Monthly Archives: April 2010

Interview: David Carradine

Enter the caveman, David Carradine: He’s been a cowboy, a kung fu artist, a folk artist. Now he takes on Austin-shot ‘Homo Erectus’

Dec. 2, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

David Carradine has long skinny legs that are stretched out like bamboo poles, naked, knobby, porpoise-smooth. They are exposed from the ankle to way up the thigh, several unsettling inches past the tan line to scary areas that make one’s eyes avert in a violent spasm. He looks supremely relaxed and casual, sunk deep in a chair with those bare legs leveled at the floor, elbow propped on an arm rest to keep the cigarette in his fingers close to his faintly duckish lips.

Carradine is dressed as a caveman. Cave-people, according to the Discovery Channel, didn’t wear much apparel. Innocent of vanity, they sported spots and dashes of clothing — loin cloths, tattered shorts, shredded bikini tops, sometimes nothing at all. And so Carradine, former star of the indelible television series “Kung Fu,” in which he sometimes wore little more than a monk robe, is sparsely draped in the rags of primitive man. His shoes are ratty moccasins, his shirt random scraps of earth-tone felt. His pants: nonexistent.

“This is only half of it,” Carradine says with a swell of pride. “I throw fur on top of it all.”

He points to a heap of fake black fur on the floor of his actor’s trailer, which rests on the magnificently dusty moonscape of a limestone quarry in North Austin. Scenes from the movie “Homo Erectus” are being shot here, one of the film’s many locations, including Hamilton Pool and Enchanted Rock, that suggests prehistoric landscapes. (A limestone quarry? How very “Flintstones.”)

“And in the movie my hair is sticking straight up like this,” says Carradine, teasing out long, wild gray-blond strands to make a static-electric blast. “Out to here.”

What are you going to do when playing a caveman but go with it? Carradine seems to be having fun with the role of Mookoo, the blustering chief of his cave tribe. His son Ishbo, who is goading his species to evolve, is played by a Woody Allenish Adam Rifkin, the film’s writer and director. Talia Shire plays Carradine’s cave-wife and Ali Larter (“Legally Blonde”) plays Rifkin’s elusive dream girl. “Homo Erectus” is the third low-budget feature produced by the University of Texas Film Institute and its for-profit arm, Burnt Orange Productions.

Carradine’s last major role was the title villain in Quentin Tarantino’s martial-arts revenge opus “Kill Bill,” the success of which hurled the actor back into public view after a disappearance that seemed to have lasted decades. Actually, it did last decades. His most recent watchable film before “Kill Bill” was the Jesse James western “The Long Riders,” co-starring his brothers Keith and Robert. That was 1980.

“Playing in ‘Kill Bill’ helped,” Carradine says. “Up until then everyone was saying ‘Grasshopper.’ Now everyone says ‘Bill.'”

Climbing into Carradine’s trailer, one is swallowed in a rich fog from his English Ovals, fancy, filterless cigarettes he lights the way some people pop peanuts. He has the grainy rasp and paper-bag flesh of a smoker and the gruff pluck of someone turning 69 on Thursday.

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Movie review: ‘Spellbound’

June 13, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

A wonderfully bizarre transformation occurs in Harry Altman when the rubbery 12-year-old is stumped by a word during the National Spelling Bee: He turns into Jim Carrey.

In the documentary “Spellbound,” Harry stands at the microphone and is lobbed the word “banns,” a seemingly slayable little noun that wraps its tentacles around Harry’s brain and squeezes tight.

The boy chokes, and the struggle within his head is displayed in an anarchy of facial contortions that would make Tex Avery blush. His face resembles a wrestling match under a sheet, twisting this way and that, stretching, crinkling, tongue flailing, eyes bulging.

Looking as if he sipped strychnine, not so much stalling as trying to shake free the proper letters, Harry is told by the judges to get a move on. We worry about the child.

“Spellbound” works on us like that. We start to worry about the eight children who are its subjects as we follow them from home and school to the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., the Olympiad of word nerds. We want the lot of them to win, vanquishing gnarly, polysyllabic octopi like “cephalagia” with hand-on-hip aplomb.

But of course not all triumph, and the tension that mounts as the kids painstakingly excavate letters from their heads like paleoanthropic bones — epochs seem to pass between each halting D and Y — is as gripping as anything in theaters right now. (That includes “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which seems to have spelling difficulties of its own.)

The thrills and misspells in director Jeff Blitz’s remarkable debut — it was nominated at this year’s Oscars and won the jury award for best documentary at South by Southwest in 2002 — spring from a gently probing narrative about those kids in school you either haughtily ignored or on whom you inflicted industrial-strength wedgies. Unless, um, you were one of them.

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Coffee with Luke and Andrew Wilson

A Coffee With … Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson: Brothers at home in laid-back Austin

May 17, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Coffee, now.

The two men, more like really hairy boys, arrive pouchy-faced, rumpled, enveloped in the whiskers of Alaskan moose hunters. The fussy publicist says no photos will be allowed, that Luke and Andrew are in a “just out of bed” mode. It’s 30 minutes past noon in a sunny suite at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Coffee — a fine idea.

Luke, Andrew and Owen — the adorable, scampish Wilson brothers — are in Austin again, this time for duty. But fun, always, is also on the itinerary. Austin is a second hometown for the Dallas natives.

The Wilsons’ new comedy, “The Wendell Baker Story,” enjoyed a red-carpet preview the night before at the Alamo South. Luke wrote it, he and older brother Andrew directed, and Luke and Owen co-star with film warhorses Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel. Made in Austin in 2003, the movie received its world premiere during South by Southwest in 2005. It’s taken a while to secure distribution, but the movie finally opens Friday.

Owen, Hollywood bigshot, ducks today’s press obligations. He’s probably still in bed.

Luke wears the same charcoal cords and button-up black shirt he wore to the previous night’s screening and after-party, which took place at the Wilson brothers’ favorite Austin bar, Club DeVille, where they are routinely spotted.

Andrew, in T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, is the gregarious, big-smile, firm-handshake Wilson brother. Luke, sporting designer sunglasses indoors, is the mumbly, taciturn, reluctant Wilson brother. (Owen is the invisible, bent-nose Wilson brother. “Does Owen even exist?” Andrew wonders aloud.)

Pressed on whether they just fell out of bed, the brothers deny it, but their laughter betrays them.

“Luke ran the lake a couple of times,” Andrew says.

“We did a kick-boxing class,” says Luke.

“We did an urban Pilates class,” Andrew adds.

The sunglasses do not promote their case.

“My eyeballs hurt,” Luke mutters. Andrew laughs.

Still no coffee.

Andrew’s effortless nice-guyness prompts him to snatch the reporter’s tape recorder off the table and hold it up between him and Luke for maximum voice absorption. It’s a heroic gesture. Luke grips a hardback of the new Warren Zevon biography and, for some reason, a pen. The brothers sound alike. It’s a laid-back, adenoidal voice, laced with a curl of Texas drawl.

Dump the bats. The Wilsons should be Austin’s mascot, its scruffy, heart-robbing poster boys. They embody the slightly dazed, out-late, up-late energy of South Austin, the unpressed stylishness of a hip city utterly comfortable with itself.

“When you come down here from Dallas, it’s pretty apparent Austin’s more our speed,” Andrew says. “It’s by far the best town in Texas, and maybe the best town in the country.”

“Our favorite town is El Paso,” Luke deadpans.

Hotel San Jose, Jo’s Coffee, Güero’s, Hula Hut (Andrew’s favorite Austin spot), the Austin Golf Club — these are the brothers’ hangouts.

“I just like driving around in Austin,” Luke says. “I always feel like a cop” — he mimes one hand on the steering wheel, nodding coolly — “just cruisin’ around.”

Funny, they don’t mention any local music venues.

“The thing about Andrew is he hates live music,” Luke says. “I actually do, too.”

“How can you say that in Austin?” says Andrew.

“It’s (expletive),” Luke says. “They play too loud.”

“That’s blasphemy in Austin! Don’t you understand that? Saying I hate live music is like saying I don’t like being from Texas,” says Andrew before he confesses, “I’m kind of an old fuddy-duddy. Sometimes it’s just too dang loud for me.”

The coffee remains undelivered.

To galvanize a caffeine-deprived conversation, Andrew suddenly looks at Luke and asks, “Do you have a place here? That’s what people want to know.”

“Are you actually asking me that?”

“There’s a rumor that you have a place here.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t have a place here. Huh.”

“I’m looking for a place.”

“Where are you looking?” Andrew persists.

“East side,” Luke says. “My friend, Liz Lambert, who runs the Hotel San Jose, just bought some land on the east side.”

We ask whether he’s going to build his own home.

“I think I’d just do one of those — what do you call those things?” Luke says.

“A yurt?” offers Andrew.

“A what?”

“It’s like a teepee.”

“No.”

“A geodesic dome?”

Luke laughs.

“Igloo? Come on, man.” Andrew says.

“No, what are those things called? They’re little modern places that you just buy and set up.”

“Pre-fab.”

“Yes!”

Ta-da. Two big green mugs of coffee are carried in for Luke and Andrew.

Luke takes a sip. “It tastes like Starbucks.”

“Hold on, I’ll be able to tell you,” Andrew says. “I’m like a connoisseur.”

He sips, then coughs loudly, wearing a grimace. “That’s Starbucks.” He picks up six packets of real and artificial sugar and shakes them as if he’s going to use them all in one cup.

Luke protests. “I’m all for Starbucks. Just because it’s successful I’m not supposed to go there?”

“God, man!” says Andrew. “Remember to keep Austin weird.”

“Pardon?” says Luke, as if he can’t believe his brother just said that.

“You heard me.”

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The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down? Hardly. Writing about movies is an art, and no one’s better than the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.
A critic’s command performance

Nov. 3, 2002, Austin American-Statesman

For the poor newspaper critic, sandwiched between the twin tyrannies of limited space and lightning turn-around, there is no soul luckier than a critic at the New Yorker.

Each week, we flip to the back of the magazine to consume the latest feast of erudition, savoring the gourmet prose, swishing succulent epiphanies and cracking teeth on bones of contention. We envy the elegant typeface, marvel at the breadth of brain-power lent to the task.

Most of all, we swoon over the space. Newspaper folk write in inches. New Yorker scribes write in acres. Their minds are granted fenceless fields in which to gambol and cartwheel, run far and wide and swing from tree branches. They can digress and allude and seemingly take all day.

The extravagant space is one reason why the magazine’s second-string film critic Anthony Lane (David Denby is its chief film critic) has become a New Yorker star. On the page and in person (or at least during a recent phone interview), Lane is irrepressibly verbose. Words disgorge in precise eruptions, flittery but finely thought-out, crisp, lyrical and witty. But, still, copious.

Lane needs the magazine’s roominess to do what he does: write possibly the funniest, smartest and most urbane film musings in the nation. His expansive, riffing prose is allowed to roam and breathe. Filmmakers adore his words as much as readers. Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg are a few directors who have called or written Lane with praise.

Lane recently turned 40 and has just released his first collection of journalism, “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker,” a 753-page tree stump engorged with roughly 100 movie reviews, a dozen excellent literary critiques and 20 or so profiles on everyone from astronauts to Julia Roberts.

Both exhilarating and exhausting — its sheer volume of distilled dazzle winds you — the anthology indeed goes to show that nobody’s perfect, not even Lane. This is not a swipe; no writer or performer (Lane is both) is flawless. Often you can sense Lane sweating for laughs, winding up for the big guffaw that turns out a groan. His clamoring need to entertain distracts from his spotty film knowledge, which he convincingly caulks with learned intuition and cultural acumen.

Lane is naturally being looked upon as heir to the late Pauline Kael, who perked up and aerated the dowdy vocabulary of criticism for three decades in The New Yorker. But the two are very different critics. Where Kael was harsh and decisive and rarely gallant, Lane is dapper and polite, with a gossamer touch and jolly countenance. Lane critiques with skipping insights, not spike-shoed stomps.

Irony is a way of being mean without looking your subject in the eye, and it is Lane’s handiest weapon. But occasionally the Briton peels off his white gloves: ” ‘Meet Joe Black’ is endless, bewildering, starved of logic, and, if you stand back from it, something of a joke. In short, it feels like death.” He chops down “The Phantom Menace” to a single epithet: “crap.” Continue reading

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‘The naked truth about Girls Gone Wild’

When video series came to town, even some women who said they wouldn’t ended up showing skin

Feb. 7, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

Lauren is not getting naked.

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek.

What gum drop world is she living in?

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin on Tuesday night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild.

Not, says Lauren.

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real-estate certification.

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.”

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off.

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.”

Woooooo-yeeeaaaahhhh-owwwww! went the men.

Ha! went the dozen women on stage.

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event in March.

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas, Lubbock and, the night before, San Marcos. First prize Tuesday night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest.

It’s a common perception that in party aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flesh bazaar. Like members of a native tribe, grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild.

Joe Francis, the 29-year-old multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it.

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids strippers, Francis says.

The company’s 83 titles include “Craziest Frat Parties,” “Ultimate Spring Break” and “Sexy Sorority Sweethearts.” MGM is making a feature film based on the video exploits, something between “Spring Break” and “American Pie.”

Francis says any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention.

“You’d be surprised, man,” Francis says by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.”

Joe, meet Lauren.

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest.

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains.

Sociology of a shirt lift

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal Woodworth, a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top.

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers.

“I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?”

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night.

“Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.”

Crystal is a good friend. Continue reading

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‘The unsinkable exuberance of Ernest Borgnine’

Sept. 14, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

You know what Ernest Borgnine is looking forward to? He is looking forward to hawking DVDs on the QVC shopping channel. He is looking forward to taking calls from viewers who want to say nice things to the movie star, now 90, while they provide their MasterCard digits to buy DVDs of “McHale’s Navy,” his popular 1960s sitcom.

The attention electrifies him. He loves it. And he loves to share the love. It’s a generous, outsized love, one that tumbles and laughs and belly-shakes from his end of the phone during a recent conversation.

How he laughs. His are hearty, throaty, avuncular guffaws, rollicking animal sounds punctuating prosaic statements that don’t seem to warrant joyous noise. What the heck! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Ernest Borgnine. Instant name recognition. Instant face recognition. Like that, you could point him out in a lineup of gruff, balloon-bellied guys with a gap between their front teeth wide enough to sail the S.S. Poseidon through. Those teeth make a heck of a smile, unmistakable, downright iconic. Huge, enveloping, really goofy.

Excited, I tell co-workers I’m interviewing Borgnine, and instead of fond memories of “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Wild Bunch” or “The Dirty Dozen,” I get reflexive chuckles and the callous but pardonable question “He’s still alive?”

This isn’t surprising. I admit, much of why I accepted the invitation to talk to the jolly actor, who’s plumping the “McHale’s Navy” DVDs, is because of his undimmed camp appeal.

A granddaddy of Hollywood character actors, Borgnine’s living ghost has never left the building. It’s hung around long enough to become legend, and legend too easily in these sniggeringly ironic times becomes a target of fun and fodder for parody.

He wasn’t asked to play himself on “The Simpsons” for his brilliant acting, but for the fumes of notoriety, the knowing wink of familiarity, for both the good films (“From Here to Eternity,” “Johnny Guitar”) and the dreadful (“Real Men Don’t Eat Gummi Bears”).

To be blunt: He was on the cartoon because the very idea of Ernest Borgnine  is funny.

How did this happen? How does a distinguished, Oscar-winning artist (for his touching performance in 1955’s “Marty”) go from movie star to free-floating punch line? What makes Ernie funny?

Derision isn’t at issue. Pop culture is not making fun of or diminishing Borgnine’s career and persona. He and I talk about this. I remind him that his unconventional looks – the pudge, the buggy eyes, that insouciant gap – and his steadfast refusal to stop working make him ripe for burlesque.

“Let ’em have fun,” says the happy, hale actor. “Keeps you in mind, doesn’t it?”

He roars. The oncoming earthquake is equal parts Santa Claus and Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

We adore our camp figures even more, it appears, than the sparkling immortals whose careers never seem to dip or dive, holding steady and respectable. The campy ones are imperfect, more human, and we relate. They add an unexpected dimension to celebrity watching: fun without malice.

Still, we can be mean. We are a cynical public and our searching appraisals are often made through a scrim of hopeful schadenfreude. While some camp-ready stars are vectors of their own free-falls into risible self-caricature – Joan Crawford, Ozzy Osbourne, Tammy Faye Bakker, the two Coreys – others, like Borgnine, William Shatner and Shelley Winters merely got old yet kept going, a Hollywood sin.

Showbiz Law No. 152: If you ever appeared on “The Love Boat,” you will never be taken as seriously as you were before. (Borgnine rode the Love Boat in the early ’80s. Did “The Poseidon Adventure” teach him nothing about the perils of nautical voyage?)

But Borgnine, mysteriously, has claimed a place in our hearts, like a big fuzzy teddy bear, all smiles and elbow nudges. As critic David Thomson notes, at a point in his career Borgnine made the “transition from actor to inexplicable celebrity.”

Borgnine’s one of the good ones. We know this because he probably could not pull off a reality show. He is far from the Anna Nicole abyss. He is not a loser. He still says things like “Holy mackerel!”

Is his tirelessness, his urge to crank out smaller movies and sell DVDs on cable, really such a crime? 

“I just like to work too much. That’s my problem,” Borgnine  says. “I’d do anything, I don’t care. I even do (the voice of Mermaid Man on) ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ for heaven sakes!”

He laughs that crazy laugh. When it recedes like a passing jet, he says, “I tell you, it pays.”

You do what you have to do. What you want to do. Retired athletes pitch deodorant and life insurance. Suzanne Sommers and Chuck Norris peddle exercise regimes. Borgnine makes movies. He never stopped.

“No regrets whatsoever,” he says.

Stumped, I tell him he sounds like the happiest man in the world.

“I AM the happiest man in the world,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’m recognized throughout the world. I’ve got my health. The good Lord loves me. I got a good wife. Gee whillikers, I’m sitting on top of the world!”

And then Ernest Borgnine laughs and laughs and laughs.

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