Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My titillating encounter with the great Debbie Reynolds

In November 1996, while I was free-lancing for NBC affiliate KRRC-TV, I drove to Austin to cover the junket for Albert Brooks’ Mother – and had a brief one-on-one sit-down with Debbie Reynolds. 

Funnily enough, I had asked her a question during a press conference for the very same movie a few weeks earlier at the Toronto Film Festival: “How would you compare working for Albert Brooks to working for Oliver Stone?” (Afterwards, I had to remind more than a few of my quizzical colleagues that she had played a supporting role in Stone’s Heaven & Earth.) And she was very gracious while saying nice things about both gentlemen. 

But in Austin, she displayed — well, a delightfully bawdier side of her character.

As I walked into the hotel suite where the videotaping would take place, Reynolds was talking with the production crew about her… her… well, OK, her breasts. Specifically: She was discussing how she had maintained her figure despite the passing of years — she was 64 at the time, the same age I am now — and the laws of gravity. And she wanted everyone within earshot to know: “I’m very proud of my tits.” When she realized a newcomer had entered the interview zone, she turned her gaze to me, and bluntly asked: “Don’t you think I still have great tits?”

For a second, I thought: “Just how does one respond to a question like that?”

And then I figured, what the hell, say what you think.

So I answered: “They look terrific, ma’am. And your ass looks pretty good, too.”

She laughed, but demurred. “Oh, no, that’s gone to hell. But my tits…”

I have dined out on that anecdote many times over the past two decades. And I thought about it again yesterday, when I learned of Carrie Fisher’s passing, and recalled how she was a fabulously and fearlessly funny woman who never shied away from making herself the butt of her own jokes. (Pardon the pun.) Tonight, I grieve for Debbie Reynolds, and find myself painfully reminded of the classic explanation of the difference between plot and story. (Plot: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died.” Story: “The queen died. And then five days later, the king died — of a broken heart.”) At the same time, however, I take some solace and amusement in my happy memory: Like mother, like daughter.  

Happy 121st Birthday to 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.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Coming soon to a theater or scratching post near you: Kedi

As I wrote in my Variety review just a few months ago, after the film played at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: 

"Early in Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s splendidly graceful and quietly magical documentary about the multifaceted feline population of Istanbul, a human inhabitant of the city notes: 'Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful. They just know better.' All of which might explain why so many of the movie’s four-legged subjects come across not as feral orphans who rely on the kindness of strangers, but rather as slumming royals who occasionally deign to interact with two-legged acolytes.

"Indeed, another interviewee here swears that, after his fishing boat was damaged during a storm, a beneficent cat led him to a lost wallet containing just enough money to pay for repairs. 'Whoever doesn’t believe this story,' the grateful beneficiary proclaims, 'is a heathen in my book.'

"Trust me: Kedi will make you a believer."

Thanks to Oscilloscope Laboratories, which proudly bills itself as the distributor "of the best in American independent, foreign, documentary, and cat films," Kedi is slated to start prowling in North American theaters February 10. Here is the trailer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Godzilla flames again. And again. And again. And again.

‘Twas the weekend of Christmas, and all through the land, Godzilla was stirring and stomping and grand.

Yes, friends, it’s that time of year again: Time for The Original Gangsta Lizard to loom large and take charge during the annual Kaiju Christmas movie marathon on the El Rey cable network. Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah and other notorious notables also figure into the binge-worthy cavalcade of creature features, which kicks off at 6 am ET/PT December 23 with the original 1954 Gorjira, and knocks off at 4:30 am ET/PT December 27 with the classic Godzilla Raids Again (a.k.a. Gigantis The Fire Monster).

Big G — newly reanimated just a few months ago in Shin Godzilla — is the star of almost every movie in the El Rey lineup (Rodan is the sole exception), and the marathon as a whole serves as a testament to the wide range of his iterations. As I noted in my 2014 tribute:

“Much like Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Miley Cyrus, Godzilla illustrates a time-honored showbiz dictum: The best way to sustain your superstardom is to repeatedly reinvent yourself.

“During six decades of Japanese-produced low-tech monster mashes and made-in-America CGI-stuffed spectacles, Big G has remained au courant through the miracle of image makeovers. From nuclear-age nightmare to doting single parent, from freelance global defender to butt-kicking tag-team wrestler, he has evolved and developed, evincing a versatility that might make Meryl Streep turn green – or, perhaps more appropriately, charcoal gray – with envy.”

You can marvel at the many faces of Godzilla as you peruse titles in the Kaiju Christmas schedule here. And you can prepare for the marathon by viewing this preview.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Remembering Fritz Weaver

Fritz Weaver -- the esteemed character actor who passed away Saturday at age 90 -- told me a lovely story about Ingrid Bergman when I had the pleasure to interview several years ago in New York. 

Back in 1970, he and Bergman co-starred in A Walk in the Spring Rain, a romantic melodrama about a would-be author (Weaver) and his wife (Bergman) who move from New York to the backwoods of Tennessee while he works on his long-delayed novel. While he scribbles away, the neglected wife drifts into an affair with an earthy neighbor (Anthony Quinn at his earthiest) -- and, while enjoying her middle-age craziness, refuses to serve as babysitter for her college-bound daughter, despite the daughter's attempts to guilt-trip her mom in accepting the task. (It doesn't help at all that the daughter insists mom really has nothing better to do because, well, she's old.) The affair, not surprisingly, ends badly.

On the first day they were to shoot a scene together, Weaver told me, Bergman knocked at the door of his trailer, and he invited her inside. He assumed she wanted to ask some questions about their scene, which she did. But then she did something totally unexpected: She asked, "Would you kiss me, please?" So Weaver did what any reasonably sentient heterosexual male would do if Ingrid Bergman asked for a smooch -- he gracious granted her request.

"There," she told him as the brief lip-lock concluded. "Now we have a past." 

And with that, she was ready to play his wife.

Some guys have all the luck.

I first became aware of Weaver when I was 14 years old, when I watched him give a standout performance as Rev. John Hale in a star-studded TV production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. (George C. Scott was John Proctor, Collen Dewhurst was Elizabeth Proctor, and Tuesday Weld was Abigail Williams.) The telecast, oddly enough, had a major albeit indirect impact on me: When I saw a thoroughly second-rate stage production of the play (with professional actors) two years later, I couldn't help comparing it to the TV production, and realized that, hey, professional stage actors could be just as bad as professional movie actors.

Weaver laughed when I told him about this during our interview -- which was keyed to, of all things, his appearance in the 1982 movie Creepshow. And he accepted with modest gratitude my fanboy praise of his performance in another Arthur Miller drama, the acclaimed 1979 off-Broadway revival of The Price. Even now, I can still hear him delivering what I think is the key line of the play, one that continues to haunt me: "We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know."

During a stage and screen career that spanned seven decades, Weaver accumulated a prodigious number of TV, film and theater credits -- ranging from Fail-Safe (1964) to the original 1970 Broadway production of Child's Play (for which he won a Tony Award), from the 1978 miniseries Holocaust (which netted him an Emmy nomination) to a 2014 co-starring stint opposite Adam Sandler in The Cobbler. Trivia buffs, take note: He was the bad guy in the very first episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Sherlock Holmes (under the direction of Harold Prince) in the 1965 Broadway musical Baker Street. (And before you ask: Yes, I have the original cast album for the latter. On vinyl, no less.)

Fritz Weaver added something special, and substantial, to every production that employed him, even when he gave the production a lot more than it ever gave him. He will be missed. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And then there was the time Robert Vaughn told me...

While preparing a Cowboys & Indians magazine tribute to Robert Vaughn, who passed away Friday at age 83, I was reminded of two remarks he made during interviews I did with him decades ago. And I smiled at the memories because both illustrated his trademark dry wit — and, just as important, his ready willingness to make himself the butt of his own joke.

The first time we chatted was in my hometown of New Orleans, which he visited while on a promotional tour for The Towering Inferno (1974). Naturally, I asked a fair share of fanboy questions about The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68) — hey, I was only 22 at the time — which Vaughn graciously answered. But when the conversation turned back to the star-studded disaster movie he was in town to hype… Well, to be honest, the only thing I recall his saying in regard to Towering Inferno is his bemused observation that he and another ‘60s TV star, Richard Chamberlain, played characters who existed primarily to increase the body count.

“I wonder,” he mused aloud with a perfectly straight face, “just how upset audiences will be to see Dr. Kildare and Napoleon Solo falling out of a burning skyscraper?”

Years later, at a movie junket for Superman III (1983), Vaughn amiably agreed that the super-hero sequel wasn’t exactly the crowing artistic achievement of his career. (It’s worth noting that the movie rates only a fleeting mention in his wonderfully entertaining autobiography, A Fortunate Life.) But never mind: The paycheck was substantial. Indeed, Vaughn admitted that he took a very pragmatic approach to acting gigs, given his then-current status as a journeyman actor who relied on the name recognition that was his legacy from a once-trendy television series.

“My wife and I were renovating our home a while ago,” Vaughn said, “and I took one job mainly because we needed a new porch.

“Not a new Porsche, mind you” he added with a grin, “but a new porch.”

Must admit: I think of Vaughn’s self-deprecating disclosure every time I see a talented actor playing a supporting part — or even the lead — in a movie that is in no way worthy of his (or her) talent. Before I make any hasty judgments, I consider: Maybe he (or she) got a way-cool veranda out of the deal. Maybe even a condo. 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Does Doctor Strange make house calls?

Have to admit: I laughed out loud more than once while watching this clip. What really makes it work, I think, is Jimmy Kimmel's willingness to serve more or less as the straight man to Benedict Cumberbatch, while Cumberbatch plays the Sorcerer Supreme with pretty much the same subtly sardonic edge he brings to his performance in the actual Doctor Strange movie. The whole thing strikes me as an amusingly retro throwback to the days when celebrities would plug their movies by remaining in character while fooling around with Bob Hope or Johnny Carson. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Words of wisdom from John Cassavetes: “You know, in this business, it's all jealousy.”

Jeffrey Wells posted an interesting commentary today over at Hollywood Elsewhere, postulating that Hollywood major players are far less supportive of their fellow filmmakers than their counterparts, past and present, in other countries. And got me to thinking about something the late, great John Cassavetes told me way during an interview way back in 1985. You can read the entire article I gleaned from our conversation in Gabriella Oldhman’s exceptional anthology John Cassavetes: Interviews, recently published by the University Press of Mississippi. (Mind you, I’m not saying it’s exceptional simply because she included something written by me — but, hey, that didn’t hurt.) This particular segment, however, I feel is especially relevant in light of Wells’ observation:

So, at 55, John Cassavetes is still a maverick, eh?

The question elicits a melancholy smile. Cassavetes stares at his soft drink for a moment as he calmly considers his answer. “People used to love to call me a maverick, because I had a big mouth, and I’d say, ‘That bum!’ or something like that when I was young. Mainly, because I believed it, and I didn’t know there was anybody’s pain connected to the business. I was so young, I didn't feel any pain. I just thought, ‘Why don’t they do some exciting, venturesome things? Why are they just sitting there, doing these dull pictures that have already been done many, many times, and calling them exciting? That's a lie — they're not exciting. Exciting is an experiment.’

“Now, from the point of view of a guy in his 20s, that was true. But when I look back on it, I think, yes, that man was a maverick. But...”

His words trail off into weak laughter.

“That reputation keeps with you, through the years. Once the press calls you a maverick, it stays in their files. I’ll be dead five years, and they'll still be saying, ‘That maverick son-of-a-bitch, he's off in Colorado, making a movie. As if they really cared.

“You know, in this business, it's all jealousy. I mean, this is the dumbest business I’ve ever seen in my life. If somebody gets married, they say, ‘It’ll never work.’ If somebody gets divorced, they say, ‘Good. I'll give you my lawyer.’ If somebody loses a job, everyone will call him -- to gloat. They’ll discuss it, they’ll be happy, they’ll have parties. I don't understand how people that can see each other all the time, and be friends, can be so happy about each other’s demise.

“I think people, studio executives and filmmakers, should hate each other openly, and save a lot of trouble. Its like me and actors. I never get along with actors, not on the level of friendship, because I don't believe in it. Only on a creative level. Now, through a period of years, Peter Falk and I have become very good friends, as have Ben Gazzara and I. But only after a period of years. That friendship came out of working on Husbands together, and the success that came out of that. And a lot of other films, too. Sometimes, we’ve been successful, and sometimes we've been unsuccessful. I mean, the creative part of it has always been successful. That’s been the bargain of it, our relationship.

“But I’m sure that, the moment I was no longer interested in anything artistic, Peter would not be my friend anymore. And that would be fair game. I probably wouldn’t be his friend, either, if I weren’t interested in art.” 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Wild Western: In a Valley of Violence

Ti West's In a Valley of Violence, as I have posted elsewhere, is a brutally gritty and slow-burningly suspenseful drama that is laced with elements of dark comedy, abounding in deadly serious mayhem, and loaded with tips of the Stetson to classic Spaghetti Westerns. The official plot synopsis:

A mysterious drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abbie make their way toward Mexico through the barren desert of the Old West. In an attempt to shorten their journey they cut through the center of a large valley, landing themselves in the forgotten town of Denton — a place now dubbed by locals as a “valley of violence.” The once-popular mining town is nearly abandoned, and controlled by a brash group of misfits and nitwits. Chief among them: the seemingly untouchable Gilly (James Ransone), who is the troublemaking son of the town’s unforgiving marshal (John Travolta). 

As tensions rise between Paul and Gilly, Denton’s remaining residents bear witness to an inevitable act of violence that starts a disastrous chain reaction, infecting the petty lives of all involved, and quickly drags the whole town into the bloody crosshairs of revenge. Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and Ellen (Karen Gillan), two bickering sisters who run the town’s only hotel, try to find the good in both men, while desperately searching for their own salvation. Only the world-weary marshal struggles to stop the violent hysteria. But after a gruesome discovery about Paul’s past, there is no stopping the escalation

The movie opens Friday in theatrical and VOD release. Here is an interview I did with lead player Ethan Hawke, and here is another Q&A I conducted with director Ti West -- both for Cowboys & Indians Magazine.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

There are bad movies, and then there are worse movies, and then there is... Max Steel

"That loud, dull thud you may have heard emanating from megaplexes Friday signaled the theatrical dump of Max Steel, a ponderous and preposterous sci-fi action-adventure that obviously was intended by folks aflame with misguided optimism as the curtain-raiser for a superhero franchise. Inspired, for want of a better term, by a Mattel action figure and its TV cartoon show spinoffs, this drearily lame time-waster plays like the origin story for a comic-book series about a teen who wields energy waves as an offensive weapon, and a techno-organic extraterrestrial that serves as his sidekick. Or something like that. Suffice it to say that if Nick Fury ever sized up these guys as potential Avengers, he wouldn’t even bother to draft them for the farm team."

You can read the rest of my Variety review of this misbegotten movie here.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Shin Godzilla: The Batman Begins of Zilla Thrillers

"The Original Gangsta Lizard gets a largely satisfying reboot in Shin Godzilla, a surprisingly clever monster mash best described as the Batman Begins of Zilla Thrillers. Co-directors Hideaki Anno (the cult-fave Evangelion franchise) and Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan), working from Anno’s genre-respectful yet realpolitik-savvy screenplay, draw basic elements from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 Gojira and its many follow-ups — to the point of including a wink-wink, nudge-nudge reference to Goro Naki, a character who loomed large in two sequels — but update the familiar kaiju mythos to a 21st-century world where the sudden appearance of an immense, fire-breathing reptile in Japan can generate all sorts of inter-agency political wrangling, revive terribly unpleasant memories of the country’s militaristic past, and really, really wreak havoc on the value of the yen in global monetary markets.

"In short, Anno and Ishihara operate according to a classic sci-fi game plan: This couldn’t happen. But if it did happen, this probably is what would happen."

You can read the rest of my Variety review of Shin Godzilla — which Funimation Films will release Tuesday, Oct. 11, in theaters throughout North America here. And you can read my 2014 tribute to Big G here.

Phantasm: Ravager: A grand finale for the franchise?

Phantasm: Ravager began to roll out in limited theatrical release this weekend. As I reported for Variety last month from Fantastic Fest:

"It’s kinda-sorta like an Alain Resnais movie, only with zombie dwarfs. And four-barrel shotguns. And, of course, floating, blade-bedecked silver spheres. Phantasm: Ravager — the fifth and purportedly final installment in the cult-favorite franchise launched in 1979 with writer-director Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm — most assuredly is the surreal thing, a time-tripping, dimension-hopping whirligig that suggests Last Year at Marienbad (or, better still, Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime) reconstituted as the fever dream of a horror-fantasy aficionado. 

"Anyone unfamiliar with its predecessors in the on-again, off-again series (which includes two direct-to-video sequels) won’t be able to make heads or tails of what transpires here. Indeed, even dedicated Phantasm fanatics may be hard-pressed to discern anything resembling a unifying narrative thread. But the latter group — the film’s target audience — likely will be willing to eschew coherence for the opportunity to savor this chaotic reprise of familiar characters and concepts in the cinematic equivalent of a greatest hits album."

You can read the rest of my review here.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Middle School: Fun for all ages. No kidding.

There’s a very funny scene in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life where a plucky and brainy sixth-grader (Isabela Mona) explains to an endlessly resourceful fellow student (Griffin Gluck) the intricacies of an ancient technology known as VHS recording. She is enthusiastic in her instruction, but he remains dubious about… about… well, recording anything inside something that looks like nothing more than a small plastic box.

Obviously, this is a movie designed primarily for tweeners. But that doesn’t mean audiences with living memories of the pre-DVD era can’t enjoy it, too. To quote my Variety review:

“As Francois Truffaut sagely noted, adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember. So it’s entirely possible that even the folks who made Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life will be pleasantly surprised by the cross-generational appeal of their spirited comedy about a sixth-grader’s antiauthoritarian campaign of rule-breaking mischief. To be sure, every generation is entitled to its own revenge fantasy, and this particular wishdream — inspired by the series-spawning novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets — is aimed primarily at viewers who might not yet have a firm grasp on puberty. But Middle School also may resonate with older viewers who most certainly do remember adolescent angst.”

 You can read the rest of my review here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Chicken People is a pretty clucking wonderful documentary

OK, I'll freely admit it: When I first heard about Nicole Lucas Haimes Haimes' Chicken People -- the fascinating feel-good documentary I reviewed for Variety last spring at the Nashville Film Festival -- I expected something along the lines of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. With the emphasis on mock.

But no: As I wrote for Variety: Haimes "approaches her subjects — both human and otherwise — with equal measures of bemused curiosity and respectful empathy, with nary a trace of wink-wink condescension." Chicken People offers "an illuminating and amusingly entertaining look at the thriving subculture of competitive poultry breeders," and "as the film progresses, the sheer determination of the breeders who are Haimes’ primary focus commands respect, not derision."

After traversing the festival circuit, Chicken People opened Friday in limited theatrical release. And I'm happy to see I'm not the only critic who thinks it is something worth crowing about. Katie Walsh of the Los Angeles Times writes: "[T]he film proves to be more than just a glimpse into a world that’s easy to titter at. Haimes delves into the larger issues and psychological motivations that drive the kind of obsession that allows one to breed award-winning poultry." Helen T. Verongos of The New York Times adds: "Will fluffy, poodle-like chickens replace cats on the internet? Maybe not, but these chicken people, with deep connections to their birds, make for a fun and at times astonishing film."

Chicken People is well worth looking out for, even if you have to wait until it's available in digital and home-video platforms. As I noted months ago in an observation that didn't make the final cut of my Variety review, but did make the movie's trailer: Will you enjoy it? Well, you just have to ask yourself: Do you feel plucky?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Remembering The Murder of Emmett Till

On this date 61 years ago, 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed by racist white thugs in Money, Mississippi. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson recounted this tragic episode in his exceptional 2003 documentary The Murder of Emmett Till, which currently is available for viewing on YouTube. As I wrote in my Variety review:

"Using archival footage, official records and well-shot (by Robert Shepard) contemporary interviews, Nelson fashions an evocative portrait of a life and death in a not-long-ago Deep South. While visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County during summer 1955, 14-year-old Till, a black, Chicago-born youngster, was brutally beaten, then fatally shot, by white racists. His killers, stepbrothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, pursued Till after the precocious youngster made the fatal mistake of whistling at Bryant’s attractive wife in a grocery store. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury, but later agreed — in return for a hefty fee — to admit their guilt in a Look magazine interview. 

"Emmett Till deftly places the tragedy of the youngster’s killing within context of an age when many Southern whites felt entitled to treat blacks any way they pleased, and were antagonistic toward locals or 'outside agitators' who supported integration. In one of several startling TV news clips from the period, an elderly white Mississippian insists that Bryant and Milam were framed as part of a 'Communist plot.' 

"Taking their cue from such paranoia, the murderous pair’s defense attorneys shamelessly argued that Till wasn’t really dead, and that the mutilated body found in a local river had been deliberately misidentified by the boy’s widowed mother. The jury — which, Nelson indicates, really didn’t require much exculpatory evidence — warmed to this theory while voting for acquittal. 

"Most devastating scenes focus on the discovery of Till’s corpse — which actually was difficult to identify, because the boy’s face had been beaten almost beyond recognition — and Mamie Till’s insistence that her son be displayed in an open coffin during his Chicago funeral service, so that the world would know what had happened to her boy. As hundreds of mourners passed the coffin, narrator Andre Braugher notes, 'One out of every five had to be helped out of the building.'

"[The documentary] persuasively argues that Till’s martyrdom served as an impetus for the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Overall, however, Murder of Emmett Till is more heartbreaking than uplifting, and will leave sympathetic viewers with an anguished sense of moral outrage."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Will they still need me, will they still read me, when I'm 64?

Today I am 64 years old. In other words:

I am two years older than John Wayne was when he starred in True Grit.

I am two years older than Cary Grant was when he retired from movies.

I am one year older than Walter Brennan was when he appeared in the first episode of The Real McCoys.

I am 14 years older than Claude Rains was when he appeared in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

I am 10 years older than Bette Davis was when she starred in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

I am 11 years older than Warren Oates was when he died, seven years older than Humphrey Bogart was when he died, five years older than Clark Gable when he died.

And you know what? They’re all gone. All of them. But I’m still standing. I would do well to be grateful. I would do better not to waste any time I have left.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Farewell to Jack Riley

Sorry to hear the bad news about Jack Riley, the terrifically funny character actor who was an indefatigably snarky note of discord on The Bob Newhart Show -- and my co-star in a 1985 TV commercial for the gone-but-not-forgotten Houston Post. Riley, who passed away today in Los Angeles at age 80, was a classy gent throughout the long day's shoot at H-Town's deluxe Palm Restaurant. And, better still, he remained patient while I screwed up take after take after take...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Paying respects to Francois Truffaut

Once again, I have uncovered lost treasures through the simple task of housecleaning. In 1990, while on my way to the Cannes Film Festival, I stopped off in Paris to interview Diane Kurys. And she very graciously directed me to the Montmartre Cemetery, where I could pay respects to Francois Truffaut. Someday, I keep telling myself, I want to go back.

Celebrating Alfred Hitchcock -- and revisitng Psycho -- on the birthday of The Master of Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock continues to entertain us, and sometimes astonish us, more than three decades after his death. But that doesn’t mean he ever really liked us. Indeed, there is ample evidence to the contrary — which, all things considered, might not be such a bad thing. Francois Truffaut, who famously interviewed and occasionally emulated the Master of Suspense, once spoke of his idol as “the man whom we are glad to be despised by.” And, mind you, Truffaut meant that as a compliment. 

Throughout his prolific and prodigious life, Hitchcock — whose Aug. 13, 1899 birthday we celebrate today — repeatedly preyed upon our ambivalent responses to violent death. In doing so, he slyly pandered to our baser instincts, implicating us in the machinations of his characters by exploiting our voyeuristic impulses. Thanks to him, we want James Stewart to be right when he thinks he witnessed a murder in Rear Window. We really want Farley Granger’s slatternly wife to get what’s coming to her in Strangers on a Train.

And we really, really want Anthony Perkins to dispose of that car with the fresh corpse inside its trunk behind the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Do we blame Hitchcock for bringing out the worst in us? Quite the contrary: We’re greatly amused, and grateful, for being so effectively worked over. And yet, when you remember the haughtily droll raconteur who quipped his way through countless interviews, promotional shorts and wrap-around segments for his long-running TV series, you may find yourself reading something like contempt in Hitchcock’s insolent smirk. He knew what his audiences wanted and, just as important, how to make them want more of it. And he made no secret of the ruthless methods he might employ to achieve his aims. “My love of film,” Hitchcock admitted in his book-length interview with Truffaut, “is far more important to me than any consideration of morality.” 

Which is part of the reason why he was ready, willing and able to make Psycho, arguably his most amoral movie. “I don’t care about the subject matter, I don’t care about the acting,” Hitchcock said. “But I do care about the pieces of film and the photography and the soundtrack and all the technical ingredients that made the audience scream. I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. And with Psycho, we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences... They were aroused by pure film.”

Or, perhaps more accurately, impure film. At once the granddaddy of all slasher movies and one of the blackest comedies ever concocted, Psycho was conceived and executed as something of a down-and-dirty stunt. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a feature film as quickly and cheaply as the B-movie moguls who produced low-budget, high-profit drive-in fare during the late 1950s. So he borrowed a production crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, drew upon impolitely lurid source material — a Robert Bloch novel very loosely based on the life and crimes of serial killer Ed Gein — and made a no-frills black-and-white thriller that overcame mixed-to-hostile reviews to become the second-highest grossing film (after Ben Hur) of 1960. 

Psycho is one of Hitchcock’s most enduring and influential masterworks. It also is the most cold-blooded and mean-spirited prank that any major filmmaker has ever pulled on an audience. The graphic violence of the infamous shower scene is more apparent than real because, thanks to Hitchcock’s celebrated genius for montage, we’re tricked into thinking we see much more than we’re actually shown. But there’s an even more significant sleight-of-hand to consider: Psycho is a movie that scores its most devastating impact by playing on assumptions and expectations informed by other movies.

Hitchcock blindsided moviegoers in 1960 by daring to switch gears from sexy crime story to shocking gothic horror, by insidiously luring the audience into sympathizing with a homicidal maniac -- and, even more audaciously, by daring to kill off a well-known leading lady (Janet Leigh) 50 minutes into his story. When asked to explain why he was drawn to Bloch’s novel in the first place, Hitchcock claimed he found the central gimmick – Norman, is that you? – only modestly clever. What really sold him on the story, he said, was “the suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming, as it were, out of the blue.” Obviously, he immediately recognized the sudden savagery as more than just a terrific device for scaring the yell out of people. The sequence also allowed him to pull the rug, and then the floor, out from under the audience. 

Ever since Hitchcock opened this trap door, dozens of other filmmakers have tried, with mixed success, to match the Master of Suspense in narrative duplicity. (The Crying Game, The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects are only the most obvious examples.) And yet, as good or great as these other films might be, they cannot match the master’s work. Two generations after its premiere, Psycho continues to loom imposingly large in our collective pop-culture conscious. So much so, in fact, that Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake never really had a chance to be judged on its own dubious merits, not even by people who never saw the original. Since everybody already knows what happens in Psycho, a shot-by-shot reprise isn’t merely redundant – it’s pointless.

For better or worse, Psycho is the title most people think about when they hear Hitchcock’s name. The association is more than a little ironic — in many respects, the film is the least typical of Hitchcock’s works — but maybe inevitable. The Master of Suspense prided himself on his ability to manipulate audiences. And he was never more masterful than when he checked us into the Bates Motel.

(By the way: The late Anthony Perkins once told me that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t always live up to his reputation as a steadfast control freak. But maybe his experience with Hitchcock on Psycho was the exception that proves the rule? You can decide for yourself after reading this.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Radio alert: Talking Monty Python on Houston Matters

The good folks at the Alamo Drafthouse locations here in H-Town will be hosting special "Quote-Along" screenings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail on Wednesday (7:30 pm, Vintage Park) and Aug. 18 (7:30 pm, Mason Park). So, of course, I have decided to shamelessly gravy-train on the festivities the best way I know how -- by appearing on KUHF's Houston Matters program to talk about the greatness that is Monty Python with witty and erudite host Craig Cohen. The radio show airs at 12 noon, and repeats at 7 pm, on Wednesday. You can downstream here.

And in the unlikely event you've never actually seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, here's an appreciation I wrote way back in 2001 to bring you up to speed. (Warning: If you don't read this, I may turn you into a newt. Or, worse, unleash the Killer Rabbit.)   

Monday, July 04, 2016

Sing it loud and proud: "Livin' in America!"

With all due respect to "The Star-Spangled Banner," this, in my humble opinion, would make a much better national anthem. Sing it, O Mighty Godfather of Soul: "You may not be lookin' for the promised land, but you might find it anyway -- under one of those old familiar names like New Orleans..."

Celebrating Independence Day again with Bill Pullman

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.

(And before you ask: No, I haven't seen the sequel yet. I've been waiting for today, July 4. Seems appropriate, don't you think?)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Stop the Hate: 49 Celebrities Honor 49 Victims of Orlando Tragedy

They had names. They had faces. They had stories. They were not just victims. Forty-nine celebrities -- including Jane Fonda, Connie Britton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gerard Butler, Lady Gaga and Cuba Gooding Jr. -- pay eloquent tribute to the fallen in this 18-minute video launched by the Human Rights Campaign. Take time to watch it all in one sitting. And even if you start crying, watch it until the end.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Trailer Park: Assassin's Creed

I am thoroughly convinced that, as an actor, Michael Fassbender can do anything. No kidding: In just the last two years alone, he's given credible and creditable performances as a Wild West gunslinger (Slow West), a Shakespearean icon (Macbeth), a comic-book villain (two X-Men movies) and Steve Freakin' Jobs (Jobs). And mind you, that's only counting the most recent additions to a resume that already included his exemplary work in 12 Years a Slave, The Counselor, Shame -- and, yeah, yet another comic book movie, X-Men: First Class.

So when I got my first look at this trailer for the upcoming Assassin's Creed, which opens in theaters and drive-ins everywhere Dec. 21, I thought: Well, I'm not the world's biggest fan of movies based on video games. But with Fassbender in the lead role -- along with Marion Cotillard, Brendan Gleeson and the great Jeremy Irons in supporting roles -- OK, I'll go there. Besides, it's hard to resist any movie that contains the line, "Welcome to the Spanish Inquisition." Which, as any Monty Python fan can tell you, no one ever expects.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Trailer Park: Doctor Strange

Way back when I devoured Marvel Comics on a regular basis -- during the Nixon Administration, actually -- I thought Doctor Strange was one of the coolest cats in all of comicdom. (Especially when he was drawn by the great Steve Ditko.) So I am unreasonably geeked about seeing this movie. Because, really, with all due respect to Sherlock fans, this looks like the role Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Happy Anniversary -- kinda-sorta -- to me (and All the President's Men)

Sometimes an anniversary passes without your being fully aware of it, until you’re reminded of it by another milestone. Consider this: Last month was the 40th anniversary of the start of my first full-time newspaper job, as arts and entertainment editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. (Alas, that also was the 40th anniversary of my departure from my beloved home town of New Orleans.) And one of the first movies I reviewed for the paper was All the President’s Men — which opened 40 years ago today in New York.

Even before I landed the Clarion-Ledger gig, however, I had already reviewed dozens, maybe hundreds of films for high school and college papers, and various small newspapers (as a free-lancer) in the New Orleans area — including, no joke, The Clarion Herald, a Catholic weekly paper that ran my reviews of Woodstock, The Thomas Crown Affair, Wild in the Streets, Yellow Submarine and several other films, beginning when I was a precocious high-schooler.

So, one way or another, I got to write about most of the major '70s movies (and quite a few '60s classics). Indeed, I still have a Clarion-Ledger tearsheet somewhere that has both my original review of Taxi Driver and my review of a Peter Fonda action movie titled Fighting Mad — whose young director, Jonathan Demme, I singled out for praise.

Now I'm old enough to cover many of those movies in film history courses I teach at University of Houston and Houston Community College. And the world keeps spinning in its greased grooves.

Welcome to the movie wonderland of the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival

If cinema is a universal language, then the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival — which will showcase 80 features and over 100 shorts Friday through April 17 at the AMC Studio 30 — may be distinguished by Chinese and Italian accents. According to festival founder/director J. Hunter Todd, the 49th annual edition of his movie extravaganza will host the 11th version of its Panorama Italia, a sidebar of recent features from Italy, and the second Panorama China, featuring 20 new Chinese films, many of them accompanied by their directors.

Other promising items on the WorldFest 2016 schedule include:

LAST MAN CLUB — This year’s WorldFest/Houston opening night attraction is an indie comedy-drama — directed by Bo Brinkman, a native of Pasadena, Texas — about the last remaining members of a World War II era B-17 bomber crew who rally to help an ailing comrade stuck in a veteran’s hospital. Co-star Barry Corbin, whose lengthy list of film and TV credits includes Lonesome Dove, Northern Exposure and No Country for Old Men, will be on hand to accept 2016 WorldFest REMI Lifetime Achievement Award. (8 pm Friday, 1 pm Saturday)

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP — Filmmaker Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) doesn’t make nearly enough films, so expectations are high for his latest, a stylish comedy-drama based on Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale (pictured above) has earned glowing notices for her performance as Lady Susan Vernon, a duplicitous and seductive widow who aims to find “suitable” (i.e., wealthy) husbands for herself and her daughter during an extended visit to her sister-in-law’s county estate in late 18th-century England. Unfortunately, if you want a real-life glimpse at Beckinsale, you'll have to wait until this summer, when she'll appear as one of several celebrity guests during the June 17-19 Comicpalooza here in H-Town. (7 pm Saturday)

NORTHERN LIMIT LINE — After earning a 2004 WorldFest/Houston Special Jury Award for Rewind, his debut feature about the romantic travails of a small-town video shop owner, filmmaker Kim Hak-Soon returns with a decidedly more ambitious project, a fact-based drama about the 2002 clash between North and South Korean naval forces near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. The movie, it should be noted, was a box-office smash in the director’s South Korea. (9 pm April 12)

FIVE GRAND — Hankering for a little Western action, pardners? Well, director Tyler Graham Pavey may have just what you’re looking for in his indie-produced horse opera about a desperate outlaw who impersonates the lawman he has killed, and the relentless Pinkerton agent hot on his trail. (7 pm April 13)

GOLAN: A FAREWELL TO MR. CINEMA — If you’re a movie buff fond of the wretched excesses (and, sometimes, excessive wretchedness) of Cannon Films, the astoundingly prolific production outfit that gave us everything from cheesy spectaculars (Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Masters of the Universe) to idiosyncratic indie fare (Barfly, Tough Guys Don’t Dance), schlocky sequels (Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) to Oscar contenders (Runaway Train, Street Smart), you’ll likely want to take a look at director Christopher Sykes’ third and final documentary about legendary Cannon co-founder Menahem Golan. (5 pm April 17)

A complete guide to features, shorts, seminars and other offerings of the 2016 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival is available at the WorldFest website.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

TV Alert: Oscar post-mortem -- with me! -- Monday morning on Great Day Houston!

I won't be able to stay up too late after Sunday evening's Oscarcast -- because I've been tapped to join in an Oscar post-mortem bright and early at 9 am CT Monday with the lovely and talented Deborah Duncan on KHOU-TV's Great Day Houston.

Hey, there are far worse reasons to wake up early on a Monday.

Celebrate Mavis Staples on HBO

Mavis! -- filmmaker Jessica Edward's marvelous portrait of the great Mavis Staples -- premieres at 8 pm CT on HBO. As I said in my Variety review from SXSW last year:

Gospel music great, rhythm-and-blues icon, civil rights activist and all-around living legend Mavis Staples is celebrated with the infectiously joyful enthusiasm of a passionately devoted fan in Mavis!, a spirited and captivating bio-doc that richly deserves the exclamation point in its title. Director Jessica Edwards adroitly entwines archival material, newly filmed interviews and live performances to create a cinematic portrait quite capable of converting the uninitiated into acolytes, and elevating casual interest to flood-tide levels of respect and affection...

Of course, there’s more to the story of Mavis Staples than just Mavis Staples. Mavis! tracks back to the singer’s childhood in Chicago’s South Side — where her neighbors included Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield — and gives due props to Roebuck “Pops” Staples, her musically inclined father. Drawing on his background in blues and gospel, Pops joined forces with Mavis and her siblings (brother Pervis, sister Cleotha) to form the Staple Singers, the legendary group that sustained a slow, steady climb during the 1960s and ’70s from gospel performances at local churches to chart-topping with mainstream hits like “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” “Respect Yourself” and, yes, “Do It Again.”

But wait, there's more:

Edwards neatly folds into her Mavis! mash note a fascinating account of how gospel and folk music artists inspired, and were inspired by, the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the Staple Singers as entertainers and friends in 1962 after Pops wrote and recorded the plaintive “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” a heartfelt response to the abuse heaped on African-American children attempting to integrate schools in Little Rock, Ark. Pops in turn was impressed by what he immediately recognized as the pro-integration message of the folk song “Blowing in the Wind,” and reached out to its composer, a young singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan.

Dylan pops up periodically here as a relaxed and forthcoming interviewee, and the equivalent of a supporting player in the Mavis Staples story. Even before he met the family, he recalls on camera, he was profoundly affected by the Staple Singers’ recording of the haunting “Uncloudy Day.” (“That made me stay up for a week, after I heard that song.”) Later, he crossed paths with the Staples during production of a TV special titled (no joke) “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs!” — represented here with an ineffably hilarious clip featuring a boyish Dylan — and he was immediately smitten with Mavis. So smitten, in fact, that Dylan asked Pops for Mavis’ hand in marriage. Mavis recalls that her relationship with the future superstar stopped far short of wedlock. But, she coyly concedes, “We may have smooched.”

Here's a preview of Mavis! (And yes, that's my Variety review blurbed near the beginning. Because as we all know, it's all about me.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hail and farewell to Frank Finlay

You can thank Frank Finlay — the prolific and prodigiously talented British actor who passed away Saturday at age 89 — with saving audiences from the dreary spectacle of mediocre or worse performances by an infrequently employed character actor: Me.

No joke: There was a time in my life — very early in my life — when I wanted to be an actor. And I was so determined to be a stage and screen superstar that I let nothing, not even my painfully obvious lack of talent, stand in the way of pursuing my dream. Indeed, even after my clumsy performance as Shylock in a disastrous high school production of The Merchant of Venice — highlighted by a scene in which, while demanding my pound of flesh, I tossed a fellow student cast as Antonio onto a table that promptly collapsed under his weight — I opted to hone my craft as a drama major at the University of New Orleans (then known as Louisiana State University of New Orleans).

It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that I enjoyed my journalism courses much more than my drama courses, and that I had, despite persistant urges to act, a genuine fire in my belly for writing. Whatever lingering doubts I had about my true calling were pretty much banished the first time I saw a re-release of Othello, director Stuart Burge’s stripped-to-essentials 1965 film of the National Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s classic. I was greatly impressed by Laurence Olivier’s controversial performance as the Moor, and thoroughly enchanted by Maggie Smith as a sensual Desdemona. But I was downright astonished by Frank Finlay — by turns silkily beguiling and blunt-force brutal — in the role of Iago. 

All three of the lead actors received well-deserved Academy Award nominations, but Finlay’s was the performance that stayed with me for days, months and years afterward. And for a long time afterward, each time I thought about that performance, I also thought: “I can study acting all I want, and maybe even build a career as an actor — but I will never, ever, at any time in my life do anything that good.”

And that — along with my junior-year self-appraisal that I was the worst actor in all of Christendom — was what pushed me in what I hope has been the right direction.

Even so, I never held my rude awakening against Frank Finlay. In fact, I suspect his inadvertent vocational advice was part of the reason why I became such a fan, and why I always took such delight in seeing him not only in starring or co-starring parts, but as a supporting player (sometimes a scene-stealer, sometimes a fleeting presence) in movies as diverse as Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971), Alan Bridges’ The Return of The Solider (1982) and Norman Jewison’s The Statement (2003).

A personal favorite: His stylish swashbuckling turn as Porthos in Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989). The first of these films — which also featured his amusing cameo as a jewelry maker — allowed Finlay an opportunity to commit first-degree alchemy, so that he could transform even throwaway dialogue into laugh-out-loud funny business through his dry-wit delivery. When reminded that discretion is the better part of valor, his Porthos airily disagrees: “I can’t be discreet about how valiant I am. Shouldn’t be asked.” At another point, as he and his comrades gallop off to a rescue, he asks, more annoyed than anxious, “Can someone please tell me just where we’re going?” For decades after seeing The Three Musketeers together, my wife and I quoted that line to each other, in Finlay’s quizzical tone, usually — but not always — during extended road trips.

Finlay also played Inspector Lestrade to two different Sherlock Holmeses — John Neville in A Study in Terror (1965) and Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree (1979) — and made the most of a bad situation (playing the straight-man part of a British police superintendent) while Alan Arkin tried his best to replace Peter Sellers in Inspector Clouseau (1968). He was aptly seductive and affectingly wistful as the eponymous romancer in Casanova (1971), a six-part British miniseries written by Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), and relentless and resourceful as vampire slayer  Abraham Van Helsing opposite Louis Jourdan’s prince of darkness in Count Dracula (1977).

But wait, there’s more: Finlay was the breeder of The Deadly Bees (1966), the foil of Shaft in Africa (1973), Jacob Marley to George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), the ill-fated father of Adrien Brody’s title character in The Pianist (2002) — and the aged dad of Helen Mirren’s formidable Jane Tennison in the final two seasons of Prime Suspect (2003, 2006).

Here is an exhaustive and entertaining montage, obviously prepared by an informed and enthusiastic admirer, that offers an overview of Finlay’s many stage, screen and television credits. Watch and be impressed by the versatility of a man who played everything from Jesus Christ to Adolf Hitler, Shylock to Jean Valjean, Sancho Panza (opposite Rex Harrison’s Don Quixote) to Captain Bligh (in a 1985 stage musical of Mutiny on the Bounty titled – no kidding – Mutiny!) I don’t know if Finlay ever played Hamlet, but I am going to take my own first and last crack at the part by offering him the same tribute that the melancholy Dane paid to his father: “Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.