Zombies R Us: George A. Romero (1940 – 2017)


By Glenn Lovell

Silver Moon Drive-In. Lewisburg, PA. Late summer. My girlfriend turned to me about 20 minutes into the first feature, a newsreel immediate indie about a disparate group attempting to ride out the original zombie apocalypse in the cellar of an abandoned farmhouse. She said, evenly, “If we don’t leave now, I’ll never speak to you again.” 

Her measured response to what was unfolding onscreen in grainy black and white (set to music that sounded like flies sizzling on a griddle) told me that this was no ordinary ultimatum.

I put the window speaker back in its cradle and made for the exit. Disappointed? Yes. Secretly relieved? Probably.

That was my introduction to George A. Romero’s shocking, trendsetting “Night of the Living Dead,” shot on a shoestring just southwest of us, outside Pittsburgh. The seminal 1968 shocker was remembered in obits announcing Romero’s death from lung cancer at age 77Romero. (He was a lifelong smoker.) I finished watching what would go on to become the most influential American horror film since Hitchcock’s “Psycho” a few weeks later at a theater in State College, where I would attend graduate school and write about movies for the school newspaper.

Getting back into the dark with Romero’s zombies was akin to a double-dare made with your own warped psyche: How can you call yourself a horror fan? Get back in there and stare down your worst fears of being first cannibalized by your neighbors and then jerking back to “life” to join their ranks.

Romero made movies about other horrors, such as the all-too-prescient conspiracy thriller “The Crazies” and the clinically observed vampire variation “Martin.” But he will be forever remembered for his six-part zombie series, which somehow worked as a Rorschach test for the evolving viewer. The original zombies? “Us,” replied the ever-mischievous Romero. “We know we’re going to die, right? So we’re the living dead.” In “Dawn of the Dead,” they’re glassy-eyed consumers drawn instinctively to the muzak piped through every suburban shopping mall. In “Day of the Dead,” a Frankenstein’s monster variation, they’re the sadly abused “other.”  

Here’s my last conversation with Romero, published by the New York Times Syndicate in 2005.

Pittsburgh’s own George A. Romero is thrashing mad.

On the eve of the release of his zombie sequel “Land of the Dead” to DVD, the director says he’s seriously considering crossing the border.

“I’m fed up with the country, with the whole thing,” he says from Toronto, where he’s adapting another Stephen King book, “From a Buick 8.” “And I’m seriously thinking of leaving, man. Sure it’s a tough decision; I’ve lived there (in Pennsylvania) since college.”

None of this will come as a shock to anyone who has followed RomLandDeadero’s career.

He’s always been the most political of horror-meisters. Indeed, as has been pointed out more than once, his milling undead in “Night of the Living Dead” and its first sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” are all-purpose metaphors for America’s disenfranchised. That’s why they’re so popular; they’re just like us, only uglier.

Romero looks upon his zombie series as a “platform” for rebellion.

“They’re sort of snapshots of the time in which they’re made, not only thematically but also cinematically. I try to make them look like one of today’s movies and at the same time reflect a little bit of what’s going on in society.”

“Night of the Living Dead,” released in 1968, resonated as a Vietnam War allegory. “Dawn of the Dead,” shot 10 years later in a shopping mall outside Pittsburgh, said something about consumerism run amok.

“Day of the Dead,” set in a subterranean lab in our own back yard, was the most cynical and worst received. “It came when we were just beginning to mistrust everybody. Not only institutions, but each other. Like who’s correct in that film?” Romero says.

“Land of the Dead” — due Tuesday as an unrated director’s-cut DVD — is, at $18 million, the most expensive of Romero’s zombie movies. It did well in Europe, but, arriving after “28 Days Later,” last year’s “Dawn” remake and the horror-comedy “Shaun of the Dead,” went largely ignored on these shores.

Not surprising. It’s a ghoulish, post-9/11 parable that includes a city tower under siege and armored vehicles gunning down restless locals.

Actually, Romero points out, “Land” was on the drawing board at 20th Century Fox pre-9/11.

“Yes, I wrote this script literally days before the terrorist attacks. Then the towers came down and everybody wanted to make soft, fuzzy, friendly movies, and I basically put it away for a couple of years.”

But then Bush invaded Iraq and Romero said, “Jeez, this might even be stronger now.”

“I didn’t have to change much, because some of my original scenes resonated even more, particularly the armored vehicle going through a small village, mowing people down and wondering why they’re pi–ed off. I made the tower taller and protected it by water — until the water gets breached.”

If it’s so timely, why didn’t “Land” find a larger audience?

“You know, man, it could be as simple as we’re tired of horror films,” he speculates. “Also, I think American audiences want more gratification. They’re not as open to horror films that go a little deeper … (and) use horror as parable.”

Romero’s personal favorites among recent fright shows: “Saw” and “Shaun of the Dead” by England’s Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who have zombie cameos in “Land.”

But truth be known, Romero’s not big on bogeymen — or Halloween.

“I’m not a student, man. I don’t rush out to see these things. And I’m not into Halloween.”

Contact Glenn Lovell at glovell@aol.com.


“Uncle” Batman: Adam West (1928-2017)


Adam West, who died Friday from leukemia at age 88, played Gotham’s Cape Crusader in ABC’s campy after-school series, inspired more by Lichtenstein’s pop art than DC’s brooding Dark Knight. Once the show was canceled, West was legally forbidden to don Bat-cowl for commercials or Comic-con. This didn’t stop him, however, from sounding off about his feuds with Warner Bros., DC Comics and Burt “Robin” Ward. Here’s our 2001 interview with West, who, more recently, appeared on “Family Guy” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

By Glenn Lovell

Twice a week for two and a half seasons, Adam “Batman” West donned cape and cowl, planted tongue firmly in cheek and BIFFED!! and KAPOWED!! the Penguin, Riddler and other garish archenemies into submission. Flash forward 35 years. West’s greatest nemesis in the 21st Century? DC Comics and then-parent company AOL Time Warner, which held the copyright to Batman and his likeness.

Holy Corporate Skullduggery, Caped Crusader! Your creator has turned spoilsport!

Yes, Robin. Sad but true.Adam

Fear not, Trusty Sidekick. The Cowled One won’t be cowed. Even now, disguised as boomer icon, he battles on.

West, tanned and robust at 71, used the DVD release of “Batman: The Movie – Special Edition” to finally stick it to DC Comics and anyone else who would deny him access to the bat cowl. The low-budget 1966 feature was spun off from the ABC series, which ran 1966-1968.

“I’ve been asked to be in very lucrative national commercials or on billboards, but DC Comics makes it very difficult – they want a lot of money for the costume,” West said over the phone from his farm in Ketchum, Idaho. “Unlike our incredible fans, they’ve given very little acknowledgment, credit, to the older TV Batman. I think it’s hypocritical, and arbitrary, on DC’s part.”

To illustrate, West recalled an offer to appear in a Canadian campaign for Yoplait yogurt. West said yes; DC handed Yoplait a bill for the Batman costume. The deal fell through.

What invariably happens at this point is that they hire a younger, less-expensive model who looks and sounds like West or those other square-jawed guys (Keaton, Clooney) in the more recent “Batman” movies

OnStar Corp., the satellite guidance system, used a West look-alike in bat-cowl and Batmobile in its national campaign, he pointed out.

“Yes, that’s happened quite a bit over the years,” West said. “That’s why I use the word ‘hypocrisy.’ They could get me, the real thing, if they paid my price. But if I want to do something in costume, they have to also pay DC a lot of money. Why should they turn me down and allow others to do it?”

If someone mAdam2et his and DC Comics’ price, he’d gladly don the bat suit again, said West. “I know it still fits.”

Warner Bros., which holds the rights to numerous DC Comics characters, said the Bat suit is not for rent or personal gain. “It’s our job to protect the integrity of the icon,” said Warner spokeswoman Barbara Brogliatti. “And sometimes we have to make judgments that seem specific. Batman is Batman – not the actor who dons the suit.”

West insisted he harbored no bitterness, that he was still in demand for movie cameos and voice-over work.

Then, too, there were six or seven annual “Batman” conventions, religiously attended by himself and Burt “Robin” Ward. Sadly, the fearless duo are now feuding. West cites Ward’s unflattering tell-all, “Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights.” “Burt thought he was Jackie Collins – there isn’t much truth in the book. But maybe I should be flattered: he made me look like a cross between King Kong and Errol Flynn.”

West and Ward attended conventions in street clothes. “That we’re not in costume doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t seem to bother the fans.”

The events sounded as wild as “Star Trek” conventions.

“Yeah, they have their ‘trekkies’ and we have ‘batties.’ We have super-fans who dress up like characters and come play entire scenes from the movie. There are those who are maybe too deeply into the show.”

Have there been Bat-stalkers?

“Not for a while. There was a time when a guy did stalk me. He even followed me onto an airplane … People are usually warm toward the Batman phenomenon, very funny about it. There doesn’t seem to be any dark element … anything sinister to deal with.”

Here, West paused, then deadpanned: “Except a few nights at a couple of bars.”

Everyone wants to kick Batman’s butt, eh?

“Yeah,” he cracked. “I should have never worn my costume into a biker bar.”

At once pompous and playfully self-mocking, sort of like his stuffy Bruce Wayne-Batman persona, West liked to hold forth on the universal appeal of the TV series, which has been lumped – incredibly– with the Beatles and Bond phenoms. In the late ’60s, as the war in Vietnam raged, an entire generation of Bat-fans raced home from school to watch West and Ward do battle in a pop art world of hokey gadgets, bad riddles and almost chaste double entendres. (“You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt, Catwoman.”)

“It was unique – it had never been done,” explained West, who got the gig after spoofing a secret agent in a Nestle’s Quik commercial. “It was a comic character brought to life in a kind of absurd way. The kids got caught up in the crazy characters, the crime-fighting pizazz. And as they got older, they saw the gags, the double entendres, the absurdity of it. It was a family-friendly show, you know. Nobody got hurt.”

Except West and Ward, victims of a double whammy: They didn’t share in DC’s and 20th Century Fox’s lucrative syndication deal (their residuals stopped after six airings), and they suffered from terminal typecasting.

“I had to face being typed,” West acknowledged. “I knew it was coming. That wasn’t an easy thing to overcome. It took me several years to get out of the cape and cowl and, you know, do other things. I did theater, several TV pilots, guest shoots and a number of movies, some of them real turkeys.”

West would have been a natural for a cameo in Tim Burton’s darker, more operatic “Batman.” He, however, saw himself, even at age 58, as the lead. Warner Bros. and Burton didn’t race to the Bat-phone..

How did he feel when Burton’s “Batman” starring Michael Keaton broke records at the box office?

“When the first one was being promoted, I felt a little bit, um, left out. But that lasted about 10 minutes … The new ‘Batman’ movies are special-effects driven … The relationships aren’t there. Somehow, they don’t have the warmth, the wit, the silliness of our show. Overall, they’ve become too dark and sinister.”

Obviously there’s a need for a kinder, gentler Batman.

“Yes, they really need me,” he laughed. “So many heroes have let the kids down. They need Uncle Batman.”


“Alien” X-Factor: More Schlock, Less Awe


by Glenn Lovell

As we head out to the local megaplex this weekend, the question on every serious sci-fi buff’s mind:  Can 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott salvage the once-respected “Alien” franchise, dating from 1979 and Scott’s original “Alien,” after the ignominy of desperate sequels like “Alien: Resurrection” (1997) and, worse, those Alien vs. Predator grudge matches (2004, 2007)?

Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” the second of the director’s planned prequels, following the plodding “Prometheus,” sets down this weekend after a full-court promotional push. Budgeted at around $111 million — or $102 million more than the first “Alien” — the new installment stars Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride and Billy Crudup as real and synthetic cralien-covenantew members on the titular spacecraft. Their nebulous mission (something to do with the origins of Man and machine) sounds once again like muddled Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

From the looks of the trailer, however, Scott may have taken a much-welcome sabbatical from the, ahem, existential ramblings of “Prometheus” and “The Martian” and tried a broader “Aliens”/”Starship Troopers” approach. (The hard-R rating for multiple blood-spewing chest-births is another promising sign.) If so, that’s a good thing. After all, the roots of Dan O’Bannon’s original “Alien” script — save for the last-minute casting of a female as second-in-command Ripley — were those sublimely trashy sci-fi’ers of the 1950s, zero-budget quickies about extraterrestrial life forms that stow away in the hull of Earth-bound spaceships. Among our favorites: “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” and, with its pulsing, blob-like blood rust, “Space Master X-7.”

Obviously excited about a balls-to-the-wall scary genre entry that might follow in the slipstream of their campier b.o. behemoth, “Star Wars,” Fox held a New York junket in the spring of ’79 for what was being touted as a horror-science fiction hybrid, an Old Dark House in deep space, if you will. In attendance were members of the cast, including a slender, somewhat androgynous unknown named Sigourney Weaver (she resembled a young but taller Jane Fonda), the 41-year-old Scott (this was only his second feature), and Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, whose distturbing paintings of phallic-shaped creatures were the inspiration for the drooling stowaway with lethal hydraulic overbite and acid blood that could burn through metal.

Interviews were set for Saturday morning, after the Friday press screening. I was there representing a South Florida paper. My one-off angle, much to the chagrin of studio flacks: For all its creepy extras (industrial functional production design, Jules Verne-retro spacesuits, etc.), “Alien” was really a throwback Saturday-matinee thrill ride. Had Scott and producers David Giler and Walter Hill heard of a 1958 black-and-white programmer called “It! The Terror from Beyond Space”? I asked. They shook their heads no. I ticked off the similarities. “It” has a blood-sucking Martian, which, like their alien, hides in the ventilation ducts of thCovenante ship. Again like their stowaway, the earlier menace is briefly held off with acetylene torch as it works its way from one section of the ship to another, picking off members of the crew … before being flushed into space.

Finally, Giler fessed up that someone in the production had come to a similar conclusion and that, just to be safe, Fox had procured a print of the earlier film and screened it for Scott, Giler, et al. They decided there was nothing to worry about, the two films shared basic genre conventions, nothing more.

Still, besides my opening day backgrounder for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, published in June 1979, I did a sidebar that began “What came first, the creature or the alien egg?” (See ” ‘Alien’ vs. ‘It’: Feud Revisited.) The piece included interviews with Giler, Walter Hill and, over the phone from North Hollywood, “It” screenwriter Jerome Bixby, who, on my prompting, sat through “Alien.” I asked him what he thought. His snap reply, “My lawyer’s on it.” (Nothing came of the threatened suit.)

At the urging of Bill Kelley, the Sentinel’s TV critic and in-house expert on horror and sci-fi, I rewrote the piece for “Cinefantastique” magazine. Though it didn’t make much of an impression at the time, my “It” theory slowly gained traction and converts, to where if you pick up Leonard Maltin’s “Movie Guide” and look up “Alien” you’ll find a reference to the earlier film.

I guess what I’m saying by revisiting this episode is that what has been sorely missing in Scott’s post-“Alien” science fiction — and I’m including “Blade Runner” here  — is that sense of good old-fashioned, scary fun, qualities that distinguished the low-budget sci-fi’ers of our misspent youths. Let’s hope this new installment stows the New Age philosophizing and goes for the jugular.

Postscript: While we’re on the subject, I should remind you that “Alien” was not the first feminist sci-fi film. Well before Weaver’s take-charge Ripley, whose decisive stance re protocol would have saved all but three of the Nostromo crew, there were Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki in Howard Hawks’s “The Thing” (1951) and Joan Weldon’s entomologist in the giant ant movie “Them!” (1954). Both proved fully invested participants in the action rather than stereotypical scream queens.

Executive Order: “La La Land” Best Picture Loser


How Trump Will Impact Oscar Vote, Deprive Popular Musical of Win

by Glenn Lovell

Will issue movies trump eye candy at this year’s Oscars as fired-up Hollywood liberals attempt to send the new president a loud-and-clear message that they won’t stand for fear-driven legislation meant to rob women, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBT community of their hard-fought rights?

Following that inspired #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year expanded its membership with a healthy infusion of younger, more diverse talent. And unlike the Academy’s Old Guard (white, male, over 50), these new members — Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Carmen Ejogo (“Selma”), Idris Elba (“Beasts of No Nation”), Byung-Hun Lee (“The Magnificent Seven”), and America Ferrera (“End of Watch”), among them — may well prefer real-life issues over sentiment or institutionalized nostalgia.

In the current volatile political climate, they won’t want to appear self-congratulatory or out of touch. They’ll want their votes to matter.

If the above scenario plays out, presumptive Best Picture winner “La La Land” will be the biggest casualty, as Academy voters shunt aside the popular throwback musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling for something less frothy.

I’m ordinarily not a gambling man, but I’d take the long odds on “Moonlight” or “Fences” to win in the Best Picture category, with the edge going to Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” because the Miami-set drama tackles both racism and homophobia and “Fences,” as good as it is, is a more traditional stage-to-screen transfer.

What about “Hidden Figures” or “Lion” or “Manchester by the Sea,” all critically acclaimed best-picture nominees? The first, about African-American mathematicians standing up to NASA’s segregationist practigoslingces during the space race, is worthwhile if conventional; the second, about a lost boy finally finding his way home, is too baldly manipulative; the third, starring best actor frontrunner Casey Affleck as a brooding New England handyman, is intense but mostly lily white in a year dedicated to diversity.

“La La Land,” like “The Artist,” the best picture winner in 2012, is show-biz honoring show-biz and, therefore, more than a little narcissistic. Which is why it leads the pack with 14 nominations. But as things heat up politically – and each day brings a more alarming executive order – the delightful throwback musical will look more and more inconsequential. And this will spell its undoing in the top category. It should do fine in the production design, cinematography, song and score categories.

Another sign that “La La Land” won’t win best picture: Meryl Streep’s surprise nomination in the best actress category for her tone-deaf philanthropist in the indifferently received “Florence Foster Jenkins.” This is the spot that was reserved streep2for either Amy Adams in “Arrival” or Annette Bening in “20th Century Women.” Streep edged out both actresses after her gutsy anti-Trump speech at the Golden Globes. Suddenly, the actress has morphed into Delacroix’s barricade-storming Liberty Leading the People. Trump helped Streep to a record 20th nomination by lashing out via Twitter the following morning, calling her “a Hillary flunky” and “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.”

By attacking Streep, Trump assured her of a spot among the Oscar nominees. The president’s subsequent attacks on everything the movie industry holds dear will have a similar effect on the voting process, turning Academy members away from delightful song-and-dance and towards something darker, timelier, more relevant.

In short, this year’s final Oscar vote, held Feb. 13-21, will essentially be a referendum on Trump. And that spells fewer trophies for the audacious but apolitical musical-fantasy about two pretty but self-consumed Hollywood hopefuls.

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, Feb. 26. Jimmy Kimmel will host.

Glenn Lovell is a Bay Area film critic-instructor-author (“Escape Artist”). He has been published in The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, Variety and, more recently, Boston Globe.



By Glenn Lovell

Hollywood largesse extends only so far.

As expected, Oscar, still smarting from last year’s #OscarsSoWhite backlash, managed to have it both ways: This year’s slate of nominees, announced Tuesday at dawn, both pay tribute to the Dream Factory and recognize a record number of African Americans.

Even so, there are oversights, such as Nate Parker’s wrongly maligned “The Birth of a Nation.”fences1

To no one’s surprise Damien Chazelle’s heavily stylized backlot musical “La La Land” racked up 14 nods, including those for stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, tying it for most nominations ever with “All About Eve” and “Titanic,” and movies made by and about people of color dominated several of the top categories, including best picture, supporting actress and best documentary feature (three of the five nominees are about racial injustice in America).

Accused of being caught in a segregationist time-warp last year when it overlooked “Selma,” “Creed,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and other strong dramas about being black in America, the Academy made amends by changing bylaws and addressing the racial disparity in its membership (predominantly white, male, over 50). The soul-searching appears to have paid off. As for why Netflix’s superb “Beasts of No Nation,” about the conscripting of child soldiers in West Africa, didn’t make last year’s cut, that has more to do with Hollywood’s reluctance to welcome online studios into the fold.

Barry Jenkins very personal “Moonlight,” a critics favorite about growing up black and gay in the Miami projects, received eight nominations, including those for best picture, best director and adapted screenplay (Jenkins), best supporting actor (Mahershala Ali) and best supporting actress (Naomie Harris).

“Fences,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the late August Wilson, received four nods – for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actor (Denzel Washington), and best supporting actress (Viola Davis). “Hidden Figures,” about women of color struggling for recognition in a segregated NASA, received three nominations – best picture, best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer)hidden.

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” a grim homecoming drama thought to be the frontrunner in the original screenplay and best actor (Casey Affleck) categories, received nominations for best picture, actor, supporting actress (Michelle Williams), and supporting actor (Lucas Hedges). And Australia’s “Lion,” the year’s feel-good attraction about a lost Indian boy who, years later, finds his way home, received six nominations, including those for best picture, supporting actor (Dev Patel) and supporting actress (Nicole Kidman).

But what would Oscar be without a few surprises and egregious oversights? Among those that stand out:

√ Denzel Washington’s deserved spot in the director category went to, of all people, Mel Gibson, whose hypocritical, graphically violent World War 2 epic “Hacksaw Ridge” received six nominations, including those for best picture and best actor (Andrew Garfield). Academy members, as we feared, downplayed Washington’s contribution behind the camera because, in their minds, “Fences,” as good as it is, remains essentially a “filmed stage play.”

√ Though the brainy, first-contact sci-fi’er “Arrival” earned eight nominations, including one for best picture, Amy Adams, unarguably the beating heart of the picture, was thought to be a shoo-in for a best-actress nod. Her spot went to Ruth Negga (“Loving”) … or did it go to perennial nominee Meryl Streep (20th nod for the sentimental “Florence Foster Jenkins,” about a tone-deaf New York philanthropist who fancies herself an opera singer)?

√ The Texas-set modern-day Western “Hell or High Water” surprised proghighwaternosticators; it wrangled its way into the best picture, original screenplay, supporting actor (Jeff Bridges), and editing categories — and could very well play spoiler.

√ Michael Shannon, fast making a name for himself as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, was superb last year as the father who sacrifices everything in “Midnight Special,” but the Academy nominated him for a less satisfying performance, as the dying Texas detective in the turgid “Nocturnal Animals.”

√ “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s epic labor of love about Jesuit missionaries in feudal Japan, went all but overlooked by the Academy, which only nominated it in the cinematography category.

√ Nate Parker’s ambitious Nat Turner biopic, “The Birth of a Nation,” fared even worse, leaving many to surmise that the media’s anti-Parker campaign (tied to a almost two decades old charge for which Parker was cleared) took its toll.

The 89th Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, Feb. 26. Jimmy Kimmel will host.

Making Amends: The Year Onscreen



by Glenn Lovell

Yes, it was that kind of year —

We began 2016 convinced that “The Manchurian Candidate” was a farfetched Cold War thriller, that Hollywood studios would always be defined by soundstages and façade streets … that movies directed by people of color, like “Selma” and “Straight Outta Compton,” didn’t stand a prayer at the hands of a white-centric Motion Picture Academy.

We finished out the year as rattled extras in a real-life conspiracy thriller (“The Moscow Candidate”?) … as we watched movies produced and distributed by Amazon Studio and Netflix (last year’s “Beasts of No Nation” was, thankfully, no fluke) … and we savored a bumper crop of deserving films about the African American experience, directed by and starring African Americans.

Last year’s embarrassing Academy whiteout (#Oscarsowhite) — rightly blamed on systemic guild imbalances favoring middle-age white filmmakers — has all but been forgiven, if not forgotten, in the wake of several black-themed Oscar frontrunners, including “Loving,” “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures” and Denzel Washington’s powerhouse adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences.”

As in years past our favorites came mostly from the indie sector, where imagination and heart made up for meager budgets and fewer f/x. The best of these miraculous holdouts in no particular order:

√ “Fences.” We’ll leave it to others to debate whether this is a filmed stagdenzele play in need of “opening up” or great cinema as is. All I know is that this adaptation of the 1983 Wilson play, scene for scene, packs more of an emotional wallop than the rest of this list combined. Washington, who also directed, plays Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh garbage man and former Negro League slugger whose bitterness at being passed over by the majors and life in general has left him seething inside, a veritable Vesuvius about to blow and bury everyone in his working-class orbit. Washington has never been better onscreen; his fuming, furious Maxson is at once a force of nature and a tragic self-deceiver who’s erecting a metaphorical fence to protect his family from an unjust world. Viola Davis can prepare her Oscar speech; she’s that good as the long-suffering but still girlishly smitten wife, Rose.

√ “The Witch.” A spooky period drama that has more in common with “The Crucible” than any found-footage cthewitch2hiller. Robert Eggers’ festival favorite is about a 17th Century wilderness family undone by isolation, sexual frustration and paranoia. Once again we’re reminded that the movies that continue to haunt long after the lights come up deal more in character and atmosphere than machetes through the cranium.

√ “Deadpool.” Marvel’s sick-and-twisted cousin. A wickedly crass, lightning-fast sendup of the played-out superhero oeuvre. Tim Miller, working from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, spares neither the battle royals nor the over-the-top CG mayhem. Ryan Reynolds, spewing bad wordplays, is the demented anti-Spider-Man bent on meting out revenge to his creator.

√ “Midnight Special.” A sci-fi allegory about a kid who may possess apocalyptic powers. Is he heaven-sent or an extraterrestrial Superboy? Jaeden Lieberher plays the boy, Michael Shannon is his protector-father. Similar in some ways to “Arrival,” but better. Directed by Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” this year’s also impressive “Loving”).

√ “Christine.” Rebecca Hall turned in the year’s most unsettling performance in this tough-to-watch docudrama about madness and media. Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a small-market TV reporter prone to mood swings. In 1974, Chubbuck made news when she shot herself during a live broadcast. Fringe auteur Antonio Campos (“Simon Killer”) reminds us that in a world consumed by celebrity 15 minutes of fame is not nearly enough.

√ “The Birth of a Nation.” Audaciously lifting his title from the now mostly vilified D.W. Griffith Civil War epic, writer-director-star Nat Parker chronicles the life and short-lived insurrection of slave preacher Nate Turner. Parker’s Turner, far from being a Sunday school martyr, is depicted as a slowly radicalized leader, who, in the end, thirsts as much for bloody retribution as freedom. That this ambitious, multilayered drama — influenced by Fred Schepisi’s “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and as important in its way as “12 Years a Slave” — didn’t receive its due because of negative press stemming from a 17-year-old criminal charge (for which Parker was exonerated) says a lot about how far establishment media still has to go.

√ “Manchester by the Sea.” The year’s most gratifying character study was directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan (channeling Eugene O’Neill?) and stars a quietly fuming Casey Affleck as a handyman who returns to the Massachusetts town of the title to care for a teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). The experience, of course, opens up old wounds. Somehow, both uncompromising and hopeful. With Michelle Williams in a brief but memorable turn.

√ “Moonlight.” Barry Jenkins’ blunt, unshakable vignette-drama about gromoonlight_2016_filmwing up black and gay in Liberty City, Miami, is structured as three distinct acts. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron from 10-year-old to high-schooler to young man. Inevitably, the years of homophobic abuse, from a crack addict mother and bullying classmates, take their toll.

√ “La La Land.” The feel-good movie of the moment is a song-and-dance odyssey co-starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and a Day-Glo synthetic Hollywoodland, ever a place of nervous dreamers. Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), channeling both classic MGM musicals and the French New Wave at its most self-reflexive, somehow makes us believers in a backlot world of gravity-defying romance.

√ “Paterson.” Jim Jarmusch’s wry meditation on the nature of creativity. Adam Driver plays a New Jersey bus driver who fancies himself a poet in the tradition of William Carlos Williams. Only he’s too much of a literalist to take inspiration from the colorful assortment of dreamers parked, quite literally, under his nose. By far minimalist Jarmusch’s sweetest, most accessible film.

Honorable mention: “The Nice Guys,” “Sully,” “Loving,” “Elvis and Nixon,” “Arrival,” “Hell or High Water.”

√ Best Exploitation: Fede Alvarez’s devilishly clever “Don’t Breathe.” Other gooseflesh specials: “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Green Room,” and, marking Mel Gibson’s comeback in front of the camera, “Blood Father.”

√ Best Foreign Films: France’s “Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart,” a disturbing fact-based tale of a gendarme serial killer, and Chile”s “Neruda,” an ingenious game of cat-and-mouse between the poet activist of the title (played by Luis Gnecco) and a Javert-like police inspector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

√ Best Documentary: Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America.” This towering, almost eight-hour examination of race relations in the second half of the century deserves a spot beside the great docs, including Marcel Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity. Edelman places the 1995 verdict and Simpson’s subsequent arrest in Vegas in sweeping sociopolitical context, arguing through childhood friends, teammates, Hollywood cronies, and African American activists that the legendary football star made good on his quest for fame by, instead of standing on a podium with black-gloved fist raised in defiance, assimilating into the rich white establishment. In short, O.J. was the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

√ Worst, or at least, given the talents involved, most disappointing: Nicholas Winding Refn’s DOA erotic thriller “Neon Demon,” Terrence Malice’s free-form “Knight of Cups” (more stream-of-consciousness drivel), the Coens’ yuk-yuk sophomoric “Hail, Caesar!,” Jodie Foster’s well-meant but off target “Money Monster,” Zach Snyder’s typically soulless “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Stephen Hopkins’ squandered Jessie Owens biopic “Race,” Justin Lin’s franchise place-holder “Star Trek Beyond,” and Pablo Larrain’s hardly inspiring “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman’s breathy Jackie Kennedy several shades of cuckoo.

More PC “Mag 7”: Not Worst Film of 2016


by Glenn Lovell

With time on my hands New Year’s Day, I finally bit the bullet and watched Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent 7” reboot, with Denzel Washington subbing for Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt standing in for the ’60s hip Steve McQueen, and Peter Sarsgaard sadistic-to-simpering land baron a lackluster (but marginally more politically correct) substitute for Eli Wallach’s flamboyant bandit chief, Calvera.the-magnificent-seven-washington-pratt

Obviously sensitive to the fact that the John Sturges-directed “Mag7,” loosely taken from Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and released in 1960, treated its Mexican villagers patronizingly as cowards/ weaklings waiting to be delivered from marauding bandits by mostly white guys, Fuqua recast his mercenaries as a multicultural Wild Bunch — there’s one Hispanic, one Native American, one African American, one Asian/South Korean. Haley Bennett’s soon-widowed townsperson goes in search of the gunmen-savoirs and joins them in the fight. She becomes the eighth member of the team.

Verdict: this long-rumored, frequently delayed re-imagining is not terrible, thanks mainly to Ethan Hawke’s war-weary sharpshooter (a mashup of the Robert Vaughn / Brad Dexter characters?) and the late James Horner’s main theme, which is rousing enough but no match for Elmer Bernstein’s iconic Marlboro Man music, reprised briefly over the end credits.

Though the 1960 screenplay (adapted by Walter Newman from the Kurosawa epic) is not credited, I counted at least three recycled lines in the “new” script, including mercenary leader Chris’s “I’ve been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.”

In rust-brown appearance as well as offhand staging of the gunfights, Fuqua’s “Mag7” is much closer to operatic Sergio Leone than choreographed Sturges. Makes sense. The Sturges Western, initially dismissed by critics, would be a major influence on the spaghetti Western.

For more on the making of the original “Magnificent 7” see my book “Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges.”

Kirk Douglas: Savage Idol


by Glenn Lovell

Happy B’day, Centennial Boy!

Is it possible? Kirk Douglas — along with swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and frequent costar Burt Lancaster one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and physical leading men — turned 100 years young on Friday. The occasion was marked with a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where family members and friends gathered. Among those in attendance were Douglas’s wife Anne and producer-actor son Michael and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones.

For those of us who grew up on his movies — I’ll never forget discovering his debauched Doc Holliday in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or his rugged modern-day cowboy in “Lonely Are the Brave” — Douglas was a refreshing departure from Gregory Peck and those other demure, Hollywood-slick leading men. Whether ripping into such characters as Spartacus, Van Gogh or the adulterous husband in postwar suburbia in “Strangers When We Meet,” a personal favorite, he exuded fierce animal cunning. Indeed, there was something primal about his best performances. He hissed his lines through clenched teeth, often in grim, febrile disgust. And when he moved, he was like a caged cat, instinctual, deadly. (Little wonder impressionist like Frank Gorshin loved to mimic the actor.)

Think “Paths opathsofglory_284pyxurzf Glory,” the World War 1 classic bankrolled by Douglas’s Bryna company and directed by a young Turk named Stanley Kubrick. He was never better or better suited for a role. His Colonel Dax, a French attorney who finds himself defending three soldiers on trial for cowardice, is always moving — as he tours the muddy trenches, leads his men on a suicide charge across No Man’s Land … paces before a military tribunal-cum-kangeroo court.

And when a supercilious general (played by Adolphe Menjou) suggests the colonel’s actions all along were motivated by a desire for rank and glory, Dax, rather Douglas, explodes in righteous indignation.

“Sir, would you like me to suggest what you can do with that promotion?” he says,  voice dripping with contempt. “I apologize for not being entirely honest with you. I apologize for not revealing my true feelings. I apologize, sir, for not telling you sooner that you’re a degenerate, sadistic old man. And you can go to hell before I apologize to you now or ever again!”

Pure Douglas — savage, cathartic, more than a little over the top. We came to expect such outbursts from the actor and got them in “Ace in the Hole,” “Champion” and “Seven Days in May.” They became a trademark, his signature.

But Douglas was capable of quiet moments as well. His scenes with the pregnant Varinia (Jean Simmons) in “Spartacus” come to mind. An even better example: Hibraves poignant goodbye to a former love (Gena Rowlands) in “Lonely Are the Brave.” His voice now is heavy with regret. He wanted both this relationship and the freedom to roam. He sacrificed one for the other. “The sun’s still coming up,” he says, combing the horizon. “If I had a big kiss I could probably beat it to the top of that hill.”

Much has been written about the director as auteur. Some filmmakers, the theory goes, pour their souls into each new film, which therefore become extensions of themselves, their quirks and fears. But what about actors? Douglas certainly qualifies for this distinction. Regardless of the director — and he worked with many of the greats, including Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Kubrick and John Frankenheimer — Douglas transformed the material with his physicality and grim intensity.

His was an acting style that suited the postwar era when the movies were in danger of being eclipsed by television. Hollywood, down for the count, fought back with widescreen CinemaScope, three-strip Technicolor — and larger-than-life performances that built to the inevitable fireworks.

In Huston’s mordantly clever “The List of Adrian Messenger,” Douglas hammed it up as a mass killer who’s a master of disguise. Talk about self-reflexive! Here was a postmodern turn before we knew such a thing existed.

Of course, everything changed in the counterculture ’60s, when Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Gene Hackman arrived. The so-called New Hollywood wanted warts-and-all naturalism, not showy star turns. Douglas’s work in DePalma’s “The Fury” and Stanley Donen’s “Saturn 3” felt dated, narcissistic (he showers with Farrah-Fawcett in the latter) … out-of-sync with the zeitgeist. Though son Michael held the rights to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the screen role — and Oscar — went to Jack Nicholson, not Douglas, a slight the actor never forgave or forgot. (Douglas played Randle McMurphy in an earlier short-lived Broadway production.)

Appropriately, one of my first interviews out of college (for The Hollywood Reporter) was with the 57-year-old Douglas, who, in 1973, was just back from Yugoslavia, where as director-star he shot “Scalawag,” a mercifully forgotten mashup of “Treasure Island” and boisterous western. We met at his then-modern-seeming Beverly Hills home, which showcased his impressive art collection.

Douglas talked about how “astronomical” production costs were causing filmmakers to flee Los Angeles to seek better deals/tax breaks abroad. He regaled his guest with war stories and demonstrated how he lashed his right leg behind him to became the peg-leg pirate in “Scalawag.” He hopped about the room. It looked painful, but, of course, was all in an afternoon’s work for the still dexterous, hands-on actor.

This, after all, was the star who had danced on ship’s oars (for “The Vikings”), traded punishing blows in the ring (“Champion”), flown through the air with greatest of ease (“The Story of Three Wives”), become a circus performer (“The Juggler”), led a slave revolt (“Spartacus”) and suicide charge (“Paths of Glory”) … and, as the rugged Jack Burns in “Lonely Are the Brave,” had guided a spooked stallion named Whiskey up a treacherous New Mexico mountain.

My favorite Douglas movies: “Champion,” “Young Man with a Horn,” “Ace in the Hole,” “The Vikings,” “Paths of Glory,” “Spartacus,” “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Strangers When We Meet,” “Lust for Life,” “The List of Adrian Messenger,” “Seven Days in May,” “The Brotherhood,” and, in a role originally meant for Brando, “The Arrangement.”

For an in-depth discussion of Douglas’s work in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Last Train from Gun Hill,” check out “Escape Artist,” my biography of John Sturges.

Show of Hands, Please


The art of the movie poster as once practiced — and perfected — by design artist Saul Bass, best known for his credit sequences (see crumbling visage in “Spartacus,” slashing parallels in “Psycho”), is alive and well.

Notice the bold line similarities between the poster for the new Roberto Durán biopic “Hands of Stone” and two classic Bass posters for 1955/1960 releases, both directed by Otto Preminger. Simplicity is the key in each case. The clenched or mangled fist and the outstretched arms connect, like haymakers to the psyche.

Meanwhile, the stacked-column font for the new poster appears to have been inspired by Pablo Ferro’s iconic credits for “Dr. Strangelove.”



The Hell You Say



by Glenn Lovell

There’s a lot of talk about the new Jeff Bridges-Chris Pine indie, “Hell or High Water,” being a modern-day or throwback Western. The preview for this heists-gone-wrong saga set in West Texas makes it look like a cross between such new/old hybrids as the Coens’ “No Country for Old Men” and last year’s overlooked “Cold in July” with Michael C. Hall and Don Johnson riding the vengeance trail in a Cadillac El Dorado .

Hell, I could hahellboundve told you Bridges’ latest had one snake-skin boot in another era just by eyeballing the title.

With the exception of the Hellboy and Hellraiser franchises we don’t see the word hell in titles much these days. Because the filmmakers want to save the naughty language for the film proper, or the MPAA, like its Production Code predecessor, forbids the use of the h-word in dialogue and title?

None of the above.

Paradoxically, hell in the title conjures a more innocent time, the postwar period when Hollywood looked to put as much distance between itself and a squeaky-clean, newfangled invention called television.

In the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed like every other Western and war movie had hell in the title. If you were a kid then, it was like a free pass to use profanity.

Coming to a Theater Near You! on any particular weekend: United Artists’ “Hell Bound,” trading in a titillating cargo of “dope, dames … and dynamite”; Sam Fuller’s “Hell and High Water” starring Richard Widmark as a Cold War skipper; the Korean war “Retreat, Hell! with always-reliable Frank Lovejoy shouting orders; Mark Robson’s “Hell Below Zero” with Alan Ladd; the Audie Murphy biopic “To Hell and Back” with the much-decorated Audie Murphy playing himself; “Posse from Hell” again with Murphy; the sub adventure “Hellcats of the Pacific” with Ronald Reagan romancing his future First Lady, Nancy Das topside; Phil Karlson’s fact-based “Hell to Eternity” with Jeffrey Hunter battling anti-Japanese racism at home and in the South Pacific; Don Siegel’s gritty “Hell Is for Heroes” with Steven McQueen; John Boorman’s “Hell in the Pacific,” costarring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as enemies on a desert island.

Raising hell in a title soon became a cliché. Instead of shocking audiences, it had the opposite effect: it sedated them, made the film’s title feel like overkill.

But that was another time. Heck, hell in a title now sounds, well, almost quaint, in a good way.