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 AndrĂ© 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.