Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When Alfred Hitchcock Met... James Brown?

This clip only serves to reinforce my long-held suspicion that, back in the day, The Mike Douglas Show had the most eclectic guest lineup of any talk show, at anytime, anywhere on TV. No, really.

Free flick: American Grindhouse

Free for you to view from Hulu.com: American Grindhouse, director Elijah Drenner's 2010 documentary about the various disreputable subgenres -- everything from nudie cuties to sci-fi cheapies, blaxploitation melodramas to blood-soaked splatter flicks -- that define exploitation cinema.

As I reported for Variety while reviewing the movie at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, "Drenner neatly balances wink-wink irony with enthusiastic affection while employing an extensive array of film clips to illustrate the sometimes serious, sometimes snarky commentary by film historians, veteran actors and moviemakers who have produced and/or enjoyed exploitation fare... Definitions are vague and lines of demarcation are smudgy -- there's even some debate over what a true 'grindhouse' really is, or was -- but the lack of precision seems altogether appropriate for a pic about such unabashedly slapdash product."

Among the interviewees: Directors Jack Hill (The Big Bird Cage), Don Edmonds (Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS), Jonathan Kaplan (Truck Turner) and Larry Cohen (Black Caesar). But wait, there's more: A few "expert witnesses" -- including filmmakers John Landis and Joe Dante -- pop up now and then to express their unabashed appreciation for these and other schlockmeisters. Indeed, Landis goes so far as to suggest that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is no better, and maybe worse, than any exploitation movie he's ever seen. No kidding.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I ♥ In the Heat of the Night (and Norman Jewison)

Thanks to Michael Gibbons of the Film Society of Lincoln Center for allowing me to wax nostalgic in a blog posting tied to the Film Society's Friday screening of In the Heat of the Night, a movie that made me want to become a movie critic. Of course, the last time I got so emotional about Norman Jewison's masterwork, some folks felt compelled to criticize me as too fulsome and, ahem, long-winded. Such is life. My feeling is, if you're too busy trying to sound cool and look dignified while you're expressing your love, it ain't really love at all.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Awesome People Hanging Out Together

Marlon Brando and Bob Hope

Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein

Michael Jackson, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas

Michael Caine and Nancy Sinatra

But wait -- there's more.

Coming soon to a theater near you: Sarah Palin

According to RealClearPolitics.com, the former governor of Alaska is the star of an upcoming film titled The Undefeated. And no, it's not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie.

Friday, May 20, 2011

R.I.P.: Macho Man Randy Savage (1952-2011)

I am seriously bummed to hear about the passing of Macho Man Randy Savage, a sports entertainment legend (and Spider-Man co-star) who brought so much joy to my son and I back in the day when viewing Monday Night Raw was a weekly bonding experience for the two of us. Really. And his commercials for Slim Jim were pretty damn funny, too. Oooooh, yeah!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Coming (back) soon to a theater near you: Titanic

Today's announcement that James Cameron's Titanic will be converted into 3-D format and reissued in theaters on April 6, 2012 -- just in time for the 100th anniversary of the luxury liner's first and last voyage -- strikes me as, at best, a mixed blessing.

To be brutally honest, I've never been a big fan of Cameron's romantic melodrama -- which, up until the 2009 release of another Cameron extravaganza, Avatar, ranked as the No. 1 box-office champ of all time -- and my original review most certainly was not a rave. On the other hand, I'll be more than mildly curious to see if and how the re-release will increase the amount of on-line traffic for my interviews with Cameron and Leonardo Di Caprio, which were videotaped shortly before Titanic opened at theaters and drive-ins everywhere back in 1997, and have been available on YouTube since 2008.

And yes, I'll admit: I want to see how that damn iceberg looks in 3-D.

Lars von Trier: Not a laughing matter

From my file of Things I Wouldn't Dare Make Up: One afternoon at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, I found myself standing in a mezzanine of the Palais des Festivals, midway between two banks of television monitors. On the monitors to my right, there was an interview with someone -- an actor or a filmmaker, I forget which -- connected with Surf Nazis Must Die, an exploitation film evidently screening in the festival market. "Well, yes," the fellow said with a smug grin to an unseen interviewer, "I guess I've always thought of myself as something of a Nazi. Hah, hah, hah!"

On the monitors to my left, there was a French newscast report: Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, was being led to his trial for crimes against humanity.

The juxtaposition was so jolting that I instinctively glanced around, hoping to find someone, anyone, that I knew among the critics and journalists milling about, so I could grab him or her and ask: "Did you see that? Can you believe that?" But, alas, I was all alone in the crowd, and no one else, not even a passing stranger, appeared to be paying much heed to the TV screens.

And, truth to tell, I actually found myself getting angry. Indeed, I was still angry when I later wrote in my 1989 Houston Post review Marcel Ophuls' Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie: "After four decades of paperback potboilers, B-movie melodramas, and revisionist historians who would deny the Holocaust ever happened, the very word 'Nazi' has lost much of its sting. Indeed, as I was vividly reminded one afternoon two years ago, some self-satisfied cretin can joke about being a Nazi, on television in a country once brutalized under the German Occupation, and safely assume people will giggle at his naughtiness."

All of which explains why I'm so fascinated -- and, I'm not the least bit ashamed to admit, so heartened -- by what happened today to filmmaker Lars von Trier at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Looks like folks weren't giggling this time.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Talking with Brotherhood director Will Canon

Like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, Will Canon is a proud alumnus of the NYU film school. But when it came time for him to direct his first feature – Brotherhood, newly released on Blu-Ray and DVD – the Lufkin-born, Arlington-reared filmmaker opted to return to his Texas roots.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Doug Simon – based on a short film, Roslyn, he made as a student project at NYU – Canon shot Brotherhood throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, spending much of his time at a former fraternity house near University of Texas at Arlington. Last year, he premiered his low-budget, high-impact thriller in Austin at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival, where it earned the Audience Award and several rave reviews.

And before you ask: Yes, I was among the early ravers.

In my original Variety review, I praised Brotherhood an ingeniously constructed and propulsively paced thriller that gives a film noir twist to frat-boy misbehavior – think Animal House meets Detour – while demonstrating just how speedily a very bad situation can metastasize into a worst-case scenario. Specifically, I noted:

Canon authoritatively sets the overall tone and establishes the central characters in his pic's 13-minute pre-title sequence, as demanding frat prez Frank (Jon Foster), evidencing all the browbeating expertise of a Marine D.I., orders intimidated pledges to prove their worth by robbing convenience stores.

The pledges are being punk'd: They don't know that, each time one is dropped off at a store, another fraternity brother will halt the guy before he actually attempts a stick-up. Trouble is, one frat boy, Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci), is at the wrong store at the wrong time, and winds up getting shot and wounded by an armed store clerk.

So it's back to the frat house, where Adam (Trevor Morgan), a pledge who gradually emerges as the pic's protagonist, demands that Frank call an ambulance or, better still, rush Kevin to a hospital. But Frank nixes both requests, insisting he can find a way to ameliorate the situation -- and, he hopes, stop Kevin from bleeding to death -- without alerting the cops and risking jail time. The other frat brothers follow Frank's lead -- from force of habit, of course, but also to avoid any penalty for being not-so-innocent bystanders.

Unfortunately, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Despite the buzz generated at SXSW, and despite supportive reviews from other impressed critics – Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times credited the movie for having “the unrelenting pace and cascading-catastrophe structure of a 24 episode, along with a cast of young actors who play it for everything it’s worth” – Brotherhood made only a fleeting appearance on a handful of screens during its theatrical release a couple months ago.

This week, however, it gets new exposure, and another chance to grab the audience it deserves, by way of home video and (through cable and satellite services) video on demand. Will Canon called from his new home base in Los Angeles a few days ago to promote the second stage of his first-rate film’s release.

Q. Will, you grew up in Arlington, and even attended Arlington High School, where you were captain of the basketball team. So did you feel good about going home to make your first feature?

A. Yeah, I think it was all about being in a comfort zone. I mean, when you’re making a first feature, it’s so difficult. I didn’t know until I started actually how difficult it was going to be. We started out planning to shoot in Louisiana. But when you’re working on a low budget – well, you realize that there are certain things you’re going to need help with, and you’re going to need problems solved. And for me, it worked out much better to do it in Arlington. Because whenever we had a problem while we were shooting, there were other people in the community who could sort of step in and help us out. Really, help was always just a phone call away.

Q. Is there an extended film community in the Arlington area?

A. There is, there is. A lot people come out of the UTA film program. And, of course, you’re by Dallas, where there are, like, a ton of filmmakers as well. I had already done a handful of short films there. So I knew people all over the area.

Q. Like I said in my review, Brotherhood is a unique mash-up of frat-boy misbehavior and film noir suspense. Which element popped into your head first?

A. Actually, the fraternity stuff came first. It started out as a student film I did at NYU. And the short film is really like the first eight minutes of what turned out to be the feature film. I just had the idea that I wanted to do something about fraternity initiations. And then the story kind of evolved into something with thriller aspects to it. See, I was watching all sorts of movies at the time, and I knew they all related to what I wanted to do. I just didn’t know how. And I kind of liked that I didn’t know how. I liked that I might be taking in all of these things, and that it would all make sense somehow. But I didn’t have an exact bull’s-eye that I was trying to hit, and that was nice.

Q. I want to be careful how I phrase this, because I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but there’s a really clever, really nasty twist at the end of the movie. And it’s a pay-off for something that you plant in plain sight very early – but is easy to forget about. It’s like the law of Chekhov’s gun – you don’t introduce a gun in the first act unless you’re going to fire it in the last act.

A. Actually, when I first sort of came up with the idea for Brotherhood, I knew I wanted to plant something in the first act, and have it pay off in the third. That’s part of what really got me excited about doing the film. I figured that if I had enough things going on, and we’re swept up in the story, people will forget all about that thing that happens in the early scene. And that’ll make it all the more jolting in the end.

Q. How did you go about casting the lead roles?

A. Well, with some of the actors – Trevor Morgan, Jon Foster and Lou Pucci – I had seen them in other stuff. Like, I had seen Trevor in a movie called Mean Creek, which I thought he was fantastic in. So he was the guy who immediately came to mind for his role. And I’d seen Pucci in a movie called Thumbsucker, which I thought he was fantastic in, and he actually won an award at Sundance for it. But I didn’t think we’d be able to get him for the role that he ended up doing. But he turned out to be friends with Trevor. And Trevor kept telling me, “You should take a look at Lou.” And I said, “I’d love to.” And as for Jon – most of the stuff I’d seen him in was stuff he’d done when he was younger, like The Door in the Floor. But I’d never seen him after he’d sort of grown up. And my casting director said I had to take a look at Jon. So I did – and I knew he’d be perfect for the role of Frank.

Q. I have to say that after catching Brotherhood at SXSW – and seeing how well it played with an audience – I expected it to get more attention during its theatrical run.

A. Well, I was certainly hoping for that. Especially coming out of South By Southwest, when it seemed to have so much momentum. I would have liked to have seen it go into more theaters and get a bigger push for sure.

Q. On the other hand, Tiny Furniture, another film that made an impact at SXSW last year, didn’t get all the much wider a theatrical release. But when I spoke Lena Dunham, the movie’s director, she said that she was happy for her film to reach people on home video or VOD – video on demand – just as long as it reached them, period.

A. And I agree with that. There are certain places where an independent film, no matter how big a push it gets – it’s just not going to play in those markets. So the great thing about VOD is, no matter what cable provider you have, if they’re carrying it, that movie is available to you. And if it’s on DVD, you can buy it or order it anywhere.

Q. The only downside is, there’s nothing like the communal experience of seeing something as exciting as Brotherhood with a lot of other people. What did you make of the audience response at SXSW?

A. I was very surprised. I mean, there are certain parts where the audience literally jumps. Almost like it’s a horror film or something, and they’re reacting to a scare. And I was surprised that people were reacting audibly as well. I didn’t anticipate that.

Q. So what’s next?

A. I just finished a script with the same co-writer, Doug Simon. It’s a thriller that takes place in the financial world that we’re hoping to do next. And there are other projects that are coming our way, either for me as a director of the both of us as a writing team. We’re hoping the one we just wrote is coming next. But you never know.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Just call me Kingpin

Fifteen years after I received my very own custom-fitted bowling ball as swag during the junket for Kingpin -- they drilled the holes to match my fingers right there in the hospitality suite! -- I still take it out of the closet for an occasional game. But my son still kicks my ass at the lanes. And more often than not, so does his mom.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sean Penn: Cradle Robber?

I have lived long enough to see Jeff Spicoli become the December in a May-December romance. Just what I need to see as I trudge through the last three months before my 59th birthday. Sigh.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Obama bashes Birthers, thumps Trump at White House Correspondents' Dinner

As I have said before: I fully expect that, after he completes his second term as President, Barack Obama will pursue a profitable career doing stand-up in Las Vegas. Though probably not at a casino owned by The Donald. (BTW: Check out all the movie references -- everything from The Adjustment Bureau to The King's Speech, with a well-chosen clip from a classic cartoon as lagniappe.)