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.