Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Obama vs. E.T.?

I've always suspected that Steven Spielberg cast Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a scientist who could communicate with extraterrestrials because... well, because of course Truffaut could have communicated with extraterrestrials, if he'd ever had to, because that's the kind of amazingly astute and sensitive fellow he was. In much the same vein, I'm not at all surprised to hear that most people believe Barack Obama would be better qualified than Mitt Romney to handle an invasion by unfriendly extraterrestrials. After all: The dude took care of Osama Bin Laden, right? 

On the other hand, I'm not sure even President Obama could do a better job of leading the human counteroffensive than... President Bill Pullman.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Preview: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

As I have noted before: In my other life, I'm a cowboy. And in the current issue of Cowboys & Indians -- The Premiere Magazine of the West -- I chat with director Timur Bekmambetov and lead player Benjamin Walker about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, an audacious mash-up of horror and history that claims The Great Emancipator was a monster eliminator. You can read all about it here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From Psycho to Juno: Andrew Sarris wrote about the movies that mattered

If you are a film buff of a certain age, you almost certainly have somewhere on your bookshelf a battered, well-thumbed paperback copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, one of the handful of truly indispensable books about movies ever published. I’m the proud owner of a first-edition copy, purchased back in the day for the princely sum of $2.95, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have stolen from… er, referenced it, and been inspired by it, during the past several decades.

It’s the book that more or less established the ground rules for judging the works of key American film directors (and foreign filmmakers who dabbled in English-language cinema) according to the standards of the auteur theory, a still-controversial concept -- despite the contributions of myriad collaborators, every significant film ultimately reflects the vision of one individual, its director, who is that film’s sole “author” – that originated with French critics (and future filmmakers) such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, but was popularized on these shores by the esteemed Andrew Sarris himself. Like millions of other academics, film critics and plain ol' movie buffs, I devoured the volume at an impressionable age, and took Sarris' judgments (even those I disagreed with) to heart.

I was honored to meet Sarris on just a few occasions, most memorably during a panel discussion at the 1989 Sarasota French Film Festival, when I found myself on stage next to him and Molly Haskell, his lovely wife and fellow cineaste, and silently thanked God that the festival organizers inexplicably considered me worthy to be seated up there alongside them (and a few other august folks). The effortlessly ingratiating couple actually made me feel, fleetingly, like an equal – but, of course, I knew, and know, better.

At the time, I asked Sarris, politely but eagerly, when he might be writing a sequel to his masterwork. Sarris smiled warmly – as I’m sure he smiled the zillion or so other times some acolyte posed the same question – and offered a vague promise of “considering” the idea. Truth to tell, though, I always suspected that, like most film critics, he had a natural-born aversion to sequels.  

Andrew Sarris died Wednesday at the age of 83 – decades after solidifying his position among the pantheon of influential and essential American film critics, and after more than six decades of offering erudite, perceptive, and just plain fun to read essays and reviews for The Village Voice, New York Observer and other outlets. To give you some idea of his range: He was one of the first U.S. critics to recognize the greatness of Psycho – his annual Ten Best lists routinely embraced a stunning diversity of films and filmmakers – and nearly 50 years later, he chose, with an almost gleefully defiant fervor, Juno as the best American movie of 2007.

My deepest sympathies and best wishes go out to Molly Haskell, and to those friends and colleagues who knew Sarris intimately. As for myself, I feel disconsolately melancholy right now, as I consider that halcyon era – roughly speaking, the early 1960s to the late ‘70s – when film critics like Sarris, Haskell, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist and a young whippersnapper named Roger Ebert wrote passionately and provocatively about cinema as art and entertainment. At the risk of sounding like someone besotted with nostalgia: It was a time when films and the people who wrote about them seemed a great deal more substantial, and were taken much more seriously, than they are in our present time.

At the same time, though, I think of Sarris maintaining his enthusiasm and optimism for cinema as long as he did. And I think of my friend Roger Ebert turning 70 a couple days ago, still going strong and writing brilliantly. With those two inspiring examples to guide me, how can I let a little thing like my upcoming 60th birthday slow me down? Besides, I should remind myself, as I often remind my students, that great movies still are being made. And today, arguably now more than ever, those great movies – and the auteurs who make them – still need dedicated champions to keep spreading the good word. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day

On a weekend when I am being treated to all manner of culinary delights by my son -- who, as I often have noted, is an upstanding and outstanding young man solely because of his mother's influence -- I find myself thinking of my own father, who departed this realm six years ago. Here is a link to the tribute I paid him back in 2006. I think he would be amused to see it has attracted two comments by Generic Viagra. That, or it would totally piss him off.

Update: On second thought, I think I'll go ahead and delete the spam.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Billy Zane isn't bad, just misunderstood

Billy Zane has played his fair share of villainous roles -- more than his fair share, actually, even though he was a pretty dang nifty Phantom -- but he insists that the pistol-waving, jealously inflamed dandy he memorably portrayed in Titanic really wasn't such a bad guy after all.

"Look," he told me a few weeks ago, sounding extraordinary comprehensible for someone whose tongue was firmly implanted in his cheek, "he had every right to be upset. I mean, his girlfriend cheated on him with this other guy. So of course he wanted to shoot him."

Even while the great ship already was taking on water?

"Well, yeah. And, see, that wasn't his fault. So you can't say he was the villain here. It wasn't like he was the iceberg -- that's what killed those thousands of people."

On the other hand: Zane co-stars in Hannah's Law, a well-done made-for-cable Western airing at 7 pm CT Saturday (June 9) on the Hallmark Movie Channel. And yes, he's pretty dastardly in this one. You can read by Cowboys & Indians Magazine interview with Zane here.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Men in Black are back

I know Men in Black 3 has met with mixed reviews, but I must admit: I really enjoyed this richly comical and cleverly plotted threequel when I caught up with it today. It was a hoot seeing Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones back in action -- especially since their reteaming brought back happy memories of interviewing both guys during the L.A. junket for the original Men in Black..

It's a little spooky to watch this and realize that, 15 years ago, Tommy Lee Jones and I already were talking about the decline of newspapers. On a happier note: He certainly enjoyed working with Will Smith, didn't he? And yes, at the very end, I am shamelessly cadging an autograph for my son. 

Here's Will Smith during the first incandescent burst of his superstardom -- fresh from the smash success of Independence Day, and revved up for the impending release of Men in Black. And there I am, with my starstruck son hovering just off-camera and hoping I'll remember to get the autograph for him. Which, of course, I do. Let me tell you: I earned some major Daddy Points for this one.