Monday, December 28, 2020

Happy 125th 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.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Hanging Chads, Jumping Couches and Other Memories of Election Day 2000 in Florida


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

Yep, You Heard Right: That's Sam Elliott Narrating a Joe Biden Ad

 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

Zooming and Broadcasting About POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief

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 a Zoom discussion about depictions of American Presidents in motion pictures at 3 pm CT Sunday, Oct. 25, with my HFCS co-conspirators Joshua Starnes (Coming 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

But wait, there’s more: At 9 am CT Tuesday, Oct. 20, I’ll be on the wireless with host Craig Cohen of Houston Matters on KUHF to talk even more about POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief. You will be able to live stream the show here.

POTUS Fest: Cinema in Chief gives movie buffs and political junkies the opportunity to view comments and reviews by HFCS members on the organization’s website about movies dealing with U.S. Presidents (like Thirteen Days, with Bruce Greenwood as JFK, pictured above). Participating members are choosing these films — ranging from docudramas to fictional narratives — based on ways they illuminate the demands, disappointments and determination that define our Chief Executives.

“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

Now Streaming: The naughty but nice Yes, God, Yes

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.

“The movie received a special jury prize for best ensemble after its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. But there can be no dispute that Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) is first among equals here as Alice, a 16-year-old virgin who has already experienced her first stirrings of sexual turn-on after watching — repeatedly — Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet steam up the windows of an automobile below deck on a VHS copy of Titanic.

“After that, it’s only a matter of time before Satan’s minions — well, OK, a couple cruising for a threesome in a dial-up AOL chat room that Alice inadvertently enters — coax her into her first exploration of masturbation. (VHS tapes? Dial-up AOL chat rooms? That’s right: The precise year is never announced, but these artifacts, along with pop tunes on the soundtrack, suggest a time period somewhere between the late 1990s and the early 2000s.)

“Dyer — who also made an impact at SXSW five years ago with her remarkably nuanced performance in Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns — is exceptionally adept at persuasively portraying Alice as simultaneously ingenuous and inquisitive, easily embarrassed but obviously intelligent, while she grapples with both an awareness of her sexuality and the aftermath of a nasty rumor spread by an obviously insecure classmate. (Don’t worry: He eventually gets what’s coming to him.)” 

Yes, God, Yes is now available on digital and VOD. You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Infamous should be

From my 6.11.20 Variety review: “There’s something perversely fascinating about a film as aggressively off-putting as Infamous, a lovers-on-the-run crime drama that practically defies you to develop a rooting interest in its two dim-bulb lead characters [played by Bella Thorne and Jake Manley, pictured above]. Writer-director Joshua Caldwell borrows freely and indiscriminately from several earlier and superior examples of its sub-genre — particularly Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde and Natural Born Killers — while attempting to craft some kind of cautionary tale about the many and varied ways social media can turn the dangerously discontented into sociopathic celebrity-seekers. But as he indefatigably underscores the obvious while steadily escalating the violence, he does little to sustain the attention of his audience while taking an unconscionably long time to arrive at a thoroughly predictable conclusion.” You can read the rest of my Variety review here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

On the Radio: Yesterday and today at the Drive-In

Had fun this morning talking with Craig Cohen of KUHF Radio’s Houston Matters about the colorful past — and current renaissance — of drive-ins. You can hear that segment of the program here. 

No joke: The first movie I ever saw at a drive-in really was The 30 Foot Bride Candy Rock, in Mobile, Alabama. And yes, my wife and I really did see Gone with the Wind at a New Orleans drive-in during one of its many theatrical reissues back in the day.

On a related note: Here is the story I wrote for The Houston Post back on Feb. 29, 1992 — Leap Year Day — to mark the closing of Houston’s last drive-in.

FOR ALL OUTWARD appearances, it will be business as usual tonight at the I-45 Drive-In. You can stock up on popcorn, pizza and Pic insect repellent in the concession shack. And you can take your pick of the boffo box-office hit Wayne's World, or the multiple-Oscar-nominated Bugsy, or four other major studio releases.

But once the final frames flicker across the outdoor screens sometime past midnight, the projector will shut down for the last time. Because tonight, the main attraction is The Last Outdoor Picture Show.

The I-45 Drive-in — the largest outdoor cinema in Texas, if not the entire United States, and the last of its kind in Houston — will close down for good after tonight's screenings. The admission, as always, is $6 per adult, children 11 and under free.

The 46-acre theater site, at I-45 North and West Road, has been obtained by Weber & Co., a Dallas-based development group that wants a K-Mart and a Builder's Square, not six battleship-size movie screens, on the property.

“We had originally hoped to stay open until Sunday,” says manager Jan Bettis, “and had a March 1 closing date in our ads. But then they sent us a letter saying that we needed to vacate by March 1. So we’ll be closing Saturday the 29th — Leap Year Day.”

The I-45 Drive-in will close just seven years after opening its gates — and nearly six decades after entrepreneur Richard Hollingshead opened the first U.S. drive-in in Camden, N.J. Camden's theater closed four years after its 1933 debut, a victim of public indifference. The I-45 closes tonight after fighting the good fight against home video, steadily increasing operating and film rental costs, and Daylight Savings Time — but finally losing to the rules of the real estate game.

Ironically, says Bettis, the I-45 was enjoying a slow but steady upsurge in business at the time she received the bad news of its impending close.

Bettis’ father, Cotton Griffith, has operated the I-45 through his Griffith Theaters Co. since 1987, when he leased the drive-in from its original owner, the Dallas-based McLendon Co.

“When we took over,” says Bettis, ''we heard that there had been trouble in the past, as far as rough crowds go. And they had kept kind of B-class movies showing. So when we came in, we added security, and we started doing our best to keep a first-run feature all the time, and just really built up a family atmosphere to where it is now.

 “It’s kind of sad to see it go, because a lot of the baby boomers are coming out with their kids. Like, your parents used to bring you to the drive-in in your pajamas, and they watched the movies, and you went to sleep. Well, that’s what’s happening all over again.”

Bettis smiles when reminded that drive-ins have traditionally been viewed as “passion pits” rather than family affairs.

“I’m sure that was true for some people,” she says. “You always have people that come and tell you, ‘My first child was conceived at the drive-in.’ But I think that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”

Drive-ins enjoyed their heyday during the 1950s, and continued to attract large audiences well into the early '70s. At one point, Houston moviegoers could choose among such outdoor picture shows as the Market Street Drive-In, the Tidwell, the McLendon 3 and the Thunderbird, where double (and sometimes triple) bills were always available at cut-rate prices. And because drive-ins always needed movies for the bottom half (or two-thirds) of their bills, some movies (especially cult favorites like Thunder Road, Vanishing Point and Walking Tall ) remained in continual circulation long after their initial release.

By the '80s, however, drive-ins were in a state of free-fall decline. Movies began to appear on home video and pay-cable, sometimes even before they made the bottom half of drive-in bills.

“Daylight Savings Time did a lot to hurt drive-ins,” says Bettis. “Because a lot of times, people just don't want to stay up that late. In the summer, we don’t start showing until almost 9 p.m. And by the time that’s over, most people want to be home in their beds.”

“At one time,” says Cotton Griffith, “there were over 20 drive-ins in Houston alone. At the I-45, we’re the Last of the Mohicans, in a sense.”

The target audience for the I-45?

“Anybody and everybody,” Bettis says. “We have grandmas and grandpas that come out here and bring their grandkids, and sit in lawn chairs. And then we have the younger couples that come out with their kids.

“And then we have teen-agers — a lot of teen-agers. Since most of the drive-ins in Houston closed in the early '80s, they’ve never been to a drive-in before. We’ve had several that just drive through the box-office, and just park on the lot. And you go out, and say, ‘Well, did you plan on paying, or what?’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, doesn’t somebody come out to your car to get your money? How do you do this?’”

Joe Bob Briggs, the nationally syndicated drive-in movie critic, has waxed wroth and waxed nostalgic about the closing of Houston’s final outdoor cinema.

“I’ll never forget my happiest moment at the I-45 Drive-In,” says Briggs, “at the world premiere of Yor: The Hunter from the Future, in 1984. The whole thing was staged by Columbia Pictures so that I would see the movie, but none of the indoor movie critics would. And their efforts paid off. Because of my review, Yor: The Hunter from the Future made $15, instead of the mere $5 it would have made.

“Also, I can't think of the I-45 without remembering that it was the last drive-in built by the late Gordon McLendon, the godfather of the drive-in, the man who built more drive-ins than any man in America. If Gordon could see what’s happening to the I-45…

“Actually, now that I think about it, Gordon would be happy to see what’s happening to the I-45, because Gordon always regarded his drive-ins as investments in raw land. And when it’s time to sell, it’s time to sell.”

On a more serious note, John Bloom, Joe Bob Briggs' more sober-sided alter ego, suggests that economics, not home video or Daylight Savings Time, is the chief culprit in the decline of drive-ins nationwide.

“When most drive-in were built in the 1950s,” Bloom says, “they were on the edge of town so they could be away from the lights. As the towns grew, especially during the 1970s, the town would grow out and surround the drive-in. Depending on what was built around it, the land would become more valuable and the offers for the property would become so big that eventually the owners would sell out.”

And even if the drive-in site itself isn’t sold, Bettis says, the development of surrounding land can hurt business.

“Like, with the I-45,” Bettis says, “you have all the surrounding light that we have out here now. When they put in these freeway lights, that really killed us. And then they built the Wal-Mart, and took down our fence.”

Griffith would like to see some bold entrepreneur take a stab at filling the void that will be left with the I-45’s demise. But he doesn’t hold out much hope for that happening.

“It’s very doubtful,” Griffith says, “because of the land costs and the installation costs. And the film rentals are extremely high. These days, the only way a (drive-in) makes money is with the concession stand. That’s why popcorn prices are so ridiculous.”

So, in all probability, tonight will mark “The End” for outdoor moviegoing in Houston. There are no sequels in store. That’s all, folks.

“That's the drive-in way,” says Joe Bob Briggs. “It's also the Texas way. They can rip down those six drive-in screens, but they can’t take away our memories. We’ll always have Yor.”

Friday, May 08, 2020

Rewind: Yana's Friends

This is my July 2002 review of Yana’s Friends, a movie that might  strike you as pertinent and appropriate for our anxious age of shelter-in-place.

Here’s the pitch: Russian émigrés endure romantic and financial upheavals after arriving in Israel just before the start of the 1991 Gulf War. Sounds like a scenario for heavy drama, right? Guess again.

Writer-director Arik Kaplun plays the cultural and emotional clashes mostly for laughs in Yana's Friends, an engaging romantic comedy that earned nearly all of the glittering prizes at the 1999 Israeli Academy Awards.

It has taken more than two years for this free-spirited and life-affirming film to gain wide exposure on the U.S. art-house circuit, which says a lot -- none of it good -- about the bottom-line mentality that prevails even among supposedly “independent” distributors. In one key respect, however, the timing of the delayed release is fortuitous: After 9/11, perhaps American moviegoers will be all the more receptive to this intelligently heartfelt celebration of love and resilience in the shadow of war and catastrophe.

Lovely young Yana -- winningly played by Evelyne Kaplun, the director’s real-life wife – arrives in Tel Aviv to start a new life with Fima (Israel Damidov), her wheeler-dealer husband. Unfortunately, Fima soon decides to wheel and deal his way back to Russia. Yana is left to fend for herself, penniless and pregnant, while continuing to share an apartment with Eli (Nir Levi), a womanizing would-be filmmaker who supports himself as a wedding videographer.

Predictably, one thing leads to another, and the roommates fall in love. Unpredictably, the lovers and their neighbors manage to survive and thrive while only slightly inconvenienced by the demands of life during a state of war. Air-raid sirens wail, designated rooms are meticulously sealed – to provide safe havens from poison-gas attacks – and everyone wonders if the next sound they hear will be a Scud missile fired from Iraq. Even so, life goes on.

Another Russian émigré, a hotheaded hustler named Alik (Vladimir Friedman), stumbles into a profitable scam that requires the exploitation of his seemingly senile father-in-law (Moscu Alcalay). An accordion-playing street musician (Shmil Ben-Ari) tries to maintain his prime location on a well-traveled thoroughfare. And Rosa (Dalia Friedland), the cranky landlady of the apartment building where most of the main characters live, enjoys a sentimental reunion that proves it's never too late for happily-ever-aftering.

Yana's Friends isn't a black comedy, strictly speaking. But it somehow manages to find a surprising amount of humor in deadly serious and even potentially tragic situations. Typical of the movie's cheeky impudence is a scene in which Yana and Eli, brought together in a sealed room during an air raid, impulsively make love while still wearing their gas masks.
Hey, it's like I said: Life goes on. So does love.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Thirty Years On with Variety

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 New Orleans, I fortuitously discovered The Show Business Bible in a library and was instantly smitten. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that, while I was growing up, there was something truly magical to me about Variety, my own private gateway to Hollywood and beyond.

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 New York in the mid '70s, long after I had begun my professional writing career. It's a picture of me standing in front of the old Variety office near Times Square -- the one with the big Variety logo emblazoned on a huge ground floor window.  I am smiling a great big goofy kid's smile in the picture, like a True Believer enraptured by his proximity to some hallowed shrine.

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 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

Rewind: The Big Lebowski

Doug Harris, president of the Houston Film Critics Society, continues to thumb his nose at COVID-19 by hanging on his balcony spirit-lifting banners emblazoned with quotes from classic movies. And once again, I’ve been inspired by my favorite currently sitting president to rummage through my hard drive to provide an appropriate accompaniment. This time, it’s my original 1998 review of The Big Lebowski. And remember: It’s, like, just my opinion, man.

And now for something completely different: The Big Lebowski, an outrageously funny and indescribably weird shaggy-dog comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, the moviemaking siblings who last enthralled us with the darkly ironic absurdism of their Oscar-winning Fargo.

Not that the Coens have ventured too far afield from what they’ve done in the past. The anything-goes inventiveness of their latest effort recalls the high-velocity lunacy of their Raising Arizona. And the vaguely Raymond Chandleresque pattern of their new movie’s plot reflects their obvious affection for fiction of the hard-boiled school. (Blood Simple, their first movie, had its roots in James M. Cain, while Miller’s Crossing, their affectingly melancholy drama about lethally competitive gangsters, is a superior Dashiell Hammett pastiche.) Even so, as The Big Lebowski shambles along from one bizarre incident to the next, with a randomness that is more apparent than real, the comedy seldom covers familiar ground. Which is one of several good reasons why it’s so enjoyably loopy.

Jeff Bridges, an actor whose subtle sense of timing serves him equally well in dramatic and comedic roles, is extremely engaging as The Dude, a chronically stoned layabout who seems forever lost in the 1970s. (The movie is set during the early ‘90s, on the eve of the Gulf War, for reasons that the Coen brothers feel no need to share with us.) The character’s real name is Jeff Lebowski, which turns out to be a problem when two tough customers mistake him for a bilious millionaire with the same name. The bad boys break into The Dude’s comfortably seedy apartment and demand payment for debts incurred by the wife of Jeffrey Lebowski. When The Dude insists that he has neither a wife nor a disposable income, one of the thugs urinates on his rug.

Under normal circumstances, such rude behavior would be easily forgotten, if not forgiven, by The Dude. But the rug meant a lot to him — “It really tied the room together!” — and he’s determined to make someone pay for a replacement. So he somehow manages to locate the palatial home of the more upscale Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston). Not surprisingly, the millionaire gives The Dude the bum’s rush. Very surprisingly, the millionaire later summons The Dude back to his mansion, to seek our hero’s help in retrieving his trophy wife, Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), from kidnappers.

The Dude is singularly ill-suited for the role of private detective. Indeed, if he had his way, he would simply continue to concentrate on his favorite pastimes: smoking, drinking and, along with a few buddies, bowling. In this, he is very much like the Coen brothers themselves, who regard their ridiculously complex storyline merely as an excuse to place The Dude in the orbit of various oddballs and evil-doers. To say that The Big Lebowski rambles would be to give it more credit for momentum than it deserves. Even so, despite a final quarter-hour that is unduly protracted and, worse, insufficiently inspired, the movie is very amusing in its what-the-hell pointlessness, and often hilarious in its contrast between the blissed-out Dude and the desperate characters he encounters.

As Walter Sobchak, the hot-tempered Vietnam vet who is the Dude’s best friend and bowling partner, John Goodman offers furious comic bluster as a sharp counterpoint to Bridges’ foggy-headed nonchalance. Julianne Moore plays the movie’s most rational and tightly-focused character, Maude Lebowski, the millionaire’s sardonic daughter, who has her own plans for taking advantage of the Dude’s obliviousness. The extremely eclectic supporting cast includes such notables as Ben Gazzara as a well-to-do producer of cheesy porno movies; John Turturro as a flashy bowler with a checkered past as a sex offender; Jon Polito as a shamus who optimistically assumes that The Dude must be smarter than he looks; and, during one of the film’s clever but overly extended fantasy sequences, Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein.

In the world according to the Coen brothers, the Iraqi leader doesn't appear at all incongruous as he stands behind a counter and rents bowling shoes to his customers. Sam Elliott also drops by from time to time as The Stranger, a drawling cowpoke who serves as narrator, adviser and overall master of ceremonies. He, too, seems right at home.

BTW: The Big Lebowski inspired such a humongous cult that somebody made a movie about that cult. Here is my Variety review of the 2009 documentary The Achievers: The Story of The Lebowski Fans.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

This Could Be The Last Time

I forget where I read or heard this, but: There was a day in your life when it was the last day you played with your childhood friends. Not because anyone died, or because you or any of them moved away, but it was simply the last day all of you were together. And you didn’t realize it at the time. Hell, you might not be able to remember that day even now. But that day happened.

Must admit: I have been thinking a lot about that this week. Especially last Saturday, April 18, the 25th anniversary of the day The Houston Post shutdown. I’ve been trying to remember what I did in the Post newsroom on April 17, 1995 – who I spoke with, what we said – and I’m sad to say that, with precious few exceptions, I’ve been drawing a blank.

But now I have a more pressing concern: I’ve been trying to remember what I said to my University of Houston and Houston Community College students during our final class meetings before the lockdown last month. I hope I said something encouraging, or optimistic, during those meetings. Especially at HCC, since this is my final semester teaching there. I’m still keeping up with all of my students online, of course, as I receive and grade assignments after switching over from lectures to “distance learning” instruction. Yet still I wonder: If I’d known then that I would never see many of them ever again – what would I have said? And would it have mattered?

Our lives, unfortunately, are littered with last days that we don’t see coming, that we might not recognize until long after the fact. Most of them have nothing to do with death, and everything to do with life. Maybe the best way to live our lives is to live each day like it might be the last time we see the people in our lives?  

Monday, April 20, 2020

Rewind: Thousand Pieces of Gold

At long last: Kino Lorber is re-releasing at virtual theaters Friday, April 24, through May 7, Thousand Pieces of Gold. This is my January 3, 1992, Houston Post review.

Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold is billed as “a testament to the strength of the human spirit,” but don't let that keep you away. This exceptionally fine, independently produced film is a small-scale, clear-eyed, sharply observant drama that, among other notable things, does something movies do very well, but all too infrequently: It offers the audience a vivid and involving look at a fascinating chapter in American history that usually is relegated to the status of footnote.

The title refers to the price paid one morning in 1880 when a desperate farmer in famine-stricken northern China sells his adolescent daughter, Lalu (Rosalind Chao), to a marriage broker. Lalu is summarily shipped off to San Francisco, where she is purchased by Jim (Dennis Dun), the eager-to-assimilate agent of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), an even more coldly pragmatic Chinese immigrant. King operates a saloon in the Idaho mining town of Warren’s Diggens, and he wants to offer the local “white demons” something more exotic than beer and whiskey. Lalu, renamed China Polly by her new “owner,” is expected to work as a prostitute.

But Polly refuses to be exploited in such a way, and, unsurprisingly, has the gumption to back up her protests with a knife. Angry, but also a little impressed, King forces her to work as his personal slave, to pay off the cost of her purchase. Polly turns out to be a worker of indefatigable energy and endless resourcefulness. She quickly earns the respect, and slowly wins the love, of the one white man in town who fully understands what it means to be a prisoner: Charlie (Chris Cooper), a taciturn Civil War veteran who survived the horrors of Andersonville.

Working from a 1981 novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which recounted the life of the real “China Polly,” director Nancy Kelly and screenwriter Anne Makepeace take a straightforward but sympathetic approach to Polly's story, viewing the strange new world of the Idaho mining town through the eyes of their feisty heroine, but also allowing other characters to develop and reveal themselves. Thousand Pieces of Gold unfolds at an unhurried pace, but it never seems dull, because the events and details that it takes time to observe are often richly amusing, sometimes suspensefully gripping, and always utterly engrossing.

Rosalind Chao dominates the film, as well she should, with her strong, subtly detailed performance as Polly. By turns frightened and bewildered as she enters Warren’s Diggens, Chao's Polly nonetheless maintains a strength of will that makes it very clear, right from the start, that no man — not even Charlie, not even after he “wins” her from King in a poker game, then grants her freedom — will be able to have her on any terms but her own.

Charlie, who seems bemused and perhaps a bit proud as Polly develops into an entrepreneur, is played with winning self-effacement by Chris Cooper (the union organizer of John Sayles’ Matewan). Hard-drinking and war-weary, yet always a gentleman in his dealings with Polly, and a fair businessman in his dealings with King, Charlie is a complex character, and Cooper is remarkably good at bringing his many facets into sharp focus.

Thousand Pieces of Gold touches upon the injustices that afflicted Chinese immigrants in America of the 1880s — King must have Charlie as a business partner because of race-conscious laws restricting property ownership — and depicts, even-handedly, the bitterness of the white miners toward Chinese laborers, who are willing to work for lower wages. But the film is less interested in creating heroes and villains than it is in re-creating a specific time and place, and revealing full-bodied, sometimes contradictory characters. Even the rapacious Hong King, played with sly and robust charm by Michael Paul Chan, is allowed some redeeming qualities, while Charlie occasionally seems self-pitying and weak.

One particularly nice touch: Polly strikes up an easy friendship with Berthe (Beth Broderick), a hearty German-born prostitute who teaches Polly how to bake an apple pie. Two women from different, distant parts of the world, each recognizing the other’s essential humanity as they settle — awkwardly, reluctantly — into a new home. That, too, is part of the uncommonly interesting American history lesson offered in this uncommonly good American independent movie.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Some random thoughts about the Oklahoma City Bombing, my wife, Chuck Norris, and a spectacularly ill-timed Top Dog

On April 19, 1995, one day after the closing of The Houston Post, at 9:02 am CST, there was a terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. Sixteen Social Security employees were among the 168 people who were killed. My wife was working for Social Security at the time.
I feared this would be the first in a series of terrorist attacks on federal offices across the entire nation. So, the next day, I begged my wife not to go to work. Her reply: “Fuck it. You lost your job. One of us has to be making money.” I couldn’t argue with that, so I stayed home and cooked dinner and washed dishes.
 Less than two weeks later, I covered for Variety “Top Dog,” an unfortunately ill-timed Chuck Norris dramedy about a San Diego cop, his love-hate relationship with a bomb-sniffing K-9 and, as I said in my review, “right-wing extremists who plant bombs in public buildings as part of their campaign of terror.” The movie wasn’t half-bad, and it certainly wasn’t Chuck’s fault that I got creeped out, but…
BTW: Note in the review the reference to April 20 as Hitler’s birthday. I wonder what fresh hell might await us tomorrow?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

It Was 25 Years Ago Today: The End of The Houston Post

At around 10 am on April 18, 1995, one of my Houston Post editors called me at home while I was eating breakfast to break the bad news: The Post was shutting down, effective immediately, and we had until 5 pm to get all of our belongings out of the building.

It was a shock. But it wasn’t a surprise. 

Truth to tell, The Post had been on shaky financial ground long before the owners opted to pull the plug. And by the way: By “closing,” the owners were able to sell all their assets for a hefty sum to the Hearst Corporation, owners of the competing Houston Chronicle, allowing Hearst to avoid any inconvenient anti-monopoly regulations that might have kicked in had Hearst simply bought The Post. There were rumors that other companies had made offers to purchase our paper, and keep it afloat, but Heart evidently dangled a bigger check than anyone else.

That the fourth largest city in the United States had suddenly become a one-newspaper town was really big news for, oh, I dunno, maybe 24 hours. The next day, however, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred — a much worse tragedy, I would readily agree — and people stopped paying attention. Nowadays, I suppose, the Post closing might have remained fodder for cable TV chat shows for a week or so. But that is now, this was then. I vividly remember being interviewed by a headhunter for an out-of-town paper — one of several that descended on Houston the day after the closing, to see who might be worth recruiting — in a Holiday Inn hotel room. The guy was polite, and seemed truly sympathetic. (He represented the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I did wind up landing a few free-lancing gigs from that paper.) But throughout our conversation, it was obvious that while he had one eye trained on me, he had the other eye trained on a TV across the room that was telecasting live reports on the Oklahoma City horror.

For years afterward, I likened what happened to me 25 years ago today to being aboard a ship that had suddenly been shot out from under me. Instead of grasping for any debris that might keep me afloat, I lunged toward anything, anywhere, that might keep me, at least temporarily, solvent. The Post closed on a Tuesday. By the following Friday, I had a free-lance piece in the Houston Chronicle — an interview with director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose Oscar-winning Burnt By the Sun was the opening-night film that year for the WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. The following Sunday, I was one of a small group of Post survivors who were interviewed on the morning news show aired by KPRC-TV, the NBC affiliate. When the show ended, I approached the producer and suggested that, hey, wouldn’t movie reviews be a swell addition to his program? The following Sunday, I was on the air.

And yes, I have no doubt that had there been podcasts then, I would have launched one of those, too.

To this day, I can tell you who called me within hours after news of the Post closing broke to offer condolences, job leads and/or, no kidding, office equipment. I can also tell you who returned my calls during the days and weeks afterward. And I can tell you who immediately stopped taking my calls.

Clint Eastwood had one of his people call me to promise that he’d make himself available for an interview to promote his next movie, and he didn’t really care when or even if I could sell it. (He made good on that promise, and I did sell the interview pegged to the release of The Bridges of Madison County.) Todd McCarthy, then my editor at Variety, called with a fistful of free-lance review assignments — I had been writing for The Showbiz Bible since 1990 — and a promise that the paper would cover my expenses for the next Sundance Film Festival. (Again: Promises made, promises kept.)  Saundra Saperstein of the Toronto Film Festival called to assure me that I would get my press credentials for that festival the following September, no matter what. 

It was during the 1995 Toronto Fest, incidentally, that (with a little help from fellow critic Jami Bernard) I did an interview with Denzel Washington (tied to Devil in a Blue Dress) for the New York Daily News. Not long afterwards, when my son George asked me how he was able to have such a swell 9th birthday party even though daddy was, ahem, unemployed, I responded: “Uncle Denzel came through for us.” Years later, when I told Washington that story, he laughed heartily.

It helped a lot that, within days of the Post closing, Hunter Todd of WorldFest/Houston gave me an aging IBM PC that had been gathering dust at his headquarters. Up to that point, I had been getting by in my free-lance work for the better part of a decade with a Kaypro 2X. The upgrade increased my productivity immeasurably. (On the other hand: I still have 5-inch floppy discs of WordStar files from my Kaypro that I haven’t been able to access in a very long time.)

I worked so fast and furiously to assemble a patchwork of free-lance gigs, I didn’t have or make time to truly mourn the Post. The impact of what I had lost didn’t fully hit me until, while I was at the Toronto Fest, I got a call from my wife telling me she had gotten a call from the editor at a newspaper where I had been absolutely certain I would get my next film critic job. Except I didn’t. And somehow this shocked me even more than the closing of The Post.

Yes, that sounds impossibly arrogant. But consider: I started writing film reviews for professional publications in 1967, while I was still in high school, and continued while working in various capacities at The Clarion Herald in Jackson, Miss; The Shreveport Times; and The Dallas Morning News. When I landed my first (and, so far, last) full-time job as a film critic at The Post in 1982, I was truly in the right place at the right time. Editors under three different owners saw having a “celebrity” film critic as an asset to exploit while competing with the Chronicle. (At one point, God help me, I even starred in my own TV commercial.) So they encouraged me to attend as many junkets and film festivals as possible — it was not uncommon for me to attend Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Cannes, Montreal, Toronto, and the Sarasota French Festival within the same 12-month period — review everything from Hollywood blockbusters to art-house obscurities, and accept every interview request from any TV or radio station.

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.

Fortunately, Jeff Millar, then the film critic at the Chronicle, was… well, it might be unfair to describe him as burnt out on being a film critic. But he had other things on his plate — like authoring novels and writing the Tank McNamara comic strip — so he didn’t attend junkets or film festivals, and he really didn’t write as many reviews as I did. He was nice fellow and a true gentleman — he took me out to lunch the week after The Post closed — but I have often wondered if I would have achieved anywhere near the recognition I did had I been up against a 1980s version of, say, Justin Chang or Inkoo Kang.

Anyway: I got the call in Toronto, and that’s when it hit me: The Post was really, truly gone, and I probably would never again have it as good as I did there. So I lay down on the couch in the living room of the friends with whom I was staying — friends who, fortunately, were not at home at the time — and starting crying. For a long time. And then I got up, wiped my eyes, and headed out to the next screening.

Things weren’t too bad for a while. It was a Wild West period on the Internet in the mid-1990s, and some newly established websites paid astonishingly huge sums for free-lance pieces. (For the better part of a year, I was paid $1,000 for every interview I wrote for; today, I would be fortunate to earn a tenth of that sum for the same product.) It didn’t take long, unfortunately, for editors to realize how many younger, hungrier free-lancers would work a lot cheaper than veterans in their 30s and 40s (or older). I got a gig writing for the weekly Houston Press that lasted about a year, until the people running the chain that owned it started using the same critics in all their alt-weeklies. The KPRC-TV job actually expanded for a while — I did interviews (many now available on You Tube) and interviews on both the Saturday and Sunday morning shows — but ended in 1999. The same year my wife and I filed for bankruptcy.

(Thank God she remained gainfully employed the whole time I was between jobs — and was able to keep me on her health insurance plan. If she had not been there, I would not be here.) 

And since then? Well, I must confess: When a dear friend introduced me to Coldplay in 2008, and I heard the lyrics, “Now I sweep the streets I used to own,” the shock of recognition was more than a little discomforting. But then as now, I press on.
Truly, I have no reason to complain. I started teaching at the university level in 2001, a job I enjoyed so much that I went back and earned an MA degree so I’d be qualified to teach even more. (I’m still an adjunct, not a full-timer, but that’s the way it goes.) I still write free-lance reviews for Variety — I will celebrate a much happier anniversary, my 30th, with that paper next month and I’ve been fortunate to discover some fresh talents over the years. Indeed, I am often reminded just how important a Variety review, by me or anyone else, can be. (I once got an email from a cinematographer who thanked me because, after I singled out his work on an indie film, he finally was able to land an agent.) And since 2006, I have held posts as contributing editor and senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, which has put me in contact with many movie and music notables I admire. 

Looking back, I can see that I was a kinda-sorta canary in the coal mine when The Post closed in 1995. Many other newspapers have closed since then; many more no longer employ full-time film critics. I foolishly assumed that I would just leap into another film reviewing gig shortly after the shuttering of the Post. Even now, I remember what a friend and fellow journalist told me at the time: “They’ll be kissing your sneakers to hire you.” Every so often, I remind her of that statement, and we both have a good chuckle.

What neither of us could have foreseen, of course, is the paradigm shift that led to the drastic reduction of print film critics, and the massive increase of online film critics. For years, I continued to apply for film critic positions that sporadically opened up until… Well, I’m embarrassed to say just how long I kept sending out messages in bottles. But I do remember the day when I heard about a job, felt momentarily excited — and then told myself, “No, that time has passed. And you ain’t ever going to play Hamlet, either.”

Of course, to be brutally honest, it’s entirely possible that I was never as good as my friend thought, or I hoped, and that’s why I never landed another full-time gig. But even if that’s true, hey, I haven’t done too badly for a mediocrity, have I? Call me the Bob Uecker of film critics, and you won’t be far off the mark.

This probably is the last time I will mark the anniversary of the Post closing with any post this long-winded and self-aggrandizing. After all, I am not entirely bereft of shame. Still, I am a melancholy frame of mind right now that has little or nothing to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Well, actually, there is some connection: Because of the drastic cutback in advertising for newspapers and websites that can be traced to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdown, I know a lot of my younger colleagues (and a few older ones) currently find themselves in the same position I was 25 years ago today. As bad as I had it then, I fear it may be worse, much worse, for them. 

To the newly unemployed, I can only offer my condolences because, literally, I can feel your pain. I wish I could be more encouraging. But trust me: You’ll be much better off if you don’t expect anyone to kiss your sneakers anytime soon.