Making Amends: The Year Onscreen

01/03/2017

2016’s BEST, WORST, SCARIEST

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.

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

01/02/2017

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

12/11/2016

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

09/05/2016

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.”

GoldenArmStone

Exodus

The Hell You Say

08/17/2016

 

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.

 

William Schallert: Utility Man

05/19/2016

By Glenn Lovell

During my last conversation with the ubiquitous William Schallert, who died a week ago at age 93, I kept thinking, “Man, oh, man, if this guy ever decided to shoot from the hip, ‘tell all’ in the parlance of the tabloids, he would unleash a serious shit storm in Hollywood.”

A list of Schallert’s directors — William Wyler, William Wellman, John Huston, Vincent Minnelli, Raoul Walsh, among them — reads like a Who’s Who of Legendary Filmmakers.

We talked about the Kirk Douglas cult classic “Lonely Are the Brave,” its arduous New Mexico locations. Schallert, who played an annoying, gum-snapping deputy opposite Walter Matthau’s sheriff, recalled thebrave modern-day Western about a loner who refuses to be hogtied as being much ahead of its time, a project that, in his words, “oozed integrity.”

“Boy, talk about a current topic!” he enthused. “It was about illegal aliens, a lone hero trying to overcome technology, a cowboy who wouldn’t desert his horse. There are all sorts of things to love about that film.”

But it did not fare well at the box office. Schallert recalled an Orange County sneak preview where the Douglas vehicle was paired with a Hammer horror movie starring Christopher Lee. “The horror film was in vivid color, ours was in black and white. It was largely a teen-age audience. They loved the horror film and were bored with ‘Lonely Are the Brave.’ They didn’t boo it, they just didn’t get it.”

While nothing he hadn’t heard before, I told Schallert that he was an invaluable research tool and deserved his own as-told-to biography. (I had just written about John Sturges in “Escape Artist.”) He shrugged off the notion. He doubted he could add much to the discourse.

Typical Schallert — humble, low-key, self-effacing. Qualities that come through in many of his supporting performances.

I salted away the idea of calling him and again pitching that biography. But as these things have a way of doing, it kept being put off … and put off.

And now it’s too late.

Not surprisingly, the obits played up Schallert’s sizable TV work and union activism (he championed residual pay as SAG president). To hear AP tell it, the most important thing the lanky, ever-in-demand utility actor did in his almost 70 years before the camera: the father/uncle in “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-’66).

Barely mentioned were his performances in such classics as “The Reckless Moment” (Max Ophuls), “The Red Badge of Courage” (John Huston), and “Singin’ in the Rain” (Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen).

He also had bit parts in three Don Siegel films, including the gritty docudrama “Riot in Cell Block 11,” Wyler’s “Friendly Persuasion,” Wellman’s “The High and the Mighty,” Minnelli’s “Some Came Running,” and Sturges’s OK Corral reunion “HwmSchallertour of the Gun.”

Fans of fantasy and sci-fi have always had a particular fondness for the actor. He appeared in such genre staples as “Mighty Joe Young,” “The Man from Planet X,” “The Monolith Monster,” “Them!,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “Gremlins,” and “Colossus: The Forbid Project.” In the latter, about a renegade supercomputer, he plays the Director of the CIA who, when he realizes he’s about to be nuked, flashes momentary dread and then, as he lights a cigarette, what-the-hell acceptance.

His best roles? I’d have to go with what he described as his “bone-headed deputy” in “Lonely Are the Brave” and, opposite Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier, his ameliorable Georgia mayor in the Oscar-winning “In the Heat of the Night.”

“Walter (Matthau) and I made a good team on ‘Lonely Are the Brave,’ ” he said. “We were able to make amusing and ironic comments about what was going on.”

“Money” Monte

05/12/2016

by Glenn Lovell

If you have the impression that there are two movies out there titled “Money Monster,” you’re not alone. The original trailer for the TriStar-Sony release, starring George Clooney as the fast-talking host of a cable finance show and Julia Roberts as his producer, makes it seem a Sidney Lumet hostage drama a la “Dog Day Afternoon.” It’s dark, brittle, more than a little uncomfortable to watch.

Then — pop! — a couple of weeks before the film’s release (on Friday the 13th, no less), there’s a second trailer. It doesn’t contain Money-Monster-2016-Scenethe disgruntled hostage-taker (Jack O’Connell) or the detailed walk-up to the timely anti-Wall Street premise. Instead, we get what feels like a stock urban thriller, with Clooney yelling for everyone to take cover, clear the streets. Suddenly, this film about stock-market skullduggery and its cataclysmic toll on John Q. Public has morphed into a “White House Down”/”Olympus Has Fallen” techno-fantasy.

The second, newer TV trailer is as vague — and purposely misleading — as the first trailer was detailed, heartfelt … accusatory.

Obviously studio pollsters, ever-mindful of these politically fractious times, took the pulse of the intended demographic and didn’t like the feedback to Trailer #1. So, quick like a bunny, they retooled to make the film seem a generic, run-and-hide apocalyptic number, complete with requisite panic-in-the-streets cutaways.

Never a good sign, this last-minute tinkering. Director Jodie Foster, who has yet to have a hit behind the camera after three previous tries, must be livid. Sony, which needs to recoup $90 million on its $30 million investment to see a profit, is obviously looking to cut its losses. And the best way to do this? Play the marketing version of three-card Monte.

Trump’s “Lonesome” Rhodes Moment?

01/24/2016

By Glenn Lovell

It was only a matter of time. We all knew Donald Trump’s big mouth would get him into trouble, erode his standing in the polls, if not scuttle his campaign. Yes, the bellicose self-promoter has finally had his Lonesome Rhodes Moment, named for the TV demagogue in the 1957 movie “A Face in the Crowd.”

Larry Rhodes, a country singer-turned-media sensation played by Andy Griffith, rides his grass-roots support to political prominence … until someone turns the microphone on as Rhodes, thinking he’s off air, spews invectives aimed at his gullible supporters.

“Those morons out there,” he chortles. “I can take chicken fertilizetrumpfacer and sell it to them for caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it’s steak … You know what the public’s like? A cage full of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”

No one had to leave the mike on for Trump to insult his base. Like Rhodes he was destined to “open his big yap once too often.”

On Saturday, before an Iowa crowd, he talked about how malleable his “loyal followers” are. Cocking a finger-gun, like Charles Bronson’s subway vigilante in “Death Wish,” he crowed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s like incredible.”

Fadeout on Trump, like Rhodes, alone in his Manhattan penthouse, except for a sound engineer ready to cue thunderous canned applause when his boss shouts, “The people love me! The people love me!”

Title “A Face in the Crowd” links to trailer.

2015’s Best Films — and Assorted Others

12/31/2015

by Glenn Lovell

The year in celluloid sometimes felt like a lightsaber duel between the Dark Side and the Force, with the good guys finally prevailing thanks to a couple of nostalgic reboots and a heartwarming postcard from abroad.

With ticket sales flagging for much of the year, the industry begrudgingly countenanced new/old distribution platforms. Netflix made good on its vow to take on the majors by picking up the acclaimed indie “Beasts of No Nation” and releasing it simultaneously to streaming customers and a handful of theaters. (AMC, Regal and other chains refused to exhibit the film.) According to Variety, the Los Gatos-based company will consign $500 million to theatrical acquisitions in 2016.

Quentin Tarantino, of course, went Old School with his New Style Western “The Hateful Eight,” premiering it in a super-widescreen 70mm format at special reserved-seat engagements that included overture, intermission and souvenir programs. For many of us, seeing an “event” release at a mobbed megaplex felt, well, less than special. Meanwhile, the gap between theatrical debut and VOD continued to shrink, with RLJ Ent’s “Bone Tomahawk” and Gaspar Noé’s graphic “Love” virtually premiering in home theaters.

Besides the current box-office behemoth, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the top money-makers of the year included “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7,” “Inside Out,” “Spectre” and the final “Hunger Games.”

With one caveat (we still haven’t seen “The Revenant”), here are our picks in no particular order for the best of the year:

1. “Spotlight.” A docudrama about the Boston Globe’s expose of pedophile priests and the church hierarchy that enabled them. By concentrating on the paper’s grinding research and legwork, as well as its systemic prejudices, Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”) delivered the best film about crusading journalists since “All the President’s Men.” Outstanding work by Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and, as an initially reluctant attorney-source, Stanley Tucci.

2. “Beasts of No Nation.” A brutal, unforgettable coming-of-age saga set against the bacBeastskdrop of a fictitious West African nation mired in civil war. Newcomer Abraham Attah plays an orphaned child indoctrinated into the ways of the battlefield, and Idris Elba is the bellicose rebel leader, a sort of fanatical Piped Piper. Directed and adapted to the screen by Cary Joji Fukunaga.

3. “Creed.” Maybe the year’s biggest surprise, a return to the ring and scruffy roots of Philadelphia’s Rocky Balboa. Only now the emphasis is on Apollo Creed’s troubled son. “Fruitvale Station’s” Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan go the distance and more in this old-fashioned, predictably cathartic boxing fable, but it’s Sly Stallone who scores a late-career TKO as the kid’s trainer-surrogate dad.

4. “Brooklyn.”  A real find — a sweet, nicely modulated drama from Ireland. Saoirse Ronan has her best role yet as an Irish teen who, in the 1950s, relocates to the New York borough of the title. Conditioned by one too many Scorsese films, we expect the worst. Instead, director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby proffer a succession of mostly upbeat vignettes. Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters round out the year’s most amiable ensemble.

5. “Mad Max: Fury Road.” George Miller reclaims his mantle as the best action auteur around with this dystopian epic. A near-perfect fusion of set design, cinematography and CG effects. Tom Hardy takes ovtrainer as the Outback hero, but it’s Charlize Theron who ultimately carries the day. In a word, breathtaking!

6. “Trainwreck.” Amy Schumer brought her bruising brand of scattershot humor to the big screen with this hard-R catty twist on “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and scored the year’s funniest comedy. Judd Apatow directed from Schumer’s semi-autobiographical script.

7. “Sicario.”  The year’s timeliest — and most cynical — thriller has Emily Blunt as a scrupulous FBI agent enlisted by a vague “inter-agency task force” led by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro to help neutralize a Mexican drug cartel … and lend legitimacy to covert operations. “Listen, nothing will make sense to your American ears,” she’s told  when she demands answers. From Denis Villeneuve, who last scored with “Prisoners.”

8. “The Hateful Eight” and “Bone Tomahawk”: Two revisionist Westerns starring Kurt Russell. How do you tell them apart? By the length of Russell’s facial hair, for starters. Russell’s bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Leone boasts a long, droopy mustache. Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh costar as the vilest of the eight. Novelist-turned filmmaker S. Craig Zahler made the more expansive “Bone Tomahawk” for a tiny fraction of Tarantino’s budget.

9. “Ex Machina.” A sci-fi variation on “Pygmalion,” with the suddenly everywhere Oscar Isaac as the reclusive creator behind an amazingly lifelike android and Domhnall Gleeson as his unwitting apprentice/guinea pig. England’s Alex Garland wrote and directed this cautionary fable.

10. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” J.J. Abrams’ 30-years-later continuation of George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy is everything we hoped for, and  quite a bit more. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Star-Wars-Force-AwakensOscar Isaac take over as the soon-to-be-tested defenders of the Republic; Adam Driver as Darth Vader’s grandson is more brooding Prince of Denmark than Wagnerian heavy; Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill reprise their old roles. Jam-packed with narrow escapes, deep-space dogfights and heart-tugging surprises, this may very well be the best “Star Wars” yet.

Best Foreign Films: Hungary’s “White God,” a political allegory with real bite, and New Zealand’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” a mockumentary on fussy flatmates who happen to be vampires.

Best Exploitation: “It Follows” and “Cop Car.”

Best Documentary: “Amy.”

Most Disappointing: Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” which cried out to be a fast-paced B picture (like “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”), not some talky, self-important message movie, and “Legend,” with our new favorite actor, Tom Hardy, doing double duty as East London gangsters Reg and Ronnie Kray.

Most Overlooked: “Chappie,” Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi variation on “Pinocchio,” and Seth MacFarlane’s happily scatological “Ted 2,” which opens with a hilarious sendup of a glitzy Busby Berkeley number. You can also add “The Visit,” M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy return to form, to this list.

Worst Films of the Year: “The D Train,” with a badly miscast Jack Black, and “Youth,” an achingly pretentious meditation on — what else? — old age and regret. Where is Ingmar Bergman when you need him?

 

 

 

 

 

Maureen O’Hara: Old World … Without Apologies

10/29/2015

Maureen O’Hara — she of the flame-red tresses and fiercely independent nature — died Saturday in Boise, Idaho, at age 95. We had the grand good fortune of chatting with O’Hara when she came out of retirement in 1991 to appear opposite John Candy in a glum little comedy called “Only the Lonely.”

by Glenn Lovell

WHEN IT came time to cast the domineering Irish mother in his new comedy-romance, “Only the Lonely,” director-writer Chris Columbus held out for the prototype. He wanted Dublin’s own Maureen FitzSimons, better known as Maureen O’Hara, co-star of “The Quiet Man,” “Rio Grande,” “McLintock!” andindex other two-fisted John Wayne vehicles.

Unfortunately, O’Hara, then 69, was in retirement in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. She quit “the biz” in 1971, after her 55th feature. And just so everyone got the message, she got rid of her agent and kept far from the madding crowd.

The word that filtered back: “Miss O’Hara says thanks but no thanks.”

Columbus, riding high after a little comedy called “Home Alone,” persisted. He contacted O’Hara’s brother, producer Charles FitzSimons, who passed on the word. When this didn’t bring a reply, Charles planted his feet and exerted a little Irish stubbornness of his own.

”Charles called me, then sent me the script,” she of the flame-red mane recalls in an Irish lilt that summons visions of Killarney and rolling hills. “He said, ‘This time you can’t turn it down. You have to read it. It’s one of the best things to come around.’ ”

O’Hara read, enjoyed and agreed. The Rose Muldoon character — feisty, stubborn, colorful — was made to order.

”If I was going to come back,” she said, “I was determined it would be as a character with some extra dimension.”

Rose’s extra dimension? “Her total meanness. Her prejudice. She’s not a nice person. In everything else, I’ve been domineering, strong, warm-hearted. There was a bit of challenge in this role: Rose had to be played as an Irish immigrant woman who lived in a little house under the el in Chicago.”

O’Hara also had to click with co-star John Candy. She met him in producer John Hughes’ Chicago office. “I wanted to meet John just to be sure. I mean, what if we didn’t like each other? We clicked immediately. He has good eyes. He looks you straight in the eyes.”

O’Hara stressed that it had to be an extra-special set of circumstances to get her back before the camera. It helped that the producers agreed to cast longtime friend and “Magnificent Matador” co-star Anthony Quinn as Rose’s admiring neighbor.

”You have to remember I never intended to get back. I was retired permanently,” she explained from Los Angeles. “I didn’t even have an agent. Still don’t. If you retire and intend to work, you have an agent. I really and truthfully was out of the business.”

One of six children born in Ranleagh, Ireland, near Dublin, O’Hara made her theatrical debut at age 6, joined the Abbey Theater at 14, and earned her first money (“a guinea — or about $4 in those days”) at 16 in a radio adaptation of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” She made her screen debut as Maureen FitzSimons in something called “My Molly.” It was Charles Laughton who changed her name to O’Hara and “introduced” her in the Hitchcock adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s “Jamaican Inn.” From there it was one costume picture, John Ford saga and family comedy after another. The highlights in her mind: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” Disney’s “The Parent Trap,” and, for Ford, “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Long Gray Line,” “Rio Grande” and “The Quiet Man,” the last two pairing her with “best friend” Wayne.

Little wonder O’Hara called it quits after a little coaxing from Wayne and her late husband, aviator Charles F. Blair. “One evening as I was reading the paper they stood over me and said, in unison, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for you to stay home?’ It was that simple and that quick. I was just having a wonderful time, and it seemed like the right thing to do.”

During her time away, O’Hara traveled the world, returning annually to Glengarriff in West County Cork, raised her children and grandchildren, and, in general, pursued a life “that was so busy, I didn’t have much time for myself at all.”

And she didn’t once long for the madness of a Hollywood sound stage?

”There were lots of things I was offered and said no to. Oh, I would have come back for ‘On Golden Pond.’ I would have loved to do that. But it was never offered to me. It was offered to the right lady — Katharine Hepburn.”

In life as on screen O’Hara impresses as a no-bull type who can stand toe-to-toe with any man. And like Mary Kate Danaher (her Inisfree spinster with the “fearful temper” in “The Quiet Man”) and Rose Muldoon, she’s not afraid to say her piece.

This afternoon she speaks out on a number of topics, including:

√ Her famous red hair, inherited from her mother. “I don’t think my hair had anything to do with my career. I hope to God it was my ability. I’m a professional, trained actress. I wasn’t discovered in an ice-cream parlor.”

√ Why she never married Wayne. They were linked in gossip columns much as Tracy and Hepburn were linked. “Oh, goodness no. We never, never, NEVER talked of marriage. It was never a romance. We had a fabulous friendship. We were each other’s best friends. Besides, he always married Latin women.”

√ The feminist backlash against some of her characters, including Mary Kate, who, like Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” finally appears to submit to brute force. “You’re analyzing the picture. It’s a great story. You don’t have to go into it that deep. You just sit back and enjoy it. I can’t stand all this analyzing of characters. It drives me crazy. A great story is a great story.”

√ Her on-screen rapport with the Duke. “I’m 5-foot-8; he was 6-foot-4. We looked like a good physical match. You knew if I hit him I could hurt him, but he was strong enough to control me. The public must have liked it, because they sure bought plenty of tickets.”

√ Legendary director John Ford’s special talent. “He was the total boss on his set. He controlled his set. No actor or actress dared step out of line. So you could relax and worry about your role, not about some actor upstaging you.”

√ The times she feared for her safety. “I was hurt on ‘The Quiet Man’ when Duke dragged me across the field. I had back surgery for a ruptured disc. On ‘McLintock!’ I fell and chipped the ends off four teeth. I was running full tilt in an area that had chopped gravel. Duke was supposed to catch me. I trusted him so much. I fell flat on my face in the gravel. I was bleeding in 24 places when they picked me up.”

O’Hara’s return to the screen has been so painless (“the first day on the set was like the last day 20 years ago”), there’s a good chance we’ll see her and Quinn in “Only the Lonely, Part 2.” “There was a lot more to the romance between Rose and Nick (Quinn), but it wound up on the cutting-room floor. Maybe we’ll find out what happens to them in the sequel. We’re already talking about it. But it wouldn’t be for another year. Not until after ‘Home Alone 2.’ “