Sunday, December 29, 2013

My favorite take on Wolf of Wall Street so far

My Facebook buddy Paul Schrader posted this about his good friend Martin Scorsese's latest triumph: "I just sent Marty an email, said congrats, must feel great to still be pissing people off at the age of 71." Hear, hear!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Peter O'Toole and Lenny Bruce: Together again for the first time

This is the city: Los Angeles. The year: 1962. Lenny Bruce, a free-wheeling comic who has brazenly courted controversy, is out carousing with Peter O'Toole, a young Irish actor awaiting the release of the movie that will make him a star. Pills, pot and booze figure into the festivities. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as Joseph Wambaugh recalls here. (Hat tip to Todd McCarthy.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Great filmmakers view Christmas morning

Must admit: I am late to the party for this one. But as Arthur Miller once said in an entirely differet context: Attention must be paid. (They're all funny, but the Wes Anderson one is priceless.)

A funny thing happened on my way out of Justin Bieber's Believe

So I'm putting on my coat and getting ready to leave the theater after seeing Justin Bieber's Believe this afternoon, when I notice a small group of young girls standing around me, looking quite quizzical. One of them -- whom I'd peg as 14, tops -- asks me, smiling but serious: "Are you a believer?" And for a fraction of a second, I think, hey, it's Christmas Day -- maybe I'm about to recruited for some Christian group...

But no: I quickly realized they were Justin Bieber fans, part of the group that had sporadically cheered each time Bieber said (or sang) something they found impressive during the movie we'd just watched.

(Update: I have subsequently been informed that the girl probably asked if I were a Belieber, not a believer. Quite possibly.)

And of course, I am certain -- as certain as the turning of the Earth -- they were downright flabbergasted to see someone of my, ahem, advanced years in attendance at an opening-day screening of a movie about.... well, such a young pop star.

So I politely explained that, yes, I enjoy some of Justin Bieber's music -- but that I was there to review the movie for Variety. And while I was at it, I suggested they look for my review later today on I am not quite as certain about this, but: I think this may have been the first time any of them had ever heard of Variety. On the other hand: I'm sure they'll tell all their friends, and their friends will tell their friends... and I will wind up generating a lot more hits for the Variety website than I did with a far less favorable review I wrote about another movie I saw at that very same theater seven Christmas Days ago.

By the way: This is a pretty nifty music video for "All Around the World," which Bieber performs in Believe. It's got a great Eurodance beat -- the sort of thing I used to dance to, when suffciently inebriated, before my knees went bad on me -- and a cameo appearance by Ludacris.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My favorite un-Christmassy Christmal carol

A dear friend introduced me to Luce's "Buy a Dog" a few years back. And even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, the song has gradually evolved into something much more than a personal favorite -- it's my own private Christmas carol, the one I play over and over again this time of year.

Why? Well, for one thing, it's one of the most purely joyful pop tunes I've ever heard, a great choice for the season to be jolly. And during the time of year when we're eager to express love and friendship through gift-giving, I like to think that the greatest gift any of us can ever receive is hearing someone say: "All your life, I have got your back." Also, I must admit: The final lyric -- "It's a miracle that we're even here and alive!" -- has, for more than one reason, become my personal motto.

Sappy? Maybe. But, hey, I can think of far worse things than dying and finding out that God is really Elvis. And, not coincidentally, that's one of the inviting possibilities offered in "Buy a Dog." The above video evidently was concocted by an admiring fan, not a record-label factotum -- which makes it all the more enjoyable, even for a cat person like myself. Think of it as my Christmas present to you.

Merry Christmas. And remember: It really is a miracle that we're even here and alive."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Words of wisdom from The Master: Robert Evans

Sunday, December 15, 2013

R.I.P. Peter O'Toole, Tom Laughlin, Joan Fontaine and...

While running various and sundry errands today, I spent most of my time away from home base. But it seemed like, everywhere I went, death pursued me. Each time I checked my smartphone, there was news of another dimming of another luminary. First it was Peter O'Toole... then Tom Laughlin (a.k.a. Billy Jack)... then Ray Price... then not Ray Price (reports of his death were a tad premature)... and finally Joan Fontaine. Whew.

I scarcely know where to begin. I know I need to write something about my favorite film performances by O'Toole -- Lawrence of Arabia is on the Top 5 list, but so is The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. And yet, I also should write something about Laughlin's fleeting heyday as a genuine pop-culture icon. (Billy Jack had one of its very first test engagements in New Orleans many years ago -- and I wound up being one of the first critics to praise it, in a review I wrote as a free-lancer for, no kidding, the weekly Catholic newspaper The Clarion Herald.) And how could I not write something about Fontaine and her Hitchcockian double play of Rebecca and Suspicion.

But the hour is late, and I am too weary to do justice to any of these folks right now. And, frankly, I have had enough of death for today.

12 Years a Slave cops top Houston Film Critics Society award

The Houston Film Critics Society -- and yes, I'm a proud member -- has voted 12 Years a Slave the Best Picture of 2013. Other awards announced Sunday by the organization include:

BEST DIRECTOR:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

BEST ACTOR: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave

BEST ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, Gravity

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:  Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave

BEST SCREENPLAY:  John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:  Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

BEST DOCUMENTARY: 20 Feet From Stardom


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE:  Steven Price, Gravity

BEST ORIGINAL SONG:  "Please Mr. Kennedy," from Inside Llewyn Davis, music and lyrics by Joel and Ethan Coen, T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver


TECHNNICAL ACHIEVEMENT: Gravity, Visual Effects and 3D


But wait, there's more. The official HFCS Top 10 of 2013 includes:

1. 12 Years A Slave

2.  Gravity

3    American Hustle

4.  Nebraska

5.  Dallas Buyers Club

6.  Inside Llewyn Davis

7. Before Midnight

8. Fruitvale Station

9. Saving Mr. Banks

10. All Is Lost

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Director Eric Heisserer waxes eloquent about Hours star Paul Walker

Hours will be be available in limited theatrical release and as VOD fare starting Friday, nine months after its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival -- and scarcely two weeks after Paul Walker's death at age 40 in an L.A. auto mishap.

As I have noted before, his passing seems all the more heart-rending because of its spectacularly bad timing, coming before Walker could measure the response to his career-best performance as an anxious New Orleans father desperately trying to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Hours writer-director Eric Heisserer alluded to this terrible twist of fate when he told CNN this week:

"[T]he truth of it is, I'm angry. And I've been angry about this for a while. This movie was a real turning point for Paul. He had gushed to me about the new offers he was getting from people who'd seen his performance in Hours, and his career was finally going in a direction that he was excited about for the first time in many years. I told him at the time that that's what this movie was, that I was just warming him up for bigger and better things. It was a springboard...

"So the fact that this is his swan song, it, I don't know -- it makes me mad. He doesn't get to benefit from all this hard work now."

One of life's greatest tragedies is a promise that will remain forever unfulfilled.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

R.I.P. Edouard Molinaro (1928-2013)

Sometimes, all you have to do is direct one film -- one singular film -- to guarantee your shot at immortality.

Chances are good you've never seen (or even heard about) French filmmaker Edouard Molinaro's only Hollywood-produced effort -- Just the Way You Are, a slight but likable 1984 dramedy best remembered (by the few who remember it at all) as a highlight of Kristy McNichol's short-lived movie career. And it's extremely likely you've never seen most of the many movies he directed in his homeland.

But even if you're the type of moviegoer who avoids subtitles as avidly as Superman keeps his distance from Kryptonite, you've surely heard of, and have likely enjoyed, his all-time most successful French flick: La Cage aux Folles, the enormously popular 1978 international hit that spawned two sequels, a Broadway musical, and a high-grossing Hollywood remake.

Molinaro's La Cage is emblematic of a time in US art-house history when a savvy distributor (in this case, United Artists Classics) might be able to keep a movie planted in theaters long enough to slowly but steadily build a crossover audience, and possibly turn a popular entertainment into a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon. Indeed, in Houston, La Cage ran long enough at the now-shuttered Greenway 3 Theatre -- the better part of a year, actually -- to build an audience loyal enough to keep coming back to that venue for more alt-film fare for 20-plus years.

Not incidentally, La Cage aux Folles did its bit to make straight moviegoers less uncomfortable with the concept of same-sex marriage, decades before many of those moviegoers were able to accept such unions in real life. Which, of course, is another good reason to pay due respect to Edourad Molinaro, who passed away Saturday at age 85. Many better-known directors have left behind less significant legacies.          

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

R.I.P. Eric Harrison -- Please help him rest in peace

For those of you who have always wanted to bury a film critic -- and you know who you are, so don't be coy about it -- please consider making a donation to the funeral fund for my late colleague and fellow founding member of the Houston Film Critics Society: Eric Harrison, formerly of the L.A. Times and more recently film critic for The Houston Chronicle.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Talking with Paul Walker about Hours

Chalk it up as a tragic irony of an untimely demise: At the time he was killed Saturday in a Los Angeles auto mishap at the ridiculously young age of 40, Paul Walker was less than two weeks away from seeing how movie audiences and VOD viewers would respond to what arguably was the finest performance of his career up to that point, as a desperate father who triumphs over death.

In Hours, writer-director Eric Heisserer’s suspenseful indie drama, Walker plays Nolan Hayes, a loving husband who rushes his pregnant wife to a New Orleans hospital just before sunrise on Aug. 29, 2005 – just as Hurricane Katrina begins its brutal assault on the Crescent City. Unfortunately, Nolan’s wife dies during childbirth. Even more unfortunately, his prematurely born daughter must remain inside a ventilator for at least 48 hours.

The New Orleans levees break, the city streets are flooded, the hospital is evacuated – but Nolan must remain behind, alone with his infant offspring, because the ventilator cannot be moved. And when the power goes out, the increasingly anxious father must maintain constant vigilance – because the hand-cranked back-up battery for the ventilator works for, at best, three minutes between crankings.

As I wrote in Variety after the drama’s SXSW Film Festival premiere last March: “Hours is practically a one-man show, with Walker alone on camera for lengthy stretches as Nolan passes time talking to his baby, or himself, and dashing hither and yon between battery-cranks while on beat-the-clock explorations and supply runs.” Walker “capably and compellingly rises to the demands of the role,” and “gracefully balances the drama on his shoulders.”
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not one of those snobs who dismiss the guilty-pleasure appeal of Walker’s full-throttle action-heroics in the Fast & Furious franchise. (Although I must admit: I enjoyed his work just as much, if not more, in a genre movie of a scarier kind, John Dahl’s Joy Ride.) It’s just that, in Hours, I saw him doing things -- and expressing emotions – that indicated he also was fully capable of more challenging roles in more complex movies.

And when I spoke to him at SXSW last March, I got the distinct impression that he, too, knew he’d taken full advantage of a showcase for his heretofore underutilized talents.

You can judge for yourself when Hours is available in limited theatrical runs and as VOD fare starting Dec. 13. In the meantime, here is some of what Paul Walker had to say about the movie – and his work in it – during our conversation.
How much responsibility did you feel toward the people of New Orleans – the people who had endured the devastation of Hurricane Katrina – while making Hours in their city?

Prior to getting to New Orleans, [Eric Heisserer] told me that our ace in the hole was the fact that a lot of the people on the crew, because we were filming in New Orleans, had a very personal connection to this. So we had built-in accountability – like, the accountability police. There had been some other Katrina projects that had come up. But this one, when they read it, the locals felt a real connection. And when I got there, I saw this consistently. Everybody was there because they really wanted to be there. They felt like they had a connection to the story.

Were you at all intimidated by the challenge of doing a movie in which, for long periods, you’re the only person the audience sees or hears?

Well, I read [the script], and it felt very truthful, very pure to me. And I liked the idea of just telling the truth. But it was intimidating, because I knew that it was completely on me. Because the story itself, it was there. And now it’s my responsibility to show up and deliver every moment of it. I mean, I felt it when I read it. But does that mean that I can actually do it? I’d never really taken on a challenge like that before.

So how did Eric Heisserer convince you that you could trust him – and trust yourself – if you accepted that challenge?

Part of it was – and you’re not going to hear this from Eric – his due diligence. We had our first pow-wow, and then I found out, “OK, cool, he actually wants me to do the film with him.” And I was excited. And then we had meetings at his house once a week, for about four or five weeks there, just to rap and have a better sense about what’s going on. He really wanted to establish a shorthand, seeing as we were up against [an 18-day shooting schedule]. He wanted to know what triggers would work.

And what I realized is that his preparedness… [Laughs] If it’s possible for someone to be over-prepared, Eric was over-prepared on this one. I was like, “Holy shit! Has this guy done his homework, or what?”

But I’ve got to tell you: Going into it, I felt like I had that in my pocket. I was like, “The guy that’s captaining this ship has done his homework. He’s really done his homework.” And that allows you to just step in and say, “OK, I’ve just got to worry about what I do.”

In a way, you caught a break by being able to shoot in an actual New Orleans hospital that had been closed since it was damaged during the Katrina flooding. Not to sound crass, but it’s almost like you got an extra $1 million for your production budget.

Yeah, but we probably had to spend something like a million and a half on the clean-up of the rust and the funk and the mold. On the ground floors, where basically the water sat and stagnated for periods of time – we had crews that had to go in and remove sheetrock, drywall, wood. There was a lot of work, just to make it sanitary. But it definitely played into what we were doing because – I don’t know, it just felt like death there. It really did.

How much did you draw upon your real-life relationship with your own daughter while playing Nolan Hayes? Because speaking as a father myself, I have to say: The plot of this movie is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Well, I grew up in a military background, everyone in my family. My dad’s a solider to the max. And my grandfathers before him, on both sides. So for me, while I was growing up, we were always posing these hypothetical situations. Something like, OK, you’re at an ATM machine late at night, and someone puts a gun to the back of your head. What do you do? Or there’s an earthquake, and you’re trapped inside. That was just the way I grew up.

So it’s fun to go through it hypothetically and process it. You want to believe that you’re man enough, and you’re going to be able to realize whatever needs to be realized in order to save yourself and save the others around you that are near and dear to you.

But the fact that I have a daughter now -- I wouldn’t say that I was pulling from that consciously. But that’s just who I am now. That’s just my reality. It’s there.

And you think that allowed you go deeper inside yourself than maybe you might have before?

I think I’ve always had the capacity to go there. I don’t want to say that I’m a sensitive person. But maybe that’s what it is. And I think here it was amplified by the fact that, yeah, I do have a little girl.

But what I really liked about it, and what I didn’t realize until the end of this movie, what I learned about myself, is that in living every bit of it and being truthful the whole time – in the end, Nolan’s victory was my victory. There’s no separation. That’s what was incredible. When the baby was put in my arms, that’s real emotion I’m showing. It’s like I’ve been through this whole rollercoaster ride. And you know what? I kicked its ass. And I didn’t know it could be like that, to be honest throughout.

Were there ever days when you dreaded going to work? Days when you looked at the call sheet and thought, “Gee, can’t they get a stunt person to do that ?”

Oh, whenever I saw that, I was like, “Oh, cool!” Because the physical challenge is always fun for me. I know I don’t fail there. But what was so intimidating for me, what I was so possessed by, was, like I say, having to tell the truth every day. I was so preoccupied, and thinking: “Oh my God! Just live it! Live it!”

But the thing was, once we got rolling, it was good. It wasn’t until I got home at night, and looking at the next day’s work, what was in store for me, that self-doubt would creep in. But once you get there, and you get into it, it was like, “I’m there. This is OK.” Being away from it was tougher than being in it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Something else to be thankful for: Lap dancing for a good cause

According to Now whenever I ask for a lap dance at an H-Town club, I'll be doing my bit in the war against human trafficking. Is this a great country, or what?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Live from Houston: Nebraska star Will Forte remembers Saturday Night Live

Whenever I speak with an alumnus of Saturday Night Live -- especially a recent graduate of the show -- I find it difficult, if not impossible, to refrain from asking a question or two about their experiences as a member of the comic ensemble that old fogeys like me still call the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. So when Will Forte appeared a few weeks ago at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival for a screening of Nebraska -- which, not incidentally, is my favorite movie of 2013 so far -- I couldn't help myself.

Fortunately, Forte is a gracious gentleman as well as a great comedy-sketch artist -- and, as you'll see in Nebraska, an exceptionally fine actor -- so he indulged me. We talked a great deal about his movie for But we also shared some words about SNL, which I will share with you.   

Did you ever see Saturday Night, James Franco's documentary about a typical week of production for Saturday Night Live?

Oh, sure. Definitely.

Because the movie makes a point that many other folks often raise regarding SNL: Viewers always think the best cast in the show's history is the one they saw when they first watched the show. Which means, I guess, is that by the time you were cast as part of the ensemble, you weren't just worried about comparisons to John Belushi or Chevy Chase or Dan Aykroyd. You were standing on the shoulders of several giants.

It is really interesting to see the different waves. Because I was born in 1970. And when I was just a kid, I watched the beginnings of SNL. I would watch it for Mr. Bill – but I would also see the other stuff. And when I got older, I loved the Eddie Murphy era – I was such an Eddie fan. And every step of the way, there was a new cast that I would love.

Of course, you’re right: I always looked back to that original cast as, well, there would be no show without them. And they were untouchable. I don’t say that to demean any of the other casts, because there have been so many other wonderful, wonderful casts. And I have so many comedy heroes that come from each era.

And now you are viewed as a comic hero by other people. It reminds me of the final part of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, when the son of one of the earthlings who colonized Mars asks his father to show him some Martians. So dad takes him down to the river, and tells him to look at his reflection -- to show him, in effect, "Hey, we are Martians now."

Well, when I came in, it was right after Will Ferrell had left. And I had been such a huge Will Ferrell fan. There were still some wonderful people there. But he had been such a major part of that show, and now the show seemed to be searching for its new identity. And there were a couple years there when it seemed like people were down on the show.

But when that influx of new blood came in, with Bill [Hader] and Andy [Samberg] and Jason [Sudeikis] and Kristen [Wiig], we really started to jell together. You could just feel this new identity forming. I could still sense a lot of criticism of the show. But it didn’t matter to me because I was really proud of it. And you could feel the tide starting to turn -- people starting to catch on a little bit, giving us a chance. And then when people are finally OK with it again – everybody leaves.

So it’s interesting now to read things where people are going like: “Oh, this is nothing like the Bill Hader days!” But it’s just the natural ebb and flow of the show. Because that show is in really good hands right now. These new people are fantastic. And it’s going to be fun to see the identity that they create. And it seems like people are very optimistic, which is great. So I hope they get the benefit of the doubt. Because it’s really exciting to see what path the show is going to take. There’s always an element that’s similar, because there’s that same structure. But it’s different at the same time.

It’s interesting, though, what you said about the Martians. Because the first several years I was there, I – I don’t know how to describe it, but, yeah, I was very nervous. It’s like coming into this Nebraska situation. I was telling myself: “What an honor it is to be here. Don’t ruin these wonderful heroes of mine. Don’t take their show and ruin it.” So I felt this pressure.

And I realize I put pressure on myself. This show was very special to me even before I got there. That’s why it’s such a unique place. It’s been there so long that people feel an ownership over it, you know? The fans feel an ownership. So it was interesting to get in there and – well, for a couple of years, I didn’t really feel like I was part of the show. I felt like, oh, I’m just kind of in here. But then I got to a certain point, and I got to this place – a really exciting place – where I felt, “Hey, you know what? I’m on freakin’ Saturday Night Live. I’m part of this thing. I’m part of the history of this thing, for good or for bad. And no matter what you think of me as a fan of the show – I got to do this. I got to be here. What a unique opportunity.”

I look back at my time on that show as, it was my dream job coming into comedy – and I got to do my dream job. And I have nothing but wonderful, wonderful memories. Everyone should be so lucky as to do their dream jobs.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

CBS News to Martin Luther King: "What is it like to walk under this threat?"

Just hours after the fatal shooting of JFK in Dallas, CBS News correspondent Ray Moore asks Dr. Martin Luther King -- "leader of the integrationist movement" -- whether he ever worries about the possibility of his own assassination. The first time I watched this video, I was shocked. The more I thought about it, however, I had to admit that, yes, it was a valid question, posed respectfully. Still, if you look at the clip (starting around the 5:18 mark) with 20/20 hindsight...

And no, I don't want to even think about whether our current POTUS has this on his mind. I mean, sure, I have no doubt that he does, but I just don't want to think about it. Not this weekend, not ever.

Remembering Jack Ruby -- and Ruby

If you're of a certain age and remember that long Sunday, you know this dance of death by heart. The anxious hubbub of straight-arrow reporters in dark suits and white shirts, jostling with notebooks and cameras, craning their necks and thrusting microphones at the first glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald. He appears ridiculously frail for someone who -- allegedly, we would say today, but 1963 is a different time -- murdered the President of the United States just 48 hours ago. He is handcuffed to one policeman, surrounded by others and on the way to a waiting car that will take Oswald across town to a more secure cell.

Oswald won't make it.

Out of the corner of the frame, there emerges, as inevitable as the grave, Jack Ruby. Scuttling out of obscurity and gate-crashing into history, he squeezes off a single round from his .38-caliber revolver. Oswald screams. The police lunge. Someone wrestles the revolver from Ruby's hand. But it's too late.

Back in 1991, I visited Dallas for the Los Angeles Times to do a free-lance story on the making of Ruby, a speculative drama -- produced to ride on the coattails of Oliver Stone's JFK -- about Jack Ruby (played by Danny Aiello) and his possible motives for killing Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the JFK assassination. Looking back, I have to assume that the real Jack Ruby didn't have to make his way through nearly as many security people as I did in '91 when he entered the police headquarters basement on Nov. 24, 1963.

You can read my Los Angeles Times story here, and my review of Ruby here. Here is the original trailer:

Best Hunger Games: Catching Fire review ever

The Onion Reviews 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

This is the future of film criticism. Or the past. One or the other. Or both, maybe.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Lee Harvey Oswald murdered John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Must admit: There was a period during my high school days when I was at least slightly agnostic while weighing the official verdict of the Warren Commission against all the alternative explanations and conspiracies. But that was a long time ago. Today I believe, as I have believed for decades, that it was Lee Harvey Oswald, and only Lee Harvey Oswald, who fired the shots that changed the world on Nov. 22, 1963.

Yes, I know there are many people – some of them apparently quite reasonable and intelligent, and doubtless worthy of respect – who believe otherwise. They believe that some group or groups of nefarious individuals – rogue CIA operatives, Castro-directed hit men, agents of the military-industrial complex, whatever – colluded to plot and commit the crime of the 20th century, perhaps with, but more likely without, Oswald serving as either willing participant or luckless patsy.

But I seriously doubt any conspiracy of the size and sort that such an enterprise would have required could have remained a secret this long. To be blunt, if not crass: By now, somebody, anybody, involved in such a conspiracy surely would have popped up on Fox News or MSNBC or the New York Times Best Seller List or all of the above. If, of course, that conspiracy actually existed.

As recently as last Saturday, when I viewed the fascinating CBS documentary As It Happened: John F. Kennedy 50 Years hosted by Bob Schieffer, I found myself again swayed by the evidence presented by computer animator and JFK assassination expert Dale K. Myers, whose digital enhancements of the original 8mm footage shot in Dealey Plaza by Abraham Zapruder make a pretty convincing case against claims of a second (or third) gunman.

Also on Saturday, Schieffer very graciously took time to talk with me about (among other things) the JFK assassination while he prepared for the next day’s Face the Nation telecast from the site of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. During the interview, we had this exchange:

If there was any sort of cover-up, I think, it was a cover-up after the fact by people who should have had Oswald on their radar before he could pull the trigger.
Schieffer: Well, the FBI and the CIA both withheld information from the Warren Commission. And we now know that through the reporting in recent years. But, again, it was a CYA deal. They were not part of a conspiracy. They were just afraid they were going to be blamed for not keeping [Oswald] on their radar, as you say.
Would you agree that, for a lot of people, the notion that JFK was killed because of an elaborate conspiracy isn’t nearly as frightening as the likelihood that a single crazed gunman had such an impact on history?
Schieffer: In a funny kind of way, yes. It was hard for them to accept and process that somebody who was a total loser was able to kill the person who held the most powerful office in the land. And I think that’s one reason why we have all of these rumors and all of these tales of conspiracy – it just didn’t fit into people’s plotline that something like this could possibly happen. But I think it probably did.
Our conversation reminded me of a movie I reviewed back in 2007 at the Starz Denver Film Festival: Oswald’s Ghost, Robert Stone’s fascinating documentary about the enduring impact of the JFK assassination on America and Americans, and the cruelly taunting possibility that we will never know with absolute certainty whether Oswald pulled the trigger.

As fate would have it, I viewed the film just a few hours after hearing reports about the passing of author Norman Mailer – who, while researching his 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, came to believe that Oswald was indeed a solo act. Mailer was interviewed for the documentary, and his commentaries had quite an impact on me when I heard them for the first time so soon after his death. Out of respect for Mailer – who also was very gracious to me, many years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, when we spent a long afternoon drinking Scotch and trading ideas and occasionally talking about his movie version of Tough Guys Don’t Dance – I will let the late author (quoted here from the documentary transcript) have the last word about the lone gunman:
 The more I studied him, the more I came to know him, Oswald's character became more and more defined for me. He had a great many political ideas and he wrote long passages about the ways in which society should be designed. He was a futurist and a utopian to a degree. I think what he believed was that the route to power was not closed as far as he was concerned. So that by himself, whether he was talking to conspirators or not, Oswald came to the conclusion that he could bring this off. That he could commit this crime. That he could yet be a very, very powerful man. And that was worth it 'cause he was leading a miserable life…
 [Marina, Oswald’s wife] for years has been haunted by the fact that was she to some degree responsible. But I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. And he would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history even if he was executed. So there he was, he knew that he had this opportunity, that Kennedy was going to drive by the Texas Book Depository.
One can only imagine the terror, and the excitement, and the inspiration, and the woe that sat on him with the knowledge that he could do it, that it was possible to do it. That there were conspiracies being contemplated, attempted, even attempted on that day, I am perfectly willing to accept. But the conclusions I came to were for me rational ones, because he had a motive for doing it, because he was capable of doing it, because he wanted to do it.
When he shot [Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit], I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, "I'm a patsy." Oswald is a ghost who sits upon American life, the ghost that lay over a great many discussions of what are some of the roots of American history. What's abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this, or is it that? You can't know, 'cause a ghost doesn't tell you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Coming soon to a theater near you: Paul Walker in Hours

I really like this poster for Hours (which, as you can see, kicks off a limited theatrical run Dec. 13). But, then again, maybe that's because I really, really liked writer-director Eric Heisserer's indie drama, a skillfully suspenseful and impressively plausible thriller starring Paul Walker as a father desperately trying to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in an abandoned New Orleans hospital during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. In case you missed it, you can read my Variety review -- filed when the flick had its world premiere at SXSW -- here. And you can view the trailer here:

Saturday, November 09, 2013

A happy ending for An Unreal Dream

I had the pleasure and privilege to briefly chat with Michael Morton -- the subject of Al Reinert's documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story -- when the stirring film about his wrongful murder conviction and 25-years-later exoneration had its world premiere last March at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. And I will tell you now what I told him then: He is a far better -- and much, much more forgiving -- man than I could ever be. Seriously.

You can read more about his extraordinary story in my Variety review here, and my CultureMap interview with Al Reinert -- the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (For All Mankind) and Hollywood scriptwriter (Apollo 13) -- here.

An Unreal Dream will be presented by the Houston Cinema Arts Festival at 7 pm Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And it'll air Dec. 5 on CNN. Take my advice: See this movie.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Halloween franchise: You still can't kill the bogeyman!

Way back in 2006, I took a look at all eight movies in the original Halloween movie series. Some folks say I never fully recovered from the experience. They may be right. In any event, here's what I wrote. Just keep telling yourself: It's only a blog post, it's only a blog post...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

Hal Needham's legacy: Smokey and the Bandit

On the occasion of the passing of Hal Needham, here is a slightly revised version of a chapter from my 2004 book Joe Leydon's Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.

A textbook example of a hand-tooled star vehicle that forever labels the star in its driver’s seat, Smokey and the Bandit also is noteworthy for being the movie most often credited – or, perhaps more precisely, blamed – for kicking off an action-comedy subgenre best described as Cross-Country Demolition Derby.

Two lesser sequels and at least one long-running TV series (The Dukes of Hazzard) can be traced directly to this broadly played hodgepodge of high-speed driving, lowbrow humor and spectacular car crashes. But wait, there’s more: Smokey and the Bandit, the debut feature of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, also inspired literally dozens of other pedal-to-the-metal extravaganzas – mostly redneck melodramas and cornpone comedies, along with Needham’s own in-jokey Cannonball Run movies -- throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Decades later, its very title still serves as shorthand for a particular type of undemanding crowd-pleaser with smart-alecky heroes, dim-bulb authority figures and more high-octane action than a month of NASCAR events.

The thin plot is a serviceable excuse for stringing together scenes of cartoonish frivolity and vehicular misadventure. Bandit (Burt Reynolds), a swaggering prankster and maverick trucker, wagers that he can transport contraband beer from Texas to Georgia in record time. While a faithful friend (Jerry Reed) does much of the actual driving in the lager-stocked 18-wheeler, Bandit darts about in a souped-up Trans Am, on the lookout for any “Smokey” (i.e., highway cop) who might impede their high-speed progress.

Complications arise when Bandit arouses the ire of an especially grizzly Smokey, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), by picking up a perky hitchhiker (Sally Field) who just happens to be the runaway bride of the sheriff’s cretinous son (Mike Henry).

Initially dismissed as a freakish regional hit at Deep South drive-ins, Smokey and the Bandit gradually proved equally popular in major metropolitan markets, and wound up in the record books as the second-highest grossing film (right behind Star Wars) of 1977. Some have credited its phenomenal popularity to its subversive allure as fantasy fulfillment: Bandit repeatedly outsmarts and humiliates Sheriff Justice and all other law-enforcement officials who dare to impinge on his God-given right to ignore any posted speed limit. (Some academic somewhere doubtless has earned a doctorate by explaining why so many pop tunes and popcorn flicks of the ’70s equated driving over 55 with all-American rebelliousness.) Most other observers, however, credit the movie’s appeal – for contemporary viewers as well as ’70s ticketbuyers -- to the once-in-a-lifetime matching of player and character.

Even moviegoers not yet born when Smokey and the Bandit first screeched into theaters reflexively think of the hard-driving, trash-talking trucker whenever they hear Reynolds’ name. Part of that can be explained by the virtually nonstop exposure of Needham’s movie on cable and home video. But it’s instructive to consider Reynolds’ own role in erasing the lines between actor and character, man and mythos.

In the wake of his becoming an “overnight success” after years of journeymen work in television and movies, Reynolds embraced typecasting – and tongue-in-cheeky self-promotion – with unseemly fervor. For the better part of a decade, he chronically reprised his Bandit shtick – winking insouciance, naughty-boy sarcasm, zero-cool self-assurance – in motion pictures and TV talk shows. It was funny, for a while, and then it wasn’t. Trouble is, by the time it stopped being funny, the image was firmly affixed in the public’s collective pop-culture consciousness. So much so, in fact, that even after demonstrating his versatility in a wide range of character roles -- most memorably, as the prideful porn-film director in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997) – Reynolds appears destined to always be remembered best for one indelibly defining character.

On the other hand, there are far less pleasant ways for an actor to ensure his immortality. When asked about his enduring linkage to Bandit in 2003, more than a generation after playing the cocky trucker, Reynolds addressed the mixed blessing with typically self-effacing humor.

“I’m very flattered,” he said, “by how some people still respond to that character. I still have guys in Trans Ams pull up to me at stoplights and yell, ‘Dammit! You’re the reason I got this thing!’

“But I also remember a while back, when I was offering an acting seminar in Florida, that I was afraid they’d go over to the auto-racetrack looking for me, instead of the theater. And even when they did show up at the right place, I felt I should tell them: ‘Those of you who are wearing your racing gloves – take them off, we’re not going to need them, we’re going to talk about other things.’”

Of course, if the audience loves a character (and, better still, the actor playing that character) the character can get away with practically anything, even coming off as a bona fide egomaniac. Midway through Smokey and the Bandit, Reynolds recalled, “There’s a moment when Sally asks me, ‘What is it that you do best?’ And I say, ‘Show off.’ And she says, ‘Yeah, you do that well.’ At the time we made the film, I thought to myself, ‘If I can get that line out and they still like me – “they” being the audience – we’re home free.’ Because basically, that’s who (Bandit) was, what he was all about.”

The line got big laughs, indicating just how much the audience really, really liked Bandit. And, of course, the actor who played him.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

R.I.P.: Noel Harrison (1934-2013)

There was a time in the 1960s -- around the time he charted with "Suzanne," his affecting cover of Leonard Cohen's haunting ballad, and "The Windmills of Your Mind," the Oscar-winning theme of The Thomas Crown Affair -- when it looked like Noel Harrison was set for a lengthy stretch of pop-music stardom. Around that same time, when he fleetingly enjoyed prime-time exposure as co-star of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Harrison also appeared well-equipped to find frequent employment in movies and TV as a light-comic leading man. It can't be said that he fulfilled his early promise. On the other hand, there are those of us who will always remember him warmly for what he did accomplish before his death Saturday at age 79.

And yes, before you ask: I still have the above-pictured LP in my closet somewhere. Better still, I also have vinyl and digital recordings of these, too:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Coming soon (finally) to a theater near you: Costa-Gavras' Capital

Glad to see Capital -- which I covered for Variety back at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival -- finally getting some theatrical exposure in the United States. (It opens Oct. 25 in New York, as you can see in the above NYT ad.) As I wrote in my original review, Costa-Gavras' slickly produced and sensationally effective thriller is "a persuasively detailed tale of boardroom politics, international banking, remorseless backstabbing and billion-dollar wheeling-and-dealing," focused on the "the sudden rise and relentless plotting of Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh), a hard-driven up-and-comer who becomes CEO of France’s (fictional) Phenix Bank after his predecessor suffers a heart attack on the golf course."

As the gladhanding but hot-tempered head of a U.S. hedge fund with a large stake in Phenix, Gabriel Byrne is in fine form, devouring huge swaths of scenery with uninhibited relish. As for lead player Elmaleh... Well, to again quote my Variety review, "[I]t will be interesting to see how many U.S. critics comment on Elmaleh’s physical resemblance to Rick Santorum, and how many will insist [Capital] echoes sentiments expressed in Mitt Romney’s notorious '47%' comments."

Take a look at this trailer, and you'll see what I mean:

Friday, October 18, 2013

October surprise: Big Laughs! Big Scares! Big Ass Spider!

And now… in the tradition of Snakes on a Plane, Penn and Teller Get Killed and Death of a Salesman… another movie with a title that tells you all you need to know: Big Ass Spider!

One of the most amusing guilty pleasures displayed last spring at the SXSW Film Festival, this latest tongue-in-cheek creature feature from filmmaker Mike Mendez (The Convent) is a briskly paced and surprisingly clever riff on B-movie monster mashes that is all the more enjoyable for not going entirely over the top. To paraphrase the classic line from Rocky: The protagonists don’t act like they’re in a homage – they act like they’re in a real horror show. 

 The plot by scripter Gregory Gieras calls for a romantically challenged insect exterminator named Alex (Greg Grunberg) and a wisecracking hospital security guard named Jose (Lombardo Boyar) to become unlikely heroes when a humongous arachnoid, the unfortunate byproduct of a military experiment, runs amok in Los Angeles. It’s a dirty job, but what the hell, somebody has to do it. 

Besides, the army officer (Ray Wise) and the eccentric scientist (Patrick Bauchau) charged with leading the hunt for the 50-foot predator clearly aren’t up to the task. 

I caught up with Mendez a few days ago, and asked him to spin a few stories about Big Ass Spider! He graciously complied. 

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Big Ass Spider! is its relative restraint. It’s hardly the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge concoction that such B-movie homages often are. 

Yeah, that was our intention. We wanted the audience to be laughing with us, not at us. It seems to me that, lately, there’s been kind of a movement toward movies where, you know, it’s so bad, it’s good. Like this whole thing now where you have the mega monster of the week on cable TV. But that wasn’t the kind of thing we were interested in making. We honestly were interested in making something that was legitimately entertaining, with legitimately likable protagonists. The aim was to take these kind of oddball characters, and put them in a grade-B monster movie. To me, the collision between these two things – the oddball characters and the sort of archetypes and conventions of B monster movies – would lead to a lot of fun, and make it interesting. 

What’s really extraordinary is that, if you could somehow digitally lift the performances by Ray Wise and Patrick Bauchau, and place them in a quote-unquote “straight” sci-fi movie, they’d be right at home there. 

Exactly. Ray Wise’s performance as the military guy – that was something straight out of a B-movie. That was part of the whole idea of crafting this B-movie world, and then having these oddball characters who are not normally in a B-movie sorta crash into it. Hopefully, it’s all of a piece, and it all feels like one film. But it also sort of feels like Alex and Jose are on the wrong track, or the wrong trajectory, while the military people are doing their own B-movie. The fun comes jamming those things together. 

Considering your limited budget, your production values are quite impressive. 

Well, yeah, that was something else we hoped would set us apart from the companies that make these B monster movies for cable and DVD. They tend to churn out maybe 10 to 15 of these things a year. Which is great from a financial point of view. But we figured we’d take a different approach. I mean, we have the same budget as any of those films, about a half-million dollars. But we had the attitude of, “Hey, let’s just try to make this one the absolutely best movie we can, no matter how long it takes.” Maybe we didn’t have the money to do that. But we sure took the time. We literally spent about a year-and-a-half in post-production on special effects. Now, I’m not gonna say our effects work so fabulously well that you can’t distinguish Big Ass Spider! from Gravity, because it’s still a far cry from that. But I think that’s what makes this film different from a lot of movies like it: The people who made it cared a lot about it. 

So has any thought been given to a Return of the Big Ass Spider? Or maybe Bigger Ass Spider ?

There’s definitely a kernel of an idea for a sequel. But I would say the sequel probably would not feature a spider. What we came to believe while we were shooting was that, if people really did want to see a sequel, it would be because they’d want to see our two lead characters, Alex and Jose, going off to have another adventure. My fantasy – which I know may not happen, but I can dream – is a television show. A kind of Ghostbusters Meet Men in Black on the Syfy Channel television series. Like, whenever governments have bad accidents, and you have giant insects or other creatures come out to wreak havoc – who you gonna call?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

R.I.P.: Ed Lauter (1938-2013)

Among the most pleasant experiences I have enjoyed in recent years was a long, leisurely lunch with Ed Lauter, one of my all-time-favorite character actors, last November at the Starz Denver Film Festival. For the better part of two hours before we engaged in an on-stage, post-screening Q&A after the Denver Fest premiere of Ed Burns' delightful The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we chatted about the highlights of our respective careers -- and he was graciously polite enough to indicate he found my anecdotes almost as interesting as his.

Mind you, it wasn't like we were in any sort of "Can you top this?" competition. Because, really, what could I possibly say that could top his account of being cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Family Plot after The Master of Suspense spotted him in The Longest Yard ? Lauter impressed Hitchcock so much that he was set to co-star in The Short Night, Hitchcock's next film -- the film, alas, Hitchcock didn't live to make.

Lauter passed away Wednesday at age 74, leaving behind a body of work that ranges from The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and French Connection II (1975) to The Artist (2011) and Trouble With the Curve (2012). "When I first started out,” he said in Denver, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to work with this great actor, or that great director.’ All these wonderful dinosaurs. Well, now I’ve become one of those dinosaurs, I guess.” I would be a liar if I didn't admit I felt immensely flattered when he told me that, because I'd singled him out for special praise in my Variety review of Fitzgerald Family Christmas, I'd helped get him "back in the game." I just wish he'd stuck around to play a little longer.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Sick leave

I went to the Toronto Film Festival -- and came home miserably sick. Mind you, I can't blame it on the films -- as usual, saw some very good ones there. No, blame it on bronchitis. When my plane touched down in H-Town late Wednesday evening, my son was there to drive me to an urgent care facility, where I took me some meds and inhaled me some steroids while he snapped the above photo.

As of Saturday evening, I'm still feeling generally crummy, with coughing jags and shortness of breath conspiring to make my life miserable. Had to cancel interviews and blow off screenings in Toronto; have had to cancel classes and bust deadlines back home. I likely will be off the radar for a while. But I'll be back. I hope.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The return of This is the End

This is the End -- which I freely admit is one of my favorite movies released so far in 2013 -- will return to theaters and drive-ins everywhere Friday, Sept. 7, to give audiences another opportunity to... to... well, to push the domestic box-office gross to $100 million.

Mind you, that's not the reason given for the re-release in the official Sony Pictures press release:
Commenting on the announcement, Rory Bruer, president of Worldwide Distribution for Sony Pictures, said, “This Is The End really struck a chord with comedy moviegoers this summer. For everyone who didn’t get a chance to see it – or saw it and loved it and wants to see it again on the big screen – we are thrilled to have it back in theaters.”
Sure. Fine. But elsewhere in the same release, there's this tasty nugget of info: This is the End "has taken in $96.8 million to date at the domestic box-office."

Ah, yes: So close, yet so far. All the movie needs is a measly $4 million gross this weekend to bring that final total up to a nice, round $100 million. And you -- yes, you -- can do your bit to push it over the top, even if you just buy a bargain-priced matinee ticket or two.

Keep that in mind, fellow movie fans, and give generously. Remember: It's for a worthy cause.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Late August, Early September: My recent views, reviews and interviews online

Just in case you missed it:

Instructions Not Included : Judging from remarks on the comment thread for this one, my take on Eugenio Derbez's mawkish dramedy was not a popular one. Hey, what can I say? I'm a critic, not a pollster. Must admit, though: I find it amusing that, whenever I say less than complimentary things about a film made by anyone who isn't a Caucasian male, some people automatically assume I must be a conservative. Or, worse, a Republican. Come to think of it, my less-than-favorable review of Lee Daniels' The Butler generated a similar response.

Furthermore: Didn't think much of either I Declare War or Savannah. On the other hand: I thoroughly enjoyed Blue Jasmine (featuring Cate Blanchett, pictured above) and In a World..., and had an absolute blast talking with the wild and crazy guys who made The World's End. And I highly recommend Herblock: The Black & the White -- a warmly celebratory documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist -- as a film well worth tracking down and checking out.

Last but by not means least: Hail and farewell to Elmore Leonard.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Monday, August 19, 2013

Live from Houston: My post-screening Q&A with Lake Bell

I had the pleasure and privilege last week to host a Q&A with Lake Bell -- the writer, director and star of the hugely entertaining In a World... -- after a screening of her film in Downtown H-Town at the Sundance Cinemas. One minor flub: The video catches me in mid-question at the beginning, when I referenced a sexist canard dating back to the first appearance of female news anchors on local and network TV in the 1970s: Back in the bad old days, some folks sincerely believed that male and female viewers would not accept newscasts by a woman, because the female voice -- any female voice, every female voice -- lacked gravitas. No, really: That's how people felt not so very long ago.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Trailer Park: Getaway

To be entirely honest, I never heard of Getaway until I saw a TV spot for it tonight. Until normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have high expectations for this one since, let's face it, Labor Day weekend traditionally is a dumping ground for major studio releases. (You disagree? OK, do you remember Paparazzi? Apollo 18? Disaster Movie?)  But Ethan Hawke is an actor whose work I admire. And I'm genuinely curious to see if Selena Gomez can make a more effective transition to grown-up roles than Miley Cyrus.

But most important: I want to hear Jon Voight do his crazy-accent thing again. Just take a listen to his menacing commands to Hawke in this trailer:

Friday, August 09, 2013

A belated honor for the late Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin, an unsung hero of the civil rights movement who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, is among the 16 people announced Thursday as honorees who'll be receiving the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Also on this year's list: Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, country music icon Loretta Lynn, pioneer feminist Gloria Steinem, and a couple of folks named Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.) Unfortunately, his will be a posthumous award -- Rustin died in 1987. Still: Better late than never.

If you'd like to know more about this gentleman -- who, not incidentally, was openly and unashamedly gay at a time when even many nominally progressive activists of all colors were reflexively homophobic -- I'd advise you to take a look at Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, which is available for viewing at Netflix. You can read my Variety review of the prize-winning 2003 documentary here, and view a trailer for it here.