Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blast from the past: Dustin Hoffman talks about Wag the Dog

With all due respect to Dustin Hoffman: I think he takes unseemly delight in using the phrase "bent penis" during an interview that was intended for boadcast TV in 1997. But what the hell: He's talkin' 'bout Wag the Dog, and he's funny. On the other hand: No, I do not believe he wasn't channeling Robert Evans in his performance.

Rockets win! Rockets win! Rockets win!

And, of course, we owe it all to Yao Ming.

Blast from the past: Sydney Pollack talks about Sabrina (1995)

As I noted in my original review, Sydney Pollack demonstrated in his 1995 remake of Billy Wilder's Sabrina that "after three decades in the director's chair, he remains Hollywood's most accomplished master of the grand romantic gesture. Just as important, he proves that he can make the very kind of movie that everyone says that nobody is making anymore. Sabrina is Hollywood classicism at its most luxuriantly enjoyable..." Granted: This was, and is, a minority opinion. But as I look at the above video of my 1995 interview with the late filmmaker, I'm reminded again that no other director has ever managed to make Harrison Ford appear so emotionally vulnerable on screen. And it sort of makes you wonder what other kinds of roles Ford might have attempted during the past decade or so had Pollack's Sabrina not been a box-office under-achiever. BTW: While you watch, please remember that this conversation was recorded at a time when Billy Wilder still was very much alive. And, yes, fully capable of teasing Pollack about possible remakes of Pollack's own movies.

Blast from the past: Eddie Murphy talks about Vampire in Brooklyn

I don't know if he was trying to stay true to his character, or just had a very full schedule that day, but Eddie Murphy didn't start doing his TV interviews during the 1995 junket for Wes Craven's Vampire in Brooklyn (one of the guiltiest among my guilty pleasures) until way after sunset. But I can't say that I minded -- from the mic check on, we had some fun.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Newspaper circulation continues decline

Given my occasional contributions to The Houston Chronicle, I naturally have a vested interest in that newspaper's continued existence. But, geez, as a professional journalist -- and, dammit, as an inveterate newspaper reader --I am flat-out scared by the new circulation numbers recorded across the board by papers everywhere in the U.S.

Flu fears affect film

From Reuters: Fox has announced plans to delay the opening of Wolverine in Mexico for at least a couple of weeks. Something tells me this won't be the last instance of swine flu fears fueling changes in movie release patterns. After all, many movie theaters in this country were closed for long periods during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

William Shatner's Star Trek Repartee

To the surprise of absolutely no one -- including, judging by his expression when he received the query, William Shatner himself -- the very first question directed at the actor last week during a post-screening Q&A following the Nashville Film Festival's world premiere of William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet had to do with.... Star Trek. Specifically: "What do you think of the new Star Trek movie?"

Boldly going where he's gone many, many times before, Shatner seriocomically replied: "I haven’t seen it. And I’m appalled that I’m not in it. I’ve had a fun time with the director, J.J. Abrams, cussing him out on the websites and in interviews. But we’re buddies. And I called him three or four weeks ago and told him about this charity horse show that I’m putting on in Los Angeles – the Hollywood Charity Horse Show. Hey, they’re the big sponsors, so we’ve got to get their name out there. And so I invited J.J. And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll take a whole table.’ And I said, ‘Great. But, you know, you should bring the cast, because there’ll be a lot of press there…’ And he said, ‘I’ll take two tables.’ So J.J. Abrams and the cast of the new Star Trek movie are coming, and we’ll make a big to-do.

"But deep down," Shatner added, struggling manfully to maintain his straight face, "I’m still appalled."

And now -- as Paul Harvey might have said -- here's the rest of the story: To honor Shatner on the occasion of Gonzo Ballet -- a surprisingly affecting account of his collaboration with Ben Folds on Shatner's Has Been CD, which inspired a ballet choreographed by Margo Sappington -- the Nashville Festival muckety-mucks commissioned Gibson Guitar Corp. to construct, and artist Mandy Lawson to paint, a customized acoustic guitar to give the veteran actor as a special "Impact Award". The prize certainly made an impact on Shatner when he received the one-of-a-kind instrument from Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz.

 "When I was a young stage actor out on tour," Shatner recalled, "I used to bring along a printout with me, to try to learn the fingering so I could play the guitar. But I never mastered it. And even later on, I never had the time -- never took the time -- to learn how to play. But let me tell you -- now I make the time."

Shatner looked so unabashedly pleased with his prize that I couldn't resist offering him a fist bump and two words of encouragement: "Rock on!" He exuberantly bumped back, smiled brightly and replied: "Yeah, I'll rock on."

10.13.2021 Update: Here is my 2009 Variety review of William Shatner's Gonzo Ballet. (The documentary is available for rental or purchase on many streaming platforms.) And here is Shatner's performance of "It Hasn't Happened Yet," my favorite Shatner-Folds song on the Has Been album, and one that seems altogether appropriate on this day when Shatner boldly went no guy his age had ever gone before.

Throw Down Your Heart

More than a year after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, ticketbuyers finally are getting a chance to see Throw Down Your Heart, Sascha Paladino's engaging documentary about banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck's venturesome efforts to trace his favorite instrument's African roots. And according to IndieWire's Peter Knegt, they really are buying tickets.

Jim Jarmusch: Still indie, still enigmatic

Back in late 1989, when I interviewed Jim Jarmusch in his favorite neighborhood bar, the already-iconic indie filmmaker was a witty and gracious conversationalist -- but instinctively guarded when asked to interpret his movies: "[H]e might describe Down By Law as 'a children's story for adults,' or briefly describe the symbolism behind the title Mystery Train: 'It's three stories, as though they are three separate cars on a train that are all taking the same journey . . . And yet, if you're on a train with other people, and they're in another car, you've made the same journey, and yet you don't meet them, and your experience is completely different.' Even as he speaks, however, Jarmusch looks and sounds like a man who's slightly embarrassed, who fears he's made a pompous speech when he should instead let his pictures do the talking."

Judging from his more recent interviews in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Jarmusch still doesn't want to give too much away about his motives and meanings. Which, of course, makes me all the more eager to see his latest film.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Brad Pitt to the Rescue

I often donate T-shirts and other movie-promotional items to local churches and other charity groups during clothing drives for various causes. So, like, if you ever see a TV news report on some earthquake in Mexico, and there's a survivor walking around in a Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star jersey with his meager belongings kept in a The Longest Yard tennis bag, you'll know who's likely responsible. But, really, I've never been involved in a large-scale effort like this. And I can't help wondering why this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

R.I.P.: Beatrice Arthur (1922-2009)

A strange coincidence: Just a few days ago, I was talking with Melinda Wayne, daughter of the late, great John Wayne, about her father's hilarious guest-starring stint on Maude back in the 1970s. And about how charmed he was by Beatrice Arthur, despite their obvious political differences. Wayne could not have been alone in that regard, considering that Maude aired at a time when TV truly was a mass medium, and no series could sustain acceptably high ratings for very long without attracting an audience comprised of folks from all political camps. Back then, for better or worse, audiences were far more willing to sample, if not always celebrate, elements of pop culture that didn't consistently reinforce their own beliefs. True enough, there were angry protests, and a few affiliate blackouts, when CBS aired the episode in which Maude opted to have an abortion. But, you know, I have to wonder: Would the decision-makers at any TV network today have the cojones to allow the lead character in a sitcom to terminate a pregnancy? Or would they be afraid of, you know, offending viewers?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Wanna hear a story... city boy?"

Film critic Sean Axmaker has selected The Ten Best Horror Westerns of all time, a list that includes Curse of the Undead (a 1959 vampire yarn with Rawhide star Eric Fleming) and Clint Eastwood's supernatural-themed High Plains Drifter (1973). Curiously enough, however, neither Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula nor Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter made the final cut.

Another audience embraces That Evening Sun

First, That Evening Sun picked up the Audience Award for Best Feature at the SXSW Film Festival. Then, the exceptional indie drama (starring Hal Holbrook, pictured above with some shameless stargazer) received the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Sarasota Film Festival. And now, it's three-for-three, with yet another Audience Award for Evening Sun at the Nashville Film Festival. Do I spot a trend here?

Honey, get me rewrite!

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The Houston Chronicle runs my tribute to great newspaper movies!

Truffaut's daughter remembers The Wild Child

From the Calgary Herald: Laura Truffaut recalls her weeks as a 10-year-old visitor to the set of her dad's classic film. The Wild Child, writer Nancy Tousley explains, is the story of Victor, "the Wild Child of Aveyron, who is sighted in the forest [in 1798] by a woman gathering mushrooms. Hunters chase the naked child who lopes along on all fours and climbs high up in the trees. Using dogs, they capture and overpower him. Dr. Jean Itard, a physician, takes the child in to socialize him and see if he can teach him to speak."

Money quote from Laura Truffaut: "For my father, the film really was about neglect and care, not about love. I think he really felt that to be human is to be cared for or to care for others. He didn’t want to romanticize the character of the doctor. The movie was made at the time of the hippie movement, at the time of a much more romantic view of a return to nature, and my father was a little bit at odds with that... For him, when the child is alone in the forest, it was a state of neglect. It was not the way a child should be having to live. It was dangerous. He was abandoned. No matter how repetitive the doctor’s exercises were (for the child to do), they are a demonstration of care.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Live from Nashville

During the next few days, I'll be at the Nashville Film Film Festival. I'll post a few items here, but most of my day-to-day reportage will be over at the Cowboys & Indians website.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

Dinky "easy-to-assemble" grill purchased from Target: $29.95

Assembling it with my son on Easter Sunday: Priceless.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Q&A: Seth Rogen

“With most of the characters I’ve played,” Seth Rogen told me a few days ago, “I think people think, ‘Hey, I’d like to hang out with that guy.’ But this isn't one of those characters."

Damn right. Rogen was talking about his role as Ronnie Barnhardt, a borderline-psycho who occasionally crosses the line, in Observe and Report, the audacious black comedy I reviewed a few weeks ago at SXSW. A mood-swinging, quick-tempered shopping mall security guard with a ridiculously exaggerated (and altogether unjustified) sense of self-worth, Ronnie is a terse, tough-talking martinet who still lives at home with his booze-addled mom (Celia Weston), nurses a crush on a slatternly salesclerk (Anna Faris) and commands the other guards on his watch – including two clueless but loyal Asian siblings, memorably played by twin brothers John and Matthew Yuan -- with the tightly-focused intensity of a Marine sergeant in a war zone. Scary stuff, kids. But funny stuff, too.

As I write in the intro to a Rogen Q&A that appears in Friday's Houston Chronicle: "Observe and Report allows Rogen ample opportunity to behave in ways likely to shock many moviegoers who were engaged by his talent to amuse in such movies as Pineapple Express and Superbad (both of which he co-scripted with writing partner Evan Goldberg). [And, of course, Knocked Up.] Mind you, the new movie really is, at heart, a comedy. But as Steve Martin famously noted in an entirely different context: Comedy is not pretty."

A few outtakes from that interview:

Q: Are you little surprised by the reaction you've received so far at SXSW and other places where Observe and Report has been screened?

A: Yes, because, honestly, I was open to no one getting it at all. Like, I wasn’t sure it would get laughs, I wasn’t sure people would think it’s funny. And beyond that, I wasn’t really sure people would really get what we were going for. But some people could not get it more. And that’s great, because I honestly did not expect it. Obviously, we’ll see what audiences think when the movie comes out. But the fact is, I’ve seen it in theaters full of people, and it gets tons of laughs. And critics actually seem to get what we were going for to a degree that I would have never expected in a million years. It’s already far more accepted than I thought it would ever be.

Q: Some actors base their performances on people they’ve known. Do you know anyone at all like Ronnie Barnhardt?

A: Not at all. Honestly, I really approach acting from a writing perspective. I sometimes am the writer. And when I’m not, I will read the script as though I was the writer, and I just think, well, if I wrote this, what would I want the actor playing that role to do in order to bring what I wrote to life? And that’s really how I approach it.

Q: Ronnie does some pretty freakin' reprehensible things during Observe and Report. Were you yourself appalled by anything he did?

A: Well, I would actually feel guilty at times about my behavior toward the Yuan twins in the movie. After takes, I would tell them, “Look, I’m so sorry, guys. I don’t want to do this, but…”

Q: There’s at least one advantage that actors of previous generations had over you – they never had to read nasty comments about themselves on the Internet. Like, Clark Gable would never go on line, and read that someone on some website posted a snarky remark about his big ears. You’re not quite so lucky. Do you ever get upset by anything you read about yourself on the web?

A: Not really. Because I know for a fact that nothing that is said on the Internet has any effect on real life in any way, shape or form. And if it did, then Transformers would have been the biggest flop of that year. I just know for a fact that those people have no effect on anything. It’s completely irrelevant. So I don’t give a shit what they say. They’re literally just people who know how to use a computer slightly better than other people. And that’s it. They’re nerds.

Q: Speaking of high-tech stuff: Thanks to digital recording and other innovations, everything you do in movies and TV -- everything -- likely will be around forever. That, too, isn't something that actors and filmmakers didn't think much about back in the 1930s and '40s.

A: Yeah, the idea that movies are around forever – that is something we do think about, and are very aware of. And it does add a lot of pressure on us. I mean, most of the movies we watched when we were kids were not movies that were made around then. Like, I would watch videos of Woody Allen movies that were made 20, 30 years earlier. So, yeah, we want to make movies that’ll still be good 20, 30 years from now. And we kind of go out of our way to not make them too timely in their content. We want to feel current – we want people watching them to be able to relate to them now – but we don’t want to be about, like, the fuckinOctomom or something like that.

Q: But there are specific pop culture references in your movies, right?

A: We do like to make references to other movies in our movies, sure. But we try to be aware of the fact that, like, people might be watching this in 20 years, and we want it to be funny then, too. We don’t want them to just not get what the fuck we’re talking about. It’s like, in Superbad, Jonah makes a reference, like, “I’d like the Coen Brothers to direct my porn.” That was a very conscious choice, the Coen Brothers, because we figure, in 20 years, people will still know who the Coen Brothers are. And we should use a director who’s timeless. But that’s all the effort we put into it, really. Just so that, when you’re watching it in the future, it’s not weird. Like, in Observe and Report, there are no cell phones in the movie. Because those really date movies a lot. Like, you watch a movie from the ‘90s and somebody pulls out a cell phone – it just looks ridiculous all of a sudden. Our movies don’t usually have a lot of emphasis on the technology or anything like that. We do try to make them so that something doesn’t occur that just totally takes you out of it if you’re watching it a few years later.

Q: Of course, I have to admit that when I reviewed Knocked Up at SXSW a few years ago -- months before it hit theaters -- I enjoyed all the references to Spider-Man 3. Because I knew, just knew, that when people finally had a chance to see your movie at the megaplex, Spider-Man 3 might be playing in the auditorium next door.

A: Yeah, but we figured that people will know what Spider-Man 3 is in 20 or 30 years.

Q: Speaking of Knocked Up -- thanks for making the jokey reference to me on the DVD commentary track for that film. It gave me a whole lot of new cred with my film students at University of Houston and Houston Community College.

A: Yeah? Well, I'm about to record the commentary for Observe and Report.

Q: Well, please go ahead and jab me again.

A: Yeah, I'll say what terrible taste you have in movies.

The last of SXSW '09

My final two Variety reviews from this year's SXSW Film Festival are now available on line: Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, a fascinating portrait of female convicts who compete in "the only behind-the-walls rodeo in the world," from the director of Okie Noodling; and 45365, winner of the SXSW jury prize for Best Documentary.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

R.I.P.: Marie Olbermann (1929-2009)

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

I hope her son appreciates the irony: I'm usually a devoted viewer of his program, but I missed this segment last night because I was at the opening-day game of my beloved Houston Astros. I didn't learn of his loss until I watched his show tonight. To Keith Olbermann: I offer you my sincere condolences. All I can add is: The special things you do indicate what a special lady she was.

The Ghost Who Walks (Again)

For more than a decade, I've counted The Phantom -- Simon Wincer's likably lightweight 1996 action-adventure based on the Lee Falk comic strip -- among my favorite guilty pleasures, if only because it's one of the very few movies of its kind in which a superhero actually enjoys doing derring-do. So I have to admit that I'll be tuning in when the Sci Fi Channel airs a four-hour Phantom movie that's intended as a back-door pilot for a weekly series. I just hope Ryan Carnes has as much fun as Billy Zane did when he donned the purple body suit of The Ghost Who Walks.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

R.I.P.: Wouter Barendrecht (1965 - 2009)

From Eugene Hernandez at IndieWire: "Wouter Barendrecht, the co-chairman of leading international sales and production company Fortissimo Films has died, his passing coming as a tremendous shock today to many close friends and colleagues in the international film community... It’s impossible to immediately assess and convey the significance of Wouter Barendrecht’s numerous accomplishments in international film, but perhaps his greatest professional achievement is the invaluable role he played as a tireless champion of Asian cinema and as a stalwart supporter of independent, queer and international film."

Stranger (and scarier) than fiction

OK, I have to admit: The first thing I thought when I heard about this L.A. Times story is: "Gosh, this sounds like the plot for a new movie -- with maybe another kick-ass role for Diane Lane. But then I got past the headline -- "FBI database links long-haul truckers, serial killings" -- and actually read the story. And now... well, just say that I will think twice before stopping at a truck stop any time soon. And I damn sure will recommend to all my female friends and relations that they never stop at a truck stop. Seriously. Consider this money quote:

"Authorities said they do not have statistics on whether driving trucks ranks high on the list of occupations of known serial killers. But the pattern in roadside body dumps and other evidence has prompted many investigators to speculate that the mobility, lack of supervision and access to potential victims that come with the job make it a good cover for someone inclined to kill. 'You've got a mobile crime scene,' one investigator said. 'You can pick a girl up on the East Coast, kill her two states away and then dump her three states after that.'"

That loud clickety-clack noise you hear resounding throughout the Hollywood area today is the sound of scriptwriters spinning those facts into fiction...

Friday, April 03, 2009

Tribute to Maurice Jarre

The lovely and talented Regina F. Scruggs will be offering a tribute to composer Maurice Jarre with a special edition of her Music from the Movies program at 7-8 p.m. CDT Saturday, April 4, on Houston's KUHF, 88.7 FM. Scruggs will be playing selections from Jarre's scores for Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Witness, Dead Poets Society, Ghost -- and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. If you're not in or near Houston, don't fret -- you can listen to the show in real time through Internet streaming here. Click on “listen online” (left-hand side of the page), then access the 24/7 “News” stream.

I am legion

They're even quoting me in the catalogue for the Wisconsin Film Festival.