Friday, May 31, 2013

Just how funny is This is the End?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

It was 30 years ago this week: Return of the Jedi opened in Houston

Houston Chronicle blogger J.R. Gonzales recalls here on his Bayou City History site how fans flocked to the first H-Town screenings of Return of the Jedi back in the day. Among the folks quoted: Me. (Never thought I would say this about one of those crackerbox General Cinema multiplexes -- but I actually kinda-sorta miss the Meyerland Plaza.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On the air: Talking about The Great Gatsby

I will be talking with the lovely and talented Deborah Duncan about The Great Gatsby at 9 am Thursday on KHOU-TV's Great Day Houston. Unfortunately, Leonardo Di Caprio is busy promoting the movie at Cannes. Otherwise, I'm sure he'd be on hand to join us.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Thursday, May 09, 2013

R.I.P.: Bryan Forbes (1926-2013), The man who made The Wrong Box

There was a time when I could repeat verbatim dozens of lines from The Wrong Box, Bryan Forbes’ delightfully daft dark comedy about the madcap scramble for an immense inheritance by Victorians both proper and otherwise.

It helped, of course, that the movie – filled with such deft farceurs as Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, John Mills and Peter Sellers – also was an all-time favorite of my mentor, the late Ralph Thomas Bell, former chairman of the journalism department at Loyola University in New Orleans. During my college years, and for several years afterwards, we often would greet each other with snippets of the 1966 comedy’s droll dialogue, more or less in the fashion of latter-day Monty Python fanatics exchanging quips about dead parrots and killer rabbits. Indeed, whenever we got together as our friendship endured long after my graduation, there was a scarcely a time when one of us didn't make the other laugh out loud simply by saying, in meticulously deadpan style: "We haven't heard the last of this." (The line makes absolutely no sense out of context -- which doubtless increased its value to us as a wonderful sort of private joke.)

Occasionally, we would get on an extended riff while recalling this scene between Peter Cook as a young man in desperate need of a death certificate -- for reasons entirely too complicated too recapitulate here -- and Peter Sellers as a disreputable doctor who's a tad too found of feline companionship. (Note the exchange at approximately the 2:40 mark, when Cook actually asks for the aforementioned certificate.)

Oddly enough, it wasn't until several years after I first saw The Wrong Box that I realized there was yet another reason why I was right to be impressed by the film: Just one year before the comedy reached theaters, director Forbes impressed audiences with the harshly gritty World War II drama King Rat, which featured George Segal in one of his career-best performances as a cynical U.S. Army corporal determined to survive by any means necessary in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Talk about demonstrating your versatility as a filmmaker. Little wonder that, back in the day, I couldn't conceive of there being any connection between two such disparate movies.

Forbes -- who passed away Wednesday at age 86 after a lengthy illness -- boasted a resume that also included such widely admired films as Whistle Down the Wind, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and The Whisperers, and one truly bizarre concoction, the kinky crime drama Deadfall (starring Michael Caine as a cat burglar who falls for his older partner's very alluring wife), which isn't often discussed in polite company. I have very fond memories of his Long Ago, Tomorrow (a.k.a. The Raging Moon), an unabashedly sentimental and affecting bittersweet love story starring Nanette Newman (Forbes' wife) and Malcolm McDowell (in one of his rare roles as a romantic lead). I am rather less enamored of what's arguably Forbes' best-known film, The Stepford Wives (1975), though I have it on good authority that the 2004 remake (which I've never much wanted to see) makes it look like Citizen Kane.

By all accounts, Forbes enjoyed a full and fulfilling life even when he wasn't directing movies, or writing scripts for other directors. (He shot photos for the album covers of two Elton John albums -- Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road -- and wrote some well-received novels, and two volumes of an autobiography.) I was never privileged to meet the gentleman, so I was never able to tell him just how much The Wrong Box meant to me, and to my friend Tom Bell. But never mind: I strongly suspect he was never at a loss for other people who told him him more or less the same thing.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

R.I.P.: Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

I was tempted to begin this tribute with the standard "If you're of a certain age...," but quickly came to my senses. Because, really, movie buffs of all ages have at one time or another been excited, scared and/or downright discombobulated by the movie magic of the late, great Ray Harryhausen, who passed away Tuesday at the ripe young age of 92.

Mind you, I think you likely were even more amazed by his stop-motion handiwork if you saw it for the first time on the big screen back during the pre-CGI era, when the skeleton sword fight in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the multi-tentacled assault on San Francisco in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), or even the original releasing of the Kraken in the first Clash of the Titans (1981) could leave indelible impacts on impressionable moviegoers. (OK, I admit: I saw the first two of those three movies during what used to be known as "kiddie matinees" after I saw them on TV -- but never mind, they still were pretty damn astonishing.)

But I suspect Harryhausen's very special effects will always appeal to the child in all of us, with an enduringly potent capacity to ignite our sense of wonder.

Get a load of this:

And take a look at that:

Sunday, May 05, 2013

In a desperate bid for blog traffic, I'm now posting cute cat photos

On the other hand, you have to admit -- this is pretty damn funny. Olé!

Howard Kurtz gets what's coming to him. Meanwhile, there but for the grace of God...

To be fair: I agree with Kurtz wholeheartedly when he says, near the end of this segment, that it's when you're writing the seemingly "little" and unimportant things that you're most likely to screw up. (I wish I had a dollar for each time I misspelled someone's name, or screwed up a production credit, while dashing off a pan of a low-rent horror flick.) But here's the thing: When do you know for sure that what you're writing is unimportant? And if it is indeed unimportant -- why are you wasting time writing it? These are questions that those of us in media have to grapple with -- and should grapple with -- all the time in this era of 24/7 news cycles and instant Internet dissemination.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

Don’t know about you, but if I’d recently tangled with gadzillions of unfriendly extra-terrestrials, and flown through a worm-hole to dispose of an inconvenient nuclear missile, and almost crash-landed in the middle of Manhattan before being snatched and saved in mid-air by The Incredible Hulk – and did all those things while worrying whether the electromagnetic dingus secured on my chest would continue working properly, and keep bits and pieces of shrapnel from piercing my heart – I think I might find myself prone to anxiety attacks for weeks, if not decades, afterwards.

Which is one of the reasons why, right from the get-go, I had an unreasonably good time with Iron Man 3, the first big blast of the summer movie season. As Tony Stark, the super-rich, ultra-cool brainiac inside the red-and-gold Iron Man armor, Robert Downey Jr. usually comes across as almost arrogantly insouciant and unflappable -- the snarkiest hipster ever to do derring-do in a comic-book movie. So it’s a nifty change of pace – and, yes, an effectively humanizing touch – for Downey to appear beset by spasms of post-traumatic stress during the first several minutes of this new movie while Stark recovers from all the sound and fury (and the demands of S.H.I.E.LD. boss Nick Fury) that defined The Avengers.

Of course, you can’t keep or a good man – or, to use Stark’s own self-deprecating phrase, a man in a can – down for very long. But even after Stark shakes off the funk and gets into gear, Iron Man 3 indicates that everyone involved in this sequel wanted to add a few new pages to the playbook, or at least take a couple detours while covering familiar ground.

Stark actually spends long stretches of the flick outside of his armor while tracking down The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearsome international terrorist who evidently took grooming tips from Osama Bin Laden, and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a brilliant scientist whose bad intentions are so obvious – even during the opening scenes, set in 1999, when he’s supposed to be a needy and nerdy Stark worshipper – that I feel entirely safe in announcing without a spoiler alert that, yeah, he’s no damn good.

Iron Man 3 often has the pleasurably anything-goes air of a '70s James Bond movie as Tony Stark goes globe-trotting after clues and connections, all the while dressed in civilian attire, and even karate-chops a bit-player or two. (The 007 flavor is enhanced at the very end with a wink-wink on-screen promise: “Tony Stark will return…”) Indeed, like Bond, Stark relies on his wits as much as he utilizes gadgetry. For a while, at least.

And then… well, hey, this is an Iron Man movie, right?

The plot has something to with a limb-regenerating therapy that has rather unfortunate side-effects – some human guinea pigs turn into incendiary bombs and/or villainous variations of The Human Torch – and something else to do with a beautiful research scientist (Rebecca Hall) who may not be entirely unhappy about how her breakthroughs are ruthlessly exploited.

There’s an audaciously ingenious plot twist at the midway point that may shock and upset those who view Marvel Comics mythos as sacrosanct – and, come to think of it, might also additionally peeve people already queasy about the use of terrorist mayhem as a comic-book movie plot device. But it will greatly amuse just about everyone else. (More than that, alas, I cannot tell you.)

And there’s a very welcome and largely successful effort on the part of director and co-scriptwriter Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) to elevate the relationship between Stark and gal pal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, a.k.a. The World’s Most Beautiful Woman) to the level of a compellingly passionate romance. (Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man adventures, has stuck around to continue playing Happy Hogan, Stark’s bodyguard.) It also helps, by the way, that Pepper gets more actively involved in the action this time around, and Paltrow is more than up to the challenge.

The pacing is appropriately propulsive, the action sequences – especially Iron Man’s rescue of passengers rudely ejected from Air Force One, and a climactic confrontation involving mammoth explosions, massive destruction and an entire posse of Iron Man suits – are satisfyingly rousing, and the comic relief is frequently and refreshingly laugh-out-loud funny.

Granted, the narrative logic is something less than watertight, and a few plot developments are, at best, fuzzily finessed. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out why Don Cheadle’s War Machine – here rechristened Iron Patriot, and tricked out with a red-and-white-and-blue paint job – is so easily immobilized without doing lasting damage to his high-tech hardware.

But never mind. Truth to tell, I sometimes have a hard time with the narrative logic (or the lack thereof) in James Bond movies, too. And that’s never gotten in the way of my having a good time – most of the time – with that franchise.

With Downey cracking wise in his trademark fashion while fighting the good fights, Paltrow and Kingsley at the forefront of a first-rate supporting cast, and a whole mess of stuff blowing up real good, Iron Man 3 is a super-sized comic-book epic that’s licensed to thrill.

And yes, you should stick around until after the closing credits. 

Burning question of the day (about Beyoncé)

After reading my CultureMap colleague Clifford Pugh's piece on Beyoncé's outrageous tour demands, I have to ask: Just where in the UK (or anywhere else, for that matter) can one purchase red toilet paper?

And while I'm at it, another query: Did Beyoncé hand a similar list of requirements to Clint Eastwood back when they were considering a collaboration on a remake of A Star is Born?

UPDATE: Looks like you can buy red toilet paper here.