Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ben Stiller's THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY Dreams Of Being A Feel Good Epic

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Ben Stiller, 2013)

I remember reading James Thurber's 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” when I was a kid in elementary school and being charmed by its simple concept - i.e. average man has heroic daydreams throughout a mundane day shopping with his wife.

Later I saw the 1947 Norman Z. McLeod adaptation, starring Danny Kaye, and really wasn't into what they did with it. Apparently Thurber didn't either, much like how P.L. Travers hated what Disney did to MARY POPPINS (horribly handled in the currently playing SAVING MR. BANKS), Thurber protested the songs and screenplay to no avail.

Now Ben Stiller, for his fifth film as director, tackles the concept in this even looser adaptation that aims to be a feel good epic for the whole family. Unfortunately despite its hip cast (Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott, Patton Oswalt), snazzy soundtrack (Arcade Fire, Rogue Wave, David Bowie), and lavish production values (Stuart Dryberg's cinematography is gorgeous) the charm of the original is lost in action.

We first meet Stiller's Mitty in his sterile looking drab New York apartment trying, but failing, to “send a wink” on his eHarmony account to a co-worker he's smitten with (Wiig).

Obviously Stiller, by way of Steve Conrad's screenplay, is updating Mitty for the internet age, a theme also present in his job as a negative assets manager at Life Magazine being threatened by the company making the shift from print to digital.

Mitty, who we're told by his mother (Shirley MaClaine) worked at Papa John's when he was a teenager, is another in the long line of shy awkward characters that Stiller has made his movie career out of - guys who learn through the course of their films how to come of their shells.

Between Stiller's fantasies about saving a dog from a burning building, engaging in a surreal super hero-esque battle with Scott as his arrogant dick of a boss, and wooing Wiig by bursting through the wall as a rugged arctic explorer, a plot involving a missing negative intended for the last print edition cover of Life emerges.

Of course, this means Stiller has got to ditch the dreaming and do some actual adventuring. He leaves his office and travels across the globe to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas to find the photographer (Sean Penn at his crinkly grittiest), making the movie come off like Walter Mitty Vs. The Volcano especially because, well, he has to run from an erupting one at one point. 

Along the way, Oswalt, as an eHarmony representative, calls Stiller to get him to beef up the “been there, done that” section of his account on the dating site. You see, it seems our protagonist's main problem is that he's never gone anywhere.

It also seems like the real secret Mitty is hiding is that he has some mad skateboarding skills - these really come in handy on a winding mountain road in Iceland.

It's not just that Stiller's WALTER MITTY is a big commercial movie, it feels like a big commercial itself with its bumper sticker sayings and mottos.

But what is it a commercial for? eHarmony? Papa John's?

There's such a self conscious grab-life-by-the-balls vibe, transparent in such moments as Wiig telling Stiller that Bowie's “Space Oddity” is about “courage and going into the unknown” (Wiig even sings the song in one of Stiller's visions).

On the plus side, Stiller and Wiig, who it's nice to see playing a real believable person for once, have an easy going chemistry in their scenes together, but overall the comedy feels too light, the fantasies too forced, and tonally it's all over the place.

This is apparent in one of Mitty's daydreams about having that “Benjamin Button disease thing” where he's aging backwards and we see a CGI-ed Stiller as a tiny old man in Wiig's arms. This seems more akin to the spoofiness of his work in ZOOLANDER and TROPIC THUNDER than the spirit of the rest of the film.

I was also disappointed at how easily predictable all the film's pay-offs are. There are no surprises at how the narrative concerning Penn's lost photo wraps up, and the love story lacks any emotional pull.

WALTER MITTY is not without wit, and there's a fair amount of likability to the proceedings, but it's sad that Stiller and co. couldn't dream up something a whole lot better.

More later...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

While last year’s Oscar winning ARGO summoned the ‘70s in its opening moments by using the old bright red Warner Brothers logo, and the recent release of AMERICAN HUSTLE did the same by way of a vintage Columbia Studios logo, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, just goes with the current Paramount Pictures silver mountain design, proving upfront that it doesn’t need any help bringing the retro.

Martin Scorsese’s 23rd film, and fifth with Leonardo DiCaprio, nails the rampant excess of the ‘80s greed era with such a fearlessly funny, and raunchy as Hell glee that it makes Oliver Stone’s 1988 insider trading spectacle WALL STREET look like Sesame Street.

DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort, an ambitious Bronx-born stockbroker (or more accurately Stock swindler), who hit it rich in his ‘20s by founding the Long Island firm Stratton Oakmont. As our protagonist puts it in voice-over narration (and at times breaking the fourth wall asides to the audience): “The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars as the head of my own brokerage firm…which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

DiCaprio’s Belfort also tells us that he gambles “like a degenerate,” screws scores of hookers, has three different federal agencies looking to indict him, and, as if it’s the most important part of his personality, that he really loves drugs (a large mix of Quaaludes, Xanax, pot, and cocaine make up his daily regimen).

As DiCaprio’s partner in white collar crime and coke, Jonah Hill plays Donny Azoff (name changed to protect the guilty Danny Porush). Hill, with blindingly white capped teeth and funnier than he’s ever been, could be seen as the Joe Pesci to DiCaprio’s Ray Liotta if we were going to go down the GOODFELLAS goes to Wall Street route that many critics will no doubt take.

We witness DiCaprio’s corrupt character’s rise and fall by way of a furious pace provided by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s such an electrifying ride that it never drags or feels like it’s anywhere close to its actual length (it’s just under 3 hours at 179 minutes). In fact, I’m seriously hoping the Blu ray/DVD release features the four hour cut that’s been reported).

Everybody in the cast shines especially Matthew McConaughey in a short but sweet role as a mentor to DiCaprio who extols the virtues of jerking off, Kyle Chandler as a hard-nosed FBI agent looking to bust DiCaprio, Rob Reiner in an amusing performance as DiCaprio’s father who affects a fake British accent when speaking on the phone, THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin suavely playing a Swiss banker, The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal as a tough guy cronie, and newcomer blonde bombshell Margot Robbie as DiCaprio’s former model wife.

Terence Winter’s Screenplay, based on Belfort’s book of the same name, is full of sharp dialogue (except when the characters are all coked up then it’s appropriately sloppy), plus obvious but inevitable references to Gordon Gekko, THE GODFATHER, and Thomas Wolfe’s 1987 novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (let's just forget the awful movie version) because Belfort, of course, considers himself a “Master of the Universe.”

The amped-up soundtrack is dead on as well with classic blues by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James rubbing up alongside Devo, Cypress Hill, and Sir Mix-A-lot (Scorsese restrained himself this time and included no Stones tracks), all under the supervision of another longtime Scorsese collaborator, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who serves as executive music producer.

New to the Scorsese team is cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ARGO) who captures in stunning tracking shots the swaggering sweep of its subject’s debauched lifestyle.

A stand-out sequence involving an DiCaprio, f-ed up beyond belief on a massive amount of Quaaludes having to crawl back to his car parked right outside at a country club reaches surreal heights of hilarity due in no small part to Prieto’s keen camera eye.

While I liked how David O’ Russell’s AMERICAN HUSTLE does a great job scamming folks into thinking they’re watching a Scorsese film, it’s so much more intoxicating to see the real thing.

At 71, Scorsese proves that he can still make master class cinema as THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the director and DiCaprio’s finest film together, one that's much more deserving of a Best Picture Oscar than 2005’s THE DEPARTED, and I say that having really loved that movie.

Sure, WOLF covers similar ground to Scorsese's GOODFELLAS and CASINO in its wild depiction of money being the ultimate aphrodisiac, but its outlandish verve and gutsy-as-all-get-out attitude make it yet another major Marty masterpiece – a feast of a film that I can’t wait to go back to for a second helping.

More later...

Friday, December 20, 2013

David O. Russell's AMERICAN HUSTLE Pulls A Scorsese On ABSCAM

AMERICAN HUSTLE (Dir. David O. Russell, 2013)

“Some of this actually happened...” a title tells us up front and then we're off into one of the impressive approximations of the intoxicating style of Martin Scorsese that I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot of them.

David O. Russell's follow-up to his home runs THE FIGHTER and last year's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK presents a darkly funny take on the ABSCAM sting of the late '70s and early '80s by way of a couple of con artist caricatures, portrayed by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who are blackmailed into working for Bradley Cooper as an unhinged over-permed FBI agent.

Our intro to Bale as Irving Rosenfeld (loosely based on convicted con man Melvin Weinberg), takes us through how he applies what his girlfriend/partner-in-crime Adams calls “an elaborate comb-over,” gives us all we need to know about this small-time loan scammer. 

Of course, Bale and Adams' documentary-style voice-overs aren't the only allusions to GOODFELLAS going on in all the set-ups, as dead-on Carter-era song choices (Steely Dan's “Dirty Work” serves as a perfect opening theme song), and grainy chaotic camerawork relishing all the garish wardrobes and decor of the surroundings, keeps a Scorsese-ian sweep going from start to finish.

There's also a good bit of Paul Thomas Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS embedded in the structure, but since that also had massive debts to Scorsese, I digress. 

Cooper's Richard Richie DiMaso, who's based on FBI Agent Anthony Amoroso, Jr. can come off as much as a speeding spaz as the amped up movie around him at times, but look deeper and you'll see one of the most electric performances of the year.

More colorful caricatures (I call them that because everybody looks like they stepped out of the pages of Mad Magazine movie satires from the era depicted) crop up in the form of Jennifer Lawrence (Cooper's SILVER LININGS co-star) as Bale's bawdy wild card of a wife who may accidentally blow everyone's cover (Lawrence acts her ass off), Jeremy Renner as the idealistic mayor of Camden, New Jersey (with a very Joe Pesci-ish pompadour) who gets up in the scam, and comedian Louis C.K. as Cooper's uptight FBI supervisor.

A running bit about Cooper needling C.K. about both approving more money for the operation and guessing the moral of an aborted ice-fishing anecdote is a successful strand of silliness that kept me laughing alongside all the other in-your-face absurdity here.

Many will say its more rip-off than homage with such lame bon mots as “Scorsese-lite” to “Rhinestone Scorsese,” but I liken it to how people call a song that's in the vein of the Beatles but still has its own groove: “Beatle-esque.”

AMERICAN HUSTLE is definitely Scorsese-esque, but it has its own grooves going in its riffing on '70s cinema vibes. At one point when schooling Cooper on the art of the con, Bale asks “Who's the master: the painter or the forger?” 

I'll still go with the painter, especially as we're on the verge of a major Marty release (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET opens on Christmas day) that more than tops this, but when it comes to what Russell and his crack cast are going for here, to quote Christopher Walken in a classic SNL sketch: “It's a Hell of a forgery.”

More later... 

SAVING MR. BANKS: The Film Babble Blog Review

SAVING MR. BANKS (Dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013)

You don’t have to have had read up on the all the inaccuracies in this fatally fluffy film to see how bogus of a biopic it is. It’s a Disney-fied white-washing of the story behind the making of the classic 1964 musical MARY POPPINS that’s about as convincing as last year’s lackluster HITCHCOCK, another piece of blatant Oscar-bait.

As the film scripted by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith tells it, initially reluctant “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers was won over by Walt Disney, whose 1964 adaptation complete with the songs and dancing cartoon penguins she originally objected to, made her cry at the film’s premiere. But it’s well documented that in reality Travers cried at what Disney had done to her character, and she forbade them to ever make a sequel, even expressly stipulating in her will (she died in 1996) that no American can ever adapt her work again.

Those aren’t things you’ll learn in the sugar-coated SAVING MR. BANKS, opening wide today. Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers as a prissy no-nonsense party pooper, who only gives in after 20 years of Disney’s pleading to sell the rights to her sacred text because she needs the money. Over the course of two weeks in 1961 Hollywood, Disney, played by Tom Hanks laying on his Tom Hanksian charms as thick as he can, attempts to woo Travers into selling with his MARY POPPINS creative team made up of Bradley Whitford as co-writer Don DaGradi, and Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the composer/lyricist brother duo of Richard and Robert Sherman.

Thompson’s Travers is plagued with memories of her childhood in Queensland, Australia, mostly consisting of Colin Farrell as her drunken father making a mess of his family’s life. These 1907-set scenes are presented as flashbacks, some fading into the more recent past GODFATHER PART II-style, but many are just cut to and from with little organic sense. Whatever the case they are repetitive and add very little.

Better, but not much, are the Burbank backlot rehearsal room set-pieces. There’s at least some bouncy wit present as when Novak slips the sheet music for “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” out of sight after Thompson’s complaint about the song-writing duo making up words (“‘Responstible’ is not a word!”).

Sure, I get that this is a Disney production that has difficulty even owning up that its beloved head honcho smoked more than an occasional cigarette, but there’s no weight to any of this. Disney is just a man who wants to make a movie for his daughters who love the “Mary Poppins” books, while Travers wants to protect the integrity of her story, with its theme that the famous nanny wasn’t there to save the children; she was there to save the father (Farrell’s father character being the real Mr. Banks). In yet another tiresome flashback we see that Poppins was based on Travers’ stern Aunt Ellie, played by Six Feet Under’s Rachel Griffiths, but that’s a revelation that barely registers. The film’s attempts to draw humor from Thompson sneering at the excesses of the magical kingdom fall flat, while Thomas Newman’s derivative of classic Disney score came nowhere close to pulling on my heartstrings.

On the surface, SAVING MR. BANKS is reasonably polished and well produced, with fine performances by Thompson, Hanks, and the rest of the cast (including the superfluous but still welcome casting of Paul Giamatti as Traver’s chauffeur). It probably won’t get much Academy Award action, but it looks like a Golden Globe getter if there ever was one.

But ultimately it’s a case of sentimental self promotion with very little truth or even truthiness to it. If the real P.L. Travers cried when she saw what was done to her creation, I bet she would’ve walked out on this.

More later...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ANCHORMAN 2: Enough Laughs For Fans Of The First One

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Adam McKay, 2013)

Paul Rudd, Will Ferrell, David Koetchner, and Steve Carrell decide while on one of their trademark strutts to get perms! That's funny, right?

Of course, you know from all the heavy publicity that it’s kind of a big deal that ‘70s broadcaster Ron Burgundy is back with the rest of the San Diego Channel 4 news team in this sequel to the 2004 comedy hit ANCHORMAN.

Will Ferrell, clad in his character’s signature burgundy three-piece suit, gathers his comedy buddies Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner together again to bring the retro-fitted funny, and for the most part they get the laughs they’re going for.

It’s just that I wish they, by way of Ferrell and director/co-writer Adam McKay’s sketchy screenplay, were going for more in terms of story, satire, and real comic invention. I mean, they pile on the jokes, most of which are over-the-top one-liners, but the narrative concerning the dawning era of 24-hour news cycles is seriously under developed.

It’s now the ‘80s and Ferrell’s Burgundy is all washed up working as an announcer at SeaWorld after losing his coveted co-anchor job, and having divorced his wife (the also returning Christina Applegate) because she was promoted to the nightly news desk. But his pathetic predicament doesn’t last long because Dylan Baker comes calling to recruit Ron for a position in New York at the new basic cable channel upstart, GNN (Global News Network).

A sequence that resembles the “getting the gang back together” sequence in THE MUPPETS (the 2011 reboot) follows with Ferrell driving around in an RV plucking Koechner from his fast food franchise that serves bats disguised as fried chicken (he claims that an unspecified “they” calls them “chicken of the cave”), Rudd from his somehow sexy photographer gig for Cat Fancy magazine, and Carrell back from the dead, or rather for mistakenly thinking he’s dead as he’s found eulogizing himself at his own funeral.

So far so funny, but the movie’s premise never goes up from there even when introducing a new rival in the form of the intimidatingly handsome Jack Lime (James Marsden), who’s GNN’s star primetime anchor, while Burgandy and his bunch are stuck in the 2-5 am graveyard shift.

In one of his trademark fits of idiocy, Burgandy makes a bet with Lime that if his slot doesn’t get higher ratings he’ll quit the business, but if Lime loses he’ll have to legally change his name to “Lame.” This is, at least, a plot point, but one that doesn’t pay off – it sort of fades into the fussy framework. As does a later strand in which our hero goes blind from a skating injury (he was sabotaged by Marsden) and goes off to live in a lighthouse, one of several places in this 119 minute movie that the jokes fall flat and the laughs taper off.

A sharp as a tack Meagan Good as the boys’ new African American boss gives the film the chance to comment on ‘80s-era racism in the workplace, but, much like the first one’s take on sexism, it just skirts the silly surface on the topic – Ferrell not being able to stop saying the word “black” when first meeting Good is a telling indicator of the level here.

Another new addition to the cast, Kristen Wiig, as Carrell’s frizzy-haired dim-witted love interest is way underutilized, and they really didn’t have any reason to have Harrison Ford (gruff as usual) on board as a network bigwig except that Ferrell and McKay thought ‘why not?’

Still, ANCHORMAN 2 largely stays classy and has laughs a plenty even when it shamelessly trots out re-dos of bits like the epic newscaster battle scene stuffed with surprise cameos (I’m not spoiling!), and another crazy showcasing of Ron’s jazz flute skills. These bits worked before, so again, why not refry them and serve them up again?

Fans of the first one should find enough quotable lines (one of my favorites: “Who the hell is Julius Caesar? I don't follow the NBA!”), enough goofy sight gags, and enough in-your-face absurdity for the sake of in-your-face absurdity to satisfy them, but folks who aren’t into Ferrell ‘n friends’ brand of crude PG-13 boundary pushing comedy should stay home in droves.

More later...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Feeling Right At Home With The Authentic Tone Of Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA

Opening today at an art house near me:

NEBRASKA (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

At one point in this excellent film, I was reminded of a bit that I saw late night talk show host/comedian Craig Ferguson do last month at the Carolina Theatre about how you can get away with saying practically anything cruel by saying “I’m not judging, I’m just being honest.”

As Bruce Dern’s long suffering wife, June Squibb is reminiscing out loud in a cemetery about folks she used to know in the film’s fictional small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska. In the mist of her blunt takedowns of the not so dearly departed she remarks of her husband’s sister: “I liked Rose, but my god, she was a slut!”

Comic actor Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MACGRUBER), as Dern and Squibb’s son, snaps “Mom, come on,” but Squibb simply states “I’m just telling the truth” and continues her trash talking walk through the headstones.

It’s a fitting line, for NEBRASKA, Alexander Payne’s follow-up to his much more commercial George Clooney vehicle THE DESCENDANTS isn’t judging its characters, it’s being honest about them. Its simple premise of Dern’s protagonist Woody Grant erroneously thinking he’s won a million dollars sweepstakes because of a piece of junk mail hawking magazine subscriptions superbly sets up a bunch of bluntly funny scenes, made all the more sharper by being shot in black and white.

Working with first time screenwriter Bob Nelson’s words, Payne gives us a road movie in the vein of ABOUT SCHMIDT (my personal favorite Payne), which bleeds through in such moments as Dern revisiting locations from his youth (the auto shop he used to co-own, his former watering hole, etc.). Shades of Nicholson’s Schmidt walking into The Tires Plus store that stands on the site of his childhood home for sure.

Despite the protests of mother Squibb (another SCHMIDT factor as she was the wife in that too) Forte opts to drive his ornery out-of-it father from their Billings, Montana home to the lottery office in Lincoln, Nebraska. They stop in Hawthorne for a family reunion, which includes a terrific turn by Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad) as Forte’s older newscaster brother, the soft spoken Rance Howard (a great grizzled character actor who’s been in everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Seinfeld) as Dern’s brother, and Mary Louise Wilson (another recognizable longtime veteran of the big and small screen) as Howard’s wife.

A slimy Stacy Keach as Dern’s former auto mechanic partner makes it well known that he wants a cut of Dern’s winnings, as do ne-er-do-well nephews Devin Natray and Tim Driscoll, who have some of the film’s funniest moments especially in a scene where they mock Forte for how long it took him to drive the 750 miles from home to Hawthorne (Driscoll: “Two goddamn days from Billings!”).

It's a career best for Dern, once one of New Hollywood's shining lights of '70s cinema, who definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for his role as the ole codger drunkard, but Squibb steals large chunks of the movie with her fearless bluster. A scene in which she tells off the folks, “vultures” she calls them, clamoring for their cut of Dern's supposed winnings with a resounding f-bomb alone should get her a nomination nod from the Academy.

It's also great to see another side of Forte, as a somewhat beaten down smalltime stereo salesman dealing with a recent break up with his girlfriend of two years (Missy Doty). Forte's effective everyman embarking on a trip to bond with his father, and for a change of scenery resonates beautifully.

Speaking of scenery, the wide lonely spaces of the spare Midwestern settings that surround these sad characters look stunning through the lens of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who also shot Payne's SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS. Anyone's who's traveled across country through the empty terrains of America will get the ambience Payne is going for.

I felt right at home with the authentic tone of NEBRASKA. It has more genuine laughs than most comedies, and more heartfelt humanity than most dramas. It's a near perfect piece of major Payne that makes most of its indie competition this year look pretty shallow. And you know, I'm not judging - I'm just telling the truth.

More later...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Matthew McConaughey & Jared Leto Make DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB Worth Joining

Now playing at an indie arthouse near you:

(Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)

Because of his strong performances in BERNIE, KILLER JOE, MAGIC MIKE, and even THE PAPERBOY, last year I tweeted: “I think 2012 may go down in movie history as the year Matthew McConaughey started to give a shit again.”

I stand by that statement, as the man puts in some of his finest work yet here as Texan Ron Woodroof, a real-life AIDs victim who distributed alternate illegal medication through a homegrown buyer's club in the mid '80s to early '90s.

When we first meet the scrawny mustached Woodroof, we see that he's a redneck who's all about rodeo, that is, when he's not working his day job as an electrician. The Texan (as is McConaughey) is livin' it up with cheap booze and cheaper women, until one day where he gets electrocuted on the job and wakes up in hospital and is by told that he's HIV-positive.

Woodroof, furiously complaining that this is a mistake because he's not a homosexual, throws papers at his physicians (Jennifer Garner and Denis O'Hare) from their charts around the room, and angrily storms out after saying: “I got a newsflash for y'all, there's nothing out there that could kill Ron Woodroof in 30 days!”

After doing some research and having some effective flickered flashbacks about just how sordid some of his partying was with intravenous drug use and all, Woodroof accepts his predicament and goes looking for treatment. He learns through the help of a disgraced doctor in Mexico (an almost unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) that the only AIDS drug legally available at the time, AZT, is poisonous, so he begins the business of transporting unapproved anti-viral meds across the Mexican border.

Speaking of almost unrecognizable, Jared Leto, in feminine makeup and tacky '80s tramp garb, shows up as a transsexual AIDs patient named Rayon, who forms an unlikely friendship with Ron. Well, actually it's pretty likely in an indie film context like this.

Both McConaughey and Leto both put their all into their roles, including the loss of 80 pounds between them to inhabit these characters, but the narrative isn't well served by choppy plotting and one too many throwaway scenes.

In one such scene, McConaughey's Woodroof tries to masturbate using the visual stimuli of photos of woman on the walls of his makeshift hotel room office only to get pissed off at a picture of T. Rex rock star Marc Bolan that Leto's Rayon taped up.

Or another in which McConaughey spies an attractive woman in line for treatment at his office, checks if she's HIV-positive, then it cuts to him having sex with her in the bathroom. This was more amusing but just as expendable, as these scenes do nothing by confirm what we already know - our protagonist is still not queer. These bits would be better as deleted scenes on the later Blu ray/DVD release, not cluttering up the storyline.

But overall there are enough weighty moments and excellent acting (even Garner brings a touching well-placed poise I've never witnessed from her before) to satisfy most movie-goers and create some deserved award season buzz.

With a more focused less erratic screenplay, DALLAS BUYER'S CLUB could've had a lot more power, but alongside a well chosen supporting cast McConaughey and Leto's invested performances shine through the movie's muddiness.

More later... 

The Cinematic Legacy Of The Kennedy Assassination

As today is the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Film Babble Blog looks back at the cinematic legacy of the history changing event:

I’m 44 years old, so I wasn’t alive when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But since the events of that tragic day in November of 1963, 50 years ago today, have been so thoroughly covered from every conceivable angle in countless movies, TV shows, and documentaries, not only do I feel like I was alive then; I feel as if I had actually been there smack dab in the middle of Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, on that fateful date with a better view of the historic hit than Abraham Zapruder had.

Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy theory epic, JFK is largely to blame for planting such vivid yet false memories in my psyche, but it was an obscure film that I saw on television when I was a kid that laid the foundation. It was David Miller’s 1973 political thriller EXECUTIVE ACTION, the first film * produced about the assassination.

Told from the point of view of the evil men in power, including Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan as shadowy co-conspirators who plot Kennedy’s killing right down to the last detail, the low budget docudrama postulates many of the same theories, mostly having to do with alleged murderer Lee Harvey Oswald being a patsy, that Stone would later do up with higher production values in JFK.

EXECUTIVE ACTION largely drew upon the work of New York Legislator Mark Lane, whose 1966 bestselling book “Rush To Judgement” heavily criticized the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone. Throughout the ‘70s, the consensus that something much more sinister was up than what the public record allowed, was evident all over pop culture.

Alan J. Pakula's THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) defined the label “paranoid thriller” (see also Sydney Pollack's THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, 1975) by building upon assassination theories with a premise about an evil company (the Parallax Corporation) that's behind pivotal political plots. Warren Beatty plays a reporter that tries to unravel the conspiracy, but ends up being unwittingly trained to be an assassin himself. A scene in which Beatty is brainwashed by a recruiting film, satirized in Ben Stiller's ZOOLANDER, gives a good idea of the movie's sinister tone:

In Woody Allen’s Oscar winning 1977 comedy ANNIE HALL, comedian protagonist Alvy Singer obsesses over the possibility that there was a second assassin to the point that a girl he briefly dates (Carol Kane) states bluntly the he’s “using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid having sex” with her. This surely received a lot of laughter from hip in-the-know audiences at the time, since post Watergate distrust of the government was at an all time high.

That same year, John Landis' KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, the first film to feature the comedy stylings of ZAZ (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker) of AIRPLANE! and NAKED GUN fame included a commercial parody for a fictitious Parker Brothers' board game called Scot Free. A four member family is seated around a kitchen table playing the game, made up of a miniature mock-up of Dealey Plaza, as a voice-over announcer sets up the premise: “Your team has just assassinated the President - can you get away scot free? Shake the dice and see...

A few years later, a surreal and somewhat comical take on the cluster of conspiracy theories came along: William Richert’s WINTER KILLS (1979), starring Jeff Bridges as Nick Keegan, the brother of a slain President, of course, the victim of secret forces. The controversial film didn’t get much of a theatrical run, VHS copies of it were rare, and its out of print now on DVD (a 2003 edition of it can be found on eBay) so it’s a bit of obscure title that few people have heard of, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Bridges’ very “un-Dude” performance as the Robert Kennedy-ish hero neatly heads an impressive cast including John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Sterling Hayden, Elizabeth Taylor and Toshirô Mifune in an outlandish scenario yet again involving evil men pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The usual suspects of mobsters, the military, and power hungry oil barons are trotted out, as Bridges investigates the wide-ranging suspected cover-up.

Apart from the TV miniseries “Kennedy” starring Martin Sheen, and various PBS documentaries, the ‘80s were relatively free of movie treatments of the mysteries surrounding the Kennedy assassination, but it’s funny to note that in Ron Shelton's BULL DURHAM (1988), Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis delivered a speech to Susan Sarandon listing his core beliefs, and one of them was “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.”

A few years later, Costner would be speechifying the complete opposite at length as New Orleans investigator Jim Garrison in Stone’s before mentioned opus, which recently played at the Crossroads in Cary to mark the anniversary. 

Stone’s movie is the biggest production to date dealing with the events of November 22nd, 1963, and definitely the most star studded. The film is largely accountable for the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game because Bacon appears alongside a cast that features seemingly everybody who was working in the early ‘90s including such A-listers as Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon, Joe Pesci, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Donald Sutherland, Ed Asner, Sissy Spacek, and so on.

These folks help distill the information Stone displays down to further his theory, informed by decades of other’s research and speculation, that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy that stretched through the military industrial complex, involving the CIA, and anti-Castro Cuban nationals. Newsweek welcomed Stone’s movie with a cover story that had the headline: “The Twisted Truth of ‘JFK’: Why Oliver Stone’s New Movie Can’t Be Trusted,” yet in the same issue had a very favorable review of the film by David Ansen. That sums it up neatly: JFK is an entertaining and thought provoking movie, but it’s just a movie, it shouldn’t be taken as historical record.

In the years after JFK, Danny Aiello played Jack Ruby, the Texas nightclub owner who shot and killed Oswald in RUBY, Clint Eastwood played a Secret Service agent who was in Kennedy’s detail that day in Dallas in IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993), and the long running Fox television program The X-Files revealed that its chief antagonist, the Smoking Man played by William B. Davis, was the real gunman who shot the President from inside a sewer drain along the route of the motorcade.

Yep, JFK’s tagline, “The story that won’t go away,” really is truth in advertising.

More recently, Peter Landesman’s drama PARKLAND, concerning the aftermath of the assassination with another cast of big names (Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Effron) partly set at Parkland Hospital where Kennedy’s body was taken after the shooting, played briefly last September at the Raleigh Grande. The film effectively captures the chaos and confusion in the air on Nov. 22, 1963 and the days after, but it’s not concerned at all with conspiracy, and it doesn’t really add anything to the cinematic history of the world-changing events of that date.

Neither does the National Geographic Channel’s telefilm adaptation of Bill O’ Reilly’s best seller “Killing Kennedy,” which premiered earlier this month, though there’s some fun to be had watching Rob Lowe take on the President’s Boston accent. O’Reilly isn’t a fan of conspiracy theories so it’s a pretty dry run through the facts.

We may never get the answers to the questions about what really went down that day, but one thing’s for sure: whether it’s another feature film, a new documentary (there are tons of them on cable these days), or an episode of a ‘60s-set TV show (Mad Men did their Nov. 22, 1963 episode in their third season), we are destined to relive the JFK assassination again and again until we shuffle off this mortal coil.

* Mel Stuart's 1964 documentary FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER was technically the first film produced about the assassination, but this essay concerns the dramatizations of the event.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Best Of The Goodbyes To Blockbuster

Truth be told, the empty Blockbuster above closed way before the recent announcement that the company was closing every last store. I drive past it a lot since it's near the vet my wife and I take our cats to, but it's telling that I never stepped inside it when it was open.

Although I have a lot of video store experience, I never worked at a Blockbuster. I worked at several North Carolina competitors - Video Review, North America Video, Action Video, and finally VisArt Video (a few of these are still in business) - which were often the stores that people would go to when they couldn't find what they wanted at Blockbuster. None of these places had much of a dress code, so I was happy I never had to wear the khaki pants and blue Oxford shirt Blockbuster employees had to wear, but I do remember being envious at how clean their stores were.

Anyway, a bunch of folks online (and on TV) have been saying goodbye to the chain, so I thought I'd share some of what I think are the best of the obits.

First up, this amusing photo taken at a Hawaii Blockbuster tweeted by @blockbuster went viral last week:

It was accompanied by the tweet: The last BLOCKBUSTER rental 11/9 Hawaii 11PM @ThisIsTheEnd #BlockbusterMemories @Sethrogen @JamesFrancoTV @JonahHill

Seth Rogen, the star, co-writer and co-director of the last film rented, THIS IS THE END, saw this post and tweeted:

@blockbuster: The last BLOCKBUSTER rental 11/9 Hawaii 11PM @ThisIsTheEnd #BlockbusterMemories ” this is nuts and sad

Nathan Rabin, formerly of the A.V. Club, was once a Blockbuster employee himself, and he wrote this  heartfelt farewell for

“R.I.P. Blockbuster: A Conflicted But Sincere Video Store Requiem”

Last weekend, Saturday Night Live jumped into the saying goodbye to Blockbuster game with a digital short featuring Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Beck Bennett, and Michael Patrick O'Brien as Blockbuster employees who find it hard to cope when learning that the store is done. Host and musical guest Lady Gaga cameos in the clip as some kind of queen of VHS/DVD rentals that the guys hallucinate in their desperate stupor. Check it out:

Over at, Matt Zoller Seitz put together a collection of tweets in which folks wrote lyrics (sometimes full songs) in the style of Bruce Springsteen about Blockbuster's demise: 

“They Closed Down The Video Store In Philly Last Night: Laments For Blockbuster In The Style Of Bruce Springsteen”

It's funny, and actually touching stuff, including a choice submission by a friend of Film Babble Blog, William Fonvielle, of Filmvielle.

Another friend pointed out this piece by Alex Pappademas at

Finally, there's this good thoughtful read at by S.T. Vanairsdale:

So farewell Blockbuster, I'll salute you every time I drive by your abandoned store on Capital Boulevard here in Raleigh, even after they open something else there. Now I'm gonna go watch something on Netflix Instant.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

10 Memorable Marquees In The Movies

Regular visitors to this blog (there must be a few, right?) may be aware that I have a bit of a thing for movie theater marquees. I regularly post pictures of local theaters like the Colony Theater and the Rialto Theater’s marquees here in Raleigh on the sidebar (in the old days it would be the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill when I lived there), and I have them collected on Facebook in the “Movie Theater Fun File!” section of my profile.

So since it’s been a while since I've put together a good ole Film Babble Blog list I thought I’d get back in the game with this top 10 of memorable marquees that have appeared in the movies throughout the years:


It was a running gag throughout Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner ANNIE HALL that protagonist Alvy Singer (Allen) would drag his girlfriend (Diane Keaton in the title role) to see Marcel Ophüls' THE SORROW AND THE PITY (1969). The marquee shot above comes from the end of the film, after the couple has broken up, when Allen runs into Keaton coming out of a screening of the four hour documentary about Nazis at the Thalia Theater, which used to exist on 95th Street off Broadway (it's an apartment building now). It's a long shot so it's easy to miss that Allen's date is Sigourney Weaver, in her first film appearance. A bonus Woody Allen marquee appears at the top of this post.


This is one of hundreds of well chosen details that helped Richard Linklater's 1993 cult comedy drama classic DAZED AND CONFUSED so convincingly recreate a day from May of 1976. Hitchcock's final film, released a month earlier, appears in a few early shots on a standing marquee for a drive-in in the background of the film mostly set in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. It works as both a piece of a time capsule capture, and a shout-out to the master of suspense.

This, and #4, are inside-jokes. In Don Siegel's 1971 cop classic DIRTY HARRY, Clint Eastwood's iconic Harry Callahan character enters a San Francisco burger joint in one shot in which a marquee advertising Eastwood's previous film, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (also '71) can be seen around the corner. Nice plug, Clint!

The same type of thing happens in David O. Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK from last year. While leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are arguing in front of a theater midway through the film, a marquee advertising Ryûhei Kitamura's little seen 2008 thriller THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, which starred Cooper, is fairly visible - partially obscured but still obvious.


During a very funny falling-in-love montage set to Herman Hermit's “I’m into Something Good” in David Zucker's 1988 comedy classic THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD, Leslie Neilsen and Priscilla Presley exit a Los Angeles movie theater laughing their asses off. The camera pans up to the marquee:

It's a cheap laugh, but still always gets me.

6. A double feature of A BOY'S LIFE and WATCH THE SKIES in GREMLINS

The fictitious film titles on this marquee seen in Joe Dante's 1984 classic GREMLINS are Spielbergian in-jokes. A BOY'S LIFE was the original title of E.T. and WATCH THE SKIES was the early working title of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, so the fake double bill presents a double nod to the film's executive producer. This marquee has been mentioned before on this blog as has:


This marquee for the phony film SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY (previously covered in “Film Within Film Follow-up Fun” 7/13/07), seen in the 1977 ZAZ sketch comedy movie THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is part of a running gag through many of the films of John Landis. It comes from a line from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY that the director liked enough to feature in the form of billboards, posters, and more than one marquee.

8. A double bill of DEEP THROAT and MEATBALL in SLAP SHOT

This marquee glimpsed in the background of a parade shot on the streets of Jonestown, Pennsylvania in George Roy Hill's classic 1977 hockey comedy SLAP SHOT proudly displays a double feature of Gerard Damiano's 1972 pornos DEEP THROAT (possibly the most famous porn film ever) and his lesser known, but presumably just as filthy MEATBALL.

I also featured this one before (“10 Self Referential Or Crossover Moments In The Films Of Lucas And Spielberg” 5/20/08), but couldn't resist including the marquee of JAWS 19 that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) encountered in the future in Robert Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (executive produced by Spielberg) here because, you know, hologram shark! Also the fact that the director of the 19th film in the JAWS franchise is credited to Spielberg's son Max Spielberg (born in 1985) is a nice touch.

I'm including this one because I used to climb up a ladder and change the marquee a lot at the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill when I worked there from 2004-2009. So I appreciated that Quentin Tarantino's and Eli Roth's revisionist World War II romp, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, included a scene in which Mélanie Laurent's character Shoshanna is taking down the lengthy line of letters that spell out “German Night Leni Riefernstahl in Pabst's THE WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU.” Thankfully, I rarely had to put up that many letters.

Post note: I should definitely note the cool blog Marquees in Movies, which houses a collection of screenshots from movies showing movie theater marquees. I, ahem, borrowed that great screenshot of SLAP SHOT from them.

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