Monday, March 29, 2010

Poster girl

The official poster for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival does something I would not have thought possible: It makes Juliette Binoche look... well, butch. Not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand, but still...

Free movie: Fantasyland

Just a little while ago, I was asking myself: How can I lure more people to this blog? I mean, other than run more photos of Sarah Palin in black leather or Sally Field on the cover of Playboy or Julia Roberts flaunting her legs? And then it hit me: What this blog needs is more free movies, dammit. And so, just in time for the start of baseball season, and right before my beloved Houston Astros begin their journey to a second World Series, here's Fantasyland, a glimpse into the world of fantasy sports, and an introduction to the personalities, characters and stories that make up this billion-dollar industry. It specifically features Jed Latkin, argubaly the most obsessed fan of fantasy baseball in the known universe. Enjoy.

Nashville Fest preview: Freedom Riders

With both WorldFest/Houston and the Nashville Film Festival set to kick off next month, I'll soon have to start work on my must-see lists. I'm especially eager to catch the Nashville screening of Freedom Riders, the latest documentary from Stanley Nelson, a filmmaker whose past efforts -- including The Murder of Emmett Till, Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind and The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords -- have firmly established him as contemporary cinema's premier illuminator of African-American history. Of course, it helps that he's one hell of a storyteller -- and in Freedom Riders, he has one hell of a story to tell. My Variety colleague Andrew Barker has raved: "Stripping away the platitudes and feel-good generalizations of so many civil-rights documentaries, Stanley Nelson's Freedom Riders is a superb piece of filmic journalism." Sounds like a must-see to me.

"I'm into leather!"

Sorry, but I just couldn't help thinking of that classic line from Annie Hall when I saw this photo. Pretty stylish, eh? I mean, if you're into the dominatrix look.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"God's Gonna Cut You Down"

Tony Kaye directed this version of the tradtional song sung by Johnny Cash. But Moby had a different take on it. Both, I think, are great. Can I hear an amen?

Blast from the past: Matthew McConaughey talks about A Time to Kill

Back in July 1996 -- after I "discovered" Matthew McConaughey in Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- we chatted about his breakthrough role in A Time to Kill. He was very complimentary while talking about director Joel Schumacher, whom he described as "an expert on human behavior" who issued only one warning on set: "Do not mistake my kindness for weakness." (Note how I shamelessly ask him to plug Texas Entertainment News, a short-lived syndicated show for which I was free-lancing at the time.)

Blast from the past: Antonio Banderas talks about Desperado

When I interviewed Antonio Banderas on the set of Desperado for the LA Times, back when the movie didn’t even have an official title, he was greatly amused as he described “killing the hell out of people” in Robert Rodriguez’s action-adventure. He’s equally enthusiastic about the film in this clip. 

Roger Ebert agrees: 45365 adds up to something special

Last year at SXSW, I noted that 45365 -- winner of the festival's jury prize for best documentary --"fashions a seductive, fascinating tapestry of small-town life by interweaving seemingly random glimpses of residents in Sidney, Ohio." Earlier this month at the Independent Spirit Awards, the inaugural Chaz & Roger Ebert Truer Than Fiction Award went to 45365. And now Roger has posted a full-length review singing the movie's praises. So take our advice: Track this movie down. Drive to another city  if you must. But if it's anywhere in your area: See it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Victoria Jackson: Still crazy after all these years

Remember when you thought Victoria Jackson was funny? Back when she was the resident ditz on Saturday Night Live, and a kooky co-star in movies such as Casual Sex? and UHF? Well, guess what? She's still a laugh riot. Seriously. In fact, you could say she's a party kind of gal.

SXSW XVII: Saturday Night and For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair

Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, Saturday Night sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of Saturday Night Live. You can read my Variety review here.

Judicious trimming could tighten the focus and maximize the audience potential of For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair, a labor-of-love tribute to Houston's improbably enduring venue for folk and acoustic musicians. You read my Variety review here.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stop the Presses

Just three weeks before the 15th anniversary of the closing of The Houston Post – yeah, I know, I didn’t think it had been that long, either – here comes a film that confirms our worst suspicions: Things have only gotten worse for the newspaper industry since the Post was toasted. Stop the Presses, a critically acclaimed documentary co-directed by Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza, will have its H-Town premiere Saturday, March 27, in the Performing Arts Center at the Spring Branch campus of Houston Community College, 1010 West Sam Houston Parkway North.

The 8 p.m. screening will be preceded by a 7 p.m. reception – complete with free soft drinks, popcorn and balloons for the kiddies (OK, I made up the part about the balloons) -- for visiting filmmakers Birnbaum and Mendoza, who’ll hang around for a post-screening panel discussion with such luminaries as Kyrie O'Connor and Bob LeVitus of The Houston Chronicle and… and.. well, and me. (But don’t let that keep you away.)

Be forewarned: Stop the Presses is not a pretty picture. “The American newspaper’s vital role as public watchdog is in danger,” co-director Mendoza insists. “Circulation and revenue have plunged as readers and advertisers flee to the Internet, thousands of journalists have been laid off or bought out, and stockholders have forced top news organizations out of business.” Stop the Presses “takes viewers inside disheartened newsrooms to document the devastation,” Mendoza says, “and into the community to learn what readers think of journalism’s fate.” Among the on-screen interviewees: Ben Bradley, Dave Barry, Ed Asner (who isn’t really a newspaper editor, but played one on TV) and the late, great Walter Cronkite.

Stop the Presses – which will be presented in Houston by the Real Films series of The Documentary Alliance -- premiered at the AFI Dallas Film Festival in April 2008. Since then, The Rocky Mountain News in Denver shut down, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer switched over to an on-line only operation. The corporate parents of many other prestigious papers -- including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post — have sought bankruptcy protection, And earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that, according to figures released by the Newspaper Association of America, U.S. newspaper advertising revenue across the board last year plunged 27 percent to its lowest level since 1986.

“If we had known the situation was going to get this bad,” Mendoza says, “we might have gone with our original subtitle -- Death of the American Newspaper.” Yikes.

Tickets for Stop the Presses will be $10 for general admission, and $5 for HCC students with ID. But wait, there’s more: An autographed DVD of the film will be given away as a door prize.

"Yes we can!" "Hell no! You can't!"

As I told all my Facebook buddies a few days ago: I thought John Boehner's frothing-at-the-mouth petulance before Sunday evening's Health Care Reform vote would come back to haunt him on You Tube. But I had no idea that it would happen quite this way...

R.I.P.: At the Movies (1986-2010)

Even though I haven't watched the show much in recent years -- well, OK, except  for the few times I appeared as a guest in 2008, during the short-lived heyday of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz --  I could not help but wince a bit when I heard yesterday that, at long last, the ax had fallen on At the Movies, the weekly movie review program Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel began in 1986 (following in the tradition of their two earlier, similar series). It's always painful when a revered tradition comes to an end, even if that ending occurs long after much of the original reverence has dissipated. (Not that Roger or Gene had anything to do with that.). Still, as even Roger admits, the cancellation was inevitable:

At the Movies was one of the last survivors of half-hour syndication. It didn't fail so much as have its format shot out from beneath it. Don't blame Disney. Don't blame Tony Scott and Michael Phillips, the final co-hosts, critics I admire who still have five months left on the air. Don't blame Ben Mankiewicz. Don't blame my pal Richard Roeper, who didn't fancy following the show in a "new direction." Don't blame the cancer that forced me off the show. Don't even blame Ben Lyons. He was the victim of a mistaken hiring decision.

Blame the fact that five-day-a-week syndicated shows like Wheel of Fortune went to six days. Blame the fact that cable TV and the internet have fragmented the audience so much that stations are losing market share no matter what they do. Blame the economy, because many stations would rather sell a crappy half-hour infomercial than program a show they respect. Blame the fact that everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.

But don't despair: Rogert promises to soon launch yet another movie review program, one that "will go full-tilt New Media: Television, net streaming, cell phone apps, Facebook, Twitter, iPad, the whole enchilada. The disintegration of the old model creates an opening for us. I'm more excited than I would be if we were trying to do the same old same old." Good luck. We'll see you at the movies. But we won't forget the old show.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SXSW XVII: Monsters

If John Cassavetes had ever made a sci-fi thriller about ginormous extraterrestrial invaders, it probably would have looked and sounded a lot like Monsters. No, seriously. I liked this audacious indie a lot -- but I'm really, really happy I don't have to market it. You can read my Variety review here.

R.I.P.: Robert Culp (1930-2010)

Unless you actually lived during the ‘60s, you may never fully appreciate what a groundbreaking TV series I Spy really was. For the first time in a weekly dramatic series on US television, a white man and a Negro (to use the parlance of the times) worked together as equals – mutually respectful, to be sure, but  also swapping snappy one-liners and affectionate insults while going about deadly serious business.  The truly amazing thing about the show – surprising at the time, but even more startling in retrospect – was the matter-of-fact pairing of the lead characters played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. Indeed, there were almost never any references to the fact that Culp’s Kelly Robinson was Caucasian and Cosby’s Alexander Scott wasn’t.

On more than one occasion, Cosby (whose popular ‘80s sitcom proved to be another kind of groundbreaker) has credited Culp, then a more established actor, with not just accepting but encouraging the equal-opportunity apportionment of on-screen time – which, of course, helped launch Cosby (who, prior to I Spy, was known primarily as a stand-up comic) as a multi-media superstar.

Culp, who passed away Wednesday at age 79, wasn’t quite so lucky. He played one of the title roles in Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), and co-starred with Cosby in Hickey and Boggs (1972), a stylishly hardboiled private-eye caper  (written by Walter Hill) that he also directed. But the latter movie never found the audience it deserved, and the former failed to give him any traction as an A-list film actor. Culp went on to give memorable performances in two exceptional TV-movies – as a suburbanite forced into vigilantism while dealing with rampaging teens and their permissive parents in Outrage (1973), and a cynical radio talk-show host who desperately launches a search for a suicidal caller in A Cry for Help (1975) – and found gainful employment in episodic television (most notably, as a supporting player in The Greatest American Hero) throughout much of the next three decades. But he never loomed larger in our collective pop-culture consciousness than he did from 1965 to 1968, while he and Cosby were making TV history as globetrotting spies who were too damn cool to even glancingly acknowledge anything so uncool as a racial divide.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

SXSW XVII: Tiny Furniture

Winner of the top Narrative Feature prize at the SXSW Film Festival, Tiny Furniture should strike a responsive chord in anyone who remembers – or is experiencing – that post-college period in life when you’re impatiently eager to invent yourself, yet reflexively hesitant to get started. Written and directed by newcomer Lena Dunham, who also plays the lead role, this technically polished indie often feels like a semi-autographical effort by a filmmaker trying to work out in her art issues that she’s still confronting in life. But that, too, may help the picture connect with audiences during limited theatrical exposure. You can read my full Variety review here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Blast from the past: Peter Fonda talks about Ulee's Gold

When the cameras started rolling for this June 1997 interview, Peter Fonda and I still were talking about one of my all-time favorite movies -- The Hired Hand (1971), in which he co-starred opposite the late, great Warren Oates under his own direction. But he was there to promote Ulee's Gold -- for which he would earn a Best Actor nomnation -- and that's what we spent most of our time discussing. Which is cool, because that's a pretty damn good movie, too. I strongly suspect Fonda could actually win an Oscar if someoone took a chance and offered him one more meaty role. Hope it hapens.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

SXSW XVII: Barry Munday

It's tempting, and not entirely inaccurate, to describe Barry Munday as Knocked Up Lite.You can read my Variety review here.

Blast from the past: Brendan Fraser talks about The Mummy

The money quote in this Mummy interview: Brendan Fraser recalls the best piece of direction he received from Stephen Sommers: "Run fast! Look like a stud! And don't die!"

Blasts from the past: Jackie Chan talks about Supercop and Rush Hour

I interviewed Jackie Chan for the first time back in July 1996, during a New York junket for Supercop, at a time when he was making his second major push to expand his international superstardom to the United States. (During his first attempt more than a decade earlier, he did cameos in two Cannonball Run movies, and starred in Battle Creek Brawl -- a.k.a. The Big Brawl -- a relatively obscure action-comedy filmed on location in Texas.) He was extremely ingratiating, but seemed just a tad anxious. Two years later, however, he came across as appreciably more self-confident while launching his first bona fide U.S. blockbuster, Rush Hour. My favorite part of the interview: He talks about studying Fred Astaire before choreographing a comic fight scene.

Blast from the past: Sean Penn talks about The Crossing Guard

After looking at this interview for the first time in nearly 15 years, my first reaction was: "Damn! I can't believe I didn't ask him a single question about Jack Nicholson!" On the other hand, Sean Penn is very forthcoming while talking about another actor in The Crossing Guard -- the under-rated David Morse, who also starred in Penn's The Indian Runner. As for Crossing Guard itself, this is what I wrote a few years back:

It's too long, too unfocused and way too self-indulgent. But in the end, none of this matters. Sean Penn's second effort as a director-screenwriter is compelling and emotionally resonant ways that more conventionally well-made films never manage to be. Jack Nicholson gives one of his finest performances as Freddy Gale, a jewelry store owner whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver six years before the story begins. Since then, the devastated Freddy has remained alive only by nursing the hope that he will be able to kill John Booth (David Morse), the man who accidentally killed his daughter. But as the guilt-racked Booth is released from prison, it becomes very clear that perhaps neither man really wants to live much longer. Throughout Crossing Guard, Penn has a tendency to sledgehammer his way through walls rather than simply opening doors. Even so, he always gets where he wants to go -- to that dark corner of our hearts where we can forgive no one, not even ourselves. Co-star Anjelica Huston has a couple of terrific scenes as Freddy's ex-wife, a woman with her own share of guilt, fear and loathing.

Blast from the past: Salma Hayek

It's true, it's true: While Salma Hayek changed, I hid my eyes. Honest.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

SXSW XVII: Mr. Nice and Ride, Rise, Roar and more

From SXSW 2009: At the start of Ride, Rise, Roar, as a white-suited David Byrne launches into an exuberant rendition of "Once in a Lifetime" backed by a perfectly attuned ensemble of similarly clad dancers, vocalists and musicians, it's clear: This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no humdrum concert documentary. You can read my Variety review here.

But wait, there's more: A shaggy-dog story based on stranger-than-fiction fact, Bernard Rose's Mr. Nice is casually cheeky and frankly celebratory as it charts the improbable rise and inevitable fall of Howard Marks, an amiable bloke from the valleys of South Wales who controlled a sizable portion of the world's hashish trade in the 1970s and '80s. Based on Marks' bestselling autobiography, this mildly amusing but overly discursive biopic likely will play best in those international markets where its subject -- freed from U.S. incarceration in 1995 -- remains enough of a celebrity to command large audiences with a one-man stage show. Here is the complete Variety review.

Just in case you missed my earlier posts: Ingeniously constructed and propulsively paced, Brotherhood achieves the sweaty-palmed intensity of classic film noir while demonstrating just how speedily a very bad situation can metastasize into a worst-case scenario after a college fraternity hazing takes a deadly serious turn. First-time feature helmer Will Canon drives his actors on a virtually nonstop full-court press from first scene to final fade-out, only occasionally pausing for a dab of backstory or a burst of black comedy to give the players -- and the audience -- a fleeting breather. Canny marketing could drive this well-crafted indie beyond the fest circuit and into megaplexes. This full review is here.

And of course: Kick-Ass most certainly does. Equal parts audacious dark comedy, wish-fulfillment fantasy and over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, Matthew Vaughn's bloody funny adaptation of a cult-fave comicbook series manages to be sufficiently faithful to its source material to please fervent fanboys while remaining easily accessible for ticketbuyers unfamiliar with the superhero storytelling conventions Vaughn (Layer Cake) and co-scripter Jane Goldman satirize as well as celebrate. Scenes of hilariously overstated violence perpetrated by an 11-year-old girl doubtless will discomfort many and incense quite a few. But this deservedly R-rated Lionsgate release should nonetheless score a knockout in theatrical and homevid venues. The rest is here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SXSW XVII: Brotherhood

I'm seeing so many movies at SXSW, I scarcely have time to stop and write about them. But here is my Variety review of Brotherhood, a neo-noir suspense drama perhaps best described as Detour meets Animal House. No, really.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Opening Friday: SXSW XVII

Chris Garcia of the Austin American-Statesman couldn't find any really important critic to comment for his SXSW 2010 curtain-raiser story, so he settled for... well, me. But you know what? If you read the piece, you'd almost think I know what I'm talking about.

Oscar slumming

I'm not sure that I'd rank some of the films mentioned here among "The Worst Cinematic Crap Ever Made" -- Cleopatra Jones, for example, is a genuine camp classic -- but, yeah, the deservedly hard-to-find (and even harder to watch) Inchon is a textbook example of Le Bad Cinema. Makes you wonder what some of this year's Oscar winners will be stuck in a decade or so from now. (Of course, Sandra Bullock already has a Golden Razzie award to her discredit, so...)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Live Oscar Blogging! Live Oscar Blogging!

Read all about it here.

At long last: The Top 10 of 2009

Yeah, I know: I should have posted a Top 10 Films of 2009 list at some point back in late December. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons – some professional, most personal – I couldn’t find time to thoughtfully consider and dutifully write such a wrap-up by year’s end. (Part of the problem: It took me much, much longer than I expected to take second looks – or, in some cases, first looks – at all the movies eligible for inclusion.) So I put it off for a week, and then a week became a month, and then… well, here I am, just hours away from the Oscarcast, and I’m just now completing the job. I may never again be able in good conscience to penalize a student for his or her tardy submission of an assignment.

(Would I get any sympathy if I reminded you about my cancer treatments? No? You say I’ve milked that cow quite enough already? OK, never mind. It’s like my son always tells me: You dribble and you shoot, and you hope you score…)

To begin with my standard disclaimer: Compiling a Top 10 list for any year is a task I approach with a fair share of ambivalence. Because, let's face it, what I'm really doing is announcing my favorite films released during an arbitrarily agreed-upon 12-month period. A decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. (Hell, I’ve already made revisions to a preliminary list I submitted to IndieWire nearly three months ago.) At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2009 releases that impressed me most and best.

Up in the Air – Back in September, I reported from the Toronto Film Festival that Jason Reitman’s uncommonly amusing, insightful and affecting dramedy “may be… oh, to hell with equivocation. It is the best movie I have seen so far in 2009. If I see anything better by year’s end, I will be greatly astonished and immensely grateful. But I’ll still probably want to go back and take another look at Reitman’s film – and at George Clooney’s career-highlight performance – just to be absolutely certain the other movie really is better.” Well, I took a second look, and it’s still No. 1 for me.

That Evening Sun – It’s still winding its way across the U.S. in limited theatrical release, and for that, I suppose, I should be thankful. But I’m deeply disappointed that more moviegoers – and movie-award voters – didn’t discover and share Scott Teems’ richly atmospheric and vividly acted drama with the superb Hal Holbrook at the top of his game as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not give up his land or his pride without a fight.

(500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb’s absolutely delightful comedy-drama about falling in love – or, perhaps more precisely, assuming you’ve fallen in love – is a fleet-footed, time-tripping, tone-juggling treasure, deftly balancing exhilaration and melancholy, and offering the most deriously, contagiously joyful musical production number on display in any movie all year.

The Messenger – Two soldiers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) charged with bringing tragic news to next to kin find it increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to maintain their distance from the receivers of their sad tidings in Oren Moverman’s subtly observed, quietly devastating drama.

Crazy Heart – It can’t help reminding you of Tender Mercies – and not just because Robert Duvall, the Oscar-winning star of that 1983 classic, participates here as producer and co-star – but Scott Cooper’s emotionally resonant tale of a faded country music star who must hit rock bottom before he can regain lost ground stands tall on its own merits as an exceptionally fine drama about regret and regeneration. And yes, the-never-again-underrated Jeff Bridges deserves every single award he has collected (and likely will collect) for his lead performance.

Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Wes Anderson’s wondrously witty adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is a masterwork of stop-motion animation that is every bit as drolly whimsical as… well, most live-action Wes Anderson movies.

A Serious Man – Joel and Ethan Coen offer their modern-day take on the Book of Job in a bleakly hilarious fable about not-so-stoically accepting the cruel caprices of chance.

The Informant! – Steven Soderbergh’s exuberantly cheeky dark comedy, freely adapted from real-life events, showcases Matt Damon in a marvelously multifaceted performance as an unreliable whistleblower who’s gradually revealed as a self-aggrandizing fabulist, all to the tune of an audaciously cheery Marvin Hamlisch score that, presumably, Damon’s deceiver hears inside his head.

Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas addresses us in a soft yet insistent tone – communicating in French, but speaking in a universal language – while spinning his 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.

The Hurt Locker – Much has been written about the unfortunate inability of Kathryn Bigelow’s edgy indie drama to avoid the “Iraq War movie curse” during its theatrical run. (For all its acclaim and accolades, its domestic gross is less than half that earned by the near-universally reviled All About Steve). But there’s little doubt that, for decades to come, long after most boffo box-office hits of 2009 are forgotten, audiences will be discovering and savoring her viscerally suspenseful and visually arresting film about an adrenaline-addicted bomb-disposal specialist who may never find peace even after the shooting stops.

Runners up: Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Pete Docter’s Up, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, James Cameron’s Avatar, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Invisible Girlfriend and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side.