Bruce Dern on Tarantino, Westerns and John Wayne

At last I was on the phone with man who murdered John Wayne.

Bruce Dern, a 79-year-old two-time Oscar nominee, has done movies and TV. He has performed in Westerns, thrillers, biker movies and science fiction films. He has worked with great directors — Alfred Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer, Elia Kazan — and he has shared the screen with genuine movie legends, including Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster and his old friend Jack Nicholson.


Bruce Dern in “The Hateful Eight” (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Co.)

Now Dern is part of the ensemble cast of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a big-budget Western to which Dern lends what I call genre credibility. Dern’s penchant for playing frontier psychopaths got him plenty of work on TV Westerns in the 1960s, and he made a singular contribution to the genre in “The Cowboys,” a 1972 film. In it, Dern, playing a low-life rustler called Long Hair, became the first actor in a Western to kill Wayne, the most iconic screen cowboy of them all.

In “The Cowboys,” Dern was doing what he’d been doing for years on TV, playing a flea-bitten S.O.B. with a gun. (Director Mark Rydell had once directed Dern in an episode of “Gunsmoke,” the long-running CBS Western.)

But “The Cowboys” was something different. Wayne usually surrounded himself with cronies, but Rydell decided to put him with “New York” actors — Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne, who played the trail cook, had come out of the Actors Studio in New York, and Colleen Dewhurst, a veteran of the New York stage, had a prominent cameo as the madam of a traveling whorehouse.

The result? Wayne delivered one of his best performances in one of his best movies. And Dern entered the Villains Hall of Fame. Wayne had been killed off in a handful of other films, but never in a Western. And all of this took place not long after Wayne restated his right-wing political views in a Playboy magazine interview.


Dern as Longhair in “The Cowyboys.”

“He said to me, ‘Oh, how they’re gonna hate you for this,’ ” Dern recalled. “And I said, ‘Maybe, but in Berkeley I’ll be a (bleeping) hero.’ He put his arm around my neck and showed me to the entire crew of about a hundred people standing there, and he said, ‘This is why this prick is in my movie — ’cause he understands that bad guys are funny.’ ”

Dern said he came to appreciate Wayne’s acting chops.

“To tell you the truth, he was a better actor than people gave him credit for,” Dern said. “There’s one thing John Wayne had, and that’s a presence. When John Wayne comes through a door, he’s a formidable being. He’s not someone you want to (mess) with. And I think he became a better actor as he went along. He was always relaxed, and he would have a nip or two during the day, but who (cares)? As an actor, he looked at you and listened to you and responded to what you said.”


John Wayne beats the crap out of Bruce Dern in “The Cowboys.”

In “The Hateful Eight,” Dern is part of an ensemble that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Dern plays Gen. Sandy Smithers, a former Confederate officer who has come to Wyoming to find his missing son. Dern and Jackson have a particularly unpleasant encounter in a major sequence midway through the film.

Dern places Tarantino on the short list of directors he considers authentic geniuses. But the two had never met until Tarantino asked him to perform a cameo in “Django Unchained,” his previous movie.

“We have a lunch or two a year that last about five hours where we play … movie trivia and things like that,” Dern said. “He’s always had a reverence for me because he grew up watching me be (a bad guy) on television. He can even quote dialogue from shows I did on TV.

“He sent me the script of ‘The Hateful Eight,’ and that was the first I’d heard of it. I was excited that he wanted me to do it and that he had apparently tailored it for me.”

Little in Dern’s background suggested a career in Westerns. He grew up in an influential family in Chicago — he said he was a black sheep for choosing to be an actor — and as a young actor studied under Kazan and Lee Strasberg at the famed Actors Studio. He even drove a cab in New York to pay the rent. But after moving to Hollywood he found plenty of work on television, especially shows about the Old West, so much so that he became associated with the genre.

Dern recalled a bit of advice Kazan gave him when he was about to leave New York for California.

“Kazan said to me: ‘You’re gonna go to Hollywood now, and for a long time you’re gonna be the fifth cowboy from the right. Just make sure you’re the most memorable, unique fifth cowboy from the right anybody … saw.”

In the 1960s Dern appeared in every genre of TV show, but he found the most opportunities on Westerns. He appeared repeatedly on “Gunsmoke,” “The Big Valley,” “Wagon Train” and “The Virginian.” His first big-screen Western was “The War Wagon,” another Wayne movie.

“When I came to Hollywood in 1961, Universal Pictures alone made 14 hours a week of Westerns,” he said.

But his versatility has allowed him to work with some of the best directors in movies — Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday”), Hitchcock (“Family Plot”), Kazan (“Wild River”) and Walter Hill (“The Driver”). Along the way he earned a couple of Oscar nominations, one for “Coming Home” in 1979 and the other for “Nebraska” in 2014.

Tarantino, he said, is an actor’s director motivated by a reverence for the history of film.

“He encourages you,” Dern said. “The win is to be cast by Tarantino. And then you’re on the team. He’s had this group of actors he’s worked with through the years. And he kind of hired me to help lend a hand to what he was doing.”

In addition to Tarantino, Dern’s list of geniuses include Kazan, Hitchcock, Douglas Trumbull (who cast Dern in the science fiction film “Silent Running”) and Alexander Payne (who directed “Nebraska.”)

“My definition of genius has always been that at any point any member of the crew or cast can walk up to the director and say, ‘What is my contribution to this particular shot?’ and they can tell you succinctly,” he said. “In a way they’re teachers, they’re professors.”


Bruce Dern received his second Academy Award nomination for “Nebraska.”

Another “professor” was Roger Corman, the king of low-budget genre films, including biker movies and horror flicks. Dern and Nicholson appeared in several of Corman’s movies early in their careers. Dern and Robert De Niro played members of Ma Barker’s gang in Corman’s “Bloody Mama.”

“Jack and I always felt like we got to go the University of Corman because neither one of us finished college,” Dern said.

Dern said he doesn’t like to rehearse except for the camera movements. And he’s not bashful about inserting his own line of dialogue if he thinks it will help the film.

“Alexander Payne said to me the very first day of shooting on ‘Nebraska,’ ‘You see anything this morning you’ve never seen before?’ And I said: ‘Yes I do. I see that everyone is pulling his oar, and it’s 29 degrees.’ ”

The message from Payne was: Dare to fail.

“Let us do our jobs,” Payne told him. “Never show us anything. Let us find it.”

Dern said when he heard that he knew that “for the first time in my career I had a partner I could trust.”

And that’s how he felt about Tarantino on “The Hateful Eight.”

“I think the greatest thing Quentin has is his reverence for what went before,” Dern said. “He’s not a revolutionary, but he’s leading the troops at Valley Forge as far as I’m concerned right now.”

This article originally ran Jan. 9, 2016 in the Kansas City Star.


Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

George Hamilton on the road: ‘La Cage’ star reflects on Evel Knievel, Hank Williams and so much more

The Kansas City Star

The other day I rang up George Hamilton.

He was out in L.A., catching some rays poolside. And my first thought was: Well, where else would he be?

“Couldn’t be a better day,” the actor/producer said. “I love to be in the sun, sitting around the pool.”

Hamilton, thought of less as an accomplished actor than a charming personality, is on the road with the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical that opens next week at Starlight Theatre. Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a nightclub where his partner, Albin (played by Christopher Sieber), performs in drag as the club singer Zaza.

When Georges’ son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents to visit, Georges and Albin have to conceal the nature of their relationship. Laughter ensues.

Hamilton, 73, plays the “straight man,” as it were, but says his real job is to charm the audience.

Hamilton has been performing steadily since the late 1950s, when he was a contract player at MGM. In that era he appeared in a number of high-profile films — “Light in the Piazza” with Olivia de Havilland, “Home From the Hill” with Robert Mitchum, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood — and he has maintained an active career since.

Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton in “La Cage.” (Paul Kolnik)

He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and eventually began developing and producing his own films, including a biopic about daredevil Evel Knievel and the comedies “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”

He was part of the cast of the prime-time soap “Dynasty” and even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In 2008 he published a memoir in which he described his unconventional upbringing — his father was a bandleader, his mother an actress — and his relationships with a cavalcade of actresses and other famous women, including Lynda Bird Johnson when her father was president.

The book also revealed that he and his stepmother had an affair when he was 12, although he hardly considered himself a victim.

But in our conversation, Hamilton revealed a businesslike attitude when it comes to his chosen art form. He’s not a man who tries to impress you. But he does have some great stories to tell.

Q. Tell us about life on the road.

A. I’ve grown to like the show. It’s a very difficult thing to do for me. It’s a steep learning curve. I love to do things that are a little out of my reach, sometimes out of my grasp. But I always like the challenge. And so it’s gotten easier for me. If the audience doesn’t feel you’re pleased to be there, why should they?

I like the people I’m working with. I like the part. I like the atmosphere. The challenge is always still there because there’s so many … things that go on in a live performance that you have to develop a whole new set of techniques than you would in film. And I like that a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen that have given me a chance to dig down and try things I hadn’t tried before.

Q. How long had it been since you performed on stage?

A. Four or five years. I was on Broadway with “Chicago.” But then I was hurt and had to have an operation on my knee, and then I came back and did it again.

Broadway is a different animal than touring, and touring is a different animal than dinner theaters and plays. There’s a circuit of summer things that a lot of actors do, and I used to do without telling anybody because it’s the only way to learn timing. So I made it my business from the time I was under contract to the studio to make them think I was in the south of France living the life of a playboy, but the truth was I was often billed above the roast beef out in the sticks. So it’s been fun for me to do it. Touring for me is pretty hard. It’s much harder than Broadway. You have eight shows a week, five of which are Friday through Sunday. And you then have to go to the next city and get ready for your next performance. And you have press and travel all in the same time. So there’s no time off. You learn a whole different set of survival techniques.

It’s not very glamourous, the life on the road.

Q. A couple of years ago a local theater company produced the musical “Light in the Piazza.” Coincidentally, Turner Classics showed the (1962) film about the same time, so my wife and I watched it. We agreed you were convincing as a young Italian guy and there you were playing Rossano Brazzi’s son. What was that like?

A. You can be in the business for a lifetime and still not have captured what you’re about on film or have a performance you can point at and say, “This is really good or great.” Because this business is about their vision of you and not what yours is. It’s very hard to break molds and stereotypes, especially when you’re under contract to a big studio as I was.

Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton in “Light in the Piazza.”

That movie came at a time when contract players were thought of as chattel. So being under contract to a studio was not a really a help. It was more of a hindrance. New actors were coming on the lot and they were independent. … (The studio) knew they had you in a pinch, but they didn’t respect that very much.

So I knew that I had to do things that were not expected.

They used to have what they called the script cage, where they mimeographed all these scripts at night that would go out to producers. So I spent a lot of time after hours … and I’d read every script the studio had. And I found “Light in the Piazza.” I loved the idea of it. I thought it was a very sensitive movie and one that would be hard to pull off.

So I started working on the accent, and I went to Rossano Brazzi and said to him, “I want to play your son.” Rossano was a very nice man, typically Italian, and was henpecked by his wife quite a lot. But I spent time with him, and I would watch every mannerism he had and how he would speak.

I went to the head of the studio, who didn’t want to know about it at all, and he said they had a fellow by the name of Tomas Milian, who was a young actor, and he was going to play the role. And I said, “He’s not Italian.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s got an accent.” I said, “It does matter. Don’t you understand the difference between an Italian accent and a South American accent?”

So I said, “Why don’t you let me do the (screen) test?” They were surprised that they had the guy right under their nose who could play the role.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. But even if you did that they didn’t believe you could play another character. And characters were what I wanted to play.

There was a character named Hank Williams. He was a very sensitive country and western musician … and he was really a wonderful writer. So I went down to Nashville. It was a small picture. It wasn’t thought of as anything except the exploitation (of the songs).

And I actually worked on it and could do the songs to the point where they almost let me do the album. But I had to convince them. And that was the hard thing. They really wanted to put me in the playboy roles and leave it that. So I had to buy my way out of my contract with MGM.

Hamilton in “Love at First Bite.”

And then finally when I got to produce my own movies, I would hire me. You know, I’d say, “OK, I’m going to play Dracula and do ‘Love at First Bite’ and put myself into it.” So I raised the money, had the script written and played the role — and made $78 million dollars for them. … Then I had the ability to go on and produce another movie, which was “Zorro the Gay Blade,” and I again hired myself for that role.

It’s much easier to produce a film than it is to convince the producer of another film to hire you. I found that out the hard way. And there were periods when I was basically dead in Hollywood.

Q. If we could go back to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for a moment, didn’t Hank Williams Jr. actually record the songs for the soundtrack?

A. The studio was very uncertain about the music track because Audrey Williams (Hank’s widow) wanted a lot of money and wanted certain controls. I went down to Nashville and spent about a month with her and convinced her that I was the right actor for the role.

The studio didn’t see that at all. They thought I was a sophisticated playboy. I had to explain to them I was born in Memphis, Tenn., and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music.

Poster for “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Finally I began rehearsing the songs. Because anyway you figured it I had to sing ’em to lip-sync them. And I got them nailed to the point where I could finger the guitar and sing the songs. … They were willing to let me do the recordings for the movie, but finally they made a deal with Audrey that Hank Jr. would do them. So I was lip-syncing to Hank Jr.’s interpretations of his father’s songs.

Q. You also produced and starred in a film on the life of Evel Knievel. How did that come about?

A. I was doing a TV series at Universal, and it required some stunts. And there was a young producer on the lot and I kept having lunch with him, saying, “God, I’ve got to get a stunt man who can do this stunt for me.” And he said, “Well, get Evel Knievel.”

And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Evel Knievel?” And he told me about this guy and my first thought about him was he was kind of outrageous, kind of ridiculous. But I had the studio hunt him down. I had a stunt that had to be done, and he said he could do it.

He didn’t show up when he said when he was going to show up … and then one day, we were a week away from shooting the stunt and they called me from the gate and said there was a man out there with a huge semi-truck and some backup cars named Evel Knievel wanting to meet with me. … And I said, well, have him come to the commissary and meet me for lunch. And they said, “He can’t walk.”

They carried him into the commissary and put him down in the booth with me. And I said, “Mr. Knievel, I think there’s been a big mistake here. I would love for you to do the stunt, but I can see you can’t do it, and it would be ridiculous to pursue this.”

The real Evel Knievel.

And he said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. When is the stunt?” And I said it’s in a week. He said, “I’ll be ready.” I said, “You’ll be ready to do a stunt in a week?” He showed me this 11-pound piece of metal that was going into his … left leg.

He said, “I’m going in tomorrow morning, they’re gonna put that in there and they’ll snap this thing into the hip, and I’ll be out of there in three or four days and be ready to go.”

And I just sat there looking at him thinking, “This man is totally out of his mind.” And the more I started realizing that he was out of his mind, the more I found him interesting.

I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this stunt, but I’d like to talk to you about other things.” And he said, “Well, let’s get the stunt out of the way. I wanna know if your money’s good.”

So he called me on the day of the stunt. He called me from a hospital, and he said, “I’m ready to do the stunt for you. Which gate should I go to?” And he’s talking and suddenly I hear this kaplunk and … I thought the phone went dead. And then a nurse picks it up and said, “Mr. Knievel just passed out. He shouldn’t have been out of bed.” I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

So I went out there and he was lying in bed and he said, “Oh, I had a little problem there. They gave me too much medicine. I could have come and done it. I told them not to give me any pain medication but they gave it to me. It’s their fault.”

So I kept trying to talk to him and find out his psychology and what he was about. And I thought this is what America is about. It’s about making our mark on the north wall of the Grand Canyon. It’s a little bit crazy here, what we’re doing.

I found him very interesting. He was a sociopathic guy. And he was a very potentially dangerous human being. … Evel put a shotgun to my head one night when I brought the script to him.

Hamilton as Evel Knievel.

And I said, “What is this about?” He said, “I want you to read the script to me.” I said, “I don’t need a gun stuck to my head to do it.” He said, “You do in my case because if this is gonna be a bad movie it’s gonna be ended right now.” I read that script probably better than anything I read in my life.

Q. What’s next for you after this tour?

A. It’s always a good question because you don’t know. I never plan my life, and I’m surrounded with people who do and they’re always a year or two years ahead. There’s been an offer for a TV series, weekly, based on “Love at First Bite.”

There’s a one-man show that I would take on the road. … I kind of don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think after this the first thing I’ll do is settle in for a long winter’s nap.

Q. Well, thank you for this time.

A. I didn’t talk too much about “La Cage” (laughs).

Q. I did read a quote from your co-star, Christopher Sieber, who said you don’t have a diva bone in your body.

A. (Laughs.) That’s nice. I like to believe that I am a very dedicated and totally professional actor, and I don’t have any room in my life for ego. You can’t expect to be as proficient as people who have been in this play for a long time, who are singers and dancers and dedicated to Broadway.

But what you can bring to it is a certain showmanship and a sense of providing the audience with a kind of permission to enjoy themselves because you’re enjoying yourself. That’s a hard thing to do. You can’t fake that one. You just have to enjoy it, and if you do it’s infectious. My gift, if there is such, is to be delighted to be there.

Read more arts and entertainment new from the Kansas City Star at

‘Carnage’ descends to glorious chaos |This uncivil war is tense, nasty and toxic.

The Kansas City Star

Taut as a snare drum, Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic “Carnage” is a tightly wound piece of filmmaking that crackles with tension.

The movie is the fourth variation of playwright Yasmina Reza’s bleak comedy, but the premise remains the same: Two couples whose children have had a playground conflict meet in a Brooklyn apartment to come to an “understanding.”

Over the course of the next 78 minutes the underlying tension comes to the surface in various ways, as polite banter gives way to open hostility. Alliances seem to shift — at first it’s couple vs. couple, but after the Scotch starts flowing we see the women at odds with the men, or one character suddenly feeling a burst of admiration for someone he or she despises.

John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Cristoph Waltz, Kate Winslet

Using alcohol to allow characters to express their “true feelings” is a familiar device in plays and films, but nothing about “Carnage” seems trite. It hums with an immediacy that wouldn’t have been possible without an excellent cast.

As the film opens we witness from a distance the confrontation in a Brooklyn park as one boy hits another with a stick. We don’t know what it’s really about, but the incident is discussed in detail later.

Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly are Penelope and Michael Longstreet, the parents of the boy who lost a couple of teeth in the incident. Michael sells pots and pans for a living, and Penelope is working on a book about Darfur. Their opposite numbers are Alan and Nancy Cowan, a corporate attorney and an investment banker played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. Read the complete review at

Stage to film, film to stage: The elusive art of illusion

The Kansas City Star

At the end of the day, I preferred the fake horse to the real one.

The art of illusion is tricky business, especially when you start comparing movies with the plays they were based on. Take “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s epic film that opened Christmas Day.

An image from "War Horse" the play

Spielberg’s handsomely mounted movie is based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, but also the National Theatre of Great Britain’s magnificent stage version that continues running in London and New York.

You simply can’t imagine such radically different viewing experiences. You could argue that “War Horse” is a graphic example of the aesthetic gulf between stage and screen.

On stage it’s a mind-blowing spectacle utilizing the most sophisticated puppets we’ve ever seen. These horses, created by hand from cane and fabric and operated by actors in full view of the audience, are startlingly lifelike. Their legs bend at the knee, their ears move, they shake their tails and they rear on hind legs. Before you know it, you’re invested emotionally. The horses, thanks to the acting ability of the puppeteers, take on recognizable personalities.  Read the rest here, at

‘War Horse’: Lovable horse, scenery to die for | 3 stars

Posted on Dec. 22, 2011

The Kansas City Star

Who among us cannot be moved by a brave horse in harm’s way?

The self-evident answer would seem to make Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” a slam-dunk in terms of eliciting sobs from a willing audience. And while I did hear a few sniffles as this movie about a miraculous World War I horse drew to a close, the film (opening Sunday) never fully engaged me. It lacks emotional immediacy, despite Spielberg’s usual high level of craftsmanship and committed performances.

Jeremy Irvine and "Joey" in "War Horse" (Dreamworks)

In my teens I read Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic novel about the futility of war, and one stark image remains with me to this day: a dying, eviscerated horse.

You’ll see nothing so graphic in Spielberg’s movie, but by some estimates, 8 million horses died in World War I and continued being fed into the carnage factory even after the generals decided that cavalry charges were rather quaint in the age of machine guns.

This was the historical backdrop of Michael Morpurgo’s novel of the same name as well as the extraordinary stage version adapted by Nick Stafford and, now, an epic film from Spielberg, a master manipulator of viewers’ emotions.

The story begins in Devon in southwest England, where teenage Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with a foal named Joey. He eventually gets to train him after his father (Peter Mullan), a tenant farmer with a taste for liquor, pays too much for the horse at auction. The boy is heartbroken when his father, unable to meet rent payments to a greedy landlord (David Thewlis), sells Joey to the army.

So Albert enlists in a go-for-broke effort to find his beloved horse.

I’ve always believed there were at least two Spielbergs — the sadist (“Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan”) and the sentimentalist (“Close Encounters,” “E.T.”). Films about horses are as sentimental as they come, but Spielberg’s determination to make a PG-13 family film yields interesting results, especially in his depictions of combat.

A charge of British cavalry against a German encampment begins thunderously as the horsemen advance with their anachronistic sabers drawn. The Brits fly through the enemy camp, dispatching surprised Germans with their swords. It’s a fast-moving action sequence, but we don’t see a drop of blood.

As Germans manning machine guns in the woods open up on the advancing cavalrymen, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky produce the film’s most arresting image: riderless horses racing through the machine gun emplacements. Spielberg doesn’t need to show us the bodies of the fallen soldiers. The stunning visuals say it all.

British cavalry charge German machine guns (Dreamworks)

Later in the film, Albert, now an infantryman, participates in an attack on the German trenches. Again, Spielberg conveys the horror and chaos of mechanized warfare without a trace of gore. Bodies fall, men scream and artillery shells throw them skyward like rag dolls. And that’s enough.

The entire look of the film is deeply textured. The early, sunbathed images of Devon seem to explode with color. As the war becomes a bitter slog, gray sludge and mud-caked uniforms become the dominant visual motif.

The actors are all quite good, even though the episodic nature of the story gives them little screen time to establish nuanced characters. Irvine projects three variations of wide-eyed youth — ecstatic joy, depthless sorrow and raw fear. But this newcomer’s performance is so unaffected that you never really question the character’s emotional arc.

The film’s finest performance comes from Niels Arestrup as a French grandfather who with his teenage granddaughter (Celine Buckens) briefly inherits Joey and another horse. The grandfather’s love for young Emilie is overarching and gives the character an inner fire beneath a seeming passive detachment. He also figures into the denouement when he becomes Albert’s unexpected ally in determining Joey’s ultimate fate.

In the film’s best scene, a young British infantryman (Toby Kebbell) advances into no-man’s-land under a white flag to rescue Joey from a latticework of barbed wire. He is joined by a German soldier (Hinnerk Schönemann) who brings wire cutters. The two enemies trade sarcastic fantasies of the “joys” of life in the trenches. (The screenplay is credited to Lee Hall and Richard Curtis.) Ultimately they flip a coin to decide who gets to take Joey and part company with good will and mutual respect.

Spielberg turns to tried-and-true techniques in his effort to move us. His camera repeatedly glides in for close shots when characters are experiencing powerful emotions. And composer John Williams never misses a chance to tell us how we should feel at any given moment with his overly busy “soaring” score.

The film runs almost 2 1/2 hours, and while it doesn’t really feel too long, you’d think Spielberg could have delivered a bigger dramatic punch with that much time on his hands.

As it is, he’s given us a thoroughly respectable movie — visually striking, handsomely mounted, well-acted and frustratingly remote.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources.