Sunday, May 30, 2010

R.I.P.: Dennis Hopper (1936-2010)

Within the space of a month or so during the summer of 1969, moviegoers got to see Dennis Hopper as a luckless outlaw who dies while reluctantly aiding John Wayne in True Grit – and a chopper-riding rebel journeying across America alongside Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. And, mind you, that disparate combo of credits only begins to hint at the variety and versatility that define the resume of the late, great actor, who finally lost his long battle with prostate cancer Saturday at age 74. You can read my 1990 interview with Hopper here, my Houston Culture Map obituary here -- and an essay about Easy Rider I wrote just last April here. And if you would like to see him near the start of a career that spanned six decades, here is Hopper in the 1958 pilot episode -- scripted by Sam Peckinpah! -- of The Rifleman.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gunning for viewers with Red Dead Redemption

Are you ready for Red Dead Redemption: The Movie? Because it’s coming to Fox TV this weekend. Sort of.

Actually, “movie” is something of an overstatement – it’s really more like Red Dead Redemption: The 30-Minute Short. But the animated drama – set to air at 11 pm CT Saturday on the Fox network – is indeed a Wild West narrative that incorporates elements from the mega-hyped, widely praised Red Dead Redemption videogame. There’s a technical term for this sort of thing: Machinima, works created from the graphics engines and assets of a vidgame. But all you really need to know in this particular case is, first, the Fox late-night special (airing after The Wanda Sykes Show) really is an original, stand-alone drama, not just a passel of in-game scenes excerpted from Red Dead, and, perhaps more important, it was created and directed by Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, the same writer-director who got all apocalyptic on us with his recent film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

What’s it all about? According to the folks at Rockstar Games, the same company that also gave us Grand Theft Auto, the half-hour Western “chronicles a slice-in-time of protagonist John Marston as he tracks down his former fellow outlaw and friend, Bill Williamson. Along the way, Marston encounters many of Red Dead Redemption's eclectic cast of dreamers, misfits and liars. Using the world of Red Dead Redemption as a virtual film studio and created entirely with in-game assets and technology, Hillcoat re-imagines Marston’s pursuit of justice and salvation.”

Sounds pretty cool. And, hey, it's airing opposite a Saturday Night Live rerun, so why not click the remote and take a look? Here's a sneak peek.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sweet Crude: The right documentary in the right place at the right time?

Talk about topicality: As the cataclysmic Gulf Oil Spill continues apace – and, not incidentally, as activists gather in Houston to protest at the Chevron shareholders meeting – the Aneglika Film Center will present a special screening of Sweet Crude, an acclaimed documentary about the true cost of oil, the global environmental crisis, and the struggle for resource control in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.

But wait, there’s more: After the screening, there’ll be a panel discussion with Macon Hawkins, an oil worker who, despite his experiences as a hostage held by Niger Delta militants, remains sympathetic to the needs of the region’s people; Emem Okon, a leader of Nigeria’s women’s movement; Omoyele Sowore, an activist from a Chevron production area in Nigeria, now a U.S.-based journalist; and Sandy Cioffi, director of Sweet Crude, who attracted international attention in April 2008 when she, her production crew and a Nigerian colleague were arrested by members of the Nigerian military in an effort to shut down the film.

And why, you might ask, were those soldiers so eager to impede production of Sweet Crude? Well, maybe they were image-conscious soldiers. As my Variety colleague John Anderson noted in his rave review of the film, Cioffi doesn't paint a pretty picture:

“After 50 years and $700 billion in oil sucked out of the ground by Royal Dutch Shell and its co-conspirator, Chevron, the Niger Delta is among the most polluted places on Earth, says UC Berkeley geography professor Michael Watts, Cioffi's most astute talking head. Watts clarifies something else essential about Nigeria: The exploited African nation is ‘a very shaky, rickety federation" that isn't a natural nation at all, but has always been a ripe candidate for divide-and-conquer colonialism.’

“‘This is not the movie I intended to make,’ Cioffi says in her initial voiceover, explaining she was there to make a movie about a library, the construction of which marked a rare collaboration between the government, oil companies and usually contentious tribal interests. But the students involved used the opening ceremony to mount a protest over their exploited resources, and Cioffi knew she had another movie to make.”

It's a movie that may find a sizeable and concerned audience here in H-Town, which reportedly has one of the largest Nigerian populations of any U.S. city.

The Empire Strikes Back -- From 1950! In 3-D!

Yet another DIY Star Wars movie. And one of the better ones. Maybe it'll be excerpted if there's ever a sequel to The People Vs. George Lucas.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The entire series of Lost, re-enacted by cats in one minute

Since I gave up after a few episodes during the first season, I don't know just how faithful this is to the real Lost. But, hey, I have cats, so I can just imagine the whole thing was something like this.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Required reading for anyone serious about cinema

Manohla Dargis encourages us to think long and hard about what we may be giving up as we make the transition from film to digital movies.

Friday, May 21, 2010

MacGruber does not suck

I feel slightly relieved to see that, according to Movie Review Intelligence, I am not the only critic who thought MacGruber was pretty damn funny. Full disclosure: I laughed until I was thoroughly ashamed of myself when I caught a "work in progress" version of the flick last spring at SXSW -- even though I'm not at all a fan of the Saturday Night Live sketches that "inspired" it -- and it struck me as equally amusing when I saw an officially  "complete" (albeit mostly unchanged) version at a Houston screening Thursday night. Indeed, I still can't understand why the folks at Rogue Picture wimped out and refused to screen the movie any earlier for critics who hadn't made the trek to Austin in March. Were they... oh, I don't know... afraid of getting bad reviews? My, what a quaint notion.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Waterworld II: The Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up

Who can save us from ecological catastrophe? Would you believe... Kevin Costner? Seriously: According to the New York Daily News, Costner "has invented a device that cleans oil from sea water." And British Petroleum -- which, let's face it, is getting pretty freakin' desperate at this point -- gave the OK yesterday to test six of Costner's devices "after the Army Corps of Engineers gave the machine a thumb's up."

But wait, there's more: "Costner's $24 million centrifuge machine has a Los Angeles-perfect name, 'Ocean Therapy.' Placed on a barge, it sucks in oily water, separates out the oil and spits back clean water." And believe it or not: Costner "started paying a team of scientists millions to create the device" back in 1995 while working on -- yes, you guessed it -- Waterworld.

Hey, whatever works. I've always been a Costner fan. (Not only do I think his performance in Mr. Brooks was criminally under-rated -- I've even had nice things to say, and write, about The Postman.)  And if he can save my home state of Louisiana (among other places) from this disaster, I will gladly buy him dinner at the New Orleans restaurant of his choosing. No kidding.

If movie universes had propaganda posters...

A pretty damn funny collection, courtesy of the crazies at (and spotted by pop-culture maven John Guidry).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Robert Redford: Obama isn't doing enough

Robert Redford is seriously unhappy about the way President Obama is handling the ongoing Gulf Oil Spill (a metastasizing catastrophe now of sufficient importance to justify the use of capital letters, like The Great Recession). As he posted today on

"I am glad that President Obama announced that he would appoint an independent commission to look at the causes of the blowout and determine what we must do to prevent this from ever happening again. This is an important first step in addressing the national tragedy and coming up with real solutions to prevent future drilling disasters.

"But it is not enough."

Redford discussed his concerns tonight with Keith Olbermann during, apparently, a break in his post-production chores for The Conspirator. It would be overstating the case to describe Redford's tone as "angry." But I can't help feeling that, in the weeks and months ahead, he's going to be hard-pressed to devote his full attention to the task of completing and promoting a movie.

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Brotherhood can do at Cannes

Last March, I filed the following for Variety from SXSW: 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.

Anne Thompson reports from Cannes that a new distributor -- Phase 4 Films -- shares my enthusiasm for Brotherhood, and plans "a late 2010 release" for the prize-winning, filmed-in-Texas indie. Think Detour meets Animal House, and you'll have some idea what to expect when it opens at a theater or drive-in near you.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Shia LeBeouf promises the next Transformers movie will be much, much better. Honest. Swear to God. No fooling.

Yes, I know: You're expecting some sort of punchline here. But there are times when reality is beyond parody. This is such a time.

Surprise guest for an Angelika screening

Coming soon – like, tomorrow – to a theater (Angelika Film Center) downtown: Surprise in Texas, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen’s up-close account of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. The documentary follows 30 competitors from 14 countries -- including Nobuyuki Tsujii, an award-wining pianist blind since birth – as they vie for attention and accolades at the prestigious contest. Rosen goes behind the scenes to focus on preparations and performances, and acknowledges the warm hospitality extended by Texas host families to competition participants.

After the 7:45 p.m. Friday Surprise screening at the Angelika, Jade Simmons, first-ever webcast host for the Van Cliburn Competition, will be on hand for a Q&A session. And while she likely won’t be sharing hot gossip about who may have hidden a rival’s sheet music, or slipped a whoopee cushion onto someone else's piano stool, Simmons – who earned a master’s degree at Rice University, where she studied with Jon Kimura Parker, and created the Mozart on the Move music education program used in H-Town’s public schools -- will offer insights informed by her own experiences as a classical pianist.

What sort of experiences? Well, Simmons has played impressively in several concert venues – so impressively, in fact, that The Washington Post has called her “a clear, powerful pianist with a magnetic personality…worth seeing any time.” And while she was competing at the 2000 Miss America Pageant, she earned first runner-up honors partly on the strength of her performance of Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 10, No. 4. Of course, it probably also helped that she looked pretty smokin' hot in a bathing suit, but still....

A passing thought about rampant remakes

As I told all my Facebook friends tonight: I can't help feeling weirded out by all these recent and upcoming remakes of '80s films that I reviewed back in the day. Because, really, I don't remember seeing that many remakes of '60s movies back in the '80s. Like, around 1987, no one was saying: "Hey, let's remake The Professionals with Charles Bronson in the Lee Marvin role and Burt Reynolds taking over for Burt Lancaster!" Or "Now here's a sure-fire hit: A new version of In the Heat of the Night with Eddie Murphy and Gene Hackman!" What's happened? Has Hollywood truly run out of original ideas? Or were the '80s actually a better era for cinema than I recall?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I ♥ Tucker: The Man and His Dream at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

During the upcoming second weekend of We ♥ Jeff Bridges, the retrospective co-sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Houston Film Critics Society, it'll be my great pleasure and honor to introduce Francis Coppola's  Tucker: The Man and His Dream at 7 p.m. Friday at MFA. As I noted in my original 1988 review, Tucker is "a great American movie about great American dreamers." The movie "is not so much a biography as a celebration of Preston Tucker, the innovative automobile designer of the 1940s who dared challenge the supremacy of Detroit's Big Three with ''The car of tomorrow -- today!'' His car, in Coppola's view, was ''built too good,'' so, of course, Tucker had to be defeated. But he could not be destroyed...

"By all rights, Tucker should be a tragedy. But the movie, brimming with brash vigor and bursting with all-American pride, is bigger than one man's collision with the forces of greed. Coppola has borrowed a few well-selected pages from the handbook of director Frank Capra, another American visionary, who demonstrated in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life how to snatch a moral victory from the immoral overlords of The Establishment. Tucker is at heart an ode to American ingenuity, displaying a patriotism more unabashedly exhilarating than all the flag-waving at a dozen political conventions."

Not surprisingly, Coppola -- and producer George Lucas -- pretty much agreed with my take on the film when I interviewed them back in 1988.

BTW: You can see more of Jeff Bridges this weekend at MFA when my colleague Jared Counts of KUHF 88.7 FM Radio presents The Big Lebowski at 7 p.m. Saturday. And you can read my original 1998 review of that film here.

Bratt does H-Town

If you’re a big fan of actor Benjamin Bratt – or even if you’re just a Law & Order devotee who’s eager to see what the former Detective Rey Curtis is up to these days – take note: Bratt will be barnstorming Houston this Saturday to promote his new movie, La Mission, a gritty drama about an ex-convict’s stormy relationship with his son.

It’ll be hard to miss the guy, since Bratt – whose other film credits include Miss Congeniality, Catwoman and Traffic – is scheduled to appear at no fewer than six different area theaters for post-screening Q&A sessions. Look for him after the closing credits at these La Mission showings: 1 p.m. at the AMC Willowbrook 24; 2 p.m. at the AMC Deerbrook 24; 3:30 p.m. at the AMC First Colony 24; 7 p.m. at the AMC Studio 30; 8 p.m. at the Angelika Film Center; and 9 p.m. at the AMC Gulf Pointe 30.

Whew! Makes me tired just to read that itinerary.

Much like La Mission itself, Bratt’s Saturday multiplex marathon will be a family affair: The actor will be accompanied during his H-Town appearances by his brother, filmmaker Peter Bratt, who directed La Mission. But let me warn you right off the bat: Neither one of the Bratt boys likely will take kindly to any questions about Benjamin’s years-ago romance with Julia Roberts. Got it?

Monday, May 10, 2010

More love for Thunder Soul

Thunder Soul -- Mark Landsman's spirited documentary about the grand achievements and recent reunion of a '70s jazz stage band from Houston's Kashmere High School -- continues to delight audiences, impress critics and win awards at international film festivals. After picking up the Audience Award at Austin's SXSW extravaganza in March, then earning a similar accolade at the Dallas International Film Festival last month, the feature-length labor of love was honored this past weekend at the prestigious Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Stay tuned for further developments -- and additional awards.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Weekend B.O.: Iron Man 2 zooms, Metropolis towers

No big surprise: Iron Man 2 tops the weekend box-office chart -- due at least in part to my own purchase of three IMAX-screening tickets at inflated prices. (Hey, it was what The Long-Suffering Mrs. L. and our son wanted to see as we celebrated Mother's Day.) And I have to admit: I thoroughly enjoyed it, maybe even a smidge more than I enjoyed Iron Man. But what about the box-office performance of "smaller" movies this weekend? As usual, IndieWire delivers a detailed report. Glad to see the newly restored Metropolis is doing boffo biz in New York. Can't wait to see it on the big screen in my part of the world.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Documentary Alliance presents The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time -- an unfortunately timely film about a Montana community torn asunder during a conflict stoked by right-wing talk radio and an anti-government militia -- will be presented as part of the Real Films series of the Documentary Alliance at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Fine Arts Building at Houston Community College Northwest/Spring Branch Campus.  But wait, there's more: Director Patrice O'Neill of The Working Group -- an Oakland-based nonprofit media company -- will be on hand for a Q&A after the screening.

Monday, May 03, 2010

R.I.P.: Lynn Redgrave (1943-2010)

As The Associated Press duly noted in its obit, Lynn Redgrave – who passed away Sunday in Manhattan at age 67 -- “never quite managed the acclaim -- or notoriety -- of elder sibling Vanessa Redgrave…” But never mind: For the better part of a half-century, she added more than her fair share of luster to the illustrious family tradition of an esteemed British acting dynasty.

During the 1960s, in movies widely acclaimed (Georgy Girl, for which she received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress) and unjustly neglected (Smashing Time, in which she and Rita Tushingham played small-town lasses who took Swinging London by storm), she earned rave reviews and attained international stardom by playing conspicuously unglamorous and often rough-hewn characters with enough unaffected vivacity to make their extremes of joy and heartbreak instantly and easily relatable. Gangly and gregarious, she wasn’t conventionally attractive – not an ugly duckling, mind you, but not exactly a graceful swan, either. Yet that didn’t matter. In fact, her plumpishness was a major part of her well-nigh irresistible charm.

Lynn Redgrave invaded America as part of the ‘60s British Invasion, that same pop-cultural tsunami that brought us The Beatles, Michael Caine and shagadelic supermodels. How a big a star was she during this period? Well, consider this: She had just a tiny part – no more than one scene, actually – in The Deadly Affair, a dark and brooding 1966 spy thriller based on a John Le CarrĂ© novel, starring James Mason, Simone Signoret and Maximilian Schell. But after the film flopped in N.Y. and L.A. during its initial U.S. theatrical release, it was sent out to many smaller markets with a drastically revamped ad campaign designed to make it look like a breezy spy-spoofy romp starring – yes, you guessed it -- "Lynn Redgrave of Georgy Girl."

During subsequent decades, she managed to slim down without ever really slowing down. (She was, no kidding, a prominent spokesperson for Weight Watchers during the ‘80s.) On stages throughout the world, she triumphed in everything from Shaw’s Saint Joan to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Her movie credits increased to encompass everything from the sublime (Shine, God and Monsters, Kinsey) to the ridiculous (The Happy Hooker, Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home) to the stupefyingly bizarre (The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots, Sidney Lumet’s legendarily ill-conceived but guilty-pleasurably campy 1970 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Seven Descents of Myrtle). And much like siblings Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, she established ties with Houston’s Alley Theatre: In 1994, she graced the Alley stage in Shakespeare for My Father, the one-woman show she performed as a tribute to her actor dad, Sir Michael Redgrave.

In recent years, she was plagued by health issues – she was treated for breast cancer in 2003 – and personal tragedies. (Her niece Natasha Richardson died after a skiing accident last year; last month, her brother Corin passed away.) But she remained active in movies and TV as late as last year, when she fleetingly appeared in Confessions of a Shopaholic, and guest-starred in episodes of Ugly Betty and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

And yet, despite the variety of her work and longevity of her career, Lynn Redgrave will always be most fondly remembered by some an emblematic icon of ‘60s British cinema. So much so, in fact, that when filmmaker Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon) made Getting It Right, a 1989 dream project he crafted as his valentine to movies of the Swinging London era, he eagerly cast Lynn Redgrave as a sultry “older woman,” a trendy socialite who seduces the virginal young hero with all the intense, nimble-witted enthusiasm of someone pursuing a stimulating after-dinner conversation. It should be noted that Redgrave had a nude scene in the lightly delightful romantic comedy. It should also be noted that she looked pretty smokin’ hot. She had come a long way from Georgy Girl. But she remained, as ever, a formidable screen presence.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Coming soon: The Expendables

Damn! Why can't get this movie in 3-D?

20 years on with The Show Business Bible

During an especially affecting moment in Spring Forward, one of my favorite films, Ned Beatty – playing a parks and recreation worker on the verge of retirement – marvels to a younger colleague played by Liv Schrieber that, somehow, when he wasn’t looking, several years slipped away: “Time goes by, and it seems like a little time. You turn around, and it was a big time.” How true.

Twenty years is a big time by anybody’s measure. But I’ve had a mostly grand time during my past two decades as a free-lance film critic (and, periodically, theater critic) for Variety, the venerable trade paper that I still think of as The Show Business Bible. That it actually has been two decades is a little disconcerting – has it really been that long? – but never mind. This weekend, it’s also a cause for celebration.

To be precise: My first three free-lance reviews – all of them for films shown at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- appeared in the weekly edition of Variety dated May 2, 1990. One of the movies just happened to be Red Surf, a melodrama about drug-dealing surfers starring a very young George Clooney. (For the record: the other two were Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter and something called A Girl’s Guide to Sex.) One week later, Variety ran my review of another WorldFest/Houston offering, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, a spoofy sci-fi B-movie that showcased a very young Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role. And two weeks after that, I reviewed yet another WorldFest feature: Across the Tracks, a dysfunctional family drama co-starring a very, very young Brad Pitt.

So you see: Right from the start, I’ve specialized in spotting fresh talent for The Show Business Bible. Well, OK: I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to spot fresh talent. Thanks to Variety.

I already was gainfully employed as a film critic for the late, great Houston Post when I was approached – by no less a luminary than Peter Bart himself -- to serve as a Variety stringer. But in my mind, writing for Variety – even back when I started, at a time when film critics didn’t receive a full byline – was not just a step up but a leap forward. To put it simply and hubristically, it was, to my way of thinking, a sign that I had arrived. I had made the grade, passed the test, completed my apprenticeship – and somehow gained entry inside a very select circle. I felt I had become part of a grand tradition. And you know what? I still feel that way.

Blame on my misspent youth. Back in the mid-to-late '60s, when I was a high school student in New Orleans, I fortuitously discovered The Show Business Bible in a library and was instantly smitten. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that, while I was growing up, there was something truly magical to me about Variety, my own private gateway to Hollywood and beyond.

On Fridays -- after school or, quite often, very early in the morning, before classes -- I would take the bus downtown to buy Variety at a newsstand. (It took two days for the weekly edition, then published on Wednesdays, to reach N.O.) I would devour all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, all the news about movies in production and box-office hits and misses, and gradually master the Variety-ese slanguage so I could fully understand what to the uninitiated must have seemed like indecipherable code. And, of course, I would marvel at the colossal special-edition issues dedicated to film festivals and year-end wrap-ups, all them filled with dozens of full-page ads for forthcoming movies.

I continued to be awestruck buy The Show Business Bible well into my twenties and beyond. I still have a photo somewhere that my wife took of me during our first trip together to New York in the mid '70s, long after I had begun my professional writing career. It's a picture of me standing in front of the old Variety office near Times Square -- the one with the big Variety logo emblazoned on a huge ground floor window.  I am smiling a great big goofy kid's smile in the picture, like a True Believer enraptured by his proximity to some hallowed shrine.

So, of course, when Peter Bart called more than 15 years later…

I know, I know: Some of you will be quick to dismiss all of this a sentimental blathering, or shameless self-aggrandizing, or both. And that’s your prerogative. For others, it may seem odd, if not downright incomprehensible, for anyone to still feel so emotionally bound to anything so seemingly antiquated as a newspaper. But, hey, that’s my prerogative. Besides: I’ve also been writing web-only reviews for for quite some time now, so it’s not like I’m exclusively an ink-stained wretch. But I remain, deep down, an analogue guy in a digital world, as my heart continues to beat to the rhythm of a printing press. That may change – well, actually, that must change, eventually – but not too soon, I hope.

This is probably where I should write something about all the notable filmmakers whose first films I reviewed for Variety at various and sundry film festivals. And after that, I guess I should toss out ten or twenty titles of films that I got to review before anybody else thanks to my Variety affiliation. But that really would be self-aggrandizing, and I would deserve every brickbat tossed in my general direction. So I’ll leave it at this: I am deeply grateful that I’ve been a part of the Variety team for the past two decades. And I look forward to my next 20 years with the organization. (Assuming, of course, that they'll have me.) Because even though I know that the day may come when print media as we now know it will go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies, I’m sure that Variety, in some form, will survive and thrive. And I hope to remain part of its ongoing tradition.