Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Back when Columbia wasn't afraid to offend foreign dictators: You Nazty Spy!

Months before Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator reached theaters, The Three Stooges took their own potshots at the posturings of Adolf Hitler in their 1940 short You Nazty Spy! Just how ballsy was this movie in its time? To quote Wikipedia:

The film satirized the Nazis and the Third Reich and helped publicize the Nazi threat in a period when the United States was still neutral about World War II, and isolationist sentiment was prevalent among the public. During this period, isolationist senators such as Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye objected to Hollywood films on grounds that they were anti-Nazi propaganda vehicles designed to mobilize the American public for war. According to the Internet Movie Database, You Nazty Spy! was the first Hollywood film to spoof Hitler...

The Hays Code discouraged or prohibited many types of political and satirical messages in films, requiring that the history and prominent people of other countries must be portrayed "fairly" [but] short subjects may have been subject to less attention than feature films.

BTW: Both Moe Howard and Larry Fine reportedly cited You Nazty Spy! as their favorite Three Stooges short. No kidding.

Mitt Romney stands up for The Interview. No, really.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guess the North Koreans didn't see the Red Dawn remake

In the wake of the (alleged) North Korean hacking of Sony Pictures -- a crime (allegedly) triggered by a fictional assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Sony's upcoming The Interview -- one thing seems certain: The folks who made and released the Red Dawn remake must be very, very happy right now that their film flew so low under the radar.

As I noted in Variety when reviewing the remake at Fantastic Fest in 2012:

China was depicted as the aggressor when this Red Dawn was shot in 2009. But after MGM, its original distributor, declared bankruptcy, the producers opted to make the pic more appealing to other distribs (particularly those wary of offending Chinese government officials) by re-filming scenes, relooping dialogue and digitally altering flags and military insignia to transform the bad guys into war-mongering North Koreans.

Thank goodness the North Koreans didn't know about that. At least, I think they didn't know about it. I mean, the fact that the remake premiered in Austin... that wouldn't have anything to do with Austin being on North Korea's must-nuke list, would it?

BTW: I guess the North Koreans didn't see Olympus Has Fallen, either.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My dream comes true in the Kingsman trailer

For years -- decades, really -- I've thought one of the extended "nah-nah-nah-nah" riffs in Deep Purple's cover of "Hush" (a '60s hit originally recorded by Billy Joe Royal) would work terrifically well on the soundtrack of some kick-ass action flick. Particularly in a scene where there's a great deal of, well, ass-kicking.

Lo and behold, my wish finally has been fulfilled -- sort of -- in the new trailer for Kingsman: The Secret Service. Mind you, they didn't use the Deep Purple version of "Hush" -- instead, they chose Kula Shaker's take, which ain't chopped liver -- but the "nah-nah-nah-nah" stuff works just as well as I've always thought it would. I don't know if this musical selection was approved by the film's director, Matthew Vaughn. But it should be noted that one of the guy's previous credits is.... wait for it... Kick-Ass.

By the way, when I went looking for a video clip of Deep Purple performing "Hush," I found this 24-karat oddity, shot on location at the Playboy Mansion.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe and the real-life drama of his Evolution of a Criminal

This weekend, award-winning filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe returns to the scene of his crime.
The Houston native will be back in H-Town for screenings of Evolution of a Criminal, his extraordinary autobiographical documentary, at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park. But wait, there’s more: His attendance at post-screening Q&A sessions Friday and Sunday will cap off what has turned out to be a week of singular achievements for the University of Houston graduate. Just two days ago, Monroe successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund a wider release for his film. A few hours later, the International Documentary Association announced his selection as winner of the IDA Emerging Filmmaker Award, a prestigious honor that provides $5,000 in cash and a donation of post-production services valued at $50,000.
As one of Monroe’s former teachers – he was in my Broadcast and Film Writing Class at UH a decade ago – I am unabashedly proud of what has he has done. And, yes, frankly astonished by how far he has gone.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Darius Clark Monroe was a straight-A honors student at a Houston high school until the morning in 1997 when, along with two companions, Pierre Murphy and Leroy “Trei” Callier III, he held up a Bank of America in nearby Stafford, Texas. Brandishing an unloaded shotgun, and disguised with Halloween masks, the neophyte bandits made off with $140,000 in cash. But Monroe didn’t get to enjoy his ill-gotten gain for every long. Four weeks after the crime, he was arrested.
He was 16 years old at the time.
Artfully entwining dramatic re-creations, archival photos and footage, blunt-spoken narration, and interviews with many participants (ranging from Monroe’s mother and stepfather to the  assistant D.A. who prosecuted his case) in this real-life tale of crime and punishment, Monroe has fashioned a uniquely fascinating and pitilessly self-critical film that serves as both a cautionary object lesson and a heartfelt plea for forgiveness. (We actually see Monroe tracking down people who were in the bank that day, and attempting to apologize for the terror he caused them.) But, hey, don’t take my word for it: Writing in The New Yorker, critic Richard Brody hailed Evolution of a Criminal as “a great film” that signals “the birth of an artist.” Alan Scherstuhl of The Village Voice agreed: “Vital, thoughtful, and deeply personal, first-timer Darius Clark Monroe’s autobiographical doc stands as a testament to the power of movies to stir empathy.” 
Monroe was tried as an adult, and served three years of a five-year sentence. After that? Well, to paraphrase one of Strother Martin’s more colorful lines from Cool Hand Luke, he got his mind right. He graduated with honors from University of Houston, then went on to attend film school at New York University – where he studied under Spike Lee, who served as an executive producer for Evolution of a Criminal.
Spike and I were on hand to cheer our former student when the documentary had its world premiere last spring at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Three days after the screening,  I sat down with Monroe to talk about what he did, what he’s doing – and what he hopes to do next.
OK, as bad as the bank robbery turned out for you – and I would say having to serve three years in prison, and picking cotton out in the hot Texas sun, is pretty damn bad -- there are two ways this could have turned out much worse for you. One, somebody in the bank could have been packing heat, and shot you very dead. In Texas, let's face it, that's a very real possibility.
Darius Clark Monroe:  Absolutely.
The other way it could have been a lot worse is -- you could have gotten away with it. You ever spend a lot of time thinking about those two possibilities?
Monroe:  The third possibility is someone else -- Pierre or someone -- could have got shot as well. I have thought about all three, especially the first one you just mentioned. When I think back about the fact that we walked in there -- it's almost frightening. Because I could never do it now, at 33. We were sitting ducks. The fact that somebody was not shot and killed... wow. Had a customer or had an undercover cop been inside the bank and shot and killed myself or Pierre, they would have had the right to. They would have had the absolute right to.
They wouldn't have known the shotgun wasn't loaded.
Monroe:  They would not have known it. They would not have known it. That response would have been warranted. That sits with me the most because it's not uncommon for that to happen, for somebody who's already in there having a concealed weapon ‑‑ especially in the state of Texas. There's something about youth and being reckless, I guess. Reckless abandonment. Because I have no idea how we thought it would be safe to just walk in, run in. We tried to rationalize it, but it haunts me to this day. I feel very fortunate that I am alive, and that everyone inside the bank is alive, that no one was physically harmed. Because the odds of that happening were astronomical.
I believe that something in the universe, something much greater than me, was in charge that day for whatever reason. [Laughs] I think about that all the time. All of the time.
Not getting caught is also something that fascinates me. I always wonder, what does that mean? [Pause] You know what, Joe? The thing is, I just know my personality. I'm one of those people who need to... Well, when I was 16, at the time, when I made a mistake, I needed to see a harsh punishment before I learned my lesson sometimes. I'm not saying [a punishment] as harsh as picking cotton in the prison. But a slap on the hand? I would not have learned my lesson. You see what I'm saying? Had I just walked into that bank and we robbed it, and I would have never been charged and nothing ever happened -- I probably would have stumbled into crime again. It would have felt too easy. It would felt like, "This is something we could get away with." I can see how that would have just opened up this monstrous side of me that I wasn’t aware of. I could just see how that would not have been a good thing. [Laughs] I tell people, "As much as I hated to go to prison, that experience really did reorder and realign my life in the right direction." Because otherwise, I probably would have gone down a path of crime.
Where were you incarcerated?
Monroe:  I was in Midway, Texas, which is 40 minutes outside of Huntsville, for three years.
At what point in that three‑year period did the light bulb go off over your head, and you thought: "You know, I could make a movie out of this?"
Monroe: Never. When I was in the place, I had no idea that I was going to ever make a movie about this whole situation. The truth is, once I got out, I did not want to talk about the situation. I feel like I was just driven, like I was almost on some type of high, some drug. I really wanted to distance myself further and further away from the robbery, the prison, everything that had happened. I was trying my best to do it, and then it just came full circle in film school. In film school, they talk about getting personal and digging deep. I realized there was this thing weighing on me and that I wanted to talk about, finally.
I knew nothing about your past when you were in my class at University of Houston. But I will say this – and I’m not stroking you: I’ve been teaching there for nearly 15 years, and I think I could count on the fingers of one hand how many students I’ve had who were as diligent about turning in their work, and concerned about their grades, as you. And I told Spike this the other night after the premiere ‑‑ you're the only student who's ever gone to the trouble of seeking me out and wanting to go over every single assignment to make sure you got the right grade for each assignment. All of which makes me think: Once you decided to go down the straight and narrow path, you weren't going to take any detours.
Monroe:  No.
You were going to keep your pedal to the metal.
Monroe:  That’s the truth. I was just telling the two guys from the National Film Society that the idea that I wrote down, the feature treatment idea that I wrote in your class, was the feature treatment idea that I submitted to NYU for the application. It's a feature film that I want to do in the next three years. It's not something that has gone away. These are just things I just keep filed in the back of my head. After the doc, I want to do a feature titled The Year of Our Lord, but then after that, it's the feature film I want to do next. [Laughs] In that class of yours, I was working on the treatment and trying to figure it out. I'll never forget pitching it to the class. Like I said, I believe the universe works in very auspicious ways. Even when we took that picture at the premiere, I was just saying, "This is so..." It was an out‑of‑body experience.
In the documentary, you talk to Spike and some of your other teachers at NYU about how they were surprised when they learned about your background. In fact, one of them says he might have had second thoughts about making you a  graduate assistant. Were there people who didn't want to talk on camera about what their response was to your record? Who actually had started to, you know, treat you in a different way after you told them?
Monroe: No. At NYU, I could have interviewed anyone. It really is a weird situation. Again, I think about perception. They had known me for many years at that point. I had been a teaching assistant, a graduate assistant. I was a resident assistant. Even after they found out about the whole story ‑‑ I had my pre‑thesis review ‑‑ it was difficult for them to have a knee‑jerk reaction, like, "I can't trust this guy." We've had drinks. It's a very familial environment because it's such a small faculty and small student body. I don't think there was one professor who would have turned down an interview request. And even since then, after I did the interviews, back in 2007, NYU hired me on as a full‑time TV studio manager, with a felony on my record. It wasn't like they didn't know what was happening. They knew exactly what was going on, yet they still trusted me to do the job that I'd been doing since I got there.
To get back to the first question: Do you really think you would be here now if you hadn’t been caught?
Monroe: No, I don’t think so. [Pause] I don’t think so. Do I think I would be here now had I not done the robbery? Maybe. But if I was not caught, I’m sure I would be in prison for something else right now. I’m pretty confident in saying that I wouldn’t be here.
But at 16, bank robbery seemed like it might be a viable option.
Monroe:  Well, like it says in the film, I was really bothered by the whole situation at home. It was annoying to me. I was young, and I knew that there was something in me that was exhausted by the whole financial strain. I was willing to go to lengths that probably were completely unnecessary -- but for me, it felt like in my head that this could be done. This is something that could be done to help out. This was something that could be done.
But I don't want people to think this is just some Robin Hood story. I was still a kid. I still wanted some nice sneakers. I still wanted some nice clothes of my own. I think getting arrested and going to prison straightened me out.
Of course, the funny thing is, even back then, you already were a director. This robbery was your idea, was it not?
Monroe:  [Laughs] It was.
You did mastermind it. I used to tell people when I first heard about the robbery, "Well, I guess he fell in with bad companions back then, because he was such a great student when I had him." But then I'm watching the documentary, and I’m thinking, "Damn. Darius was a little budding criminal mastermind at 16." But also, it’s like, "Hey, he was already writing the script and directing it."
Monroe: In my mind, it didn't feel like, oh, I'm going to be the mastermind behind it. I was like, "I want to plan it out and get you all to follow along with it." But it's so funny, Joe: A lot of people, when they hear about the story, they're like, "Well, so who influenced you? I know you fell in with the wrong crowd." I'm like, "I didn't fall into the wrong crowd." Again, I always think about perceptions. We really have this bogeyman, in terms of what we think a criminal is or who we think a criminal is. Folks say, "When I would meet you, you don't look like a criminal." I always say, "Can you describe to me what that looks like?"
Hopefully, the film debunks and demystifies, and forces people to think, "Oh, well, maybe I don't know who's capable of committing a crime." I feel like more people are capable of doing something illegal or criminal, something they would never think they’re capable of doing, than we might think. I think a lot of people, most people, want to follow the law. But I think some folks, when their back is pushed against the wall, may make a choice that is illegal.
Who do you hope this film reaches?
Monroe:  I really, really, really want to get this film to a lot of young men -- black, brown, white, Asian, just a lot of young men --  who feel like they have been left behind, who are on the road to making a mistake. I hope the film can get them before that happens. And if they've already made a mistake, they're already in juvenile, if they're already in prison, if they already are on parole, have a record --  I'm hoping that the film also inspires them not to be stuck in that space where this mistake consumes them and is their life. I've met a lot of guys who have a record, have a felony on their record, and just feel like, "I can't do anything. I can't. I can no longer dream. I can no longer move away from this." I don't believe that. I really, strongly don't believe that. And not just crime. I feel that people just should not be forced to suffer for any mistake for the rest of their lives.
Outside of that audience, I'm hoping on a wider level that [the documentary] helps individuals understand that forgiveness and compassion are two things that we should start practicing in reality, as opposed to just speaking about it. We should think about that. And I know it's not easy. Look, there are people that I have a hard time forgiving myself.
Are you a religious person?
Monroe:  I'm spiritual.
Do you believe God has a plan for you?
Monroe:  I do. Absolutely I do. Absolutely.
I look forward to screening this movie for my students down the road. But I'm going to tell you something: After I screen the movie, I plan on saying, "OK, now you've seen this. I want you to understand my attitude: None of you have any excuses."
Monroe:  It's the truth. [Laughs] I agree, I agree, I agree.
I just hope you don't mind being used as a teaching tool.
Monroe:  No, not at all. [Laughs] Not at all.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

News flash: Matthew McConaughey was praising thermostats before he was driving Lincolns (in commercials)

I find it more than a little comical that certain scolds are getting their shorts in a twist because Matthew McConaughey is hawking Lincolns in TV commercials. Don't know how to break it to you, gang, but the Oscar-winning actor has been doing TV-ad voiceovers with that instantly recognizable drawl of his for quite some time now.

Indeed, when I caught up with the native Texan last year at the Toronto Film Festival -- way before he brought home the gold for Dallas Buyers Club -- I joked with him that whatever he was earning from advertising must have helped make it a little easier to cut back on the rom-coms and do more indies.

McConaughey laughed -- but he didn't deny it. And, really, why should he have to? 

BTW: Here's another sweet spot he did for Reliant Energy.

Friday, October 17, 2014

And now, a word from my articulate and well-spoken former student: Darius Clark Monroe, director of Evolution of a Criminal

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago: Darius Clark Monroe, a former student of mine -- and, perhaps more important, of Spike Lee -- has launched a Kickstarter campaign to generate $60,000 for a wider  release of his critically acclaimed debut feature, the autobiographical documentary Evolution of a Criminal. The good news: As of today, the campaign already has raised more than $20,000. The bad news? Well, as Monroe recently told interviewer Michael Galinsky, he's has some less-than-pleasant experiences while touring with his film on the festival circuit:

I've been on the circuit for most of the year, and I've only met three other documentary filmmakers of color. That number is jarring because people of color are quite prominent in documentary films. It's strange to see filmmakers who have no direct relationship to a community, document said community, and then share that work in theaters filled with people who aren't from that community.

Cultural bias is very real. In addition to noticing a dearth of stories by and about people of color, some questions and/or comments from fellow filmmakers and audience members would leave me speechless. I've been told repeatedly that I'm "well spoken" and "articulate"—which isn't a compliment, by the way. At SXSW, a small, cute white woman, who looked to be in her 50s, gave me a warm hug before asking me how it felt to be an "educated black man." I've been told that my film is "too black" and "not relatable."

You wondered if I felt like I could be myself traveling with the film. I don't know how to be anything other than myself. As a society, we live in a constant state of denial. Navigating the truth is a fraught and contentious experience, but it's the only way to grow. I will always speak truth to power.

I truly hope that all of my students, of all colors, will go on to be as uppity as Monroe. If that doesn't happen, I'm not doing my job right. But I must admit: Given my own spectacularly untidy family history, I had no trouble whatsoever relating to Evolution of a Criminal. Maybe that, even more than my personal interest in Monroe, is why I've already made my Kickstarter contribution.

Live from Houston: It's The War of the Worlds

What's this? A live reading of the original Orson Welles radio production (scripted by Howard Koch) of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds? With a free screening of a "classic" '70s or '80s horror movie thrown in for good measure. Now that is my idea of a Halloween celebration. (My only cavil: The term "classic" gets tossed about rather loosely when it comes to descriptions of '70s and '80s horror movies, so beware.)

And just to get you in the right mood: Here is a link to a piece on another notable radio broadcast, one featuring H.G. Wells, Orson Welles -- and a plug for the latter's upcoming movie. 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Before there was Killing Patton there was... Brass Target

Professional bloviator Bill O'Reilly isn't being treated very kindly by the critics and academics passing judgment on his latest book, Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II's Most Audacious General, a speculative historical mashup based on the dubious theory that the legendary military leader was terminated by Soviet assassins. But wait, there's more: Richard Cohen of The Washington Post and  Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC have taken their own jabs at O'Reilly's presumptive best-seller, insisting the author should have should have included info about Patton's alleged anti-Semitism.

But here's what I want to know: Why aren't more pundits noting the similarity between O'Reilly's paranoid scenario and the plot of Brass Target, a deservedly obscure 1978 thriller that also claimed Patton's death was anything but accidental? Could it be that few people actually remember this cheesy movie? Or, more likely, that anyone who actually saw it back in the day has tried very hard ever since to forget it?

As I wrote in 1977:

This lethargic copy of Day of the Jackal spins a fantastic yarn about a plot by corrupt US Army officers to kill Gen. George S. Patton shortly after World War II. The plotters are worried that Patton, played with unconvincing swagger by George Kennedy, will uncover their duplicity in a $250-million gold theft that left over two dozen American soldiers dead. The poor soldiers were knocked out by gas, a fate akin to that which may befall anyone trying to stay awake during this plodding claptrap. 

Brass Target is slick, to be sure, but it’s also so lifelessly directed by John Hough (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry), and so unimaginatively scripted by Alvin Boretz, that it lacks even the giddy excitement of an outrageously bad movie... This is the sort of routinely acted TV-movie-style tripe in which two villains are depicted as gay merely to provide them with some kind of distinguishing characteristics. A woman (Sophia Loren) appears in a few scenes only to provide a feminine name in the credits. And the assassin (Max Von Sydow, more or less reprising his Three Days of the Condor character) makes a lot of smug comments to the hero (John Cassavetes) about how silly morality is. Patrick McGoohan hams it up briefly as a colorful cynic, but his character winds up dead all too soon. 

At the end, Cassavetes pieces together the assassination plot, finds the murder weapon – a gun used to break Patton’s back with a rubber bullet – and polishes off the bad guys. Then the movie just ends. The closing credits reveal that Patton’s death was officially listed as the result of a car accident, and the $250 million in gold was never recovered. My guess is, Cassavetes decided to keep the gold and Sophia Loren, and never mind about who killed Patton. That sounds cynical, I admit, but it makes about as much sense as anything else in Brass Target.

Looking back, I think it's fair to say Brass Target can be at least partially justified as one of the easy-paycheck projects that allowed John Cassavetes the wherewithal to make his own indie movies. I'll leave it to others to come up with a similar justification for Killing Patton.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Killer rabbits! Slumming actors! Spooky music! Coming soon to Turner Classic Movies!

Every time I hear that this or that "classic" horror flick from the '70s or '80s is going to be remade, I can't help wondering: Why don't they try to give us a new and improved Night of the Lepus? Could it be that even the most imagination-challenged and innovation-averse hacks in Hollywood recognize that there's no way to surpass the totally unhinged splendiferousness of this 1972 camp classic? Yes, you read that correctly -- classic, dammit. Which is why it's airing Oct. 23 on Turner Classic Movies, as part of the cable network's month-long tribute to the late, great Janet Leigh. 

Not surprisingly, the original trailer and advertising art kinda-sorta disguised the fact that the scary monsters in Night of the Lepus are... well, killer bunnies. But the rampaging rabbits are ready for their close-ups in this inspired clip compilation.

And you can see what happened when the RiffTrax guys took their best shots at the ferocious floppy-eared fiends here. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Evolution of a Criminal deserves a wide theatrical release. You can help make that happen.

A former student of mine named Darius Clark Monroe premiered his exceptional documentary, Evolution of a Criminal, at SXSW a few months back. I wish I could take full credit for inspiring him as a filmmaker, but I kinda-sorta think he learned a lot more from one of his teachers at NYU, a dude named Spike Lee. But never mind: I'll settle for being among the first to hype Monroe's Kickstarter project to fund the theatrical release that his project deserves. You can learn more about it here

Trailer Park: Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice

From the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia -- two of my favorite films of the late 20th century -- comes something new that seems, based on what this trailer promises, can't-miss wild and crazy. I am unreasonably stoked to see this one -- and not just because I discovered Paul Thomas Anderson. (No joke: I reviewed Sydney long before it was re-titled Hard Eight.) I'm also glad to see that, in a welcome switch from normalcy, an A-list director has offered gainful employment to Eric Roberts. (Yes, I know he was in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Trouble is, he wasn't in it long enough.) Don't get me wrong: I've enjoyed some of Roberts' made-for-video potboilers over the past two decades or so as guilty pleasures. And he cracked me up as a campy bad guy a few years back in D.O.A.: Dead or Alive. But, hey, the dude's overdue for a career boost. Here's hoping Inherent Vice does more for him than, say, Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes, I saw James Franco's Saturday Night documentary. And now, so can you.

Since, like all the other cool people, I regularly attend the SXSW Film Festival, I was able to see James Franco's Saturday Night, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the long-running NBC sketch-comedy show, back when it screened at the 2010 edition of the Austin event.

At the time, I wrote for Variety:

Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, Saturday Night sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of Saturday Night Live. Best suited for fest, homevid and niche-cable venues, it may prove even more satisfying when released in a DVD package that also would enable viewers to watch the actual episode prepared during the docu. Such a double feature could be an invaluable teaching tool for would-be comic writers and performers, and producers of live telecasts.

The story behind the story: Actor (and NYU cinema studies student) James Franco was inspired to direct the docu after hosting SNL in September 2008, and approached longtime producer Lorne Michaels for permission to trace the development of an episode — showing everything from the initial pitching of sketches through construction of sets to live broadcast — in a cinema-verite format. Michaels gave his OK.

It’s worth noting, however, that in the course of an interview included in the docu, the producer casually notes that, because many of the SNL cast members are used to performing on camera, Franco shouldn’t be surprised if they perform for his camera as well. Franco can’t say he wasn’t warned. 

Time and again during Saturday Night, one gets the sense that, for all their off-the-cuff remarks and occasional admissions of insecurity, SNL headliners such as Bill Hader, Will Forte and Andy Samberg are playing to a friendly audience more than they’re opening up for an objective interviewer. Even the behind-the-scenes personnel sound less than fully spontaneous, although their comments — like those of the show’s stars — are often amusing and/or insightful. 

It’s especially interesting, albeit unsurprising, to hear that almost everyone currently involved with SNL — even, to a certain degree, Michaels — fully realizes they are competing with the audience’s nostalgic memories of favorite stars and sketches from past seasons.

For assorted reasons not connected to the quality of Franco's enterprise, his documentary -- or "docu," as we say in Variety-speak -- more or less vanished from the face of the earth after its SXSW screening. But now, at long last, Saturday Night is kinda-sorta widely available: Franco has announced it will premiere Friday on 

Is it worth watching? Let me put it like this: When asked years ago if his latest movie was worth seeing, the late, great Robert Mitchum reportedly replied, "If it's a hot night, and the theater's air-conditioned, what the hell?" In a similar fashion, I would answer: If you already have access to Hulu, and you're the least bit curious about Franco and/or Saturday Night Live -- why not?

To again quote my 2010 review:

Franco follows the production of the Dec. 6, 2008, episode with guest host John Malkovich. Many of the regulars agree that Malkovich is a great choice and a good sport. But that makes the competition among the writers and writer-performers — particularly those whose sketch proposals haven’t been greenlit lately — all the more intense...

There are a few twists along the way, particularly when a sketch about a jingle singer for a carpet dealership — which looks rather promising during development — is unceremoniously dropped after failing to sufficiently impress the audience at the final dress rehearsal. Ultimately, it’s very easy to share the cast and crew‘s palpable relief when the show concludes without apparent mishap. But the docu dutifully emphasizes that any sense of satisfaction will be short-lived: In two days, the whole process will have to begin again.

By the way: If you subscribe to Hulu Plus, you can view the original Saturday Night Live telecast here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How I have always wanted to quit a job

Mind you, I would never have the audacity to say this during an actual live broadcast. (For one thing, I doubt I could handle the FCC fine.) But maybe on my way out the office door...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Before there was Left Behind there was... Left Behind

While watching The Remaining -- a fitfully exciting indie thriller best described as a Christian horror flick -- I couldn't help thinking about Left Behind. No, not the upcoming Nicolas Cage movie due in theaters Oct. 3. Rather, I mean an earlier film drawn from the same source material -- a series of popular books by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins -- but produced on a significantly smaller budget.

As I wrote in my original 2001 review:

Kirk Cameron, all grown up since his days on TV’s Growing Pains, plays Buck Williams, a TV news reporter who always manages to be where the action is. In the opening scenes, he just happens to be in Israel, interviewing a scientist who has found a way to grow food in arid land, when Iraqi fighter jets suddenly darken the sky.

Fortunately – well, OK, miraculously – the invaders are blasted to kingdom come even before the Israeli air force can launch a counterattack. Later, our hero is aboard a commercial airliner piloted by workaholic captain Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) when the long-awaited, Biblically-prophesized “rapture” occurs. Dozens of passengers (including every child on board) simply vanish from the plane, leaving behind clothing, frantic parents and discombobulated fellow flyers. Tens of millions of similar vanishings occur throughout the world, though Left Behind -- obviously hampered by budgetary restraints -– can offer only fleeting glimpses of the collateral damage caused by this phenomenon.

Steele returns to his Chicago home to find his deeply religious wife and their young son are among the missing, and his college-age daughter, Chloe (Janaya Stephens), is terribly upset. Slowly, reluctantly, Steele begins to suspect that his wife, their son and millions of other folks have been brought to heaven by God to avoid the horrors of “end days.” (Not to be confused with End of Days, which millions of people managed to avoid without God’s help.) Williams takes a different route to solving the mystery of the missing millions. But he reaches the same conclusion after he links a couple of international bankers and a possible Antichrist to that notorious hotbed of ungodly and one-worldly activity, the United Nations.

Aimed squarely at that segment of the Christian community that eagerly (perhaps impatiently) awaits the Final Judgment, Left Behind is a pulpy melodrama that does a reasonably efficient job of preaching to the converted. (To damn it with faint praise: It’s much better crafted than The Omega Code, a similar doomsday drama about the emergence of the Antichrist.) Trouble is, it’s no great shakes as secular entertainment.

As it turned out, the 2001 Left Behind proved to be a career game-changer for Cameron, who has gone on to star in several other Christian-skewing dramas -- including Fireproof, which, no joke, was one of the highest-grossing indie releases of 2008. Will the new Left Behind have a similarly salutary effect on Nicholas Cage's career? Well, the Lord does work in mysterious ways...

Here's what The Rapture looked like back in the 2001 Left Behind:

And here's a glimpse at what the new Left Behind has in store for us:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Simon Pegg is smokin' in Kill Me Three Times

OK, I admit: I was leaning toward seeing Kill Me Three Times next week at the Toronto International Film Festival even before I got a look at this animated poster, since Simon Pegg is a personal fave. But the poster has more or less sealed the deal. Yes, I'm that easy.

 So what's it all about? Well, according to the TIFF catalog:

KILL ME THREE TIMES is a darkly comedic thriller from rising star director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog). Simon Pegg plays the mercurial assassin, Charlie Wofle, who discovers he isn't the only person trying to kill the siren of a sun drenched surfing town (Alice Braga). Charlie quickly finds himself at the center of three tales of murder, mayhem, blackmail and revenge. With an original screenplay by James McFarland, the film also stars Sullivan Stapleton (as a gambling addict that attempts to pay off his debts through a risky life insurance scam), Teresa Palmer (as a small town Lady Macbeth), Callan Mulvey (as a wealthy beach club owner simmering with jealousy), Luke Hemsworth (as a local surfer fighting for the woman he loves) and Bryan Brown (as a corrupt cop who demands the juiciest cut). Kill Me Three Times was produced by Laurence Malkin and Share Stallings (the team behind Death At A Funeral and A Few Best Men) and Tania Chambers.

Just one question: Wouldn't it be more gramatically correct to describe Sullivan Stapleton's character as "a gambling addict who attempts to pay off his debts..."?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Hail and farewell to Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide

Today I received my advance copy of Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide, and I’ve been paging through it with profoundly mixed emotions.

Once again, I am unreasonably proud of my humble contributions to the enterprise. (Leonard asked me to come on board as a member of Team Maltin during preparations for the 2009 edition – an honor I rank alongside Peter Bart’s invitation to be a Variety contributor back in 1990.) At the same time, however, I am unspeakably sad, because this is the end of the line: The 2015 Movie Guide will be the last.

Originally known as TV Movies, Leonard’s invaluable paperback resource first appeared in 1969, and has been published annually since 1988. Long, long before I was a contributor, I was a faithful fan, dutifully purchasing each new edition – and always keeping a copy close at hand. No kidding: For decades, to paraphrase the old tagline for American Express Travelers Cheques, I didn’t leave home without it. And when it wasn’t in my suitcase during my travels for movie junkets and film festivals, you could always find it on a short shelf of absolutely essential reference books, either by my desk at The Houston Post or in my home office.

(I can see a copy of the 2014 edition right now, within easy reach. You'll have to take my word for that, however, because taking a photo would reveal what a shamelessly cluttered and chaotic workplace I have made for myself. Remember: I am a college instructor, and I don't want to set a bad example for my students.)

Unfortunately, as Leonard notes in the latest (and last) edition’s forward, “With ready access to information on the Internet, our readership has diminished at an alarming rate.

“The book’s loyal followers know that we strive to offer something one can’t easily find online: curated information that is accurate and user-friendly, along with our own reviews and ratings.

“But when a growing number of people believe that everything should be free, it’s impossible to support a reference book that requires a staff of contributors and editors.”

And so another one bites the dust…

By the way: I can't help noting that Leonard is only two years older than me. Meaning that when he and I were both college boys, he had the savvy and resourcefulness to kick off his Movie Guide franchise, while I was still scrounging for movie passes so I could write reviews for my campus paper. Well, it's nice to see that youthful hustling paid off for one of us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Jeffrey Wells: The gift that keeps on giving

This is kinda-sorta hilarious. Once again, Jeffrey Wells has gotten mad at me, and banished me from his site -- this time, because I dared to suggest he might be, ahem, racially insensitive. But here's the funny part: He also decided to delete all my comments from today's thread. Except: He neglected to delete a comment he made in response to one of my comments. So now he appears to be talking to someone who isn't there -- like Clint Eastwood conversing with an empty chair. You know, you'd think someone as terrified of aging as Jeffrey would not want anything out there that might indicate dementia on his part...


Friday, August 15, 2014

Les Chats Ninjas

Funnily enough, this film is not in the lineup for next month's Toronto International Film Festival. At least, not yet.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lauren Bacall was -- and forever will be -- one hot babe

OK, let me just throw a shamelessly non-P.C. admission right out on the table: I nursed a serious crush on the late, great Lauren Bacall for more years of Late Show viewing and home-video re-viewing than I would want to admit in polite company. Loved her impudent wit and sleek sultriness in The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo -- and, of course, To Have and Have Not.

Sure, I also enjoyed her graceful comic turn in How to Marry a Millionaire, her intensely dramatic performance in Written on the Wind, her campy villainy in Shock Treatment, and her dryly amusing cameos in Harper and Murder on the Orient Express. I even endured the wretched excess of The Fan because of the sporadic sparks she set off with co-star James Garner. But back in her 1940s heyday... well, let me put it like this: Even Bugs Bunny was not immune to her intoxicating charms. (Look around the 1:23 mark.)

Farewell, good lady. Hope you find Bogie waiting for you on the other side. I suspect you won't even have to whistle to beckon him.

Remembering Robin Williams

I have two vivid memories of Robin Williams – one funny, one less so.

The funny one: Very early in my TV junketing, back when I did segments for The Ron Stone Show in Houston, I got to do a sit-down with Williams. It was the typical set-up – I walked into the suite where he was already seated, eased into a chair opposite him, and started chatting while one videographer focused on him, and the other focused on me. 

Except that it was anything but typical when he started riffing – manically, hilariously – as soon as I asked my first question. I managed to ask, oh, I dunno, maybe three or four other questions, but it didn’t really matter – he was in inspired free-form mode, and maybe he felt even less inhibited than usual by my willingness to just go with his flow. (At one point, he encouraged one of the videographers to zoom in my embroidered sweater vest – “Look! It’s a test pattern!”) I kept getting all sorts of signals from the off-camera personnel – finger-twirling, palms swiped across necks, etc. – to cut it short. 

But, really, it wasn’t my fault that a 6-minute interview expanded to a quarter-hour. Indeed, it might have gone on even longer had I not simply looked into the camera and, in my most serious Walter Cronkite-type voice, asked: “At what point did I lose all control of this interview?” While Williams paused to laugh, the videographers grabbed their chance to stop taping.

The not-so-funny memory: At the San Francisco junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, I had the opportunity to do a one-on-one interview with Williams in his hotel suite. He was appreciably more serious – maybe he got the vibe that I wasn’t expecting him to perform for me? – and we veered off to a discussion of parental responsibility.

 Specifically: I told him that I had recently read an article that detailed how some new fathers – including guys who had never before cared much about firearms – felt the need to buy a handgun to “protect their families” after the arrival of a first child. (My son wasn’t yet two years old at the time.) And then I told him about a guy in Texas who had gunned down a martial arts instructor who had molested the guy’s na├»ve son.

 “And you know what?” I told Williams, speaking as one dad to another. “That motherfucker isn’t going to prison! That motherfucker is gonna walk!” (Which, as it turned out, is pretty much what happened.) Williams replied: “Damn right!” He wasn’t joking. He was approving. So both of us bleeding-heart liberals slapped palms – and then continued talking.


Robin Williams reportedly took his own life Monday, after years of struggling with depression and knowing the true color of darkness. During the coming days, weeks and years, we likely will be offered various and sundry “explanations” for his suicide. But, really, will anyone who hasn’t ever plumbed the depths he did – who  hasn’t, say, pressed the barrel of a gun to his forehead while fingering the trigger, or gazed at an oncoming subway train and considered tossing herself onto the tracks – ever know why he did what he did?

I feel wholly ill-equipped to offer easy explanations. Instead, I offer these snippets from a 1991 piece I wrote after interviewing Williams for Awakenings.


Some mornings, Robin Williams would walk into the Brooklyn mental hospital where he filmed Awakenings, take a long look and an even longer listen as he observed the patients on the first two floors, and think, ''Yeah, there but for the grace of God . . . ''

Williams has spoken freely of the alcohol and drugs he once abused and which he uses no more. He is only slightly less forthcoming when he speaks of a darkness that needs no chemical stimuli, of a rage that fueled so many of his stand-up comedy routines before, during and after his first mainstream success on television's Mork and Mindy.

When I spoke with him in 1988 during a junket for Good Morning, Vietnam, he admitted to a certain pride in ''my darker side,'' the aggressiveness that enabled him to deal with unruly crowds when the comedy wasn't working. Or even when it was. ''Performing stand-up,'' he said, ''is like being in the Roman arena. And the lion has had two beers.

''Sometimes, the audience is hostile. And I respond to that...''

But things are calmer, less frenetic, these days. Comparatively speaking.

Even now, Williams remains the Salvador Dali of stand-up comics when he takes over a stage. And his amazing gift for free-association comic riffs is every bit as impressive, even awe-inspiring, as ever. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling author whose experiments inspired Awakenings, served as the movie's technical adviser, and had ample opportunity to witness Williams' free-wheeling routines between takes. As Sacks describes it: ''There are things that other people might think, deep down in their subconscious, that they would never say. But with
Robin, there's all these wild things. They suddenly explode in him, these fantastic associations . . .

''There's something like these strange, surreal explosions in some people with Tourette's syndrome. There's an aspect of creativity in Robin that, in a strange way, is very much like the compulsiveness in people with Tourette's.''

But there's a big difference: These days, at least, Williams can turn off the compulsiveness when he wants to. If it's Tourette's, he and Sacks agree, then it's a self-willed Tourette's.

''Yes,'' Williams said during a recent Manhattan interview, ''when I met Shane, one of Sacks' patients, who really has Tourette's -- I felt a certain kinship. Sometimes, I, too, have the ability to kind of override the gland, or whatever it is, that would normally censor you. I drop that, the way Tourette's people do. I understand that. And I understand the same exhilaration they sometimes do.

''It's kind of like -- hah! -- like a comic savant. You know, all of a sudden, flashes of idiocy flash through me, and I don't censor it.

''But I can hold back sometimes. Shane can't.''

This self-control, Williams admits, is only recently acquired.  ''I do feel better about myself, more comfortable about who I am and what am I. Why? Well, I didn't go through heavy psychoanalysis, but, yeah, therapy, I talked to someone.

''And I have a good relationship,'' with his second wife, Marsha, a painter and sculptor with an academic background. (They have an infant daughter, Zelda.) ''It's a wonderful relationship, where I have freedom.  And when you have that as a baseline, you're all right.

''Especially,'' Williams added with a grin as he raised his thick, hairy arms, ''if you have someone who doesn't mind that you have Quest for Fire gloves on all the time.''

That's when you feel safe, Williams said -- safe enough to not be on all the time. Now, his cartwheeling comedy ''is not an aggressive thing anymore. Now, it's like a playful thing.

''There's much less of a mandatory feeling about it. It's not like it's a necessity -- I don't have to keep doing it to keep the world at bay. I can do it when I want, and then pull back, and talk about intimate things.''

Moviegoers got their first glimpse at the new and improved (and more self-controlled) Robin Williams last year in Dead Poets Society. Despite a few moments of inspired mimicry -- like, when he offered us John Wayne as Macbeth -- he played it mostly straight, and earned an Oscar nomination, as an iconoclastic teacher at a straight-laced prep school.

Actor-turned-director Penny Marshall was greatly impressed by Williams' performance. So much so, in fact, that she began to think of Williams for the role of Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a character based on Sacks, in a film based on Sacks' best-selling book, Awakenings.

''Someone sent me a clue,'' Williams said. ''They said, 'You'll be getting something very special in the mail.' And I said, 'Like what? Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes?'''

What it was, was the script for Awakenings, which offers a fictionalized gloss on Sacks' real-life attempts to ''reawaken'' patients who can neither move nor communicate by giving them an experimental drug. (Robert De Niro co-stars in the film as the most prominent of the patients.) Williams read the script during a long airplane trip. The second time he found himself weeping out loud, he knew he wanted to do the film.

And, better still, he knew Marshall wanted him to do it, to bring a warmly human dimension to the story.

''It's like, when she directed Big, she worked against the comedy,'' Williams said. ''With this, she played against the drama. There's something pretty instinctual about that, when you know that from the beginning, in order to make something as potentially depressing as this, you're going to have to, if possible, make it somewhat funny. In order to capture those moments in the hospital. In order to bring you into this world -- and then hit you with this world.

''I don't mean using me as a comedian, riffing on patients, like, 'Hi, there, welcome to Club Medicaid.' No. But to slowly unveil this world to people, and suck them into the story.''

Williams often is extremely funny in Awakenings. But the humor grows out of his character, a painfully shy, often absent-minded fellow who, when his patients are concerned, has a will of tempered steel. It's a beautifully restrained yet full-bodied performance, the work of an actor who has learned that, yes, sometimes, less really is more.

Surprisingly -- or, come to think of it, maybe not so surprisingly -- Williams did not find it at all difficult to convey the tongue-tied, introverted side of his role.

''Basically,'' he said, ''I was able to tap into the fact that, for the first 18 years of my life, I was like that. All the way up to my junior year of high school, I was pretty isolated. So I know that.

''People ask me, 'How did you get into this?' Well, I just remembered what it was like from 16 onward, being an only child, growing up in a huge house, all that stuff. With all that, you get a little shy, you get a little awkward about dealing with people.''

As a stand-up comic, of course, Williams discovered how to compensate for that childhood shyness. It took him a lot longer to discover how to stop compensating.

And when he talks about that, he recalls once again the days in the hospital where Awakenings was shot.

''And I knew, looking around me there, that there have been times in my life when I've been near that edge,'' Williams said. ''That point where, if you went a little bit more, just a tad, just slightly more unglued -- yeah, I'd be here.''


Postscript: One year later, during the junket for Toys – a film that I evidently liked much more than most of my critical brethren – Williams shared with me his concern about violent video games.

 ''What frightens me about video games, and television and computer games -- and, yes, I'm addicted to computers, I have a floppy disc and a hard drive -- but sometimes, I think they steal your dreams. If you play video games long enough, when you go to bed at night, you replay the game rather than dream. It denies you the access to something that's quite wonderful, and quite primal, the ability to dream.''

Worse, Williams says, some of the video games seem like high-tech nightmares.

''Have you seen some of these things? Especially the shoot-'em-up ones? There's one in the arcades that's called Hostage, where you have to pick off people in doorways. There's a lot of them like that, where, literally, the gun is there, and you learn to shoot it.

''I know you get negative points if you hit, like, a woman with a baby in her arms by mistake. But after a while, I'm sure there must be a temptation to just turn the gun and go wham!

''So I try to filter what games my kids play. Or at least make them more aware of what shooting and blowing up things really means. Like my father did with me. See, I used to collect toy soldiers as a kid. And at a certain point, my father sat me down and explained the horror of it to me, having been in the Navy on a carrier. He told me there's nothing glorious about war, there's nothing fun about it, nothing exciting about it.

''I disarmed after that day.''