Monday, August 22, 2011

Fright Night: When is a "classic" maybe not really one?

Given the way folks carelessly toss about the term "classic" -- using the word to describe everything from ugly muscle cars to '80s slasher flicks -- I really shouldn't be surprised that some nostalgic movie buffs are eager to apply that appellation to the original 1985 Fright Night, if only to differentiate that film from its recently released, reportedly underwhelming remake.

But at the risk of sounding like the critical equivalent of the cranky old coot who wants those damn kids to get off his lawn -- I can't say I share the love for the '85 flick. This is, reprinted verbatim, my original review of the original Fright Night, as it appeared Aug. 2, 1985, in the now-defunct Houston Post:

Fright Night takes a great idea and makes the very least of it.

For his debut as a director, scriptwriter Tom Holland has come up
with a doozy of a premise: A teen-ager discovers his next-door neighbor is a
vampire, and must call on a TV horror movie host for help when no one else
believes his fantastic story. Unfortunately, Holland fritters away his
inspiration as he scuttles back and forth between grisly shocks and campy
put-on. One moment, we have a heavy-handed sight gag: the vampire's home is
the only house on the block surrounded by swirling fog and low-hanging clouds.
The next moment, we have Richard Edlund's yuck-o special effects: green slime
oozes from a bad guy's corpse, before the skeletal remains crumple into dust.

Holland had similar trouble balancing gore and giggles in his script for
Psycho II. Here, however, the schizophrenia is even more obvious, since
Holland lacks the directorial skill to merge the disparate elements. His movie
doesn't jell until the final 20 minutes, when, despite some glaring gaps in
the narrative logic, it generates some genuine suspense. By that time, alas,
it's too late in the evening for Fright Night.

Roddy McDowall
[pictured above] gives a stylized, sympathetic performance as Peter Vincent,
the horror movie host who displays grace and surprising bravery under
pressure. Chris Sarandon plays the vampire, Jerry Dandrige, with adequate
suavity and menace.

But William Ragsdale, the teen-age hero, is a bland cipher. Amanda Bearse
is supposed to be his leading lady, but she could pass for his mother. (Of
course, her obvious maturity comes in handy when Sarandon starts vamping her
in a silly disco sequence. If she looked younger, he'd look like a child
molester.) Stephen Geoffreys, who plays the hero's eccentric classmate and
reluctant ally, looks and sounds like a Jack Nicholson clone that was somehow
damaged in the laboratory. Dorothy Brewster, cast as Ragsdale's mother,
overacts with the tiresome stridency of a supporting player determined to make
herself memorable.

Fright Night could have been something special. Its mediocrity is not
merely disappointing, it is almost infuriating.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

R.I.P.: Silvio Narizanno (1927-2011)

While trolling the obituaries in Variety yesterday – don’t ask why, you don’t want to know – I was surprised to find a piece on Canadian-born filmmaker Silvio Narizzano. Surprised, that is, because this was the first mention I’d read of the guy’s death, even though he’d passed away on July 26, and the obit had posted on Aug. 8. And as I Googled his name, to read what others had to say, my surprise gave way to amazement because, except for this respectful appreciation in The Australian, and this article in the Guardian, I really couldn’t find much else anywhere. Seriously: No other obit of any substance, not even in The New York Times or Los Angeles Times.

And why, you might ask, would I have expected otherwise?

Well, to be honest, I would have anticipated at least a fleeting mention of Narizzano’s death in a few movie blogs because he directed Tallulah Bankhead (in her final screen performance) and a very young Donald Sutherland in Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), arguably the campiest of all those high-camp ‘60s gothic thrillers that provided gainful employment for aging screen queens (a subgenre spawned by the classic Bette Davis-Joan Crawford matchup in 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).

And surely (or so I would have thought) devotees of Le Bad Cinema might have wanted to tip their Stetsons to Narizzano in acknowledgement of Blue (1968), his legendarily ill-conceived Western starring Terence Stamp – yes, that Terence Stamp – as a moody young gringo who was raised by Mexican bandits and befriended by Texas settlers, but inexplicably spoke with a thick British accent that made him sound like… like… well, like Terence Stamp.

Just how bad was Blue? Well, let me put it this way: The film was produced by Paramount back in the day when Robert Evans and Peter Bart lit most of the green lights. When I recently interviewed Bart about Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, The Mob (and Sex), his hugely entertaining account of his Paramount misadventures, I noted, only half-jokingly: “I’m probably the only interviewer you’ll meet while promoting this book who actually paid first-run admission to see Blue.” Bart, not even a quarter-jokingly, replied: “I guess I should apologize to you for that.”

But seriously folks: The real reason I was surprised by the dearth of obits for Silvio Narizzano is another movie that looms large on his resume. An era-defining film that launched a few notable careers, earned a few major Oscar nominations, helped kick off the ‘60s cycle of seriocomic flicks about Swinging England, and introduced an irresistibly bouncy title song that, to this day, remains a staple of Golden Oldie radio stations: Georgy Girl.

Yes, this Georgy Girl – the affectingly bittersweet comedy-drama starring Alan Bates, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason and, in the title role, the late, great Lynn Redgrave. Not a masterwork, perhaps, and not the kind of film that people under 30 often are exposed to. I can’t say it’s even discussed much by serious cineastes anymore, or screened at all in college film studies courses. But, trust me, for those of us who were the right age to see it way back during its original theatrical run – well, whenever someone or something reminds you about it, you remember it very fondly.

Looking back at Narizzano’s resume, it’s painfully obvious that whatever career momentum he gained from Georgy Girl – which netted him a DGA Award nomination – was dissipated by the train wreck that was Blue. (Another problem: He reportedly had a lifelong problem with depression.) He continued to work off and on in movies and TV until the ‘90s, accumulating a few respectable credits here and there – including filmizations of Loot, a Joe Orton comedy starring Lee Remick, Milo O'Shea and Richard Attenborough, and Come Back, Little Sheba, a William Inge drama starring Sir Laurence Olivier, Joanne Woodard and Carrie Fisher – but never quite managing to make lightning strike a second time.

And yet: Despite all that, despite the obscurity that had enveloped Narizzano long before his death, the general lack of attention paid that death is, as I’ve said, surprising. And, yes, a little sad. I’ve often claimed that, sometimes, all it takes is one classic film for a filmmaker to achieve a kind of immortality. On other occasions, however, it appears that really isn’t enough.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Take 59: My year of remedial movie-watching is about to start

On Monday, Aug. 22, I turn 59. Which means that, if there's anything I want to accomplish while I'm still in my 50s -- I have only 52 weeks left to cross it off my to-do list. And there's the rub: Even though I have spent a goodly portion of my life writing about films, interviewing film actors and filmmakers, and teaching college-level film studies courses, and hope to continue doing so until I'm even deeper into my dotage, there are many noteworthy movies -- some classic, some not -- that I have not seen. Yet.

So I'm launching -- with, I admit, no small amount of trepidation -- a project that I've dubbed Take 59. During the next 52 weeks -- from Aug. 22, 2011 to Aug. 21, 2012 -- I'm going to view, once a week, a 20th century movie that I've never seen before, that I feel I should see before I turn 60. But wait, there's more: I'm also going to post an appraisal of each movie, and each posting will come with the Take 59 label.

I’m likely going to embarrass myself, and get a fair amount of heckling, when I fess up and name the names of classics that I've missed up until now. Because, mind you, I'm not talking about movies I saw decades ago at on-campus screenings, or watched on late-night TV, or viewed at the Gentilly-Orleans art house in New Orleans way back in the day, but can't recall very clearly, if at all. Much to my chagrin, I've never -- ever -- seen Intolerance. Or Out of the Past. Or Heaven's Gate. (OK, maybe that's not really a classic, but still....) Or The Lady from Shanghai. Or Masculin, FĂ©minin.  Or Say Anything.

In the course of my Take 59 project, I plan to catch up with all of those films. But I also want to include some non-classics in the mix -- movies I've always heard about and meant to see, but for various reasons always managed to miss. (Until now.) Especially some '60s and '70s films. Like, I've never seen Roger Corman's The Trip. Or Richard Lester's How I Won the War (which many folks actually consider to be a classic -- and many others don't).  Or Christian Nyby's Operation C.I.A. (with Burt Reynolds fighting the Viet Cong -- in 1965). Or Robert Mulligan's The Pursuit of Happiness (which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly titled drama starring Will Smith).

And here's the beauty part: I already have DVDs (or, in a few cases, Blu-Rays) of these and many other movies I've never seen before. Hell, they're all still shrink-wrapped, stacked on a closet shelf dedicated to films I've always intended to see... someday.

There will be 52 somedays as Take 59 unwinds. I cordially invite you to join me for all of them.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Between Iraq and a hard case

According to Sharon Waxman of The Wrap: "Twentieth Century Fox has made a deal with writer-producer Peter Mehlman for a new comedy pilot about a young couple who get a new neighbor: notorious mobster Whitey Bulger. In an exclusive interview with TheWrap Wednesday, Mehlman shared his amazement that the 81-year-old Bulger lived the leasurely life of a fugitive in Santa Monica for 15 years... In the pilot pitch, a couple, like Mehlman, remain unaware that their next-door neighbor is a murderer. (The character is based on Bulger, but is not him.)"

The funny thing is, a few years ago, not long after the US invasion of Iraq, I had a Broadcast and Film Writing student at University of Houston turn in a treatment for a proposed sitcom. The premise: In post-war Iraq, Kentucky Fried Chicken sends a rep to Baghdad to open the company's first franchise fast-food restaurant there. Among the rep's eclectic group of employees: Saddam Hussein, barely disguised, more or less hiding out in plain sight under an alias as the KFC restaurant's autocratic (and very demanding) assistant manager. (A running gag: Saddam really, really admires Col. Sanders' white suit.) It was actually quite funny -- the KFC rep, of course, was an earnest young go-getter who was completely clueless about Iraqi culture and customs, and had no idea whatsoever who was working for him -- but I warned the student that it might be a tough sell because some people would find it tasteless.

Maybe I was wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Actress sleeps with director to land acting gig

Michael Biehn shamelessly exploits his wife -- the muy caliente Jennifer Blanc -- in a shameless exploitation film. And she's a very willing accomplice. You can read all about the fun couple -- and their wild movie, The Victim -- here.

Monday, August 15, 2011

They've got Michele Bachmann eyes

For more of the same, check here. (Hat-tip to Joanne Harrison, who obviously has friends in all the right places.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Since Rick Perry is running for President...

Maybe more folks should take a look at Incendiary: The Willingham Case, a fascinating documentary I reviewed at SXSW last spring. It's a frequently unsettling account of how dubious "science" possibly led to an irreversible miscarriage of justice. Specifically, the film deals with the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted for the 1991 arson murders of his three young children in Corsicana, Texas, and executed in 2004, despite serious doubts raised about the prosecution's evidence. Rick Perry, the governor of the great state of Texas, doesn't come off too well in the movie. And for good reason, according to Scott Keyes of Think Progress.

Austin Powers 4: The Franchise Never Dies

What's this? Another Austin Powers movie is in development? Why? Didn't Mike Myers get all that out of his system in the last sequel?

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lone Ranger rides... into turnaround

Both Mike Fleming and The Hollywood Reporter wonder: Did Disney pull the plug on The Lone Ranger because Cowboys & Aliens under-performed at the box-office?

Francois Truffaut disses Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman trashes Orson Welles, Tim Burton flips off Kevin Smith -- and everybody piles on Jean-Luc Godard

At a dinner party I attended several years ago, it was my great misfortune to be seated near a woman who wanted to know -- no, make that demanded to know -- what was so freakin' great about Citizen Kane. I politely attempted to explain why the movie was such an artistic breakthrough, how it continues to influence other movies and moviemakers, what technical and storytelling elements are so thrillingly impressive... and she didn't buy any of it. It all boiled down to this: She thought that it was a pretentious bore, and that anyone who thought otherwise was a pompous twit. Finally, I had to tell her -- again, politely -- that she had every right to her opinion, and we'd have to agree to disagree.

(It's an occupational hazard for film critics: Random encounters with folks who seem irrationally enraged by the possibility that they don't "get" something that other people do. As I have told several such aggressively opinionated people: "Look, I can't argue you into liking something you obviously don't.")

I was reminded of this unpleasant encounter while reading "The 30 Harshest Filmmaker-on-Filmmaker Insults In History," Jason Bailey's funny and fascinating piece for Bailey catalogs some of the nastiest critiques, putdowns and bitchslaps ever aimed by one auteur at another. And No. 3 on his list is a scathing dismissal of Orson Wells in general and Citizen Kane in particular, offered by no less a luminary than -- are you ready for this? are you sitting down? -- Ingmar Bergman:

“For me he’s just a hoax. It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of — is all the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie’s got is absolutely unbelievable.”

Ouch. Maybe I should have asked the lady at the dinner party if she liked The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries.

Elsewhere in the Flavorwire piece, Bailey quotes Francois Truffaut on Michelangelo Antonioni (described by Truffaut as “the only important director I have nothing good to say about"), Tyler Perry on Spike Lee ("Spike can go straight to hell!"), and Tim Burton on Kevin Smith (who, you will not be at all surprised to discover, responds in kind). And while I should be shamed to admit this -- indeed, it might even get my film reviewing license revoked -- I laughed out loud while noting that Bergman and Welles did agree on at least one thing: The films of Jean-Luc Godard are far short of unalloyed delights.

How many of these barbs were inspired by professional jealousy or private agendas? Who knows? After all, not every filmmaker is as honest as Norman Jewison, who once told me he “didn’t necessarily want to like” The 400 Blows when Francois Truffaut unveiled his first feature in 1959, “because I knew he had been a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, and there were a lot of things that I disagreed with him on. And when he said he was going to make a film, I said, ‘Here you are, you asshole. Now you’ll find out that it’s not so goddamn easy.’"

But then Jewison got a look at Truffaut's handiwork. "And he was brilliant," Jewison said, expressing equal measures of amusement and appreciation. "Totally brilliant.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Final Destination 5: You can run, but you can't hide

Constrained by a formula as restrictive as the elements that define haiku or iambic pentameter, scriptwriter Eric Heisserer and first-time feature director Steven Quale nevertheless generate a respectable amount of suspense in Final Destination 5. This latest entry in the 11-year-old horror series duly adheres to tradition by providing inventively grisly demises for various characters. But there's cheeky cleverness on display in the Rube Goldberg-style setups -- and darkly ironic payoffs -- for most of those death scenes. And while the movie's ingeniously nasty ending would serve as satisfying closure for the franchise, its likely success at the box-office (and as homevideo fodder) should guarantee even more sequels. You can read my Variety review here.

(BTW: The carnage kicks off with the spectacular collapse of a suspension bridge. Don't be surprised if certain pundits -- yes, I'm looking at you Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz -- use footage of this disaster to illustrate their commentary while advocating more government funding of infrastructure repair. Not that there's anything wrong with that, you understand.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Warrior scores a knockout

An improbably effective and affecting mix of raw emotions and exciting smackdowns, Warrior shapes up as a strong contender for critical kudos and box-office bounty. You can read my Variety review here.

Kris Kristofferson: Looking back, looking forward

For over four decades, Kris Kristofferson has loomed large in the pop culture firmament as both a renowned singer-songwriter and an acclaimed film actor. Even now, at the ripe young age of 75, he continues to impress and entertain with his performances on concert stages and in motion pictures. So I considered it a rare privilege and honor to interview him for the September issue of Cowboys & Indians, The Premier Magazine of the West.

On the day after he received the prestigious Career Achievement Award at the Nashville Film Festival last April, Kristofferson sat down with me to reminisce about working with country music greats who became close friends – including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings – and acting for filmmakers as diverse as Sam Peckinpah, Shane Dax Taylor (director of Kristofferson’s latest film, the moody drama Bloodworth) and Martin Scorsese.

Kristofferson credits Scorsese with giving him -- during the making of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore --  the best advice he's ever received as an actor. “When I read the script for Alice,” he says, “I really didn’t know if I was up to the guy. I felt I didn’t have the acting experience – just the mechanics of it -- that probably was necessary. But when I got the job, Marty said something to me that was one of the most helpful things that a director ever told me. He said, ‘Don’t worry about what it says in the script when it says, “He says sternly,” or something like that. Just go through and cross out all of the directorial comments and just leave the dialogue. And figure how you would say that – how you would react to that.’ And that changed everything for me.”

You can read more of what Kristofferson had to say during our chat here. And you can read a web-only sidebar about some of his Western movies here.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Hulu Flashback: Seven Samurai

When Steven Spielberg hailed Akira Kurosawa as “the visual Shakespeare of our time,” the American admirer likely was thinking of the Japanese master’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s stunning 1954 epic is one of those absolutely indispensable films that practically everyone has heard about, regardless of whether they’ve actually seen it. Indeed, even if you haven’t, you may think you’ve seen it, given its strong influence on so many other films and filmmakers. For five decades, directors ranging from John Sturges (who remade it as The Magnificent Seven) to John Sayles (who borrowed the basic plot while writing a 1980 sci-fi cheapie called Battle Beyond the Stars) have drawn from Kurosawa’s tale of honor among warriors in 16th-century Japan.

By turns sage and savage, avuncular and authoritarian, the great Takashi Shimura (Ikiru) heads the ensemble cast as Kambei, an unemployed samurai who agrees to help peasants defend their village against periodic pillaging by marauding bandits. Even though the pay is meager — a few handfuls of rice — Kambei is able to recruit other hired swords who have little else to do after being cast adrift by the lords they once served. By appealing to their pride, sense of justice and respect for tradition, he attracts such tough customers as Kyuzo (Seji Miyaguchi), a taciturn professional who never wastes a word or gesture, and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a bearish hot-head who takes great pains to hide his less-than-noble ancestry.

Seven Samurai shows Kurosawa at the top of his form, demonstrating rigorous control of his medium with an inspired balance of formal precision and kinetic exuberance. His epic opens with rapid panning shots of bandits riding over hills, and climaxes with the thundering chaos of a rain-soaked, mud-and-blood battle. In between, there is scarcely a single shot that does not contain motion. Even when people in the frame are stationary, the camera itself glides, thrusts and recoils like a restless animal. More than a half-century after its initial release, Seven Samurai still makes most other action movies seem positively pokey.

Appropriately enough, this classic by “the most Western of Japanese filmmakers” is, at heart, an old-fashioned Hollywood Western in even older-fashioned Japanese regalia. Kurosawa made no apologies for embracing the style and substance of Occidentals as diverse as John Ford and Vincent Van Gogh. (He rendered the latter as a workaholic sage — played by Martin Scorsese, no less! — in his 1990 anthology film, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.) A lifelong student of Shakespeare, he audaciously re-imagined Macbeth as Throne of Blood (1957), an epic drama of medieval warfare; recycled elements of Hamlet in The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a modern-day tale of deadly serious corporate intrigue; and and reconstituted King Lear as Ran (1985), his last incontestable masterpiece.

Even so, despite his borrowings from other cultures, Kurosawa remained forever mindful of his roots. And while he refused to err on the side of romanticized nostalgia in his re-creations of Japan’s turbulent past, he viewed social changes, technological advancements and other breaks from tradition as extremely mixed blessings. It is well worth remembering that in Seven Samurai, the 16th-century swordsman who best represents the ancient bushido code of honor -- the very embodiment of revered tradition -- is felled by a rifle shot.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The old guard gives way to the new?

Marc Malkin of E! reports that at today's Hollywood Foreign Press luncheon in Beverly Hills, Mark Wahlberg warned Leonardo DiCaprio that they'd been rendered obsolete -- by Taylor Lautner. I think he was kidding. I mean, surely Wahlberg knows that Lautner has yet to make a movie as cool as Four Brothers or Inception -- right?