Posts Tagged ‘film’

The Tall Man: James Arness (1923-2011)

06/04/2011

James Arness ‒ Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS’s long-running “Gunsmoke” (1955-1975) ‒ died Friday at age 88. Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with the TV legend upon the 50th anniversary of what has been hailed as TV’s first adult western.

Arness: Get out of Dodge!

“Matt Dillon was the kind of guy who’s low-key but stands for what is right,” said Arness from his Los Angeles home. “And he goes about seeing that things turn out that way – with, of course, a lot of people suffering along the way.”

Arness — the imposing (6-foot-7) older brother of Peter Graves — broke into movies by doing bit roles for such legendary filmmakers as John Ford, William Wellman and John Sturges. He was the titular being from another world in Howard Hawks’ “The Thing.” He also appeared as an FBI agent investigating giant ants in “Them!”

According to actor Kenneth Tobey and others, Arness was so embarrassed to be playing The Thing in full fright makeup, he hid from the rest of the cast, lunched alone.

Thing: Scary start

“Not at all,” Arness said, setting the record straight. “Gee, it was a great break for me at the time because I was struggling to get any kind of job, and that was a picture of course that got a tremendous amount of publicity and turned out getting me other work afterward.”

John Wayne was originally approached for the Marshal Dillon role. He turned it down but recommended buddy Arness, his co-star in “Big Jim McLain,” “Island in the Sky” and “Hondo.” “It was ridiculous that they even went to Wayne,” Arness recalled. “He was the biggest western movie star of all time and they must have known he couldn’t take it.”

Arness earned $1,200 an episode at first, but after the show won Emmys and topped the ratings, he renegotiated for $20,000 an episode and said, flat-out, “No press!” (TV Guide dubbed him the “recluse on horseback.”)

“Once we got going,” he recalled, “my agents were able to rewrite my contract and get me a really good salary that matched the popularity of the show. But when you think of what those kids get today on shows – phew! – it’s unbelievable. But what I got was great for that time.”

Arness attributed the show’s staying power to behind-the-camera talent, like “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah.  “The only thing I can say is that we had great writers and we always tried for realism … We sort of pioneered the adult approach. These were stories that dealt with universal issues, like betrayal and redemption.”

The series also benefited from Arness’ minimalist acting. He would shoulder his way into a scene and let his physique do the talking.

“Yes, Dillon was a no-nonsense but multidimensional character,” he said. “I didn’t play the character as much as the character played me.”

In the show’s pre-credit sequence, Marshal Dillon and an anonymous gunfighter would square off at high noon. The other guy always drew first, but Dillon’s bullet found its mark.

“They sort of made a point of that, which I thought was right,” Arness says. “As any policeman today will tell you, it’s not the idea of getting the first shot off, it’s hitting your target. Often the first guy that shoots misses.”

Each week, Marshal Dillon was joined by his worrywart deputy, Chester (Dennis Weaver), who walked with a pronounced limp, and the phlegmatic Doc (Milburn Stone) and hard-bitten Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), who ran the Long Branch saloon. Burt Reynolds and Ken Curtis, who replaced Weaver, would later join the ensemble.

Given the show’s often grim tone – and its fearless tackling of such issues as rape and revenge – it’s not surprising that CBS’ front office had to battle the censors.

The censors, he recalls, “limited us down to so many shootings per show and so many fistfights, but it didn’t seem to affect the show. We kept on ticking; the producers wrote around this new set of rules.”

There was also much conjecture about Miss Kitty. Was she a madam who ran a brothel, or just the proprietress of a hotel-saloon?

“That all started on the radio show, that premise of her running a house,” Arness replied, laughing. “But when you get it on the small screen, it just doesn’t work that well. So they transitioned that off quickly and just made her the owner of the Long Branch.”

A decorated war hero who sustained injuries during the assault on Anzio, Italy, in 1944, Arness walked with a limp away from the camera. But he didn’t complain. “Oh, I’ve got a little arthritis that I have to deal with. I was 6 feet 7 when I started and I’ve shrunk up a little bit. I’m probably 6-5 or so now. But up here at 82 I feel pretty good. I’m sticking in there.”

Directors PO’d at PPV

04/23/2011

How much would you pay to premiere a Hollywood movie in your living room?

Given that ticket prices now range from $7 to an East Coast high of $13, would you ante up $15 to stream “Fast Five” or “Thor 3D” in the privacy of your home theater? How about $20. Do I hear $30?

I ask because the window between theatrical premiere and PPV is closing fast and James Cameron and other top filmmakers ‒ responding to a deal between DirecTV and the major studios to reduce the 132-day window to two months ‒  are fighting mad, pointing to “the cannibalization” of ticket sales and increased opportunities for piracy if this “cut-throat new (business) model” is adapted.

Home Advantage? Premieres at a price

On Wednesday, Cameron, Peter Jackson, Kathryn Bigelow and 20 others, in alliance with the National Association of Theatre Owners, signed an open letter to the studios decrying a practice that would put first-run movies in your home while they’re still in theaters. Besides undercutting profits, these signatories argue, this would severely penalize specialty filmmakers whose work depends on slow-build word-of-mouth, and it would further devalue the movie-going experience “bolstered by the latest in digital projection, digital sound, and stadium seating.”

No word about the joker who kicks your seat throughout “Water for Elephants,” or the latecomer who uses his cell phone as a flashlight to find a seat during the scariest part of “Scream 4” and then periodically checks his email, IM’s and the time during the rest of the show.

Only last week in an AMC house I had to get up and shush employees who were talking so loudly on their walkie-talkies that you could hear their conversation in the auditorium. At “The Conspirator,” the guy seated behind me carried on a business transaction over his cell phone. Where were the ushers who say they discourage such annoyances? Talking among themselves in the lobby?

The fact of the matter is that filmgoers are fed up with less than optimum experiences when they go out to the theater, and this is causing an exodus to pay-per-view, where just this week I saw “The Bleeding House” as it was unreeling 3000 miles away at the Tribeca Film Festival. Friday, a local paper alerted readers to an exciting “opening” — Simon Rumley’s incendiary “Red White & Blue.” I had to laugh. The indie bowed on Comcast last September.

As someone who grew up watching movies as they were meant to be watched ‒ in movie houses ‒ I fear for the future of theaters, particularly the ones that are meticulously maintained and monitored, like our own Camera Cinemas. But the truth of the matter is we as a culture want things faster, faster … FASTER! And where there’s a market for streaming the latest movies, the studios and cable will rush to exploit it, exhibitors be damned.

I’m not worried about Hollywood’s profit margin. The major studios will, I’m sure, manage to squeak by. (They grossed $32 billion internationally last year.) I am, however, concerned about the look of movies. As more and more films premiere as PPV pickups, there will be less incentive to shoot on film in widescreen aspect ratios. We’ll get fewer films like “No Country for Old Men” and the overlooked Peter Weir’s epic “The Way Back” and more washed-out, rerouted  TV productions, like “The Girl Who Played with Fire.”

Paradise Soon

03/30/2011

Good news, Terrence Malick fans. (Funny how you instantly know who you are.)

The Howard Hughes of American auteurs is due back this spring with his most personal film yet, “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as, respectively, father and son processing decades of abuse, physical and psychological.

It has been six long years since “The New World,” Malick’s last film. Even so, we can count ourselves lucky: That’s a hiccup after the 20 years that separated “Days of Heaven” (1978) and Malick’s Lazarus-like return, “The Thin Red Line” (1998).

Next to Malick, Stanley Kubrick, whose output consisted of a niggardly 13 features, was a veritable speed demon.

As amazing as it sounds, “The Tree of Life” — which will be platformed out in late May after premiering at Cannes — is only the 67-year-old Malick’s fifth film. But consider the output: “Badlands” (1973), a dazzling snapshot of ’50s America, with Martin Sheen as the Charles Starkweather-inspired sociopath and Sissy Spacek as his reluctant lover-accomplice; “Days of Heaven,” a breathtakingly beautiful tale of Heartland greed and betrayal with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard; “The Thin Red Line,” Malick’s sprawling, free-form adaptation of the James Jones novel about one of the bloodiest battles of World War 2; and “The New World,” the Jamestown-Pocahontas story as timely metaphor for the rape of a continent. (Malick’s tableaux of Indians eyeing the advancing British ships with curiosity and apprehension caught the beginning of the end for America’s indigenous people.)

Not a blockbuster — or even a modest hit — among them. Indeed, “Badlands,” coming at the end of the counterculture movement, bowed on the bottom half of double bills. That’s how little Warner Bros. believed in it. (I discovered it in a hole-in-the-wall theater on Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles.) “Days of Heaven” proved too pictorially studied for many critics and had the added misfortune of opening in New York during a newspaper strike. “The Thin Red Line” was hopelessly mismatched during a release cycle that belonged to the more conventionally structured “Saving Private Ryan.”

Typically, “Tree of Life” has been kept well away from prying eyes. Still, by reviewing Malick’s track record and the new film’s two-minute trailer, we can predict/assume a few things about the director’s latest, including:

1. It will incorporate voiceover narration, lyrical but often unreliable. “Badlands” was narrated by the Holly/Spacek character; “Days of Heaven” was narrated by Linda Manz, who played Gere’s kid sister; “Thin Red Line” and “The New World” came with a Tower of Babel of narrative voices, which contributed to their clutter and confusion.

2. It will chart Man’s Fall from Grace. In “Days of Heaven,” God’s wrath is visited upon the central characters via fire and locusts. In “The Thin Red Line,” it’s delivered  by enemy machine-guns. In “The New World,” European imperialism reaps disease and starvation. In “Tree of Life,” which takes its title from the Book of Genesis, the apocalyptic shock waves begin with children frolicking in DDT spray.

3. At heart, it will be about the pillaging of our planet, the looting of a once-verdant Paradise. Images of despoliation drive and fascinate Malick, who taught us about global interconnectiveness well before Al Gore.

4. It will be impeccably produced and earn Oscar nominations for set designer Jack Fish and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick attracts and gets the best. From the start, his films have been a feast for the senses. “Days of Heaven,” shot during “the magic hour” (the 15 to 20 minutes before dusk), brought Nestor Almendros an Oscar; Lubezki was nominated for “The New World.”

5. If “Tree of Life” doesn’t show early signs of becoming a word-of-mouth hit, it, like every Malick film to date, will be written off by impatient distributors, including Fox Searchlight in the U.S.

6. “Tree of Life” will split audiences and critics. Some will call it transformative, others will damn it as pretentious, self-absorbed. Malick being Malick, he’ll smile and sit back … and disappear until his muse next beckons.

Mel: ‘Say hello to my little (furry) friend’

03/17/2011

Call it CPR for a career in need of emergency resuscitation.

After his much-aired telephone rants — which managed to offend and appall every known demographic, and then some — Mel Gibson’s career, I think we can all agree, is on life-support … with someone standing by to pull the plug.

Celebrities deal with career meltdowns in different ways. DUI poster boy Nick Nolte thumbed his nose at the paparazzi and got on with business. Paul Reubens and Michael Richards went underground after their public embarrassments. Director-drag queen Lee Tamahori, arrested for soliciting an undercover officer, took a four-year hiatus. Hugh Grant did the chat show circuit and made a good act of contrition.

Shoplifter Winona Ryder ‒ back, sort of, as the has-been ballerina in “Black Swan” ‒ did her community service, took two years off, and then gradually reinserted herself into the limelight with low-profile performances in independent films no one saw.

Gibson’s novel rehab program: a quirky drama in which his character’s on-screen breakdown mirrors his real-life one.

Gibson and his rodent apologist

In “The Beaver,” directed by and co-starring long- time friend   Jodie Foster, Gibson plays Walter Black, who is described as “a hopelessly depressed individual” whose road back includes the furry hand puppet of the title. Struggling to understand what Dad’s going through, his young son makes him a papier-mâché brain. “Mom says yours got broken.”

Sound a little like Elwood P. Dowd? You remember Elwood. He’s the Jimmy Stewart character in “Harvey,” the classic comedy about a good-natured dipsomaniac and his imaginary rabbit friend. The big difference is that the Stewart vehicle is a celebration of eccentricity and the therapeutic benefits of pink elephants. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 34 years, Doctor,” Elwood tells a shrink. “And I’m happy to state I finally won over it.”

Gibson’s film is darker in tone; it’s about the road back from acute depression fueled by alcohol.

Echoing our sentiments, Black’s teen-age son asks if the “prescription puppet” is a joke.

“No, it’s a fresh start,” his father replies.

Unlikely. Audience reaction Wednesday to the film’s debut at South by Southwest festival in Austin ranged from mixed to skeptical. Foster herself acknowledged the film entered distribution purgatory after Mel’s ugly tirades went viral. “All sorts of stuff happened after the film was finished that threw our release into a crazy pattern,” she said.

Further fueling speculation that Gibson harbors a career death wish: He chose the night of the SXSW premiere to turn himself in for booking on a misdemeanor battery charge.

Provided the (public relations) river don’t rise, “The Beaver” will open in select markets May 6.

Reeling from Disaster

03/13/2011

No sooner had news arrived Friday of Japan’s unprecedented 9.0 magnitude earthquake than we heard this: “There are unprecedented meteor showers off the coast of Tokyo.”

A country, pulverized by temblors and tsunami, being slammed again?

Frames of Reference: "It was just like a movie!"

No, one was real life, the other reel life, as played out in the new sci-fi epic “Battle: Los Angeles.”

What do you bet the folks at Columbia Pictures were scrambling to figure out how to respond to the synchronicity. Do they play it up, play it down … or just ignore it, for fear of appearing crass and unfeeling? (Over the weekend, Warner Bros. jerked “Hereafter” from Tokyo theaters because the film includes a harrowing reenactment of the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Thailand.)

There are plenty of similar scenarios to guide them. Apollo 13 was trapped in orbit in April 1970, while “Marooned” was still in theaters. Universal’s “Airport ’77” opened in March 1977, the same week as two jumbo 747s collided on a runway, killing 583 in what was called “the worst air disaster in aviation history.” The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred less than two weeks into the run of “The China Syndrome,” lending a stark credibility to the speculative thriller.

Rather than exploit the real-life drama that was unfolding in space, Columbia Pictures discreetly scaled back its ads for “Marooned.” Universal pulled the ads altogether for “Airport ’77” and newspapers delayed their reviews. In contrast, “China Syndrome” director James Bridges, realizing events had overtaken his cautionary drama, made himself available to the media. (I interviewed at the time.) The film went on to become a huge hit.

Following the attacks of 9/11, the terrorist thriller “Collateral Damage,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was pulled from Warner Bros.’ fall lineup (it opened in Feb. 2002) and shots of the World Trade Center were edited out or digitally removed from “Zoolander,” “Serendipity” and “Spider-Man.” I remember citing each case in print.

As callous as it sounds, disasters fuel box office because our method of processing real life is through cinematic similes, which never fail to trivialize indescribable events. How many times have you heard an eyewitness to a shooting or an explosion struggle to communicate his amazement, then, relieved, offer, “It was just like a movie.”

More than one person has responded to the eerie helicopter footage of spreading flood waters in Japan by saying, “It looks like something out of ‘2012′ … or ‘The Day after Tomorrow.’ ”

Viewing the vortex that had opened up off Sendai, Anderson Cooper gasped, “It looks like something from science fiction.”

While they won’t or can’t articulate it, people are rushing to “Battle: L.A.” for the same reason audiences mobbed “King Kong” during the Depression: for reassurance, to feel better about themselves and their lives. It’s their way of saying, “As terrible as things are, I’m safe.”

Arnold: “I’m baack!”

03/06/2011

Now that he has wrapped his least convincing performance as fiscally responsible governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has let his agents know he’s available for more film work. This sets him apart from former actor-politicos Ronald Reagan and George Murphy, who, once elected, quit show biz cold turkey.

Arnold: "Now for my next act -- "

CinemaDope has it on good authority that the five scripts Arnie is most excited about are:

√ “The Jack LaLanne Story.” Sources tell us that Arnold is now “bulking down” at Gold’s Gym in Santa Monica to play his fitness hero. The film will be released with the actor’s voice in Germany but will be dubbed by David Spade in the U.S. Jane Fonda is in line to play LaLanne’s wife Elaine, co-inventor of the Juice Tiger.

√ “Kindergarten Commissioner.” John Kimble, now top cop, goes undercover again at Astoria Elementary, this time as principal. His assignment: Stake out the cafeteria and take down the Juice Box Bandit. Arnold hopes to get big laughs with the line “It’s NOT a facelift!”

√ “Heidi-Ho!” This “reimagining” of the much-beloved story has Arnie, in lederhosen, as a crabby goat herder who now runs a Hummer dealership in a small village in Austria. Arnie adopts the eight-year-old orphan and mentors her in entrepreneurialship. Shirley Temple Black is “thinking seriously” about a cameo.

√  “Terminator 4: The Road Company.” Arnie’s TX super cyborg returns from the scrapheap to land a roll in the bus-and-truck company of “The Wiz,” playing the Tin Man. John Connor, back from the future ‒ or is it the past? ‒ sees through the disguise and alerts Androids’  Equity.

√ “Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington.” Arnold as Jefferson Schmidt filibusters Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow foreign-born citizens to become president. Schmidt exposes his nemesis, Sen. Joseph Paine (Danny DeVito), and winds up in the White House. Pure Capra-corn.

It’s intriguing, it’s fatiguing … It’s a bore!

03/01/2011

“Oh, my God! Oh, wow! Really, really, really, really, really wow! … OK, alright … OK, yeah I am kind of speechless.”

Just when you thought the Academy Awards couldn’t get any duller along comes the 83rd annual installment.

Colin Firth: Humbled

Sunday’s Oscar telecast moved in fits and starts and, though touches of class did shine through, the show sorely lacked what Hollywood has always prided itself on ‒ suspense. Everyone predicted to win in the top categories did, including Firth, Portman, Bale, Leo and, for best picture, “The King’s Speech.” No sweeps. No upsets.

The only semi-surprises, at least from where I sat, was that “Inception” did so well (four wins, including cinematography) and the superb “True Grit” was shut out, presumably because 1) the Coens weren’t beholden enough when they collected their “No Country” hardware, and 2) Westerns really are out of fashion.

As re-jiggered to attract a larger, younger audience, a lot of things misfired and a few worked.

The misfires:

√ Front-loading the show with the technical awards and pushing the supporting actor categories deeper into the evening.

√ Hosts Franco and Hathaway introducing, respectively, their grandmother and mother in the audience. It made me pine for Letterman’s Uma / Oprah moment.

√ Presenter Kirk Douglas, who did his reputation no favors by playing dirty old man and reminding us, yawn, once again that he was nominated three times without winning. The 94-year-old actor may have slowed down but he’s hasn’t forgotten how to hog the limelight. Quick, someone, get the hook!

√ Acceptance speeches like that by the “speechless” Melissa Leo (see above) that were either filled with dead air or just sort of rambled into tomorrow. And what’s with costume winner Colleen Atwood? After 30 years in the business, she can’t say thank you without crib notes?

√ Co-host James Franco, in and out of drag. If we were nice, we’d say the heavy-lidded, pursed-lip actor was doing his parody of James Dean. Closer to the truth: Early in the show, it dawned on him that he had made a terrible mistake and, for all his acting chops, he couldn’t conceal his deer-in-the-headlights dread.

Among the highlights:

√ Colin Firth’s funny, self-deprecating acceptance speech. (Brits are invited to the party each year to demonstrate how one accepts an award with humor and humility.)

√ The In Memoriam segment set to Celine Dion’s rendition of Chaplin’s “Smile.” Was it my imagination or did the music reach a crescendo just as Patricia Neal flashed a heavenly smile?

√ The collapsing of best song performances into two strategically placed segments. Now, the Academy has to figure out how to nominate decent songs: All of this year’s nominees, save for A.R. Rahman’s “If I Rise” for “127 Hours,” sounded like bad Disney show tunes.

√ The best picture clips backed by Firth’s halting “In this grave hour …” speech. Whoever came up with this gutsy, inspired idea deserves a special Oscar.