Saturday, January 31, 2009


The most financially successful American independent movie of 2008 didn’t premiere at Sundance, didn’t earn any Academy Award nominations, and didn’t amass honorable mentions on dozens of Ten Best lists. But none of that really mattered: Fireproof – the latest small-budget act of faith by Sherwood Pictures, an indie production company operated by pastors Alex and Stephen Kendrick of the Sherwood Church in Albany, Ga. – grossed $33 million without ever playing in more than 1,000 U.S. theaters at the same time.

To put that figure in context: It’s more than the combined gross of the critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated indies Frozen River, The Visitor, In Bruges and Rachel Getting Married.

What makes this surprise success story all the more extraordinary is that, much like Flywheel (2003) and Facing the Giants (2006), two previous Sherwood productions, Fireproof is a faith-based drama made with a mostly volunteer cast and crew, aimed squarely, but by no means exclusively, at moviegoers who value churchgoing over trend-spotting.

Former teen idol and sitcom star Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains) gives a genuinely compelling lead performance as Caleb, a work-obsessed firefighter on the verge of divorce from his neglected wife. Can this marriage be saved? Only if Caleb takes the advice of his born-again father and commits to "The Love Dare" -- not a TV game show, as its name might imply, but a 40-day, Bible-inspired program designed to help spouses restore frayed ties.

Cameron, an evangelical Christian who also has starred in movies based on the Rapture-themed Left Behind novels, remains eager to spread the good word about Fireproof. Just in time for this week’s release of the movie on home video, he recently answered a few burning questions about the improbably hot property. My interview is here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Punching the Clown

Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the recent Slamdance Film Festival, Punching the Clown -- no, not a sequel to Spanking the Monkey -- is modestly amusing as an extremely mild send-up of dream-chasing, networking and character-assassinating on various levels of the L.A. music scene. You can read my Variety review here.

John Cassavetes: The Lost Interview

I am not going to lie and say I am anything but ridiculously proud of this piece in the new issue of MovieMaker.

Guilty pleasure alert: Double Dragon

Tonight on the Encore Action cable network: Double Dragon, a brash and scrappy 1994 B-movie -- loosely based on the enduringly popular video game -- that emphasizes slaphappy jokiness over bone-crunching mayhem. As I noted in my original review, the movie gains a lot from the genial exuberance of lead actors Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos, who behave as though their semi-heroic characters -- martial-arts champs in the 2007 city of "New Angeles" -- aren't too many rungs above Beavis and Butt-Head on the evolutionary ladder. And Robert Patrick is a genuine hoot as the villanous Shuko, a billionaire business tycoon with an unbridled ego and a high-rise, two-tone hairdo. Pop some popcorn, turn up the sound and enjoy the cheese.

Life imitates art, not

Looks like Mickey Rourke won't be involved with Wrestlemania 25 after all. Or is this new announcement just a ruse to lull Chris Jericho into a false sense of security?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Leonardo DiCaprio: The hits just keep on coming

So far, I have gotten 22,429 hits for this 1997 interview. I don't know whether to be grateful or (after reading some of the comments) scared.

Flashback: 1985

Way, way back when newspapers were making money, and could afford promotional TV ads for their star writers, this Houston Post spot got some heavy rotation -- even on the big Astrodome screens during Astros games! -- throughout the Greater Houston Area, circa 1985. And yes, that really is the great Jack Riley of The Bob Newhart Show applying prickly wit to burst my overinflated ego. (Again: Thanks to Robert Clark.)

Flashback: Me on Countdown

June 1, 2004: The grass was greener, the skies were bluer, friends were truer, my beard was fuller. And, best of all, I enjoyed a career highpoint as a talking head for Countdown With Keith Olbermann. (The burning issue of the day: The Day After Tomorrow.) It's been all downhill for me ever since.

(P.S: Once again, my thanks to producer Robert Clark.)

Life imitates art

Fresh from his triumph in The Wrestler -- and, maybe, just a few weeks after an Oscar victory -- Mickey Rourke will take on Chris Jericho here in Houston at Wrestlemania 25. It is, quite literally, front-page news in today's Houston Chronicle. (Hat tip to Ken Hoffman.) Speaking as someone who saw Rourke in a different kind of ring years ago while profiling him during the location shooting of Homeboy, I would say this: Don't bet against Randy the Ram.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

Mad Magazine suggests our new POTUS may only just now be finding out what he's gotten himself into. Looks as though, like Lloyd Bridges, he picked a bad time to stop smoking.

The axe keeps falling, the toll keeps mounting

Two esteemed colleagues -- Anne Thompson and Michael Jones -- are among the newly decommissioned in the wake of layoffs at Variety. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson's oft-quoted remark about the Nixon Era: Now is a good time to keep your head down.

Friday, January 23, 2009

From Frost/Nixon to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Michael Sheen has appeared in all three of the Underworld movies, but I'd be willing to bet most people who know him best as either David Frost (Frost/Nixon) or Tony Blair (The Queen) have no idea that he's been moonlighting as a werewolf -- excuse me, a Lycan -- in this horror-flick franchise. He's actually the hero of the latest entry -- Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, opening today at theaters and drive-ins everywhere -- and I give him his fair props in my Variety review. But I couldn't help thinking while watching the movie: I wonder how long it'll take for some Photoshop-savvy Internet jokester to design a new Frost/Nixon poster with Sheen as a snarling lycanthrope -- and Frank Langella as Dracula?

(Or, maybe better, Langella as Skeletor from Masters of the Universe?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Preview: New in Town

I've been an appreciative fan of Renee Zellweger for a long time -- ever since I first really noticed her in Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (a.k.a. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation) -- so it pains me to say that her latest movie, New in Town, isn't every good, and she's not very good in the lead role. It doesn't help much that, throughout most of the first act of this formulaic rom-com, she moves around like she's got a fireplace utensil positioned in a lower body cavity. (This is meant to indicate she's uptight and uncomfortable -- get it? -- as a Miami-based exec assigned to run a small-town Minnesota food-processing plant.) And it helps even less that the rest of the movie is numbingly predictable and instantly forgettable. You can read my Variety review here.

First impressions of Oscar

Wish I’d had the balls to predict yesterday – or even last week – that I didn’t think The Dark Knight would make the Best Picture final five. I know full well that anything I say now will sound like a self-serving attempt to seem prescient – or, worse, will be dismissed as a great big fat lie – but I simply didn’t feel the image-conscious Academy ever would honor what I’m sure many older (and not-so-older) members still view as a comic-book movie.

On the other hand, the Academy voters have evidenced a fair degree of nerviness for nominating Robert Downey Jr. for a performance sure to generate another round of strident complaints from humorless blockheads about “racial insensitivity,” “ethnic stereotyping,” and blah, blah, blah. And props to the Academy for not buying that “Best Supporting Actress” crap regarding Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Right off the top of my head, I’d say the front-runners in the top categories right now are: Slumdog Millionaire (my personal favorite among the top five), Danny Boyle, Mickey Rourke (barring a Frank Langella surge), Anne Hathaway, Heath Ledger (of course) and Viola Davis. But, of course, I could be wrong.

By the way: To keep the Oscarcast ratings pumped up, will the Academy delay the bound-to-be-emotional announcement of Best Supporting Actor until the final half-hour of the show?

Update: After a closer look at the complete list of nominations, I'd like to add: I'm surprised -- and, yes, I won't lie, a bit disappointed -- that Clint Eastwood wasn't nominated for Gran Torino. But major props to the Documentary Branch for remembering, and honoring, Trouble the Water.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One day before nominations for those other awards are announced, the folks who give out the Golden Raspberry Awards are weighing in with their dishonorable mentions. And the bad news is harsh enough to almost make you feel sorry for Mike Myers. Almost.

And in this corner, wearing the green trunks and the fur-lined parka...

Karina Longworth reports that things are getting a mite testy in Park City.

Update: Anne Thompson has more info. So far, no confirmation of rumors about a rematch in Las Vegas.

The whole world was watching

For newspapers throughout the world, yesterday's Inauguration was front-page news. Here is a collection of those front pages. A sobering thought: How many of these papers will still be around on Inauguration Day 2013?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy anniversary to Office Space

Can it really already be ten years since Office Space first entered our collective pop-culture consciousness? Gosh, it seems like only yesterday when I fearlessly forecast in Variety a new trend: "Friday happy-hour get-togethers topped off with visits to multiplexes for repeat viewings" of writer-director Mike Judge's uproarious satirical comedy about white-collar wage-slavery...

Well, OK, I was bit off the mark way back then. But never mind: Even though it was a box-office under-achiever during its initial theatrical release, Office Space has remained enduringly popular as a top-selling DVD and cult-fave cable-TV offering. And now, to celebrate its tenth anniversary, this contemporary classic is returning to the scene of the crime -- i.e., Austin, Texas, where it was filmed -- for a special one-time-only screening event Feb. 8 at the city's historic Paramount Theatre. Co-sponsored by SXSW and Fantastic Fest, the shindig -- tied to the Feb. 3 Blu-Ray release of Office Space -- will include special appearances by Judge and yet-to-be-announced members of the cast and crew. You can order advance tickets here or here. And you can get updated info on the screening here. But please keep in mind: If you attend, don't you dare touch anybody else's stapler. At least, not unless they ask you to.

Slamdance: Spooner

A pleasant mix of meet-cute romance and off-the-wall quirkiness, Spooner is the latest in a sign-of-the-times subgenre, another contemporary comedy about an underemployed thirtysomething who needs to fall in love before he's finally ready to move out of his parents' home. An atypically understated Matthew Lillard strikes the right balance of "hey, dude!" amiability and anxious self-awareness as Herman Spooner, an aimless and unambitious smalltown used car salesman whose life seems permanently stuck in neutral. Whether he's ready or not, however, he'll soon have to at least begin to lift himself out of his rut: His loving but not infinitely patient parents (Christopher McDonald, Kate Burton) have set the absolute deadline of his 30th birthday -- just a few days away -- for him to vacate the family home.

You can read my Variety review of Spooner here.

Yes he is

Ladies and gentlemen, the 44th President of the United States. God bless America.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Slamdance: Weather Girl

Call it a Lifetime movie in which folks occasionally drop the F-bomb, and you won't be far off the mark. Still, Weather Girl has engaging lead performances and some genuinely witty repartee, and it very likely will find a receptive audience on DVD and cable TV after its premiere at Slamdance. You can read my Variety review here.

Backstage at the big bash

That's right -- Jack Black got to hang out with the American Eagle during yesterday's big bash in Washington, D.C. Here are a few other things you didn't see during the HBO broadcast of the Inaugural Opening Ceremony. Come to think of it, you didn't see this, either.

Fire sale on Oscar ads?

According to Advertising Age, ABC is slashing the price of an ad during the Feb. 22 Oscarcast to $1.4 million -- down from $1.7 million for last year's Academy Awards extravaganza. And, by the way: For the very first time this year, the Motion Picture Academy will allow ads for movies to air during the big show. Hey, things are tough all over.

Slamdance: The Road to Fallujah

Even viewers who feel they’ve already O.D.’d on docu-critiques about the U.S. invasion of Iraq will be intrigued – if not enraged and appalled – by The Road to Fallujah, an earnest overview of the November 2004 campaign by Coalition Forces against the primarily Sunni city said to be a “major sanctuary” for Iraqi insurgents. Neophyte filmmaker Mark Manning fortuitously positioned himself in the right place at the right time, to focus on a bad situation made unimaginably worse by short-sighted strategic decisions and apparently indiscriminate ground and air assaults. You can read my review of this Slamdance Film Festival offering here.

Slamdance: Not Forgotten

Even before Simon Baker starts to use a broken beer bottle as part of his enhanced interrogation technique, you kinda-sorta suspect that the character he plays in Not Forgotten -- a solidly crafted thriller that premiered this weekend at the Slamdance Film Festival -- is not quite the Mr. Nice Guy he initially appears to be. You can read my Variety review of the indie movie here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The naked truth about My Bloody Valentine

My hat's off to actress Betsy Rue, who takes it all off in My Bloody Valentine, yet somehow manages to retain her dignity while remaining feisty and formidable during what very likely is the longest sustained sequence of gratuitous nudity in slasher movie history. As for the shot-in-3-D film itself, well, if you like that sort of thing...

My Variety review appears here.

The good news is, you'll soon get some great bargains on DVDs and Blu-Ray discs at going-out-of-business sales. The bad news is...

Circuit City Stores Inc., the nation’s second-biggest consumer electronics retailer, reached an agreement with liquidators on Friday to sell the merchandise in its 567 U.S. stores after failing to find a buyer or a refinancing deal.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coming soon to a video store near you

While growing up in New Orleans, I often heard this sage wisdom: "Some days, you got eggs and bacon. Next day, there's nothing shakin'." I was reminded about this good news/bad news aphorism today when I learned that In the Electric Mist -- the long-delayed filmization of James Lee Burke's best-selling In the Electric Mist With the Confederate Dead, directed by Bertrand Tavernier (above, right) and starring Tommy Lee Jones (left) as Burke's Louisiana-based shamus Dave Robicheaux -- will finally have its world premiere next month at the Berlin Film Festival. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the movie will coming soon to a theater or drive-in near you. Why? Because it's already slated to appear March 3 at fine video stores everywhere on Blu-Ray and DVD. That's right: Even with all that talent on either side of the camera, it will be, for all practical purposes, a direct-to-video release. Yikes!

Steven Soderbergh chats about Che

It's always a pleasure to talk with Steven Soderbergh, so I was grateful for the opportunity to chat with him about Che a few days ago for a Houston Chronicle Q&A. But wait, there's more: Here are a few outtakes:

Q: When Richard Fleischer made his Che! -- a very, very bad movie -- back in 1969, he had the backing of a major studio behind him. But despite your strong track record, and your Oscar for directing Traffic, you had to seek out independent financing and distribution. How come?

A: Well, I think the biggest reason, for anybody on the American side with money, was the Spanish-language dialogue. Even though over the past couple of years we’ve seen movies that were not in English do wonderfully well here, a lot of the distributors in the U.S. have specific exclusions in their pay-TV deals for foreign-language films. Meaning they can’t cover any part of their cost by putting it on HBO or Showtime or anything like that. So that was a problem for them.

Q: And it didn’t help that you wanted to make a Spanish-language film about a Marxist revolutionary.

A: The political stuff, I think, really wasn’t as much of a problem. But you have to remember: At the point when we first went around trying to get money in the U.S., we’d already decided that it would be two films. And everybody had questions about that. Everybody wondered: Why isn’t it just one three-hour movie?

Q: Che Guevara certainly was very media-savvy. There’s a great scene in your film during Che’s 1964 visit to New York, when he addressed the United Nations. He’s getting ready to do a TV interview, and a production assistant says something like, “Would the commander like some make-up?” And Che brushes her off. But when he sees another talk-show guest getting made up, he says: “Well, maybe a little powder?”

A: And that’s a true story. We interviewed the interpreter who was with him in New York, and he told us that story. And I thought it was hilarious. And it’s that kind of stuff that I was trying to find. That kind of detail for me was much more important than any grandstanding, speechifying, emotional close-up. It just made him more human.

Q: Not to put you on the spot, but are you a little surprised that you and Benicio Del Toro don’t seem to be generating any sort of Oscar buzz for Che?

A: No, because we have no money. We haven’t taken out a single trade paper ad for the film. And when you don’t do that, you don’t get mentioned in any stories at the end of the year in any of the trade publications. That’s the way that system works. And we knew that. But we knew we had to spend all of our money on newspaper ads to get people to go see the film. That’s why, when we made the deal with IFC, we told them that you can send out DVD screeners [to critics and Motion Picture Academy members], but we’re not doing any “For Your Consideration” ads. We can’t afford that. We have to concentrate on getting people into theaters. And so far, it looks like that’s working.

Honoring Ricardo Montalban

Turner Classic Movies has tossed out its previously announced Jan. 23 lineup of films to program a seven-movie retrospective honoring the late Ricardo Montalban. Sorry, Star Trek fans: The Wrath of Khan isn't on the list. On the other hand, two notable flicks by William A. Wellman -- Battleground (co-starring Van Johnson) and Across the Wide Missouri -- will be available for viewing. To see why the latter film was so significant for Montalban -- for all the wrong reasons -- check out this Wikipedia article.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Live from Park City

On the newly revamped indieWIRE website: Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore talks about.... well, what else? Yeah, it's that time of year again.

The Mozart of Madras

Hat-tip to friend and colleague Joanne Harrison, who directed me to an impressive new site for world news: Check out this profile of "the Mozart of Madras," A.R. Rahman, who won a Golden Globe last night for his Slumdog Millionaire musical score (and who also composed the score for -- cowabunga! -- Ghajini.

Welcome to the Age of Gigonomics

Tina Brown writes perceptively -- and a tad scarily -- about downsized workers (writers and editors, primarily) who now sustain (or at least try to sustain) project-to-project free-lance careers. What they rely upon, Brown says, are sporadic gigs -- "free-floating projects, consultancies, and part-time bits and pieces they try and stitch together to make what they refer to wryly as 'the Nut' — the sum that allows them to hang on to the apartment, the health-care policy, the baby sitter, and the school fees." For people in lower income brackets, living paycheck to paycheck, "the Gig Economy has been old news for years. What’s new is the way it’s hit the demographic that used to assume that a college degree from an elite school was the passport to job security."

Brown is especially insightful as she details "this penny-ante slog of working three times as hard for the same amount of money (if you’re lucky) or a lot less (if you’re not). Minus benefits, of course." It's the lifestyle to which I had to be become accustomed back in 1995, after the closing of The Houston Post. (Things have improved slightly in the past two years, but still...) I had no idea at the time that -- even though I ain't got no elite school degree -- I was on the cutting-edge of a significant socioeconomic shift.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

All singing! All dancing! All ass-kicking!

If you've always thought Memento would have been an even better movie with a few more songs and a lot more ass-kicking -- well, Ghajni is what you've been waiting for. You can read my Variety review here.

Worse and worser news about newspapers

Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic writes that maybe -- just maybe -- The New York Times could go out of business, or at least stop publishing a print edition, sometime this year. But the bad news doesn't end there: "In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: 'Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.'" Still, Hirschorn sees some hopeful signs that journalism may survive -- and perhaps thrive -- long after newspapers disappear.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Making sport of bad actors

The clever fellows at have posted a list of the Top Ten Worst Acting Performances by Athletes, and they've been savvy enough to quote experts like... well, me. (Just hope Dennis Rodman has a sense of humor.)

Friday, January 02, 2009

Can't hardly wait

If you're growing impatient while waiting for a chance to see some highly-publicized Oscar contenders -- well, Michael Cieply says you're not alone.

Viewer alert: Two by Budd Boetticher

For your Friday viewing pleasure, Turner Classic Movies has programmed a terrific double bill of classic Westerns starring Randolph Scott and directed by Budd Boetticher: The Tall T (8 pm EST) and Ride Lonesome (9:30 pm).

In Tall T (1957), ramrod-turned-rancher Pat Brennan (Scott) and copper mine heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O'Sullivan) are held captive by a sly stagecoach bandit (Richard Boone) and his thick-witted cohorts, while Doretta's cowardly husband seeks a ransom from his wife's wealthy father. A nice touch: The bandit refrains from killing Brennan primarily because he's desperate for intelligent conversation. But their budding friendship is soured by the bandit's determination to start a new, more respectable life with the ransom money.

Ride Lonesome (1959) -- arguably the best of the Scott-Boetticher collaborations -- finds bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Scott) bringing a captured outlaw (James Best) across Indian territory. Two semi-reformed bandits (a pre-Bonanza Pernell Roberts, whose cocky preening suggests a Wild West version of WWE's The Rock, and a callow James Coburn) want to wrest control of Brigade's captive in order to claim an amnesty offered for their past crimes. But Brigade isn't interested in amnesty, or even a reward. Rather, he wants to lure the outlaw's older brother (Lee Van Cleef) into a forced feeding of just desserts.

Martin Scoresse, an ardent admirer of Boetticher's work, talks about The Tall T here, and Ride Lonesome here.