Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top Ten of 2015

To begin, as I do every year, with my standard disclaimer: This may be my list of the Top 10 Movies of 2015 – but it’s not necessary a rundown of the year’s 10 Best Movies. Because, quite frankly, I haven’t seen every single movie released anywhere in the U.S. during the past 12 months. But this most certainly is a list of my favorite films to open in U.S. theaters in 2015.

These are, of course, purely arbitrary and totally subjective choices. And I’ll freely admit that, a decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2015 releases that impressed me most. And best. So there.

In alphabetical order:

Assassination -- Choi Dong-hoon's thrilling period drama, set in 1933 Korea during the Japanese occupation, is a sensationally entertaining mash-up of historical drama, Dirty Dozen style shoot-‘em-up, Spaghetti Western-flavored flamboyance, and extended action set pieces that suggest a dream-team collaboration of Sergio Leone, John Woo and Steven Spielberg. Wowser.

Best of Enemies -- A thoroughly engrossing and surprisingly entertaining documentary about the notorious 1968 televised clash between conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal gadfly Gore Vidal. It's fascinating as a glimpse at the not so distant past -- and provocative as an account of what arguably was an early step in the decline of political discourse on television.

The Big Short -- Adam McKay's brutally brilliant dramedy about the catastrophic 2008 financial meltdown is by turns hilarious and horrifying, amusing and infuriating. Call it the year's most essential movie, and you won't get an argument from me.

The Hateful Eight -- Quentin Tarantino's shamelessly overstated and immensely entertaining revisionist Western truly is a movie with something to offend everyone. But it's also a balls-out masterwork of robustly impolite swagger.

I Believe in Unicorns -- Filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff's debut feature is a sensitively observed and arrestingly impressionistic coming-of-age drama that feels at once deeply personal and easily accessible. But wait, there's more: Natalia Dyer gives an unforgettable performance as a fantasy-prone teen who falls for a bad boy (Peter Vack) laden with emotional baggage.

Spotlight -- The very best movie about investigative journalism since All the President's Men? Absolutely.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- A wonderment, pure and simple.

Steve Jobs -- Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin elicited many comparisons to Citizen Kane with their stylistically audacious and dramatically compelling film about the complex and controversial Apple co-founder. And with good reason: Much like Orson Welles' classic, their multifaceted portrait reminds us that some people, no matter how much we discover about them, will forever remain elusively unknowable.   

Trainwreck -- Judd Apatow strikes again -- and, better still, launches Amy Schumer's movie stardom -- in a wild and crazy rom-com (which Schumer scripted) that deftly balances uproarious R-rated hilarity and stealthily endearing sincerity.

Youth -- Michael Caine very likely has other great performances left to give, because he is, after all, Michael Caine. But it is difficult (albeit not impossible) to imagine that any of those performances will be greater than the one he gives in Paolo Sorrentino's exquisitely crafted and profoundly affecting drama as Fred Ballinger, an 80-something retired composer-conductor who discovers, much to his surprise, he continues to derive fresh satisfaction from his art -- and his life. 

Runners-up, in no particular order: Brooklyn, The Lesson, All Things Must Pass, The Revenant, Slow West, Bone Tomahawk, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, Inside Out and The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of County Music.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Happy 120th Birthday, Cinema!

On December 28, 1895, cinema in projected form was presented for the first time to a paying audience by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere (pictured above), owners of a photographic studio in Lyons. They went to Paris to demonstrate their cinématographe -- the name they'd given their combination camera and projector -- by showcasing short films they had shot with their hand-cranked innovation.

According to legend: At the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines, a man stood outside the building all day on December 28, handing out programs to passers-by. But cold weather kept many people from stopping. As a result, only 33 tickets were sold for the first show.

When the lights went down that evening in a makeshift theater in the basement of the Grand Café, a white screen was lit up with a photographic projection showing the doors of the Lumiere factory in Lyon. Without warning, the factory doors were flung open, releasing a stream of workers... and, wonder of wonders, everything moved. The audience was stunned.

This first film was entitled La sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). Ten more short scenes followed, each reel roughly 17 meters in length, including Baby's Dinner (kinda-sorta the first home movie by proud parents, later echoed by Spike Lee in Lumiere & Company) and The Sprinkler Sprinkled (arguably the first slapstick comedy, involving a man, his garden hose and a practical joker).

Within a week, with no advertising but word of mouth, more than 2,000 spectators visited the Grand Café each day, each paying the admission price of one franc. The crowds were so huge, police had to be called in to maintain order. The age of cinema had begun. Vive le cinema.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Next summer: Independence Day: Resurgence

Glad to see Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch and Brent Spiner back in the mix. And Sela Ward always is a welcome addition to any cast. I just hope Pullman gets as stirring a speech in this one as he did in the original Independence Day.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Coming soon: The Legend of Tarzan

First, The Green Hornet kicked his ass. Then, James Bond messed him up. And now it looks like Tarzan will be the latest hero to bitch slap Christoph Waltz. I hope the poor guy is getting well paid for all this.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

TV Alert: Thanksgiving morning on MSNBC

When it's Thanksgiving, we think of turkeys, right? Which might explain why MSNBC has asked me to come on between 8:30 and 9 am CST Thanksgiving Day to talk about holiday movies -- like, among other others, Creed. Better get that DVR warmed up now.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Caine + Colbert = Cool

I have seen and read dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews with Michael Caine. (I have even conducted one or two of them.) And I must say: Stephen Colbert's 11/21 chat with Sir Michael ranks with one of the very best. My only complaint: Too short. Maybe they'll talk again after Sir Michael lands his Oscar nomination for Youth?

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Here's my latest ploy to exploit Star Wars: The Force Awakens for blog traffic

A shameless confession: Carrie Fisher still looks pretty smoking hot to me. Of course, my wife still gets all swoony when she sees Harrison Ford, so I guess it all averages out.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

R.I.P.: Fred Dalton Thompson (1942-2015)

It could be argued that politician-turned-actor (and failed Presidential candidate) Fred Dalton Thompson more or less played himself each time he stepped before the cameras for a film or TV role. Indeed, he actually did play Fred Dalton Thompson in Marie, Roger Donaldson's fact-based 1985 drama about Marie Ragghianti, the former head of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles who lost her job after refusing to play along with corrupt superiors. Sissy Spacek played Ragghianti, while Thompson, in a bold stroke of casting, appeared as Ragghianti's attorney, Fred Dalton Thompson. Not surprisingly, Thompson was very convincing in his role. Very surprisingly, he proved to be a natural-born actor, earning respectful reviews for his ability to effortlessly convey homespun wisdom and moral authority, attributes that would facilitate his enjoying an improbably successful. decades-long acting career.

Before Marie, Thompson -- who died of lymphoma Sunday in Nashville at age 73 -- was best known for his role in another real-life drama. As a minority counsel to Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, he was the one who famously asked, during a nationally televised 1973 hearing, former White House aide Paul Butterfield: "Mr. Butterfield, were you aware of the existence of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the President?" Which, of course, signaled the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon's presidency.

In 1994, Thompson re-entered the history books by getting elected in Tennessee to finish the Senate term of Al Gore, who had vacated his seat to serve as vice-president. By that time, Thompson already had established himself as a journeyman character actor in a variety of film and TV gigs -- including No Way Out, Days of Thunder and The Hunt for Red October -- that came his way in the wake of Marie

But it was not until after he left the Senate in 2002 that Thompson landed his signature role: Arthur Branch, the firm but fair-minded (and unabashedly conservative) Manhattan district attorney who occasionally clashed (though never for very long) with his more left-leaning ADA, Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), in Law & Order. Thompson played Branch for five seasons, both in the "mothership series" and its various spin-offs (Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, etc.). And while the part certainly did nothing to enhance his stature during the 2008 Presidential campaign -- he was an early flame-out in the race for the GOP nomination -- it did solidify his image as a blunt-spoken authority figure with a disarmingly folksy manner, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a steel-spined, rock-ribbed determination to do the right thing.

I have no doubt that some of my snarkier colleagues will mark the occasion of Thompson's passing to make rude comments about his thwarted political ambitions, his sideline as a TV commercial spokesperson for reverse mortgages and, most unfairly, his allegedly limited range as an actor. Fine. But this bleeding-heart Leftie would prefer to remember Thompson as a reliable workhorse who consistently managed, especially in his later years, to infuse major and minor roles with an air of no-frills gravitas and, yes, a sense of moral authority, without ever spilling over into sanctimoniousness. He didn't grandstand, he didn't (well, OK, hardly ever) steal scenes. Rather, like a classic character actor, he served his characters, and the movies in which they were contained, very well.

Two recent examples: In The Last Ride (2012), a fanciful indie drama about the last days of Hank Williams (Henry Thomas), Thompson appeared fleetingly but effectively as Williams' stressed manager, economically but vividly conveying the profoundly mixed emotions of those who knew and loved but frequently were driven to distraction by the self-destructive country music star.

More recently, Thompson co-starred in 90 Minutes in Heaven (2015), his final film, a faith-based drama based on Baptist minister Don Piper's account of his near-death experience. For a lengthy stretch of the film, as he recovers from horrific injuries sustained in an auto mishap, Piper (Hayden Christensen) is wracked by near-constant pain, beset by bouts of depression (at one point, he stops trying to breathe on his own), and bedeviled by guilt and shame as he feels altogether unworthy of the prayers and attention paid by family and friends. As I wrote in my Variety review: "[I]t  takes a stern tough-love admonishment from an old friend and fellow pastor (played by Fred Dalton Thompson with all the authority he conveyed during his years as a D.A. on TV’s Law and Order) before Piper begins to realize that he’s doing the people who care about him a grave disservice by hindering or repulsing their efforts to provide support and encouragement. Yea, verily: When Thompson issues his soft-spoken but straightforward warning — 'You really need to get your act together!' — his words have the impact of divine revelation."

I am sure there are lots of other actors -- "real" actors, versatile guys who get nominated for Oscars and other glittering prizes -- who could have played that scene just as well as Thompson. But, truth to tell, I can't think of many who could have done it better.

Fred Dalton Thompson was an under-rated, ever-dependable professional. He'll be missed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tab Hunter returns to MFAH -- sort of -- in The Loved One

When Tab Hunter was in Houston last summer for the QFest screening of Tab Hunter Confidential at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I was fortunate enough to be included among the invitees at a private brunch where the semi-retired '50s heartthrob was the guest of honor. We chatted about various aspects of his stage and screen career, including his co-starring stint apposite Tallulah Bankhead in the ill-starred 1964 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (a play eventually filmed in 1968 by director Joseph Losey as Boom!, an equally ill-starred Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle). The production was a resounding flop, but Hunter continues to speak highly, and respectfully, of its director, the late Tony Richardson.

Hunter credits Richardson -- who also directed Tom Jones, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and several other notable films -- for tossing him a lifeline during a low point in his career during the early 1960s. As he notes in his autobiography:

"Just when it seemed I might never make another movie, Tony Richardson came to the rescue. He'd been hired to adapt Evelyn Waugh's black comedy [novel] about the mortuary business, The Loved One, He stocked the cast with stars in cameo roles. Mine was only two days' work, playing a cemetery tour guide.

"How oddly fitting, considering that my movie career was dead."

Unfortunately, Hunter had to wait a few years -- until 1981, when John Waters cast him opposite Divine in Polyester -- before he made anything resembling a movie comeback. The Loved One, aptly advertised as "The motion picture with something to offend everyone," was roasted by critics and ignored by moviegoers during its initial theatrical run in 1965, and did precious little for the careers of Robert Morse, Rod Steiger and everyone else involved. 

But when I first saw The Loved One, when I was around 13 years old, I thought it was absolutely hilarious. (Yeah, I was a weird kid.) Subsequent reviewings during my adulthood have only reinforced my original impression that it was a movie way ahead of its time. (Steiger, it should be noted, seemed genuinely amused years ago when I told him during an interview how much I enjoyed his performance as Mr. Joyboy, a flamboyant mortician with mother issues.) Indeed, I am pleased to see that The Loved One has gained an admiring cult following over the years, and is periodically screened in classy venues like... well, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it will be presented at 7 pm. Monday, Oct. 26

Take a look at the trailer, and tell me, honestly: How could you possibly not want to see this one?

Obama does Grumpy Cat

President Obama obviously is taking my advice and preparing for a profitable post-White House career doing stand-up in Las Vegas. No longer content merely to crack jokes and sing, he's expanding his repertoire to do impressions. Seriously: Here he is doing Grumpy Cat yesterday at the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Let's see Rich Little top that. (Hat-tip to Talking Points Memo.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pimping for blog traffic once again by putting Star Wars in a headline

I just went on line to purchase my luxury-reclining-chair tickets for a Dec. 18 opening-night 3D screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Houston iPic Theater. Because that's how I roll.

BTW: In the highly unlikely event you haven't already seen it, here's the trailer.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Here's the poster for the new Star Wars movie and... Wait! Where the hell is Mark Hamill?

Is he the dude in the funny helmet next to Harrison Ford and just below R2-D2 and C-3PO? Damned if I know. But I can tell you that tickets go on sale for the eagerly awaited (yes, even by me) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Star Wars VII, or whatever they've going to wind up actually calling it) Monday at the classy new iPic Theater here in Houston, and presumably at other theaters and drive-ins here and everywhere else it's set to open Dec. 18. Now where did I put my Visa card? 

But wait, there's more: A new trailer is supposed to be unveiled during tomorrow's Monday Night Football matchup between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles on ESPN. Funnily enough, that's right around the time I will be screening Casablanca for my Art of Filmmaking students at Houston Community College. Looks like I better set my DVR right now.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Remembering Ed Lauter

Ed Lauter passed away two years ago today -- but I still keep his last voice mail message to me on my cellphone. Mind you, I don't listen to it very often, for fear I will do something clumsy and stupid and wind up erasing it. But I must confess: I do occasionally listen, just to enjoy the sheer enthusiasm in his voice as he expressed his hope "to be lifting a glass" with me "sometime soon" after I introduced him and Edward Burns' The Fitzgerald Family Christmas at the 2012 Starz Denver Film Festival.

As I wrote on Oct. 16, 2013:

Among the most pleasant experiences I have enjoyed in recent years was a long, leisurely lunch with Ed Lauter, one of my all-time-favorite character actors, last November at the Starz Denver Film Festival. For the better part of two hours before we engaged in an on-stage, post-screening Q&A after the Denver Fest premiere of Ed Burns' delightful The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we chatted about the highlights of our respective careers -- and he was graciously polite enough to indicate he found my anecdotes almost as interesting as his.

Mind you, it wasn't like we were in any sort of "Can you top this?" competition. Because, really, what could I possibly say that could top his account of being cast by Alfred Hitchcock in Family Plot after The Master of Suspense spotted him in The Longest Yard ? Lauter impressed Hitchcock so much that he was set to co-star in The Short Night, Hitchcock's next film -- the film, alas, Hitchcock didn't live to make.

Lauter passed away Wednesday at age 74, leaving behind a body of work that ranges from The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) and French Connection II (1975) to The Artist (2011) and Trouble With the Curve (2012). "When I first started out,” he said in Denver, “I always thought, ‘Oh, I want to work with this great actor, or that great director.’ All these wonderful dinosaurs. Well, now I’ve become one of those dinosaurs, I guess.” I would be a liar if I didn't admit I felt immensely flattered when he told me that, because I'd singled him out for special praise in my Variety review of Fitzgerald Family Christmas, I'd helped get him "back in the game." I just wish he'd stuck around to play a little longer.

So what will I do with the voice mail message? Well, I am reminded of an episode of another all-time favorite, Harry O, the 1974-76 TV series starring the late, great David Janssen as private eye Harry Orwell. In the Feb. 27, 1975 episode titled "Elegy for a Cop," Harry's buddy on on the San Diego police force, Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow), is killed by drug dealers. Harry brings the culprits to justice but, in his typical melancholy fashion, he remains seriously bummed by the death of his friend. So he goes to his favorite bar, and asks his favorite bartender to keep a bottle of his favorite whiskey -- which he has purchased, for an inflated price -- on a shelf for easy access. Says Harry:  

"Every once in a while, somebody will come in here – and you’ll see that you like ‘em right away. Because they’re decent, and just good people. So give ‘em a drink out of this bottle. It doesn’t matter whether they have money or not. Tell 'em the drink’s on Manny Quinlan. Maybe they’ll remember him. If you feel like it, tell 'em he was a friend of mine."

The bartender readily agrees, but asks: "What’ll I do when the bottle runs out?"
"Nothing," Harry wistfully responds, clinking his glass in a toast against the side of the bottle. "Nobody lives forever."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

First there was King Kong vs. Godzilla. Now... Godzilla vs. Kong?

I have no idea why they've changed the billing for the new flick, Godzilla vs. Kong, which was announced today as a project set for 2020 release. (Wow! Just five years to wait!) But I have to ask myself: Can the new and presumably improved (as far as special effects go) monster mash be anywhere near as entertaining as the original 1963 mega-smackdown?

Hail and farewell: Philip Wuntch

When I landed a gig as all-purpose writer/critic for the arts and entertainment department of The Dallas Morning News in 1979, Philip Wuntch already was comfortably ensconced as the paper's film critic. Of course, I wanted his job. And, of course, he knew it.

But here's the thing: Philip -- who passed away Monday at age 70 -- was so comfortable and confidant in his position, and with ample reason, that he viewed me not so much as a rival as a resource. And so he was impossibly decent to me, encouraging me to serve more or less as his backup -- when I wasn't busy backing up the theater critic, the TV critic, the dance critic, etc. -- by allowing me to review the movies he had neither time nor interest to review. This meant that, while he concentrated on the major releases by the big studios -- and wrote, among many other memorable pieces, one of the very best reviews of Raging Bull I recall reading during that classic's initial theatrical run -- I got to review the B-movies and exploitation flix at one extreme, and documentaries and other art-house fare at the other. Seriously: It was not uncommon for me to review, say, the original Friday the 13th and then, just a few days later. cover the latest Ingmar Bergman opus. I am not absolutely sure about this, but I think that because of Philip's laissez-faire  attitude, my review of Francois Truffaut's The Green Room got bigger play in the Morning News than any other U.S. critic got for his or her review  back in the day. 

In short: Philip -- who was film critic at the Morning News for a staggering 37 years -- is one of the handful of people I can thank for my having any kind of career as a film critic. And I would like to think he was so kind to me, so supportive of me, because he recognized in me someone who loved movies as much as he did. And trust me: He loved movies. A lot. To pay him the highest compliment I can imagine: He left this world a more entertaining place than it might have been without him in it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Revival Preview: The Glass Wall at MFAH

My friend and University of Houston colleague Garth Jowett has always been a connoisseur of film noir, so if he says Maxwell Shane's The Glass Wall is the real deal, I'm inclined to believe him. The 1953 drama will be screened at 5 pm Sunday (Oct. 4) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Jowett will be on hand to offer what I'm sure will be a pithy introduction. How am I sure? Because he's already provided this pith for the MFAH website:

"The seldom-seen film noir The Glass Wall features issues that struggling immigrants faced when finding refuge in the United States after WWII. In his first American film, popular Italian actor Vittorio Gassman plays Peter, a concentration-camp survivor who stows away on a ship to New York in search of an American paratrooper he saved during the war. The immigration authorities give him 24 hours to find the man, known only as a jazz musician named Tom, before sending him back to Europe.The director follows Gassman on the gritty streets of New York, and captures the increased desperation of this Holocaust survivor as the deadline for finding Tom nears. A superb urban thriller, The Glass Wall fully captures a moment in time when many victims of the war were trying to enter the United States."

But wait, there's more: Here's what Nathaniel Thompson had to say about The Glass Wall on the Turner Classic Movies website:

"A cross between a dark chase thriller and picaresque view of urban Americana with a colorful gallery of characters, The Glass Wall is a slightly darker view of the ideals behind Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty than usual. It also features a major setpiece shot on location at the United Nations well before Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), while the presence of noir regular Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat [1953], In a Lonely Place [1950]) ensures its thriller pedigree as well. The supporting cast teems with familiar faces from a variety of postwar entertainment venues, most prominently the key role of the elusive Tom played by Jerry Paris, the TV actor-turned-director who gained fame as Rob Petrie's neurotic neighbor Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show; he subsequently went behind the camera for numerous television shows as well as an oddball assortment of feature films including the hip Jacqueline Bisset vehicle The Grasshopper (1970) and one of the last traditional romantic comedies, 1968's How Sweet It Is!

"Also noteworthy in the gallery of New Yorkers is stuntwoman-turned-actress Ann Robinson (best known for her leading role in George Pal's The War of the Worlds, 1953), busy character actor Joe Turkel (who went on to immortality in the 1980s as Tyrell in Blade Runner [1982] and Lloyd the ghostly bartender in The Shining [1980]) , colorful Douglas Spencer (also seen in memorable supporting roles in Shane [1953] and This Island Earth [1955]), and a young, briefly-spotted Kathleen Freeman, a seasoned TV actress who went on to earn a Tony Award for The Full Monty while becoming a reliable comedic supporting player in films like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Innerspace (1987).

"The film's director and co-writer, Maxwell Shane, was more prolific as a screenwriter than an auteur; however, the strong affinity for urban thrillers he displays here also carried over into two mysteries adapted from cult writer Cornell Woolrich (1947's Fear in the Night and 1956's wonderfully surreal Nightmare). He had written numerous programmers (mainly horror and westerns) in the 1940s, but the small handful of films he actually directed indicate a strong aesthetic sense he sadly left behind in favor of TV."

Even while toiling in television, however, Shane managed to distinguish himself: He wrote seven episodes of M Squad, arguably the most badass half-hour in TV history, a brutally efficient cop show that had Lee Marvin jumping out his car and shooting at people during the freakin' opening credits every week. Since Count Basie did the theme for the series, I'm sure Jowett -- who's also a jazz aficionado -- has pithy things to say about that curio, too.

Friday, September 25, 2015

His name is Smith. Sam Smith. And he sings the terrific new theme song for Spectre

"I'm prepared for this," Sam Smith sings -- sounding somewhere in that midnight-blue middle ground between assured and apprehensive. "I never shoot to miss." OK, that part sounds aptly James Bondian enough. But then Smith hits us with his best shot -- "For you I have to risk it all -- 'cause the writing's on the wall!" -- and it's clear that the folks behind Spectre, the new 007 action-adventure opening Nov. 6, are signaling that this time, maybe, Bond will... well, maybe let his guard down a bit?

(Of course, the last time 007 really let his guard down was in On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- and that didn't turn out too well, did it?)

"Writing's On The Wall" was co-written by Smith and fellow Grammy Award winner Jimmy Napes, and I have to say after, oh, I dunno, about a dozen or listens, that it strikes me as one of the very best Bond themes ever. But don't take my word for it. Starting today, you can downstream it here and/or buy it here.

"This is one of the highlights of my career," Smith says of his involvement in the Bondwagon. "I am so excited to be a part of this iconic British legacy and join an incredible line up of some of my biggest musical inspirations. I hope you all enjoy the song as much as I enjoyed making it."

Spectre producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli are equally -- and appropriately -- upbeat. "Sam and Jimmy have written the most inspirational song for Spectre," they said in a prepared statement timed to the song's Friday release, "and with Sam's extraordinary vocal performance, 'Writing's On The Wall' will surely be considered one of the greatest Bond songs of all time."

By the way: This is the first 007 theme recorded by a major British solo artist since 1965 -- way back when Tom Jones went ballistic with Thunderball.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

R.I.P.: Marcin Wrona (1973-2015)

Just a few days after his third feature, Demon, had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona died -- at the ridiculously young age of 42 -- Friday. I reviewed his film in Toronto for Variety, and while it was, I admit, a mixed review, Wrona liked it enough to blurb part of it in a Tweet. (Yes, the same quote that appears in his Variety obit.) You can judge the supernatural drama for yourself this week if you're attending Fantastic Fest in Austin. But I must admit: I am not thinking of the film right now so much as the fact that man who made it... well, as I said, was only 42 when he passed away. In other words, young enough to be my son.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls... 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Trailer Park: Labyrinth of Lies

At last year's Toronto Film Festival, I had the privilege of reviewing Giulio Ricciarelli's Labyrinth of Lies, an intelligent and arresting fact-based drama about an ambitious German prosecutor's efforts to build cases against Nazi war criminals several years after World War II. The film -- which has been chosen as Germany's entry in the Best Foreign Film category of this year's Academy Awards -- opens soon in U.S. thaters. Here is a look at the trailer -- which, I am shamelessly proud to note, blurbs my original Variety notice.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Take 40: Toronto International Film Festival

Thought I might not make it back this year, but here I am: All ready to start viewing and reviewing when the press screenings start bright and early tomorrow morning. A sobering thought: I have already attended three-quarters of all the festivals in the history of the Toronto International Fim Festival. I'm keeping my fingers crossed so I'll make it to the 50th annual event. And beyond.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Remembering Wes Craven and his Nightmare

As a tribute to horror icon Wes Craven, the master manipulator who scared us silly with the franchise-spawning A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), I am offering the following feature story based on an interview I conducted with the filmmaker at the 1994 Toronto Film Festival in conjunction with the world premiere of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.

At the time, I was quite impressed with the movie, which I described in my original Variety review as an ingeniously conceived and devilishly clever film that proved Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) wasn't so aptly named after all. But I was even more impressed by the blunt-spoken, self-deprecating candor displayed by Craven — who passed away Sunday at age 76 – as he discussed his reasons for returning to the franchise, and some of the real-life inspirations for his on-screen horror stories.

Some horror masters look so innocuous, so respectable, so absolutely normal, it's hard to believe they're capable of unleashing blood-and-thunder bogeymen.

Clive Barker, the author and sometime filmmaker who gave us Hellraiser and Night Breed, is a boyishly handsome and cheerful fellow who wouldn't appear out of place as the hero's best friend in some British-produced comedy of manners. David Cronenberg, the eccentric auteur of Scanners, Videodrome and the 1986 remake of The Fly, has the bookish, button-down demeanor of someone who might specialize in quantum physics or international economics.

On the other hand, there's Wes Craven. You take one look at this guy, with his vaguely sinister beard, his mischievously twinkling eyes, his wicked smile of complicity with every dirty trick in the book -- you see all of that, and you figure, ''Yeah, this guy would love to scare the hell out of you.''

And he's the first to admit that, yes, he would. With no apologies whatsoever.

Which was a major part Craven's motivation for returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to write and direct a follow-up to his 1984 shocker, A Nightmare on Elm Street. That was the film in which audiences got their first glimpse of Freddy Krueger, the fire-scarred, razor-fingered fiend who, over the course of five sequels, became a perversely popular cult figure.

Three years ago, the character was decisively destroyed in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. In Hollywood, however, nothing is ever really final. That's why there now is something called Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

''When they first approached me to do to a new film,'' Craven recalled during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, ''the initial injunction from New Line Cinema was, 'We were maybe thinking about making one more Freddy film, but we kind of killed him off. Do you have any ideas how we might bring him back?'''

So it was the creative challenge that brought Craven back to the horror series he had abandoned years earlier? ''Well,'' Craven admitted with a chuckle, ''there also were some very tangible business aspects that made it a very sweet proposition…

''But,'' the filmmaker quickly added, ''the problem was — and all of us agreed on this — we didn't want to make one where we just said, 'Oh, (Freddy's Dead ) was only a dream — he's really still alive.' So, the challenge was to figure out how to do a film about Freddy where the audience wouldn't hoot us out of the theater.

''And at first, I didn't have a clue, really, how to do it.''

Craven, a 55-year-old Cleveland, Ohio, native, made his filmmaking debut in 1972 with The Last House on the Left, a blood-soaked exploitation movie that received serious critical attention from, among other people, Roger Ebert. He followed that with an equally violent drama, The Hills Have Eyes (1977), then lightened up a bit with a tongue-in-cheek comic-book adventure, Swamp Thing (1982).

After A Nightmare on Elm Street, he continued to illuminate horror stories with flashes of dark comedy in such films as Deadly Friend (1986), Shocker(1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).

In making another sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven hoped ''to honestly explain to myself why I felt so generally positive about making scary films, and why so much of the audience felt so positive, even while, at the same time, these movies seem to upset so many people.'' As a result, pre-production planning involved a fair amount of self-analysis.

Craven forced himself to consider some traumatic events from his childhood — ''A divorce, an abusive situation in the family, drinking, a scary father, things like that.'' At the same time, he also paid attention to the real-life horrors that are major attractions on TV newscasts.

''And I had this realization that, when I make films, usually, on the floor of the sound stage, we're all laughing. And I'm feeling great. And the audiences that I see coming out of my films often are giggling, or really excited and laughing. I've never seen anybody coming out of one of my films where they've looked beaten down, or really depressed, or like they're going to go out and kill themselves.

''What I think stories like (Nightmare on Elm Street ) do is, they somehow put a shape and face on the things that terrify us. Things from our memories, or simply from real life out there... And this gives us a sense of control about things. It's like, look, here's a story that's being told by another human, about the things that frighten us the most, whatever they are.''

Craven got his latest inspiration for new and improved ways to scare people while lunching with actress Heather Langenkamp, the resourceful heroine of the first Nightmare movie. Langenkamp described her unpleasant experiences involving harassing phone calls from an obsessed fan. Craven sympathized. But he also recognized the dramatic possibilities.

Shortly afterward, Craven said, ''I just had a dream in which Freddy was sort of going through this cocktail party with all these different people that I knew. And he was talking and cracking jokes and everything. And I was thinking, 'See, this is the problem with Freddy — he's become too familiar.'

''But then I saw this very shadowy, very dark Freddy shape in the back, behind the curtains. And I was aware that this was something quite separate from Robert (Englund, the actor who played Freddy). Yet it was in the same general shape. That's when I realized in the dream that this was the original thing that had inspired me to construct Freddy as a character in the first place.''

The next day, Craven started working on his screenplay for New Nightmare, a devilishly clever and amusingly self-referential thriller.

Craven's audacious conceit is that his first Nightmare on Elm Street and the five sequels made by other directors were works of fiction that inadvertently summoned, and briefly contained, a real supernaturally evil force. Unfortunately, after Freddy was killed off in 1991's Final Nightmare, the evil force was freed to wreak havoc — while still in the form of Freddy — on an unsuspecting world.

And that, Craven explains while playing himself in the movie's funniest sequence, is why he simply must make another Nightmare movie. It's the only way he can save humanity. Really.

Craven isn't the only returnee from the first film. Heather Langenkamp also is on hand, typecast to perfection as Heather Langenkamp, an actress with a cult following for her performance in Nightmare on Elm Street.

Ten years later, Langenkamp still is on good terms with her Nightmare co-stars (including Robert Englund and John Saxon, also cast as themselves). But she's reluctant to appear in a brand-new Nightmare sequel.

Unfortunately, even though she wants no part of another Freddy flick, Freddy Krueger — or, to be more precise, the real-life monster who has assumed Freddy's form — just won't stay out of her life. And her dreams.

''Right from the start,'' Craven said, ''I gave myself a warning that this film had to be a stand-alone thing. I couldn't imagine anyone who would end up going to see it who wasn't aware of the whole phenomenon of Freddy Krueger, and the whole Nightmare series. But nothing absolutely essential is lost if you haven't seen any of the earlier films.

“'On the other hand, if you have seen the first one — especially if you've seen it recently — you get a lot of the references. And you get the whole idea that (Langenkamp) is slipping into the world of that first film, whether she likes it or not.''

And that is something Wes Craven likes very, very much.

Friday, August 28, 2015

A deeply affecting film about a remarkable Houstonian who's also a proud New Orleanian

My student has become my teacher. Darius Clark Monroe, the young filmmaker I first met when he was enrolled in my class at University of Houston, and who went on to study with Spike Lee at NYU, demonstrated great promise with his acclaimed autobiographical documentary Evolution of a Criminal. Now he has taken the first step toward fulfilling that promise with this deeply affecting 13-minute portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, a remarkable Houstonian who also happens to be a proud New Orleanian. Titled Two Cities, it's part of a six-part Time Inc. documentary series -- New Orleans, Here & Now -- that celebrates different facets of my hometown 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. After seeing Monroe's contribution, I'm eager to view the entire omnibus -- and, yes, maybe take another look at another amazing film directed by one of Monroe's other proud teachers.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Houston's International House of Cinema

Consider this: On Friday, the AMC Studio 30 megaplex here in H-Town will be showing, in addition to mainstream and much-hyped Hollywood studio fare, Assassination, a terrifically entertaining South Korean action-adventure that I viewed and reviewed for Variety; Go Away Mr. Tumor, a Chinese romantic comedy that was a smash hit in its country of origin; The Love Affair, a romantic drama from The Philippines; and no fewer than four features -- Baahubali, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Brothers: Blood Against Blood and Drishyam -- from India. (Also on tap: Two English-language, VOD-ready  indie features -- After Words and Some Kind of Beautiful -- each screening only twice daily.)

Now, mind you, we're not talking about a gone-to-seed theater in a fallen-from-grace shopping theater. We're not even talking about a theater in a neighborhood where any single immigrant group traditionally dominates. Rather, we're talking about a megaplex in the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the United States. Leading me to wonder: Is this situation unique to Houston, or increasingly commonplace? That is: Have we already reached and actually gone past the point where it is standard operational procedure for theater chains to program in big-city megaplexes scads of movies that require English subtitles but aren't, strictly speaking, "art-house movies" -- that are, you know, just movies?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Austin. Sunday. Miracle Mile. Be there, or be square.

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will be screened at 7:20 pm Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin. But wait, there's more: It's my great pleasure and privilege to announce that I'll be serving as host (or facilitator, or whatever the hell they call it) for an on-stage Q&A with De Jarnatt after the screening.

I am especially geeked about the occasion because... well, this isn't the first time I'll be involved with a public showing of De Jarnatt's devastating flick. Back in 1989, I introduced it as my critic's choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival (then known simply as the Houston International Film Festival), where it wound up rocking the house and winning best of fest honors. 

A few weeks later, during a Cannes Film Festival reception, I was told by one of the muckety-mucks at Hemdale -- the outfit that had originally bankrolled the film -- that because of the enthusiastic response at the H-Town fest, his company was giving Miracle Mile a wider theatrical release than originally planned. He also said my rave review -- blurbed in all the original advertising and, later, on the homevideo packaging -- was another factor considered when the Hemdale brass made their decision. 

Maybe he was telling me the truth, maybe he was stoking my ego. But consider: De Jarnatt recently thanked me in a Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film. So I can only assume that I played some role, however small, in getting Miracle Mile out into the world. And that makes me very happy.

So what's it all about? As I wrote in my 1989 review:

Miracle Mile is an audacious doomsday thriller with a 20-megaton impact. Deceptively simple and relentlessly gripping, it represents American independent moviemaking at its most exciting and accessible for mainstream audiences. Be prepared to be blown through the back of the theater...

Anthony Edwards (Revenge of the Nerds) and Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire) are the lead players, and they are exceptionally well-cast. Edwards is excellent as Harry, a soft-spoken, sweet-natured would-be jazz musician who moves to Los Angeles in search of a musical career and, perhaps, romance. Like most newcomers to Los Angeles, he checks out the sights on the Miracle Mile, the long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that runs from the towering skyscrapers of Century City to the edge of the La Brea Tar Pits. On a museum tour near the pits, Harry meets Julie (Winningham), a lovely waitress who just happens to be fond of jazz. Love blooms, instantly.

Unfortunately, Harry oversleeps, and arrives at the diner where Julie works three hours late for their midnight date. He tries to call her from a pay phone, but she doesn’t respond -- she has taken a sleeping pill, turned on her answering machine, and dozed off. Harry is depressed. Worse, he doesn’t know exactly where Julie lives, so he can’t drop by to apologize.

Then the pay phone rings, and Harry picks up the receiver. On the other end is an anxious young man calling from a missile base somewhere in North Dakota. It’s a wrong number -- the caller was trying to reach his father in another area code, to warn him that World War III is about to begin, that nuclear missiles will likely hit Los Angeles in 70 minutes.

Harry thinks the caller is a practical joker. But then he hears gunshots. And then he hears a stern voice on the line, warning him to “forget everything you’ve just heard, and go back to sleep.” 

This is not a dream. This is not a test. This is an actual alert.

And that is all the detailed plot synopsis you will get from me. Suffice it to say that Harry moves heaven and earth to get to Julie, so she can join him for a last-chance flight to safety. Naturally, several obstacles, and not a few people, get in his way. And even when the lovers are reunited, they have to contend with the panicky mobs who have been tipped off about the approaching apocalypse.

Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt draws you slowly, steadily into his frightfully plausible plot before he yanks you by the lapels and drags you onto a high-velocity roller coaster. Better still, even while he skillfully, even mercilessly, escalates the suspense, he develops a credible, compelling love story. Edwards makes a strong impression as an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, while Winningham is attractive, persuasive and, particularly in the final scenes, achingly poignant. The supporting players are strong, and the dialogue, often darkly comical, rings true.

Miracle Mile flies economy class, with more emphasis on human drama than special effects, but it never looks or sounds cheap. The first-rate cinematography is by Theo Van de Sande, and the ominous musical score is by Tangerine Dream.

And if all of that is not enough for you, take note: Cherry 2000, De Jarnatt's only other feature, a 1987 sci-fi action-adventure in which a badass Melanie Griffith makes things blow up real good, also will be screened Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. And, yes, De Jarnatt will be answering questions about that one, too.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Trailer Park: Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight

How much badassery can a single motion picture contain? That burning question likely will be answered by Quentin Tarantino's eagerly awaited The Hateful Eight, the upcoming Western action-thriller starring Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, Channing Tatum (allegedly) -- and Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who has, hands down, the best line in this trailer: "Move a little strange -- you're gonna get a bullet. Not a warning. Not a question. A bullet."

Get ready to mount up and ride hard when The Hateful Eight hits theaters -- in "glorious 70mm Ultra Panavision" -- on Christmas Day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Trailer Park: Vin Diesel (and Michael Caine) in The Last Witch Hunter

"Know what I'm afraid of? Nothing." Vin Diesel probably could have delivered that line in any movie he's ever made. (Well, maybe not The Pacifier -- but almost every movie he's ever made.) Yet he has waited until The Last Witch Hunter to utter this particular announcement of his badassery. 

As you can see in the trailer, Diesel's character matches words with deeds while fearlessly demolishing all manner of supernatural foes. (Gee, I wonder if the movie is intended as the kickoff for a new franchise?) But I must admit: Since I'm kinda-sorta a Michael Caine completist, the primary appeal this movie has for me is the opportunity to see Sir Michael playing a priest. I could be mistaken -- and I'm sure I'll be corrected if I am -- but I think this may be the very first time in his 50-plus-year career that Caine has played a man of the cloth.

The Last Witch Hunter opens Oct. 23 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015: Bone Tomahawk rides the first wave

Kurt Russell battles cannibalistic troglodytes in the Wild West.

Hmmm. This sounds like a scenario fit for... Fantastic Fest.

And sure enough: Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler's long-awaited horror Western, has been announced as the closing night attraction for the 2015 edition of Fantastic Fest, the bountifully stocked cinematic smorgasbord that immodestly but accurately bills itself as “the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world.”

This year's event takes place Sept. 24 through Oct. 1 in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.

Also known as The Geek Telluride, Fantastic Fest takes pride in bringing out the stars as well as amping up the weird. Which explains why festival founder Tim League is hard-pressed to constrain his excitement when announcing that both the director and the ensemble cast of Bone Tomahawk will descend upon Austin for the world premiere. "Bringing Kurt Russell back to the Alamo is something we've been trying to do for a long time," said League. "And to do it with Bone Tomahawk, a quintessential Fantastic Fest film, means we're in for one hell of a closer. Huge thanks to Caliber Media for making it all happen."

So what's it all about? According to the official Fantastic Fest plot synopsis: "Kurt Russell stars in this character-driven and at times horrific Western about a group of men (including Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins) who set out to rescue a local woman and a young deputy who’ve been kidnapped by a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes."

Bone Tomahawk was just one of the titles included Wednesday in Fanatastic Fest's "first wave" announcement of its 2015 lineup. You can read the full announcement here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Trailer Park: Joy

Joy reunites Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) for what has been described as an idiosyncratic comedy-drama "inspired" by the life and adventures of Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano. But, really, I didn't need to know any of that to be knocked out by this trailer. As soon as I heard the unmistakable sound of The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," I was sold. Christmas can't get here quickly enough.

Friday, July 03, 2015

My July 4th tradition: Rocking with Bill Pullman and Independence Day

I am an immigrant's son, and I get paid to go to the movies. Truly, this is the land of opportunity. And so, to celebrate the birthday of our great nation, I once again give you the ridiculously corny yet tremendously affecting speech given by a beleaguered U.S. President (potently played by Bill Pullman) to rally a final push against invading extraterrestrials in Independence Day. Let freedom ring.

Another opportunity to celebrate Independence Day with 1776

Eight years ago this week, I rediscovered 1776 on Turner Classic Movies. At 3 ET/ 2 CT Saturday afternoon, you, too, can re-evaluate (or see for the very first time) on TCM a restored version of the movie -- one of the last Old Hollywood adaptations of a hit Broadway musical. And take it from me: Even if, like me, you were none too impressed by it back in the day, you'll find it was substantially improved by the restoration of scenes and songs that had been deleted by producer  Jack Warner  before its ’72 theatrical release. (No less a notable than then-President Richard Nixon "requested" the deletion of a tune that tweaked conservatives.)

As I noted in 2007: "1776 still is something less than an unadulterated masterwork. (Although director Peter H. Hunt manages some impressive wide-screen compositions, he’s a tad too literal-minded in some aspects of his stage-to-screen translation.) Taken as a whole, however, the movie is wonderfully entertaining – and, better still, undeniably inspiring -- as it offers an intelligently yet playfully romanticized account of events leading to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But wait, there’s more: The cast includes most of the major players from the original 1969 Broadway ensemble – including William Daniels (John Adams), Howard Da Silva (Benjamin Franklin) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson), all at their finest – along with an absolutely luminescent Blythe Danner (who was pregnant with Gwyneth Paltrow during filming) as Martha Jefferson. And the heated debates over individual rights and tyrannical rulers are, alas, every bit as relevant today as in 1776 or 1972." Or 2015.

More pertinent than ever: The reluctant agreement by Adams, Franklin and Jefferson to delete a key paragraph from their original draft of the Declaration

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blast from the Past: My 1985 TV commercial with Jack Riley

In the summer of 1985, you might have seen this Houston Post spot airing on local TV stations or -- no joke -- displayed on the massive Astrodome video screen during Astros games. (Yes, I actually attended a game where I saw myself looking larger than life. The experience was... weird.) I know I claim to be enjoying myself in Hollywood, but this actually was shot in H-Town's deluxe Palm Restaurant. And yes, that's the great Jack Riley from The Bob Newhart Show as my own private buzzkill.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dwight Howard: Superstar

Just how cool is Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard? Consider: After torrential rains descended upon H-Town May 25 while he and his teammates were fighting the good fight against the Golden State Warriors, Howard opted to stick around and interact with fans stranded inside Toyota Center after the game. And yesterday, Howard served as genial host -- and generous popcorn dispenser -- at a special screening of Inside Out (sposnored by Fandango and Relativity Sports) for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Houston.

While interviewed before the screening at Santikos Palladium AVX, Howard revealed that he's an enormous fan of Pixar-produced animated features. ("I'm just a big kid trapped inside a big man's body.") Which, of course, came as no suprise to anyone who'd seen Howard waxing nostalgic about his all-time favorite movie, Pixar's Finding Nemo, as part of Fandango's "I Love Movies" on-line series.