Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The nuns who taught me back at St. Vincent de Paul School would not approve

In fact, I'm pretty damn certain they would tell me I'm going to hell just for watching this NSFW trailer for Jeff Baena's The Little Hours, a wild and sexy riff on Boccaccio's The Decameron that may very well be the most outrageous thing anyone has done with that literary classic since Pier Paolo Pasolini got his hands on it.

The official plot synopsis: "Medieval nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) lead a simple life in their convent. Their days are spent chafing at monastic routine, spying on one another, and berating the estate’s day laborer. After a particularly vicious insult session drives the peasant away, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings on new hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile young servant forced into hiding by his angry lord. Introduced to the sisters as a deaf-mute to discourage temptation, Massetto struggles to maintain his cover as the repressed nunnery erupts in a whirlwind of pansexual horniness, substance abuse, and wicked revelry."

Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Jon Gabrus, Lauren Weedman, Paul Weitz, and Paul Reiser also are featured in this comedy of blasphemy, which opens June 30 in limited theatrical release. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to confession.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Furiouser and Furiouser: Ranking the Fast and Furious Franchise

For Variety -- The Showbiz Bible -- I have ranked, by testosterone level, all films in the Fast and Furious franchise. Yes, all of them, including The Fate of the Furious. You can read all about it here.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two great Johnny Cash music videos to watch on The Man in Black's 85th birthday

The great Johnny Cash would have turned 85 today had the Grim Reaper not intervened. But never mind: He remains immortal anyway.

To celebrate his birthday, I am looking back at two extraordinary music videos featuring The Man in Black. The first, completed after Cash’s passing, is for “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” It was the brainchild of Justin Timberlake, but directed by Tony Kaye, who was on hand to introduce it when I first saw the video at the 2007 Nashville Film Festival. (I have a fond memory of helping him fold up a recalcitrant baby carriage for his young daughter after the screening.) Look closely, and you’ll see celebs ranging from Woody Harrelson to Dennis Hopper to Chris Rock to Keith Richards paying tribute to the gone-but-not-forgotten superstar.

The second — my all-time favorite music video of any sort — is director Mark Romanek’s emotionally wrenching video for “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song that Cash claimed as his own when he covered it for his 2002 album American IV: The Man Comes Around. I first saw it late one night years ago while net surfing in my home office, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept so hard and noisily when it concluded that I woke my wife, who rose from bed to check whether I was having some sort of health issue. More recently, I saw it for the umpteenth time last week during my second visit to The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. (Spoiler alert: It's the last exhibit you see before the exit door.) I was able to keep from crying that time, but just barely. 

As Bono notes in this “Making Of” mini-documentary: "Trent Reznor was born to write that song. But Johnny Cash was born to sing it. And Mark Romanek was born to film it." True dat.

Remembering Bill Paxton... and Frailty

To pay my respects to the late, great Bill Paxton, who passed away Saturday at the ridiculously young age of 61, I am reprinting here my original 2002 review of his feature film directorial debut, the criminally under-rated Frailty

You might not immediately recall his name, but you almost certainly would recognize Bill Paxton for his solid and unassuming performances in Apollo 13, Titanic, A Simple Plan and Twister. Chances are good, however, that Paxton will become far better known as a filmmaker if enough people see Frailty, a directorial debut that is not merely promising but highly accomplished.

Evidencing the same uncomplicated, matter-of-fact naturalism that informs his best work on the other side of the camera, Paxton tells a complex and compelling story in frills-free, straightforward style that only serves to intensify the movie’s steadily escalating suspense and clammy sense of impending doom. And he’s smart enough to cast a first-rate actor – himself – in a demanding role that calls for a delicate balance of homespun charisma and soft-spoken insanity.

Frailty is, at heart, a horror movie, but almost all of the violence occurs off camera, and the chief bogeyman is all too human and, at times, almost perversely plausible and sympathetic. To its considerable credit, the film gets more mileage from the power of suggestion than any thriller since The Blair Witch Project. Better still, the camerawork is a lot less vertigo-inducing here.

So go see it, and have a great time. I’ll just sign off now and….

Oh. You want to know more, do you? Well, I was afraid of that.

You see, Frailty may be a fine movie to watch, but it’s terribly tricky to review. For one thing, I have to be very careful not to give away, or indirectly suggest, the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing plot twist. Come to think of it, even warning that there is such a switcheroo may be telling you too much. 

I guess it’s safe to tell you that most of the narrative is related in flashback – appropriately enough, on a dark and stormy night – as a seriously spooked-out fellow named Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) explains to a Dallas-based FBI agent (Powers Boothe) how his recently deceased younger brother grew up to be a most-wanted serial killer. Evidently, young Adam Meiks (Jeremy Sumpter) learned his lesson well while observing his father (Paxton), a sweet-tempered mechanic and loving father who occasionally slaughtered folks with a well-aimed swing of his trusty axe.

Don’t misunderstand: Dear old Dad wasn’t your everyday, plain-vanilla psychotic killer. In the flashbacks, we see that Dad sincerely believes he is doing the Lord’s  work – indeed, is following God’s personally delivered orders – by slaying “demons” who walk the world undetected by lesser mortals.

Young Fenton (played in flashbacks by Matt O’Leary) begs to differ, and warns his zealous father that, hey, murder is murder, no matter how demonic you think your victim might be. Not surprisingly, Fenton suffers dearly for offering this perfectly reasonable advice. To save himself, he must pretend to accept the notion that the family that preys together stays together. Nothing good comes of this.

OK, that’s all I can tell you about the plot. Actually I’ve told you one or two things that aren’t entirely true, but you’re supposed to accept them as the real deal until Paxton pulls the rug, and then the floorboards, out from under you. Frailty may remind you of The Night of the Hunter (or even To Kill a Mockingbird) in its ability to sustain a frightened child’s point of view. It definitely will leave you stunned and breathless, and perhaps fully prepared to argue with friends and total strangers about the meaning of the final scenes. Have fun. 

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Arriving just in time to be even more relevant: From Nowhere

After seeing the provocative and powerful From Nowhere last year at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, I wrote: 

Arriving in the middle of an election season when debates over U.S. immigration policy have devolved into sloganeering and shouting matches, From Nowhere feels all the more urgent and relevant as it applies human faces to abstract statistics and arguments. Writer-director Matthew Newton (Three Blind Mice) neatly avoids predictability and melodramatic excess in focusing on three undocumented teenagers nearing graduation at a Bronx high school, effectively using the specifics of their individual situations to illustrate opportunities and obstacles in the path of anyone pursuing the American Dream while hiding in plain sight. Credible and creditable performances by a fine cast of promising newcomers and familiar veterans enhance the emotional impact of this low-key but compelling indie...

I know: It sounds a bit like one of those “Eat your spinach, it’s good for you” movies. But trust me: From Nowhere is not just a noble gesture — it’s also a compelling, well-crafted and impressively acted drama that arguably is even more relevant right now than it was last March. The movie begins its theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles February 17 before (I hope) rolling out to theaters nationwide. Here is my original Variety review, and here is a trailer.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Me and Steve Bannon go way back

While reading Ann Hornaday's Washington Post piece about interviewing Steve Bannon last year at the Cannes Film Festival -- back when he was doing nothing more threatening than making right-wing agitprop documentaries -- I was reminded that I actually reviewed for Variety one of his more popular efforts as an auteur: The Undefeated, his 2011 feature-length mash note to Sarah Palin -- which co-starred, no kidding, Andrew Breitbart.

A sample paragraph: Faster than the speed of thought, The Undefeated is a history lesson designed for students with minimal attention spans. Bannon strives to give every scene an insistently propulsive pace, relying heavily on smash cuts, skittish pans and self-conscious switches between color and black-and-white. [The director] overhypes much of his archival footage and almost drowns out some of his interviewees with the sort of thunderous music one normally hears only in movies when astronauts are preparing to blow up meteors. The interviews are shot in a swervy, jerky manner that may be intended to come across as dynamic, but actually appear to indicate the videographer was barely suppressing nature’s call.

The funny thing is, my review was one of the more positive ones. But I bet that doesn't keep me off Trump's White House Enemies List. Especially if that list is ghost-written by, well, you know.

By the way: In her Washington Post, Hornaday notes that, over 25 years ago, Bannon served as executive producer for The Indian Runner, Sean Penn's first effort as a film director. Think those two guys still hang out together? 

Friday, February 03, 2017

It's about damn time: The Blackcoat's Daughter (a.k.a. February) opens March 31

It was a different time, perhaps a better time. The sky was bluer, friends were truer. Most people — not me, mind you, but most other people — still thought Donald Trump would never, ever get the GOP nomination for President.

It was September 2015. And at the Toronto Film Festival, I saw a chilling little film called February. As I wrote in my original Variety review:

“Let’s address the obvious right off the bat: Yes, [February] is the first feature written and directed by Osgood Perkins — son of Anthony Perkins, the late, great actor who made his stab at immortality as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — and yes, this, too, is a thriller that generates a shock or two through the grievous misuse of cutlery. (Come to think of it, it also features a portentous close-up of water swirling down a bathtub drain.) But rest assured, this slow-burning, sure-footed scary movie is likely to prompt discussions about things other than family traditions — or, if you prefer, bloodlines. An atmospheric and suspenseful indie with a subtle but unmistakable retrograde feel, it should score with sophisticated genre aficionados and anyone else inclined to savor a stealthy, unsettling escalation of dread before full-bore horror kicks in.” 

Not very long after the Toronto fest wrapped, February was renamed The Blackcoat’s Daughter. (That’s the title under which you’ll now find my review on the increasingly popular Variety.com website.) And then… well, not much. Until now.

A24, arguably the most venturesome distributor in the movie business right now, has announced a March 31 theatrical release date for February… er, I mean The Blackcoat’s Daughter. And if you can’t wait that long: It will be available exclusively on DirecTV starting February 16 before opening at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. 

So what’s it all about? That’s difficult to say. In my revised Variety review, I explain:

“The challenge facing those eager to talk or write about The Blackcoat’s Daughter is simple yet daunting: You can’t provide too many details without spilling an inordinate number of beans. Indeed, it’s hard to praise the three lead performances [by Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka and Lucy Boynton] — which, not incidentally, are very good indeed — without spoiling the pleasure of appreciating how each actress approaches her role.”

Here is the trailer for The Blackcoat’s Daughter — which, I am happy to note, doesn’t give too much of the game away. (And yes, before you ask: My Variety review is quoted here. Twice.)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Charlie Chaplin: Another immigrant banned from the USA

I try to make all the college courses I teach as, well, relevant for my students as possible. (Yes, I didn’t think I’d ever again be using that ‘60s/’70s buzzword either.) Most of the time, that requires a lot of time, effort and, most important, research on my part, to find direct (or even indirect) links to the current zeitgeist to make whatever material I’m covering – whether it be in a film studies course, or a journalism course, or Media and Society 101 – seem less like dry and dusty and, worst of all, irrelevant history.

And then there are times when God just throws something into my lap.

Today I screened Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid in a History of Film class. As usual, I pointed out that the term “Chaplinesque” continues to be used to describe everyone and everything from Adam Sandler’s Big Daddy to Zach Galifianakis’s Baskets. I also said they might be amused to know if they watched old black-and-white reruns of The Addams Family — and you might be surprised how many of them are familiar with that ‘60s sitcom through reruns on digital networks — that Jackie Coogan grew up to be Uncle Festus.

But today was a bit different. Today, I pointed out that Charlie Chaplin was demonized by J. Edgar Hoover and others because of his supposed “subversive” activities (which included, among other things, Chaplin’s directing and starring in The Great Dictator). And that in 1952, after he voyaged from the US to his native England for the premiere of Limelight, Attorney General James Patrick McGranery revoked his re-entry permit, and announced Chaplin would have to submit himself to interviews about his political leanings if he didn’t want to be permanently banned from returning. (You can read more about this shameful episode, and Chaplin’s response to McGranery’s threat, here.)

After telling my students all of this, I paused a few seconds, then added: “Gosh, aren’t we glad this sort of thing doesn’t happen in America anymore?” The general response: Laughter. And no one laughed louder, I should note, than two female students wearing hijabs.

By the way: Later this week, I am screening for another class Gregory La Cava’s Gabriel over the White House, a truly bizarre 1933 fantasy — which I scheduled before the November election — in which a US President suspends the Constitution, imposes martial law, dissolves Congress, summarily executes perceived enemies of the state — and is viewed as a hero.

Think I’ll have any trouble making that one seem relevant?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Hail and farewell to Gene Cernan -- The Last Man on the Moon

Such has been my good fortune in life that, on certain rare occasions, I have been in the presence of historic figures. At the 2016 Houston Film Critics Society Awards, I was privileged to be honored alongside -- and to joke around with -- astronaut Gene Cernan, my fellow adopted Texan, who passed away Monday at age 82. Months earlier, I was grateful for the opportunity to interview him for Cowboys & Indians magazine at SXSW after the premiere of The Last Man on the Moon, the exceptional documentary based on his autobiography of the same name.

My favorite parts of our conversation:

Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case… 

Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal tranquility base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana – which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there. 

Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood? 

I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. And the closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out, and I swam to the surface – and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, “I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did what was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire], and then kick his way back to the surface.” And that’s what I did.

You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the new documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story? 

From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. And I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere...

Look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover, or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon – what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.

(You can read the rest of our Q&A here. And you can view The Last Man on the Moon on Netflix.)

Friday, January 06, 2017

La La Land, Hell or High Water big winners at Houston Film Critics Society Awards

La La Land continued its extended victory lap Friday — two days before  the Golden Globe Awards — by picking up top prizes at the 10th annual Houston Film Critics Society Awards extravaganza. The HFCS (of which I am a member) named La La Land the Best Picture of 2016, and filmmaker Damien Chazelle the year’s Best Director, during a program presented at H-Town’s MATCH performing and visual arts center. La La Land also picked up awards for cinematography (Linus Sandgren) and technical achievement (production design).

The acclaimed modern-day western Hell or High Water picked up a pair of prizes: Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Screenplay (Taylor Sheridan).

Elsewhere on the list of HFCS Award Winners:

Actor — Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Actress — Natalie Portman, Jackie
Supporting Actress — Viola Davis, Fences
Animated FilmKubo and the Two Strings
DocumentaryO.J.: Made in America
Foreign FilmThe Handmaiden
Texas Independent Film AwardTower
Outstanding Cinematic Contribution — The Alamo Drafthouse
Lifetime Achievement — Margo Martindale

And to counterbalance all the honors, HFCS announced a dishonor: Zoolander 2 was named Worst Picture of 2016. Which, of course, should greatly enhance its chances at this year's Razzie Awards.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Prepare for 2017 with words of wisdom from Sir Michael Caine

I originally posted this back in 2011, but I think it's even more appropriate for today. 

From Sir Michael Caine, words to live by: "You are going to make every moment count. I mean, you better make every moment count. Live your life now; start in the morning. You mustn’t sit around waiting to die. When it happens you should come into the cemetery on a motorbike, skid to a halt by the side of the coffin, jump in and say: 'Great. I just made it.'"

Works for me.

And Sir Michael also said this: "You quite often see these middle aged people on television who’ve won the fight against cancer and now they want to live their lives differently and enjoy every moment. Before they just went along and now they’ve had this scare that they were going to die. I had that scare that I was going to die when I was nineteen when I was a soldier, so I have been living my life that way for sixty years now... 

"I was a soldier in Korea and I got into a situation where I knew I was going to die – like the people know they are going to die of cancer, except then we got out of it. But it lasted with me – I was nineteen. That formed my character for the rest of my life. The rest of my life I have lived every bloody moment from the moment I wake up until the time I go to sleep."

By the way: Sir Michael is 83 years old, and he already has two movies in the can -- Going in Style and Coup d'Etat -- ready for release this year. I strongly suspect he and Keith Richards will outlive all of us.