Luis Valdez & “the Vicissitudes of Hollywood”


by Glenn Lovell

Luis Valdez, the acclaimed filmmaker-playwright best known for “Zoot Suit” and “La Bamba,” was born in Delano, Calif., less than five miles from the San Joaquin Valley town of McFarland. Valdez saw his first movies in McFarland and, later, helped organize farm workers there. He would have been the perfect choice to direct Disney’s “McFarland, USA” (now on DVD and VOD), about a Chicano cross-country team and its initially skeptical coach, played by Kevin Costner.

Yes, but then the emphasis/perspective would have been different: the film would probably have been more about the high-school runners and their parents than the fish-out-of-water Anglo coach who struggles to fit in … andVH104ValdezHighlight2, in typical Hollywood fashion, saves the most troubled of the kids from themselves.

In short, with Valdez at the helm, “McFarland, USA” would not have been another in a long line of white-savior movies that includes “Dangerous Minds” with Michelle Pfeiffer and “The Blind Spot” with Hilary Swank.

“Sure, I would have loved to direct that (film), among many others,” replies Valdez from his Teatro Campesino office in San Juan Bautista. “The story of McFarland is a familiar reality, my reality. I grew up there. It’s an old, traditional farming community, not some foreign country … But it’s not surprising that Hollywood would continue to do the white savior thing: that’s long been a through line in these types of movies.”

That said, Valdez has nothing but praise for the Disney release, directed by New Zealander Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”). “I found it to be a wonderful film, positive and inspirational. The reality of the southern San Joaquin Valley is, of course, multi-layered … No single film can deal with all the relevant issues, but I was impressed by the final screen updates that many of the track members went on to college and then back to teach in their community.”

However, the movie industry overall continues to “lag behind” when it comes to cultural diversity, Valdez contends. “The impression is that Latinos or Chicanos are all recent arrivals, and (filmmakers) don’t take into account that we’ve been here as long as thLaBambae state has existed … If you can’t see past the ethnicity, you don’t see that.”

In 1987, Valdez followed up his screen adaptation of “Zoot Suit,” inspired by the Sleepy Lagoon riots of 1944, with a biopic about Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens. It was produced by Taylor Hackford for Columbia Pictures and starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens, who died in a plane crash in 1959. “La Bamba” earned over $100 million worldwide. Not a bad return on an $8 million investment. “Depending on how you define Latino films, it’s a track record that stands to this day,” says the director. “Robert Rodriguez has done some wonderful work and his films have grossed quite a bit, but they’re not strictly speaking Latino films.”

With “La Bamba” in the can, Valdez met with Hackford and new Columbia boss David Puttnam.

“We were feeling pretty good and we just sat around discussing ideas. And they said, ‘What do you want to do next?’ So I pitched them an idea for this thing called ‘Tortilla Curtain,’ which was a comedy. I got the green light. They approved it on the spot. ‘Yeah, go write it.’ I felt pretty happy about that. Then, when my wife Lupe and I were in London promoting ‘La Bamba,’ we learned about Puttnam’s resignation.” (It’s generally held that Puttnam was given the boot for ruffling feathers.)

Dawn Steel replaced Puttnam, who had produced “Midnight Express” and “Chariots of Fire” and was known for chancy, offbeat projects. Steel canceled Puttnam’s projects, including “Tortilla Curtain.”

Valdez next worked on “Old Gringo,” developed by Jane Fonda from a Carlos Fuentes’ novel about the disappearance of writer Ambrose Bierce. Valdez saw Bierce as “this weird Anglophile” and wanted Peter O’Toole for the role, which eventually went to Gregory Peck. After a disagreement over the script, he was “paid not to direct the film” and replaced by Argentinean Luis Puenzo. The film, released in 1989, was a critical and commercial flop.

Valdez was then set to adapt the Rudolfo Anaya novel “Bless Me, Ultima.” The prime backers: Jose Menendez and Carolco Pictures. While scouting locations in New Mexico, he received word that Menendez and his wife had been murdered by their sons. “After that, our film project fell apart,” he recalls ruefully.

“It’s just part of the vicissitudes of Hollywood,” says Valdez of his premature retirement from movies. “Because ‘La Bamba’ made money people assume there were a lot of offers. There weren’t. But I’ve had a fairly typical run in terms of things that have almost been made but weren’t for one reason or another.”

Valdez isn’t bitter. He doesn’t have time to be. His latest play, “Valley of the Heart,” workshopped at El Teatro, moves to San Jose Stage Company in September. Set in Cupertino in 1941, it’s a star-crossed romance between a Mexican-American ranch hand and the Japanese-American daughter of a soon-to-be displaced rancher. Also, “Zoot Suit” was just revived to cheers at San Jose State University. A multimedia fusion of drama and documentary, the new production was directed by son Kinan Valdez.

Does Valdez, who’ll turn 75 later this month, have another movie in him? “I’m interested in taking ‘Valley of the Heart’ to film. I think it would make a wonderful movie. It’s epic because of World War 2, but it’s also an intimate love story. Some people who have seen it on stage have said it’s ‘like watching a movie.’ ”

“Black Sunday” Deserves CG Retrofit


by Glenn Lovell

Reassessment time —

Just re-watched John Frankenheimer’s 1977 “Black Sunday,” based on Thomas Harris’s first bestseller and co-starring Robert Shaw as a glum Israeli commando and a rambling, beady-eyed, typically unchecked Bruce Dern as a Vietnam vet-turned-Goodyear blimp pilot-turned Palestinian pawn.

I remember interviewing an exhausted Frankenheimer at the time. I also remember all but dismissing this superior espionage thriller-cum-disaster epic. I mounted my high horse and accused the director of exploiting national paranoia stoked by what seemed daily airline hijackings.

In a later interview Frankenheimer — who died in 2002 at age 72 — confessed that the film’s failure took its toll on him emotionally. “WblackSunhen ‘Black Sunday’ didn’t hit big,” he said, “it told me that the movie god was not smiling on me that year. There was a lot of disappointment and depression, and I started drinking — heavily.” He added, “It didn’t perform to everybody’s expectations, which was that it would be bigger than ‘Jaws.’ It came at the end of the disaster-movie cycle … We just came out at the wrong time.”
Where immediately following 9/11 did Frankenheimer stand on terrorist thrillers? Years earlier he had directed the ultimate Cold War thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate.” “It would be irresponsible to do (a ‘Black Sunday’) right now — I’m just sick of it,” he told me in what would be one of his last interviews. “These are tricky times. I don’t think anybody really knows what to do right now.”
Wish I could take that “Black Sunday” review back, John. Despite the grainy but then-state-of-the-art blue screen work for the Super Bowl climax, you were right: it’s one helluva ride — grim, coolly observed, suspenseful (thanks in large part to John Williams’ nerve-jangling score).
Check out “Black Sunday” on DVD. Given current events in the Middle East, this ambitious, intricately plotted nail-biter couldn’t be timelier. Paramount and producer Robert Evans should consider doing a CGI retrofit a la “Star Wars” and re-releasing this all-but-forgotten gem.

Brando Estate Holding “One-Eyed Jacks”?


by Glenn Lovell

Good news for Western fans who have had to make do with that washed-out bootlegged copy of Marlon Brando’s “One Eyed-Jacks,” directed by and starring the Method legend as a reformed outlaw loosely modeled after Billy the Kid.

According to  Stevan Riley, writer-director of the terrific new Brando doc, “Listen to Me Marlon,” the Bone-eyed-jacks-life-magazinerando estate has found the negative for the 1961 Western and plans to digitally restore and color correct the cult film for DVD release.

“One-Eyed Jacks,” an adaptation of “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones,” began as a script by Sam Peckinpah (later fired and replaced by Calder Willingham). Stanley Kubrick, the original director, fed up with all the delays, asked Brando, “Remind me, Marlon, why are we making this film?” Brando replied, “Because I’ve already paid (contracted costar Karl) Malden $200,000.” With that, Kubrick threw up his hands and left.

With a famously indecisive first-time director at the helm, the film became the very definition of “troubled production.” It went significantly over budget (from almost $2 million to a then-staggering $6 million) and the scheduled 12-week shoot doubled in length. The film was shot by veteran cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. (“Ace in the Hole,” “The Magnificent Seven”) brandoin Mexico, Death Valley, Monterey and, for the scenes in which Brando’s Rio licks his wounds, a never-more-ravishing Big Sur.

Scorsese and Tarantino are on record as calling “One-Eyed Jacks” their favorite Western. (It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Johnny Depp, Brando’s close friend and costar in “Don Juan DeMarco,” someday mounted a remake.) Said Brando’s daughter, Rebecca, “I think it’s wonderful that the film is going to be re-released. It shows another side of my father, the side where he is a good director. I think it’s great.”

Brando’s original cut reportedly ran five hours. It was whittled down by Paramount to 2 hours, 21 min. Fingers crossed that the canisters from the vault hold the director’s cut.

Richard Corliss (1944 – 2015): Critic as everyman


by Glenn Lovell

Richard Corliss, TIME mag’s longtime film critic, has passed away at age 71 from a stroke. He was easily one of the most authoritative yet least pretentious reviewers to occupy the aisle seat. Unlike pundits Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, known for their labyrinthine tangents, Corliss conversed easily with the reader as reliable friend. And thanks to TIME’s notorious space constraints, he mastered the pithy, precisely crafted three- to four-graph review that still somehow left us feeling satisfied.

I always found myself flipping through the back of TIME to get Corliss’s take on the latest by Scorsese (he loved “GoodFecorlissllas”) or Richard Linklater (ditto “Boyhood”), and he never disappointed in either erudition or analysis, cynical disdain or clever wordplays. Along with Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, he was one of the only critics to sound off against the obscenely bloated “Titanic,” writing, “Ultimately, Titanic will sail or sink not on its budget but on its merits as drama and spectacle. The regretful verdict here: Dead in the water.” (He also slammed the Coens’ brilliant “Fargo” as mean-spirited, but, hey, we all have our blind spots.)

And when something caught his eye, he sang it praises like no one else. Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” he wrote, “towers over the year’s other movies as majestically and menacingly as a gang lord at a preschool. It dares Hollywood films to be this smart about going this far. If good directors accept Tarantino’s implicit challenge, the movie theater could again be a great place to live in.”

Corliss, writing in Film Comment, on the depressing state of his profession:

“The long view of cinema aesthetics is irrelevant to a moviegoer for whom history began with ‘Star Wars.’ A well-turned phrase is so much throat-clearing to a reader who wants the critic to cut to the chase: What movie is worth my two hours and six bucks this weekend? Movie criticism of the elevated sort, as practiced over the past half-century by James Agee and Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr — in the mainstream press and in magazines like ‘Film Comment’— is an endangered species. Once it flourished; soon it may perish, to be replaced by a consumer service that is no brains and all thumbs.”

You can sample many of Corliss’s reviews at

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015): “Sidetracked” by Spock in 23rd Century


Leonard Nimoy died February 27 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a nasty residual, he said, from a lifelong nicotine habit. In memory of the actor-director-author, best known for the pointy-eared, maddeningly logical Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan in the “Star Trek” TV series and several “Star Trek” movies, here are excerpts from an interview on the set of “Star Trek IV,” shot at San Francisco Studios and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

by Glenn Lovell

Between takes on “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” Nimoy ‒ sans Vulcan ears ‒ talks about the “Star Trek” legacy, his excitement over the latest installment and the long road to acceptance as a bankable filmmaker who also occasionally dabbled in theater (“Six Rms Rv Vu,” “Vincent”) and TV commercials (Hallmark, Western Airlines).

This afternoon on a San Francisco sound stage Nimoy looks more like an Ivy League literature professor, dressed as he is in sleeveless sweater and gray slacks. He refuses to do interviews in character. “He’s very particular about spock3that,” whispers a member of the crew. “He never does interviews as Spock.”

Unlike others who have been eclipsed by their screen persona (Sean Connery’s James Bond comes to mind), Nimoy has used his popular typecasting as the inscrutable Spock to gain a foothold in other areas of the business. He agreed to “Star Trek II,” only if Paramount granted “other creative opportunities.” The Emmy-nominated role in “A Woman Called Golda” followed. So did the opportunity to direct “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.”

Some have called this blackmail. Nimoy chooses to look upon it as a shrewd career move. Directing, he says, has always been his first love. Why not trade time in front of the camera for the pleasure of working behind the scenes?

“What people tend to forget is, I’ve been around a long time,” he continues. “I was working on a Hollywood soundstage in 1950. My first movies were ‘Queen for a Day’ and ‘Francis Goes to West Point.’ I even appeared in Republic’s last Saturday-matinee serial, ‘Zombies of the Stratosphere.’

“Directing for me is unfinished business. I started out wanting to direct, as far back as 1960, when I was enrolled in a director’s training program at MGM. But then we did the ‘Star Trek’ TV pilot and the series sold, and my career as a director was sidetracked by my success as an actor.”

Nimoy’s TV credits as director include episodes of “T.J. Hooker,” “The Powers of Matthew Starr” and “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery,” a show on which fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Jeannot Szwarc (“Supergirl”) also apprenticed. “But this picture is my biggest challenge. It’s the most physical ‘Star Trek’ in terms of size and scope. It’s major motion picture time, folks! But there’s almost more texture to this one, a greater range of emotion and humor . . . And we’re dealing with an important, timely issue.”

The environmental/ecology aspects of the new “Star Trek” came to Nimoy as he read a chilling study by Edward O. Wilson called “Biophilia” (Harvard University Press, 1984). It predicts that, if the current rate of pollution continues, the Earth stands to lose 10,000 species a year by 1990. Nimoy sought corroboration from scientists at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he conferred with the school’s dean of natural sciences, Frank Drake.

The research was passed on to Nicholas Meyer and producer Harve Bennett, who will share screenwriter credit with Nimoy. The completed script was hand-delivered to Roddenberry for the final OK. Roddenberry, according to Nimoy, said, “It looks so good it scares me.”

“Gene always meant for ‘Star Trek’ to be more than another science fiction series,” says Nimoy. “He meant for it to be a comment on the human condition ‒ a way of looking at the 20th Century from the perspective of the 23rd. I think the new ‘Voyage Home’ does this better than any of the others.”

Nimoy describes the first “Star Trek” movie, directed by Oscar-winning veteran Robert Wise, as “frustrating ‒ a carefully crafted piece of work that focused on everything but the characters.” The next two movies, in his estimation, “returned the family of characters . . . So we’ve continued to improve with each one.”

But even with the save-the-whales plea, “Voyage Home” is a lot lighter in tone than the others, Nimoy wants it known. “It’s a lot more of a romp, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ We zigzag a lot with this one. And Spock is on screen a helluva lot more. He’s alive, but there’s a question of his mental capacity. You’ll see Spock evolve into a three-dimensional character this time.”

Postscript: In all, Nimoy directed six theatrical features, including the hit comedy “3 Men and a Baby.”

“Steve Jobs” Comes Home


by Glenn Lovell

Call it a homecoming —

Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle — known for “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — is in the Bay Area shooting that still-untitled Steve Jobs biopic scripted by Aaron Sorkin from Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In mid-January, the company cordoned off Crist Drive in Los Altos, home to “the garage” where Apple was founded in 1976. Last week, principal photography moved to, among other spots, De Anza College’s Flint Center on Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino.

The always natty Jobs — sporting green bow tie and double-breasted blazer — unveiled the original Mac at Flint Center in 1984.

Michael Fassbender is standing in for the Apple guru, a role originally linked to Leonardo DiCaprio and (a dead ringer for Jobs) Jobs3Christian Bale. Seth Rogen costars as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the brainy Sancho Panza to Jobs’ big-picture Don Quixote

For the De Anza campus shoot, the production is looking for enthusiastic local extras, 18-40 years old, who will cheer on cue as Fassbender’s Jobs addresses an Apple convention. Must have ’80s hairstyles and clothing. Production is also looking for vintage cars, 1983 or older.

Kate Winslet, Katherine Waterston and Jeff Daniels are set for juicy co-starring roles.

De Anza Film/TV students had the opportunity to serve as extras on Saturday, January 31, 2015, on the ‘Danny Boyle Project,’ ” said De Anza film prof Susan Tavernetti. “The ‘crowd scene’ shoot took place from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the Sunken Garden adjacent to Flint Center.” Though student extras weren’t paid, De Anza’s F/TV Department received a donation — “$10 a head.”

A production company synopsis provides insight into the film’s approach: “(Jobs’) passion and ingenuity have been the driving force behind the digital age. However his drive to revolutionize technology was sacrificial. Ultimately it affected his family life and possibly his health. In this revealing film we explore the trials and triumphs of a modern day genius, Steven Paul Jobs.”

Beau Bonneau Casting in San Francisco (415-346-2278) is handling paid-extra gigs.

Rod Taylor: King of B’s (as in beefcake, brawler, boozer)


by Glenn Lovell

Sad to say another face from our misspent youth at the movies has passed.


Taylor in “Dark of the Sun”

Sydney’s own Rodney Sturt Taylor — who went from beefcake hero to legendary boozer to, in his later years, wonderfully crusty character actor — died at age 84 in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

You know him as the mama’s boy who sustains some nasty pecks in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and as the Victorian-era scientist with his eye on the future in George Pal’s Oscar-winning “The Time Machine.”

These titles, plus a couple of lame romantic comedies with Doris Day (they had zero chemistry), were mentioned in the obits. Mostly overlooked: Taylor’s mercenary in the brawny, Congo-set “Dark of the Sun” and his desperately overextended Aussie businessman in “The V.I.P.’s,” which co-starred Maggie Smith, a favorite among his leading ladies.

Well before he was hired by Hitchcock, John Ford (“Young Cassidy”), Michelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” which he later decided was “viciously anti-American”), and Quentin Tarantino (as a jowly Winston Churchill in “Inglourious Basterds”), Taylor had walk-ons opposite James Dean (“Giant”) and Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor (“Raintree County”).

Cast more for his physique than his acting chops — think of him as the Down Under Rock Hudson — Taylor found himself playing second fiddle to the leading man in films like “A Gathering of Eagles” (starring Hudson), “Fate Is the Hunter” (Glenn Ford), and “36 Hours” (as a German officer determined to break James Garner).

Later typed as an “active leading man” in Westerns and war pictures, Taylor said he felt like a phony. “(That) kind of embarrassed me sometimes because I really wasn’t big enough to be a really tough guy,” he recalled in a TCM interview. “I could fight in a way, I guess, (but) I really wasn’t good-looking enough to pull some of the roles that I was put into. So I was a little bit, I don’t know, insecure …”

When he did muscle his way to the front it was all too often in low-budget, testosterone-fueled imports, such as Italy’s title-tells-all “Colossus and the Amazon Queen.”

All in all, the sandy-haired calendar boy who apprenticed in radio (as Tarzan, no less) enjoyed a good-to-middling career, plowing the path for a later wave of Aussies, which would include Russell Crowe and Huge Jackman.

Ten Best (read Quirkiest) Movies of 2014


by Glenn Lovell

There were more reasons not to go out to the movies than ever before. And that’s what we mostly did in 2014, stayed home ‒ by the millions ‒ choosing to concentrate on quick-turnover DVDs, PPV, streaming Netflix and other online platforms.

Which may account for why the parking lot at a nearby megaplex was eerily vacant. AMC and other chains reported a 50 percent drop in attendance over the first nine months. Especially worrying: Hollywood’s usually reliable target audience, the 12- to 27-year-old set, seemed to have lost interest. It was bound to happen, no? The iPhone/Xbox demographic has never been as nostalgic as we boomers about the “movie-going experience.”

Oh, sure, we occasionally took the bait and queued for “event” pictures, such as “Unbroken” and “Interstellar.” Almost to a one, they underwhelmed. The ragtag space opera “Guardians of the Galaxy” became the summer’s surprise draw; Disney animation and Marvel superheroes like Captain America and Spider-Man joined it on the list of Top 10 money-makers. Also performing well: the rebooted Godzilla and “Planet of the Apes” franchises. They almost made up for such crash-and-burn concoctions as “The Expendables 3” and “Dracula Untold.”

The year’s big movie story was straight out of the Dr. Strangelove-ian ’60s. North Korea threatened nuclear Armageddon in retaliation for Sony Pictures’ rude buddy comedy “The Interview.” Sony and exhibitors folded. TNightcrawler_PayoffPosterhe scatological James Franco-Seth Rogan reunion was pulled from first-run houses. No matter. The cineplex’s loss was the digital world’s gain, as the film set new records for Google Play and Xbox Live. (On New Year’s Day, Comcast VOD added the title to its menu.)

No, not what you’d call a memorable year in the dark.

Still, we were able to find a handful of titles to cheer about. Not surprisingly, they were low-budget festival favorites that favored story and character over CG effects. In no particular order, last year’s standouts were:

1. “Snowpiercer.” A mash-up of “Runaway Train” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Like the latter, this dystopian allegory imagines a futureworld in which the haves feed off the have-nots, only now the setting is a “Dune”-inspired bullet train that gives new meaning to “coach” and “first-class.” Directed by South Korea’s Joon-ho Bong.

2. “Nightcrawler.” The best Scorsese film not directed by Scorsese. Jake Gyllenhaal as you’ve never seen him before plays a freelance videographer who will go to any lengths to score the night’s top story, even if it means rearranging a crime scene. Dan Gilroy announced his arrival as a director to watch.

3. “Whiplash.” The anti-“Mr. Holland’s Opus.” An intense pocket drama about a student drummer who falls under the spell of a relentless conservatory conductor. Miles Teller plays the would-be Gene Krupa who literally bleeds for his art, and J.K. Simmons is the tyrannical teacher. Tough to watch but rewarding, especially for Simmons intimidating performance.


Teller, Simmons in “Whiplash”

4. “Birdman.” The scandalously undervalued Michael Keaton knocks it out of the park in this hard-to-categorize dramedy about a onetime box-office champ who, drowning in self-contempt, walked away from a hit franchise, much as Keaton walked away from Batman in 1992. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu (“Amores Perros”) directed and co-wrote the year’s most exhilarating workout, which is, essentially, an ongoing backstage debate between a tormented “artist” and his commercial-hack alter-ego. Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts co-star.

5. “Flamenco Flamenco.” A new film by Spain’s Carlos Saura (“Carmen”) is always an event. One shot by the legendary Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”) is doubly so. Saura, 83, continues his love affair with indigenous song and dance (cante, toque, baile and palmas) with this blindingly beautiful mix of performance, Goya tableaux and Brechtian stagecraft.

6. “Boyhood.” Richard Linklater redefined the family/coming-of-age drama by shooting the same cast over a 12-year stretch. Little happens ‒ except a succession of minor crises . Ellar Coltrane plays the main character, from ages six to 18; Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are superb as the loving, soon-to-be-separated parents. If ever a film could be described as a life experience, this is it.

7. “The Homesman.” Tommy Lee Jones brings home the year’s unlikeliest triumph ‒ a grim feminist Western. Jones directed and co-stars in this adaptation of the Glendon Swarthout novel about a tough spinster (Hilary Swank) and a boozy no-account who take three deranged women by wagon from Nebraska to St. Louis.

8. “The Skeleton Twins.” Don’t be put off by the opening scene ‒ an attempted suicide. This brother-sister reunion comedy co-starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader proved one of the year’s most rewarding entertainments. A bit like “Harold & Maude,” only more heartfelt.

9. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Deadpan fantasist Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”) returns with his best looking film yet, a quirky fairy tale-political satire set in the world’s most ornate hotel between the world wars. Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolon play concierge and protégé; Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law make up part of the familiar ensemble.

10. “Life Itself.” Steve James directed this documentary about film critic Roger Ebert’s final days battling disfiguring thyroid cancer. What could have been morbid in the extreme turns out to be a fascinating, life-affirming memoir, a tribute to both Ebert the ultimate fanboy and Ebert the unlikely real-life hero.

Year’s spookiest film: Australia’s “The Babadook”

Year’s most bizarre sci-fi’er: Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Year’s best vigilante/payback thrillers: “Cold in July” and “In the Blood”

Year’s best import: Sweden’s “Force Majeure”

Year’s biggest disappointments: “The Monuments Men,” “Interstellar” and “Wild”

Lovell, former movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.

Film Prof’s Advice to Witherspoon: Hit the trail


by Glenn Lovell

As we stop to pay homage to the film greats we lost this year — Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among them — let’s not forget Stanford University film professor Henry Breitrose, who died in October at age 78.



I interviewed Breitrose numerous times over the years and served as a judge with him at a student film festival. Among his illustrious students: Oscar winners Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) and Reese Witherspoon, now in the critically acclaimed “Wild.”

An English literature major who dabbled in film studies while at Stanford, Witherspoon was torn between earning a degree and continuing to ply her craft. She already had a couple of movies and TV shows to her credit.

“I advised Reese to stop out and try an acting career on the grounds that if she didn’t, she’d never forgive herself,” he recalled via email.

Breitrose, likewise, suggested the young Payne concentrate on the more practical side of film-making. The advice, you might say, has paid dividends: After graduating from Stanford and U.C.L.A., Payne directed “Election,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” collecting two Oscars for screenwriting along the way.

“Alexander walked into my office one day and said that he wanted to learn to make movies. I asked what kind? He said fiction film. I suggested that he take any of my courses that he deemed useful, which turned out to be film history and film theory, but that he spend the bulk of his undergrad studies learning about stories and story telling, so he majored in Spanish Lit.

“When it was time for him to graduate, I made a couple of calls to UCLA and arranged for him to do a graduate degree in directing with (Hungarian emigre) Gyula Gazdag, who is arguably the best directing teacher in the U.S. He is Gyula’s prize student.

“You’ll note that I claim no responsibility for Alex’s and Reese’s success. With these kinds of students, one just stands back and lets it happen.”

Send in the Killer Klowns


by Glenn Lovell

Comics as whack-job meanies ‒ I know, I know, it sounds like an oxymoron.


Williams as Sy the Photo Guy

Think back. Some of our best bad guys have been culled from the ranks of funnymen. Just off the top of my head I can think of Mickey Rooney as the frothing title character in “Baby Face Nelson,” Second City alum Alan Arkin as the killer in “Wait Until Dark,” Jerry Lewis as talk-show host Jerry (sangfroid) Langford in “King of Comedy,” and, more recently, Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose in “Drive.”

Brooks may be the most terrifying of them all. The comic used his fussy, deadpan delivery to excellent effect, making his psycho gangster as deadly with a straight razor as a quip. “That’s it, it’s done. There’s no pain, it’s over,” Rose soothes after slicing open a character’s artery.

Most comics have a dark side. That’s why they become comics, to hide or suppress their neuroses, those feelings of inadequacy.


Carell as John du Pont

We were reminded of this in spades when Robin Williams lost his battle with depression. The former standup comic-improv genius was adept at channeling his manic behavior, using it to get inside social misfits, even killers. Who can forget Williams as the deeply disturbed drug-store employee Sy Parrish in “One-Hour Photo.”

The latest comic to shock with an abrupt about-face is Steve Carell. In the critically acclaimed “Foxcatcher,” the good-naturedly dense “Office”/”Anchorman” star dons putty nose and nubby rabbit-like dentures to become the seriously weird John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune and an America First super-patriot straight out of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Carell is creepy-plus in the role, a textbook paranoid schizophrenic who shows very little outward emotion. Indeed, he walks as if he’s dead from the neck down. Besides a nasty love-hate thing with mommy dearest, the character, like Sy Parrish, doesn’t know how to interact with people. So he buys their acceptance.

Where did Carell find this character? It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he tapped into something fundamentally “off” about himself, like stage fright or a fear of not measuring up. We all have it, but comics seem to bury ‒ and eventually mine it better than the rest of us.


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