Monday, February 18, 2008

The great lost movie trivia contest mystery

As many of you know, for the last seven years I've written something called the Ultimate Post-Internet Movie Trivia Contest for The Star-Ledger of Newark. It was a series of alternating simple/difficult - sometimes *very* difficult - movie trivia questions (79 last year), with the grand prize being an all-expenses-paid four-day trip for two to Hollywood.

And, as many of you also heard, this year's quiz fell victim to space and budget cutbacks. It is, as they say, kaput. However, it was about halfway written when the plug was pulled (it was to contain 80 questions, to commemorate the 80th year of the Oscars) and some of the questions are just too good to never see the light of day.

So, over the next few weeks, I'm going to occasionally post some of the unpublished questions here - one at a time - and the first person who messages me at my site with the correct answer will win something. No trips, unfortunately - more like CDs, DVDS and books - but there will always be an item or two to make it interesting. Be warned though, the questions will be on the *difficult* side of the scale - no easy giveaways here (and, of course, The Star-Ledger is in no way, shape or form affiliated with or responsible for ... etc etc).

I'll post the first question - and information about the prize - here Sunday afternoon, Feb. 24, 2008 - Oscar night - at around 4 p.m. ET. See you then.

And, in the meantime, enjoy this inspirational trailer .

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Roy Scheider 1932-2008

Many years ago, I read an interview with author Richard Matheson in which he discussed the film versions of his apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (at that point, there were only two, 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, starring Vincent Price, and 1971's THE OMEGA MAN, with Charlton Heston). Matheson hadn't been happy with either film - or actor - and told the interviewer he always felt the perfect choice to play Robert Neville would be Roy Scheider, because he personified the normal, non-heroic guy forced to cope with extreme circumstances.

Matheson's description nails it. Scheider was a '70s icon to be sure, but he was also the Everyman hero, the audience surrogate in such high-intensity films as JAWS and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the self-doubter who nonetheless manages to muster the courage and wherewithal to do what has to be done.

A Jersey guy who (like me) attended Rutgers University, Scheider earned his movie star looks the hard way. His famous broken nose was a reminder of his boxing years (months?), when he fought in the N.J. Diamond Gloves Competition. His Everyday Guy presence grounded - and validated - almost everything he appeared in. THE SEVEN-UPS, Philip D'Antoni's follow-up to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, is an evocative 1970s New York time capsule, but it's not a great movie, except when Scheider's on screen - fortunately most of the time - as the head of an elite police unit (in CONNECTION, his character is named "Buddy Russo." In SEVEN-UPS, it's "Buddy Manucci"). He makes all that follows instantly believable.

He does the same for the character of Harry Mitchell in John Frankenheimer's 1986 52 PICK-UP (one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, aside from its logic-free ending, changed from the book), as a philandering - but still loving - husband, who's forced to face up to his own transgressions and extricate himself from a bind involving some very tough people, turning the tables on them in a surprising, but believable, way.

Back in April 1998, I attended the dedication of the Elaine Steinbeck Stage at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. The widow of John Steinbeck, Elaine was one of the first female Broadway stage managers, having worked on productions such as OKLAHOMA!, OTHELLO and others. It was a small theatre - less than 300 seats - but it was packed with celebrities who'd come to honor Steinbeck (who was in the audience) and perform on the newly renamed stage. Bruce Springsteen opened the evening with an acoustic version of OKLAHOMA!'s "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" (I've waited years for a tape of that to surface, still haven't found one) and closed it with a moving rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." In between, there were dramatic readings from Roddy MacDowell and Gary Sinise, a performance from Betty Comden and Adolph Green and testimonials frorm Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, E.L. Doctorow and others. It was quite the night.

But I think I was most starstruck to see Scheider - sitting about three rows from the back, low-key as ever, looking dapper but slightly frail. As the evening ended and the mingling began, I considered making my way through the crowd to tell him how much I enjoyed his films, for the same reasons I mentioned above. By the time I gathered my courage, he was gone. And that I regret.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Heroin chic

When it comes to putting true-life stories on screen, Hollywood likes to embellish. That's no surprise. However, in the case of Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, there may actually be more embellishment than fact, as the Associated Press has reported. In addition, some DEA agents were so angry with the way they were presented in the film that they sued. Also unhappy were the three undercover Newark police officers who actually did the street work that brought down Frank Lucas' empire. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the film, was already in custody by the time prosecutor Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) was brought in to help build an indictment against him.

But Hollywood is Hollywood, and if you want a more accurate look at that era and the Harlem heroin empire, check out Marc Levin's excellent documentary MR. UNTOUCHABLE, just out on DVD. It's the story of Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, the *real* heroin kingpin of Harlem in the 1970s. Like Lucas, Barnes eventually turned state's evidence and testified against his former partners, leading to dozens - if not hundreds - of convictions.

Barnes is now in the Witness Protection Program, but Levin and co-producer Mary-Jane Robinson tracked him down and got him to agree to sit for a series of interviews (his face is concealed and his voice slightly distorted when he's on screen). It's buttressed with a series of extensive interviews with former Barnes colleagues and the law enforcement officers who eventually brought him down and got him to turn. All point to Barnes' appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1977 (above right) as the act that precipitated his downfall. Worried that the Times would use a mugshot of him (above left) to illustrate the story, Barnes agreed to pose for a Times photographer. When President Jimmy Carter saw the story that Sunday, he placed a call to U.S. Attorney General Griffen Bell. At 8 a.m. the next morning Bell informed the New York Attorney General's Office that Barnes had just become their No. 1 priority.

Also worth checking out are the DVD's many supplementary interviews and features, including a videotaped conference call - from Levin's office - between Barnes and Lucas.