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.