Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lonesome Dove: 25 years later

As I have previously noted: In my other life, I am a cowboy. Specifically, a contributing editor for Cowboys & Indians, The Premier Magazine of the West. And I must admit: Some contributions are more fun to contribute than others.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the classic Lonesome Dove miniseries, I recently interviewed Australian filmmaker Simon Wincer, a droll raconteur who shared all sorts of colorful stories about directing the epic adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Larry McMurty novel.

But wait, there's more: I also got to write about Lonesome Dove co-stars Robert Duvall and Rick Schroeder (pictured above). And... well, I finally got a good excuse to rip the shrink-wrap off the long-on-my-shelf Blu-Ray of Lonesome Dove, and savor the miniseries in widescreen splendor on my high-def Vizio TV. Life is good.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Flashback: 'Blood in the Face'

Back in 1991, when Blood in the Face -- the powerful documentary now available on YouTube -- had its H-Town premiere at the Rice University Media Center, I wrote this:

Early in the remarkable documentary Blood in the Face, one of the interview subjects calmly explains his game plan for a better, more wholesome, less mongrelized America: ''Basically, shooting on sight everyone we think isn't white.''

But the cleanup campaign won't stop there. No, not by a long shot. After the non-whites, the non-Christians will be the next to go. And, mind you, most of the people interviewed in Blood in the Face have established very rigorous criteria to decide just who is and who isn't a Christian.

''We would define Jerry Falwell as a Jew,'' says one disarmingly calm but stern-faced knight in shining polyester, ''because he believes in Israel.'' 

Welcome to America's dark side, where racists, Nazis, ultra-rightists and paranoid paramilitarists give full vent to their hateful rantings. Filmmakers Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway spent a good portion of the late 1980s with their cameras and microphones trained on the ominous growth of radical-right organizations in America. Blood in the Face is the distillation of their extensive research and often chilling interviews. The film does not pass judgment, does not take sides. Rather, it allows its subjects to speak for themselves, to reveal the full scope of their xenophobic fury through their own words. 

 Blood in the Face sounds like the title of a horror movie, which it is. But here, the monsters wear sheets and swastikas. And, unfortunately, they don't disappear at dawn's first light.

As you watch this extraordinary film, I invite you to consider: How do you think some of the folks interviewed by the filmmakers reacted to the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections? Who do you think they are campaigning for these days?

And most important: How effectively are they now spreading their message with the Internet? 

You can read my complete 1991 review here

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Oscar nominees: Follow Jeremy Irons' example of classy, low-key campaigning

I remember laughing like a besotted hyena when I watched this a couple nights before he brought home the gold for Reversal of Fortune. (Hat-tip to Prepare to guffaw at the 2:20 mark.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

About Last Night -- NSFW PSA

I am really, really, really glad I actually looked at this faux public service announcement -- which is funny as hell -- before I showed it to my Broadcast and Film Writing students as a teaching-tool example of a PSA.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men is a worthy effort -- but was it inspired by The Victors?

According to the latest aggregation of opinions on Rotten Tomatoes, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men hasn’t fared very well with most of my critical brethren. But I find myself inclined to give it an appreciative thumb’s up, if not a full-throated roar of approval. And not just because, as a minor-league history buff, I am reflexively fascinated by accounts of efforts to retrieve art masterpieces plundered by Adolf Hitler’s minions during World War II.

Clooney’s movie – which really makes me want to take another look at the documentaries The Rape of Europa and The Architecture of Doom – is an intelligent and entertaining mix of stranger-than-fiction fact and respectfully plausible invention, adapted by Clooney and co-scriptwriter Grant Heslov from Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, And the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It’s a tale of unlikely heroes – art experts, most of them middle-aged American guys, charged with locating and saving stolen artworks even as war rages in Europe – and while it rarely crackles with suspense, it never fails to engross.

As director, Clooney displays uncommon generosity and conspicuous good taste, giving most of the juicy scenes and colorful dialogue to his co-stars – Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are among the notables performing far beyond the call of duty – and providing carefully calibrated comedic touches without ever undermining the seriousness of his true-life drama.

A few reviewers have described The Monuments Men as an old-fashioned wartime adventure, and I wouldn’t disagree with that appraisal. Keep in mind, though, that there’s more than one fashion that’s old. While some may liken it to a Hollywood crowd-pleaser of 1940s vintage, I thought Clooney's movie was structured and paced more like some episodic, star-studded international co-production of the 1950s or ‘60s. Oddly enough, there were times when it reminded me a lot of Carl Foreman’s 1963 anti-war drama The Victors – particularly when, as though taking his cue from Foreman’s film, Clooney makes potently ironic use of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Not that that's such a bad thing, you understand.

By the way: Just in case you’re interested, here (at the 3:45 mark) is how Foreman did it.

Friday, February 07, 2014

DMX to George Zimmerman: Die, motherfucker, die!

Does George Zimmerman really know what he's getting into when he gets in the ring with DMX? Maybe he should pay closer attention to the tune DMX and Eminem recorded for Cradle 2 the Grave.

Or maybe he shouldn't.

Yeah, that's right George: Go ahead and fight the guy. Then go to sleep...

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Coming soon to a theater near you: Life Itself, starring Roger Ebert

The good news about Life Itself comes to us from a Magnolia Pictures press release:

New York, NY (February 4, 2014) – The Wagner/Cuban Company's Magnolia Pictures announced today that they have acquired US theatrical, VOD and home entertainment rights to Life Itself, a documentary about the life of Roger Ebert directed by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters). A Kartemquin Films and Film Rites production in association with KatLei Productions, Life Itself premiered to critical acclaim at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Magnolia is eyeing a summer release, followed by an exclusive broadcast on CNN later this year, reprising a successful collaboration with CNN Films on the hit documentary Blackfish

Roger Ebert was a beloved national figure and arguably our best-known and most influential movie critic, and his passing in 2013 was deeply felt across the country. Based on his memoir of the same name, Life Itself recounts his fascinating and flawed journey — from politicized school newspaperman, to Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, to Pulitzer Prize winner, to television household name, to the miracle of finding love at 50, and finally his "third act" as a major voice on the Internet when he could no longer physically speak.

"Roger Ebert gets the tribute he deserves with Life Itself," said Magnolia President Eamonn Bowles. "Steve James has done a beautiful job capturing Rogers complexity and energy in a loving but wonderfully clear-eyed portrait."

"Magnolia is the perfect partner for bringing this film on such a seminal figure in film to the big screen," said Steve James. "Roger's story deserves it."

My only worry: Since Mark Cuban, owner of Magnolia, also own the Dallas Mavericks -- does that mean I now have to root for the Mavs even when they play against my beloved Houston Rockets? I mean, I loved Roger and everything, but damn...

R.I.P.: Christopher Jones (1941-2014)

This is kinda-sorta embarrassing for me to admit, but the death of actor Christopher Jones at age 72 last Friday slipped right under my radar. Maybe it was because his passing was overshadowed by the weekend deaths of Maximilian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Or maybe his demise simply didn't get much publicity because, unfortunately, it had been a long time since many people gave much thought to what Jones did while he was alive.

For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Jones was one of several broodingly handsome hunks who were hyped as likely heirs to the late James Dean during the two decades or so following that legendary screen icon's death at age 24 in a 1955 auto crash. After attracting attention in The Legend of Jesse James, a 1965-66 TV Western, the Tennessee-born Jones graduated to motion pictures with starring roles in Chubasco (1967), opposite Susan Strasberg (to whom he was married briefly); Three in the Attic (1968), a wink-wink, nudge-nudge comedy in which he played a faithless stud who's captured and, ahem, erotically exploited by three vengeful lovers; and The Looking Glass War (1969), a John le Carre-inspired spy thriller best remembered (by those who remember it at all) as an early showcase for supporting player Anthony Hopkins.

Three in the Attic was a minor box-office hit -- successful enough for its distributor, American International Pictures, to follow up with the totally unrelated Up in the Cellar (1970) -- but none of these films generated nearly as much critical and audience interest as Wild in the Streets, the 1968 cult-fave political satire in which Jones quite impressively played Max Frost, a megalomaniacal rock star who contrives to become President of the United States -- and then ships everyone over 30 into reeducation camps. The frankly absurd but arrestingly outlandish dramedy has always had a special place in my heart -- it was the first movie I ever reviewed for a professional publication, while I was still in high school -- but it's also fondly remembered by many other folks my age and younger, primary for Jones' moody-menacing lead performance, an early appearance by Richard Pryor in a supporting role, and a soundtrack that includes the defiant youth-rebellion anthem "Shape of Things to Come" (which, believe it or not, was co-opted for use in a Target TV commercial a few years ago).

After the surprise success of Wild in the Streets, Jones started to be taken seriously as, if not the Second Coming of James Dean, an actor of considerable promise. So seriously, in fact, that no less an auteur than David Lean cast him as a shell-shocked British solider who has a tempestuous affair with the neglected young wife (Sarah Miles) of a middle-aged Irish schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum) in the epic 1970 romantic drama Ryan's Daughter. Unfortunately, the movie was trashed by critics -- even though, as I recall, it was much better than its reputation indicated -- and ignored by audiences. Lean didn't get another movie off the ground (A Passage to India) for 14 years.

As for Jones, whose performance was not viewed as one of the film's saving graces -- well, depending on which story you want to believe, he was traumatized by the violent 1969 death of actress Sharon Tate (with whom he had an affair), or he realized he really hated acting, or he couldn't get arrested after Ryan's Daughter, or all of the above. In any event, he walked away from show business, and retreated into obscurity. Quentin Tarantino tried to lure him of retirement with the role of Zed in Pulp Fiction, but Jones passed on the offer. He resurfaced briefly in 1996, when he played a minor role in the little-seen Mad Dog Time. But that, as they say, was that.

Because sometimes the magic happens, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you aim to be -- or other people groom you to be -- the next James Dean. And sometimes, when you pass away, even people who half-remember your best work will instinctively think: "Wow. I thought he died years ago." Such is life.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Cargo: A zombie movie for people who hate zombie movies

Not one shot wasted, not one word of dialogue needed. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cargo, a short film by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke -- two people I suspect we'll be hearing a lot more about in the very near future. (Warning: If you're the parent of a very young child, this is guaranteed to make your flesh creep.)

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Life imitates art?

Philip Seymour Hoffman -- a great actor, an artist gifted with astonishing range -- was found dead today in New York, reportedly due to a drug overdose. And I must admit: My first thought was this scene from Sidney Lumet's final feature, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. A movie I know I'll never be able to view again without thinking about a brilliant light extinguished all too soon.

By the way, I would prefer to always remember Hoffman for this scene:

And, yes, of course, since it echoed the advice I once received from a long-departed friend and mentor, this one: