Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Poster sighting: Sherlock Holmes

I must admit, my expectations rose for the new Sherlock Holmes movie when I learned who'd be involved on both sides of the camera. But this teaser poster... Well, let's just say those expectations have been lowered. Slightly.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Women in Trouble

And now for something completely different: From Sebastian Gutierrez, scripter of Gothika and Snakes on a Plane, there is Women in Trouble, a wildly uneven but compulsively watchable mix of high camp and grand passions, soap opera and soft-core sex. Very much in the deliriously lewd style of Pedro Almodovar – who has co-written unproduced scripts with Gutierrez, and gets a shout-out in the closing credits – this exuberantly uninhibited indie, which recently world premiered at SXSW, has the anything-goes spirit of something tossed off in a single burst of collaborative energy. As director, Gutierrez serves his saucy scenario well, maintaining a pace that seldom decelerates from a hot trot while maneuvering through a busy patchwork of interconnected plotlines. (Simply offering a synopsis of its crazy-quilt plot likely will prove problematical for any critic bound by limited wordcounts.) But the candy-colored blur wouldn’t count for nearly as much without the full-throttle performances by a virtually all-female cast led by a gorgeously game Carla Gugino (above) and a sexily perplexed Adrianne Palicki. You can read my Variety review here.

Reviews: Know Your Mushrooms and Intangible Asset No. 82

I'm close to wrapping up my SXSW coverage for Variety -- honest! -- and today I have reviews of two interesting documentaries on-line: Ron Mann's Know Your Mushrooms, a film certain to gladden the hearts of fungophiles everywhere, and Emma Franz's Intangible Asset No. 82, which casts a respectful eye on the efforts of Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker to gain an audience with the legendary Kim Seok-chul, an aged Korean shaman whose intricate, improvised drumming has inspired and challenged him.

R.I.P.: Maurice Jarre (1924-2009)

Seventeen years ago, while dining with movie score composer Maurice Jarre at the Montreal World Film Festival, I told him that he should be proud that so many couples have fallen in love while listening to his "Laura's Theme" (from David Lean's Doctor Zhivago), even if few of them ever knew his name. Jarre laughed, and agreed. But then I told him how I had come to dread hearing the song during my childhood, because my father insisted on playing it again and again and again and again while stewing in an alcohol-fueled melancholy funk over his (temporary) break-up with my soon-to-be-stepmother. Jarre laughed again -- and apologized.

Jarre was at the Montreal festival for the world premiere of Maurice Jarre: A Tribute to David Lean, a filmed concert tribute to the great British filmmaker with whom he had collaborated so memorably and successfully. (The composer earned Academy Awards for scoring Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India -- and, of course, Zhivago.) The funny thing is, to paraphrase the final line from Spike Lee's 25th Hour, this collaboration came very close to never happening.

During an interview the morning after that world premiere, Jarre recalled that he made his first major breakthrough as a composer of film music with his score for the French classic Sundays and Cybele. ''For that film,'' Jarre said, ''I wrote a simple score for three instruments. And there were only about 10 minutes of music in the entire film.'' But that was enough to attract the attention of producer Sam Spiegel, who was looking for composers for his upcoming epic, Lawrence of Arabia.

Jarre recalled that, initially, Spiegel wanted three different composers from three different countries for the film. (''And I thought, 'Wow! That is an American production!''') When that plan fell through, Spiegel decided to split the scoring duties between Jarre and Broadway great Richard Rodgers.

''The first time I met David [Lean],'' Jarre said, ''was when he and I and Sam Spiegel were in a London studio, listening to a pianist play the music that Rodgers had written (in America) . . . The pianist began by playing the main theme, and then something called, if you can believe it, 'Love Theme for Lawrence of Arabia.'''

Lean was not amused. ''Sam,'' the director snapped at his producer, ''what is this rubbish?'' Anxious, and not a little embarrassed, Spiegel turned to Jarre and demanded that Jarre perform some of his own music. So Jarre sat at the piano, and began with ''what we now know as the theme for Lawrence of Arabia,'' the composer said.

''I had my back to them, so I could not see how they were reacting. But right in the middle of my playing, I felt a hand on my shoulder. And I could hear David saying, 'Sam, this young chap has exactly what I want.'''

So Jarre wound up writing all the music for the Oscar-winning epic. After that, he enjoyed international success with many other directors on such diverse projects as The Collector, The Longest Day, The Damned, The Man Who Would Be King, The Tin Drum, Witness, Dead Poet's Society, Ghost and Jacob's Ladder.

''But I still have the print of David's hand on my shoulder,'' Jarre said in 1992. ''You keep that all your life.''

Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism

Very much like a survey course for college freshmen, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism briskly covers a great deal of ground, and often engages with illuminating insights, but isn't designed to offer anything more than a cursory overview. The documentary -- which recently had its world premiere at SXSW in Austin, and will be shown next month at the Nashville Film Festival -- actually could wind up being a valuable teaching tool for educators in film studies programs (and, maybe, at journalism schools). Down the road, it might also attract receptive audiences in cable and PBS venues. Trouble is, writer-director Gerald Peary's once-over-lightly approach may disappoint the very people who'd be most inclined to view a documentary on this subject in the first place. You can read my Variety review here.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: That Evening Sun

An exceptionally fine example of regional indie filmmaking, That Evening Sun deserves savvy handling by a venturesome distributor to maximize its potential to attract audiences and win prizes. When I recently viewed this deliberately paced, richly atmospheric drama -- which won the Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature, and a Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast, at last week's SXSW Film Festival in Austin -- I marveled at Hal Holbrook's career-highlight star turn as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not go gentle into that good night, a vividly detailed yet subtly rendered performance that could generate serious heat in races for various year-end accolades. You can read my Variety review here. And if you missed it at SXSW, you catch writer-director Scott Teems' filmed-in-Tennessee production next month at, appropriately enough, the Nashville Film Festival.

Seth Rogen: Traitor to huskies?

From FitCeleb.com: "Actor Seth Rogen is struggling to accept his newly svelte figure -- because he's let down the legions of chubby men who looked up to him." The bastard.

Rio Bravo: 50 years young

Wall Street Journal writer Allen Barra celebrates Howard Hawks' classic Western, which he claims may be the most popular cult movie ever made. Seriously. "The phrase 'cult favorite' conjures up images of wobbly hand-held camera shots and little-known actors," Barra admits. "But Rio Bravo was shot in glorious Technicolor and starred perhaps the most popular star in movie history. Most cult films are too hip to be popular, and most big hits are too popular to be hip. But Rio Bravo is that rarest of films -- both popular and hip."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Later Oscars

This just in from IndieWire: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has moved up its dates nearly two weeks for the 2010 Academy Awards, with nominations to be announced Feb. 2 and the actual Oscarcast set for March 7. (The awards show aired Feb. 22 this year.) You know what this means, don't you? That's right: Variety gets to sell two additional weeks' worth of "For Your Consideration" ads. Sweet.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Monsters from the Id

Neatly mixing movie-buff nostalgia and food for thought, David Gargani's Monsters from the Id provides entertainment and insight with an enjoyable collage of clips from classic and campy sci-fi thrillers of the 1950s. The documentary examines what those movies reveal about the '50s zeitgeist, and persuasively argues that the U.S. was able to win the space race -- and, perhaps, the Cold War -- because thousands of this country's students were inspired by Hollywood's heroic depiction of scientists as visionary outer-space explorers and/or monster-zapping good guys. You can read my Variety review here.

The Special Relationship

Dennis Quaid as Bill Clinton? Julianne Moore as Hillary Clinton? Damn. If I weren't already an HBO subscriber, I would become one for this made-for-cable flick.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Review: Lesbian Vampire Killers

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.

Steppin' Out in New Orleans

I barely had time to recover from my arduous chores at the SXSW Film Festival before I was forced to fly to New Orleans and... and... Aw, hell, I'm not fooling any of you folks, am I? I got a chance to visit my Big Easy hometown for a few days after SXSW -- and, better still, write off the whole trip as a legitimate business expense. Here I am last Friday, March 20, appearing on Steppin' Out, the arts-and-entertainment chat show on WYES-TV, the Public Television station in New Orleans, promoting my book. Sweet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Haunting in Connecticut

At a time when so much has been reported about financially strapped folks facing foreclosure, there may be a receptive market for a movie that warns against moving too quickly into a house that only looks like a great bargain. But ticketbuyers will get far too few scares for their money with The Haunting in Connecticut, a based-on-fact ghost story that's long on atmosphere yet short on dramatic tension.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Observe and Report

Think Travis Bickle: Mall Cop and you'll have some idea of what to expect from Observe and Report, writer-director Jody Hill's shockingly and sometimes discomfortingly funny comedy about an unstable security guard (a never-better Seth Rogen) who views himself as vigilant protector -- and, occasionally, avenging angel -- while patrolling a suburban shopping mall. Taking a setup that could have been (and, recently, was) played for sitcom jokiness and family-friendly slapstick, Hill attempts something much darker, if not downright transgressive, with a movie bound to divide audiences and critics into love-it-or-leave-it camps when it opens April 10. You can read my Variety review, filed from SXSW, here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

R.I.P. Ron Silver (1946-2009)

In the wake of Ron Silver's passing at the ridiculously early age of 62, I'm afraid we're going to be reading a lot of nonsense about how his switch from left-wing activism to right-wing zealotry in the wake of 9/11 irreparably damaged his film career. Unfortunately, the truth is something a bit more complicated -- and, in a way, far more frustrating.

Silver did indeed make quite a splash during the late '80s and early '90s with memorable lead performances in Enemies: A Love Story (which greatly impressed me when, by bizarre coincidence, I viewed it for the first time only a few days ago) and Reversal of Fortune (neatly balancing the sardonic sub-zero cool of Jeremy Irons' Claus von Bulow with the barely contained intensity of his Alan Dershowitz.

Unfortunately, Silver never caught on as an above-the-title star -- and by the mid-1990s, he was playing villains in direct-to-video B-movies (Deadly Outbreak) and picking up paychecks (and, to be fair, some Emmy nominations) as an occasional TV series regular. He never seemed to go very long between acting gigs. But he never really regained the momentum that he gained from Enemies and Reversal of Fortune. When I watched Enemies a few days ago, I found myself wondering: "What the heck ever happened to this guy's career?" Unfortunately, I found myself wondering the very same thing, for far different reasons, back when I saw Deadly Outbreak.

Please get don't get me wrong: I'm not accusing Silver of trying, and failing, to jump-start a stalled career with a well-publicized political switch. (I'll save accusations like that for the likes of... well, can you say Victoria Jackson?) I'm sure he had firmly held beliefs, and I won't argue that those beliefs may have hurt him in the more liberal circles of Hollywood. But I would argue that the overall arc of his career is just one more illustration of a sad but inescapable Hollywood truism: For some people -- even for some very talented people -- for some reason, the magic never happens.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Caine kicks ass (again)

Michael Caine once told me he viewed the hardboiled badass he played in Get Carter as "the ghost of Michael Caine" -- that is, the sort of gangster he very well could have grown up to be, given his hardscrabble childhood in a rough neighborhood of London. Judging from this report about his next movie -- which, sight unseen, sounds a bit like it might be his Gran Torino -- it looks like Caine is haunting the mean streets of his youth again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: Race to Witch Mountain

Smartly positioned for maximum potential as a breakout spring hit with cross-generational appeal, Race to Witch Mountain is the sort of full-throttle crowd-pleaser capable of grabbing even teen and twentysomething ticketbuyers who normally avoid anything that smacks of "family entertainment." You can read my Variety review here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Press release of the day

Texas trio makes surprise weekend stop at Angelika Film Center

HOUSTON (March 9, 2009) – Have you ever wondered how pop stars Kevin, Joe, and Nick Jonas might spend a Saturday night? Turns out, just like any other normal guys.

This past Saturday the brothers were spotted enjoying some pre-concert downtime at the Angelika Film Center, taking in the 9:30 p.m. show of Watchmen along with hundreds of other moviegoers. With a little helpful maneuvering from management, they were able to slip in and out of the theater without creating a scene.

The Jonas Brothers were in Houston over the weekend for their first concert appearance at RodeoHouston on Sunday afternoon.

No word on their review of the film.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Boffo weekend b.o.

According to IndieWire, Tokyo! -- co-directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Joon-ho Bong -- claimed first-place honors in the weekend's specialty film b.o. race, earning $21,500 on its sole screen in Manhattan. Oh, yeah, and that new comic book movie made a lot of money, too.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Michael Moore is not now, nor has he ever been, the Democrats' answer to Rush Limbaugh

At least, that's his story, and he's sticking to it: "[T]he more the Right went after me, the more people got to hear what I was saying -- and eventually the majority, for some strange reason, ended up agreeing with me -- not Rush Limbaugh -- and elected Barack Obama as president of the United States, a man who promised to end the war, bring about universal health care, close Guantanamo, stop torture, tax the rich, and rein in the abusive masters of Wall Street." So there. Eat dirt and die, Republican campaign advisor Mark McKinnon.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

R.I.P.: Horton Foote (1916-2009)

I know I've told this story before, but: Several years ago, a colleague at the now-defunct Houston Post wrote a story about movies that some people – celebrities, mostly – like to watch over and over and over again on videocassette. (Hey, I told you this was several years ago.) When he ran out of really well-known folks to interview, he collared me in the newsroom and asked: “What movie do you watch repeatedly?” And so I told him: “There’s something about Tender Mercies that deeply and profoundly affects me on so many levels that, yes, I’m addicted to watching it. Whenever I get depressed, I want to pop the tape into the VCR, and hear Robert Duvall say: ‘I don’t trust happiness. Never did, never will.’ God, I know exactly how he feels.”

Flash-forward a few weeks: I am at Houston’s Stages Theatre to review for Variety the opening night performance of Talking Pictures, a drama by Pultizer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote, a.k.a. the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Tender Mercies (and To Kill a Mockingbird). There’s a post-performance party, and I’m off in a corner, munching on fried chicken I obtained from the bountiful buffet, when I spot Foote – who I’ve met maybe once or twice before that evening – across a crowded room. I nod, give him a thumb’s up – the play actually was quite good, and deserves to be revived – and go back to eating. Much to my surprise, however, Foote cuts short a conversation he’s having with someone, walks across the crowded room, makes his way over to me and, without a hint of irony, says: “Oh, Joe, I’m so sorry you get depressed…”

Bless you, Mr. Foote. And thank you again for writing Tender Mercies. And To Kill a Mockingbird. And The Trip to Bountiful -- movie and play. And for dozens of other plays that continue to be revived at theaters throughout the world, and will survive and thrive while enthralling generations yet unborn.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Review: Echelon Conspiracy

It wouldn't be entirely fair to describe Echelon Conspiracy as an Eagle Eye knock-off. But, then again, life isn't fair, so why should film criticism be? Besides, as briskly efficient B-movies go, this one isn't half-bad. You can read my Variety review here. And maybe then you can explain to me why Edward Burns has himself billed as "Ed Burns" in the credits. Like, did he think this would fool anybody, or what?