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.