Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: The Open Road

For reasons I don’t begin to understand, the distributors of The Open Road opted to open their low-key dramedy in Houston and a few other markets last Friday without bothering to screen it in advance for critics. Usually, such an under-the-wire release is a sure-fire indication that (a) the movie in question is a great big steaming turd, and (b) the distributor, well aware of this fact, wants to take the money and run. But here’s the thing: In this case, a lot of people who don’t usually see a lot of movies in theaters – i.e., folks in the 35-plus demographic -- might have been willing to shell out the shekels for first-run admission tickets if only they’d known what the movie was about, and who’s in it, and how engaging it is.

Don’t misunderstand: We’re not talking about the unwarranted dump of an indisputable instant classic. But we are talking about the mishandling of a good movie that, months from now, people will discover in the Redbox kiosk at their neighborhood grocery store, or the VOD schedule of their cable-TV service, and enjoy. And those people likely will think, “Wow, how did we miss this one? Did it open in theaters at all?” You can read my Variety review here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Honoring a Straight Shooter

Sharpshooter Joe Bowman was known professionally and affectionately as "The Straight Shooter" -- and, better still, "The Master of Triggernomics" -- because of his flamboyant showmanship and dazzling prowess as a marksman. He rubbed shoulders with notables ranging from Roy Rogers to Sammy Davis Jr. -- and taught Robert Duvall how to handle a very special firearm while playing a former Texas Ranger in Lonesome Dove. I met Bowman on a few occasions during his visits to the Houston offices of Cowboys & Indians magazine, and was always impressed by his courtly manner and vivid storytelling. He passed away last June -- while on his way back home to Houston after a rootin'-tootin'-shootin' performance in Albuquerque --and was posthumously inducted into the Texas Heroes Hall of Honor at the Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, Texas, just one month later. It was my privilege to help produce this tribute video honoring The Straight Shooter.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Variety strikes again!

Looks like the distributors of The Final Destination made the same mistake as the folks who released G.I. Joe: A "no press previews" policy means nothing to an international publication.

An art-house renaissance in The Big Easy?

Take this with a grain or two of salt -- or, more appropriately, a bag of popcorn -- but maybe things really are on the rebound in my hometown of New Orleans four years after Hurricane Katrina. That's the only way I can explain why one local theater-industry veteran thinks it's a financially sound idea to expand, of all things, a Canal Street theater devoted to indie and foreign films.

Invisible Girlfriend should be seen

Glad to see someone else waxing enthusiastic about David Redmon and Ashley Sabin's Invisible Girlfriend. You can buy a copy of the DVD -- and, while you're at it, a copy of Kamp Katrina, a fascinating documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans by the same filmmakers -- here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fight cancer with Team Duke

John Wayne died 30 years ago this summer. My father died three years ago this month. My friend Al Shea died last week. Here's a way to raise money to fund the fight against their killer.

Team Duke 1 minute spot from Team Duke on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Old Man Leydon

To paraphrase a posting from last year: Another birthday, another reminder of just how ancient I am becoming. Today, I turn 57. Consider: I am now two years older than Humphrey Bogart was when he played Lt. Comdr. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. (Worse, I’m roughly the same age he was when he freakin' died.) I am now three years older than James Stewart was when he starred in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I am five years older than Walter Brennan was when he played Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine, and John Wayne was when he starred in Rio Bravo. I am seven years older than Claude Rains was when he co-starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I am 14 years older than Lee Marvin was when he took command of The Dirty Dozen. When I consider how old I used to think those guys looked in those movies….

Friday, August 21, 2009

A fond farewell to Al Shea

Some kids dream of becoming baseball stars or basketball champs. Others want to become cops or firefighters. Me? Well, I have to admit, for a goodly portion of my youth in New Orleans, I wanted to grow up to be Al Shea. Seriously.

For a decade or so in the 1960s and ‘70s, Shea was the exuberantly gregarious entertainment reporter for Midday, a live noontime variety show that aired on NBC affiliate WDSU-TV. Whether he was reviewing new films – I vividly recall his politely dismissive WTF response to The Illustrated Man – or appraising local stage productions, or smoothly interviewing showbiz celebrities either in town or on the road, he came across at once informed and accessible, well-connected and down-to-earth, thoroughly professional and ingratiatingly easygoing. I didn’t fully appreciate at the time that, as New Orleans TV historian Dominic Massa points out in his on-line tribute, Shea was one of the first people to do on-the-air reviews of movies and plays on American television. And I made only a sporadically effective effort to tamp down my profound jealousy of the guy. But that’s only because I wasn’t merely a fan of Al Shea -- I wanted to be Al Shea. Because, geez, he had such a cool job, and he looked like he was enjoying every moment of it.

Long after Midday signed off for good, Al remained a fixture in New Orleans media, covering arts and entertainment for the Guide weekly newspapers and, for 23 years, serving as an influential theater critic for Steppin’ Out, the long-running and enduringly popular weekly roundtable program dedicated to local entertainment on PBS station WYES. He also appeared on other television stations in various other capacities -- indeed, he was a New Orleans TV staple for some 50 years -- and fully qualified as the local hero equivalent of a living legend.

Early in my career, while I was a fresh-faced free-lancer for various small N.O. papers as an entertainment columnist, Al was unfailingly gracious and sincerely encouraging whenever our paths crossed at local theater premieres or New York movie junkets. (He also was a generous benefactor when, during a Big Apple junket for Lenny, he lent me cab fare to the airport after my wallet had been rifled by, ahem, a passing stranger.) Our paths ultimately diverged, of course, and I lost track of the guy for about three decades. But when we met again last spring, during my return visit to N.O. for a guest spot on Steppin’ Out, I was greatly pleased (and, yes, more than a little honored) that he greeted me as an old chum from way back when.

And when the time came for the actual taping, and I found myself actually sitting near Al alongside the other Steppin’ Out regulars, and actually swapping quips with him throughout the show… Well, let me put it like this. Years ago, I found myself seated next to Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell on a film festival panel. Years before that, Judith Crist called on me from her podium to supply her with a movie title she couldn’t remember while lecturing at Loyola University of New Orleans. How did I feel on those occasions? Pretty much how I felt during the Steppin’ Out taping.

Al died Thursday of cancer at age 80. On Saturday, I will turn 57. If I can remain as involved and enthusiastic as Al was the last time I saw him, and I’m still able to express my love for film as intelligently and joyfully as he expressed his love for local theater during that Steppin’ Out episode, for another 23 years… I’ll probably ask for another 23, or more, of the same. And I'll still be thanking Al Shea for being one of my early inspirations.

Review: American Harmony

Filmmaker Aengus James sympathetically captures the trills of victory and the agony of defeat at the International Championships of Barbershop Singing in American Harmony, an efficiently constructed and emotionally involving documentary with a sharp eye for revealing detail and a pleasing amount of low-key charm. It's kicking off a limited theatrical run today at Houston's Angelika Film Center and other theaters, and you can read my Variety review here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Danny Boyle: Cool dude

Danny Boyle poses with his Best Director award (for Slumdog Millionaire, of course) from the Houston Film Critics Society. And before you ask: Yes, I voted for him. And no: He didn't shake it while murmuring: "Rosebud."

Review: Kaminey

Imagine a freewheeling Bollywood version of a Guy Ritchie seriocomic caper and you're ready for Kaminey, a tasty cinematic masala that is energetically entertaining, if not consistently coherent, while charting the misadventures of estranged twin brothers (both played by Kismat Konnection star Shahid Kapoor) who are repeatedly mistaken for each other by heavily armed antagonists. You can read my Variety review here.

Britney Spears for President

A bikini-clad Commander in Chief? Why the hell not?

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's official: Sarah Palin is a punchline

Listen to Sarah Jessica Parker's throwaway line in this trailer -- for a movie that, not incidentally, looks pretty damn funny -- and you'll see what I mean.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

St. Elmo's Fire: The Series

Actually, I'm surprised somebody didn't already try this years -- no, make that decades -- ago.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: The Art of War III: Retribution

The third time isn't the charm. See my Variety review here.

Bacon and Baldwin: Remembering John Hughes

Over at the Huffington Post, Kevin Bacon and Alec Baldwin fondly recall working with John Hughes on She's Having a Baby. Interestingly, Bacon confirms what I noted a few days ago -- the film was an autobiographical effort by Hughes -- but goes a few steps further: "The fact that it didn't perform as well as some of his other films was extremely hard for him, because he felt like, 'Okay, I'm doing something now that is truly from my heart,' and in a way, I was really playing him."

Just how weird were the '70s?

Back in the day, a major Hollywood studio -- in this case, Warner Bros. -- might release something as odd as... Performance.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Summer surges

Good news from IndieWire: As of this weekend, Marc Webb's delightful (500) Days of Summer is the top-grossing "specialty film" release of 2009. BTW: Another movie featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt also made some money at the box-office this weekend.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Free from SnagFilms: Second Skin

As I wrote in Variety last year: "Is Everquest a harmless distraction or an addictive scourge? Does World of Warcraft forge communities or fray relationships? The answers are as diverse as the interviewees in Second Skin, a sometimes celebratory, sometimes cautionary look at the phenomenon of massively multiplayer online computer games (MMOs). Filmmaker Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza includes cogent observations by scientists, social commentators and game designers, and repeatedly flashes germane factoids (example: The latest edition of Warcraft software posted $96 million in first-day sales). But the human dramas of individual gamers are what really make this technically polished documentary so fascinating..."

The movie "emphasizes the allure for male and female players of assuming the identity of a dashing digital avatar in a virtual online universe of swinging swords and derring-do. Interactive gamers can compete against -- and establish friendships or begin romances with -- unseen strangers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Trouble is, gaming can be extremely habit-forming, leading, in extreme cases, to alienation and depression. Gamer Dan Bustard struggles to recover after losing almost everything while lost in virtual worlds; unfortunately, his is not the worst-case scenario in Second Skin."

But don't take my word for it. Through Aug. 13, you can go see it yourself here.

What's nude, pussycat?

Being a cat owner, I have no trouble at all believing this alibi.

A hare-razing experience

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I now know of a website devoted to running photos of animals in casts. Not quite as funny, perhaps, as a site devoted to running photos of cats who look like Hitler. But the above picture reminds me of the subplot involving an injured rabbit in one of my all-time favorite films, Local Hero. "Why don't we kill it? Hit it with something hard..." "You've already done that with a two-ton automobile!" Priceless.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

R.I.P.: John Hughes (1950-2009)

I can't say I was a big fan of John Hughes' Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club -- though, to be fair, I already was a decade or so past their target demographic even when they first appeared in theaters -- but I can't deny, and won't denigrate, the pop-culture impact and enduring popularity of those teen-centric "Brat Pack" comedies. Indeed, during the next few days, I fully expect to be reading a lot of deeply personal, achingly bittersweet obits written by Gen-Xers who came of age while watching those flicks multiple times in theaters, and viewing them again and again on cable and VHS throughout the '80s and early '90s.

For my own part, I'm truly bummed out that the guy who gave us the wonderfully droll Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the guilty-pleasurable Weird Science is no longer among us. But I smile as I remember a conversation I had with Hughes back in 1988 during the New York junket for his under-rated She's Having a Baby. After some gentle prodding, he admitted that, yes, the movie was partly autobiographical -- in spirit, if not in fact -- and that, sure, he was kinda-sorta using actor Kevin Bacon as his on-screen alter ego, just as Francois Truffaut used Jean-Pierre Leaud to represent himself in the Antoine Doinel movies (especially Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board). Which makes me wonder about untaken roads and might-have-beens. Hughes direted only two other movies after Baby -- Uncle Buck and Curly Sue -- though he continued to remain active as a scriptwriter. (You may have heard about one of the movies he wrote -- a little comedy called Home Alone.) But if Baby had been a hit, would Hughes have continued directing movies in that vein? Would he have continued directing, period?

BTW: Hughes suffered his fatal heart attack at age 59. In two weeks, I will be 57. Yikes.

You can run, but you can't hide...

Evidently, the folks who came up with the bright idea to keep G.I. Joe away from critics forgot that Variety is an international publication.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

R.I.P.: Budd Schulberg (1914-2009)

He coulda been -- and was -- a contender for immortality simply for writing On the Waterfront. But I must admit: There is a part of me that also cherishes Budd Schulberg for being the guy behind a half-forgotten favorite from my youth, The Everglades, the 1961 TV series starring vet TV actor Ron Hayes as "Lincoln Vail of the Everglades, the man on patrol in the Everglades..."

There go my Presidential ambitions...

Well, I guess the cat's out of the bag... (Hat tip to David Poland.)

And if you want to trace your own roots, click here.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The wrecking ball claims another one

From my New Orleans buddy John Guidry comes the melancholy news that yet another picture palace where I dallied during my formative years -- the Robert E. Lee Theatre, one of the last great "roadshow" houses built in the Big Easy during the 1960s -- is about to become history. I took the above photo during a sentimental journey to N.O. just a few months back -- partly, I suppose, because I was amazed to see the once-magnificent structure had survived so long, 18 years after its closing.

The Robert E. Lee is where I saw for the first time such diverse movies as Funny Girl, M*A*S*H, The Exorcist and (during an early '70s theatrical re-release) Lawrence of Arabia. (I'd like to say I saw Gone with the Wind there, too, for obvious reasons, but I didn't catch that reissue until it played at the Pitt Theatre, a long-gone second-run house where I also saw for the first time, during a Saturday matinee in the mid-'60s, Plan 9 from Outer Space. No, really.) But my most vivid memory of the Robert E. Lee is one focused on the night a friend and I saw Johnny Got His Gun -- Dalton Trumbo's grueling 1971 film version of his own novel about a World War I soldier who's turned into a basket case after sustaining horrific battlefield injuries. You have to understand that my friend and I both were of draft age at the time, and had to cope with the possibility of winding up in Vietnam. And we couldn't help thinking while watching the movie that, well, there but for the grace of God... Except that God hadn't yet revealed Southeast Asia definitely wouldn't be on our agendas. So there remained the possibility...

After the movie, we walked slowly out of the lobby and into the parking lot, looked at each other in the moonlight -- and burst out laughing in the way that only very frightened people ever do when they're too scared to actually talk about something that's terrifying the hell out of them. We wound up holding onto each other for support, because our frantic guffawing left us so weak, we were in danger of collapsing before we made it to his car.

I've often said that, if you're of a certain age, you can remember everything about the theaters where you saw the great movies you saw during your youth. (Indeed, if you think hard enough, you can probably remember what day of the week you saw certain movies, what the weather was like, and who you were in love with at the time.) For me, the Robert E. Lee was one of those theaters.

Fred and Ginger, meet Hugh and Anne

I'll bet you never suspected while you were watching the opening number of this year's Oscarcast that you were witnessing the first joint performance by The Fun Couple of 21st Century Movie Musicals. Maybe.