Monday, December 28, 2020
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.
Tuesday, November 03, 2020
On Election Day twenty years ago, I was at Ground Zero in Florida’s Broward County when the chads started hanging. And thereby hangs a tale.
I was in the area to attend the 2000 Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, one of several regional festivals that once invited me to partake of their hospitality — and their films — back when I used to be somebody. On Election Day, however, a colleague and I slipped away from the festivities (at her urging, I must admit, though she didn’t have to work hard to convince me) so we could do volunteer work at the local Florida Democratic Party headquarters. Mostly, I fielded phone calls from senior citizens who needed transportation to voting places. Later in the day, I also went door to door to pass out flyers, in the hope of driving late deciders to the polls.
That night, as my colleague and I watched the election returns in my hotel room, I… I… well, I went absolutely nutzoid when the first reports came in that Al Gore had won Florida, and therefore was projected as the next President. You think Tom Cruise did some couch jumping back when he was sweet on Katie Holmes? Hah! My colleague actually tried to quiet me down, for fear people in other rooms would complain about the racket while I hopped up and down on the couch, the coffee table, the kitchen breakfast bar, etc.
But then, of course, the first reports were “corrected,” and the Florida projection was withdrawn. And then... Well, that’s when I put down my glass, and picked up the bottle. And when that one was empty, I picked up another one. And after my colleague left, I uncorked a third.
The next day, I awoke with a very bad hangover. My condition improved only slightly when colleague called to awaken me with what, at the time, seemed like very good news: Gore had withdrawn his concession. Everything was still up in the air when I left Fort Lauderdale, but there was hope. A hope that was not dashed until a few weeks later, when, while I was at a movie junket in New York, I turned on the TV in another hotel room to learn Gore had turned in the towel.
I am not at all ashamed to admit that, for days and weeks and months and, yes, years afterward, I sporadically caught myself thinking: “Dammit! If only I had managed to get more vans out for voters! If only I had placed flyers on more doors! If! If! If!” Yep, another textbook example of Catholic guilt experienced by the eldest child of a dysfunctional family: It was all my fault.
Postscript: Seven years later, I was introduced to Al Gore at the Nashville Film Festival. Someone told him I had written a rave review of his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth as a free-lancer for the Tennessean newspaper — no, really, it was somebody else who did the mentioning, not me — and he smiled graciously while shaking my hand. In fact, I swear to God, he actually bowed slightly. For about a nanosecond, I thought of telling him the story of my seven-year guilt trip. But then I came to my senses, and made polite small talk instead during our brief encounter.
So now I am telling you the story I lacked the nerve to tell Al Gore. Because as much as I feel optimistic about Election Day 2020, I can’t totally banish nagging fears that Election Night might have some nasty surprise in store. I have champagne on hand to celebrate. But I also have a few bottles of the cheap stuff to dull the pain of possible disappointment. On the other hand, this time I know: If something terrible does happen, it won't be my fault. Honest.
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Saw it for the first time tonight during the World Series broadcast. Bet it won’t be the last time we see it before Election Day. Joe Biden abides.
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Along with fellow members of the Houston Film Critics Society, I am spreading the good word about our latest project: POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief, an overview of movies about real or fictional Commanders in Chief. And as part of that project, I’ll be taking part in aComing Soon) and Donna Copeland (Texas Art & Film). The discussion will be accessible at no charge to those who reserve a ticket — while supplies last — here.
POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief. You will be able to live stream the show here.
POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief“Movies take us places we may never visit in person,” says HFCS president Doug Harris, “and that includes the Oval Office… [W]e are in the middle of an extraordinary period in American politics. And by extraordinary, I mean bizarre, unpredictable, and off the rails crazy. Another look at these exceptional films might help reset the public’s expectations of what could be. Or should be. Maybe.”
Sunday, August 02, 2020
From my 3.13.19 Variety review: “You don’t have to be Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, to be amused by Yes, God, Yes, writer-director Karen Maine’s semi-autobiographical account of a Catholic high school girl’s coming-of-age experiences with self-discovery and self-gratification. On the other hand, the gentle shocks of recognition afforded by this engaging indie comedy likely will be all the more enjoyable (when they aren’t mildly discomforting) for anyone, male or female, who remembers having to confess impure thoughts to an inquisitive priest, or fearing the consequences of actions so forcefully proscribed by nuns and lay teachers during religion (and, sometimes, biology) classes.
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Friday, May 08, 2020
Friday, May 01, 2020
During an especially affecting moment in Spring Forward, one of my favorite films, Ned Beatty – playing a parks and recreation worker on the verge of retirement – marvels to a younger colleague played by Liv Schrieber that, somehow, when he wasn’t looking, several years slipped away: “Time goes by, and it seems like a little time. You turn around, and it was a big time.” How true.
Thirty years is a big time by anybody’s measure. But I’ve had a mostly grand time during my past three decades as a free-lance film critic (and, periodically, essayist and listicle compiler) for Variety, the venerable trade paper that I still think of as The Show Business Bible. That it actually has been three decades is a little disconcerting – has it really been that long? – but never mind. This weekend, it’s also a cause for celebration.
To be precise: My first three free-lance reviews – all of them for films shown at the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival -- appeared in the weekly edition of Variety dated May 2, 1990. One of the movies just happened to be Red Surf, a melodrama about drug-dealing surfers starring a very young George Clooney. (For the record: the other two were Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter and something called A Girl’s Guide to Sex.) One week later, Variety ran my review of another WorldFest/Houston offering, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, a spoofy sci-fi B-movie that showcased a very young Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role. And two weeks after that, I reviewed yet another WorldFest feature: Across the Tracks, a dysfunctional family drama co-starring a very, very young Brad Pitt.
So you see: Right from the start, I’ve specialized in spotting fresh talent for The Show Business Bible. Well, OK: I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to spot fresh talent. Thanks to Variety.
I already was gainfully employed as a film critic for the late, great Houston Post when I was approached – by no less a luminary than Peter Bart himself -- to serve as a Variety stringer. But in my mind, writing for Variety – even back when I started, at a time when film critics didn’t receive a full byline – was not just a step up but a leap forward. To put it simply and hubristically, it was, to my way of thinking, a sign that I had arrived. I had made the grade, passed the test, completed my apprenticeship – and somehow gained entry inside a very select circle. I felt I had become part of a grand tradition. And you know what? I still feel that way.
Blame it on my misspent youth. Back in the mid-to-late '60s, when I was a high school student in
On Fridays -- after school or, quite often, very early in the morning, before classes -- I would take the bus downtown to buy Variety at a newsstand. (It took two days for the weekly edition, then published on Wednesdays, to reach N.O.) I would devour all the reviews of movies and plays and TV shows, all the news about movies in production and box-office hits and misses, and gradually master the Variety-ese slanguage so I could fully understand what to the uninitiated must have seemed like indecipherable code. And, of course, I would marvel at the colossal special-edition issues dedicated to film festivals and year-end wrap-ups, all them filled with dozens of full-page ads for forthcoming movies.
I continued to be awestruck by The Show Business Bible well into my twenties and beyond. I still have a photo somewhere that my wife took of me during our first trip together to
So, of course, when Peter Bart called more than 15 years later…
I know, I know: Some of you will be quick to dismiss all of this a sentimental blathering, or shameless self-aggrandizing, or both. And that’s your prerogative. For others, it may seem odd, if not downright incomprehensible, for anyone to still feel so emotionally bound to anything so seemingly antiquated as a newspaper. But, hey, that’s my prerogative. Besides: I’ve also been writing web-only reviews for Vaiety.com for several years now, so it’s not like I’m exclusively an ink-stained wretch. But I remain, deep down, an analogue guy in a digital world, as my heart continues to beat to the rhythm of a printing press. That may change – well, actually, that must change, eventually – but not too soon, I hope.
This is probably where I should write something about all the notable filmmakers whose first films I reviewed for Variety at various and sundry film festivals. And after that, I guess I should toss out ten or twenty titles of films that I got to review before anybody else thanks to my Variety affiliation. But that really would be self-aggrandizing, and I would deserve every brickbat tossed in my general direction. So I’ll leave it at this: I am deeply grateful that I’ve been a part of the Variety team for the past three decades. And I look forward to my next 30 years with the organization. (Assuming, of course, that they'll have me.) Because even though I know that the day may come when print media as we now know it will go the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies, I’m sure that Variety, in some form, will survive and thrive. And I hope to remain part of its ongoing tradition.
Friday, April 24, 2020
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Monday, April 20, 2020
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Some random thoughts about the Oklahoma City Bombing, my wife, Chuck Norris, and a spectacularly ill-timed Top Dog
Saturday, April 18, 2020
Just how elevated was my profile? One year at Cannes, Bertrand Tavernier introduced me to friends as not merely a Houston film critic, but “the film critic of Texas.” After reading my review of Bugsy, Warren Beatty asked that I be invited to the Love Affair junket, where he granted me one of a very few one-on-one interviews. I had enjoyed similar exclusivity when I got to sit down with Francis Coppola and George Lucas for an hour at the Tucker: The Man and His Dream junket. Harvey Weinstein (yeah, I know) took me aside at a film festival to inform me that I ranked among the handful of critics working at the No. 2 papers in their markets to be considered, by a wide margin, more influential on local moviegoers than their competitors at larger papers.