Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year from Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Watching this charming video makes me think: At a different time in Hollywood history, these two would be co-starring in musicals once or twice a year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, Cinema!

On December 28, 1895, cinema in projected form was presented for the first time to a paying audience by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere (pictured above), owners of a photographic studio in Lyons. They went to Paris to demonstrate their cinématographe -- the name they'd given their combination camera and projector -- by showcasing short films they had shot with their hand-cranked innovation.

According to legend: At the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines, a man stood outside the building all day on December 28, handing out programs to passers-by. But cold weather kept many people from stopping. As a result, only 33 tickets were sold for the first show.

When the lights went down that evening in a makeshift theater in the basement of the Grand Café, a white screen was lit up with a photographic projection showing the doors of the Lumiere factory in Lyon. Without warning, the factory doors were flung open, releasing a stream of workers... and, wonder of wonders, everything moved. The audience was stunned.

This first film was entitled La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Ten more short scenes followed, each reel roughly 17 meters in length, including Baby's Dinner (kinda-sorta the first home movie by proud parents, later echoed by Spike Lee in Lumiere & Company) and The Sprinkler Sprinkled (arguably the first slapstick comedy, involving a man, his garden hose and a practical joker).

Within a week, with no advertising but word of mouth, more than 2,000 spectators visited the Grand Café each day, each paying the admission price of one franc. The crowds were so huge, police had to be called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.

The (alleged) politics of Forrest Gump

Sixteen years after it received the Oscar for Best Picture, Forrest Gump finally has been officially designated as an all-American classic. No kidding: On Wednesday, Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 box-office phenomenon appeared alongside 24 other “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films on this year’s list of selections by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

But you know what? That doesn’t mean the movie’s haters won’t keep on hating. Indeed, judging from some of the initial reactions throughout the blogosphere to the National Film Registry honor, Forrest Gump remains, in the eyes of its harshest critics, sentimental hokum at best – and right-wing propaganda at worst.

No, I’m not making that up.

The latest attempts to attack Forrest Gump for real or perceived political incorrectness remind me of two conversations I had with Tom Hanks – the man who earned an Academy Award for memorably playing the movie’s title character – within the space of a year spanning from June 1994 (a few weeks before Forrest Gump opened at theaters and drive-ins everywhere) to June 1995 (less than three months after the Gump-dominated Oscarcast notoriously hosted by David Letterman).

The first encounter occurred in a posh suite of a Los Angeles hotel during a well-attended press junket for Forrest Gump. The second was at Johnson Space Center, during an equally hectic junket for Apollo 13.

Back in the day in Los Angeles, I had a one-on-one chat with Hanks after he completed what turned out to be a not-entirely-pleasant cluster of round-table interviews. Hanks and I are not exactly bowling buddies, so, then as now, I’ve based my impressions of him – as a human being rather than a versatile actor –almost entirely on my observations of his behavior at press gatherings. And at those gatherings, he’s always struck me as one of the more gracious professionals in showbiz.

On that June day in L.A., however, Hanks appeared to me visibly rattled when, during a sporadically tense group interview, a few interviewers bluntly referred to Forrest Gump as a “reactionary” or “right-wing” work. One journalist dissed the dramedy as “a movie Pat Robertson and Ronald Reagan could love.” Another complained bitterly, and at considerable length, about what he claimed was the movie’s depiction of Black Panther radicals and anti-war activists as “snarly, ego-tripping assholes.”

Hanks’ polite but dismissive response to the journalist’s complaint: “Well, I think that’s nonsense.”

Throughout the group interviews I observed, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis seemed genuinely shocked by any suggestion that they had any sort of hidden agenda. As they saw it, Forrest Gump was an engagingly whimsical and resolutely apolitical story of a slow-talking, slow-witted Southerner who wanders through four decades of American history, touching the lives of both the great and the obscure.

Yes, Forrest displays courage under fire while serving as a soldier during the Vietnam War. And, sure, he doesn’t protest against the war after his return home. But, hey, that doesn’t mean he’s meant to represent President Nixon’s so-called Silent Majority. OK?

But what about the scene where Forrest attends a late-1960s anti-war rally in Washington D.C., and has an edgy confrontation with some impolite activists?

“You know,” Hanks replied, choosing his words carefully as we conversed in his suite, “probably a huge percentage of people involved in anti-war demonstrations really were snarly, ego-tripping assholes. They were equal to the number of beautiful flower children who were truly bent on saving the world.

“Look, I have no great affection for the ‘60s whatsoever” – at the time he spoke, Hanks was days away from turning 38 – “but I don’t think we’re saying anything more than that was a time of great confusion, and everybody was yelling at one another.”

Besides, Hanks noted, even if he did feel nothing but fear and loathing for ’60s-era anti-war protestors, he wouldn’t make a movie just to castigate them. Using a film to push a political agenda simply wasn’t his style, he emphasized. Even Philadelphia – the 1993 drama in which he gave an Oscar-worthy performance as an AIDS-stricken lawyer who sues his former employers for wrongful dismissal -- isn’t his idea of “a message movie.”

“I don’t think you can educate anybody with a movie,” Hanks said. “And I don’t think you can send an overt kind of political or sociological message (that) is going to change anybody’s mind.”

Over the next several months, however, Hanks learned the hard way that, sometimes, “message movies” are in the eye of the beholder.

Forrest Gump went on to be a much bigger hit than Tom Hanks (or, for that matter, Robert Zemeckis) ever could have hoped or expected. At the same time, though, Hanks noted, much to his dismay, that the movie was indeed frequently judged -- by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum -- as a warm-and fuzzy embrace of conservative ideology.

“Honest to God,” Hanks said when I raised the issue one year later at Johnson Space Center, “I didn’t see that coming. I just didn’t see that coming. I don’t think of us involved with the picture did.”

Hanks added that he was especially miffed by Sen. Robert Dole’s effort to lionize Forrest Gump as entertainment that upheld traditional family values. Dismissing “Mr. Dole’s political grandstanding” as “ludicrous,” he wondered aloud: Forrest Gump is in the forefront of good, quality family films? OK, let’s see. Forrest Gump’s mother [played by Sally Field] slept with the principal of the school so Forrest could go there. I guess that must be forgotten in the course of choosing family films. That and the fact that Forrest fathers a child of wedlock” with his sweetheart, played by Robin Wright.

And yet, Dole wasn’t the only person who read Forrest Gump as a movie with a stealth agenda. Many commentators on the right lauded it for the same reasons (or, perhaps more accurately, the same perceptions) that led many commentators – and, yes, film critics – on the left to blast it.

“This obviously is in retrospect,” Hanks said, “but I think it comes down to that very key part of the film that deals with Vietnam. I think it’s because we presented Forrest in Vietnam in a nonpolitical way, and that fed into the conservative revisionist history that says, ‘We lost Vietnam because of subversive activities of the American public back home.’

“And it fed into the left-of-center political circle because we failed to show [the Vietnam War] as amoral and corrupt. Instead, we showed Vietnam as this thing that guys went through, regardless of it being right or wrong. We showed Vietnam as this terrible, horrible thing that happened to these certain guys.”

At this point in the conversation, I felt emboldened to offer a theory – one regarding Hanks’ unpleasant surprise, not the movie’s alleged agenda. As I recall, I said something like this:

“OK, I’m four years older than you. And under most circumstances, that age difference would be insignificant. But because of that difference – I had to worry about being drafted during the Vietnam War, and you didn’t. People my age and older grew up with Vietnam hanging over our heads during most of our formative years. And so for many of us – maybe most of us – the Vietnam War was the defining event in our lives. So every time we see or read anything that involves the Vietnam War – we’re going to instinctively parse it for any kind of political commentary or interpretation.

“But you – and other people your age or younger – might not. And that might be why you were so surprised by the partisan fires this movie stoked.”

(Actually, I don’t think I was quite that eloquent – but, hey, it’s my anecdote.)

Hanks nodded silently, considering what I had said. He didn’t immediately agree. Nor did he disagree. But he acknowledged that his own view of the Vietnam War was not “the same point of view of somebody who had to live in fear of his [draft] lottery number coming up. No matter what happens, I am ex post facto.

“I remember going to the Selective Service office when I was 18, and they said, ‘Listen, you’re not going to have to do this after the first of the year. So if anybody asks you, just tell them you forgot.’ So, for me, it was never an issue.”

Echoing his words from a year earlier, Hanks added: “I have no affection for the ‘60s whatsoever.” By the time the tumultuous decade ended, he was a high school student in Oakland, California. “And I was not on the cutting edge of a social revolution, or a sexual revolution. I was essentially a very confused kid. And by the time I was walking home from school, kind of cognizant of the greater world around me, the sky was full of helicopters dropping tear gas on the people at Berkeley during the People’s Park demonstrations. Huey Newton was in jail for a couple of murders.

“And I figured that, because I was a pretty naïve kid in the first place, and also because I was very confused, and also because I wasn’t on the forefront of either side of that political schism that was going on -- I just thought things were going to hell in a handbag.”

Which most certainly was not an unreasonable response, as anyone who lived through that era will tell you, regardless of how they felt about the Vietnam War, if they’re entirely honest.

On the other hand: Many of the movie’s most virulent detractors will insist that their contempt for Forrest Gump has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with sentimentality. They simply don’t like it because… because… well, because they don’t like it, period. And as I learned a long time ago, you can’t really argue anyone into liking a movie that they don’t. Especially if that movie beat a movie they liked a lot more – did somebody say Pulp Fiction? – in the battle for the top Academy Award.

My own reaction? Well, I greatly enjoyed Forrest Gump when I saw it back in 1994, all by myself in a small theater on the Paramount lot in L.A. (No, I’m not that important: The studio arranged a private screening for me only because I arrived late from Houston, and missed the screening all of the other junketeers attended.) I felt just as favorably disposed toward it when I saw it a second time in an H-Town multiplex a few months later. And I included it on my Top Ten list – alongside Hoop Dreams, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show, Fresh, Nobody’s Fool, Colonel Chabert and, yes, Pulp Fiction -- for 1994.

But I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that, outside of catching the random glimpse of this scene or that scene while channel surfing, I haven’t seen it again since it won its Oscar. Haven’t had the time – or, really, the inclination. Too many new movies to see, too many old movies to catch up with.

Of course, now that it’s been officially designated as an all-American classic…

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Looks like Santa didn't put a lump of coal in my stocking

As if having Vladimir Putin around weren't troublesome enough, now Russia has to deal with thousands of of killer electromagnetic orbs from outer space. That's the bad news. The good news is, The Darkest Hour -- which I went out to see on Christmas Eve -- is better than I expected, and well worth catching in 3D. (Mind you, I haven't always been so lucky with my Christmas Day movie reviewing.) You can read my Variety review here.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Michael Caine is Ebenezer Scrooge in Muppet Christmas Carol

Over the years, several people -- including, I must admit, Michael Caine himself -- have reacted with bemused skepticism when I've told them that I think Caine's performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet Christmas Carol  not only ranks with Caine's all-time finest performances -- it's also, in my view, the best portrayal of Charles Dickens' miserly character in any movie, ever. Seriously. The beauty part of it is, unlike a lot of actors who perform opposite Muppets, Caine isn't merely trying to be a good sport -- he's being a great actor. After watching the movie again recently -- an annual tradition, I must admit -- I remain convinced: If you could somehow digitally lift this performance from Muppet Christmas Carol and drop it into a more conventional adaptation of Dickens' story -- that is, a movie in which all of Caine's co-stars would be, well, you know, human beings -- it would be every bit as effective and affecting.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's still a Wonderful movie

‘Tis the season to jolly, of course, but that’s not the main reason why I plan to savor a double dose of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this weekend.

At 7:30 pm Friday, I’ll introduce a special presentation at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks, where Capra’s 1946 masterwork will be shown on the big screen, the way God intended you to see it. At 7 pm Saturday, I’ll settle down with family members for a repeat of the annual broadcast on KPRC-TV/NBC.
And on both occasions, I am certain, I’ll once again appreciate It’s a Wonderful Life as a gift that keeps on giving. No kidding.

Sorry, but I turn a deaf ear and a blind eye whenever some cynic tries to convince me that this enduring classic is nothing but cloyingly sentimental Capra-corn. Indeed, I’ve always been struck by the movie’s hard edges and dark undercurrents -- by what film critic and historian Dave Kehr recently described as its “bleak, film-noir imagery and barely suppressed undertone of suicidal despair” -- as it considers the life of George Bailey (James Stewart at the top of his form), a small-town savings-and-loan manager whose grand ambitions and stirrings of wanderlust have always been stifled by civic duty and family responsibility.

On a particularly bleak Christmas Eve, George thinks of prematurely ending what he feels has been a useless, worthless existence. (Hey: Been there, felt that.) George sells himself much too short, of course. But it requires nothing short of divine intervention – i.e., the appearance of a guardian angel -- for him to fully appreciate that his life has touched and enriched many other lives, much the same way we all affect (for better or worse) the people around us, often without our knowing.

And even then, George has to learn his lessons the hard way: By seeing, in harrowingly precise detail, what the world might have been like if he’d never been around.

Over the past three or four decades – thanks in large part to countless TV airings during the 1970s and ‘80sIt’s a Wonderful Life has become enshrined as America’s official Christmas movie. And, to be sure, the final scenes of rejuvenation and reconciliation speak in an optimistic and encouraging voice to all of us. (Jodie Foster offers her enthusiastic appraisal of the film here.)

But even as he provides a comforting tableau of peace on earth, good will toward men, Frank Capra doesn’t entirely dispel the unsettling chill left over from George Bailey’s long dark night of the soul. And we’re forced to consider: In the real world – a place where even harsher lessons are taught and learned -- how many George Baileys don’t get the miracle they need? When the best among us begin to think the least of themselves, what happens when their angels don’t show up?

More than a half-century after Capra’s classic kicked off its initial theatrical run – and, ironically, proved to be a box-office under-achiever – Spike Lee ended 25th Hour, his furiously melancholy meditation on life and dread in post-9/11 New York, with a character’s bittersweet (and bitterly ironic) summing-up: “This life came so close to never happening.” Anyone who knows and loves It’s a Wonderful Life will know exactly what he’s talking about.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I fought cancer. Cancer lost.

Some friends have asked if I was scared when, in September 2009, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The weird thing is, I got the bad news smack-dab in the middle of a film history class at Houston Community College. I was introducing a screening of His Girl Friday for my students when my cell phone buzzed. So I excused myself, stepped outside, took the call from my doctor -- and then went back into the classroom to finish, without skipping a beat, my enthusiastic explanation of why Hawks' masterwork is so gosh-darn funny. At the risk of sounding immodest, I think people have won Oscars for performances that were less convincing than the one I pulled off that day.

Of course, I went home that night and drank, oh, I dunno, about a gallon of Merlot. And the whole time I was getting sloshed, I kept fixating on something my doctor had said: My cancer was "aggressive." I found myself imagining the cancer cells as a rowdy bunch of drunken Irishmen, fighting in a pub. Geez.

After sobering up, I opted for radiation therapy. I managed to delay the kick-off date for a few weeks because... because... well, because I'd already committed to doing an on-stage Q&A with Hal Holbrook at the Starz Denver Film Festival, and I figured that, what the hell, if my number was up, I probably wouldn't get too many more chances to do anything else as cool as that.

But, of course, you can't delay the inevitable. The first day of treatment finally arrived -- and yeah, I'll admit it, I was goddamn terrified. And as I sat in a waiting room around 6:30 am, clad in a hospital gown, counting the minutes until I'd be escorted down the hall to the room where I would be irradiated, I remembered what Francois Cluzet says in Late August, Early September: "You're all alone with what goes on inside your body." So I impulsively raced back to the locker where I'd stored my clothes, dug out my cell phone, and snapped this photo. Because I never wanted to forget that moment when I felt totally and completely all by myself.

For a long time, I thought it would be unseemly and/or self-indulgent to merely talk, much less write, about any of this. But I have had a change of heart as I've come to realize that people who are just as scared as I was that morning might need a little encouragement.

So consider this: I endured weeks of early-morning radiation therapy -- and for about three of those weeks, I worked at least part-time at a full-time job while devoting evenings and Saturday mornings to teaching a mini-semester Social Aspects of Film course at University of Houston. I continued to write free-lance articles, blog postings -- including obits for Eric Rohmer and Erich Segal, an enthusiastic appreciation of Sandra Bullock's Oscar prospects and, ironically, a brief mention of Dennis Hopper's own battle with prostate cancer -- and movie reviews. At one point, one of the very few people who knew about my condition asked how I was able to do so much at the same time. I blithely replied: "I'll sleep when I'm dead." Then, after considering what I'd said, I added, "You know, maybe I should have phrased that differently..."

I look back now, and I see what I really was doing: I was telling myself and the world at large and Great God Almighty that I would not bend and I would not break and I would not, could not, be knocked down. Or something like that. Basically, I stopped being scared, and started getting angry. I stopped praying -- after all, God has, then as now, more important things to worry about than whether or not I shuffle off this mortal coil -- and started being pissed off. I don't recommend this approach to everybody. But, hey, it appears to have worked for me.

I completed my radiation therapy on Jan. 27, 2010. (That's when I posed for the photo at the very top of this blog posting.) Nearly two years later, my PSA level continues to trend down, down, down. Last April, it measured 3.0. Today, I received an early Christmas present: According to the nice folks who handled my blood work Friday at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, the magic number is 1.0.

So you know what? Cancer can kiss my irradiated ass. Because I am not afraid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Blasts from the past: Me on MSNBC

Back when I had a place of honor in some producer's Rolodex at MSNBC, I was periodically called upon to offer Oscar predictions, mini-movie reviews, respectful obituaries and other sage commentary. (I think I was the guy they called when Roger Ebert's line was busy, or when they couldn't get anyone else on a holiday weekend.) I had a lot more hair back then -- and relatively little of it had yet turned gray. (Of course, it helped that I occasionally touched up the beard with Just for Men hair coloring.) In the above clip, I chat with anchor Gregg Jarrett (now a Fox News Channel employee) about the great George C. Scott the morning after the reluctant Oscar winner's death in 1999.

And in this clip, I chat talk with the lovely and talented Ashleigh Banfield about three movies -- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Thirteen Days and O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- that had Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and L.A. in late 2000, but didn't open until January 2001 in most markets. (You'd never guess that I bought that spiffy-cool faux leather jacket off the rack at a Target store in Seattle, would you?)

And even though I already referenced this one in an earlier blog post, here I am talking with the man himself, Keith Olbermann, about The Day After Tomorrow in 2004. (More beard, and a lot more gray in this one. Now you know why I went back to the goatee.) Which reminds me: I guess I need to get myself planted in some Rolodex over at Current TV, don't I?

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Congratulations, Lucas Mireles!

Just found out one of my former University of Houston students has had a short accepted by the Sundance Film Festival. Mind you, his achievement has absolutely nothing to do with me. But, hell, I'm going to hitch a ride on this gravy train, because I have no shame.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Say it loud and proud: We Still Live Here screens Wednesday at Rice Media Center

So here's the pitch: Jessie Little Doe, a Native American social worker, starts to have recurring dreams in which vaguely familiar people from another era talk to her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie -- a feisty and inquisitive thirtysomething -- is befuddled and annoyed: Why can't these folks just speak English? Only gradually does she realize that they're speaking Wampanoag, the ancient language of her tribal ancestors. A language no one had used for more than a century.

These and other events send Jessie and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanaog communities on an odyssey to uncover hundreds of documents written in their language. Which in turn leads her to pursue a master's degree in Linguistics at MIT and, more important, accomplish something no one has ever  done before – bring a language alive again in an American Indian community many generations after its last Native speakers had passed away. Jessie's now six-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, is the first Native speaker of Wampanaog since a time before movies talked and radios broadcast.

It may sound like the stuff of uplifting fiction, but it's actually the true-life tale compellingly told by award-winning filmmaker Anne Makepeace (pictured above) in We Still Live Here. The acclaimed documentary, a presentation of Public Television's Independent Lens series, will have a free screening at 7 pm Wednesday at the Rice Media Center as part of the ongoing Community Cinema project.

"I was profoundly moved by this story," Makepeace told PBS NewsHour, "and by Jessie herself, who never ceased to amaze me with her earthy humor, her loyal friendship, and her fierce dedication to the work of reviving the language."

Even so, Makepeace feared she would face resistance if she tried to make a movie about that revival: "Jessie and other members of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project had a strict policy of never allowing their language to be used in anything that could be sold. They had refused many requests by teachers, filmmakers, and writers for translations and use of the language, because they want to nurture the language and keep it to themselves, at least until they reach a critical mass of fluent speakers."

And there was another complication: Makepeace's own family history.

"My ancestors were Puritans who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630," Makepeace said, "and over the decades and centuries [they] proceeded to co-opt Wampanoag lands" in present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. "Distant Makepeace relatives own Ocean Spray, and have thousands of acres of cranberry bogs in what was once Wampanoag territory. One of my direct ancestors took part in the Great Swamp Massacre during King Philip's War, a devastating conflagration that decimated Native people in New England in 1676."

Near the of 2007, however, Makepeace mustered the courage to approach Jessie and her associate, Linda Coombs. "I told them that I would love to make a film about the resurrection of their language, that their story had grabbed me by the heart and wouldn't let go. I said that I didn't know how I would do it but that I felt it was an incredibly important story, that it had reached a place very deep in me and that I would be honored to tell it. And then I told them of my family history, even though I feared that this would put an end to the idea right then and there.

"Instead, they listened carefully, and when I was done, one of them simply said, 'You're closing the circle.'"

Now that We Still Live Here is complete and in circulation -- the film is getting public screenings in many other venues nationwide, and is available on DVD -- Makepeace hopes it will inspire the efforts of other indiginous people.

"It is a story of Native Americans taking charge of their history and their identities," the filmmaker says, "reaching back to the words of their ancestors and forward to their children's futures. My hope is that Native Americans and indigenous people around the world whose languages and cultures are endangered will take heart and renew their efforts to revive and revitalize their Native tongues, so that this country and this world retains its rich and infinitely varied cultural diversity.

"I would also like every American to see this film and acquire a deeper understanding and a greater awareness of the Indian people they celebrate at Thanksgiving every year, and of the unique and diverse histories and cultures of Native American communities living in our midst."

Here's a trailer for We Still Live Here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Blast from the past: Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own

Not very long before the 1997 release of The Devil's Own -- the late Alan J. Pakula's thriller about an IRA terrorist (Brad Pitt) who hides out under an assumed name in the home of a too-trusting New York cop (Harrison Ford) -- Pitt was quoted by interviewers as being highly displeased by the way IRA activists were depicted in early rewrites of the script. (Midway through production, he denounced the movie as the  "most irresponsible bit of film making — if you can even call it that — that I've ever seen." He seemed to have changed his mind about the project by the time I caught up with him at the New York junket for Devil's Own. (At the very start of the video, we're caught briefly chatting about the long-delayed release of Hard Eight -- a.k.a. Sydney -- which starred his then-sweetheart Gwyneth Paltrow.)

But I have to say: Looking back at my interview with Ford at the same junket, it strikes me that he was still a tad unhappy about his co-star's going public with complaints. Come to think of it, Ford doesn't seem much happier about the then-upcoming re-release of Star Wars movies, does he?

Friday, November 25, 2011

3DS vs. Nintento DS Lite

The nephew of a dear friend prepared this "review" for YouTube. And, frankly, I'm impressed. Even if YouTube had existed back in the day, I'm not sure I could have produced something equally slick for King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Posters for movies that may or may not ever exist

For more, check here. And don't say you weren't warned: At least one or two appear to be forthcoming releases from those wild and crazy guys over at The Asylum.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Me & Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke was so witty, gracious and enthusiastically forthcoming Saturday night at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, he actually made me look like I knew what I was doing during the Q&A we did for Cinema Arts Festival Houston. We talked about everyone from the late River Phoenix to the indestructible Albert Finney, and everything from surviving early failure (Explorers, the first film for both Hawke and Phoenix, was a box-office flop) to muddling through an on-stage embarrassment (and laughing off a comparison to Rick Perry).

Among the highlights:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blast from the past: Barry Levinson talks about Wag the Dog

Back in 1997, I talked with director Barry Levinson about Wag the Dog, his bold and barbed satirical comedy starring Dustin Hoffman as a movie producer enlisted by a political fixer (Robert De Niro) to help distract the public from a White House scandal by "creating" a nonexistent war. Of course, that was back before either of us could have known that you just as easily could create a real war with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Blast from the past: Clint Eastwood in Absolute Power

Those were the days, my friend: Back when I'd just take a couple days off from covering the Sundance Film Festival to mosey on over to Carmel-By-the-Sea, California, to drop by the Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant and kick back with Clint Eastwood.

We started out talking about... well, believe it or not, about Lawrence Welk, actually. But the conversation soon turned to Eastwood's about-to-be-released movie, Absolute Power, in which he played a sly cat burglar who inadvertently witnesses a horndog US President (E.G. Marshall) do a bad, bad thing. (Note that Eastwood is much too polite to correct me when I refer to his character as "Luther Wilson" -- even though the guy's name actually was Luther Whitney.)

After that, we kinda-sorta drifted over to his ongoing balancing act as director and lead actor -- and then discussed his next project, a film adaptation of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I would like to say that it was during this get-together that I suggested he do a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, or maybe play a feisty senior citizen who wants those damn kids to stay off his lawn. But, well, no one would believe me, quite possibly because I'd be lying...

On the other hand: I actually did get Clint Eastwood to promise that we'll never see him tangling with dinosaurs or extraterrestrials. That should count for something, right?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Blast from the past: Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire

I like to joke that I “discovered” Texas native Renee Zellweger way back in 1995, when I singled her out for praise as “the most formidable scream queen since Jamie Lee Curtis went legit” while reviewing The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for Variety at the SXSW Film Festival. (Come to think of it, I also “discovered” Matthew McConaughey in the same flick.) Unfortunately, by the time that film was theatrically released two years later as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, blockhead or blockheads unknown had decided to trim some of the best scenes – including an expository sequence that indicated Zellweger’s character had for a long time been forced to defend herself against the sexual advances of her mother's husbands and boyfriends. After those experiences, Return appeared to be saying, it would take something a lot more formidable than some masked doofus with a chainsaw to keep her intimidated for very long.

But never mind: Zellweger went on to earn praise and touch hearts as schoolteacher (and aspiring writer) Novalyne Price, the very special friend of author Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofio) in The Whole Wide World. I was happy to chat with her (and D’Onofio and director Dan Ireland) when that unjustly overlooked drama premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. And I was downright overjoyed when, later in 1996, I caught up with her at the junket for one of my favorite films of the ‘90s – Jerry Maguire.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Just in time for Halloween: Scary stuff, kids!

Here is my CultureMap round-up of 10 classic scary movies suitable for Halloween viewing. And speaking of Halloween, here's a blast from the past: My 2006 guide to the movies featuring bogeyman Mike Myers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

R.I.P.: Sue Lloyd (1939-2011)

My sincere condolences to the friends and family of Sue Lloyd, the talented Brit actress who passed away Thursday at age 72 -- and who, at the zenith of her va-va-voom hottiness back in the 1960s, had a profound effect on me. No kidding. In The Ipcress File, she played a secret agent who vamped fellow spy Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) during what was, by '60s standards, a torridly sexy scene.

Lloyd: Do you always wear your glasses?
Caine: Yes. Except in bed.
Lloyd removes Caine's glasses. Fade to next scene.

A few weeks after I saw Ipcress File for the first time -- in 1965, during my freshman year of high school -- I had an eye exam, and was told by the examiner that I was near-sighted and would have to wear glasses. Most guys my age usually whined and complained when given that news. I think the examiner was very surprised when all I did was smile.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Next month at Denver Fest: Wish Me Away

On today of all days, I'm especially pleased and proud to announce that I'll be conducting an on-stage Q&A with singer-songwriter Chely Wright and filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf at next month's Starz Denver Film Festival after the Nov. 4 festival screening of Wish Me Away, the spirit-lifting, prize-winning documentary about Wright's bold decision to stride out of the closet and stand tall as a role model.

As I noted in my Variety review after the film's premiere last spring at the Nashville Film Festival, Wish Me Away is fascinating both as a biographical portrait of Wright, the first significant American country music artist to openly identify herself as gay, and as a backstage look at how an entertainer prepares to make a revelation that many might view as career suicide.

Co-directors Birleffi and Knopf begin by tracing Wright's rise as a small-town girl (born in Wellsville, Kansas) who manages to fulfill her childhood dreams of success as a country music singer-songwriter in Nashville. Unfortunately, dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares.

Even as she developed a loyal audience, earned accolades (including the Academy of Country Music’s 1995 prize for Top New Female Vocalist), and climbed the charts with popular singles (such as the No. 1 hit “Single White Female”), Wright was tormented by guilt and fear while hiding (and often denying) her sexual orientation.

During her youth in Wellsville, Wright admits in one of the film's affectingly blunt-spoken interviews, she prayed every night: “Dear God, please don’t let me be gay.” The product of a conservative religious upbringing – and the daughter of an unstable, affection-withholding mother – she arrived in Nashville determined to take Music City by storm. Trouble is, success only served to intensify her determination to live a lie while in the spotlight -– even while, off stage and in secret, she shared a home with a female lover. Deception and denial took a heavy toll: At one point, Wright says, she placed the barrel of a gun in her mouth, and seriously considered pulling the trigger.

All of which makes it all the more satisfying when, after accompanying Wright on her journey of self-discovery, we get to see her at the end of Wish Me Away as she is now -- obviously happier for being honest to and about herself, and determined to use her “public capital” as a celebrity to provide comfort and encouragement for young gay people who fear rejection or worse if they come out.

Yeah, I know: The above paragraph is something of a spoiler. But there are days when I think it's forgivable to tell people about a happy ending even before they actually see the movie that contains it. Especially when some of those people might need to be reassured that, yes, it really does get better.

(BTW: If you can't make it to Denver, don't fret -- Wish Me Away also will be screened Nov. 10 at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yearning to ride the Marrakech Express

Just received an e-mailed press release for the 11th annual Marrakech International Film Festival, and all I can say is: Dear Lord, is there some way I can scam an invite to this event? What if I started praying now?

I mean, consider: A chance to visit an exotic country. Scads of intriguing movies on the agenda -- and a Tribute to Mexican Cinema, which would certainly help me fill gaps in my woefully incomplete knowledge of that country's film history. An opportunity to again chat with filmmaker Emir Kusturica, whom I haven't seen since I interviewed him after his When Father Was Away On Business won the top prize at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. And.. and.. well, OK, I'll say it: Sigourney Weaver. Cowabunga. As ubiquitous blog commentator LexG might say: "Just look at her!"

Of course, I'd probably have to learn French before I went there. But, hey, while I'm praying for that invite, I could also ask for a Berlitz course...

Actually, the lovely and talented Ms. Weaver isn't the only reason why I'd want to crash this party. Seriously: Several years ago, I was offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Morocco to attend an event -- organized by no less a notable than the country's King Hassan II --  to celebrate the restoration of Orson Welles' Othello (which Welles had filmed off and on over a three-year period decades earlier in and around Morocco). It was a very tempting invitation -- especially since, because I'd be expected to take part in panel discussion and other activities, I wouldn't be impeded by the no-freebies-allowed policy of The Houston Post, where I was working at the time. (Actually, I found that policy to be rather porous -- but that's a topic for another posting.)

There was only one problem: The event would take place on the weekend of my son's birthday. And, mind you, this was way back when my son was young enough to really want his old man to be around to help celebrate his birthday.

Now, I won't lie: When I say I was tempted, I was sorely tempted. But in the end, much to the amazement of the U.S. publicist who was handling the invites, I had to pass. Of course, not every father can (truthfully) tell his child: "A king invited me to a big party, but I had to tell him no because I wanted to be here for your birthday instead." And, sure enough, I did earn some major Daddy Points from my dazzled young'un.

Son: Is a real king?
Me: Well, yes, he certainly is.
Son: Does he have a crown?
Me: I believe he does.
Son: Does he have a castle?
Me: Actually, I believe it's a palace.
Son: Wow. 

Of course, by the time my son reached his late teens, he felt compelled to appear a great deal less impressed, if not downright scornful, about all of this. When I reminded him about the incident near his 21st birthday, he replied: "Damn, dad, you should've gone! I would have!" But he smiled while he said that. And I smiled while I listened.

And now that I've shamelessly exploited my own child to entertain readers with a sentimental anecdote, I can't help thinking: Well, OK, his birthday has already come and gone, so maybe this time...?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Take Three: Cinema Arts Festival

The Cinema Arts Festival of Houston has announced the full lineup for its 2011 edition, and H-Town audiences should be happy to know that one of the main attractions this year will be... well, me. Yes, that's right: I'll be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Nov. 12 to interview some guy -- that's his picture up there -- about the books he's written, the movies he's directed, the performances he's given and, I dunno, maybe some other stuff. But I'll tell you this right now: He better not grab my ass.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Take 59: Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a preview screening of a newly restored print of Lawrence of Arabia. And about 20 minutes into the movie, my wife whispered to me, in a tone that neatly balanced amazement and embarrassment: “I just realized – I’ve never seen this movie before.” And I smiled, but I did not laugh, because I knew exactly how she felt.

Indeed, on numerous occasions before and since that screening, I’ve confidently sat down to savor some cinematic classic, absolutely certain that I’ve seen it many times before but determined to find things in it that I never previously noticed or fully appreciated. And, yes, usually all it takes is a few minutes – sometimes, very few minutes – for that smug smile to vanish from my face, and a sinking feeling to develop in my stomach, as I realize: Uh-oh.

The thing is, there are some movies that loom so large in our pop culture, that are so frequently excerpted in film-clip accumulations prepared for biographical and historical documentaries, that are referenced verbally and visually so ubiquitously in both textbooks and magazine features, that have been the subject of reverent homage and mocking parody in so many venues for so many years – that, even if you’ve never seen them, you may not only assume, you may be absolutely convinced that you have.

Just ask yourself, and then ask your friends: Have you ever really, actually seen all of the original Frankenstein with Boris Karloff? Or the original Dracula with Bela Lugosi? How about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Or Edwin S. Hart’s The Great Train Robbery? The Public Enemy? Citizen Kane? The 1933 version of King Kong?

Don’t feel ashamed: The whole point of my ongoing Take 59 project is to plug up some gaps in my own cinematic experiences. But I have to admit: I originally thought I knew precisely what movies would qualify as first-time experiences for me during this year-long marathon. That was before I decided to watch a DVD of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. My intent was to make sure that the disc, a much-appreciated hand-me-down from a colleague, was in tip-top shape before showing it to my students at University of Houston and Houston Community College. About five minutes into my viewing, however: Uh-oh.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: From 1920 to 1928, as writer-director-star with his own company, Buster Keaton made 19 short films and 10 features, including such silent masterpieces as The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927), Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928) and others that I've actually seen. In almost all of these films, he appears as a calmly stoic young man who exhibits amazing physical dexterity in his naively single-minded but ultimately successful struggles to overcome intractable machines (a locomotive, an ocean liner) or forces of nature (a waterfall, a rockslide). As I have noted elsewhere, Charlie Chaplin, Keaton's celebrated contemporary during the golden age of silent movie comedy, might have been driven batty by his dehumanizing drudgery on a high-speed assembly line in Modern Times -- but Keaton usually remained steadfast in his determination to impose control over troublesome technology through sheer force of will.

Sherlock, Jr. is Keaton’s jauntily surrealistic 1924 masterwork about a movie projectionist who yearns to become a dashing detective, and who daydreams of literally entering a movie that's screening at his theater – and, of course, doing derring-do there as the title hero – after a rival frames him for the theft of his girlfriend’s father’s watch. For decades, I’ve seen clips of the film’s still-astonishing set piece, a sequence that shows the projectionist walking into the movie frame, interacting with other characters, and then being thoroughly discombobulated as he’s tossed from location to another -- from an African vista (where lions prowl) to a rugged mountain terrain to a snow-blanketed winterscape and on and on – thanks to editing that changes everything in the frame but him. Other directors have borrowed the basic gimmick – mostly notably, Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Mia Farrow lures her favorite movie star off the silver screen and into the gritty Great Depression, and Gary Ross in Pleasantville, when Tobey McGuire is magically transported from his '90s living room to a '50s TV sitcom. And I’d swear I’ve seen Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny (or both) endure similarly confounding transportations in old Warner Bros, cartoons.

But Keaton’s version of the movie magic obviously made the greater impact on me. So great, in fact, that at some long-ago point after enough exposure, I evidently assumed I’d seen everything else in his classic comedy.


The good news is, there’s an abundance of other funny stuff surrounding that unforgettable set piece, much more than enough for Sherlock, Jr. to qualify as one of Keaton’s grandest achievements. (The folks at the Library of Congress must agree with that appraisal – they added Sherlock, Jr. to the National Film Registry in 1991, two years after placing Keaton’s The General on that exclusive list.) Stripped to absolute essentials at a fleet 45-minute running time, the movie showcases “The Great Stone Face” at his most ingeniously uproarious on either side of the dividing line between the real world and the reel fantasy.

Consider the scene in which Keaton’s projectionist hero proves too honest for his own good when, while sweeping the theater, he finds dollar bills amid the garbage. He’s briefly overjoyed – well, OK, as overjoyed as Keaton ever permits himself to appear on screen – because now he can afford a huge box of candy for his sweetie. But one patron, and then another, shows up to claim the lost money. To his credit, Keaton returns the cash – reluctantly -- but not before asking for detailed description of the dollar bills.

Or consider a later scene in which Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. prepares for a confrontation with bad guys gathered in an inner-city shack. Much like Chow Yun-Fat took the precaution of placing loaded guns in strategic locations along a hallway before bursting in to attack his foes in John Woo’s The Killer, Sherlock Jr. affixes a hoop to a window – so that, when he has to make a quick escape by jumping through that window, he quick-changes into a disguise, that of an elderly woman, that he stuffed into that hoop. So, of course, when the bad guys come outside… yeah, you guessed it, they overlook the old lady. For a while, at least.

And then there’s the thoroughly remarkable sequence that has Sherlock Jr. perched atop the handlebars of a motorcycling racing throughout the city and into the nearby countryside, all the while blissfully unaware that his assistant has toppled off the bike, and there’s actually no one steering the rapidly speeding vehicle. Keep in mind: Sherlock, Jr. was made back in 1924, when special effects were relatively primitive and CGI simply didn’t exist. It’s entirely possible that Keaton cheated a bit during some of the hairier stunts. But when the motorcycle approaches a lengthy gap in a bridge, and it looks like two trucks just might not position themselves on the road below in time to fill that gap for the oblivious Sherlock Jr. – well, I defy you not to interrupt your laugher with a full-throated “Yikes!”

On at least two occasions, Jackie Chan has told me – and, I’m sure, many other people – that he doesn’t merely want to be like Buster Keaton, he wants to be Buster Keaton, period. (Which, of course, explains all the seriocomic Keatonesque stunts in Chan’s action-adventures, particularly Supercop.) It’s easy to understand his admiration: Like Keaton, Chan insists on doing his own stunts. And, again like Keaton, he often has suffered for his art.

But it’s unlikely that even Jackie Chan has ever suffered as much, or risked as much, as Keaton did during the making of Sherlock, Jr. when the projectionist runs across the tops of several freight cars on a moving train, then tries to break his fall after he reaches the end by grabbing the waterspout of a water tower along the track.

Unfortunately, the projectionist doesn’t count on the spout being pulled down by his weight, and dousing him with water. Even more unfortunately, Keaton didn’t count on the force of the rushing water slamming him onto the railroad track below.

In the movie, the ever-resilient hero, in true Keatonesque fashion, immediately rebounds from his temporary setback and continues his mad dash. In real life, however, Keaton felt enormous pain at the time of the accident, and would complain of sporadically severe headaches for months afterward. It wasn’t until a routine medical exam years later that Keaton learned he had fractured his neck during the incident, and easily could have been killed.

Knowing that makes it a little chilling to watch the gag that nearly cost Buster Keaton his life. Still, you can't help laughing out loud. At least, that was my experience while finally watching Sherlock, Jr. for the first of what I’m sure will be many, many times.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Take 59 returns this week

Due to cirumstances not entirely beyond my control, I have neglected to write my weekly Take 59 postings for... oh, jeez, a month. Sigh. Well, I will make amends, starting this week. Honest. I swear. Scout's honor.

Another accolade for Shirley MacLaine

Congratulations to Shirley MacLaine for being selected to receive the 40th annual Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. But just remember, AFI: Houston's Cinema Arts Festival had her first. So there: Nyah, nyah, nyah!

(And while she was here, she had me. So to speak.)

Yes, I know: That's an unforgivably childish response. And, honestly, I mean no disrespect to Ms. MacLaine, who is a grand and gracious lady, an excellent actress, and an all-around icon worthy of every accolade doled out by the entertainment industry. But, what the hell, I learned a long time ago that you better root for the home team as loud as you can, every chance you get. Otherwise...

Well, let me put it this way: Decades ago, while I was covering the New York Film Festival for the Dallas Morning News, I tried to set up an interview with French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, whose most recent movie was in the NYFF lineup. But when I placed a call to the Manhattan press rep for the French New Wave icon, she seemed less than impressed by my outlet. Indeed, after a pause pregnant enough to produce quintuplets, she asked -- and, I swear, this is a verbatim quote -- "Do they show Monsieur Godard's movies in Texas?"

Now here's the ironic part: This particular Godard film (Every Man for Himself) not only got shown in Texas -- it wound up being shown in Dallas at a suburban art-house managed by Bob Berney. (Maybe you've heard of him: He's gone on to bigger and better things.) And I already knew that was a possibility. So I wanted to be polite to the condescending functionary, in the hope of landing an interview. (Which, you probably won't be surprised to learn, I didn't manage to do.)

But I must confess that what I really wanted to say in response was: "Yeah, lady. They show his movies at the goddamn drive-in in Eagle Pass. On double bills with movies by that Frankie Truffaut guy."

R.I.P.: Roger Williams (1924-2011)

During the heyday of Easy Listening radio, Roger Williams -- who passed away Saturday at age 87 -- was positively inescapable.

That's not to say, of course, that he wasn't highly visible (and ubiquitously audible) elsewhere -- atop record charts, on TV variety shows, in concert halls throughout the world, etc. But if you're of a certain age, you can't help but be reminded when you hear his name of a time (roughly speaking, from the mid 1960s to the late '80s) when all you had to do to temporarily escape from workaday stress, or simply find a pleasant soundtrack for office work, long commutes or dreary household chores, was turn the dial or punch a button to hear stations like "Bayou Radio" WBYU in New Orleans or Houston's KYND ("Kind 92"), where the playlist was limited to the likes of André Kostelanetz, 101 Strings, Ferrante & Teicher -- and, yes, Roger Williams.

I must confess that even as my musical tastes evolved from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen and The Police, I frequently returned to Easy Listening stations -- when I was alone, naturally, and not in the company of friends who'd make predictably derisive comments about "elevator music" -- more often than not in search of instrumental versions of popular movie themes. I seldom had to wait very long to hear a selection from some soundtrack because, as I recall, the '60s and '70s were a golden age for movie themes that were recorded by literally dozens of Easy Listening artists. Indeed, even themes from movies that hardly anyone had ever seen -- like the themes from Pieces of Dreams and The Picasso Summer -- remained fixtures for decades on Easy Listening playlists.

Roger Williams recorded an abundance of movie music, scoring hits with themes from such diverse films as Born Free, Somewhere in Time, Summer of '42, The Godfather, The Rose, Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Dr. Zhivago -- "Laura's Theme," my late father's all-time fave -- and on and on and on. You don't often hear music like that on commercial broadcast radio these days. But, trust me, if you heard it then, you remember it still. Ever better, it remans readily available on CDs and downloads -- and at places like this. And this.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Michael Caine: Don't fear the reaper

From Sir Michael Caine, words to live by: "You are going to make every moment count. I mean, you better make every moment count. Live your life now; start in the morning. You mustn’t sit around waiting to die. When it happens you should come into the cemetery on a motorbike, skid to a halt by the side of the coffin, jump in and say: 'Great. I just made it.'" Works for me.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Another weekend, another film festival

Yeah, I know: I haven't completed all my reviews of films I saw at the Toronto Film Festival. And I'm already about 2 or 3 weeks behind on postings for my Take 59 project. But here I am in Austin this weekend for Fantastic Fest because... because... because I'm just a ramblin' kind of guy.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

No more excuses for not posting reviews

Thanks to some patient tech tutoring by one invaluable colleague, and some gentle nudging and eagle-eyed proof-reading by another, I'm back to posting some of my archived movie reviews on my too-long-neglected Moving Picture Show website. Just in case you're interested, you can see what I had to say back in the day about Big Night, White Hunter, Black Heart (pictured above), The Two Jakes and Four Rooms. More to come. I promise.

From Toronto: Trespass

Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman and Joel Schumacher -- together again for the first time. The last time Cage and Schumacher collaborated, the result was a movie -- 8mm -- that I admired, but many people despised. And when Schumacher last directed Kidman -- well, OK, you have to admit that Batman Forever was better than Batman & Robin, right? Anyway: They're all involved in Trespass, and you read my mostly positive Variety review here.

Big Al is coming to H-Town

And you can read all about it here, in my Houston preview.

Why did Dogs die?

Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeff Wells asks: Why did Rod Lurie's remake of Straw Dogs tank at the North American box-office this weekend? Well, as I have noted elsewhere: Maybe the title meant absolutely nothing to its presumptive target audience of young male moviegoers.

Yes, I know, we're talking about an updated version of a Sam Peckinpah classic. But based on my admittedly unscientific research -- i.e., asking students in my film studies classes at University of Houston and Houston Community College -- I would argue that it's not unreasonable to suspect most people under the age of 30 have never heard of that 1971 film, much less watched it. And, perhaps more important, there's the title itself: What the hell does it mean? Seriously. I'm old enough to remember that, as early as the original film’s second week of release, the distributor felt compelled to buy newspaper ads and print lobby posters that actually featured a ceremonial straw dog set ablaze, to kinda-sorta explain the symbolic meaning of the title. Obviously, that helped. Just as obviously, though, it was a necessary marketing move.

I haven't seen Lurie's Straw Dogs yet, and for all I know, it's every bit as terrific as my friend Roger Ebert says. But as far as doing a post-mortem on its failure to find an opening weekend audience? With all due respect, James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard have yet to prove themselves as consistent box-office draws. And then, of course, there's the title. Maybe Lurie would have done better to use the title of the book -- The Siege of Trencher's Farm -- that inspired Peckinpah's original film in the first place?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Hot girl on girl action. No, seriously.

Why do I get the feeling I won't be seeing this commercial on Sports Center or Sunday Night Football anytime soon? Or during the pre-movie cavalcade of ads before screenings at my friendly neighborhood megaplex?

Monday, September 05, 2011

Countdown to Toronto

How many times have you seen this place in movies, commercials and TV dramas? Probably a lot more than you'd think. It's Honest Ed's, a massive discount store that takes up an entire block on the corner of Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto. And the gaudily lit storefront has proven irresistible for scores of directors and location scouts who have shot on location in Toronto over the decades. I never fail to smile when I see it in a film or television production -- particularly when that film or television production supposedly is set somewhere else (New York, Chicago, anywhere) and Honest Ed's is the dead giveaway that, well, somebody thought shooting in Toronto would be much cheaper. Or easier. (After all, eh, we're talking about one of North America's film production hubs.) Or both.

And when it pops up in a movie that is set in Toronto -- well, as I joked with filmmaker Edgar Wright after he directed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, his prominent placement in his film of Honest Ed's (which, not incidentally, also looms large in the graphic novel on which Scott Pilgrim was based) must have been his way of telling the world that, yeah, this really is Toronto playing Toronto for a change.

But I must confess: The chief reason I enjoy seeing Honest Ed's is a sentimental one: It's very near the home of dear friends I look forward to visiting every year  that I cover the Toronto Film Festival. I'll be seeing Honest Ed's again -- up close, in real life -- in less than 48 hours. I can't wait.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Take 59: Confessions of a Nazi Spy

One of the first mainstream, major-studio American movies to explicitly warn against the menace posed by fascism both aboard and at home, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) also is one of the relatively few Hollywood productions of any sort ever to be disdainfully criticized – and robustly defended – on the floor of the US Senate.

It’s a corking good ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama, brisk and brash in the unmistakable style that defined Warner Bros. films of its period. And like many of those other Warners films, this one basically is a rousingly entertaining crime story about a blunt-spoken, hard-charging lawman bent on taking down wily outlaws backed by thuggish henchmen and cretinous confederates.

The big difference in Confessions is, the good guy – FBI agent Edward Renard – is portrayed Edward G. Robinson, a pit-bullish dynamo who’d previously made his mark playing criminally inclined hard cases in Little Caesar and other Warners gangster flicks. And the bad guys are Nazi spies, Gestapo goons, and subversive spokesmen for the German-American Bund.

Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas), a German immigrant, seems thoroughly assimilated -- he’s even a Navy reserve officer! – and red-white-and-bluish. But no: He’s really a fervent National Socialist who’s doing his bit to make the whole world go to heil by delivering fiery speeches at Bund rallies, exhorting his fellow German transplants (and gullible native-born citizens) in New York and elsewhere to support Adolf Hitler and join the Fatherland’s campaign to “save America from the chaos that breeds democracy and racial equality.”

On rare occasions, Kassel must employ uniformed “German patriots” to subdue dissenters in his audience. (Ward Bond – who, just three year later, would play an ex-con seeking to claim a bounty on Der Fuhrer in the exuberantly daft B-movie Hitler – Dead or Alive -- has a memorable cameo as war vet who’s shouted down, and beaten up, when he rails against Nazism: “We don’t want any –isms in this country except Americanism!”) Much more often, however, Kassel’s words resound well with useful fools such as Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), a malcontent who’s so certain that he’s destined for greatness that he never bothers to hold down a steady job – we learn that, years earlier, he spent prison time for being a military deserter – and is all too willing to perform, for a price, services that might gain him the place he richly deserves in the inner circle of the Master Race.

Fairly early on, it’s obvious that Schneider isn’t the sharpest knife in the schnitzel store: He actually tries to make contact with Nazi spylords by writing an application letter to a German newspaper. Amazingly enough, however, this is not viewed as a bad career by a potential employer, a haughty Kraut who comments: “The Americans are a very simple-minded people. One doesn’t need a wolf where a weasel will do.” And so German intelligence chief Franz Schlager (George Sanders, sporting a whitewall haircut and a Teutonic screw-you sneer) sails to America to offer Schneider sliding-scale payments for any info on military armaments and troop stationing.

It doesn’t take long for Schneider to screw up conspicuously enough to eventually alert G-man Renard, an eagle-eyed patriot who’s long suspected the existence of a Nazi spy network in the good ol’ US of A. Openly scornful of the delusional dim bulb in his sights, Renard berates Schneider in a contemptuous harangue. How contemptuous? Well, try to imagine Edwin G. Robinson barking these lines: “He’s been listening to speeches and reading pamphlets about Nazi Germany, and believing them. Unfortunately, there are hundreds like him in America – hysterical, half-witted crackpots who go Hitler-happy from overindulgence in propaganda that makes them believe that they’re supermen.”

Renard plays Schneider like a violin, deftly appealing to the preening loser’s vanity while getting him to give names, more names, and names of people who haven’t even been born yet. (OK, I’m making up that last part – but it’s not much of an exaggeration.) After that, it’s just a matter of connecting the dots to make small-timers rat on big cheeses, all without the messy necessity of enhanced interrogation techniques. (One character takes pains to emphasize: “Don’t worry, there’s not a third degree with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”) The lucky spies wind up in a New York courtroom before a gravely outraged judge. The unlucky ones are transported, unwillingly, back to the Fatherland to face displeased Nazi overlords.

Cue the uplifting speeches and dire warnings, passionately delivered before the final credits roll as “America the Beautiful” swells on the soundtrack. (No, I’m not making up that.)

Part of what makes all of this so fascinating – and occasionally, as I discovered while watching the film for my Take 59 project, absolutely gobsmacking – is the fact that, back in 1939, when Confessions of a Nazi Spy was produced and released, the US had an official policy of neutrality toward Germany and, perhaps more important, the US film industry’s censoriously conservative Production Code Administration routinely neutered or entirely removed anything that smacked of negative criticism of foreign governments in American movies.

As Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black note in their invaluable history Hollywood Goes to War, PCA chief Joseph Breen was one of many fervent non-interventionists among film-industry higher-ups who didn’t want anything appearing in Hollywood movies that might upset foreign leaders – and lead to the banning of all Hollywood releases in countries controlled by those leaders -- or give American ticketbuyers (and Washington politicians) the idea that studio chiefs were pushing for active American involvement in what appeared to be an inevitable war in Europe. As a 1938 PCA internal memo fretted: “Are we ready to depart from the pleasant and profitable course of entertainment, to engage in propaganda?”

That the events depicted in Confessions of a Nazi Spy were based on real-life events – Nazi spies actually were caught and tried in New York in 1938, thanks in part to the efforts of a G-man not unlike the one played by Robinson – didn’t entirely mollify Breen. (Nor did the factual basis for the scenario deter the German consul in Los Angeles from warning Breen that production of Confessions might lead to “difficulties.”)

But the unabashedly anti-fascist mogul Jack Warner forged ahead anyway, defying all suggestions to soft-pedal what he and his filmmakers saw as Nazi Germany’s threat to the American way of life. Unlike, say, Idiot’s Delight, the 1936 Broadway hit that had to be transported from the Italian Alps to an unnamed European Country, and scrubbed of any unpleasant remarks about Benito Mussolini, before a movie adaptation could be released, Confessions switched back and forth between a New York infiltrated by Nazi spies and Bund propagandists, and a Germany where swastika-emblazoned bad guys hail Hitler – whose image appears in prominently displayed photos and portraits -- and plot deviltry.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy wound up being a box-office hit. But that wasn’t enough to mollify various non-interventionist firebrands in Washington, D.C. Gerald P. Nye, an isolationist Republican senator from North Dakota, loomed large among those who called in 1941 for a specially empanelled subcommittee of the Committee on Interstate Commerce to investigate “war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry” -- specifically, movies such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (in which Walter Pidgeon plays a big-game hunter who considers taking a shot at Hitler) and, yes, Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

It’s worth noting that Harry M. Warner, present of Warner Bros., appeared before the subcommittee and, in a prepared statement, defended Confessions of a Nazi Spy: “I cannot conceive how any patriotic citizen could object to a picture accurately recording a danger already existing in our country… Civic, patriotic and labor organizations endorsed this picture. Hundreds of thousands of movie patrons paid to see it.”

It’s also worth noting that the subcommittee hearings on “interventionist propaganda” were adjourned on Sept. 16, 1941. On Dec. 8, they were permanently abandoned.