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.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

R.I.P.: Karen Black (1939-2013)

Karen Black was in the right movies at the right time to guarantee herself at least a footnote in film history.

Indeed, you could argue that Black – who lost her long battle with cancer Thursday at age 74 -- earned her iconic status as a screen queen of the New Hollywood era just on the basis of three roles: A skittish prostitute who takes a very bad acid trip (along with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) in a New Orleans cemetery in Easy Rider (1969); a coolly glamorous country music star who stokes the paranoia of an unstable rival (Renee Blakely) in Nashville (1975); and, most important, an emotionally clingy waitress who loves not wisely but too well when she falls for a classical pianist turned white-trash rowdy (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces (1970).

But wait: There was more.

Black also brought captivating shadings of intelligence and vulnerability to stock-issue “girlfriend” roles opposite George Segal as a hairdresser turned junkie in Born to Win (a flawed but fascinating 1971 drama widely available in DVD editions that emphasize then-unknown co-star Robert DeNiro), and Kris Kristofferson (in his movie starring debut) as a down-on-his-luck musician exploited by a crooked narc (Gene Hackman) in 1972’s Cisco Pike.

And yes, I’ll admit it: As a hormonally inflamed teen-ager, I briefly but intensely nursed a crush on Black way back in the day after seeing her play a sweetly spirited young woman who proves to be Miss Right for a fellow library employee (Peter Kastner) too easily distracted by a crazy/sexy Miss Wrong (Elizabeth Hartman) in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), a pre-Graduate coming-of-age comedy that hardly anyone – not even its director, Francis Coppola – ever has nice things to say about anymore.

(How much did I – do I – love this flick? I still have an original vinyl LP of the soundtrack album – featuring “Darling, Be Home Soon,” the title tune and other songs by the Lovin’ Spoonful – and a Warner Archive DVD of the film itself.)

Black earned two Golden Globe awards as Best Supporting Actress during her ‘70s heyday, for Five Easy Pieces and the 1974 filmization of The Great Gatsby. (In the latter, she was perfectly cast as the doomed adulteress Myrtle Wilson.) And she made another bid for inclusion in the film history books by playing an ice-cold femme fatale in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, the deftly seriocomic and criminally under-rated Family Plot (1976).

She also made a lasting impression – though probably not the kind she would have wanted – for her inadvertently campy turn as a frantic stewardess who must take control of a damaged airliner in Airport – 1975. Yep, you guessed it: This is the film that triggered the oft-quoted, much-parodied line: “The stewardess is flying the plane!”

Black remained active in movies and television long after the ‘70s, with credits ranging from neo-grindhouse horror movies (House of 1,000 Corpses) to quality series TV (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) to freewheeling indies (The Independent, in which came off as a very good sport while playing a spoofy version of herself).

She also appeared in The Trust, an excruciatingly maladroit 1993 low-budget drama about the life and death of philanthropist William Marsh Rice, founder of Rice University, which was filmed on location in Houston and Galveston. But to say anything more about that unfortunate career choice would be needlessly unkind.

Suffice it to say that Karen Black was a thoroughgoing professional. And like many other thoroughgoing professionals, she occasionally gave movies much more than they ever gave her. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

Why did The Lone Ranger wind up on Boot Hill?

According to Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer, The Lone Ranger was ambushed by those mean and nasty film critics. No, really: Audiences stayed away in droves because -- are you ready for this? are you sitting down? -- potential ticketbuyers read bad reviews of their revisionist Western. Read all about it here.

With all due respect to the late Michael Ansara, it's hard to forget (no matter how hard you try) The Manitou

It’s the sort of flaky coincidence I would dismiss as a transparent contrivance if I encountered it in a movie: Just a few days before the passing of Michael Ansara – the Syrian-born actor who credibly and creditably played dozens of Native American characters in movies and TV shows during the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s – I just happened to be talking with a colleague about The Manitou, a cheap-and-cheesy 1978 horror flick in which Ansara maintained an admirably straight face while co-starring as a modern-day medicine man.

I respectfully refrained from mentioning The Manitou when I wrote an obit for Ansara this past weekend – just as I avoided listing it among the deceased’s credits back when I wrote an obit for Tony Curtis, the film’s nominal star. But as my colleague and I agreed, The Manitou is hard to forget – for all the wrong reasons.

One of several supernatural disasters that provided easy paychecks for fading stars and eager up-and-comers in the wake of The Exorcist, the movie deals with a 400-year-old Indian shaman – Misquamacus by name – that returns to the land of the living in the form of a fetus unnaturally attached to the back of an innocent young woman. Susan Strasberg gamely plays the hapless host for the fetus, Stella Stevens (decked out in dark body makeup even less convincing than said fetus) does an embarrassing cameo as a fortuneteller stuck with rather unfortunate dialogue – “What’s we’re dealing with here is… black magic!!! ” – and Tony Curtis chews up his lines, the scenery and a few unlucky bit players as a phony spiritualist accidentally involved in the battle to smash Misquamacus.

Ansara earns a chuckle here and there during early scenes while expressing scornful suspicion of Curtis' motives. ("What does a white man want with Indian magic?") During the jaw-droppingly ridiculous climax, however, when Curtis and Ansara call upon the wonders of modern electricity to combat the ancient shaman’s “manitou” (spirit), it's Curtis who gets the biggest laugh of the movie, sounding much like a Bronx barroom brawler preparing to flatten some loudmouth when he indignantly snarls: “Awright, Misquamacus – I’ve had enough of this! Who d’ya think you are?”

No, really, I’m not making that up: Just look at this video around the 1:31 mark. You might also want to watch the rest of the movie while you’re at it. But trust me: It isn’t any better.

(By the way: Ansara doubtless would prefer to be remembered by sci-fi and fantasy fans for his iconic portrayal of Kang, the Klingon commander he first played in the original Star Trek, and later essayed in episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager.)

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Spike Lee: Essential cinema

Spike Lee includes two Francois Truffaut classics -- The 400 Blows and Day for Night -- and several other worthy choices, including Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and North by Northwest, on his list of must-see movies. I would add Do the Right Thing to his list, because he's much too modest to do so himself.