Friday, July 30, 2010

MFA offers a free ticket for a Stagecoach ride

The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily, but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired prostitute who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her “a lady.” The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve.

And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s willing to hang up his shootin’ irons -- who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman – but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones. Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”

These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford’s must-see masterwork -- which will have a free-admission screening at 2:30 pm Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston -- arguably is the first significant Western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind. Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the Western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance.

And unlike, say, Raoul Walsh’s creaky and badly dated The Big Trail (1930) – John Wayne’s first starring vehicle, but a career-stalling flop in its time – Stagecoach remains a lot of fun to watch.

Ford’s film is a classically simple tale of strangers united in close quarters for a brief but intensely dramatic interlude. In this case, the characters are passengers aboard an Overland Stage Line coach during a dangerous trek through Indian Territory. The journey begins in the small town of Tonto -- no, really -- as two social outcasts – Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a gleefully roguish alcoholic, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), a tearfully vulnerable prostitute – are forcibly exiled by the good ladies of The Law and Order League.

These pariahs board the stage to Lordsburg along with Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), a very proper – and very pregnant – Army wife; Hartfield (John Carradine), a courtly gambler who appoints himself as Mrs. Mallory’s protector; Peacock (Donald Meek), a mild-mannered whiskey salesman whose sample case is progressively depleted by Doc Boone; and, at the last minute, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blustering banker who has absconded with the contents of his office safe. Buck (Andy Devine) is the driver, and Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft) rides shotgun.

Just outside of Tonto, the travelers are joined by The Ringo Kid, a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers. As Ringo -- the role that saved him from the professional purgatory of B-movies – John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history: While he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. Ringo is a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with Sheriff Wilcox. But he leaves no room for doubt that he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.

If you’re familiar with Stagecoach only through its reputation, or if you’ve seen nothing more than cut-and-paste highlights from Ford’s classic, you may be surprised by the movie’s intimacy. To be sure, the majestic landscapes of Monument Valley – to which Ford returned for several subsequent Westerns – are grandly impressive. And the much-imitated Indian assault on the speeding stagecoach, replete with breath-taking stunt work choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt, is every bit as exciting as its reputation attests.

But what really makes Stagecoach so vital and memorable is the emotionally charged interaction among its vividly drawn characters.

Much of the movie consists of expressionistically lit interior scenes. (Orson Wells reportedly viewed Stagecoach several times as part of his preparations for making Citizen Kane.) And in many of its most memorable moments, the archetypes reveal unexpected depth and complexity. Even Carradine’s ostentatious gambler turns out to be truly chivalrous in his fashion, redeeming himself gracefully under fire. And Wayne demonstrates that, long before his speech patterns and body language ossified into self-parody, he could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any hero who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres.

And by the way: Has any film actor ever had a better year than Stagecoach co-star Thomas Mitchell did in 1939? Consider: In addition to earning an Oscar for his work in Ford's classic, he also contributed memorable performances to Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and (playing opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo) William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And, not incidentally, he played the heroine's dad in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. Cowabunga.

Down by the river, that's where you'll find Real Films

Back in the early 1970s, key Texas powerbrokers came up with a plan to transform the entire length of the Trinity River into a barge canal linking Dallas and Fort Worth to the Gulf of Mexico. In the history of bad ideas, this one ranks right up there with New Coke and the Ford Edsel.

But as filmmaker Rob Tranchin vividly recalls in Living with the Trinity -- a documentary that will have its H-Town premiere Saturday at Houston Community College Spring Branch Campus – something good happened as a result of the controversy sparked by the proposal: Grassroots opposition to the plan – which, not incidentally, would have involved construction of a dam at the mouth of the river near Houston – brought together a disparate group of concerned citizens, and signaled a new era in environmental politics.

“The most powerful people in Texas wanted the project to succeed,” Tranchin says. “Why they wanted the canal and how they were defeated constitute an amazing chapter in Texas environmental history.”

Produced by Dallas PBS station KERA, Living with the Trinity will be presented in the Performing Arts Center at HCC Spring Branch by the Real Films series of the Documentary Alliance. Showtime is 8 pm Saturday. Rob Tranchin will be on hand for a 7 to 8 pm pre-screening reception, and plans to stick around for a 9 to 9:30 pm post-screening Q&A. Tickets are $10 for general admission, and $5 for HCC students with proper ID.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bust from the past: Troll

(Editor's note: Here is my original, unedited review of Troll, in its entirety, which appeared Jan. 17, 1986, in The Houston Post)

Ever wonder where unemployed TV performers go when they're between guest spots on The Love Boat? Well, according to Troll, an astonishingly silly tongue-in-cheek fantasy, all the has-beens, never-weres and old reliables check into a cheery apartment house where a furry little beastie lurks in the laundry room.

Shelley Hack (Charlie's Angels), Brad Hall and Julia-Louis Dreyfus (Saturday Night Live), Sonny Bono (The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour), June Lockhart (Lassie) and Gary Sandy (WKRP in Cincinnati) are among the residents menaced by the title monster, a pointy-eared fiend summoned up from heaven knows where. The troll wanders around the building for an hour or so, turning apartments into verdant forests, and humans into slime-coated, foam-rubber puppets. Not to be outdone, June Lockhart turns herself into her daughter, Anne Lockhart, and battles the little creep. No kidding.

The troll, known as Torok, resembles a defective Muppet. All the other creatures on view look like leftovers from Gremlins. To be honest, Gremlins wasn't a very good movie, either. But Troll makes it look like Citizen Kane.

Truffaut and Godard: Together again!

This weekend only at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Read all about it here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Getting excited about Get Low

The lovely and talented Anne Thompson shares my high regard for Get Low, which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and suspects, as I do, that it will be a credible contender for glittering prizes. ("I want to see how the movie plays at the Academy. It should be a soft lob down the middle for Oscar voters.") She'll soon post interviews with lead player Robert Duvall and producer Dean Zanuck (son of Richard, grandson of Darryl) on IndieWire. While you're waiting, here's another peek at my Cowboys & Indians piece on this marvelous movie and its mighty star.

Yes, it's that time of year again: The new Maltin Guide has arrived

Coming soon to a bookstore near you (if it isn't there already): The 2011 edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, a blockbuster production in which I play a minor supporting role. You can read more about it here.

Bugs Bunny: The old gray hare

A Wild Hare, the first "official" Bugs Bunny cartoon, was released on July 27, 1940. Which means that today we celebrate the 70th birthday of the rascally rabbit. To mark the occasion, I am posting this classic cartoon. You'll note that, right from the start, Bugs enjoyed planting great big wet sloppy ones on Elmer Fudd. Not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Impossible couples

George Clooney and Grace Kelly? Clark Gable and Madonna? Johnny Depp and Ingrid Bergman? Consider the possibilities considered by Worth 1000. (Hat-tip to John Guidry.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Cats and dogs working together. A sign of the apocalypse? No, a concept for a sequel. Nine years after Cats & Dogs fetched more than $200 million worldwide with its comic take on interspecies animosity, Warner Bros. is unleashing Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, a faster and funnier follow-up in which CGI-enhanced canines and felines affect a temporary truce to combat a common enemy. Decked out with even more impressive special effects than its predecessor –- and, perhaps more important, readily available in 3-D – this breakneck sequel could take a major bite out of the late-summer box-office. You can read my full Variety review here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

First look at Cowboys & Aliens

The sci-fi Western Cowboys & Aliens isn't slated to open until next year -- literally, July 29 -- but we've already received the first officially released image from the film: Daniel Craig (a.k.a. James Bond) as Jake Lonergan, a lone cowboy who leads an uprising against extraterrestrial invaders. Looks here like he got his hands on some of the enemy's weaponry.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One night only: 45365

You can see it Thursday night at the Alamo Draft House West Oaks in H-Town. And I'll be there to introduce it. Read more about it here.

Naked women reading books

OK, I admit: This story has absolutely nothing to do with movies. On the other hand, you have to admit: It does have redeeming literary merit.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: The Servant

And now for something spicy from South Korea: The Servant (a.k.a. The Story of  Bang-ja jeon), writer-director Kim Dae-woo's sexy, cynical take on a centuries-old Korean folktale. How sexy? Well, hardly hard-core, I admit. But there's enough unclothed activity on view here to indicate that, had it been submitted to the MPAA ratings board, the period drama would have been slapped with an NC-17 rating. On the other hand, as you can read in my Variety review, that's not the only reason it's worth seeing during its limited U.S. theatrical run (which includes an engagement in H-Town at the AMC Studio 30).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I survived Standing Ovation

Every so often, people tell me they're jealous of the sweet scam I have working -- i.e., getting paid to see movies. But trust me: There are times when I really earn the money. Really, really earn the money. Hell, I think I deserved a freakin' bonus after seeing Standing Ovation.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids -- Oh, my!

Alison Macor wrote the book on indie moviemakers and moviemaking in Austin – literally – and Tuesday she’s coming to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to tell us all about it. You can read my Houston Culture Map preview/interview here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kevin Costner to the rescue?

I don't know what pleasantly surprises me more about this story: Kevin Costner's finally getting the OK to help clean up the Gulf Oil Spill, or's atypically snark-free -- even encouraging -- report on Costner's efforts.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

So tell me, Mr. Twain: Just were do you get your ideas?

Over the past 40 or so years, I've had the pleasure of interviewing many notables who had already been interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of times before they sat down to chat with me. (Writer-director Whit Stillman once told me, years after the fact, that I actually was the first entertainment journalist ever to interview him, back when he premiered Metropolitan at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival. I suspect that he was joking, but if not, he apparently survived the experience with minimal trauma.) And on more than one of these occasions -- not many times, to be entirely honest, but more than once -- I have been told by the interviewee that I asked interesting questions, or at least questions that he or she hadn't fielded a zillion times before. I won't lie: I am shamelessly proud whenever I receive such a compliment. (Bless you, James Cameron and Philippe Noiret.) Early on, though, I learned not to get too big-headed about the praise because, in all likelihood, the interviewee thought I was a great interviewer simply because he or she had dealt with so very many lousy ones.

I'd like to think that, if I'd ever had the opportunity to converse with Mark Twain, I wouldn't be among the interviewers who inspired this essay. But as I read it, I confess, I found myself thinking: "Oh, gee, have I ever done this? Or that?" Which is a good thing, I suppose: You should never be too sure of yourself, or too complacent.  And if you're going to learn lessons from other writers, you can't do much better than heeding the words from this master. (Hat-tip to Andrew Sullivan for steering me toward the source.)

"It’s not a political film. It’s just the true story of soldiers. And that’s it."

Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin (above, left) -- one of the "stars" of Restrepo -- motorcycled in from Louisiana's Fort Polk, where he currently is stationed, to appear Friday at an opening-day screening of the acclaimed documentary at the Angelika Film Center in Downtown H-Town. You can read my Houston Culture Map Q&A here.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A very special showing of Restrepo

Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger spent over a year imbedded with soldiers of the Second Platoon, Battle Company of the 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley – one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military – to make Restrepo, their award-winning, critically acclaimed documentary about the bonding and bravery of men under fire. The film kicks off its Houston theatrical run this weekend at the Angelika Film Center in Downtown H-Town. But if you want to make the most of your moviegoing experience – and, not incidentally, gain an even more complete understanding of events covered by the filmmakers -- make sure you attend the 5:30 pm Friday screening. After the film, Sgt. Misha Pemble-Belkin – one of 15 soldiers followed by Hetherington and Junger in Restrepo – will be on hand for a question-and-answer session with the audience. It’ll be my privilege to serve as host for the Q&A.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Deja vu all over again

From William Goss of Cinematical comes word of a film review plagiarist who was so shamelessly indiscriminant -- he even plagiarized some of my reviews.