Thursday, July 04, 2019

Once again, from me and Bill Pullman: Happy 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.

“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. ‘Mankind.’ That word should have new meaning for all of us today.

“We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom... Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution... but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive!

“Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Monday, June 17, 2019

New on Netflix: Wild West action in Big Kill

From my 10.19.2018 Variety review: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear — specifically, the mid-1950s to the late ’60s — when Paramount and Warner Bros. relied on producers such as A.C. Lyles and Hal Wallis, and directors like Henry Hathaway, Gordon Douglas, and Burt Kennedy, to maintain a steady flow of workmanlike Westerns for consumption by diehard horse opera fans at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. That’s the invitation extended by writer-director-star Scott Martin’s Big Kill, one of the precious few Westerns of recent years that one can easily imagine as a decades-ago vehicle for John Wayne, Dean Martin, James Stewart, and their contemporaries with only minor tweaking of the script (and some discreet removal of vulgar language, sexual references, and other naughty bits).

“Yes, it clocks in at a leisurely 127 minutes, but that makes it only four minutes longer than John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) — just one of the obvious influences on Martin’s scenario about an upright tenderfoot who learns hard lessons about rough justice in the Wild West.”

Come Tuesday, Big Kill will be available for streaming on Netflix. You can read the rest of my Variety review here, and my Cowboys & Indians Magazine interview with Scott Martin here.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

The funniest movie of 2019 (so far) stars Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus... and Chris Rock

Sure, you can hear a more melodramatic remix of “Old Town Road” on the potent new trailer for Rambo: Last Blood. But this version has Chris Freakin’ Rock. You can’t beat that. 

Friday, May 31, 2019

To celebrate the birthday of Denholm Elliott, here is video of the late, great British actor pointing a peeing dog at Dudley Moore

On this date in 1922, Denholm Elliott was born in Ealing, Middlesex, England. The great British actor — who passed away in 1992 — distinguished himself in many movies, most notably Station Six Sahara, King Rat, Alfie (as the seedy abortionist hired by Michael Caine’s irresponsible womanizer), Too Late the Hero, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, A Doll’s House, Robin and Marian, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Trading Places.

But I must confess: Whenever I hear or read Elliott’s name, the first movie that pops into my head is The Hound of the Baskervilles, a spoofy 1978 take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story directed by Andy Warhol protégé Paul Morrissey, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as, respectively, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Although it went unreleased in the United States until after Moore had scored box-office hits with Ten (1979) and Arthur (1981), my wife and I saw it during a day trip to London, Ontario while attending the 1978 Stratford Shakespeare Festival (where, by the way, we saw Maggie Smith in Macbeth and Private Lives, so feel free to turn green with envy). 

Critics have never been kind to this film, but I count it among my most treasured guilty pleasures. And the first time I saw Elliott aiming a urinating canine at Moore — well, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to literally falling onto the floor laughing since I first saw the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

P.S. The one time I ever got to do a telephone interview with Denholm Elliott, during my 1982-95 run as film critic for The Houston Post,  I figured it would be a good idea to wait until the very end of the conversation to mention how much I was amused by this scene. And I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that he, too, thought it was pretty damn hilarious.  

Monday, May 13, 2019

Looking back at Doris Day and Pillow Talk

As a tribute to Doris Day — who passed away today at age 97 — I offer this chapter from my 2004 book Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.(Trust me: The title was not my idea.) 

Whenever a film critic tries to disparage a romantic trifle by likening it to “a Doris Day movie,” you can be sure the reviewer isn't referring to Calamity Jane or With Six You Get Eggroll. The belittling allusion is critic-speak shorthand for a specific type of glossy fluff that flourished between the late 1950s and the mid ’60s, a genre best represented by Pillow Talk, the first and arguably best of some half-dozen movies that irreversibly established Day as the Virgin Queen of wholesome sex comedies.

Very much a pop-culture product of its time — and, as such, more enlightening than most historical or anthropological overviews of the period’s mood and mores — Pillow Talk cast Day as... well, to use the quaint nomenclature of the time, a career girl. She was 34 years old when production began in early 1959, and already had more than 20 major movie credits on her resume. But on the advice of her agent-husband, Martin Melcher, the self-styled financial whiz who would eventually squander most of her millions on ill-advised investments, Day decided to jump-start her temporarily stalled career by not acting her age.

The first image we have of Day in Pillow Talk is an admiring close-up of her lovely legs as she arranges her stockings. But don't misunderstand: She's in her own bedroom, alone, getting dressed for work. This bait-and-switch is typical of the tickle-and-tease that passed for sophistication in pseudo-risqué comedies of the era. (The DVD edition of “Pillow Talk” includes the original 1959 coming-attractions trailer, which promises “the most sparkling sex-capade that ever winked at conventions.” Yeah, right.) Another distinguishing characteristic: The movie's depiction of single working women — whoops, excuse me, I meant to say “career girls” — as pitiably incomplete and unhappy creatures in desperate need of a good man, a lusty ravishing or, preferably, both.

Day plays Jan Morrow, an interior decorator who's sufficiently successful to afford a stunning wardrobe, a spacious Manhattan apartment, and a housekeeper given to excessive drinking and wisecracking. Early on, however, Pillow Talk tips its hand by underscoring Jan’s true worth in the world. When she complains about the playboy who monopolizes their shared party line, a phone company official makes sympathetic noises, but claims he can't do anything to solve the problem. Yes, he knows that Jan needs to use her phone for business purposes. But, no, she can’t be placed any higher on the list of folks waiting for single lines. Unless, of course, some kind of emergency arose. “If you were to become pregnant,” he explains, “you’d jump right to the top of the list.” But -- remember, this is 1959 — that would require a husband, right?

Actually, Jan does have a serious marriage proposal to contemplate: Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), a fabulously wealthy client, wants to make her his fourth wife. But Jan isn’t interested, and not just because of Jonathan’s matrimonial track record. She simply doesn’t love the guy. And she doesn't want to marry anyone just for his money.

Could it be that Jan enjoys her independence? That's her story, and she's sticking to it. But Alma (Thelma Ritter), her cynical housekeeper, isn't convinced: “If there’s anything worse than a woman being alone, it's a woman who says she likes it.” Indeed, even the annoying playboy — played by Rock Hudson as the kind of guy who, in an updated remake, would likely read Maxim and Playboy — feels entitled to make snide remarks about Jan’s unmarried status. If she doesn’t like to hear his crooning sweet nothings to his many girlfriends every time she picks up the phone, well, that's her problem, not his. “Don't take your bedroom problems out on me,” he snarls.

Naturally, these opposites are destined to attract. Brad Allen (Hudson) — who just happens to be a good friend of Jonathan — is intrigued when he fortuitously recognizes Jan in a nightclub. She doesn't know who he is, however, and he contrives to hide his true identity by posing as a courtly Texas gentleman named Rex Stetson. He begins a meticulously chaste courtship, figuring the best way to lure Jan into bed is to behave as though his intentions are purely honorable.

And just to have a little fun at her expense, he drops none-too-subtle hints that any guy who's this polite must be — wink-wink, nudge-nudge — very devoted to his mother. (One can only wonder what mixed emotions Hudson felt as the famously closeted gay actor played a straight character who pretended to be effeminate.) Despite Rex’s pronounced “sensitivity” — or, more likely, because of it — Jan falls for his smooth talk. But just before Brad can make his move — are you ready for this? are you sitting down?   — he realizes he has truly fallen in love with her. And even then, he’s forced to delay his gratification when she sees through his role-playing.

Brad desperately woos her, apologizes to her, even hires her to redecorate his Hugh Hefneresque apartment. When Jan gets even by turning his love shack into a tacky faux bordello, Brad responds by smashing through her door, grabbing her out of bed, and carrying her down the street, back to his place. She squawks and complains, but, oddly enough, no passer-by comes to her aid. (Indeed, a passing cop more or less gives Brad his “Atta boy!” approval.) Or maybe it's not so odd after all: As I said, this is 1959, back when men were able to do this sort of thing with impunity — in the movies, at least — and women, when they came to their senses, seemed to really, really like it.
The funny thing is, even as you recognize the smug (and frankly sexist) assumptions on which the comedy is based, Pillow Talk remains inexplicably irresistible as a lavishly produced, campily retrograde guilty pleasure. (In 2003, the makers of Down With Love paid it affectionate homage by hiring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger to channel Rock and Doris.) It helps that Day and Hudson are such appealing farceurs, and the supporting players are such scene-stealing scamps. It helps even more that much of this particular “Doris Day movie” is undeniably hilarious, albeit in some of the most blatantly non-PC ways imaginable.

Feel free to laugh with Pillow Talk — but don’t be too quick to laugh at a glossy romantic comedy that many people took very seriously back in the day. One of the highest-grossing movies released during the 1950s, it edged out Wild Strawberries, North by Northwest and The 400 for Best Original Screenplay at the 32nd annual Academy Awards. That same year, Doris Day received her one and only Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her game performance in this “sex-capade.” No kidding. 

Monday, April 29, 2019

Looking back at John Singleton's Rosewood

As a tribute to John Singleton, the gifted filmmaker who died Monday at the ridiculously young age of 51, I offer my original 1997 review of his “Rosewood.”

Given the facts that inspired the makers of Rosewood, it shouldn't be surprising that so much of the movie, for good or ill, has the look and feel of fiction.

During the first week of January 1923, the residents of Rosewood, a predominantly black settlement in Central Florida, were savagely attacked by angry whites from the nearby mill town of Sumner. Until then, the people of both areas had co-existed in relative harmony. Indeed, many of them knew each other, had done business with one another. But this familiarity did little to diminish the bloodlust of the Sumner mob once a white woman announced that she had been assaulted by a black man. Over a period of four days, many black men and women were shot, lynched or burned alive in and around Rosewood. The exact number of the victims remains a subject of historical dispute — estimates range as high as 250. The survivors fled into the swamps to escape certain death, leaving behind all their worldly possessions. They never returned. Rosewood was wiped off the map. In effect, the mob from Sumner murdered the entire town.

The history and destruction of Rosewood remained unknown to the rest of the world for more than six decades. Survivors rarely talked of the tragedy outside of their immediate families. At first, their silence could be attributed to fears of reprisal. (After all, the folks of Sumner were alive and well and, quite possibly, ready to return to their vigilante ways.) As time went by, however, it became obvious to the descendants of those who had escaped Rosewood that the survivors were too traumatized — and, perhaps, too ashamed — to say anything of what had happened.

By the time a tenacious reporter for the St. Petersburg Times began to piece together the story of Rosewood in 1982, most of the survivors had died, and those who remained alive were reluctant to talk. Eventually, journalist Gary Moore — no relation, presumably, to the TV variety show host of yesteryear — tracked down about 20 survivors and their descendants. From their accounts, he fashioned a story that attracted the interest of producers from TV’s 60 Minutes. The resultant publicity fueled the efforts of Arnette Doctor, the son of a Rosewood survivor, to demand reparations for the survivors and their families. Finally, in 1994, the Florida state legislature passed a bill providing for payments to the Rosewood survivors. By that time, inevitably, Hollywood had begun to take notice. Producer Jon Peters acquired the rights to the story, beginning the process that has led to the release of Rosewood.

Unfortunately, by now there is very little first-hand information about what happened in the Florida town more than 70 years ago. Director John Singleton, the immensely talented young filmmaker who made his first impression with Boyz N the Hood, and screenwriter Gregory Poirier spoke to a few survivors and their relatives. For the most part, however, they were forced to extrapolate from oral histories and local legends. Clearly, the filmmakers have based many of their speculations on other accounts of racial tensions in Central Florida during the 1920s. Just as clearly, they also have tossed a healthy dose of Hollywood hokum into the mix.

Surprisingly enough, the mix jells into something truly substantial. Rosewood is such a cunningly constructed and emotionally overwhelming piece of work that, even when it veers off into Wild West clichés and Saturday matinee heroics, the drama remains powerful and persuasive. Singleton and Poirier take care to sprinkle a few complex characters among the familiar archetypes, and ground the entire story in reality by vividly evoking the specifics of time, place and attitudes. This may not be precisely how things happened in real life. But Rosewood is more than convincing enough to help us accept the more fanciful touches of dramatic license.

Mann, the most brazenly stereotypical of the lead characters, is also, according to the film’s production notes, the only character Poirier invented entirely out of whole cloth. Played with taciturn dignity and hulking authority by Ving Rhames, Mann comes across as a classic gunfighter hero — eager to settle down, reluctant to involve himself in scrapes, lethally efficient when push comes to shove. The big differences is, he’s African-American. More precisely, he’s a black World War I veteran who rides into Rosewood on a handsome horse, and is greatly impressed by a place the locals describe as “heaven on earth” for black people.

Rosewood is indeed usual for its time, being a town where most of the residents are black, and many of them are, by standards of the era, prosperous. One of the few white citizens, John Wright (Jon Voight), is a store owner who actually treats his black neighbors with respect. Whether he does this only because it’s good for business isn't initially clear. In any case, Wright has managed to earn the wary admiration of Sarah Carrier (Esther Rolle), a family matriarch who doesn't always speak highly of her fair-skinned neighbors. Mr. Wright, she tells Mann, “is a half-way decent white man — if there ever was such a thing.”

For a long time, Mann functions primarily as a plot device, serving as the audience’s surrogate while he is introduced to the major residents of Rosewood. In addition to John Wright and Sarah Carrier, the notables include Sylvester Carrier (Don Cheadle), Sarah’s son, a proud piano teacher who defiantly insists on treating white men as his equals; and Scrappie (Elise Neal), a 17-year-old schoolteacher who makes Mann think seriously about giving up his wandering ways. Rosewood takes ample time to let us know these people, to appreciate the simple pleasures and satisfactions of their everyday lives, before Singleton and Poirier ignite the nightmare. The slatternly white women who claims she was attacked by a black man — possibly an escaped convict — is a liar. (The audience sees her being assaulted by her brutal white lover.) More important, just about everyone in Sumner, even her husband, suspects she is lying. But that doesn't stop the rumors from spreading or the anger from blazing.

Rosewood makes it very clear that virulent racism isn't the only thing feeding the mob’s bloodlust. Most of the white folks in Sumner are depicted as low-income rednecks who bitterly resent the apparent prosperity of “those niggers” in Rosewood. In one telling scene, a sneering redneck wonders aloud why Sylvester Carrier can afford a piano while he, a white man, can’t. A friend points out that the redneck doesn’t even know how to play the piano. But that information is brushed aside as insignificant. It’s the principle that matters.

When the full fury of the hate-filled mob begins to hammer down on Rosewood, the spectacle is at once horrifying senseless and painfully familiar. By sheer coincidence, I saw Rosewood at the recent Berlin Film Festival, just a few hours after seeing Calling the Ghosts, a documentary about Croat and Muslim women who were raped and beaten by their Serbian captors during the Bosnian civil war. These women, like most of the other prisoners in their internment camp, had lived for years alongside their Serbian neighbors, and had assumed these people were their friends. Just like the black townspeople in Rosewood thought they knew, and were known by, the good folks of Sumner.

Late in Rosewood, there is a scene where the white mob dumps dozens of black corpses into a massive grave. Once again, the scene was all the more chilling for me because I viewed it in the context of a film festival where ample evidence of man’s inhumanity to man abounded. I couldn't help thinking of other things I had seen in Berlin — documentaries and dramatic films about wartime horrors and, even more joltingly, an exhibition at The Topography of Terror, a museum on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, that showed Nazis disposing of their many victims in a fashion very similar to that of the racists thugs in Rosewood. Hate is a virus. It takes different forms, but the symptoms never seem to change very much.

With all that fresh in my mind, I may have been more willing than most moviegoers to forgive the makers of Rosewood for wanting to show heroism and self-empowerment as well as evil and destruction — for wanting to provide some glimmer of hope in something like a happy ending. The movie is tremendously effective as a large-scale reconstruction of terrible historical events that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, Rosewood also gives us in Mann and John Wright two characters who transcend their differences, and their own mutual suspicions, to save as many lives as possible. (Voight is exceptionally good at illuminating Wright's moral complexities.)

To say more would risk spoiling the impact of the movie’s pulse-pounding climax. Suffice it to say that, by embellishing the known facts with a few romanticized flourishes, Singleton and Poirier have struck a fair balance between their responsibility to historical truth and their desire to entertain — and, yes, inspire — audiences.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Star Wars trailer

Yeah. I’ll cop to it. I’m geeked. By the way, here is a ranking of Star Wars movies I prepared for Variety around the time The Last Jedi was released. Guess I’ll be updating it to include this one and Solo… eventually.

Looking back at Trust, looking forward to “A Conversation with Hal Hartley”

Back in 1991, I selected Hal Hartley’s Trust to present as my Critic’s Choice at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. I am pleased and honored to report that on Saturday, April 13, I will be hosting “A Conversation with Hal Hartley” (10 am at the Westin Houston Hotel), and joining the director for a special screening of Trust (3 pm at the Memorial City Cinemark Theatre) for WorldFest/Houston. Here is my original 1991 review of that film.

Hal Hartley has done something altogether extraordinary for a filmmaker with just two films to his credit. With last year’s The Unbelievable Truth, his debut feature, and Trust, which opens today at the Cineplex-Odeon River Oaks Plaza, he has firmly established himself as a true original, an artist with a distinctive and impressive style.

Hartley is a humane satirist, a sly and compassionate trickster who illuminates his dark comedies with wary skepticism and reluctant optimism. He has a unique vision of life’s absurdities, and a well-tuned ear for the words we use to express and repress our true feelings. And, perhaps most important, he is able to make us laugh out loud at, and with, his sometimes hopelessly confused, sometimes misguidedly resolute characters.

In Trust, Hartley once again sets his story in a drab neighborhood of his native Long Island, and once again focuses on an anxious young woman played by Adrienne Shelly, the leading lady of Unbelievable Truth. As Maria, a 17-year-old high-school senior noted for her purple lipstick and surly attitude, Shelly makes one hell of an entrance. The movie begins with Maria’s informing her parents that she has dropped out of school, plans to marry her jock boyfriend — and, by the way, is pregnant. Her father, understandably upset, snarls: “Slut!” Maria slaps his face, and walks out the door. Dad has a sudden heart attack, and falls down dead.

Meanwhile, over at a nearby computer assembly plant, Matthew — a decade or so older than Maria, with an even worse attitude — is disgusted with the shabby merchandise he is building, and contemptuous of the foreman who wants to keep production flowing. When the foreman gets a little too insistent for Matthew’s taste, Matthew grabs the foreman’s head and clamps it in a vise.

And then things get really grim.

Maria is rejected by her mother (Merritt Nelson), dropped by her football-playing boyfriend (he doesn't want anything, least of all parental responsibilities, to interfere with his scholarship prospects), and nearly raped by a convenience-store clerk. Worse, she inadvertently witnesses a baby-snatching by an even more desperate character.

Matthew's day is somewhat less traumatic, but every bit as debilitating. He is the grudgingly dutiful slave of his father (Jim MacKay), a blue-collar manic-depressive who's never quite satisfied with Matthew’s housekeeping efforts. Matthew drowns his sorrows — or at least douses his pent-up rage — at his local tavern, where the wiser regulars know they had better keep out of his way. Then he wanders into his favorite haunt, a deserted house where, of course, Maria has sought refuge.

At its simplest, most emotionally affecting level, Trust is a love story in which the leads are profoundly skeptical about the very existence of love. At first, Maria and Matthew are exceedingly mistrustful of each other. And even when they let their guard down, there are problems. Matthew shows her his prized possession, a hand grenade that he says he carries with him at all times. “Why?” she asks. “Just in case,” he responds. “Are you emotionally disturbed?” she inquires.

As it turns out, both Maria and Matthew bear some serious psychological scars. Each is responsible, albeit inadvertently, for the death of a parent, and each is being guilt-tripped about it. And, yes, each is the product of a dysfunctional family, though that sort of jargon doesn’t begin to describe the full extent of their bummed-out, mixed-up condition. “A family’s like a gun,” Matthew notes. “You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody.”

Trust – can you think of another recent movie more aptly named? —begins with Maria and Matthew each realizing that the other needs saving, and gains richer, ever more intriguing complexities as each realizes the need for more self-directed rescue work. There is a quietly brilliant scene where Maria realizes how insignificant she must have seemed to her ex-boyfriend, and a heart-wrenching one where Maria writes in her diary: “I am ashamed. I am ashamed of being young. I am ashamed of being stupid.”

For his part, Matthew decides that he needs to be mature, and accept adult responsibility, if he will provide for Maria. Unfortunately, he goes about this in a way that is practically guaranteed to trigger his tripwire temper. And his hand grenade.

Trust has the stark, no-frills look of a small-budget, grimly serious independent production, which only serves to make its deadpan hilarity all the more jarring and amusing. Everyone speaks with a rapid-fire intensity, as though each character is determined to cram the most information, or the greatest threat, into a listener’s limited attention span. Almost all of the supporting actors are perfectly attuned to Hartley's offbeat rhythms, playing their roles and conveying their ill-proportioned passions with the utmost sincerity. And the leads are even better.

Martin Donovan has just the right air of rumpled, seething self-loathing as he plays Matthew as a man who doesn’t really care that he’s drowning, but is determined to toss someone else a life preserver. Matthew doesn’t want Maria to misunderstand — he respects and trusts her, and that’s not love, but it should be enough. Donovan makes it very clear that Martin isn’t any better at convincing himself than he is at convincing Maria.

As Maria, Adrienne Shelly has the more challenging role — her character evolves from mini-skirted bimbo to self-effacing victim, and from there to something far more formidable — and she plays it with uncommon skill, grace, intelligence and conviction. Trust is probably the only movie ever made where the heroine must put on, not take off, her glasses before the hero even thinks of kissing her. Shelly makes braininess, and budding confidence, very attractive indeed. When she smiles, you get the feeling she could inspire a man to do anything. She might even get him to give up his hand grenade.

Postscript: Adrienne Shelly was cruelly and abruptly taken from us in 2006. But her films — including Waitress (released in 2007), a charming comedy she wrote and directed, and which later was the basis for the long-running Broadway musical — remain forever in the present tense.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Wishing Happy Birthday to Jakie Chan with two more blasts from my KRPC-TV past

I interviewed Jackie Chan for the first time back in July 1996, during a New York junket for Supercop, at a time when he was making a major push to expand his international superstardom to the United States in the wake of Rumble in the Bronx. He was extremely ingratiating, but seemed just a tad anxious. Two years later, however, he came across as appreciably more self-confident while launching his first bona fide U.S. blockbuster, Rush Hour. (On both occasions, you'll note, he was quite the spiffy dresser.) My favorite parts of the interviews: He talks about idolizing Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, and studying Fred Astaire before choreographing a comic fight scene.

Extending birthday wishes to Russell Crowe with two blasts from my KPRC-TV past

As a birthday tribute to Russell Crowe, I have delved into the archives to post two interviews dating back to my days at KPRC-TV. In the first, I chat with the Oscar-winning actor (before he actually won, you know, the Oscar) about working with Denzel Washington and director Brett Leonard on the 1995 sci-fi thriller Virtuosity. In the second…

Well, before the cameras started rolling, I jokingly complained about “all you Australian actors coming over here and stealing jobs away from Americans.” He laughed — but I think he took the remark semi-seriously, because this triggered a long conversation about international cinema circa 1997. We had relatively little time left to talk about the movie he was on the junket to promote — L.A. Confidential. (At the very end of the clip, by the way, I owe up to my passion for Judy Davis. It was a different time, and you could do such things.) 

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

A free seminar with three indie filmmakers: This weekend at WorldFest/Houston. (I did say free, didn't I?)

To kick off the opening weekend of the 2019 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, fest ramrod J. Hunter Todd has slated a free seminar showcasing three directors — Steve De Jarnatt, Kevin Sorbo and Richard Krevolin — who have movies on tap during this year’s H-Town cinematic smorgasbord. The event is scheduled for 2 pm Saturday, April 6, in the Water Fall “024” Lounge of The Westin Memorial City Hotel. And because a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, I’ll be hosting conversation, and encouraging questions from the audience.

De Jarnatt will be at WorldFest 2019 for the 30th anniversary screening of his cult-fave thriller Miracle Mile. (You can read more about that here.) Popular film and TV actor Sorbo (God’s Not Dead, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) is director and star of Miracle in East Texas (pictured above), one of the dozens of features in the festival lineup, while Krevolin is director and co-scripter of Attachments, which will have its world premiere at WorldFest 2019.

So what is Attachments all about? According to the official WorldFest synopsis:

One millennial I.T. nerd plus one computer illiterate senior citizen equals one unlikely attachment. Attachments stars Academy Award nominated actress Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Donnie Darko) as Eileen Roth, a widow who needs to learn how to use a computer in order to communicate with her beloved granddaughter in China. As a result, she ends up reaching out to a young, socially awkward I.T. professional. It’s a warm, funny love story about two alienated and lonely people who change each other’s lives. Control. Alt. Cute meet.

And Miracle in East Texas?

Inspired by a true story, “Doc” Boyd (Kevin Sorbo) and “Dad” Everett (John Ratzenberger) are Bible-quoting con-men in the 1930’s. After being run out of Oklahoma, they set up their oil-rig scam in Texas, seducing wealthy widows and the members of the only black church in the county. But just as their plan comes to fruition, everything suddenly goes awry, and they are faced with the most important decision of their lives. Funny, engaging and uplifting, this is the incredible story of two men discovering the good buried within themselves.

All WorldFest 2019 films will be shown at the Memorial City Cinemark Theater. Complete info about plotlines and showtimes is available at the festival’s website

30 Years Later: Miracle Mile returns to WorldFest/Houston -- And director Steve De Jarnatt will be on hand for a Q&A with yours truly

Great news: Miracle Mile, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt's classic 1989 thriller, will return this weekend to the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival, for 9 pm Saturday screening at the Cinemark Memorial City Theater here in H-Town. 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, back in 1989, while I was film critic for The Houston Post, I introduced De Jarnatt's devastating thriller as my critic's choice at WorldFest/Houston, 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 thanked me in a 2015 Facebook post for being an early supporter of his film shortly before I conducted a post-screening Q&A with him in Austin. 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.

You can take a look at the entire April 5-14 WorldFest/Houston lineup here.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Darkness Visible: My 1986 review of Agnes Varda’s Vagabond

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond has the chilly clinical detachment of an autopsy report, and the profoundly unsettling reverberations of a vivid nightmare. It begins in the south of France, as farmers discover in their field the body of a young woman who has frozen to death. Who was she? How did she come to such an end? A faceless narrator, determined to answer these questions, seeks clues by investigating “the last weeks of her last winter.”

What follows is a series of spare, elliptical flashbacks, as the narrator interviews — or, to be more precise, quietly listens to — various people who crossed the young woman’s path. But in those flashbacks, we’re told precious little. Her name, she claims, is Mona. She used to work as a secretary, but quit because she hated the job. “People bugged me for a long time,” she says. “But that's over now.”

She says nothing of relatives, friends or lovers. She has no plans, no ambitions. Occasionally, she latches on to a man for food, or a warm place to sleep. More often, though, she prefers to stay on her own, sleeping in abandoned buildings, or in a tent she pitches in the damp woodlands.

Her aimless wandering evokes diverse responses. A girl vaguely resentful of her mother’s possessiveness speaks with envy of Mona’s “freedom.” An ex-hippie, now gainfully employed as a goatherd, chastises Mona as selfish, lazy and irresponsible. (“You’re not a dropout — you’re just out! You don’t exist!”) A buttoned-down agronomist, patiently awaiting the demise of his wealthy, elderly aunt, is terrified by Mona’s matter-of-fact anarchy. A derelict who camps with her in a deserted mansion is bitter about her sudden disappearance — but grateful that, after all, she didn’t steal his transistor radio.

And so it goes, anecdote linking anecdote, as we trace Mona’s path from a dip in the ocean to a stumble into darkness. She travels in silence along wintry landscapes, as solitary as the bare trees clawing at overcast skies. She seeks nothing more than the next ride, the next resting place, or the next place to cadge a meal. She merely shrugs off the trauma of being raped by a passing stranger, or the disappointment of a short-lived relationship with a vineyard worker. For a while, she seems beyond pain, beyond humiliation. But even Mona has her limits.

The severely beautiful Sandrine Bonnaire gives an excellent 
performance as Mona, betraying not a single trace of personal vanity as she slips seamlessly into her role. Every physical detail — everything from the dirty fingernails to the tattered leather jacket — is just right. More important, though, is Bonnaire’s impressive ability to convey Mona’s surliness and cynicism without obscuring the character’s naked vulnerability.

Vagabond doesn't try to explain Mona. Indeed, the narrator’s inability to comprehend Mona’s motives, or to discover the wounds that fester in the dark corners of her heart, is the whole point of the film. In Varda's view, some people quite simply are unknowable. They plod lemming-like toward self-destruction with the ruthless efficiency of a guided missile. And nothing anyone can do or say can deter them from their course.

There are few things in life more disturbing — and, yes, more threatening — than the spectacle of someone who just doesn’t give a damn. But, much like a violent traffic accident or a spectacular natural disaster, the spectacle has a mesmerizing fascination.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Remembering Akira Kurosawa's cinema -- and his laughter -- on his birthday

On this date in 1910, Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo. And I remain ridiculously proud of the fact that, during a Manhattan press conference tied to the 1985 New York Film Festival premiere of his masterwork Ran, I made the sensei of cinema smile.

I was asking a question, through a translator, about his reputation as a director of unforgivingly harsh and often brutally fatalistic dramas. And I wanted to know if he thought that was a bad rap, because there actually were some upbeat movies on his resume — like the sweetly romantic One Wonderful Sunday, a deeply affecting 1947 tale of life and love in post-WWII Japan that did not get wide US release until the early 1980s.

“Now, I’m not saying that you’re a party kind of guy…” I continued. But then I had to pause, because at that point, Kurosawa exploded into laughter. Which, of course, made me wonder how much he really needed that translator.

But seriously folks: Here is an appreciation of Akira Kurosawa and his work — tied to a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — that I wrote back in the day for CultureMap Houston

Friday, March 15, 2019

See Captive State now. Don’t wait for the cult to coalesce.

From my 3.14.19 Variety review: Given the allusions to literal and thematic Trojan Horses that pepper its third act, one probably shouldn’t be surprised that Captive State — which opened cold on March 14 after Focus mysteriously canceled screenings for critics — actually is something of a purposefully camouflaged interloper. Although the TV ads and other promotional material appear to promise a megaplex-ready thrill ride about space invaders and rebellious Earthlings, this rigorously intelligent, cunningly inventive, and impressively suspenseful drama plays more like a classic tale about a disparate group of resistance fighters united in a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force. 

You can read the rest of my Variety review here

Monday, March 11, 2019

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are The Highwaymen

From my 3.10.19 Variety review: "Arriving more than a half-century after Arthur Penn’s violent folk-ballad Bonnie and Clyde tapped into the zeitgeist and caught lightning in a bottle by portraying the Depression-era gangster couple in a manner that recast them as anti-establishment rebels, The Highwaymen aims to set the record straight with a respectfully celebratory depiction of the two lawmen most responsible for ending their bloody crime wave. Bosley Crowther, among others, likely would have approved of such revisionism. Still, this workman-like Netflix production — set to kick off a limited theatrical run March 15 before streaming March 29 — commands attention less as historical counterpoint than as a sturdy showcase for the neatly balanced lead performances of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson."

You can read all of my Variety review here.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Vincent D'Onofrio's The Kid is a dang good Western!

From my 3.7.19 Variety review: "The extended dance of death played out by lawman Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid has inspired countless accounts of varying authenticity in literature, cinema and prime-time TV, ranging from Sam Peckinpah’s violently elegiac 1973 Western (featuring a singularly hunky Kris Kristofferson as the desperado also known as William Bonney) to The Tall Man, a 1960-62 NBC series which fancifully imagined Garrett (Barry Sullivan) and Billy (Clu Gulager) as frontier frenemies in Lincoln, N.M.

"It’s to the considerable credit of actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham that they’ve come up with a satisfyingly fresh take on this familiar mythos in The Kid, a consistently involving and often exciting drama in which the two Wild West icons are presented from the p.o.v. of an impressionable adolescent who weighs the pros and cons of each man as a role model."

You read all of my Variety review here, and my interview with Vincent D'Onofrio here.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Luke Perry: The man who loved Truffaut

That headline is, I admit, a slight exaggeration. But Luke Perry — who passed away Monday at the ridiculously young age of 52 — really did express high regard for Francois Truffaut while I interviewed him for Cowboys & Indians magazine a few years back. Which, of course, was enough to transform me from an admirer to an ardent fan.

We were talking about Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (2013), the third in a trilogy of Hallmark Channel western films in which he starred as John Goodnight, a straight-shooting circuit court judge who dispenses justice with eloquence, compassion and, when necessary, lethal firepower. (Fun facts: 2011’s Goodnight for Justice was directed by Jason Priestly, Perry’s co-star in the original Beverly Hills 90210 TV series — and was, at the time it aired, the highest-rated made-for-cable movie in the history of the Hallmark Channel.) The official plot synopsis: “Between dealing with difficult defendants and dealing cards at saloons, John crosses paths with a stagecoach under attack. Drawing his gun, he comes to the rescue of the only surviving passenger, a beautiful woman named Lucy Truffaut (Katharine Isabelle, pictured above with Perry), who John doesn’t realize is actually a convicted con artist on the run.”

But wait, there’s more. Lucy doesn’t realize – at first, anyway — that John’s an honest judge. The bad news: Lucy is being pursued by Cyril Knox (Ricky Schroder), a wealthy aristocrat who wants her jailed. The good news: Lucy manages to convince John to help her escape – and board a riverboat where passengers are encouraged to indulge in high-stakes gambling.

Naturally, I had to ask:

Your lead female character is named Lucy Truffaut – like Francois Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who famously claimed, “Women are magic.” Did you intend this as a kind of wink-wink tribute to him?

Perry: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. When I sat down to come up with this one, the one sort of request that the [Hallmark Movie Channel] had made was that – well, in the past, I hung a guy, and shot a couple of other guys, and beat up a guy pretty badly in the last one.

Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

Perry: [Laughs] Well, being the judge and jury and sometimes the executioner, that’s all part of his job. But the Hallmark people said, “Luke, our audience would also like to see you do some romantic stuff.” And at first, I couldn’t figure out what would be romantic about this character so much. But then I thought, when it comes to meeting a beautiful woman —historically, we’ve seen it — that’s when we men make our worst choices. While we’re thinking of ways to woo a beautiful woman, they just get into our heads. And I just wanted to do a story about that. And Truffaut knew all about that.

By the way: Has anyone else who’s interviewed you for this film noticed the Truffaut hat-tip?

Perry: You’re the only one who’s caught it, you’re the only one who’s asked. And I so appreciate it.
(Note: Francois Truffaut also was 52 when he died in 1984. And also gone way too soon.)

Friday, March 01, 2019

You must remember this: Katherine Helmond in Brazil

No doubt about it, Galveston native Katherine Helmond — who passed away Feb. 23 at age 89 — was an accomplished comic actress in such popular TV sitcoms as Soap, Everybody Loves Raymond, Coach and Who’s the Boss? But I must admit: I will always remember her best for her absolutely fearless performance as Ida Lowry, the plastic surgery-obsessed mother of protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in Terry Gilliam’s audacious dystopian farce Brazil (1985).

Helmond talks about working with Gilliam — and enduring some painful make-up magic — in this clip from a 2008 interview. (You can view the entire interview here.)

Al Pacino might have played John Rambo. And Rambo might have died in the first Rambo movie. But...

After hearing yesterday’s announcement about the Sept. 20 release of Rambo: Last Blood — the fifth and purportedly final chapter in the long-running franchise featuring Sylvester Stallone as troubled yet tenacious Vietnam War veteran John Rambo — I was reminded of a conversation I had back in 2012 at Fantastic Fest in Austin with director Ted Kotcheff (pictured above with Stallone), the director who helped start it all with the original First Blood (1982).
Kotcheff reminded me that he came to the project after it had been offered to other actors — including, no kidding, Al Pacino — and before the fateful decision had been made to keep John Rambo available for a string of sequels, Yes, it’s true: At one point, First Blood was envisioned as a one-and-done melodrama.
Here are some highlights from my 2012 conversation with Kotcheff.
John Rambo actually dies at the end of the novel that inspired First Blood. And I understand that’s also what happened in early drafts of the script. Have you ever wondered what a different sort of pop-culture impact the character would have had if you’d offed him like that – and not allowed him to survive for sequels?
What happened was, originally, the movie was conceived as the story of this Vietnam veteran who’d been kicked around from pillar to post. He didn’t feel there was any room for him in American society anymore – he was a piece of machinery that was broken. But then something happens. When he returns to that town where he’d been told to leave, he’s on a suicide mission. This was it — he had to die. Because he didn’t want any more of America.
And I take it that’s how the character came across in scripts that went out to people like Al Pacino, who was offered the project before Sylvester Stallone came on board.
When I cast Sylvester, we worked on the script together. And thing about Sylvester is – he has a very good populist sense. While we were shooting the film, we had a pretty good idea what it was all about. But we rewrote the ending various ways – something like 16 times – until we came up with the idea that the colonel, the character Richard Crenna plays, comes in there to put him out of his misery, to shoot him. And when he can’t do it, Rambo commits hari-kari. That’s the “alternative ending” you can see on some of the DVDs.
It’s really quite shocking in its abruptness. Stallone just pulls the gun while it’s still in Crenna’s hand – and pow!
And after we shot that, Sylvester comes over to me and says, “God, we put this character through so much. He jumps off cliffs, he gets shot and has to sew himself up, dogs are sicced on him – and now we’re gonna kill him? The audience is really gonna dislike this.”
And then he said, “Also, looking at it from a crass commercial point of view, I’m sure that whoever distributes this film” – because we didn’t have a distributor yet, we made it independently – “they’re not gonna want him to die at the end.” And I said, “You got a point, Sly. I have an idea – I know how to do this.”
And that’s when you shot the ending where he survives.
And the funny thing is, the producer wasn’t happy. He asked, “What are you doing, Kotcheff? What are you shooting? We already agreed, this is a suicide mission. We can’t have him surviving.”
And I said, “Just leave it to me, it’ll only take two hours, we can shoot this other ending.” And he was like, “We’re already over-budget. We can’t afford two hours of shooting.” But I finally convinced him to allow me to do it.
And then?
We had the first test screening in a suburb of Las Vegas. And I have to tell you, I never had another audience respond like that. They were yelling: “Great! Get him! Get him!” They were so involved with the action, it was just amazing. And then, he commits hari-kari. Well, you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema. And then a voice rang out: “If the director of this film is in this moviehouse, we should grab him and string him up from the nearest lamppost.” So I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of here before they string me up.”
So it was a no-brainer to make the change?
All the response cards we got back had things written on them like, “This is the best action film I’ve ever seen, but the ending…” And all you saw were exclamation marks. Every card had the same reaction. So I just turned to the producers, and said, “Boys, I just happen to have this other ending.” That’s how it happened.