Friday, March 27, 2015



We're under way in Hollywood. The TCM Classic Film Festival has set sail, and we already have Lisabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Don De Fore, Errol Flynn, Alan Hale, Brenda Marshall, Flora Robson, Claude Rains and Henry Daniell registered in the captain's log. This week's "Fear of the Velvet Curtain" column details what else may (or may not) be in store for us as we continue our journey through these not exactly uncharted waters:

"There’s a big push-pull in my head between the opportunity (tonight) to see Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965), a documentary-style depiction of a nuclear attack on Great Britain which was banned by the BBC for 20 years, and one of my favorite James Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), introduced by the one-off Bond himself, George Lazenby. Given our mutual, not-so-mysterious attraction to Diana Rigg, who plays Bond’s ill-fated paramour, I suspect that 007 is going to have the upper hand here, but I reserve the right to do a last-minute left-turn into auditorium #4 to check out the Watkins film. The ultimate goal of the day will be to be able to prop our eyes open by midnight, for at that hour comes the chance to catch Joseph Losey’s ill-regarded adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, retitled the more marquee-friendly Boom! (1968), starring a post-Virginia Woolf Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor."

By midnight tonight, of course, it may be our heads that end up going "boom!" But endurance, and not cranial explosion, is our lofty goal! Stay tuned to see if we keep it together. Much more to come!


Tuesday, March 24, 2015


This coming weekend, March 26-29, it’s down the rabbit hole once again to revel in Hollywood’s past glories (and international cinema’s too) at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. This is the sixth incarnation of the festival, and I have been honored-- and downright lucky-- to have been able to attend each of those, thanks to the sponsorship of Ed Gonzalez, editor-in-chief at Slant magazine, whose daily blog The House Next Door publishes my account of the festival every year. (I’ll be writing an extensive piece on my experience at the festival for The House Next Door, to be posted next week. Look for the link here.)
And every year part of the excitement and preparation for the festival is, of course, the announcement of the schedule. TCM usually dribbles out five or six big-ticket items far in advance of announcing the slot-by-slot programming, and those are usually the ones that don’t do much to get my heart racing. In accordance with the 2015 festival theme, “History at the Movies,” one of the first pictures announced was… Apollo 13, a perfectly fine movie but not the sort of choice I gravitate to with enthusiasm in this particular situation.

But it’s always the little nooks and crannies of the schedule which later get filled with rarities, oddities and fascinating panels and presentations that make the TCM Classic Film Festival really worth attending, and this year there are plenty of goodies for cinephiles to seek out and enjoy while others get in line for less-rarely-seen attractions like Dr. Zhivago or The French Connection. (The important questions for me in deciding what to see are always: Have I ever seen it? Have I ever seen it projected? Have I ever heard of it? If the answers to any or all of these are “no,” there’s a good chance I’ll want to stand in line for it at TCM.)

Of course, I'm looking forward to reuniting with high-quality moviegoing pals like Richard Harland Smith, Ariel Schudson, Millie De Chirico, Bob Westal, Michael Schlesinger, Doug Cummings, Robert Tower and lots of others. Plus this year my best friend Bruce will be in town to roam the hallowed halls of Hollywood with me, which will be a dream come true for both of us.

In the meantime (not to skew Bruce's perspective or anything like that), here’s a quick peek at what I’m imagining my upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival weekend might look like, with the full and open acknowledgement that anything from the butterfly effect to a sold-out screening could monkey-wrench these best-laid plans at a moment’s notice.

And that's just the first day! (Rim shot! Drops mic!)

Friday, March 20, 2015


Michael Mann’s Blackhat is worth seeing for a couple of sequences alone—a critical firefight that separates our hero from the rest of his team just before boarding a flight to Jakarta, and the staging of the movie’s final showdown set piece, with players fuzzing on and off the slippery focal plane of Stuart Dryburgh’s camera, pursuing each other among the undulating figures and vibrant marchers of a celebratory Indonesian dance in a public square. 

Unfortunately, it’s also got the uniformly anti-dynamic, lightweight Chris Hemsworth at its center, who has been guided by his director into a glum, monotonic existential slow burn that at times made me pine for the gossamer comic stylings of Edward James Olmos as Lieutenant Castillo. You need more than a black hole at the center of any movie which stakes itself, as Blackhat does, to rethinking the action genre for the age of cyber-terrorism and cyber-profiteering, because despite the ingenious visual effects devices Mann employs to signify the way viruses and malware take over electronic security and operating systems, a large of part of what happens on the scope screen is devoted to people staring intently at laptops and typing furiously, never missing a stroke. (Interesting that it flopped theatrically just as the Sony cyber-hack panic was peaking.)

That said, Blackhat is worth seeing for the aforementioned sequences, the nightscapes Mann and Dryburgh concoct for their action figures to scuttle around in, and for the presence of Viola Davis, measured and ice-dry and never sexier as a no-nonsense DOJ agent whose world-weary glare alone looks as though it could erase all traces of Hemsworth, or anyone else in the cast, at her whim. The movie doesn’t entirely work-- all that visual bravado, and it still feels like a sketch for a more deeply felt movie that has escaped Mann's grasp. But I still wish I’d seen it in a theater, and the prospect of soaking in it at home soon, with the lights down and the big screen aglow with the eerie depths of Malaysia and Chicago and Jakarta at night, remains irresistible.



"We're gonna put the Sarge to bed, we're gonna paint the scratches on this tank, and we're gonna forget this night ever happened." – Private Foley (John Candy), 1941

Do what you have to do, Private, but this coming Sunday, March 22, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood will definitely be a night to remember, as the American Cinematheque unleashes the digitally restored extended version of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, complete with a spiffy new sound mix and a restoration of the score.

The event, moderated by soundtrack producer and preservationist Mike Matessino (who restored John Williams’ score for a recently released two-disc CD), will feature a panel Q & A with the movie’s co-screenwriter, Bob Gale (who wrote the script with Robert Zemeckis), producer Buzz Feitshans, and actors Tim Matheson (Capt. Loomis Birkhead) and Nancy Allen (Donna Stratton), along with other guests yet to be announced.

To paraphrase the teaser ads leading to the movie’s 1979 release, soon the gigantic Egyptian screen will be bombarded by the most explosive barrage of @#&$ ever filmed! I was exceedingly excited to see the digital restoration on Blu-ray last fall, released as part of Universal’s Steven Spielberg box, but I never even allowed myself to dream that this version would ever be exhibited in such a spectacular fashion as this. It’s a cinema dream come true for everyone, including myself, who has for 30-some years been telling anyone who will listen (and many who refused) that 1941 is a masterpiece, one of Spielberg’s best films and one of the great comedy spectacles of all time. Sunday night the evidence will all be on the screen, and in the delight of the no-doubt packed house. 

And remember, Winowski, if you see a big guy lumbering through the lobby decked out in fighter pilot gear, chomping on a mangled cigar butt, check him for stilts.


Thursday, March 19, 2015


If it’s Thursday, it must be time to take a deep breath, pull the drawstring and face the Fear of the Velvet Curtain once again. And this week there’s a real reason to be afraid.

 If you missed it during its very brief theatrical run (and thanks to IFC’s, shall we say, not aggressive advertising campaign, most of you did), this week is dedicated to a heads-up about Nicholas McCarthy’s follow-up to his impressive debut The Pact (2012). It’s called At the Devils Door (2014), and after having seen it now twice, I think it’s even more impressive, and certainly more daring, than the previous movie.

Full disclosure: McCarthy has been a friend for several years—we met when Richard Harland Smith gathered us together, along with Paul Gaita, Jeff Allard and Greg Ferrara, to form the Horror Dads collective
 over at TCM’s Movie Morlocks. And despite that friendship, when I first saw the movie I confess I was one of those less-than-satisfied folks I describe in my FVC review who was confused by the fact that the horrors weren’t arriving on a more predictable schedule, in a familiar fashion. But the movie never left my head, and when I returned to it—on my big-screen TV, not usually the best venue for experiencing this kind of film—I couldn’t remember why I had issues with its pace. What once seemed well-crafted but slightly slack in spots now seemed taut, smartly referenced and imagined:
“McCarthy’s strategy is to build the movie almost entirely on a foundation of pulsating dread, on the energy generated by the anticipation of horrors to come. At the Devil’s Door tempts viewers who may think they want only on-schedule gore and shocks with the prospect of using camera movement and sound and light (or the lack thereof) to tantalize that audience and lead it toward understanding and exploiting the more genuine fear generated by the imagination. The movie’s original title, Home, evokes a sense of the uneasy spirits (including the three main characters) seeking their ultimate refuge, as played out in images and settings evoking the economic discontent of bland suburban settings that McCarthy and his cinematographer Bridger Nielsen, as they did in The Pact, make palpably unsettling. But it also conveys, with a masterfully contagious confidence, the fearful pleasures of standing at the devil’s door, imagining what horrors might lie in wait on the other side and being unable to resist turning the knob and walking on through.”

No spoilers here. Just lots of appreciation for the fine movie McCarthy has made, which you should catch—it’s on Netflix Streaming, iTunes and other VOD services—as soon as you can.

Thursday, March 12, 2015



And before I lay me down to an afternoon's sick nap, a tip toward my new column over at Trailers from Hell. It's called Fear of the Velvet Curtain, and this week I'll be rounding up the reasons why you should see Damian Szifron's Wild Tales soon, if you have not already. It was my Saturday night attraction last weekend, and I'm seriously considering talking the eldest daughter to see it this coming Saturday. Why? Well...

"Szifron brings a sardonic, almost De Palma-esque delight to both his storytelling and his filmmaking style, and in the majority of the stories he manages the seemingly impossible feat of acknowledging the strange dignity of human behavior even as the worst of circumstances reveal themselves and then proceed gather even more sinister momentum. (There’s only one episode in which the director cedes entirely to the blackness, and it’s brutal in its abruptness.) Some have found the points with which Szifron is engaged somewhat reductive—is that all there is? But I found the experience of watching all hell breaking loose while these desperate destinies are fulfilled, while even some measure of vengeance (most definitely not the Lord’s here) is achieved, plenty rich enough in irony, pitch-black farce and genuine comic exhilaration."

Also on tap this week, one last tribute to the films of 2014 as seen through the perspective of the Muriel Awards.





Well, it's all over for another year, all except the savoring, of course, which is really what's at the heart of Paul Clark and Steven Carlson's kinda glorious Muriel Awards. I usually keep better track of the awards as they are announced, but circumstances didn't allow for it this year. So that means I'll begin the delicious process of going back through the Muriel archive for this year and relishing everything I've missed. The Muriels have always been a welcome corrective to the avalanche of publicity campaigns and incessant hype of the movie awards season, largely because each category features well-considered pieces from a sampling of the best critical and fan-based writing on the Web, a number with which I've been proud to be associated ever since the inception of the Muriels back in 2006.

Just look at the roster of talented scribes who lent themselves to Muriel this year: Jason Alley, Danny Baldwin, Josh Bell, Andrew Bemis, Christianne Benedict, Scott Black, Danny Bowes, Sean Burns, Donald G. Carder,  Kevin Cecil, Paul Clark, Andrew Dignan, Kevin Dufresne, Philip Dyess-Nugent, Jim Emerson, Alex Engquist, James Frazier, Kenji Fujishima, Daniel Getahun, Luke Gorham, Jaime Grijalba, Russell Hainline, Glenn Heath Jr., Darren Hughes, Daniel C. Johnson, Sam Juliano, Peter Labuza, Adam Lemke, Michael Lieberman, Craig Lindsey, Matt Lynch, Sam C. Mac, Jeff McMahon, Patrick Miller, Matt Noller, Mark Pfeiffer, Cole Roulain, Jason Shawhan, Melissa Starker, Catherine Stebbins, Andreas Stoehr, Vern, Scott von Doviak, Clayton Walter, Patrick Williamson, Bryce Wilson and George Wu.

These folks have made revisiting the year one last time a real treat. And next year, who knows what's in store for Muriels' 10th anniversary? I'm counting on being there, and I hope you will too.

(Click here to access the entirety of the Muriel Award winners for 2014.)


Thursday, March 05, 2015


This week over at Fear of the Velvet Curtain, it's time to shrug off those notions of guilty pleasures and reassess a longtime favorite of intellectually indefensible cinema, Franklin J. Schaffner's The Boys from Brazil. It's based on the novel by Ira Levin and stars Oscar-nominated Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, in hot pursuit of the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, played by also Oscar-nominated (just not for this movie) Gregory Peck, who has a plan to clone 94 Adolf Hitlers and usher in a new age Third Reich. I've seen this movie probably 20 times since its release in 1978, and I've always enjoyed it, somewhat derisively, but it's time to admit that the love I have for it goes beyond simple appreciation for a bad movie.

"I marvel at how closely I seem to know its rhythms and its tones—it looks stodgy, but to me it moves at a clip. I marvel too at how each well-familiar line reading, the ones delivered by Peck and Olivier, of course, but even phonetically assembled ones from special guest stars like Bruno Ganz, peal like missives from a distant world where movies like this are still made and audiences for them still exist. The Boys from Brazil is one of those movies that, for me, has made the transition from object of amused derision to one of genuine appreciation. I love this movie, guilt-free."

That's just a taste. Get the whole meal right now in my new Fear of the Velvet Curtain  column now playing at Trailers from Hell.


Sunday, March 01, 2015


Further Muriel Awards have been announced as the march toward the Best Film of the Year honors continues on.

The award for
Best Ensemble Performance features a consideration by Kevin Cecil that is, if I may, grand.

In awarding the Muriel 10th Anniversary Award for the Best Film of 2004, writer Josh Bell teases out memories of a winner that shows "how happy endings and sad endings are often the same thing."

And my own piece on the Muriel winner for Best Cinematography suggests how the triumph of the movie's visual strategy "enriches his images with the totality of the world while slightly warping their contours, guides us toward an experience with the familiar as something oppressively, insinuatingly new."

Find out what movies won in these categories (there's a big hint on one of the hovering above) and read what we have to say about them at the Muriels Web site, Our Science is Too Tight. And stay tuned. There's much more to come.