Saturday, January 12, 2019

My Intro For BEING THERE At The NC Museum Of Art


Last night, I introduced one of my all-time favorite films at the N.C. Museum of Art. Since some friends and family were unable to attend, I decided to post my opening remarks here.


Now, it’s a clichéd thing to do at a screening of an older movie but – who here has never seen BEING THERE?

That many? Okay, hold on while I cross out the spoilers.

Okay, there used to be a saying – I don’t hear it much these days – that the book is always better than the movie. Now, I think we can all agree that it isn’t always true.

For example, Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER, by, is a pulpy airport novel with very little of the gravitas that Francis Ford Coppola and the amazing ensemble brought to the material and made an immortal classic out of it.

There are many movies that are better than the books, but to my mind Hal Ashby’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel BEING THERE makes for one of the best cases. Not that the book is bad, no it’s a fine, witty, well written narrative that shares much of its dialogue with the movie; it’s just that the lead character is so much of a blank slate that he’s difficult to visualize.

But in the hands of Peter Sellers, the character whose name is Chance became fully formed and thoroughly nuanced, despite that the guy is certainly a blank slate whose life is entirely informed by what he has seen on television.

Now, basically the film is a about a simple minded, illiterate gardener whose talk about planting and the seasons is mistaken by many Washington insiders for political wisdom about shifts in the economy. Without any effort of his own, and aided by others’ perceptions of his persona, Chance the gardener unwittingly becomes Chauncey Gardiner.

Sellers had wanted to play Chance since reading Kosinski’s novel in the early ‘70s – it was his dream role. It took him seven years, in which time he made three Pink Panther movies and a bunch of hit or miss comedies, before he could get the film greenlit.

What helped is that the great hippy filmmaker Hal Ashby when approached to direct the project said ‘Sure, I’m interested, but only with Peter Sellers.’ You see, the book’s author, Kosinski, wanted Ryan O’Neal to play Chance. That is a version I just can’t imagine.

Now Ashby was just perfect for BEING THERE. He was coming off a run of some of the best movies of the ‘70s. HAROLD AND MAUDE, THE LAST DETAIL, SHAMPOO, BOUND FOR GLORY, COMING HOME. If you haven’t seen these – get on it.

So Ashby and Sellers, along with a great supporting cast including Shirley Maclaine, Richard A. Dysart, Jack Warden, and most importantly former ‘30s matinee idol Melvyn Douglas, who won the Best Supporting actor Oscar here for his role as Ben Rand, the dying rich billionaire whose world Chance gets wrapped up in.

Now Melvyn Douglas’ character owns a lavish, ginormous mansion that we all know is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The Biltmore could be considered a star of the movie itself as its exteriors and interiors dominate much of the movie.

But, it should be stressed that in BEING THERE, the Biltmore was the Rand Mansion and its location was in the outskirts of Washington DC. Movie magic!

Before BEING THERE, the Biltmore had only been in one film, a Grace Kelly film called THE SWAN which was made in 1956, so it wasn’t well known to most of the movie going public. But since BEING THERE, the house or the grounds (or both) have been in a bunch of movies including THE PRIVATE EYES, FOREST GUMP, RICHIE RICH, HANNIBAL, and LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

In a TV interview to promote BEING THERE, Gene Shallit asked Sellers to explain what BEING THERE is about. He said,“It’s Jerzy Kosinki’s comment on power and corruption, and the triumph of the innocent man, as Jesus Christ said, you know, the triumph of the simple man over power, over wealth, over corruption and it’s probably a comment on that because you can’t get a person more simple that Chance.”

Sellers’ masterful performance as Chance, which he said to Shalit was vaguely based on Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy for you kids) sadly didn’t win him a Best Actor Academy Award, which was something he really wanted. Damn you Dustin Hoffman!

Sorry, I like Dustin Hoffman. It’s just he has had decades since then to win Oscars! This was Seller’s last chance.

Now as for BEING THERE having more relevance now than in 1979, it’s tempting to see it as a cautionary tale about imbeciles rising into scary positions of power. Comparisons to BEING THERE started during the George W. Bush era, but op eds about how prescient the movie seem to appear daily.

Maybe Daily Show correspondent Lewis Black summed it up best when he said of the current political climate: 
It’s like BEING THERE, if the guy was an asshole!

Lastly, there is one controversial element of the movie I need to tell you about. The original theatrical version of this movie, which is what we’re showing, has some bloopers – you know, outtakes of actors flubbing their lines – during the end credits.

There is another version of the movie that we were hoping to get, that has the credits play with only TV fuzz behind them. This version happened because Sellers hated the bloopers – he even thought they ruined his Oscar chances. Again, damn you Dustin Hoffman!

Now these clips are funny on their own but after the beautiful final shot– they have been criticized as breaking the flow of the film. We debated whether or not to cut off the projector, but we’re gonna let them roll as they are a part of the original motion picture. You can leave and not see them – it’s up to you.

So here’s Hal Ashby’s best film, and Peter Sellers’ best too, BEING THERE.


Thanks to Laura Boyes, Jackson Cooper, and everyone at the N.C. Museum of Art for making this event happen.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE Is Crazy Cluttered Cool

Currently the #1 movie at the box office:

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

(Dirs. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman, 2018) 


I keep thinking is called INTO THE SPIDEY-VERSE because when I was a kid, my introduction to the character was on the The Electric Company, a kids show on PBS. The program featured the first live-action version of Spider-Man appearing in skits called “Spidey Super Stories.” This happened in the mid ‘70s, so yeah, I’m old.

But I’m not too old to appreciate Sony’s first feature-length animated Spider-Man movie as it’s a zippy, kinetic, and even psychedelic ride with a likable lead in the form of Shameik Moore voicing Miles Morales. Actually, maybe we should consider Morales to be the co lead, as, you know, this a Spider-Man film.

It starts off with our web-slinging hero being voiced by Chris Pine, who says through voice-over narration “let’s go over this one more time…” and we yet again get Spider-Man’s back story. In a BATMAN LEGO MOVIE way, we see that the canon of references are from all of the previous Spider-Man movies, and even include that embarrassing emo dance from SPIDER-MAN 3.

But Pine’s incarnation of the character doesn’t last long as he is killed during a fight with the Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone), and Kingpin (Leiv Schreiber). That’s right, killed. His death is witnessed my Miles, who had just been bit by a genetically modified spider so he’s got Spidey-sense too. So while the world mourns the fallen hero, Miles costumes up, and he goes through the comical motions of trying to climb walls, shoot webs, and swing through the city just like we seen time and time again.

(Spoiler!) Turns out that Spider-Man died in Miles’ dimension but is alive in another as a washed out, cynical, divorced (from Mary Jane voiced by Zoë Kravitz), schlub voiced by Jake Johnson. I know he’s always been a wise-cracking character, but Johnson’s take on Spider-Man gone to seed seems more like Deadpool than Peter Parker.

So the plot has to do with this super collider thing that can open portals to other universes that Kingpin wants to use to get his wife and kid back from some alternate world causing a giant black hole under New York.

Coming to help Miles out from the multi-verse is an array of different Spider-people: Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese-American schoolgirl rendered in anime; Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a hilarious hard-nosed black-and-white detective who looks like something out of the Watchmen; Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), who is actually from Miles’ universe, and, most amusing, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), aka Peter Porker, who seems to have come from the Warner Bros. cartoon dimension.

As for the non Spider-people, there are well chosen appearances by Brian Tyree Henry, Mahershala Ali, Kathryn Hahn Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, and maybe one of the best cameos in the whole Marvel movie franchise by Stan Lee.

The busy blend of all these different animation styles –shots can flicker from shiny, exquisitely rendered imagery to old school, hand-drawn, comic book flatness in flash after flash – wore me out in the second half. There are so many characters and plot points to keep up with, and the pacing of the action sequences came close to breaking my brain. It’s like they were trying cram every single idea that every digital artist for Sony Pictures Imageworks had into every frame.

Buthere’s a lot of energy and wit in Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s screenplay for SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, and the whole snazzy look of it is really cool despite being so damn cluttered at times. You’ll definitely get plenty of bang for your buck here.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Neither CREED II Nor RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET Suffer From Sequelitis

The top two box office champs currently playing everywhere:

CREED II (Dir. Steven Caple Jr., 2018)



T
his, obviously, is the follow-up to 2015’s CREED, the seventh film in the long-running ROCKY franchise, which makes this ROCKY VIII. But it’s also a direct sequel to ROCKY IV, as it features the son of that film’s villain, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), challenging Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) for the title of heavy weight champion of the world. Donnie’s father, Apollo Creed, was killed in the ring by Drago, and his son, Viktor (Florian Munteanu) is one scary, big ass dude with a permanent scowl so Donnie’s trainer, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, of course) fears the worst and opts out.

Anyone who’s ever seen a ROCKY movie knows the formula of how in their first fight the antagonist will triumph (Viktor doesn’t win because of an illegal head shot, but his unstoppable round of punches to Donnie’s face and ribs hospitalizes him), then the film builds to a climatic rematch with a montage or two along the way. Well despite the over familiarity, the formula still works.

Jordan, who earlier this year stole BLACK PANTHER, puts in a just as confidently powerful performance as in the previous film, and shares some touching moments with the also returning Tessa Thompson as his singer girlfriend. As for the rest of the cast, Phylicia Rashad also reprises her role as Donnie’s stepmother, there’s a surprise cameo by another ROCKY IV face, and the dad from This is Us, Milo Ventimiglia, shows up as Rocky’s son (I forgot he played the part in ROCKY BALBOA).

Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Juel Taylor, will doubtfully get an Oscar nomination like he did for the first CREED, but he’s played Rocky so often that it’s beyond second nature for him. His reliably sturdy turn makes Rocky’s relationship with Donnie very moving, and enhances the excitement of the fight scenes in the ring, which were beautifully shot by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.

CREED II may not reach the heights of its Ryan Coogler*-directed predecessor, which I had called “one hell of a legacyquel,” but it still stands with the best of the series. Just don’t ask me to rank them as I’m so not into that

* Coogler Executive Produced on this round.

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET
(Dirs. Phil Johnston & Rich Moore, 2018) 


While Wreck-it Ralph’s first adventure was what I called a “worthwhile retro romp,” his second go round takes him out of the world of ‘80s video games and sends him and his BFF Vanellope into cyberspace. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are back as Ralph and Vanellope, who live behind the walls of Litwak’s Family Fun Center and hang out in various games’ landscapes when the arcade is closed.

When Vanellope complains about being bored with her game, Sugar Rush, Ralph decides to surprise her by making a new track. Things go awry when a girl unable to control the game’s vehicle breaks the wheel off of the console, and the game has to be shut down because a replacement part would be too expensive.

Learning that one is available on Ebay (or Eboy as Ralph calls it), Ralph and Vanellope speed through optical cables into the internet which is depicted as a ginormous shiny city that looks like a mixture of Wakanda and Tomorrowland. This where users in the real world are represented by avatars, and companies like Amazon, Pinterest, and Google (Ralph: “I guess we know where to go if we ever need a pair of goggles”) appear as logo-bearing skyscrapers.

Our lovable duo (seriously Reilly and Silverman are again extremely adorable) encounter such new characters as Alan Tudyk as the quick-to-guess search engine KnowsMore, Taraji P. Henson as Yesss, the algorithm for the fictional site BuzzzTube, Bill Hader as a pop-up ad named J.P. Spamley and most strikingly, Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman!) as Shank, the protagonist for of an online street racing game called Slaughter Race that Vanellope so wants to be a part of. Brief returning turns by Jack McBrayer as Fix-it Felix Jr., Jane Lynch as his wife, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun, and Ed O’Neil as the arcade owner, Mr. Litwak round out the cast.

Jokes come fast and mostly land about viral videos, internet auctions, and in a central sequence, Disney princesses via cameos by Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodi Benson), Belle (Paige O'Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), and Merida (Kelly Macdonald).

With its infectious spirit, imagery that pops, big goofy nature, and zippy stylish energy, RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET is a lot of fun that has enough invention to keep it from suffering from severe sequelitis. It also has a last third that dares to go a bit dark, but pulls it off grandly. Sure, it’s a Disney family film, but folks of all ages should appreciate that it’s ultimately not just kids stuff.

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