Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bunnies and Bollywood


My latest reviews in Variety run the gamut from The Velveteen Rabbit, a low-key charmer based on the classic children's story, to Delhi-6, a lumpy Bollywood extravaganza featuring music by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman.

Rocky Mountain blues

On Friday, Denver becomes a one-newspaper town. Alas.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscarcast: First impressions

Hugh Jackman as host? Excellent. How excellent? Ask him back for next year, please. Hey, anyone who can give a shoutout to Francois Truffaut is a keeper, OK?

Past Actor/Actress nominees praising and presenting current nominees? Smart innovation, effectively executed, worth keeping as a new tradition.

Overall? Best Oscarcast in years. Seriously.

Oscar winners? No real complaints. I would have loved to see Frank Langella grab the Best Actor prize -- but Sean Penn is a worthy choice. Kate Winslet earned her gold. Other winners? Again, no real complaints.

The day before Oscar: Some got Spirited, others got Razzed

Yesterday in L.A., The Wrestler dominated the Independent Spirit Awards -- and Mickey Rourke added another pre-Oscar laurel to his mantelpiece -- while The Love Guru took home top dishonors at the Golden Raspberry Awards. And speaking of Razzies: Uwe Boll may be ready to put on his boxing gloves again after receiving a "Lifetime Achievement" award from the Razzie-Dazzers. But, really, they couldn't have given it to a more deserving filmmaker.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Two minute Oscars

Sheila Benson and Chuck Wilson honor the under-appreciated, those actors who "deliver a fully rounded character with the fewest strokes," in the least amount of time. Like, for example, Stacey Keach (above, opposite Josh Brolin) -- who, by the way, is excellent as Richard M. Nixon in the national touring stage production of Frost/Nixon -- in Oliver Stone's W.

David Mamet has the write stuff

When I returned home this evening, I found my son George watching -- and clearly enjoying -- David Mamet's Heist on Cinemax. Which reminded me that (a) my son has exceptionally good taste, and (b) no one -- not even Quentin Tarantino -- writes better bad-ass dialogue than Mamet. So, of course, I recommended that George also watch Spartan at his earliest opportunity.

Kind of a drag

The law of diminishing returns has caught up with Tyler Perry. You can read my Variety review of his latest dramedy here.

My (very) indirect tie to Allen Stanford

If you look over the portfolio of the outfit run by accused fraudster Allen Stanford, you'll see The Standford Financial Group produced The Ultimate Gift, which was -- I swear to God, I'm not joking! -- a faith-based, Christian-skewing drama about the seductive evil of greed, the empty promises of wealth and the transforming power of love. (James Garner, Brian Dennehy, Abigail Breslin and Drew Fuller figured prominently in the cast.) I reviewed the indie movie for Variety two years ago, and had a few nice things to say about it. I hope that doesn't mean I'll be called in for questioning by the FBI or the SEC.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar hopeful goes to Jail

No matter who wins the prize for Best Supporting Actress this Sunday, I think it's pretty dang safe to predict that the weekend's top-grossing new release will be one featuring nominee Viola Davis. (Gee, I wonder why she's not being played up more in ads for the flick?)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

R.I.P.: Loki Rourke (1991-2009)

A few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, I had the pleasure to interview Mickey Rourke after the festival premiere of Spun, an over-the-top, under-appreciated indie flick that, had it reached the audience it deserved, might served as his comeback vehicle long before The Wrestler. As we talked on the balcony of his hotel suite, he was never less than gracious and forthcoming. But even as he politely fielded my questions, he remained attentive to his beloved dog, Loki, and remained ever vigilant lest the pooch scamper too close to a chair or table that might allow him access to the balcony railing. To put it simply: The guy loved his dog. And speaking as someone who once had to be on hand while a favorite cat was put to sleep by a vet, all I can say is: Mickey, I feel your pain. Please accept my condolences.

Oscar upsets?

Pete Hammond sees portents and indications that maybe, just maybe, there will be a few surprises Sunday evening during the new and improved Oscarcast: "Another eerie sign came this weekend when three, count 'em, three (older) academy voters whose opinions I respect all said the exact same thing to me at different times. They weren't voting for Slumdog Millionaire because 'it's just not an Oscar picture.' I thought it was very strange that I would suddenly be hearing virtually the same kind of reasoning out of the mouths of three different academy members, but there it was. All of them, by the way, had cast their Best Picture vote for [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button]. Dare I say it? A SIGN????"

That sounds utterly ridiculous, doesn't it? As ridiculous as, say, Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, right?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

They only come out at midnight -- at SXSW

If you thought the 2009 SXSW Film Festival hadn't yet scheduled enough movies for its March 13-21 exposition in Austin -- well, geez, what the hell does it take to satisfy you people? But, OK, the SXSWers have gone ahead and caved to you greedheads by scheduling an entirely new sidebar program: SXSW Presents Fantastic Fest at Midnight. All films will play at -- well, actually, at midnight, when else? They'll upsool at the Alamo South Lamar, at the same time as features showcased in the traditional SXSW Midnighters section, which will take place at the Alamo Ritz. The Fantastic Fest program will feature:

Ong Bak 2 (Thailand)
Director: Tony Jaa. Writer: Panna Rittikrai.

The pitch: Martial-arts superstar Tony Jaa is back in an epic prequel to the 2003 action smash Ong Bak. Cast: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirichanya, Santisuk Promsiri, Primorata Dejudom. (International Film Festival Premiere)

Black (France)
Director: Pierre Laffargue. Writer: Pierre Laffargue, Lucio Mad and Gábor Rassov.
The pitch: A nouveau-blaxploitation adventure awash in black magic, African Mysticism, mutant arms dealers, gargantuan machete-wielding mercenary armies and a truckload of knuckle-sandwiches. Cowabunga. Cast: MC Jean Gab'1, Carole Karemera, François Levantal, Anton Yakovlev. (World Premiere)

The Haunting in Connecticut (U.S.)
Director: Peter Cornwell. Writer: Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe.

The pitch: In the tradition of The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Haunting in Connecticut tells the astounding true (allegedly) story of one family's supernatural ordeal. Cast: Amanda Crew, Elias Koteas, Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Martin Donovan. (International Film Festival Premiere)

The Horseman (Australia)
Director/Writer: Steve Kastrissios.

When, Christian Forteski’s (Peter Marshall) drug addicted daughter dies after appearing in an amateur porn video, he deals with his grief by entering a Zen monastery, where he... Just kidding, just kidding. Really, what he does is get seriously medieval on the asses of those responsible. (BTW: This movie should not be confused with an upcoming thriller with the same title starring Dennis Quaid and Ziyi Zhang.) Cast: Peter Marshall, Caroline Marohasy, Brad McMurray, Jack Henry, Evert McQueen. (North American Premiere)

Lesbian Vampire Killers (UK)
Director: Phil Claydon. Writer: Paul Hupfield and Stewart Williams.
Matthew Horne and James Corden, the comedy duo behind the award-winning BBC comedy series Gavin and Stacey, are two hapless losers whose idyllic country holiday is shattered by the arrival of an army of thirsty lesbian vampires. Gosh, don't you hate it when that happens? Cast: Paul McGann, James Corden, Mathew Horne, MyAnna Buring, Silvia Colloca. (World Premiere)

Pontypool (Canada)
Director: Bruce McDonald. Writer: Tony Burgess.

A seemingly ordinary day’s work at the radio station for Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie -- who, a long time ago, before James Franco, was considered the next James Dean) turns sinister when calls begin to flood the station about violent outbreaks in and around Pontypool. Cast: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts. (U.S. Premiere)

Sexy Script Girl, sensational soundtrack

Watching this latest report from the smart and sexy Script Girl -- and marveling at the cheeky way she employs Herb Alpert's sprightly rendition of the title song from the original Casino Royale (1967) -- made me remember how much I used to enjoy playing the soundtrack LP for that wildly uneven James Bond spoof. I had no idea back in the '60s (and '70s) just how technically remarkable that platter really was. Now I wish I had held on to my copy -- it might fetch a nice price on eBay.

Oscar poll

OK, you folks have decided that Mickey Rourke (46 %) should edge out Frank Langella (30 %) and Sean Penn (23 %) in the Best Actor race. (Neither Brad Pitt nor Richard Jenkins got any votes at all. Make of that what you will.) So now I'm asking: What's your pick for Best Picture? You can vote over on the right hand side of the blog until 6 pm CST Sunday (Feb. 22).

Robert Osborne's 5th Annual Classic Film Festival

A film festival with Goldfinger, The Godfather, King Kong -- and Fred Willard? And with Mr. Class himself as the MC? Cowabunga. Check out the info here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

George Lucas: Threat or Menace?


I'm quoted here -- look around the 0:20 mark -- and I can't help thinking that when this documentary is released next year, some critics will try to read something into the fact that, if you look over my left shoulder, you'll see a photo of Francis Coppola. Trust me: It's just because the Starz Denver Film Festival folks very graciously arranged for the filmmakers to shoot an interview with me in a room at the Starz Film Center. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Oscar watch: Trouble the Water

Kim Voynar writes of Trouble the Water, the Oscar-nominated documentary about struggles to survive and efforts to thrive in post-Katrina New Orleans:

I first saw the film at Sundance last year, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for documentary, and it was one of my favorite films of that year's fest. As I walked to the shuttle stop after the film, I was behind two obviously well-off, white couples (the women were both wearing ankle-length fur coats and were glittering with diamonds), and overheard a conversation that's stayed with me for over a year.

One woman said to her husband that she didn't like "those black people" the film focused on, and wondered why the filmmakers had chosen to focus on Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott; the husband of the other woman offered that he felt that [Tia] Lessin and [Carl] Deal, who are white, had exploited their black subjects to make a film with a liberal political slant. And I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, is that really all these people got out of the film we just saw?"

You can read more of Voynar's insightful piece -- which includes recent comments by documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin -- here.

Going digital: MovieMaker

For a limited time only, you can check out -- for free -- a digital edition of MovieMaker Magazine's Winter 2009 issue. Which means that you can read a brief but entertaining Q&A with writer-director Rod Lurie by... well, by me. And you can read an extraordinary "lost" interview with the late, great John Cassavetes by... well, that one's by me, too. And you can also read lots of other articles by some other writers. I did say it's free, right?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Live from Austin: The Office Space 10th anniversary celebration

Gazing at the capacity crowd that turned out Sunday evening for a special 10th-anniversary screening of Office Space at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, writer-director Mike Judge couldn’t help noting: “I think there are more people here tonight than went to see the movie during its opening weekend ten years ago.”

Maybe so. The movie was considered a box-office under-achiever back in 1999 – which, at the time, was no small embarrassment for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure Judge and his amazing ensemble cast were pretty bummed out by the bad news, too. But, hey, I was the one who had boldly predicted in my original Variety review that Judge’s sharply satirical comedy about cubicle-bound wage slaves would be nothing less an instant cult-fave phenomenon, one that would inspire “a new trend: Friday happy-hour get-togethers topped off with visits to multiplexes for repeat viewings of Office Space.”

Actually, it took quite a bit longer than a single opening weekend for Office Space to gain the recognition and attract the avid following it so richly deserves. But as I noted while shamelessly pestering Judge at a pre-screening reception: I wasn’t so far off the mark, was I?

“Actually,” Judge replied, “I’ve heard that Office Space is the movie most often requested for office parties at the Alamo Draft House here in Austin. The employees get to pick whatever movie they want. And I guess there’s a certain amount of tension when their bosses see the film, but that’s what they want.

“So I guess,” he added, looking at me with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge grin, “that makes you the Nostradamus of film critics.”

I’m sure he was just being polite – but, hey, I take my strokes where I can find them.

Meanwhile, back at the Paramount: Several members of the original Office Space cast joined Judge on stage to take questions from the wildly enthusiastic audience. One sharp-eyed fan – someone who’d clearly seen the movie several times before – asked John McGinley, the Scrubs star who plays efficiency expert Bob Slydell, why the actor wore his wristwatch “not like most people do” in the movie. McGinley, clearly amused by the query, responded earnestly: “I wore my watch facing toward my body because my father was a paratrooper. And they wear their watches like that, so they won’t reflect ambient light during their decent. So I wore my watch that way as a kind of tribute to him.” No kidding.

Ron Livingston, the top-billed star of Office Space, couldn’t make it to the 10th-anniversary screening. (Neither could Livingston’s leading lady, some obscure actress last seen appearing topless on the cover of a men’s magazine.) But Judge made a special point of explaining why he cast Livingston as Peter Gibbons, a young computer programmer stuck in a stifling and spirit-killing job at an Austin-based company: “A lot of people who read for the part read it like someone who thought they deserved better. Ron read it like someone who really didn’t think he deserved better – and it bummed him out even more.”

Gary Cole received full-throated cheers from the Paramount audience as an exuberant tribute to his iconic performance as the smarmy and self-absorbed Bill Lumbergh -- a.k.a., The Boss from Hell. McGinley admitted that he, too, had auditioned for the part. But he learned of Judge’s final choice, he had no complaints. “When I got out of NYU in ’84,” McGinley recalled, “the Steppenwolf Theatre Company had just arrived from Chicago, and was turning New York upside down. And it was during this time that I saw Gary Cole do things on stage that just blew me away. So when I found out that he was the one they cast as Lumbergh, and I was going to be cast as Bob, I thought, ‘Well, yeah. Jesus got the role of Lumbergh. That’s OK. I’ll fuckin’ play the part of Bob.’” Smart move.

No WiFi? No problem!

I'm very proud to announce that when I couldn't get my WiFi working in Austin last night, I didn't throw a fit, or threaten to go home, or sink into a black pit of despair. Rather, I simply attended the festivities for the 10th anniversary of Office Space, then drove back to my motel, opened a bottle of Merlot, watched a couple of episodes of Frasier, then went to bed. A fun evening, all in all.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Slumdog roundtable


Houston-based TV journalist and TV Asia correspondent Ruchi Roy invited me to take part in a roundtable discussion of Slumdog Millionaire. The discussion was, I daresay, lively.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Flashback: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting

Were these guys ever that young? Hey, was I ever that young?



R.I.P.: James Whitmore (1921-2009)

Character actor par excellence James Whitmore had dozens upon dozens of film and TV credits on his lengthy resume -- everything from Broadway-spawned musicals (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!) to edgy crime dramas (The Asphalt Jungle, Madigan) to fact-based war stories (Battleground, Tora! Tora! Tora!) -- but I suspect that, depending on their age, most movie buffs remember him best as either the hard-bitten police sergeant who tangles with atomic-mutated ants in Them! (1954) or the tragic convict who can't cope with the pressures of post-prison freedom in The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

It was during a Toronto Film Festival press junket for the latter film that I had my one and only encounter with Whitmore, and I can say he was a very gracious and gregarious gent who laughed louder than anyone else at jokes about his long-term gig as TV pitchman for Miracle-Gro plant food. He also spoke very candidly about his past struggles to overcome alcohol abuse, and was extraordinarily compassionate toward me, a total stranger, as we discussed in private a similar struggle facing someone very dear to me. And he seemed richly amused when I told him how much I enjoyed him as part of a once-in-a-lifetime cast in The Split, an unjustly overlooked 1968 caper flick (based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake) that also provided gainful employment for Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine, Julie Harris, Jack Klugman, Donald Sutherland, Gene Hackman -- and Warren Oates.

BTW: For those of you who supplement your income with trivia-centric bar bets, consider this: Give 'Em Hell, Harry -- the 1975 film version of the one-man play in which Whitmore memorably essayed Harry S. Truman -- is one of only two movies ever made that earned Best Actor nominations for every single actor who appears on screen. I could tell you what the other movie is, but then I'd be accused a spoiling a classic plot twist. (No, not Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- unnominated bit players actually do appear on screen in that one.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Cowboys & Indians Magazine Reports 2008 Circulation Jump

I want to take full credit for this, because I wrote the cover stories for the magazine's three top-selling issues of 2008. And on the seventh day, I rested.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Flashback: Jodie Foster in Contact


Since Jodie Foster and I are great admirers of Francois Truffaut, we couldn't help talking about the great French filmmaker at the beginning and end of our July 1997 conversation about Contact. But, hey, we also talked about Robert Zemeckis' movie, too.

Flashback: Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element


OK, right off the top, I have to tell you: Even now, I'm still not sure exactly how the legal dispute Bruce Willis and I are talking about before this interview starts in earnest ever got settled. (It had something to do with him walking off a movie, and something else to do with the director being very, very unhappy.) But I can tell you that it was fun talking about skydiving, the first President Bush -- and, of course, The Fifth Element.

R.I.P.: John Paul Barnich (1945-2009)

When my friend John Paul Barnich was appointed a municipal court judge here in Houston, he told me that he intended to preside while wearing "a black robe and a simple strand of pearls -- nothing too flashy." I was, I admit, mildly surprised: After repeated exposure to the splendiferously campy decor of his Montrose home -- a place where I was privileged to share in many of the Thanksgiving feasts he so generously hosted over the years -- I figured that, at the very least, he'd want to wear a tiara while on the bench.

On the other hand, as Houston Chronicle writer Allan Turner notes, John found other ways of bringing his own unique touch to judicial proceedings:

“He was a round, jolly-looking fellow with long white hair and beard,” [state district judge Steven] Kirkland said. “Occasionally he would look at defendants from the bench and say, ‘Who do you think I am, Santa Claus?’ ” Defendants invariably would be taken aback because of the resemblance, Kirkland said

When questioned during a City Council hearing to confirm his appointment about how a gay judge would differ from a heterosexual judge, he responded that he would upgrade the courtroom’s sound system in order to play show tunes. On the occasion of his pet iguana’s fifth birthday, he gave the reptile a party featuring a mariachi band, said his longtime friend Jennifer Rantz.

John was a witty and warm-hearted man who, in addition to being a good friend, provided legal advice on more than one occasion to members of my, ahem, untidy family. To pay him the highest compliment I can pay anyone: He left this world a much better place than it would have been if he'd never been in it.