Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Incredible CREED: One Hell Of A Legacyquel

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

CREED (Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015) 

Over at the movie website ScreenCrush, critic Matt Singer coins a term that I really hope catches on: “legacyquel.” Singer writes that it describes a “very specific kind of sequel - in which beloved aging stars reprise classic roles and pass the torch to younger successors.”

The phrase fits, especially when applied to the highly anticipated seventh chapter in the STAR WARS saga, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (out in 2 weeks!), but it’s the seventh installment of the Rocky franchise, CREED, that really embodies what a great legacyquel should be all about. And it’s largely because it features an Oscar caliber supporting turn by the series’ star.

On the surface, CREED is a spin-off centered on Michael B. Jordan as Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, the son of Rocky’s greatest opponent, world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, and it works as such for its first 20 or so minutes.

Donnie’s back story is that he was born to a mistress of Apollo’s who later died leaving him to bounce from foster homes and juvenile detention, until his adoption by Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Donnie’s adopted mother worries about his fighting lineage, hoping that he’ll take a job in a corporate office instead of pursuing professional boxing, but she knows he’s his father’s son and there’s no getting in the way of his dream.

That’s where Sylvester Stallone, resurrecting Rocky Balboa from the ashes of what was supposed to be his swansong (2006's ROCKY BALBOA), comes into play. Donnie travels to Philadelphia to coax the Italian Stallion out of retirement to be his trainer, but Rocky, still running the restaurant established in the last sequel (ROCKY BALBOA), tells him that he “don’t do that stuff no more.”

You know it’s only a matter of time before Rocky gives in and we’re immersed in training montages of Donnie, in a familiar gray sweatsuit, intensely working out at the gym, running through the streets of Philly at dawn, and chasing chickens, all set to the triumphant score of Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson, which, of course, calls upon Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now” at just the right moments.

Stallone’s Rocky now takes on the part that Burgess Meredith’s Mikey played in the first three films in the series, that of the lead’s trainer/father figure, and he wears it well. The duo attempt to keep their collaboration under wraps, but after his first major fight with the gym owner’s (Richie Coster) son (Gabe Rosado) it gets out that Donnie is Apollo Creed’s offspring.

This leads to Graham McTavish as the manager of “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by real-life professional boxer Tony Bellew), setting up a fight between his client and Donnie. The highly hyped event will be the last professional match for Conlan as he is going to jail for seven years for gun possession, and it will serve as this entry’s trademark final fight.

Meanwhile, Donnie has a love interest on the side in the form of his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson, DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, SELMA), it turns out that Rocky has Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma but refuses to undergo chemotherapy because of what his late wife Adrian went through. This moment, in which Rocky faces his mortality in a cold hospital room, is one of the film’s most affecting. Stallone’s performance is a thoughtful and measured piece of work that deserves all the Oscar buzz its getting.

It’s also uplifting and exciting to witness the making of a bonafide movie star. Jordan bests his solid work in Coogler’s stirring 2013 debut FRUITVALE STATION, his first collaboration with screenwriter/director Coogler, and should really make a name for himself with his powerfully invested work here.

Jordan obviously did a lot of real training for the gripping and emotionally wrenching fight scenes, which were shot by cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Donnie’s first fight is a standout scene: a single, long unbroken shot taking place inside the ring, captured by stunningly choreographed camerawork.

In the incredible CREED, Coogler punches up the Rocky formula with great success. It believes so deeply in the Rocky mythos, that we believe in it too. We go along that these are real people with a shared history because every detail, from Rocky and Donnie’s interactions to the tidbits revealed about the past, is convincingly heartfelt. CREED keeps it real, while keeping all the Rocky feels.

It’s truly one of the biggest surprises of the year that CREED is as genuinely good as it is. It’s the must see movie event that few saw coming, and it’s, for sure, the legacyquel this season to beat. However, I hear that the Force is strong with its upcoming competitor.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SPOTLIGHT: A Journalism Procedural That Really Crushes It

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

SPOTLIGHT (Dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is everything that James Vanderbilt’s Rathergate drama TRUTH wanted to be – a vital journalism procedural that actually has the facts to back up its case.

The film focuses on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team into the scandal of child molestation and systematic cover-up within the Catholic Church.

The investigation is spearheaded by editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has just joined the paper after a buyout. Baron tasks the team – made up of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) – to dig into the case against Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest charged with sexual abuse of over 80 children.

The staff reports to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., son of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame (see ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN) sharply played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

To prove that Cardinal Law found out about Geoghan 15 years earlier and did nothing, the Globe sues the church to obtain access to incriminating documents, something that may alienate the paper’s readership, 53% of which are Catholic.

With the help of lawyers Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), it doesn’t take long for the team to uncover that close to 90 priests in the Boston area have been accused of sexual misconduct.

McCarthy certainly atones for his previous film, the atrocious Adam Sandler vehicle THE COBBLER, with his passionately meticulous work here. The camerawork, shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, is straightforward as is the editing, as no flashiness is required to enhance the swift, compelling storytelling on display.

Many films have great casts, but SPOTLIGHT is my vote for best ensemble of 2015. Keaton, who was wrongly passed over by the academy for his performance in BIRDMAN last year, could be back in the Oscar race for his stellar turn here. Ruffalo, whose reaction to the enormity of the scandal is the most emotional, also stands out, and McAdams puts in her second solid performance of the year (SOUTHPAW was the first one). Schreiber, Slattery, James, Tucci, and Crudup crush it as well – man, this film is really a boy’s club! – and a few non-names such as Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton shine in roles as outspoken victims.

I bet that, much like its classic newspaper drama predecessors ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC, this is a film that will reward repeat viewings. Its pace and construction is tightly wound, but still takes time for some interesting moments in-between the unveiling of events – i.e. a shot of Scrieber looking for the publisher’s office, a beautifully framed shot of Ruffalo, James, and McAdams working at their desks with Keaton in his office behind them (see above).

SPOTLIGHT will definitely make my top 10 films of 2015 list, and I’ll be pulling for it come Oscar time. The acting, screenplay, editing, direction, Howard Shore’s stirring score, etc. should all be acknowledged in the upcoming awards season.

More importantly, it should be seen. It has a lot of competition and isn’t playing on a huge amount of screens so folks should really seek it out. Too many great films slip through the cracks and are largely overlooked. Don’t let that happen to the brilliant, intelligent, and über insightful SPOTLIGHT.

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ROOM: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

ROOM (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

Brie Larson’s sturdy performance in SHORT TERM 12 is considered by critics to be her breakthrough, but it’s her powerful work in ROOM, Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning 2010 novel, that should make the actress a household name.

Larson plays Joy Newsome, a young woman living under horrifying conditions. For the last seven years Joy has been trapped in a sound-proofed, concrete garden shed in the backyard of the house of her abductor only known as Old Nick (Sean Bridges).

With Joy is her son, five-year-old Jack (first-time child actor Jacob Tremblay), the result of one of many rapes that Joy has suffered over the years. To Jack, the small, filthy space they live in is their entire world. Joy has maintained this illusion by telling Jack that there is nothing beyond the four walls of “room” except outer space, and that what he sees on their crappy beat-up TV is make believe.

However, the day has come for Joy to tell Jack the truth, because she’s devised a desperate plan for escape. Joy fakes Jack’s death, and rolls him up in a rug for Old Nick to take away in his pick-up truck. Joy instructs Jack to wriggle out, jump from the bed of the truck and run for help.

The plan is successful and Jack is able to direct the police to the shed, and mother and son are finally free. Jack is astounded at how big and limitless the real world outside the room is, while Joy struggles with rehabilitation.

Joy discovers that her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have divorced, and that her mother has a new boyfriend (Tom McCamus). Without spelling it out, Macy conveys how uncomfortable he is with having a grandson who is a product of rape.

Needing financial help, Joy agrees to do a prime time interview, but it doesn’t go well because of the glibly insensitive questions posed by the show’s host (Wendy Crewson).

This leads to Joy spiraling down into depression, and attempting suicide. Jack, still wide-eyed at his surroundings, gets his long hair, which he calls his “strong,” cut by his grandmother, and sends his ponytail to his mother in the hospital. This gesture helps in Joy’s recovery, and we see that once again Jack has saved his mother.

Abrahamson, whose film FRANK (the one with Michael Fassbender as a musician who wears a giant papier-mache head) was one of my favorite films of last year, handles this material with great poise. Every scene seems to have profound purpose, especially one late in the film where Joy and Jack revisit room for closure, though composer Stephen Rennick’s score lays it on a bit too thick at times.

I was incredibly moved by ROOM. It’s a durable drama that has moments of gripping suspense - i.e. the escape sequence – but it is its tender concern for its characters that will stay with me the most. It’s largely due to the stellar acting of the mother-son duo.

Tremblay puts in an impressive naturalistic performance for a 5-year old, although his voice-over narration, a totally unnecessary device here, gets a little icky.

Larson, who may be best known to mainstream movie-goers as Amy Schumer’s sister in TRAINWRECK, excels as Joy. One can feel her strained pain in her every expression, and all of her interactions with Tremblay shine with authenticity.

It’s flawless work, a career best, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, I’ll be very offended.

ROOM’s dark disturbing first half is exceedingly effective, but it’s the way that its second half earns its uplift that makes it a fully rounded, and satisfying emotional experience.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

One Last Christmas Eve Blow-Out In THE NIGHT BEFORE

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

THE NIGHT BEFORE (Dir. Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Sure, the premise of this Seth Rogen joint is pretty flimsy - i.e. three friends have one last Christmas Eve blow-out and farcical hilarity ensues - but after giving the silly stoner spin to such subjects as the apocalypse, cancer, and Kim Jong-un, I’m cool with that, as long as they keep the laughs coming.

And that they do, right from the get-go with a very welcome voice-over appearance by Tracy Morgan reciting rhyming lines in the familiar style of the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem from which the film derives its title. This gives us the set-up that back in 2001, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character Ethan lost his parents in an automobile accident, and in an effort to cheer him up, his friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) initiate a hard partying holiday tradition that later comes to include an ongoing quest through the streets of New York City to find the elusive, mysterious Nutcracka Ball, considered “the Holy Grail of Christmas parties.”

In the present day, Isaac is a successful lawyer whose wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth to their first child, Chris is a pro football player who’s just started to get a taste of stardom, and Ethan is stuck in a rut as a struggling musician who has to take work that involves dressing as an elf and serving hors d’ourves at a corporate party on Christmas Eve.

The job is humiliating but things look up when while working coat-check Ethan happens upon 3 tickets to the Nutcracka Ball. Ethan gleefully steals them, quits his job, and runs off to find his friends. Meanwhile, in one of the movie’s most implausible moments (of which there are many), Isaac’s wife Betsy gifts him a neatly packaged box of hallucinogenic drugs and encourages him to go wild at his get-together. Yeah, sure.

So the fellows don tacky Cosby-style Christmas sweaters (Ethan’s has a standard line of red reindeer, while Isaac’s has a Star of David and Chris’s a black Santa – see above) and hit a karaoke bar, where they perform Run-DMC's “Christmas in Hollis,” and run into Ethan’s ex Diana (I forgot to mention that the guy is still reeling from a break-up) played by Lizzy Caplan.

Caplan, who, as a veteran of Party Down, THE INTERVIEW, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, and going way back with these guys to the Freaks and Geeks days, is well acquainted with such sausage party shenanigans, is accompanied by Mindy Kaling (The Office U.S., The Mindy Project), who gets her phone mixed up with Isaac.

This leads to Isaac, who’s gone goofy by consuming most of the drugs in his gift box, getting dick pic texts and not knowing how to respond.

In true Seinfeldian-fashion, each character has their obsessive hang-up - Isaac’s is that he’s too fucked up to function, Chris is wanting to score weed for his team’s quarterback that he’s trying to impress (this is one of the film’s clunkiest scenerios, which involves Mackie chasing Broad City’s Ilana Glazer as an evil drug stealing freak), and Ethan’s is, of course, wanting to get back together with Diana.

And in a wonderfully unexpected appearance, a hilariously deadpan Michael Shannon shows up as the guy’s high-school pot dealer, Mr. Green. This marks the second time that Shannon has stolen a movie away from Gordon-Levitt (see: PREMIUM RUSH). Shannon kills it here – every line is a stone cold gem – so much so that he ought to have his own comedy vehicle some day.

The only thing that matters in a movie like this is if it’s funny, and THE NIGHT BEFORE has some of the funniest moments of any comedy I’ve seen this year, and it has a warm, fuzzy heart that conveys way more genuine Christmas spirit than, say, crap like the dysfunctional family comedy LOVE THE COOPERS (currently #3 at the box office).

The joyous energy that Rogen and gang, including screenwriters Jonathan Levine, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg, bring to this round of crude gags, dick jokes, drug jokes, wacky mishaps, pop culture riffs, and surprise cameos, is crazy infectious.

THE NIGHT BEFORE is way better than THE INTERIEW, but a notch below THIS IS THE END on the scale of output of from the Apatow alma mater. It may have lazy plotting, some overly obvious set-ups, and much silliness just for silliness’ sake, but it brings so much in the way of laughter, likability, and an undoubtedly sincere theme of friendship, that it more than makes up for those faults.

It did make me wonder how much longer the 33-year old Rogen can make these man-child has to face growing up movies. He’ll probably yet again take a cue from Apatow, and do ‘em til the big 4-0. As long as he keeps bringing the funny, that’s fine by me.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Raleigh-Cary Area Finally Gets Around To Celebrating Orson Welles’ 100th Birthday

The 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary film-maker Orson Welles was half a year ago (May 6th to be exact), but here in N.C. it’s better late than never to celebrate as special showings of some of the man’s best work are hitting local screens this month.

Earlier this month The Cary Theater in downtown Cary hosted a Cinema Studies Screening of Orson Welles’ 1957 thriller TOUCH OF EVIL, presented by the Modern School of Film, and kicked off a Sunday afternoon series of November Welles screenings with the director’s 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel THE MAGNIFICIENT AMBERSONS.

The Sunday series continues at The Cary with Welles’ most acclaimed film, 1941’s CITIZEN KANE on the 15th at 2 pm. I previously wrote about seeing KANE at the theater last year (my first visit to the newly refurbished venue).

The following Sunday, the 22nd, the lesser known, but still essential, THE STRANGER (1946) will be featured, and the series wraps up on the 29th with Welles’ final completed film F FOR FAKE (1973).

On Friday, November 13th, the Colony Theater in North Raleigh is opening the new 4k digital restoration of Carol Reed’s 1949 film-noir masterpiece THE THIRD MAN for a week long run. While Welles didn’t direct, many film buffs feel that his film-making fingerprints such as use of deep focus, long takes, and abstract angles are all over the sublime post-WW II thriller. There’s no doubt to his contribution in his writing of his own dialogue as the iconic Harry Lime character, especially when it comes to the famous “Cuckoo Clock” speech.

As the Colony Theater is sadly closing next month, it’s great that they’re showing such a classic piece of cinema as THE THIRD MAN before shutting down (The Colony will also be showing such notable films as THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and DARK STAR in the weeks ahead, click here for more info).

I have to work this Sunday so I’ll be missing The Cary’s screening of CITIZEN KANE, but I will be attending The North Carolina Museum of Art’s showing of the film on Friday, November 20th. It’ll be my first visit to the redesigned SECU Auditorium, and I’m taking my 17-year old nephew Linus, who’s never seen it or much in black and white for that matter.

Last summer, I was talking to Linus about the Netflix superhero series Daredevil and how good Vincent D’Onofrio is as the villain Wilson Fisk, and I mentioned that D’Onofrio had played Orson Welles more than once (in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, and in his own short film FIVE MINUTES, MR. WELLES, which you can watch here).

“Who’s Orson Welles?” Linus asked, and, well, I was a bit taken back. Still, as this happens a lot when I babbling about some old thing to kids who are completely disconnected to it, I dropped the subject.

More recently, Linus told me that he may want to study film in college – he’s not sure where he’ll go to college, mind you – and I said that he really ought to see CITIZEN KANE – it’s Film 101.

My first experience with Welles was seeing THE MUPPET MOVIE with my grandmother when I was 9, something I’ve written about before. Welles had a cameo in the film as the powerful head of a movie studio who signs up Kermit and gang to be stars (“prepare the standard ‘Rich and Famous’ contract for Kermit the Frog and Company

My grandmother, who is still alive, told me who Welles was – KANE, the “War of the Worlds” radio show, etc. – and the seed was planted, but it was years before I actually watched any of his work.

So now I’m attempting to pass on my Orson obsession, or, better yet, the movie-loving gene to my nephew – we’ll see how that goes.

For those of you out there that are new to Welles, there is a great documentary that came out last year, Chuck Workman’s MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES, available now on Blu ray and DVD. It gives a fairly thorough overview of Welles career in 91 minutes, and despite its overly tidy summing up of some messy material, it makes for a good introduction to the man.

Scores of vivid vintage photographs, generous samplings of archival footage, and sound-bites from insightful interviews from the likes of Norman Lloyd, biographer Simon Callow, Steven Spielberg, Buck Henry, and Peter Bogdonavich help tell Welles’ tale, and it’s cool to see clips of Welles being portrayed by the aforementioned D’Onofrio, Christian McKay in Richard Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES, Liev Schreiber in Benjamin Ross's 1999 HBO telefilm RKO 281, and Jean Guerin in Peter Jackson's 1994 crime drama HEAVENLY CREATURES in the mix. *

Of course, it’s the words from Welles himself that are the most notable. Some choice quotes: “I’m ashamed of Rosebud, it’s a rather tawdry device - it doesn’t stand up very well, ” “You know, I always liked Hollywood very much – it just wasn’t reciprocated,” and “I would’ve sold my soul to play THE GODFATHER, but I never get those parts offered to me.”

Well, that’s enough Welles for now. Hope to see a lot of folks coming out to see these classics on the big screen in Cary and Raleigh. And, by the way, this post is part of my new “Drag a kid to KANE” initiative. Yeah, that’s right – I’m really trying to start that as “a thing.”

* I posted about actors who've played Welles back in 2008 as well: A Birthday Tribute To Orson Welles With 10 Welles Wannabes (5/5/08)

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Saturday, November 07, 2015

SPECTRE Isn't Especially Bond At Its Best

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SPECTRE (Dir. Sam Mendes, 2015)

WARNING: This review contains Spoilers! But I bet you guessed the supposed biggest one two years ago.

James Bond is back, but this time he’s far from “better than ever” as the ad campaign has declared every time a new entry has appeared since the series began in the early ‘60s.

There’s a considerable drop-off in quality in Agent 007’s 24th adventure, SPECTRE, from his previous outing, but since that was the universally acclaimed, box office record-breaking smash SKYFALL, that’s hardly surprising.

And that's just it - as hard as they tried, there are no surprises in Daniel Craig's fourth time out as Bond. Let's start with how Mendes and Co. misguidedly took a page from the reboot rulebook established by STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS by lying to fans for years about the villain's identity.

J.J. Abrams and his crew swore up and down that Benedict Cumberbatch was not playing the series' most notorious villain, Khan, in the second installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise and we got burned bad there. So much so that Abrams admitted later that they screwed up the reveal.

When news got out that Christoph Waltz was cast in SPECTRE, the first thought everybody interested had was that he must be playing the Bond series' biggest villain, Ernest Stavro Blofeld.

But when Waltz was asked if he was playing Blofeld, he replied: “That is absolutely untrue. That rumor started on the Internet, and the Internet is a pest.”

Well, the internet must be a pest because they guess things right sometimes.

Beyond that, the film is a stitched together collection of overly familiar action set pieces hung on a story-line that's no match for the plot of the last MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie.

The plot being that Bond, spurred on by a cryptic video message left by his deceased superior M (brief final Judi Dench cameo!), Bond goes on a rogue mission (hello, LICENSE TO KILL) to track down the titular evil organization behind a new electronic global surveillance initiative called Nine Eyes set to dismantle the MI6 00-division.

SPECTRE starts off smashingly with a pre-credits scene involving a high-jacked helicopter (hello, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY!) going out-of-control above the huge crowds of Mexico's Day of the Dead festival, but after the rather lackluster theme song “Writing's On The Wall,” it settles into draggy drama for a bit.

The new M (Ralph Fiennes) puts Bond on leave, so Q (Ben Whishaw) only gives him one gadget (a watch that can explode) and tells 007 “enjoy your downtime!” Of course, Bond disregards the notion of taking a break, steals MI6's snazzy new Aston Martin DB10, and heads off to Italy where he hooks up with Monica Bellucci as the widow of the guy Bond killed at the film's beginning, and he learns of a secret meeting of international terrorists that he is able to infiltrate a little too easily.

This is where Waltz as Blo...sorry, Franz Oberhauser, clothed in shadowy darkness, comes in and senses Bond's presence in the room immediately. This leads to a pretty standard-issue car chase through the streets of Rome, then Bond follows another lead to the snow-covered mountain terrain of Austria. 

There he hooks up with Léa Seydoux as Madeleine Swann (sadly, the more age appropriate Bellucci is long out of the picture), the daughter of Bond's former adversary Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, making his third appearance in the series after CASINO ROYALE and QUANTUM OF SOLACE). 

This, of course, leads to another chase, with 007 chasing after the film's Oddjob stand-in Mr. Hinx (WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista) in a commandeered private plane that gets its wings clipped (hello, LIVE AND LET DIE!).

Meanwhile, Fiennes's M frets over a merger with MI5 and clashes with his new superior, C (Andrew Scott, best known as Moriarty on Sherlock), while Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Whishaw) have more screen-time than usual on the sidelines aiding 007 and M.

Bond and Swann follow another lead to Morocco, and after a brutal fight on a train with Mr. Hinx (Hello, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, LIVE AND LET DIE, and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME!), they make their way to SPECTRE's meteor crater lair (like Blofeld’s volcanic lair in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE!), and that's where we get the lowdown on our villain's background and all that other spoilery stuff (apart from Waltz's identity as Blofeld there actually are some plot-points here I'll refrain from describing).

The London-set climax, which involves blowing up the remains of the old MI6 building, and more helicopter shenanigans, isn't very inspired and whatever excitement was in the film had drained from the film way before they get there.

Screenwriters Neal Purvis, John Wade, John Logan, and Jez Butterworth unsuccessfully try to duplicate the highlights of SKYFALL, which all but Butterworth scripted, and the result is an uneven, and frustratingly paced narrative.

And, running at 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s the longest, and most drawn out, Bond movie of the series. That’s another strike against it. 

But back to my original beef about how they tried to hide that Waltz was playing Blofeld. This is no way to treat the re-introduction of SPECTRE, absent from the franchise since DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER for legal reasons.

It would’ve been a better move, and, I bet made for a better movie, if they’d just announced up front that the two-time Academy Award winner was portraying 007’s most powerful and iconic foe, instead of fashioning their film around such an obvious “twist.”

Instead we’ve got this epically ineffective Bond in which Craig looks bored and ready to go home. After this routine ride with such a surprise fail, that’s sure how I felt.

More later...

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


Out today on Blu ray & DVD:


(Dirs. Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville, 2015)

A documentary about a series of debates between two rival intellectuals largely made up of grainy archival footage from nearly half a century ago may sound like a snore, but Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville's BEST OF ENEMIES, a thorough breakdown of the televised feud between the conservative William F. Buckley and the liberal Gore Vidal in the late ‘60s is really intriguing, incendiary stuff.

Directors Morgan 
Neville (whose excellent 2013 doc 20 FEET FROM STARDOM won the Best Documentary Oscar) and Robert Gordon succinctly set the scene: in 1968, ABC, being the lowest rated of the three networks, decides to spice up what they were calling their “Unconventional Convention Coverage” of the Republican and Democratic national conventions by hiring Buckley and Vidal to do live commentary.

The background of both men was remarkedly similar as both had come from privileged upbringings, went to posh New England boarding schools, became acclaimed authors but failed politicians, had powerful political connections, and both spoke in haughty upper class accents, but their ideologies clashed like crazy.

Imagine two Frasier Cranes, one right-wing; one left-wing, pitted against each other, which shouldn’t be too hard as the filmmakers have Frasier himself, the conservative actor Kelsey Grammer, reading selected writings of Buckley’s (left-wing actor John Lithgow reads for Vidal) to fill in gaps in the presentation.

The debates themselves, which commence at the Republican National Convention in Miami in August ’68, are juicy, edgy affairs in which Buckley and Vidal viciously argue about the candidates, Vietnam, crime, poverty, and the civil rights movement among other incendiary issues.

Buckley several times deridingly indentifies Vidal as the “author of ‘Myra Breckinridge’,” referring to Vidal’s controversial sexually satirical novel that many conservative critics, including Buckley, considered pornographic.

For his part, Vidal gets in some quips such as that Buckley is “always to the right, I think, and almost always in the wrong,” and that he’s the “Mary Antoinette of the right wing.”

But it was the ninth debate in Chicago in which the two really came to a head.

In a heated discussion of the climate of the Democratic convention in which Buckley’s defense of the strong-arm tactics deployed by Mayor Richard Daley's police against anti-Vietnam War protestors causes Vidal to call him “crypto-Nazi.”

Buckley loses it: “Listen to me you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered!”

This shocking moment - these things were simply not said on TV at the time - was dissected in pieces written by both men for Esquire about the episode, which resulted in lawsuits (Buckley sued Vidal for his insinuation in his response article that Buckley was a closeted homosexual; Vidal countersued) that went on for years before being settled.

Buckley biographer, and interview subject, Sam Tanenhaus claims that Buckley “couldn’t let this thing go,” while Vidal’s close friend and editor Matt Tyrnauer talks about watching a VHS copy of the debates several times with Vidal until Tyrnauer felt like they were “edging into SUNSET BOULEVARD/Norma Desmond territory.”

Gordon and Neville convincingly posit that the Buckley/Vidal debates were the dawn of the era of pundit TV, in which corporate media entities like FOX News and MSNBC have taken those original commentators’ techniques to the bank, while no argument comes anywhere close to be resolved.

To further make their case, clips of talking heads shouting at each other conclude the film, including the now famous clip in which The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart goes on Fox News’ Crossfire knockoff Hannity & Colmes in 2003 and tells them that they’re “doing theater when you should be doing debate.”

It’s a great capper to this must see poli-doc that takes us back to when a couple of incredibly articulate men who as one of their debate moderator, ABC anchor Howard K. Smith, puts it “demonstrate how the English language ought to be used” - that is, before their intense hatred for one another got out of control.

That’s when it became the theater that Stewart bemoaned, but unfortunately that’s also when it was decided by the powers that be that it was good TV. The real takeaway here is that the Buckley/Vidal debates was the last and only time that that sort of theater was good TV.

Special Features: Interview with Directors Neville & Gordon, over an hour of Bonus Interviews with Commentators including Christopher Hitchens, Dick Cavett, James Wolcott, and Andrew Sullivan; and Theatrical Trailer.

More later...