceptionally talented singer and guitarist, has no interest in joining the family business -- because he prefers to make a living by selling illegal ammunition around Nashville. Lucas Black of Sling Blade and the forthcoming Get Low plays the prodigal grandson, and Cary Elwes -- the dashing hero of The Princess Bride -- has signed on to play his dad. No word yet as to whether any of these characters has retractable claws.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Martin Sheen hails Hal Holbrook in That Evening Sun

In Variety, Martin Sheen pays respectful tribute to Hal Holbrook: "I had the privilege of playing Hal Holbrook's gay lover in the landmark TV film That Certain Summer. His character was a divorced father with a teenage son, and in one powerful climactic scene, the boy rejects him when he discovers he's gay. Hal sat down and simply wept uncontrollably in the scene, as his son walked away. It was a stunning and deeply moving performance, which he repeated several more times with equal success for the coverage. Afterwards, I told him how moved I was and how impressive it was to watch him reach such emotional depth so quickly and with such ease. He thanked me and casually said, 'The older you get, the easier it is.'

"That was 37 years ago, and that remark was newly remembered as I watched his extraordinary performance in That Evening Sun. Acting is never that easy, no matter how young or old we who do it are. But the older Hal gets, the easier he makes it appear, and that is part of his genius. Like an extension of his character from Into the Wild, Abner, in That Evening Sun, brings Hal front and center and yields an unforgettable, subtle and deeply personal performance. If it gets easier the older he gets, I can't wait to see Hal at age 90."

Neither can I.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Blind Side bumps bloodsuckers from No. 1 spot

On the other hand, according to Variety, New Moon set a new record for Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving grosses.

Avatar underwhelming?

Normally, I don't put much stock in "anonymous critics." But I must admit: When I saw TV ads for Avatar during football games yesterday... well, they looked to me like promos for a new video game.

Early word on 'Invictus'

I think "politely respectful" might be the best way to describe the first reviews of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, a movie that, for the past several months, has been hyped by many pundits and prognosticators as sure-fire Oscar-bait. Were those predictions -- many of them issued even before Eastwood actually began filming on location in South Africa -- premature? Well, tell me what you think after reading this, this and this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I just flew back from Denver -- and boy, are my arms tired!

I'm still playing catch-up after a few exhilarating days at the still-in-progress Starz Denver Film Festival, so I won't have my Mile High City wrap-up posted until Wednesday or Thursday. But I did want to make sure my faithful readers -- both of you -- knew about my two recent Variety reviews: Trick 'r Treat, a slick and twisted horror anthology that, despite a strong cast, went the direct-to-DVD route; and The Blind Side, another uplifting and entertaining feel-good, fact-based sports drama from director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie).

Monday, November 09, 2009

Remebering how Hoop Dreams got hosed

Steve Pond of The Wrap gets the story behind the story of an infamous Oscar snub.

Signed, The Breakfast Club

A clever compilation of movie titles... as they're mentioned in the movies themselves. (Hat-tip to John Guidry and Steven Phelps.)

Good movie, bad timing, terrible events

Much like my Variety colleague Derek Elley, I enjoyed The Men Who Stare at Goats as a satisfyingly quirky mix of straight-faced, off-the-wall absurdism and darkly comical political satire, featuring splendid ensemble work by the exceptionally well cast George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Stephen Lang. But I must admit: When I viewed the Overture Films release Sunday, I was temporarily shaken by the unfortunate timeliness of a scene in which a berserk solider opens fire at other service personnel at a U.S. Army base.

Mind you, I don’t hold this against the filmmakers, who had no way of knowing their movie would open at theaters and drive-ins everywhere within days – hours, really -- of the tragic events at Fort Hood here in Texas. But I certainly can understand, if not share, the concern of someone like Vanity Fair’s Julian Sancton, who’s wondering whether the unsettling scene should be deleted from all future prints of the film. (It likely would be impossible, Sancton allows, to re-edit the prints already in release – even though, it should be noted, such after-the-fact trimming isn’t unprecedented: A joke about Rev. Martin Luther King was removed from release prints of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner after MLK’s assassination.)

Ironically, George Clooney and I talked about the potential for real-world tragedies affecting audience reactions to reel-world scenarios back in 1997, when I did this TV interview with him for The Peacemaker. That movie, you may recall, dealt with efforts to prevent a grudge-bearing Bosnian from setting off a nuclear device in New York City. Clooney admitted that he and other folks involved with the production had discussed the dreadful possibility that a similar terrorist attack might actually occur before Peacemaker hit theaters. And while they ultimately decided that they couldn’t worry about things over which they had no control, that they could only hope for the best while trying to make the best movie possible, Clooney pointedly noted the box-office failure of SpaceCamp, a 1986 adventure movie – about kids at a NASA summer camp who are accidentally launched into space -- that had the misfortune of opening a few months after the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

Fortunately for all parties involved with The Peacemaker – and for even more parties who had nothing whatsoever to do with the film – no major terrorist incidents occurred in the U.S. before or during the film’s theatrical run. In 2001, however, a broadcast TV airing of The Peacemaker was cancelled at the last minute because of… well, spectacularly bad timing. You see, the movie had been scheduled to air just a few days after Sept. 11.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Here a film festival, there a film festival

I have nothing but best wishes and hearty encouragement for the folks organizing the inaugural Cinema Arts Festival Houston, which got some nice coverage today in the Houston Chronicle. But talk about bad timing: The H-Town event takes place directly opposite the Starz Denver Film Festival -- where I'll be doing an on-stage Q&A with (and presenting an Excellence in Acting award to) Hal Holbrook, and presenting a 50th anniversary screening of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows. Look for some postings from the Mile High City next week.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

After all these years, Hal Holbrook still doesn't know just how damn good he is. But he's learning.

Don’t misunderstand: Hal Holbrook is very happy and deeply grateful to receive the prestigious Excellence in Acting award next week at the Starz Denver Film Festival. But if you push the Emmy- and Tony-winning living legend on the subject, he’ll suggest that maybe, just maybe, the prize is a tad premature, because he considers himself, at 84, still a student of his art.

“Even now,” Holbrook says, “I’m learning more about film work.”

It’s an extraordinarily modest admission for a man who for decades has offered so many diverse performances in so many disparate movies: A loving father worried about revealing his homosexuality to his teen-age son (That Certain Summer, 1972). An enigmatic informant who’s at once cynical and saddened about his role in toppling a Presidency (All the President’s Men, 1976). A small-town sheriff who has seen too much of the evil men do to still believe in a benevolent Deity (Eye of God, 1997). A rabidly racist Navy officer who’s determined to stifle the ambitions of an African-American sailor (Men of Honor, 2000). A lonely widower who offers to serve as surrogate grandfather for a tragically discontented wanderer (Into the Wild, 2007).

And, most recently, an octogenarian farmer who will not give up his land or his pride without a fight in Scott Teems’ exceptionally fine That Evening Sun, which opens Friday in New York and Nov. 20 in Los Angeles -- and will screen Nov. 14 at the Starz Denver Film Festival. The latter is where I’ll be honored to host an on-stage Q&A with Holbrook, and even more honored to present him with the well-deserved Excellence in Acting prize.

And yet, to hear Holbrook tell it, for all his work in movies and television – to say nothing of his extraordinary stage performances, most notably as the sagely witty Samuel Clemens in Mark Twain Tonight! -- he still has a lot to learn.

Fortunately, he says, he’s always managed to find the right teachers when he needed them. From director Sidney Lumet – who guided him through his first film appearance, in The Group (1966) – Holbrook learned early on that less is more. He credits another “wonderful director,” Sean Penn, with giving him the confidence to risk plumbing emotional depths for his Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild.

While playing the irascible Abner Meecham in That Evening Sun, Holbrook says, his initial instinct was “to make sure the audience understood the emotional trip he was on.” But writer-director Scott Teems convinced him to avoid any obvious requests for sympathy, and rather play the character as unsentimentally harsh. The result: A powerful performance that even the chronically self-critical Holbrook ranks among his best work.

“Yes,” Holbrook says, “after all these years, I think I’m finally starting to learn something about film acting.”

Holbrook and I recently chatted for an interview that soon will appear in the January issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine. He’s such a grand raconteur that, even after we covered enough material for the C&I piece, I wanted to keep the conversation going. Holbrook, gracious gent that he is, continued to answer my questions, and generously share his experiences.

Q: You’ve talked about learning from directors. What did Sean Penn have to teach you?
A. I don’t know how to describe it. He was just simply wonderful to work with. He gave you the feeling that anything that came out of you was OK. That he would take care of you, or catch you if you fell. Or tell you if you were doing too much. And that’s why working with (Into the Wild co-star) Emile Hirsch was so easy, like simply having a conversation with someone.

Q. You came to film from the stage. What was the hardest part of making that transition?
A. Recognizing that film work is so subtle. You have to remember that. I keep going back to the first film I ever did – The Group, with Sidney Lumet. It was my first movie – I was a stage actor – and after a couple of days, I asked: “Sidney, could I watch the rushes, to see what I’m doing?” And he told me, “I don’t like actors to watch rushes, Hal. Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “Well, that I scene I did with Jessica Walter – it just didn’t feel good.” So he said, “OK, I’ll let you watch once, that’s all. OK?” So, during lunch, I went to watch the rushes on this scene. And afterwards, Sidney asked me: “What did you think?” And I said, “Aw, Christ, I was acting.” And he said, “Yes, you were. But we can cut around that, Hal. What you have to understand about film work is, the camera can read your mind.” Now, it’s easy to say something like that. But to believe it – and to trust it – is a whole other story.

Q. So you’ve finally come to realize that less is more?
A. [Laughs] It’s a wonderful release, because it makes it much easier. I mean, don’t get me wrong: That Evening Sun was not easy. That was a tough job, I worked very hard on it. To begin with, I wanted to be very authentic with my accent. Because, of course, my wife [actress Dixie Carter] comes from Tennessee, and we have a home there, and I know these people very well. And I have a great deal of love and respect for my relatives by marriage down there.

Q. And you think you would have caught grief from your in-laws if you’d gotten the accent wrong?
A. No, actually they would have been very kind and easy on me. But they would have been disappointed. That’s the kind of people they are. They’re not like people up North, where they smash you over the head with the truth. They try to respect your feelings, because you’re a member of the family. If you’re a member of the family, you can do anything. No matter what you do, you are OK. [Laughs] And anybody who says you’re not will get shot dead or knocked down.

Q. Back to That Evening Sun – you say nailing the accent was difficult?

A. Well, I was working with Dixie on every single line. Because we were working for a certain kind of accent in Tennessee. More like what my father-in-law had – in West Tennessee. It was important, because one of the things that Scott Teems wrote about here was a class differential. About people here in Tennessee you would sometimes refer to as white trash -- and people you would refer to as the more educated class, which my character belonged to. People up North think everyone from Tennessee – even from big towns – they’re all, you know, hicks. And dumb. And all the traditional idiocy. And, sure, they think different, because they live in a different place, in a different way. But I have to tell you: My father-in-law’s home in Tennessee has more books in it – worn-out books, book that have been read – than any home I’ve ever been in.

Q. When you introduced That Evening Sun at the Nashville Film Festival last April, you made a special point of saying how you hoped the film might give people outside of the region a chance “to sort of broaden their brains a little bit about the big country we’re living in, with all the different kinds of people living in it.” Why is that something important for you, personally?
A. One of the things that lies at the heart of a lot of the work that we do is – well, I hate to use the word “educate,” but you do try to make people see that there are far more things about us that are familiar, that are similar, than are different. This is always something that’s in the back of my mind when I’m playing a character. It may be a subtle thing about the character. But an actor should make an effort to give people an understanding of the humanity in the character he’s playing. Whatever the hell it is. That’s one of the reasons we’re out there.

Q. Sounds like That Evening Sun was a rewarding experience for you.

A. I really enjoyed doing That Evening Sun. We worked in one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever been in, near the foothills of the Smokeys to the east. Farm country. That shack [Abner Meecham] lived in was torn down somewhere else and put back together on this particular farm where we shot. And I swear, you’d look around and wonder why in hell anybody would ever want to leave this valley. You wonder why people came over the hills and settled in this valley – and then left and went West. We worked in tremendous heat – 90- to 100-degree heat – for all four weeks. But it really was a wonderful experience.

Q. Ray McKinnon plays Lonzo, the younger fellow who has moved with his wife and daughter onto Abner’s property while Abner’s in the old folks home. When Abner goes AWOL and returns to his farm, he finds these folks there – and he’s pissed. Especially since he considers Lonzo to be “white trash,” or worse. So that’s the central conflict. But Lonzo is neither written nor played as a complete villain.
A: And that also helped balance the picture more. So that this was a struggle between two very tough, very angry men who came from different parts of the tribe, you might say, in Tennessee. And they were not going to give way to each other. Ray McKinnon did a terrific job, don’t you think? Jesus, he’s a wonderful actor. He didn’t look for the obvious things in that character. He looked for the things that are not obvious. We had a wonderful cast across the board. Like that little girl from Australia, Mia Wasikowska. Before she auditioned for the part, she rented Coal Miner’s Daughter and listened to… to… Oh, what was her name?

Q. Loretta Lynn?

A. No, the actress who played her. Sissy Spacek. Mia listened to Sissy Spacek to prepare herself. She’s got a hell of an ear, I’ll tell you.

Q. You know, I must confess: I am more than 25 years younger than you, but I’m awed by your stamina. I saw you and Dixie Carter on stage four years in a comedy – Ken Ludwig’s Be My Baby -- at the Alley Theatre in Houston. And I couldn’t help marveling: There you were, still at it, for six or seven performances a week…
A. Eight.

Q. Jeez, you make me feel like a slacker. How do you do it?

A. Well, I’m not without pain. Pains and aches are just part of getting old. You have to accept it. But I try to keep myself in good shape. I swim every day that I can. Or I find a swimming pool in a hotel without kids in it. And I exercise every morning. I had a tough thing happen a couple years ago, where I had to get out of a play I was doing in Hartford and go to the Mayo Clinic. I didn’t even know I was sick. But since then, I exercise every morning, religiously, to make sure my back is in good shape. It took me a while to come back from that thing, and it taught me a lot. And so far, knock on wood, I seem to have pretty good genes. But we’re all vulnerable. My dear father-in-law, Mr. Carter, passed away a couple years ago. He used to say, “Hal, don’t get old.” And was he right.

Q. Well, Hal, it’s not like you have many alternatives…

A. [Laughs] There ain’t a hell of lot of them. Except a very big one you don’t want to think about.

Q. You’ve said that doing Mark Twain Tonight! actually helps keep you healthy and thriving. How’s that work?

A. I think an actor if he is lucky enough – like I have been, knock on wood – to have a show that he can always turn to, that requires a lot intellectual activity up in your head, plus remembering two hours of lines every night to play the show without a script – I think an actor is very fortunate. Even if I couldn’t remember Sissy Spacek’s name, because names are the first thing that fly out of the window. That’s why playing a guy with Alzheimer’s [in the forthcoming film Flying Lessons] wasn’t all that difficult. I thought it would be. But it’s only a few steps beyond what is normal for somebody in his 80s, in some respects. But what’s really good for an actor is to keep the brain active. I’ve been running over lines now for two or three weeks while I’m swimming, while I’m trying to go to sleep in bed – so I can go out on stage two nights from now and take it easy and feel OK.

Q. You mean you’re still adding new things to the show after all this time?
A. Oh, God, yes. All he time, all the time. I just found a piece of material I’m going to put back in the show, something that I developed about four or five years ago, when I really thought to myself, “You know, I think this country’s going to tank. I think what’s going on in our country is going to put us in the economic toilet. This is crazy, this is impossible.” And, of course, it happened. So I developed a thing out of Twain’s material, which I call “Money is God.”

It’s like, “In the early days of our republic, we chose to believe in the motto, ‘In God We Trust.’ If this nation ever trusted in God, that time has gone by. For nearly half a century. Our entire trust has been in the almighty dollar. The nation’s motto should be changed to fit the times. It should now read: ‘Money is God. Get Rich. Dishonestly If We Can, Honestly If We Must.’” See, in the early part of the show, I refer to the corruption from coast to coast, and all of Wall Street. And I found this quote which I put into the material: “On Wall Street, where theft is practiced as a profession, by our most influential commercial men, who have helped the common folks to arise from affluence into poverty…"

That’s from more than a hundred years ago. And that’s the kind of thing that can keep my brain going. Because it keeps me angry. The psychiatrists give you all kinds of panaceas to reduce the anger quotient that we sometimes feel. But my solution is to let it out. And then I calm down. It keeps your blood going, too. Thank God it’s safe. If I didn’t have an outlet that’s safe, Lord knows where I’d be.

Q. Do you feel as passionate about acting now as you did when you first started out?

A. That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. Maybe my passion is more educated than it was then, I would say. It’s a more mature passion, that’s for sure. I feel more confident about it. You know, I’ve just written a book which brings me up to about halfway through my life – we’re doing the final edit this fall – and one of the things I think about is, it’s so disappointing to look back and realize that when you were young, you had no idea how good you were. Because nobody told you. They wait until you’re old, when you don’t need it so bad, and then they tell you. I look back at the opportunities I had, and made for myself unconsciously, and I realize what, if I’d believed in myself more, I might have done. It’s disappointing to me.

Q. You mean if you’d known then what you know now…
A. Yeah, I made some mistakes. I remember David Merrick offered me a role in a musical he was going to do with Bob Preston in around 1962. The role was an 80-year-old Mexican bandit. And I told him I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want to play another old man, I was trying to escape from the Mark Twain stage I was in. And he said, "Are you nuts? I’m offering you a co-starring lead in a musical I’m producing. And you say you don’t want to do it?” Now, the thing closed in Philadelphia, and I figured it would anyway. But that was a mistake. I should have done it.

Q. Let me get back to something else you said. What do you mean by not knowing how good you were? Were you lacking self-confidence, or what?

A. Well, I just ran across a review – I’m one of these packrat guys, I have more research material than I can handle. That’s why the damn book got so long -- I got so many letters, so many things. But like I say, I ran across a review in my research stuff the other day. It was the Abraham Lincoln I did in 1962, in a revival of the Robert Sherwood play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. And I did some quite extraordinary makeup, with a little help from a friend of mine who made some ears, and a nose. It was kind of amazing. And I worked in Paul Muni’s dressing room, which meant a great deal to me.

Well, like I say, I ran across this review. And it was during the newspaper strike – all the papers were down – but they put something out called The Standard, or something like that, where they printed reviews of some of the shows in New York. And I read this review of me doing Lincoln and – Jesus God, Joe, it was amazing. And they said Raymond Massey should step aside – stuff like that. It was really something. And I read this review now, and I think, “What the hell was the matter with me? When I read this back then, didn’t I see what I had done?” My reaction then, Joe, was disbelief. I mean, I didn’t think I was that good. That’s what I mean. And it really bothered me. Because I think the biggest problem in an actor’s life – well, I think this is true for a lot of actors, maybe it isn’t for some – but I think it’s confidence. You need terrific confidence in who you are.

Q. I take it that you feel a bit more sure of yourself these days.

A. Yes I do. Partly because my dear wife Dixie Carter has told me over and over and over again that I’m the greatest man who ever lived, and the greatest actor who ever lived. So after I while, you think, “Well, I must be pretty good.”

Q. Look, Hal, this may be cold comfort – but you’re not alone. I’ve talked to several actors over the years, and even some of the very successful ones – the honest ones – will admit that, deep down, they feel like frauds. Like they’re pulling something over on everybody. And sooner or later – they’re going to be found out.
A. That’s it, Joe. That awful thought was born in me when I went on stage that night off-Broadway in 1959, in this little tiny theater, a totally unknown actor, from a soap opera. I walked out to be 70-year-old Mark Twain – waiting to be murdered by the critics. And [publicist] Harvey Sabinson brought the reviews to somebody’s apartment we were in that night after the show. And we started reading The New York Times, Walter Kerr in the Tribune – and it was frightening to me. Because I couldn’t believe them. I thought they made a mistake.

[Lead New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson] didn’t come – he’d sent Arthur Gelb, and I think he said, “Some kid is doing Twain at 70? You go ahead and see it.” But then the next day, while I’m on the soap opera, we’re getting to shoot the thing, and suddenly the director’s voice came out of the booth way up high, saying, “Hal, you have a telephone call.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It’s Brooks Atkinson.” And all of my fellow actors froze. I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Tell him to call back.” And my fellow actors looked at me like I just got Streptococcus or something. And the director, Del Hughes, says: “Take the call, Hal.” So I talked to Mr. Atkinson, and he told me he was coming to see my show that night, and was going to do his Sunday column on me. And I thought, “Oh, my God. He’ll see it. He’ll discover this is a mistake. He’ll find me out.” But he didn’t. It was a home run.

But, you know, I’ve never lost that feeling of disbelief. It’s very hard to lose it.