Tuesday, June 30, 2009

At long last: Sen. Al Franken

At the end of my 2006 Variety review of Al Franken: God Spoke, I wrote: "Franken seems self-reflective only in the final scenes, as he contemplates reinventing himself once again -- this time, as a serious candidate for public office. Trouble is, he admits, he might have to temper the tone of his humor (and avoid anything potentially offensive) if he wants to reach voters. And that, [the documentary] suggests, may be a price he'll be unwilling to pay." There are times in this life when I am very happy to be proven wrong. Today is one of those times.

Monday, June 29, 2009

R.I.P.: Gale Storm (1922-2009)

With all due respect to Gale Storm, whose passing I respectfully acknowledge with a grateful salute for her talent to amuse --I must say it's a little, well, scary to realize how vividly I recall certain aspects of her two '50s sitcoms. Even My Little Margie, the one that premiered the year I was born. Obviously, I spent even more of my youth watching TV reruns than I thought.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Random thought

I wonder how much Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's ruling clergy are grateful for the distractions of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Mark Sanford? I mean, did those guys pray for this trifecta, or what?

Ed, Farrah and Michael

John Rash of Advertising Age considers what the deaths of three icons may tell us about the end of the eras they represent. Again, as I recently noted: The more options we have from which to choose, the fewer things we have that bring us together.

"Writing Songs with My Friend Mike"

Gotham Chopra offers an up-close and personal view of his late friend, Michael Jackson, in today's Huffington Post. It's a fascinating piece. Meanwhile, inevitably, speculation about the cause of Jackson's death has begun in earnest.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

R.I.P.: Michael Jackson: (1958-2009)

First a ‘70s icon goes the way of all flesh, now an ‘80s icon takes a final bow. Michael Jackson has served as a human punchline for so long, it may be hard for some folks to remember what a sensationally exciting pop star (and music video innovator) he was in his heyday two decades ago. And that, frankly, is how I would prefer to remember him. Well, OK, I’d also like to remember some of the Jackson 5 stuff, too -- there was a time in my life, I'm not ashamed to admit, when "Never Can Say Goodbye" had the potent Pavlovian power to make me weep on cue -- along with his part in the “Brand New Day” number from The Wiz (smartly re-purposed as a Barack Obama anthem during the last election). And, yeah, there’s always…. “Ben.” The sweetest song ever inspired by a movie about a killer rat.

R.I.P.: Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009)

My condolences to the family and friends of Farrah Fawcett, who lost her long battle to cancer today. I know the obits will emphasize her heyday as a ‘70s sex symbol – thanks to the indelible impact of Charlie’s Angels, from which she alighted after only a single full season, and a revealing poster that graced the bedroom walls of hormonally inflamed teen boys everywhere – but I have much fonder memories of her sporadic appearances as the elusive object of David Janssen’s bemused desire in Harry O (1974-76), a cult-fave TV series (and, trust me, I'm a proud member of that cult) that is long overdue for an authorized DVD reissue.

Now probably is not the time to discuss her inability to parlay her initial burst of fame into a sustained film career. In all fairness, it must be acknowledged that when she actually had worthy material with which to work -- The Burning Bed, Extremities -- she acquitted herself respectably. Still, I think it’s safe to say that, for most of her life, she was famous primarily for being famous, and that she didn’t give her greatest, bravest and most affecting performance – as herself – until her sad but inspiring final act.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eddie Murphy: Stronger than bombs

While on assignment in L.A. last summer, I found myself feeling... well, depressed would be an overstatement, but at the very least melancholy each morning when I ventured into the hotel parking lot and saw a massive billboard for Meet Dave looming across the street. You see, by that time, the surprisingly kid-friendly comedy had tanked at the box-office, and there was something rather sad about seeing an advertisement that big for something that had already bombed that badly. I had a very similar reaction tonight when I saw the above pictured poster for Imagine That outside a Houston theater. According to the New York Times, however, I shouldn't spend much time weeping for Eddie Murphy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

For me, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen simply is what it is – more of the same, only louder – and, as such, can be appreciated in much the same way one might appreciate a vertiginous spin on a theme park ride, or two hours at a dance club where the techno-pop is turned up to somewhere past 11, maybe even 12. I saw it just last night, and I’ve already forgotten most of it, but I can’t truthfully say I was ever bored by any of the shape-shifting, gear-grinding, butt-kicking robot-on-robot action.

To be sure, all the heavy-metal mayhem (along with the overbearing musical score) drowns out a goodly amount of what the actors (and the robots) say. But you can hear just enough snatches of dialogue to suss out why this person moves from Point A to Point B, and that robot wants to do one thing or destroy another. The actors are… Well, they are, for the most part, upstaged by the machinery. Even so, director Michael Bay makes the most of Megan Fox as a special effect, often filming her in slow motion so that, as she and co-star Shia LaBeouf outrun explosions of various kinds, it appears two piglets are wrestling beneath her tight shirt.

And if this review reads like something less than a full-throated rave, trust me, Roger Ebert was far less kind.

R.I.P.: Ed McMahon (1923-2009)

The ultimate talk-show sidekick and a consummate showbiz pro, Ed McMahon appeared to achieve his enduring status as a pop-culture icon simply by being himself – a jolly good fellow with a knack for savvy sales pitches and a self-effacing sense of humor, who never minded making himself the butt of his own and other people’s jokes. Now, notice: I said “appeared.” It’s entirely possible that McMahon had to work extremely hard to make it look so easy, and maybe even harbored a few nettlesome resentments about being famous mostly as a second banana. Given the amount of TV viewing pleasure he gave me over the years, I would hope he was immensely pleased and satisfied with his career. On the other hand, I wonder if he ever wondered about roads not taken.

Scattered throughout McMahon's resume are some pretty damn respectable supporting performances in movies – most notably, in The Incident (1967), his portrayal of a harried family man who’s among the unfortunate passengers aboard a New York subway car terrorized by two knife-wielding punks (very young Martin Sheen and Tony Musante). McMahon also had memorable moments as a scenery-chewing bad guy opposite Jim Brown in Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) and a weaselly corporate executive in the original Fun with Dick and Jane (1977). Could McMahon have made it as a full-time character actor if he’d chosen that route? It’s hard to say. And, honestly, I doubt that he ever lost much sleep while pondering the possibility. But still, well, you never know…

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

You know, I really shouldn't take so much unseemly delight in the fact that, even though I'm out here in Flyover Country, I can sometimes beat the Hollywood Reporter's ass when it comes to doing a quick turnaround on a movie review. But, hey, I'm so vain, Carly Simon should write a song about me.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Secret Ballot

Given what's going on in Iran right now, Secret Ballot might be an appropriate film for you to place in your Netflix queue. Note the now-ironic tagline on the DVD package: "In Iran, this Election Day was just the beginning..."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Killshot

It’s hard to argue that Killshot is some sort of mishandled masterwork that didn’t deserve to wind up as, for all practical purposes, a direct-to-video release. On the other hand, it’s very easy to conceive that, as people stumble across it on video store shelves and in basic-cable reruns, a common reaction will be: “Hey! That was pretty good!” Many bigger movies with much wider theatrical releases have generated far less enthusiasm. You can read my Variety review here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Hail to The Duke

Thirty years after his death, John Wayne continues to ride tall in our pop culture consciousness. I write about four of his best films, and talk with some of his children, in this Cowboys & Indians cover story.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Review: Imagine That

Arguably the most innocuous movie of Eddie Murphy’s career to date, Imagine That is an undemandingly pleasant and mildly amusing fantasy in which nothing – not even those elements that actually define it as a fantasy – is ever allowed to get of hand. Arriving amid the summertime cavalcade of comedies suffused with raunchy tomfoolery, it may be greeted as a godsend by parents who want to share an afternoon outing at the megaplex with their pre-teen daughters. It’s difficult to image, however, that this PG-rated Paramount/Nickelodeon presentation will draw many ticketbuyers outside of that narrow (albeit potentially profitable) niche. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

R.I.P.: David Carradine (1936-2009)

David Carradine worked with everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Quentin Tarantino, Charlton Heston to Chuck Norris, Paul Bartel to Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby to Walter Hill, in movies and TV series of wildly uneven quality, in just about every conceivable genre, during a screen acting career that spanned five decades. But it’s the role that made him a ‘70s icon – Kwai Chang Caine, the mystical martial artist adrift in the Wild West of Kung Fu – for which he remains, now and likely forever, best known. He seemed to be a good sport about being so closely identified with Caine, even to the point of more or less reprising the character in an updated ‘90s spin-off series (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues) and frequently spoofing it in various movies and TV commercials (most recently – to hilarious effect – in Big Stan, Rob Schneider’s under-rated direct-to-video comedy, which, no kidding, is well worth a spot on your Netflix queue). But he also demonstrated his versatility in an impressive variety of roles while amassing scads of credits as a steadily employed character actor. Of course, remaining “steadily employed” as any sort of actor often requires… well, taking employment where you find it. Much like his famous father, Carradine occasionally picked up easy paychecks while slumming through forgettable clunkers. But never mind: His best work greatly overshadowed his worst projects. And besides: It’s easy to forgive an icon almost anything. Especially one who walked the earth like Caine in Kung Fu.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo

After rounding up some rave reviews at the SXSW Film Festival, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo -- director Bradley Beesley's close-up look at cowgirl convicts who compete in the 2007 Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo -- has been lassoed by HBO Documentary Films. The film is tentatively set for a September broadcast premiere on the Cinemax cable network. I have a Q&A with Beesley in the July issue of Cowboys & Indians Magazine. And I chat with him, along with producer James Payne, in this video clip.