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.