Sunday, June 30, 2013

Remembering James Gandolfini in The Mexican

The passing of time and lives often can change attitudes about certain films and the performances they showcase. In the wake of James Gandolfini's recent death, some critics and bloggers have written eloquently and/or appreciatively about the Sopranos star's scene-stealing supporting turn as a brutally efficient but unexpectedly sensitive hit man in The Mexican, Gore Verbinski's 2001 dark comedy top-lining Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. And yet, even now, the movie itself continues to be widely regarded as something of a misfire, a rattletrap star vehicle built for two that offered too few laughs.

So I feel compelled to once again file a minority report: The Mexican, as I noted in my original 2001 review, is "an arrestingly offbeat shaggy-dog story that somehow remains fleet, fresh and funny even during its most dizzying mood swings between droll whimsy and sudden violence... Working from a witty and free-wheeling screenplay by J.H. Wyman, director Gore Verbinski... does a fine job of fusing the movie’s disparate elements – everything from frenetic slapstick to affecting tragedy, from blazing gunplay to sepia-toned, silent-movie flashbacks – into a consistently engaging and uniquely satisfying whole."

And yes: It's more fun than Verbinski's upcoming The Lone Ranger (despite the latter's own homage to silent-movie comedy conventions).

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Pitt plays Jeff, a low-level courier for L.A. mobsters who is sent south of the border to retrieve an invaluable (and possibly cursed) antique pistol known as -- yes, you guessed it! -- The Mexican. His mission delays the long-planned Las Vegas holiday he intended to enjoy with Samantha (Roberts), his live-in girlfriend, who's so infuriated that she sets out for Nevada by herself. Along the way, however, she makes the acquaintance of Leroy (Gandolfini), who forces himself upon her as a traveling companion.

Again quoting my 2001 review:

Leroy says he plans to hold [Samantha] as a hostage, just in case Jeff gets any funny ideas about delivering The Mexican to the L.A. mobsters. Samantha is incredulous – she doubts Jeff would ever have any ideas, funny or otherwise – but, like her errant boyfriend, she’s in no position to argue.

One thing leads to another, on parallel tracks, on either side of the border.  In Mexico, Jeff bumbles his way from one sticky situation to the next, evidencing survival skills that give a whole new meaning to the term “dumb luck.” (Another character marvels: “By the grace of God, you have managed to Forrest Gump your way through things!”) In Las Vegas, Leroy is an unexpectedly sympathetic listener while Samantha prattles endlessly about her rocky relationship with Jeff.  Indeed, the funniest scenes in The Mexican illustrate that, deep down, Leroy is a deeply sensitive fellow with his own set of relationship “issues.” When he isn’t shooting people, or handcuffing hostages to hotel-room beds, he’s a real sweetheart.

Gandolfini is splendidly funny as Leory, a sad-eyed lug who just happens to be ruthlessly lethal in his unforgiving professionalism. He’s sneaky and subtle in his scene stealing, but at his very best during an interlude in a roadside diner where he and Roberts give and take as equals. Pay close attention, by the way, and you’ll catch his wink-wink, nudge-nudge allusion to the anxiety-ridden mobster he portrays in HBO’s The Sopranos.
I have Jeff Wells, of all people, to thank for making me aware of this charming YouTube clip. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

But seriously, parents: Is Ray Harryhausen the Boogeyman?

When I told a friend in Nashville that she ought to take her granddaughter to see the double bill of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts next week at The Belcourt, she was... well, dubious. After all, she pointed out, the little girl isn't even old enough to attend grade school yet. To be more precise: She's three years old.

So I emailed links to trailers for the films, in the hope of convincing her that both movies were relatively harmless, and certainly no scarier and/or more violent than most of what passes for kid-centric TV programming today. Well, that turned out to be a deal-breaker: My friend said even the trailers likely would be enough to give her granddaughter nightmares.


Well, as I have said before: While I was growing up, even cheesy sci-fi flicks could give me the willies. But adventure movies featuring Ray Harryhausen special effects? WTF? I gobbled these up like fresh popcorn at the old Nola Theatre back when I was a kid. Could watching sword-fighting skeletons really be that traumatic an experience for a contemporary youngster?

Parents and grandparents, take a gander at these trailers and tell me: Would you hesitate to take your young'uns to this double feature? Did I do my own son irreparable harm by showing him nifty stuff like this on VHS back in the day?

Update: Ten minutes after posting this, I put the second question to my now-26-year-old son. His reply: "Well, not irreparable..." So maybe my Nashville buddy knows best after all.

Escape Plan: "You hit like a vegetarian!"

OK, I'm sold. Put me down for at least one ticket to Escape Plan. I mean, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel and Vincent D'Onofrio? And it was shot in my hometown of New Orleans? Damn, I am so there on opening day.

First, Nine Inch Nails. Then, Johnny Cash. And now... 2Cellos

Maybe it's because I've listed Johnny Cash and Ludwig Van Beethoven as faves on Pandora. Whatever the reason, I had Pandora all cranked up on my new Samsung tablet while I was taking a shower this morning, and heard this. And was suddenly, breathlessly transfixed.

As soon as it ended, I immediately got out of the shower and started Googling to find out more about -- and hear more by -- these guys. Eventually -- after drying myself off, of course -- I ordered two CDs from Amazon. Yeah, that's right: CDs. In some regards, technology-wise, I'm still old school.

And while I'm greatly impressed by 2Cellos -- this is, to me, the definitive "Hurt," rendered in a classic music video I recently watched again during my first visit to the new Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. As Bono notes in this "Making Of" mini-documentary: "Trent Reznor was born to write that song. But Johnny Cash was born to sing it. And Mark Romanek was born to film it."

Still, I think all those folks would agree with me that what 2Cellos have done with "Hurt" is pretty damn impressive on its own terms. And I bet Bono approves of what they do with U2's "With Or Without You."

Blow-Up and The Yardbirds

A dear friend saw Blow-Up for the first time tonight. Wonder if she felt as jazzed as I did when, at around age 14, I saw this in New Orleans at the Orpheum Theatre.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Radio Active: White House Down

I will be talking about Die Hard in the White House... er, I mean, White House Down with fellow Houston Film Critics Society member Dustin Chase at 12 noon CT Saturday on Livin' Large. You can listen to a live downstream of the show at the News 92 Houston website.

Rabbits and Pythons, living together!

Back when I first viewed Monty Python and the Holy Grail decades ago, I thought that killer rabbit looked awfully familiar. Now I see that someone finally has traced its bloodline (so to speak) in this Night of the Lepus trailer mash-up. (Hat-tip to Jeff Leroy.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Silent General inspires Lone Ranger?

If you've never seen Buster Keaton's The General -- or even if you have, but not recently -- you might want to take a close look at the classic 1927 silent comedy before you see Gore Verbinski's reboot of The Lone Ranger. Because, trust me, it's pretty dang obvious that both Verbinski and lead players Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer spent a long time scrutinizing Keaton's masterwork before they started filming their seriocomic western epic -- which climaxes with an extended and elaborate chase sequence that plays like a wink-wink homage to the full-throttle locomotion of Keaton's enduringly influential flick.

True, Keaton never rode a fiery white horse through the passenger car of a speeding train, as Armie Hammer does in Verbinski's movie. But, on the hand, Keaton never relied on CGI. And he did do all of his own stunts.

By the way: Looks like Depp also learned a lot simply by studying the graceful acrobatics and incredulous double takes of The Great Stone Face. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if Depp soon signs on for a Buster Keaton biopic. With all due respect to the late, great Donald O'Connor, I strongly suspect Depp would be a better fit in the lead role.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

For all you bloggers already handicapping the Oscar race: Don't forget about... Sharknado

The funny thing is, just the other day, I was thinking: "Gee, I wonder what John Heard has been up to lately." Unfortunately, this isn't the long-awaited prequel to Cutter's Way.

Monday, June 24, 2013

R.I.P.: Richard Matheson (1926-2013)

It feels like I’ve been seeing movies scripted by – and/or adapted from books or stories written by – Richard Matheson all my life. Maybe because, well, I have. But that isn’t the only reason I find it difficult to imagine a world without him. While I would like to offer my sincere condolences to his family and friends, I strongly suspect that his death this week at age 87 will do little or nothing to end the ongoing flood of films and TV dramas that others adapt from his works.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (script and novel) and his oft-filmed novel I Am Legend arguably are his best-known works, followed by his classic teleplays for The Twilight Zone (including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” later recycled in Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Star Trek. But mention also must be made of his enduringly influential script for Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the lean and mean 1971 TV-movie (based on Matheson’s own story) that impacts you as simply and efficiently as a blunt instrument.

I’d also like to give shout-outs to his three Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for Roger Corman – one seriously spooky (The Pit and the Pendulum), another splendidly silly (The Raven -- somewhat deceptively sold in this trailer), the third a bit of both (Tales of Terror) – which I saw at an impressionable age, back when Castle of Frankenstein was my favorite magazine in the whole wide world. I continue to remember the movies, and the magazine, quite fondly. (In fact, I occasionally show the "Black Cat" segment from Tales of Terror to scriptwriting students as a good example of "loose" adaptation of literary source material.)

And while I can’t claim I’ve ever been a big fan, many incurable romantics still swear by the 1980 sci-fi/fantasy romance Somewhere in Time, the script for which Matheson adapted from his 1975 novel Bid Time Return. I’ll give the movie this much: Lead player Christopher Reeve was nowhere else ever more effective, or more affecting, as a non-super-powered protagonist.

Matheson also scripted an impressive 1973 TV version of Dracula – starring Jack Palance – with a slight but unmistakable touch of Sergio Leone to it. (In this version, Dracula periodically gazes at a portrait of a lost loved one in his chiming musical pocket watch – not unlike Lee Van Cleef in For a Few Dollars More.) Unfortunately, when it was set to premiere on Oct. 12, 1973, it had to be pre-empted (and later shifted to the following February) for then-President Richard Nixon’s introduction of Gerald Ford to replace the resigned-in-disgrace Spiro Agnew as Vice President.

Of course, this allowed me to joke for years afterward that I watched the telecast for a good ten minutes before realizing that Nixon wasn’t Dracula…

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lysistrata Jones is ready to Give It Up! for her close-up

Back in 2010, I reviewed for Variety the Dallas Theater Center world premiere of a richly amusing musical comedy based loosely -- very, very loosely -- on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the 2,000-year-old Greek play about women who boldly wage a peace campaign by withholding sex from their warrior husbands. (Western fans take note: The play previously inspired The Second Greatest Sex, a 1955 movie musical starring George Nader and, no joke, Mamie Van Doren.) The show -- then aptly titled Give It Up! -- struck me as a spirited delight, one that I described in my review as a "funny, frothy mix of pep, pop and wink-wink naughtiness." I also noted that it "could eventually make the move to Broadway and possibly a subsequent big-screen reiteration."

As it turned out, the show, subsequently re-titled Lysistrata Jones, eventually did make it to Broadway -- and even earned what's known in the trade as a "money review" from The New York Times. (The above photo, featuring Patti Murin -- a veteran of the original DTC premiere -- Josh Segarra and other cast members, is from the New York production.) Unfortunately, it lasted only for 34 previews and 30 regular performances on the Great White Way. (Even so, an original cast album -- featuring a contribution from Jennifer Holliday -- was recorded and released.) But never mind: According to my Variety colleague Justin Kroll, it looks like the second part of my prediction also is coming true, thanks to Houston-born filmmaker Andy Fickman.

Gosh, I haven't been that good at prognosticating since I predicted great things (eventually) for Office Space.

Joe Leydon: Model citizen or runaway juror?

Did my civic duty and showed up today -- but wasn't actually selected to serve on a jury. Probably just as well: I wouldn't have wanted to make legal history by being the first juror to demand capital punishment for a Class-C misdemeanor. (Yeah, I know: I'm not nearly as sympathetic when the defendant isn't a member of my spectacularly untidy family.) BTW: The Honorable Russ Ridgway actually remembered me from my days at The Houston Post, and expressed regret that the newspaper shut down in 1995 -- indicating that, in addition to being a singularly astute jurist, he is a man of impeccable taste. And he seemed genuinely amused when I suggested that someone in his position might be especially intrigued by The Bling Ring.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

You're only as good as your last picture

Guess what movie the NBC publicists chose to "identify" Donald Sutherland on their website page for Crossing Lines? (Hint: It ain't M*A*S*H.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Charles Bukowski reads "The Shoelace"

Must admit: I didn't really appreciate Charles Bukowski until I saw Barfly. But that was enough to make read more of his work -- and to realize that "The Shoelace" is my favorite poem of all time.
It’s not the large things that send a man to the madhouse. Death he’s ready for, or murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood… No, it’s the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse… Not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left.
How true, dear God, how true.

Talking with the young Man of Steel

Houston native Dylan Sprayberry returned to H-Town over the weekend to promote Man of Steel -- the epic Superman adventure in which he plays the young Clark Kent. I caught up with him at his favorite local movie theater, and filed this story for Houston CultureMap.

Trailer Park: The Wolf of Wall Street

OK, I have to admit: This teaser trailer for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (opening Nov. 14 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere) looks pretty badass. And it'll be interesting to see Leonardo DiCaprio playing hard-partying Wall Street moneymaker Jordan Belfort so soon after his impressive turn as the party-throwing millionaire mystery man Jay Gatsby. But -- and I don't mean this as criticism, just observation -- is Matthew McConaughey wearing some sort of prosthetic teeth in the restaurant scene here? Nothing on the order of Matt Dillon's choppers in There's Something About Mary, but...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day 2013

What better way to celebrate Father's Day than to see This is The End with your son? (Thanks to mom for taking the photos.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

There’s a scene during the first third of Man of Steel – a wildly uneven attempt to do for Superman what Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins did for the S-Dude’s DC Comics compatriot – where the strapping young man known variously as Kal-El and Clark Kent finally dons the familiar cape and supersuit, and tries to fly.

It can’t be said that things go well for him right away.

At first, he can’t figure out how to get off the ground. And then, each time it looks like he’s ready to soar steadily, he miscalculates his balance, or does something aerodynamically awkward, and comes crashing back down to earth. Indeed, Clark crashes quite a few times before he gets the hang of things. And even then, you can’t help worrying that he’ll make another spectacular pratfall at any given moment.

You could say something very similar about Man of Steel itself.

Working from a script hashed out by Christopher Nolan – there’s that name again! – and David S. Goyer, the same pair behind the recently concluded Dark Knight trilogy, director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has concocted a mostly humorless and occasionally ponderous version of the Superman mythos that only sporadically takes flight as rousing action-adventure.

Long stretches of the film are weighed down with a leaden seriousness that might seem excessive even in a historical drama about plagues, famine and/or genocide. And to make things even more grandiose, Snyder and the scriptwriters self-consciously accentuate a Superman-as-Messiah metaphor – he descends to earth to live among us, but waits until he’s 33 before he begins his Super-Dupering -- that gradually rises from an intriguing undercurrent to a flood-tide distraction. By the time Snyder springs a scene inside a church where a self-doubting Clark Kent appears in the same frame as a stained-glass image of Jesus Christ, many moviegoers may be tempted to shout at the screen: “Oh, for God’s sake – lighten up!

(At the risk of sounding even more blasphemous than usual: The exuberantly vulgar This is the End – arguably the most weirdly sincere religious movie since The Rapture – strikes me as much more affecting and intelligent in its allusions to the divine. No, seriously.)

Right from the start, as we’re forced to slog through an interminable prologue set on the doomed planet Krypton, it’s clear that Man of Steel is intended as something more substantial – and much, much more serious -- than a mere popcorn flick. And, hey, lofty ambitions aren’t necessarily bad things. But the ultra-expensive mash-up of sci-fi, fantasy and biblical-epic elements on view here is fatally lacking in charm or a sense of wonder.

Too many of the Krypton sets appear to be retrofitted leftovers from David Lynch’s Dune. And when Jor-El (authoritatively played by Russell Crowe), the scientist who knows Krypton’s days are numbered, mounts what appears to be a steroid-enhanced giant bat to complete his appointed rounds, one can’t help wondering if the filmmakers played too many rounds of World of Warcraft (and similar videogames) between script conferences.

But after Jor-El and wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) blast their infant son Kal-El into space to escape the implosion of Krypton, the pace of Man of Steel picks up considerably. Mind you, this requires some narrative zigzagging on the part of the filmmakers, who leap ahead three decades to find Clark Kent -- the alien formerly known as Kal-El – all grown up on Earth, and still struggling to master his super powers (like, for instance, flying). But that’s OK: It’s actually fun to watch Clark rescue workers trapped aboard a flaming oil rig, and modestly amusing to see him plot a cleverly nasty (but nonviolent) comeuppance for a barroom bully.

Better still, there’s a satisfyingly tantalizing air of mystery to the proceedings, as the audience is led to wonder why the supermanly hero (agreeably if unremarkably played as an adult by Henry Cavill) is so determined to maintain a low profile.

And just when you’re ready to wonder aloud, “Hey, when is the dude going to start, you know, flying?” – flashbacks commence to fill in the gaps and explain the motivations.

As an adolescent growing up in Smallville, young Clark (Houston native Dylan Sprayberry)  is repeatedly warned by his adoptive father, farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), not to prematurely reveal himself as someone with powers far beyond those of mortal men, lest he scare the hell out of people not ready to accept the existence of a superhumanly gifted extraterrestrial in the midst.

In one of the movie’s very best scenes – one that demonstrates just what a subtly expressive actor the often-under-rated Costner really is – Pa Kent is conspicuously short on compliments, and actually seems downright disapproving, after Clark saves fellow students from drowning in a school-bus mishap. When Clark asks his dad point-blank whether he should have just let the other kids die, there’s a conspicuously pregnant pause in the dialogue, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Pa Kent thinks that might have been a more prudent thing to do.

Pa Kent’s worst fears appear to be entirely justified when, years later, The Man Who Would Be Superman is regarded with deep suspicion, and more than a little hostility, by military and government officials as they grasp the full extent of his powers. (Christopher Meloni, late of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, makes the absolute most of a thinly written role as an Army colonel who initially regards the transplanted Kryptonian as the worst sort of illegal alien.)

The good news: Earthlings quickly come to appreciate Superman (a nickname he is given, not an identity he assumes) after the planet is invaded by equally powerful but far less friendly Kryptonians led by the villainous General Zod (a wild-eyed and raving Michael Shannon). The bad news: This invasion leads to a good half-hour or so of repetitious, CGI-enhanced smackdowns between evenly matched opponents who lay waste to much of Smallville and Metropolis while duking it out like Transformers on a rage-fueled bender.

Snyder, Nolan and Goyer take several liberties with the traditional Superman mythos, introducing gimmicks and plot twists recycled from various other source materials. (Jor-El repeatedly reappears after his demise to offer sage advice as a sort of digitally reconstituted ghost, like a holographic Obi-Wan Kenobi.) But a few of the changes are welcome revisions.

For example, the lovely and talented Amy Adams gets to play Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane as less a distressed damsel than a Pulitzer Prize-winning professional, plucky and brainy and altogether worthy of a Super-Boyfriend.

And while Snyder is rather too fond of giving us immense close-ups of Henry Cavill’s contorted face while he screamingly expresses Superman’s rage, exertion and/or frustration, the whole concept of Superman as an alienated stranger in a strange land who isn’t immediately embraced by the locals – who, in fact, has to earn their trust and acceptance – is a great deal more dramatically arresting than all the mass destruction on display during the film’s final third.

Too often, however, Man of Steel tries too hard, too obviously, to achieve a powerful impact through sheer spectacle, or through striking imagery, without sufficient regard for dramatic pacing, or even narrative logic. Near the end, there’s a flashback to Clark Kent’s halcyon days back on the farm in Smallville:  Young Clark runs around the backyard with a sheet tied to his neck as a cape and strikes heroic poses. At first, you can’t help thinking: “Aw, that’s cute – he’s pretending to be Superman.” Then you can’t help noticing: “Wait a minute – at this point, Superman doesn’t exist yet. What the hell…?”

And once again – splat! -- the movie comes crashing back down to earth.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

I span three centuries

Today, I interviewed 9-year-old actress-singer Maisy Stella (above left) -- along with her sister and co-star, 13-year-old Lennon Stella (right) -- of ABC's Nashville. (The interview, appropriately enough, actually was in Nashville, during this week's CMA Festival.) Back in 1980, I interviewed Gloria Swanson -- then 81 -- while she was on tour to promote her autobiography. All of which means I now can say, truthfully, that I have interviewed celebrities born in three different centuries. Cowabunga. No wonder students occasionally ask me: "Professor Leydon, did you ever interview D.W. Griffith?"

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Radio active: Talking 'bout Now You See Me on Saturday

I will be talking about Now You See Me -- and the upcoming Jazz on Film series at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston -- with my good buddy Junior Mints at 12 noon CT Saturday on Living' Large, the arts and lifestyle program on News 92 FM. You can downstream the show live here.