Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Unforgiven, Japanese style

Since Clint Eastwood made his big breakthrough as an international movie star in a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo -- Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars -- it seems only fitting that Eastwood's own Unforgiven is being remade as a Japanese samurai flick. Frankly, I can't wait to see this one -- especially since Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai has been cast in the lead role. Hope it's ready in time for viewing this fall at the Toronto Film Festival.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Reason No. 1 why I wish I were going to Cannes this year

Restored prints of Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, Billy Wilder's Fedora, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (which, I confess, I've never seen in its entirety), Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, René Clément's Purple Noon (a.k.a. Plein Soliel), Buster Keaton's The General, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds...

Delights without end!

The only drawback: I might have a difficult time explaining to any editor who picked up my tab why I didn't have time to see many new movies at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Preview of my interview with 80-years-young Willie Nelson

As some of you may know: In my other life, I am a cowboy. Seriously: I am a contributing editor for Cowboys & Indians -- The Premier Magazine of The West -- and in that capacity, it was my great good fortune to do to a telephone interview with Willie Nelson a couple weeks back, to talk about his role in When Angels Sing -- a feel-good, family-friendly movie I reviewed at SXSW 2013 -- and, more important, his upcoming 80th birthday.

Among the highlights of our conversation: Willie mentioned that, while he's "a little bit dubious, a little bit skeptical about how much a music video does for a song," the video he did for "A Horse Called Music" is one of his all-time favorites. So I had to call it up right away on the Internet even as we were were talking, which led to this exchange:

Me: Willie, I gotta say -- you're rockin' in that hat in this video.

Willie: [Explosive laughter] Yeah? 

Me: I mean, that almost looks the size of a manhole cover. Wow.

Willie: [Laughs] Yeah, it was heavy. 

Me: Did it hurt while you were wearing that one, man?

Willie: Yeah, it did hurt my neck... [Laughs] No, I'm just kidding. I just kept my balance, I guess.

At the end of our conversation, I wanted to wish Willie my heartfelt thanks -- for the interview, for his music, for his movies, for all the good times I have had enjoying his artistry -- so... well... OK, I admit it, I got a little carried away and impulsively sang "Happy Birthday" to him. Normally, I have to have a few drinks in me to do something like that, and even then only in karaoke bars. But I was stone cold sober, sitting in my home office, when I started crooning into the telephone. And Willie, God bless him, didn't laugh, or scream in pain. Rather, he simply said: "Aw, that's great. Thank you. Thank you very much."

No, Willie: Thank you.

Here is my interview with Willie Nelson on the Cowboys & Indians website.

Ladies and gentlemen... The splendiferous comic stylings of Barack Obama

Meanwhile, off in the wilds of Wasilla, the increasingly irrelevant Sarah Palin made this desperate bid for attention. (BTW: Note that she still identifies herself as "Politician" on her Facebook page.)

An Irishman abroad tells it like it is!

This was sent to me by a former shipmate of my late father. No, this isn't my dear old dad. But as the former shipmate accurately noted: It sure as hell sounds like him. (By the way: Definitely NSFW.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hanging with Motion Picture Academy members at the Nashville Film Festival

It'll be my privilege to fill in for the originally announced, unfortunately indisposed Mark Johnson this weekend at the Nashville Film Festival during two panels sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: Beyond the Oscars (1 pm Saturday), an overview of the Academy's mission to encourage filmmaking throughout the world; and Master Class (2 pm Sunday), an in-depth look at the past and future of the American film industry. At both events, I'll be fielding questions, moderating discussions and fetching coffee for industry notables Sid Ganis, Ellen Harrington and Tom Pollock. And at some point, I'm sure I'll work into the discussion that, hey, I write for Variety, and I teach at University of Houston's Jack J. Valenti School of Communications. Then I'll ask if they take sugar or Sweet’N Low, cream or skim milk.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Live from Nashville Film Festival: Clare Bowen, director Jared Moshé, Dead Man's Burden... and me

If it's April, I must be at the Nashville Film Festival. But don't misunderstand: Festival honcho Brian Owens doesn't invite me here just to much popcorn and watch movies. No, he expects me to sing for my supper. Well, OK, not literally sing -- this may be Music City, but, trust me, no one ever wants to hear me sing. But, by golly, he puts me to work. Last year, I had to serve as master of ceremonies for an event featuring Nicole Kidman and Famke Janssen. In previous years, they've made me lead on-stage Q&A's with the likes of Hal Holbrook, director Marc Webb and the late, great Patricia Neal.

This year? Well, they've corralled me into leading another Q&A thing, this time after the Nashville Festival  premiere of Dead Man's Burden, a well-received western that will screen at 8 pm Saturday, April 20. Clare Bowen (a.k.a. Scarlett O'Connor of TV's Nashville) and director Jared Moshé will be on hand to take questions, and I'll be there to give them a few before encouraging the audience to give them a few more.

Hey, it's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Rushing to report on the Boston Marathon bombings? Remember Frank Reynolds

As various news outlets scramble to report anything and everything they hear (or guess) about today's tragic events in Boston, it might be a good idea to remember that, sometimes, getting it first doesn't always mean you've gotten it right. Check out the above 1981 video, and note how confident Frank Reynolds sounds when he announces that Ronald Reagan "wasn't hit" by his would-be assassin. (And while you're at it: Check out the sideburns Sam Donaldson is sporting. Wow.) Reynolds also reported that White House press secretary James Brady had been shot -- and had died. Later, when forced to retract that statement, Reynolds famously melted down on the air and snapped at his staffers: "Let's get it nailed down... somebody... let's find out! Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!" Then as now, that's good advice.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A moment of Zen: Hard copy

Of course, if this had been an online-only review, he could not have done this. Well, not unless he'd hit "Print" on his computer.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Free for you to view on Hulu: Beach Party

As a tribute to Annette Funicello, here is the one... the only... the original... Beach Party. (And no, I didn't remember that Robert Cummings and Dorothy Malone got top billing, either.) If you can take your eyes off Annette -- look for Vincent Price in a cameo role.

Now it's time to say goodbye... to Annette

I spill the beans in this CNN essay: Annette Funicello was my first major celebrity crush. Later on, I fell for Hazel Court -- the first big-screen hottie to capture my heart. But Annette was the one who enchanted me even earlier, when I saw her on The Mickey Mouse Club -- because, well, as I say in the CNN piece, it was around that time that I started noticing girls my own age.

Of course, when Annette moved on to movies, I followed. Mind you, back in the day, whenever my grown-up overlords ever asked inconvenient questions about my eagerness to see the latest Beach Party flick, I always had a ready answer. Something on the order of: “Didn’t you hear? Boris Karloff has a cameo role in this one!” Or, better still: “That funny guy we watched on TV the other night – Don Rickles [or, if we'd recently seen a silent movie on PBS, Buster Keaton] – is in this one!”

But in reality... Sigh.

Let's cut Brad Paisley some slack, OK?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions -- and it looks like Brad Paisley and LL Cool J are catching all kinds of hell for "Accidental Racist," their well-intentioned (if somewhat naive) tune about contemporary race relations. But Jeez Louise, folks: Paisley celebrated the election of Barack Freakin' Obama back in "Welcome to Future" -- and then performed it at the White House for the POTUS and the First Lady. So, to paraphrase Eva in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise: "It's Brad Paisley, and he's a country boy, so bug off!"

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Somewhere in that great screening room in the sky, Roger Ebert is offering a thumbs-down to this crowd

Oscar Wilde once noted: "You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies." I think Roger Ebert -- and, come to think of it, Oscar Wilde -- would be amused to know that hatemongers from the Westboro Baptist Church, the sort of "Christians" who give Christians a bad name, plan to protest at Roger's funeral. Why? Hey, why not. Haters got to hate, right?

On the other hand: I would advise these haters to stay clear of my own funeral after I shuffle off this mortal coil. See, I figure there will be a bunch of sorely hung-over Irishmen at this event, all of them barely recovered from the revelry of what I expect to be a robust Irish wake the night before. And since I suspect more than a few of these fellows will be former IRA confederates of my late father, they'll likely be packing heat. Think about it, Westboro Baptists: Cranky Irish dudes with guns. They'll not be patient with the scurvy likes of you.

Blast from the past: My 1982 interview with Les Blank about Burden of Dreams

Les Blank and Werner Herzog

(Note: To celebrate the life of Les Blank I am sharing this interview I did with him at the 1982 Toronto Film Festival -- the very first Toronto Fest that I ever attended.)

TORONTO – In the lobby of the Bloor Theater, an unassuming fellow stands behind a small counter. Bearded and robust, looking much like a slimmed-down Santa Claus, he personally displays his wares: T-shirts emblazoned with the titles of films directed by Les Blank.

Inside the theater itself, a Blank film is currently unspooling. On the screen, a man rambles on about his obsessions. He’s been in the Peruvian jungle for far too long, trying to complete his work. He’s now near the end of his rope. His financial backers are pulling out. His crew is discontent, almost mutinous. Even the elements are against him.

And then there’s the jungle. Yes, the jungle.

“I see it as full of obscenity,” he says, the hysteria barely repressed. “Nature here is base and vile. The birds. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain…

“I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum.”

The Toronto Film Festival audience responds to his monologues with smatterings of giggles, occasional gales of laughter. But some people are shifting nervously in their seats. A few actually get up and leave.

There’s an ineffable uneasiness shared by those who remain to watch the film. Because the man on the screen isn’t a professional actor. And he’s not reciting words from a script. And the film itself is not a work of fiction.

The film is Burden of Dreams, a record of German director Werner Herzog’s efforts to complete his long-delayed epic, Fitzcarraldo. Herzog is the man on the screen, railing against the elemental forces that have interfered with is work.

Most members of the audience are clearly engrossed, and maybe a little disturbed, by the film. And when they file into the lobby after it ends, they receive yet another shock. The man behind the counter selling T-shirts isn’t a mere peddler. He’s Les Blank.

THE NEXT MORNING AT HIS HOTEL, Blank smiles at the arrival of an interviewer wearing a Burden of Dreams T-shirt. He’s glad his visitor liked the film and the T-shirt. He hopes his visitor will recommend both to many others.

Sometimes an independent filmmaker must rely on all sorts of supplementary income. But Blank may not have to hawk T-shirts much longer. Burden of Dreams could well be his breakthrough film, a surprise hit that somehow survives the stigma of being labeled a “documentary.”

“Actually,” Blank says in his soft, unassertive tone, “I don’t like the term documentary.’ Because it implies the film is dull and boring, like something you were forced to watch in school or in the Army. Or if it’s on TV, it’s something that’s been predigested for you. The documentaries on TV gloss over everything, even though they pretend they’re telling the truth about a subject.”

Blank’s film is nothing if not ruthlessly honest. Burden of Dreams, described by one critic as “a chilling chronicle of artistic obsession,” has aroused considerable controversy with its warts-and-all picture of Werner Herzog at work.

Rumor has it that director Volker Schlondorff, one of Herzog’s best friends, tried to buy and destroy the film after seeing footage from it at the 1981 Telluride Film Festival.

“People got real bent out of shape there,” Blank recalls, “because the footage was shown out of context. You saw Herzog raving in the jungle against nature. But you didn’t see what had driven him to that point.”

The complete version of Burden of Dreams places everything in its proper context. The film follows Herzog from pre-production to completion of Fitzcarraldo, a fact-based adventure about the eponymous Irishman’s efforts to build an opera house in the Amazon River port of Iquitos during the early 1900s. To finance his dreams, he sets out to become a rubber baron, laying claim to unexploited land far upriver.

It appears impossible to navigate the treacherous rapids near Fitzcarraldo’s land. But that doesn’t stop our hero. He discovers a navigable river winds within a kilometer of the impassable waterway. So he concocts a plan to have Indian laborers pull his huge steamship over a hill between the two rivers.

Sounds difficult? Maybe so. But it wasn’t difficult enough for Werner Herzog.

Rather than film on a site near the relative comforts of Iquitos, Herzog chose to film 1,500 miles north of the city. That way, Herzog figured, his cast and crew would share the sense of isolation felt by Fitzcarraldo and his party. Herzog didn’t stop there. The real-life equivalent of the Fitzcarraldo character had his steamship dismantled and carried to the other side of the hill, where it was reassembled. But such a plan did not strike Herzog as visually impressive. In order to have the right “visual metaphor” for his hero’s obsession, the director insisted his steamship be dragged intact across the hill.

The engineer in charge of the transportation insisted a 20-degree slope should be the limit. But Herzog would not be moved. “Unless we do 40 degrees,” Herzog said, “we might as well not bother with a hill at all.” The engineer quit in protest. Herzog got his 40-degree angle.

But Herzog didn’t get his original leading man.

“At first,” Blank says, “he was aiming for a large-scale, popular English-language film. The original actor he wanted was Jack Nicholson. And he came very close to getting him. But I think Nicholson’s producer wanted some control that Herzog didn’t want to give.

“His next choice was Warren Oates. But, two weeks before shooting was to start, Oates dropped out. I think Oates’ wife was freaked out by the possibility of dangers in the jungle. Probably with good reason.”

JUST BEFORE PRODUCTION BEGAN, Herzog managed to sign Jason Robards to play Fitzcarraldo. He also convinced Mick Jagger to play a supporting role, Fitzcarraldo’s faithful sidekick. Investors were attracted by the high-voltage star power, and offered to bankroll Herzog’s project.

Footage shown in Burden of Dreams indicates Robards and Jagger worked well together. But audiences will never know for sure. After about 40 percent of Fitzcarraldo was shot, Robards was struck with amoebic dysentery and left the picture. Filming was halting, causing considerable delay. Jagger was forced to leave Peru to fulfill recording and concert commitments.

Mick Jagger and Jason Robards in the Fitzcarraldo that never was.

Herzog was crushed. “I think,” says Blank, “a lot of his financial backing was based on Jagger’s participation. And it was Jagger’s withdrawal, more than anything else, that really hurt him, because that made a lot of the investors pull out their money.”

Klaus Kinski, a veteran of Herzog’s Nosferatu and Aguirre, The Wrath of God, was eventually called in to replace Robards. The Jagger character was dropped from the script, supposedly because Herzog could not conceive of anyone else playing the role. “Or it could have just been expediency,” Blank says, “to get going as soon as possible.”

Fitzcarraldo did get going again, careening across a minefield of misadventures. Indians hired as extras battled with neighboring tribes. A plane crash left one crew member permanently paralyzed. Four natives hired to work on the film died of illnesses they contracted outside the location. Another native drowned after “borrowing” a canoe and capsizing. Disgruntlement and paranoia mounted as the production dragged on. Indians long separated from their wives became cranky.

Was Blank ever afraid? Several times, he says.

“There was one point, early in the game, when some of the Indians working with us were attacked by hostile Indians from the next territory. And a war party was gotten up to avenge the attack. Herzog felt I should go along on that raiding party.

“Now I was not really interested in going. But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to let Herzog think I was a coward, because then he might lose respect for me. So I told him I’d go if he would go, hoping he’d say, ‘No, I don’t have the time.’ But he said, ‘Very well, we’ll meet at dawn.’

“I couldn’t sleep all night long. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then, in the morning, Herzog came by and said he wasn’t going. First of all, it was a three-day trip by boat, and he couldn’t take the time off from shooting. And secondly, it wouldn’t look good for his international reputation to be seen participating in a raiding party on an Indian camp.

“So I got out of it.”

BLANK WASN'T QUITE SO LUCKY later in the filming, when Herzog wanted to show how Fitzcarraldo’s steamship was buffeted by the rapids.

“When I filmed the ship going down through the rapids, it didn’t look all that dangerous. I got bored, so I decided to try a ride on the ship. They felt the scene didn’t look all that rough, so they intentionally drove the ship into the sides of the banks, into the rocks. The first time they did it, it didn’t look all that bad. It was like a minor traffic accident. The second time, though, the ship hit with such a jolt, I thought my back was going to break.

“This tremendous collision threw me to the deck. Then they backed up, and started revving up to do it again, moving twice as fast. I thought, ‘My God, these people are really crazy.’ I hung on for my life – I didn’t even try to shoot.” The filming was scarcely less eventful after the production moved from the jungle to Iquitos. Indeed, it was in Iquitos that Herzog nearly lost another leading man.

“Toward the end of the shooting in Iquitos, Kinski thought he’d done a part right, and Herzog wanted him to repeat it. And Kinski didn’t. They had a lot of friction at that point. And Herzog said, ‘Very well – we’re not going to leave until you come back and redo the scene.’ Kinski went back to his hotel.

“But the Indians at this point got fed up, because they’d stuck with the production all the way along. They felt all their efforts were being jeopardized by this guy who refused to act. So the word got around that they were going to kill Kinski.

“This got back to Kinski. So he came back and did his part.”

Me and Les Blank at the 2009 Nashville Film Festival

Finally, after long months of hardship and danger, Fitzcarraldo was completed. Earlier this year, it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it premiered to generally favorable reviews. Blank has seen Herzog’s film, says he likes it “a lot,” but concedes “it’s on the long side.” Herzog has seen Blank’s film, “didn’t find any of it boring,” and didn’t ask for any cuts to be made.

Blank and Herzog have remained friends, despite a few tense moments on the Fitzcarraldo set. And Blank remains an admirer of Herzog’s work. But could Blank ever become as obsessed as Herzog was during the making of Fitzcarraldo? No way.

“I’m a different type of person,” Blank explains. “I’m lazy. Also, to me, a film is not more important than life. But it is to Herzog.”

Yes, I still have the T-shirt!
(And I was wrong: Blank kept selling them, thank goodness!)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

UPDATE: A modest proposal to honor Roger Ebert

According to Chicago ABC affiliate WLS-TV: "The funeral service for film critic Roger Ebert will be held Monday at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. The 10 a.m. service will be open to friends and fans of the beloved Chicago Sun-Times film critic, though seating will be limited. Open seats are first come, first served."

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend. But I have a modest proposal: If you, like me, want to share your fond feelings for Roger, go to Twitter at 11 am ET/10 am CT Monday and Tweet his favorite email sign-off, "//Cheers, Roger" -- and add the hash tag: #RogerEbert. Why? Because Roger freakin' loved Twitter. So let's make him trend like no one else in Twitter history has ever trended before.

Are you in? Then pass it on.

(And by the way: When do you think we'll ever again see a film critic referred to as "beloved" by so many people?)

UPDATE: The lovely and talented Carrie Rickey has made an inspired suggestion: Let's make our Tweets at 10:59 am ET / 9:59 am CT instead, so that right before the memorial we are all sending good vibes to Roger. Also, she suggested this alternative message:

// Cheers, Roger #seeyouatthemoviesrogerebert

OK, folks, let's make this happen.

Batman and I are fighting hunger

And if you click here, you can get a nifty treat for donating to a good cause.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Radio active: Talkin' WorldFest/Houston at 12 noon Saturday

J. Hunter Todd -- the Grand Kahuna of WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- will be a special guest this week during my segment on  Living Large, the popular lifestyle and entertainment show that airs at 12 noon CT Saturdays on Houston's News 92 FM. Hunter and I will be previewing the 2013 edition of WorldFest, which kicks off a 10-day run Friday, April 12, with more indie movies than you can shake a stick at.  You can listen to a live downstream of the broadcast here.

And you can view the trailer for WorldFest/Houston 2013's opening-night attraction -- Filly Brown -- here:

R.I.P.: Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

He was a colleague, he was an inspiration, he was a friend. I bid him a fond farewell here.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

There's nothing like getting encouragement from someone you respect... and this is nothing like getting encouragement from someone you respect.

So I asked my buddy what he thought of my applying for the film editor job at A.V. Club, and he... well, let's put it this way: Now I'm beginning to regret all the cash I forked over for that re-election campaign. (Photo credit: Susan Walsh/AP; Hat Tip: Huffington Post.)

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Great news: Roger Ebert is just slowing down, not giving up

Roger and Me at SXSW 2011

Actually, I have to admit, more a tad enviously: Reviewing only the movies you really want to review sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. Good luck and God bless, Roger. And keep the "Great Movies" coming during your "Leave of Presence." I steal from them... er, reference them all the time in my classroom lectures.