Monday, July 27, 2020

How COP AND A HALF Divided Siskel & Ebert More Than Any Other Film

The legendary movie critics Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun Times, and Gene Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune, may be long gone (Siskel died in 1999; Ebert in 2013), but their legacy remains strong particularly among film geeks like me who still watch their old clips on YouTube.

Siskel & Ebert (this is the official order of their names according to law and/or PBS branding), disagreed on many, many movies but none was as hilariously divisive as Henry Winkler’s (that
’s right, The Fonz) 1993 comedy COP AND A HALF.

This family-friendly buddy cop flick, which paired a tired-looking Burt Reynolds as a Tampa detective paired with 8-year Norman D. Golden II, as a kid who witnessed a murder and wants to be made a cop so he can help solve the killing.

It was a wacky premise, and one that looked pretty crappy via TV spots and the poster, especially considering how dire Reynolds’ film career was at that point. Definitely not an appealing prospect for most movie-goers.

Then this happened: On April 3, 1993, the weekend that COP AND A HALF was released, Roger Ebert led off he and Siskel’s popular syndicated series At the Movies with his review of the film (watch the clip). Usually they show a few clips before airing their opinions, but before offering up some excerpts from the film, Ebert called it “entertaining.”

After the montage of clips was over, Ebert rendered his review: “COP AND A HALF is not any kind of a masterpiece, but on the other hand, it’s not dumb and not boring either. And a lot of the credit for that goes to little Norman D. Golden II, who is a natural actor, very bright and very funny. 

But, credit must also be paid to big Burt Reynolds, who takes what might’ve been a thankless role and plays it just right here, finding the right balance between toughness and humor. This movie has the kind of chemistry between the grown-up world and a smart kid that I looked for and missed in ‘HOME ALONE 2.’ It’s amusing, it moves, and somewhat to my surprise, I liked it.”

Then with perfect timing, Siskel replied: “Wow-ee, where’s your big red suit and beard, Santa? You just gave them a gift.”

Following that great line, Siskel went on to say that Norman wasn’t “a particularly charismatic actor,” and that he didn’t think there “was any chemistry” between the two leads. Siskel ends his thumbs down segment saying of Ebert’s favorable review of COP AND A HALF, “I’m stunned, Roger.”

At the start of 1994, Siskel & Ebert aired their annual “Worst Movies” of the previous year round-up, and Siskel took the opportunity to again dump on COP AND A HALF. Siskel said that Reynolds performance “makes my skin crawl,” and concluded that “the only thing more unnerving than this picture is that my esteemed colleague, across the aisle, so wise, so often, is the only major film critic in America that actually recommended COP AND A HALF.”

Ebert responded: “Norman B. Golden was just wonderful in this film. Now, you have to admit it.”

“No I don’t have to admit it,” Siskel said. “He’s an okay movie kid – he’s a Hollywood acting kid.”

Siskel then barked about the script, the money, and Burt Reynolds has done too many cop pictures.

“Maybe you got up on the wrong side of bed that morning,” Ebert postulates.

“As did the rest of America,” Siskel concludes.

Ebert then said that he doubted he was the only major film critic that liked the film, but later that year, on Late Night With David Letterman, he complained to the host that “Burt Reynolds always bad mouths both of us, and I gave COP AND A HALF a good review, and I’m the only critic in the world who liked that movie. And he goes on some talk show and says ‘Siskel and Ebert don’t like anything I do,’ and, you know, why did I go out on a limb for him?’” So it seemed Ebert had accepted by then that he was the movie’s only fan as a critic.

COP AND A HALF came up now and then on At the Movies, but the most notable occasion came during the duo’s review of John Woo’s 1996 action thriller BROKEN ARROW (watch it here).

After giving a lukewarm but positive review, Siskel does something he has never done before: he changes his mind on the film turning his thumb up to a thumb down. “I’m changing my opinion, now do me one…I know you’re amazed, do me one favor, look into the camera and say ‘I was wrong about COP AND A HALF - it wasn’t a very good movie.’” Ebert refused saying, “I won’t do that, I saw things in COP AND A HALF that I admire.” “That no one else did!” Siskel responded while laughing.

A half a week after this aired, Siskel & Ebert re-hashed this conversation on another of their many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. Siskel discussed his opinion change on BROKEN ARROW, then again needled Ebert: “Roger, do you want to change your vote on COP AND A HALF, with Burt Reynolds and a little boy, and, of course, Roger, being totally insecure, said ‘no, I don’t want to.’”

The spat was notorious enough that this quote was featured in obituaries of Ebert, after he passed in 2013: “Gene didn't like APOCALYPSE NOW, and I was appalled. I liked COP AND A HALF, and Gene was appalled.”

For his part, I can’t find a single interview in which Reynolds spoke of the film. It did little to slow his career decline, something even his acclaimed Oscar-nominated role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS failed to do (it didn’t help that he hated BOOGIE NIGHTS and would bad mouth it often). Reynolds passed in 2018, sadly leaving behind a legacy in which his many bad movies may be remembered better than his few good ones.

As I mentioned at the top of this post that Siskel & Ebert are no longer with us but there’s a wealth of their great stuff on YouTube: full episodes of their series from their original show on PBS to the syndicated At the Movies franchise, plus tons of talk show appearances. 

So that leaves the last leading player in the COP AND A HALF, the A HALF. Norman D. Golden II, who also goes by the name Enormus as a rapper, was asked in a 2014 for the site, 
Little White Lies,” about the criticism the film received back upon release in 1993: “Critics can be cruel but that’s what they get paid to do! I honestly wasn’t really exposed to much of what the critics were saying mostly because my parents did not want that to affect my creativity.” 

After all of this critical hubbub, I must say that while was roundly panned by everyone except Ebert, COP AND A HALF was actually a mild success (largely due to a small budget) and even a quarter of a century later spawned a sequel entitled COP AND A HALF: NEW RECRUIT, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, and newcomer Lulu Wilson, which was rightfully ignored presumably because it was a direct-to-video release. 

It seems fitting that part of Ebert’s legend is that he would often stick up for the little fluffy movies that could, even when everyone else thought they couldn’t. Siskel disliking APOCALYPSE NOW or some other well received film, just doesn’t have the same likable impact as Ebert’s going against the negative flow for such a silly forgettable kids-themed comedy. COP AND A HALF may be forgettable as a film, but this funny feud between Siskel & Ebert made it one of the most memorable movies they ever talked about in their 24-year career together.

More later...

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Gary Cole

Although he started out as a dramatic actor in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Gary Cole’s career is dominated by comedic roles. After some bit parts in films, he got a big break stepping into Robert Reed’s shoes to play Mike Brady in THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE.

The hit adaptation of the seminal ‘70s series was followed by two sequels (the third is a TV movie that was largely ignored), but the role that really got him noticed was as boss Bill Lumbergh in the cult classic OFFICE SPACE. Among his many film appearances, he mostly stood out in such crass comedies as DODGEBALL, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, TAMMY, and TALLADEGA NIGHTS which he seriously stole from Will Ferrell. 

It would take all day to list his TV credits so I’ll just highlight these: The West Wing, Veep, Frasier, two different incarnations of The Twilight Zone, Harvey Birdman, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bob’s Burgers, The Good Wife (The Good Fight too), Arrested Development, Chicago Fire, and Mixed-ish. So if you could just go ahead and learn his name, yeah, that’d be great.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Mary Kay Place

Love this lady. Mary Kay Place is largely known for her Emmy-winning performance as wannabe country music star Loretta Haggers on the ‘70s sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – a role that resulted in Place recording an album in character as Lorreta, which won her a Grammy.

Her film career includes memorable roles in THE BIG CHILL, PRIVATE BENJAMIN, CAPTAIN RON, CITIZEN RUTH, PECKER, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, IT’S COMPLICATED and the recent (2018) critically acclaimed DIANE. 

Place has also seemingly has made appearances on every popular show of the last 40 years including All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Thirtysomething, My So Called Life, King of the Hill, West Wing, Law & Order, Big Love, and Grey’s Anatomy. Whew! There are so many more credits, but I gotta stop somewhere.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Names

Another actor in this series that is sadly no longer with us, J.T. Walsh had a great yet oddly unsung run from the early ‘80s up to his death in 1998 usually playing heavies or assholes or both. His debut in EDDIE MACON’S RUN was followed by small but significant parts in POWER, TIN MEN, and HOUSE OF GAMES, but it was his larger role as Robin Williams’ adversary in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM that really gave his career a boost.

After that, Walsh became ubiquitous appearing in such major motion pictures as TEQUILA SUNRISE, BACKDRAFT, A FEW GOOD MEN, HOFFA, NIXON, SLING BLADE, and literally dozens of others. The year he passed (1998), he appeared in PLEASANTVILLE, THE NEGOTIATOR, and completed work on HIDDEN AGENDA, which was released posthumously in 1999.

Oddly, his TV-work is only appearances on three shows – L.A. Law, The X Files, and Dark Skies, and one TV movie, GANG IN BLUE (1996).

Sigh, I miss this dead-eyed bully of a guy.

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Thursday, July 02, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know their Name: Lynne Thigpen

Although Lynne Thigpen  passed away in 2003, the Tony-winning actress left behind a career so rich that I still see her pop up in old movies and TV shows all the time.

After reprising her stage role in the 1973 film version of the hippy musical GODSPELL, Thigpen played a major part as the D.J./narrator in the 1979 cult classic THE WARRIORS, though only her lips were seen. 

Following that were parts in TOOTSIE, STREETS OF FIRE, LEAN ON ME, BOB ROBERTS, THE INSIDER, and SHAFT (2000) alongside tons of other turns in films. 

Her television work began with the long-running soap, All My Children, then she bounced around from Gimme a Break to Roseanne to The Cosby Show to Law & Order to Homicide to…well, name a show in the 
80s and ‘90s and she likely appeared on at least one episode.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Carl Reiner: A Film Babble Blog Tribute

Yesterday, after the word spread online that comedy legend Carl Reiner had passed, it was very moving to see many people post tributes via photos, classic clips, and memories of the actor/writer/director. Reiner’s colossal career touched many people and it was interesting to see what works that people knew him from best. 

For me, it’s an amalgam of his highlights. My introduction to the man came from four classic comedies he made with then up and coming comedian Steve Martin: THE JERK, DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, and ALL OF ME. Reiner, who I think I only knew as Rob Reiner’s father (Rob, I think I only knew as “Meathead” from All in the Family as he yet to make his directorial debut with THIS IS SPINAL TAP), appeared in cameos in two of Martin’s movies – in THE JERK, he was credited as “Carl Reiner, The Celebrity,” and in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS he played a Nazi, Field Marshall VonKluck. 

But my real education into Reiner’s comedic genius came from reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show I watched in the mid ‘80s. Reiner created the show, originally as a vehicle for himself as comedy writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frazier, The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond) put it in his RIP post on his blog yesterday:

“He wrote the first 13 episodes on spec. A pilot was even filmed. It didn’t get on the air. Producer Sheldon Leonard told him the project had tremendous potential except for one thing - Carl was wrong for the part. How many actor/writers would be insulted and just junk the project? Not Carl Reiner. Not only did he agree to recast his part, but he even named the show after the actor who replaced him. That’s humility.”

Much of The Dick Van Dyke Show focused on Van Dyke’s character Rob Petrie working as a writer on the fictional TV show The Alan Brady Show. Reiner played Brady, the blustery and vain host who would often stress out his staff. In one extremely memorable episode, Petrie’s wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) let it slip on live television that Brady wore a toupee, and was summoned to her husband’s boss’s office:

This hilarious scene, from the fifth season episode “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” is considered a classic TV moment of the era, and was one of the bits that a lot of people posted in tribute in the last day.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was largely based on Reiner’s experiences working as a writer on Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. This wasn’t in syndication (at least where I lived) when I was kid, but its legacy was well known, and later I caught up with a fair amount of its material through clips on Comedy Central. 

In 1950, Reiner met Mel Brooks on Your Show of Shows, and the duo would be best friends for the next 70 years. Brooks and Reiner created a sketch involving a 2000-year old man (Brooks), being interviewed by a reporter (Reiner). The improvised bit spawned five 2000-Year Old Man record albums, the last of which won a Grammy. 

Another crucial comedy from my youth that Reiner helmed was the 1977 film, OH, GOD!, which starred George Burns in the title role. In 2007, I wrote about the movie in this post: 

10 Reasons The 30th Anniversary Of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated (Film Babble Blog 10/3/07)

Throughout the last seven decades, Reiner has appeared in tons of shows including Night Gallery, The Carol Burnett Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Mad About You (in which he reprised the character of Alan Brady, The Bernie Mac Show, Parks and Recreation, Family Guy (!), and many, many more, but my favorite has to be when he and Brooks showed up on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (available on Netflix).

The episode, very little of which takes place in a car, makes me feel like I have an inkling of what it’s like to hang with Brooks and Reiner as they dine on a feast of take-out food, tell ancient jokes, and discuss their quintessential canons – well, mostly Mel’s.

Reiner’s filmwork as an actor includes roles in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE END, FATAL INSTINCT (which he directed), the OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy, and TOY STORY 4, in which he voiced Carl Reineroceros (Brooks also appeared as Melephant Brooks). 

Along with the Grammy, Reiner won eleven Emmys, and was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000. Okay, now I feel like I’m just re-writing his Wikipedia entry so I’ll leave you with this compilation of three of Reiner’s appearances on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983 in which he was billed (most likely by himself) as 
one of the best talk show guests ever”*

* There is a wealth of great clips of one of the best talk show guests ever” on YouTube. It would be very easy, and not at all a waste of time, to fall far down the Reiner rabbit hole - take it from me.

R.I.P. Carl Reiner (1922-2020)

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Name: Carol Kane

Previously I thought that most folks would know this great actress’ name, but some recent conversations with younger folks told me I was wrong (damn millennials!). From Kane’s first film role in Mike Nichols’ CARNAL KNOWLEDGE to other parts in such crucial ‘70s movies as THE LAST DETAIL, HESTER STREET (for which she got an Oscar nomination), DOG DAY AFTERNOON, ANNIE HALL, and even THE MUPPET MOVIE, she was a very memorable presence.

Since then she’s been a reliably wacky persona in movies such as SCROOGED, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and ISHTAR as well as countless other appearances (this isn’t true - you can indeed count them). 

Her hilarious role on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt aside, there are way too many TV turns to mention here, but her role as Simka, the wife of foreign mechanic Latka (Andy Kaufman) on the classic sitcom Taxi has to be her crowning achievement as she won two Emmys for it - this is notable as it’s two more Emmys than Kaufman ever won.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: William Fichtner

Now, I know you recognize William Fichtner. He was in the films HEAT, ARMAGEDDON, CONTACT, GO, CRASH, BLADES OF GLORY, and, holy shit, THE DARK KNIGHT alongside a bunch of other movies that didn’t make as much money. 

TV-wise, he started out in a soap (unsurprisingly), As the World Turns, in the ‘80s, then showed up in a crazy range of shows from Baywatch to Grace Under Fire to The West Wing to Invasion to Prison Break to Crossing Lines to Mom to Veep and on and on. Get it? The man is mad ver-sat-ile.

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Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Esposito may be best known for his role as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but he first came under my radar as Buggin’ Out in the 1989 Spike Lee classic DO THE RIGHT THING (he also was in three other Spike Lee joints). He also portrayed the similarly named John Alijah “Bugs” Raplin in BOB ROBERTS, and appeared in TRADING PLACES, KING OF NEW YORK, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and dozens of other films. 

Esposito’s television work is much more extensive with turns on Sesame Street, Miami Vice, Homicide, Law & Order, CSI, Community, and The Mandalorian among, yep, dozens of other shows. He’s been nominated twice for Emmys (for Gus Fring) but lost so here’s hoping that them there Academies of Television Arts & Sciences will get their shit together next time.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Judy Greer

In the summer of 2015, Greer was in the major motion pictures TOMORROWLAND, JURASSIC WORLD, ANT-MAN, and ENTOURAGE (for Christ’s sake!) yet somehow she wasn’t really noticed. Maybe we all got used to taking her for granted in a multitude of movies and TV shows like Arrested Development, ADAPTATION, ELIZABETHTOWN (shout-out to Nathan Rabin), THE DESCENDENTS, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the 2-season FX sitcom Married among many other appearances.

Greer’s a funny, solid actress who has got a good thing going with the rebooting of the HALLOWEEN series as Jamie Lee Curtis’ daughter so why don’t you just learn her name already?

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Friday, June 05, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Michael McKean

This post is dedicated to one of my favorites: Michael McKean

Despite having portrayed two iconic comedy characters - Lenny on Laverne & Shirley and David St. Hubbins in Rob Reiner's immortal 1984 mockumetary (I don't care if Christopher Guest hates this term), THIS IS SPINAL TAP - McKean is sadly not a household name. 

Folks may also know him from USED CARS, YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE, CLUE, PLANES TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES, EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, and the Christopher Guest films BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND *, and FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION among tons of other movies. 

* McKean scored his only Oscar nomination for A MIGHTY WIND, but not for acting - it was for the delightful song, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Annette O'Toole.

McKeans's TV credits are too extensive to list here, but my favorite McKean role is as Jimmy McGill’s brother Chuck McGill on AMC's excellent Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul. He was seriously robbed of an Emmy for that work.

One last note about Mr. McKean: many folks aren't aware that Lenny & Squiggy, as Lenny & the Squigtones, put out an album in 1978:

The record consists of hilarious parodies of '50s style rock 'n roll, and is notable for featuring the first appearance of Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) four years before THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Here's a segment from American Bandstand in 1979 showcasing Lenny & the Squigtones in their prime:

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Wednesday, June 03, 2020


As Mike Flanagan’s 2019 thriller, DOCTOR SLEEP, was an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel and a direct sequel to both King’s 1977 novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of THE SHINING, it was unsurprising that it recreated many of the aesthetics of Kubrick’s classic. But what was surprising was that even the former film’s protagonist, Jack Torrance, made an appearance during an overlong sequence set at the Overlook Hotel.

But Torrance wasn’t portrayed by a digitally de-aged Jack Nicholson, who originally played the part. It was Henry Thomas of E.T. fame who took on the legendary role.

That’s right, Thomas, seen below reprising his role as Elliot from Steven Spielberg’s 1982 sci-fi smash in a 2019 commercial for the Comcast Corporation Xfinity, was made up to look as much like Nicholson’s Torrance as possible for DOCTOR SLEEP, but few people took notice. Well, that’s probably because not many people went to see the film in theaters (it was one of 2019
’s biggest flops), and are only now catching up with it on home video. 

So there you go, your fun film fact for the day. 

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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Stephen Root

I started this series on Facebook a month ago, but thought I should transport it here so it wouldn’t get lost down in the infinite scroll. The idea should be pretty self-explanatory, to highlight some notable folks that we’ve all seen in numerous movies and TV shows, but aren’t A-list leads. Many of these folks are favorites of mine – actors who I always enjoy seeing pop up in various roles in whatever films or programs I’m currently watching. I am going to begin with a guy whose work I’ve enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century:

Stephen Root

I have loved this guy since he played Jimmy James on the great 90s sitcom Newsradio. Since then, he was Milton in OFFICE SPACE (he also appeared in Mike Judges IDIOCRACY), hes been in three Coen brothers films, and also had substantial roles in the films DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY, CEDAR RAPIDS, GET OUT, BOMBSHELL, and many others.

These are only a handful of his big screen highlights as hes been on seemingly every TV show of the last 30 years too - from Roseanne to Seinfeld to King of the Hill to The West Wing to The Big Bang Theory to Barry to the title character in The Man in the High Castle - you get the idea, his filmography is nuts. So lets salute Stephen Root.

Finally, Root may be the only actor in this series whose image in character is used in the packaging of a popular product:

Stay tuned for more in the Actors You Recognize But Don’t Know Their Names series.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

That Time THE SHINING Trailer Blew My 10-Year Old Mind

Today is the 40th Anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s classic adaptation of Stephen King’s THE SHINING.

But what I want to share in this post is something that happened the weekend after that film
s release when as a 10-year old I went to see BON VOYAGE, CHARLIE BROWN (AND DON’T COME BACK!). To the best of my memory, I went alone with my Mom dropping me off for the movie at the Ram Theatre (a truly wretched theater) in downtown Chapel Hill.

There I was sitting through the trailers munching on popcorn or candy (I can’t remember) when a shot of two elevator doors in a hotel lobby filled the screen. As creepy music plays, the title THE SHINING, and “A Stanley Kubrick Fim,” ascend from the bottom of the shot, followed by credits for Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, then the declaration that the film is based on “Stephen King’s Best-Selling Masterpiece of Modern Horror.” 

As the music gets louder and more ominous, the credits get repetitive – the title again goes upward and Kubrick’s name is re-stated. Moments later, gallons of blood begin to pour out of the sides of the elevator doors. The blood continues to flow in mass quantities enough to move about furniture in the lobby. The trailer ends with the camera lens being covered in blood, and with me scared out of my 10-year old mind.

This was the trailer before a Charlie Brown movie!

I was waiting to see the shenanigans of Snoopy and gang and got treated to an ocean of blood. Good grief. 

I remember being so shaken by the big screen bloodbath that it was hard to pay proper attention to the light-hearted animated matinee I came to see.

These days, the trailers are often programmed to match the genre of the movie that they supporting. So if you are going to an action movie, you’re likely to see trailers for other action movies proceeding the main feature. But back then it seems they just threw whatever they had up on the screen, not caring if they freaked out kids who just wanted some Peanuts™.

In the 40 years since, I’ve seen THE SHINING many times on the big and screen, and I’ve revisited the trailer a bunch of times which, of course, is so less frightening than I remember, but still packs a bloody punch.

I wonder if trailers for BON VOYAGE, CHARLIE BROWN ever played before showings of THE SHINING. That’s one thing I can think of that would even the score.

Another would be for me to watch a double feature of both movies. Maybe then I could finally make peace.


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Friday, May 22, 2020

Fred Willard: A Film Babble Blog Tribute

Last weekend, comedy great, and lovable goofball, Fred Willard passed away at the age of 86.

Willard, who specialized in playing characters that were oblivious doofuses, was a reliably hilarious presence in many TV shows and movies including Fernwood 2 Night, Real People, The History of White People in America, ROXANNE, Roseanne, King of the Hill, Everybody Loves Raymond (three Emmy nominations), ANCHORMAN, Modern Family (one Emmy nomination), WALL-E and, oddly, The Bold and the Beautiful (a Daytime Emmy win).

That is an extremely incomplete overview of his rich career (go to IMDb for his complete credits and you’ll scroll on and on), especially since I was saving for now his wonderful run in the seminal series of Christopher Guest comedies WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996), BEST IN SHOW (2000), A MIGHTY WIND (2003), and FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2003), and MASCOTS (2016).

Although it was a Rob Reiner film, I consider THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) to be the first of these largely improvised films as it features a number of the cast members that would appear in one of more of the later movies - Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Ed Begley Jr., Paul Benedict, and Willard.

From his role as Jerry Hubbard (his doltish Ed McMahon to Martin Mull’s Johnny Carson – the smarmy AF Barth Gimble) on the ‘70s talk show spoof Fernwood 2 Night (later changed to America 2-Night), in would be easy to assume that Willard was a straight man in these films. This is untrue as you can see in this clip from SPINAL TAP in which he steals the movie from its stars as Lt. Bob Hookstratten:

Willard has less than two minutes of screen-time in the comedy classic, but that was just enough for him to make a mark while Spinal Tap themselves fall into the background. In a way, despite that they said very little, his co-stars in that scene are his straight men.

Willard had a much larger role in WAITING FOR GUFFMAN as Ron Albertson, a travel agent who’s never left his hometown of Blaine. Willard’s Ron is an aspiring entertainer along with his wife Sheila, and in a great scene they encounter Eugene Levy as Dr. Allen Pearl, also an amateur performer in line to audition for a show put on by director Corky St. Clair (Guest).

Showing off his improv skills, Willard quickly fires off a string of wisecracks aimed at Levy’s dental profession: “Give it your best shot. It won’t be the first shot you ever gave - hope it doesn’t leave Corky numb like most of us - it’s like pulling teeth to get a discount from him - hey, why don’t you give some caramels to the little girl - future customers, Doc!” During this bit on the DVD commentary, Guest and Levy talk about being very impressed with this run. 

“I had no choice but to let go and surrender to Fred’s will - to the point of letting him talk me into wearing those sad, unattractive track suits in our audition scene when I just wanted to look good for one second in the movie. I couldn’t say no.” - Catherine O’Hara 

Willard’s next performance in a Guest film is one of his most memorable, dog show announcer Buck Laughlin in BEST IN SHOW.

Buck doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into the film, but once he appears he all but takes over the movie with such screwy color commentary as “I went to one of those obedience places once... it was all going well until they spilled hot candle wax on my private parts,” and “to think that in some countries these dogs are eaten.”

Even though Willard’s part in A MIGHTY WIND was much smaller, but again he stole the show. He played the bleached blond manager of The New Main Street Singers, who once appeared in a sitcom called Wha
 Happened? I’ll let him tell you the story: 

Not being a regular viewer, I was unaware the Willard made a lot of appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Kimmel paid homage to the man earlier this week and presented a montage of Willard’s work on the program which you can watch here, and a second segment in which 
Willard’s celebrity friends share memories of working with him.

To get a great sense of Willard’s comic talent and as just a friendly guy you would want to hang with, I highly recommend this compilation of his guest shots on Late Night with Letterman, and The Late Show with David Letterman from 1982-2007: 

There are way too many great moments in the career of Mr. Willard to recount here – these are just a few of my favorites. I’ll leave you with this achievement that I haven’t seen mentioned in many obits: Willard was the one and only live action actor to appear in a Pixar movie. He played Shelby Forthright, the CEO of the Buy-N-Large Corporation, in WALL-E (2008). 

That’s pretty damn cool. 

R.I.P. Fred Willard 

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Monday, May 04, 2020

Some STAR WARS Day Musings

Every May 4th, my former neighbors would put these inflatables in their yard
A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that, “Of the nine STAR WARS movies, I think only four of them are good. I’ll reveal which ones sometime soon.”

Since it’s May the 4th (as in “May the fourth be with you”), which has been branded as STAR WARS Day, it’s as good as time as any to reveal those four films from the franchise, but I have to say that my answers are pretty boring.

Firstly, I’m talking about the nine entries (or Episodes as their called in each movie’s opening crawl) that make up the Skywalker Saga. I’m not counting expanded universe offshoots such as the Ewok TV movies, the animated THE CLONE WARS, ROGUE ONE, SOLO, or The STAR WARS Holiday Special for that matter. I’m clarifying this because some folks brought up a few of these titles in the thread under my Facebook post.

So here’s my boring answer: the four films in the series that I think are the only really worthwhile Episodes are: STAR WARS *, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, and THE FORCE AWAKENS. Basically the ones that have Han Solo in them (you could say he also appears in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, but that’s just a cameo). 

Pretty obvious, huh? I’m discounting the prequels as I hated them (as many fans do), and the last two (THE LAST JEDI, RISE) because while they were passably entertaining, they will doubtfully be considered as classics in the decades to come.

*As I’ve written before on this blog, I can never think of the original 1977 series starter by the revised title it was given four years after it’s release. You can read about why, in this post: It’ll Always Be STAR WARS, Not A NEW HOPE To Me (December 13, 2016).

Unsurprisingly, my choices come from growing up with the original trilogy, and favoring the later day comeback (THE FORCE AWAKENS) that most captures the spirit of the original trilogy.

Happy STAR WARS Day people! I’ll leave now with this question: when Luke Skywalker, C-3PO and R2-D2 made an appearance on The Muppet Show (February 1980 – just a few months before THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK’s release), was that canon?

More later...

Friday, April 24, 2020

When TV Characters Become Movie Critics: Part 1


I have long been amused when a character in a television show gives their opinion about a popular movie – sometimes while the film is still playing in theaters. In many cases, the criticisms echo those of many people in the audience, which helps to blur the line between fantasy and reality. 

On the NBC sitcom, Community, Annie (Alison Brie) gives her study group friend Abed (Danny Pudi) DVDs of three of the Indiana Jones movies because, as both say in unity, “The fourth one blows!” This is a sentiment that both holds consensus in the show’s world, and the real one’s - especially the online community. 

Community (now streaming on Netflix) was full of such moments in which pat put downs of many movies were offered (see Den of Geek’s The 68 Movie References in Community), and the same goes for such shows as The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory, Rick & Morty, and countless other pop culture-minded programs. 

But here I wanted to look at the shows that have character’s point of views on certain movies come up more organically – for the most part. 

The first such moment of movie appraisal that I remember noting was from the late ‘70s to early ‘80s soap opera satire, Soap. In an episode towards the end of the first season (airdate: March 14, 1978), a character named Flo Flotsky, played by television veteran Doris Roberts, perhaps best known for her role as Ray Romano’s mother in the CBS sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond, deflects from her son, Father Tim Flotsky (sal Viscuso), telling her he’s fallen in love with Corine (Diana Conova) by spouting out her critique of the massively popular space epic that was still reigning at the box office when the episode aired:

Flo Flotsky: “Y’know I finally saw that ‘Star Wars’ movie they’re all ravin’ about. I dunno. In my day if they had a leading man it was Clark Gable. Today they got a little machine that goes ‘boop.’ I mean, frankly, I could have stayed home and looked at my upright vacuum cleaner.”

Later, another shot at a mega movie hit, happened during the last season of the NBC show Seinfeld (a mega hit itself) that was broadcast on March 19, 1998. Like STAR WARS, TITANIC was still in theaters when this exchange took place:

George Costanza (Jason Alexander): “I saw ‘Titanic.’ So that old woman, she’s just a liar, right?”

Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld): “And a bit of a tramp if you ask me.”

In the episode “The Rat Pack” from The Sopranos’ fifth season (broadcast: March 14, 2005), most of the female contingent of the cast gather for a Film Club night in which they watch Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE. Carmela (Edie Falco) hosts the screening, which takes place in the family’s swanky viewing room, and even reads aloud from Leonard Maltin’s review of the film from one of his yearly guides before it begins.

After they watch the film, the reactions from Carmela and her fellow mob wife group members are priceless:

Adriana (Drea de Matteo): “So it was a sled, huh? He should’ve told somebody.”

Gabriella Dante (Maureen Van Zandt): “I think it’s fascinating that man had all that stuff, but he died alone with nothing and nobody.”

Carmela: “Good. Prick.”

Rosalie Aprile (Sharon Angela): “I hated it. ‘You supply the war, I’ll supply the headlines.’ How conceited.”

Following these comments, the ladies run out of things to say except to briefly compliment the cinematography (“That was very good”) so they fall back into their regular gossiping. The show never reveals whether they have another Film Club, but my guess would be that it was a one-time thing. 

While The Office US (2005-2013) regularly highlighted the absurd, insensitive, and just plain wrong utterances of its protagonist Michael Scott (Steve Carrell), every now and then the character would say something that was actually on point. One such moment was when he shared his thoughts on the fourth entry in the DIE HARD franchise (LIVE FREE AND DIE HARD): 

Michael: “You know what, here’s the thing about ‘Die Hard 4.’ ‘Die Hard 1,’ the original, John McClane was just this normal guy. You know, he’s just a normal New York City cop, who gets his feet cut, and gets beat up. But he’s an everyday guy. In ‘Die Hard 4,’ he is jumping a motorcycle into a helicopter. In air. You know? He’s invincible. It just sort of lost what ‘Die Hard’ was. It’s not ‘Terminator.’” 

Following this, one of his co-workers says “Dude, you should review movies.” Yeah, maybe he should. 

Finally, there’s this conversation from The Handmaid
s Tale (“Womens Work, June 6, 2018) between June (Elizabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) about childbirth: 

Janine: “You’ll probably get to the cool part soon - the baby’s foot pushes out of your stomach, like in ‘Alien.’ (laughs) Charlotte used to do that all the time. (awkward pause) You haven’t seen ‘Alien’?” 

June: “I just thought the sequel was better.” 

These are just several instances of TV characters giving us film critiques, I know there are hundreds, and as the Part 1 implies I
ll be posting more, so if you know of any please place them in the comments below or email them me via the address above on the right. 

So I’ll leave you now with this quote from Seinfeld, where the STAR TREK movies frequently came up. Jerry on STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN: “Well, it was the best of those movies.” 

I completely agree. 

More later…

Friday, March 13, 2020

THE HUNT: Promising Premise But Hacky Execution

Opening today at whatever theaters are still in operation:

THE HUNT (Dir. Craig Zobel, 2020) 

It’s the snowflakes versus the deplorables versus in this zippy comedy thriller that involves a group of liberal elites rounding up a dozen conservatives to hunt for sport. The victims, who were drugged, kidnapped, and flown in from different locations in America, come to in a field in the middle of the woods with a large crate full of firearms plus a pig wearing a t-shirt.

The narrative then indulges in a series of fake outs as to who we’re supposed to follow as the film’s protagonists. At first, it looks like Emma Roberts (American Horror Story), and Justin Hartley (This is Us), but, after some grisly deaths, that scenario falls apart quickly. Then we’ve got Ike Barinholtz (NEIGHBORS, THE OATH, LATE NIGHT), and a few other paniced people who get hit by arrows or die otherwise, before we get to the movie’s real star.

That would be Betty Gilpin (Glow) as Crystal, the badass of the abducted crew who has a military background and whose presence at the event may be a mistake. The whole hunt plan itself was a mistake that spread from a thread between Athena (Hillary Swank), a powerful executive and her colleagues in which they joked about killing deplorables.

While their texts were fleshed out into a conspiracy theory called “Manorgate,” the plot of the film could’ve stood to be fleshed out considerably. Not enough is done with the premise; no solid satirical statement or sharp commentary can be discerned. Zobel and c0-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) appear to be more concerned with the choreography of the fight scenes than with much depth in the dialogue department.

That said, the hand to hand combat sequences are incredibly watchable fun - Gilpin repeatedly packs a punch – and the performances, including by Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Amy Madigan (FIELD OF DREAMS, POLLACK, GONE BABY GONE), and Sturgill Simpson (!) are all comic gems.

THE HUNT is ultimately a passable lark that falls short of saying anything substantially politically. It’s a shame as these days we could really use a twisted take on the divisions that we’re confronted by every day. This movie has an inspired idea, but it just doesn’t have that twisted take it needs to amusingly and powerfully send up our long, ongoing divide.

More later...