Thursday, December 31, 2020

Christopher Nolan’s Mind-Baffling TENET

I originally wanted to see this film on the big screen months ago, but, you know, with the pandemic and all, I chickened out more than once. With its home video release earlier this month, I caught up with it. So lets get to it:

TENET (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2020)

Christopher Nolan’s 11th film was an unfortunate victim of bad timing as it was scheduled for release in July, one of the worst months of the pandemic. TENET was delayed three times until its release in September when it was declared a flop. Although it definitely underperformed, largely due to its ginormous budget, the movie did make enough to make the top #4 on the top grossing films of 2020 worldwide, but of course, that’s because of its lack of competition.

But enough about how much money it made, let’s get to the question - is it a worthwile watch? Well, I would say for the most part it is, but parts were confusing as Hell, and many times throughout I was thinking that I didn’t know WTF was going on. On its simplest level, TENET is a sci-fi tinged spy thriller. At its most complex, it’s an overly cerebral action picture that relies on a high falutin concept as a means to an end.

It’s gonna be hard as hell to describe this film, but I’ll try to work it out. The protagonist, a CIA agent strongly portrayed by John David Washington (BLACKKKLANSMAN), is actually credited as “The Protagonist” (that’s right, and people actually address him that way), is recruited by an organization named Tenet to track down where inverted bullets from the future came from so that World War III can be inverted.

“Inverted bullets,” you may ask? Well, the most important word in the movie (even more than its title) is inversion is when the entropy of a person, or item, is reversed so that they move backwards in time. This is explained over and over, but still never seems to grab hold as an accessible concept. 

At one point, our hero asks whats going on, and someone says “theyre running a temporal pincer movement.” Well, that clears that all up!

Anyway, Washington’s Protagonist is paired with an operative named Neil (a yet again solid Robert Pattinson), who knows more than he’s letting on about their mission. They literally bungee-jump into the world of arms dealing, and forged paintings, and encounter Kenneth Branaugh as Sater, a menacing Russian antagonist (though he’s not named Antogonist), and his abused wife, Kat played by Elizabeth Debicki, who The Protagonist becomes sweet on.

There are several big action sequences in which planes, boats, cars, and explosions run backwards - the best involving a convoy being ambushed in Tallinn, Estonia – but they are stitched together by countless scenes of exposition. One bit was so full of tedious talking bits that I was unsure what was going on in the scene following involving setting up the crash of a 747 aircraft. Why are they doing this again?

One character, a scientist played by Clémence Poésy, even says “Don’t try to understand it,” early on.

Branaugh (in his second Nolan film after DUNKIRK) as Sater is a pretty clichéd sadistic bad guy character with his clichéd Russian accent, yet he has a few moments of effective villainy. Giving a greater sense of gravitas is Hindu star Dimple Kapadia, but she is saddled with perplexingly cryptic dialogue. But then, seemingly everyone else is too. In his eight appearance in a Nolan film, Michael Caine avoids this trap, but that’s probably because he was one scene, which, of course, he nails.

The majority of Nolan’s films have been mind-boggling, but TENET is more mind-baffling. By the end, which involves inverted and non-inverted armies battling each other in the rubble of a destroyed city in Siberia, I think I could follow things better than before, but the inscrutable plot points that got me there were still getting in the way of having fun with this maze-like material.

I would only really recommend this bloated epic (2 and half hours!) to hardcore Christopher Nolan-heads, or folks that love complex sci-fi. Otherwise you may wind up as confused and mind-baffled as I was after a viewing. A repeated line in the film, said by Washington and Pattinson to each other is “What happened, happened.” That’s the only thing I can be sure of - TENET happened.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Christopher Nolan: The Man and His Motifs Part 2

Preceding my viewing of  TENET for the first time - something I’ve been waiting to do since its release last summer (I chickened out going to the theater), I thought I’d revisit this article I wrote about its Director, Christopher Nolan, for the Chinese magazine Front Vision in 2017. As the magazine is aimed towards young people, my style is a bit different from my usual babble. This is the sequel to Part 1, which you can check out here.

Part 2:

1995’s critically acclaimed BATMAN BEGINS, established Christian Bale as the Dark Knight/Bruce Wayne, with a solid supporting cast that included Michael Caine, who’d go on to work with Nolan in six more movies.

But it was the stunning imagery, via Director of Photography Wally Pfister, that often overshadowed the actors. Garnering a well deserved nomination for Best Cinematography, BATMAN BEGINS not only successfully rebooted the series, it joined Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN series in opening the floodgates for a gigantic wave of comic book based franchises that endures to this day.

Nolan followed up BATMAN BEGINS with another screenplay collaboration with his brother, Jonathan, an adaption of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel THE PRESTIGE, about rival magicians played by Bale and Hugh Jackman in 1890s London. It was another acclaimed non linear opus, marred only by some glaring convolutions, which received a nomination for Best Cinematography, but didn’t win.

The sequel to BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) IS arguably the peak of the filmmaker’s career - had more luck in the Oscar department, as it won for the late Heath Ledger’s tour de force performance as The Joker, and for Sound Editing.

Nolan again wrote his brother, Jonathan, and they capped off the trilogy four years later with the equally acclaimed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), but in between these immensely profitable BATMAN adventures, he constructed his most ambitious and surreal cinematic puzzle yet.

Nolan had previously touched upon the fantastical, but INCEPTION (2010) is more mind-blowing than anything he’s attempted before or since.

Leo DiCaprio stars as a dream extractor who deals in the manipulation of men’s minds when they are asleep. The film contains endlessly inventive dream inside of a dream scenarios which are spell binding, and genuinely scary at times, with overwhelmingly beautiful and towering worlds of CGI-crafted dream set pieces.

Pfister finally won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for INCEPTION, and the film also won Academy Awards for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects. These accolades are well deserved, but the film’s theme of choosing life over illusion or vice versa is what’s most impactful. When it ends, one isn’t sure if DiCaprio’s character is in reality or a dream, and the last shot lingers hauntingly – another Nolan trademark. 

2014’s INTERSTELLAR, Nolan’s space epic follow-up after concluding THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy, wasn’t as successful as the former film in the sci-fi department as it tried too hard to be the modern day equivalent to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But the film, which concerns Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut traveling through time and space to save the world, did do good business and won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. For the first time since FOLLOWING, Pfister wasn’t on board, and the film was shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema.

Nolan’s next film, the WW II epic DUNKIRK, arrived during the overstuffed summer of 2017, and held its own at the box office with the help of rave reviews, many of which praised it as being his best film. 

The director’s attention to detail in recreating the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is immaculate via the usage of restored boats and planes from the actual event, practical effects, and a minimum of CGI. The non linear Nolan is on display in the three intertwined threads involving the soldiers, a rescue boat, and the air force. The vast visuals provided by the returning Hoytema are immersive enough to make one feel like they’re right there in the middle of the action.

As of this writing, Nolan hasn’t announced what his next project will be. After the exhausting, and emotionally draining production of DUNKIRK, it would be understandable that he may take some time off. The abundance of rich imagery contained in his canon makes it hard to believe that he’s only made 10 movies for there’s more visual power in them than in the entire filmographies of many directors. And as Nolan’s not even 50 years of age yet, he’s likely going to contribute a lot more eye-popping movie magic in the decades to come.

More later...

Christopher Nolan: The Man and His Motifs Part 1

As I’m about to watch TENET for the first time - something I’ve been waiting to do since its release last summer (I chickened out going to the theater), I thought I’d revisit this article I wrote about its Director, Christopher Nolan, for the Chinese magazine Front Vision in 2017. As the magazine is aimed towards young people, my style is a bit different from my usual babble. 

Here’s Part 1:

In the nearly two decades since his acclaimed 1998 thriller FOLLOWING, Christopher Nolan has joined the elite club of major filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and J.J. Abrams, that are household names.

This is largely because of Nolan’s immensely popular DARK KNIGHT trilogy, in which the screenwriter/producer/director re-wrote the rulebook on how a dormant franchise can be rebooted, a beloved character can be revitalized, and a genre can be completely re-imagined.

But to understand why so many critics throw around the words “visionary” and “cinematic genius” when writing about Nolan, and to get a better perspective on the themes and ideas expressed in his work, one must start with his childhood obsession with a low budget science fiction flick that took the world by storm forty years ago.

Nolan was seven years old in 1977 when he first saw George Lucas’ game changing blockbuster STAR WARS (later re-titled STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE), and it no doubt made him realize how powerful and transcendent movies can be.

At the Tribecca Film Festival in 2015, Nolan told the audience that in his youth he’d been “experimenting using Super 8 films and stuff. And then from the second I saw ‘Star Wars’ everything was space ships and science-fiction.”

This led to of one of Nolan’s first amateur films, SPACE WARS, a title obviously inspired by Lucas’ sci-fi epic, which was a stop motion animation short that the British born Nolan made with his buddies in Evanston, Chicago (his family had relocated there from London).

While attending college in Hertford Heath, Hertfordshire, and London, Nolan studied many notable directors including Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma, as well as the old masters including Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles.

These influences can be felt throughout Nolan’s filmography which began in proper in 1989 with a short entitled TARANTELLA. Other shorts followed - LARCENY (1995), and DOODLEBUG (1997) - without much notice, but his first feature length film, 1998’s FOLLOWING, a black and white film made for $6,000, turned a lot of critics’ heads and won awards and Nolan’s career was off and running.

FOLLOWING is an odd, disturbing story about a man (Jeremy Theobald) who follows various strangers around the streets of London until he is called out by one of his subjects (Alex Hall), and the two start a series of robberies together. The narrative is non linear as it cuts back and forth through time with its strands intensely coming together at its conclusion revealing its twist.

This formula was also used in Nolan’s second film, MEMENTO, which had a much bigger budget ($9 million), which meant color film and a shinier polish. But while Nolan directed, wrote, edited, co-produced, and did the cinematography for his first film, his second was a more collaborative effect.

MEMENTO was based on a pitch by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan. Nolan adapted it into a screenplay, and handed over the cinematography and editing duties to Wally Pfister and Doddy Dorn, and the producing duties to Suzanne Todd, and Jennifer Todd. Nolan’s wife, Emma Thomas, also co-produced as she’s done on all of her husband’s films.

The film concerns an insurance agent (Guy Pearce), who is on the trail of his wife’s murderer, but his anterograde amnesia keeps throwing him off track. MEMENTO put Nolan on the movie map aided by a wave of glowing reviews, including many placings on critics’ lists of the best films of 2000, and two Academy Award nominations (for Best Editing and Best Screenplay). 

The scenes in both FOLLOWING and MEMENTO reward active viewing as they are like puzzle pieces that the audience has to move around in their minds in order to figure out where they fit in the plot. 

For Nolan’s third project, INSOMNIA, the director moved into the realm of adaptation as the film is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg. The screenplay, based on the original by Skjoldbjærg, and Nikolaj Frobenius, was written by Hillary Seitz, with Pfister and Dorn returning to shoot and edit. 

The much less non linear INSOMNIA stars Al Pacino as a homicide detective who works with a local cop (Hillary Swank) in a small Alaskan town to investigate a murder in which Robin Williams plays the prime suspect. It’s the most star power Nolan has worked with than before, and he pulls impressive performances out of his cast. 

After proving that he could handle a remake with great aplomb, Nolan’s next film would find him tackling a much bigger prospect - a reboot of a major series. 

After the critical failure of Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN & ROBIN, considered by many to be the worst entry in the franchise, Warner Brothers hired Nolan to help get Batman back to the basics. Along with co-writer David S. Goyer, Nolan re-invented the character’s origin story, and reclaimed the dark tone that the previous films had turned into a joke.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in which we explore the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, INCEPTION, and DUNKIRK.

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Saturday, December 26, 2020

‘Tis The Season For Some Streaming: WONDER WOMAN 1984 & SOUL

Yesterday, it seemed that just about everybody on my social media feeds was watching WONDER WOMAN 1984, which premiered on HBO Max; and SOUL, which premiered on Disney Plus. Both were originally slated to be theatrically releases, but, well, you know why they’re getting rolled out this way. However, WONDER WOMAN is getting a limited theatrical release including at some IMAX venues, while SOUL is being released on some big screens overseas.

Christmas afternoon, I viewed WW84, as the film declares itself (guess it’s better than WWII), Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her ultra successful 2017 WW, which is maybe the best of the recent spate of DC movies. Gal Godot returns as Diana/WW, who now works as a Smithsonian Institute anthropologist in Washington D.C. and lives at the Watergate complex.

It’s the mid ‘80s, as if you couldn’t tell from the title, and our heroine appears to be sad, and friendless. That’s where Kristen Wiig, an odd choice for a superhero movie, comes in as an awkward co-worker named Barbara Ann Minerva, who is inspecting some ancient stone, which is referred to as a “dream rock.”

This stone is obviously the movie’s McGuffin, as it grants wishes and everyone is after it including, of course, the villain, oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who you can’t look at and not think of Donald Trump. The guy has a similar bogus billionaire background and even says “I’m not a conman; I’m a television personality!” 

Jenkins may say that the character is an amalgam that’s as inspired by Bernie Madoff as it is Trump, but c’mon! That’s about as convincing as Orson Welles saying that CITIZEN KANE was only partly based on William Randolph Hearst.

Trump, I mean Lord, steals the stone and wishes to become one with it so he can grant everybody their wishes, and predictably they all have Monkey’s Paw-style consequences.

Oh, I haven’t even mentioned the return of Chris Pine as Diana’s dead boyfriend, Steve Trevor, now resurrected by a wish. Not sure if Pine is really necessary as their romance feels a bit flat.

WW84 is a very mixed bag, the first half is mildly enjoyable, though I could’ve done with more ‘80s kitsch and tackiness, but it gets crazy convoluted with big bloated action scenes including a desert highway chase sequence with army trucks and heavy artillery that fails to be very exciting until the last minute of it. Wiig’s Minerva, whose arc reminded me of Michelle Pfeifer’s in BATMAN RETURNS, is another element that doesn’t quite gel as Jenkins and crew don’t seem to know what to do with her. Her entire role is as awkward as her character.

There’s only intermittent dumb fun in WW84, and those instances aren’t helped by the two and a half hour running time. Despite not having very interesting dialogue (a speech at the end tries to rectify this and almost succeeds), Gadot does her best as she flies, glides, and lassos her way through the messy set-pieces. She really deserves a sleeker, more polished narrative. It’s also disappointing that they felt the Trump guy is worth redemption. Because, man, he really isn’t.

I almost hesitated even blogging about this movie, because either most folks have already seen it or are going to anyway no matter what anybody says. Oh, and if you do - stay through the end credits. It
s worth it.

Much, much better is the Pixar film, SOUL, co-written and directed by Pete Docter, who’s worked on over two dozen Pixar productions. Jamie Foxx, who is the first African American protagonist in a Pixar movie (jeez it took over 20 of their movies for this to happen!) voices music teacher Joe Gardner, who on the verge of a big break playing piano in a band headed by acclaimed jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett bringing the attitude) steps into an open manhole and finds that he’s become a glowing blue soul (sort of Casper-esque) in the afterlife set to be sent to “The Great Beyond.”

After Joe attempts to return to earth repeatedly, he meets a surly soul named 22 (voiced by a constantly quipping Tina Fey and they try to make the trip back together. But lo and behold a wacky mishap has Fey’s 22 entering Joe’s body, that’s in a coma in a hospital bed, while Joe takes over the body of a therapy cat resting at Joe’s feet on the bed. The mismatched duo frantically scramble from one farcical situation to another, but I’m not complaining as there are many hilarious moments. This is one of those films that makes me really miss the theater experience as I kept imagining an audience’s hysterical laughter in key places. Sigh.

The Pixar flick that this engaging romp most resembles is INSIDE/OUT, which Docter also directed, but it marches to its own beat aided by a delightful soundtrack by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Stephen Colbert’s bandleader Jon Batiste that should get some Oscar attention (that is, if they have the Oscars for this year).

I should also mention the rest of the well chosen supporting cast such as Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother, Questlove as a drummer in Bassett’s band, Phylicia Daveed Diggs as a rival of Joe’s, and Graham Norton as a spiritual hippy name Moonwind, who tries to help Joe and 22 solve their mixed-up shenanigans. 

It will be no surprise for Pixar fans, that the animation is gorgeous, especially in the photo-realistic New York street scenes. Eye-candy city, for sure.

A cute, charming, and heartwarming story about literally chasing your dreams, SOUL is another winner for Pixar. The only issue I had with it is the title made me think it was about a soul artist, not a jazz musician. I get that the title JAZZ wouldn’t really work, and that the premise concerns souls, so I guess it’s that I’ve got to have something to criticize here. So if you’re considering cancelling your Disney Plus subscription because you’ve finished watching season two of The Mandalorian, before you do make sure you see SOUL.

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My Boxing Day Tradition: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour

It was 53 years ago today…that the Beatles presented to the world their first critical flop: the TV special Magical Mystery Tour

This is a repost from the 45th Anniversary of the program that first appeared on one of my other blogs, Pop Goes the Babble. Every year since then Ive watched Magical Mystery Tour on this date as my Boxing Day tradition, and today is no exception. So here’s what I wrote in 2012:

On what the British call “Boxing Day,” December 26, 1967, BBC1 broadcast the 53 minute color musical special at 8:35 PM in black and white, and reaction was mixed to say the least. It was shown a few days later in color, but it was still given bad reviews. The program has gathered a better reputation over the years, because of the quality of the music and its capturing of the fab four in their psychedelic prime, but it still remains an oddity in their canon.

Since I received the Magical Mystery Tour Deluxe Box Set for Christmas, and today is the 45th anniversary, I decided to give the spiffy new Blu ray a whirl. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the full film, so I don’t remember a lot of it. I remember first seeing it on a VHS release in the ‘80s, and making fun of it with a Beatle-maniac friend of mine. As a kid I had loved A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!, and YELLOW SUBMARINE (and still do), but this was just weird.

One of the things I remember most from it was a grotesque scene in which John Lennon played a grinning waiter, who used a shovel to pile spaghetti onto a fat woman's plate. That's an image that certainly stands out in the color booklet that came with the original EP, and the U.S. album and is reprinted in this edition.

I later came to appreciate its psychedelic significance (i.e. it’s great if you’re stoned), but it was still weird. Let’s start with its flimsy premise - the Beatles join a odd assortment of people on a bus ride to an unknown destination. 

As Malcolm McDowell put it in his narration in the drab 1982 documentary THE COMPLEAT BEATLES: “Largely a project of Paul’s, the idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus filled with friends, actors and circus freaks, and to film whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.” 

It opens promisingly with a bouncy montage set to the Paul-sung song “Magical Mystery Tour,” and introduces us to Ringo, still sporting his Sgt. Pepper mustache, as the main character (as he was in previous Beatles movies) buying tickets for the bus tour. John Lennon’s narration tells us that Ringo and his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robbins), who he’s taking on the trip, are “always arguing about one thing or another.” 

They bicker throughout the film, never about anything specific, as it’s all improv. This was the biggest problem with Magical Mystery Tour - its famous lack of a script. There was some pie-chart-like break down of idea sections (reprinted in the slick book that comes with the box set), but no dialogue was written, so this makes the non-song parts formless and un-engaging. 

Ringo and Aunt Jessie board the bus and we meet more characters including tour director Jolly Jimmy (Derek Royle, who in a featurette on the disc tells us once played a corpse on Fawlty Towers), Hostess Wendy Winters (Miranda Forbes), Mr. Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), a little person photographer (George Claydon – later an Oompa-Loompa in 
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), a bunch of folks just credited as passengers on the bus, and the rest of the Beatles themselves, who are never properly identified or given much to do. 

The Beatles don’t even give themselves anything to do when dressed as wizards in groovy red robes and hats (their roadie Mal Evans appears as a fifth wizard), who are overseeing the bus tour from someplace up in the sky. Lennon tells us that they spend their days casting “wonderful spells,” but they don’t do anything that has any effect the entire film. Nor do they make us laugh. 

Another unfortunately unfunny element is Victor Spinetti as a indecipherable motormouth Army Sergeant. At least, since he was in 
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, Spinetti, who died last June, offers some sort of continuity to their first three film projects. 

A lame love montage sequence between Aunt Jessie and Mr. Bloodvessel comes along to test viewer’s patience and make us wonder how could the Beatles at the height of their power think their fans would be into this? 

The best parts are, of course, the songs. Like the musical bits in their other films, the song scenes have been called precursors to modern music videos, and they’ve even been extracted and played as music videos by MTV and VH1. 

“Fool on the Hill” mainly features Paul McCartney walking around the countryside looking introspective, “Blue Jay Way” has George Harrison sitting looking bored lip-syching while his fingers move on a piano keyboard drawn on the floor with chalk (there’s a better version of this with George smiling and seeming more engaged in the bonus features), but the show stopper is the “I Am The Walrus” sequence, featuring the Beatles miming the song amid the towering concrete structures at the West Malling Airbase while superimposed imagery and trippy visual trickery surrounds them. The “Your Mother Should Know” closer with the moptops in white tuxedos dancing in formation is pretty cool too. 

Surprisingly, despite these Beatles classics, the most interesting music number comes from the obscure comical rock band The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band doing the lounge lizard showcase of a song “Death Cab For Cutie.” Neil Innes, who would later embody the Lennon caricature in Eric Idle’s Beatles parody The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, can be seen plunking away on the piano. The song also features a censored strip-tease by Jan Carson for no real reason at all. 

In his “My World of Flops” entry on Magical Mystery Tour (its combined with a take-down of Paul's 1984 dud 
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET), the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin wrote that Magical Mystery Tour “anticipates both MTV’s early days, when it seemed like anything was possible and the cost of entry was exhilaratingly low, and the gleeful absurdism of Monty Python.” 

Indeed, several of the segments seem like dry runs for later Python premises – Victor Spinetti’s absurd military man is echoed in Graham Chapman’s Colonel character, a marathon involving the passengers that turns into a car chase heavily resembles the “Twit of the Year” competition sketch, Lennon’s snotty waiter from the aforementioned restaurant scene is a recognizable Python archetype (see John Cleese in MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE dealing with the surreally obese Terry Jones), and even the footage of a large crowds’ reaction that’s interspersed throughout is reminiscent of the film of old ladies clapping that appeared to be in every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
This new re-mastered version of Magical Mystery Tour boasts a bevy of special features including a 20 minute “Making of” documentary, featurettes concerning “Ringo the Actor” and the supporting cast, an interesting “Hello Goodbye” promo, and a few cut scenes including a song by Traffic (“Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush”). The best bonus feature is the commentary by Paul McCartney, but that’s more because it’s often unintentionally funny than it is insightful.

Sample quotes: “I was surprised, years later, to hear, I think it was Steven Spielberg say that they’ve shown this and taught him about it in film school as an example of a different approach to film making” and “In a way, it's sort of a disgusting scene” (guess which scene).

So there you have it, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV special, still weird after all these years, finally gets a spot on my shelf. It’s a fun film to re-visit, even with its frustrating flaws. The folks at Capitol did a good job with this deluxe package. Now, please, release LET IT BE! Maybe next Christmas? *

* Looks like we're finally going to get LET IT BE (at least digitally) next summer along with Peter Jacksons GET BACK, which just got a neat sneak peak earlier this week. 

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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Names: Stephen Tobolowsky

ou most likely know Tobolowsky as the overly excited insurance agent Ned Ryerson who obnoxiously accosts Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in the 1993 comedy classic GROUNDHOG DAY, but the man has literally hundreds of movie and TV credits to his name so I bet you’ve seen him in something else. Tobolowsky’s most notable film roles include mostly supporting roles in THELMA & LOUISE, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, BASIC INSTINCT, SNEAKERS, THE INSIDER, MEMENTO, THE GRIFTERS, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, GARFIELD, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE, LOVE LIZA, WILD HOGS (okay, maybe not so notable), and was the focus of the 2005 documentary STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY among countless other movie parts (meaning I’m too lazy to count them).

He was even in SPACEBALLS! 

Television-wise, he has appeared in a wide range of comic and dramatic parts which includes guest shots on Designing Woman, Silicon Valley, Seinfeld, Cagney & Lacey, Chicago Hope, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, DeadwoodMad About You, Roswell, King of the Hill, Curb Your Enthusiasm, a few different CSIs, a few different Law & Orders, Entourage, The West Wing, Heroes, Glee, The Mindy Project, and even a new recurring role on the Cartoon Network cult favorite Archer

Tobolowsky has also authored three books (The Dangerous Animals Club, Cautionary Tales, and My Adventures With God), wrote the play turned film, TWO IDIOTS IN HOLLYWOOD, co-wrote with David Byrne one of my favorite films, TRUE STORIES, and hosts the podcast The Tobolowsky Files, which is pretty damn funny.

But this all only skates the surface of Tobolowky’s career because, like he warned Murray’s character about the puddle in GROUNDHOG DAY, “It’s a doozy!”

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Monday, December 21, 2020

NON EXCLUSIVE: A Sneak Peek At Peter Jackson’s GET BACK & More

Another NON EXCLUSIVE! Sure, most everyone who has any interest has already seen this, but I still wanted to blog about the first look at Sir Peter Jackson’s upcoming rockumentary THE BEATLES: GET BACK due out sometime in 2021. Plus I want to give some back story to the project, which Jackson assures is a lot more that a reworking of the material that made up LET IT BE, which documented the beginning (or maybe the middle) of the end of Beatles’ career. But first, here’s the nearly 6 minute clip that just dropped today with an intro by the LORD OF THE RINGS filmmaker:

As you can see this lively, fun montage centering around a rehearsal of the classic “Get Back” indeed whets fans appetite for the finished film. But how did we get here? Well, Sherman set the wayback machine for early 1970 when the Beatles got together at a sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, where they shot scenes for their films A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, to rehearse songs for their next record, intended to be a back to their roots record (advertised with the tagline: “The Beatles as nature intended”) with the working title of “Get Back,” after McCartney’s newly written rocker. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had shot a batch of the group’s promotional films, and a crew were hired to shoot John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as they worked on new songs.

The sessions were frankly kind of boring, and had some cringe-worthy moments when the tired-looking blokes were caught bickering by the cameras. They moved the project to Apple Headquarters and things went a bit better as they laid down the studio tracks for the album that would come to be named Let it Be. The grand finale involved the Beatles performing a set on the rooftop of Apple, which concluded with “Get Back” as police approached.

In Eric Idle’s Beatles parody, The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, Idle’s David Frost-style narrator said, “In the midst of all this public bickering, Let It Rot was released as a film, an album and a lawsuit.” This wasn’t far off, as there were pesky legalities in the dissolution of the band. As the band wasn’t really happy with either the album (Lennon said the “recordings were the shittiest pieces of shit we ever recorded”), they decided to go out on a much higher note with their final album, Abbey Road, though it was released in 1969 before the Let it Be album, and movie dropped in 1970, one month after the Beatles’ break-up.

In the years following its release, the film, LET IT BE, was shown on TV multiple times, but nowhere near as much as the Beatles’ other movies. In the ‘80s it was released on videotape on both VHS and Beta formats, but it went out of print before the end of the decade. Still, I remember seeing copies of it (on VHS, not Beta) at various video stores in the ‘90s, but it was still hard to find, and currently it sells for hundreds of dollars on eBay. 

In 2003, a new remix of the album entitled Let it Be...Naked was overseen by McCartney, who wanted to fix the songs that he felt producer Phil Spector ruined, in particular removing the orchestra from “A Long and Winding Road,” and stripping down other tracks. 

At the same time, it was planned to re-master and re-release the movie on DVD, but both McCartney and Starr felt that it was still too dark to re-visit and blocked the release. In 2016, McCartney spoke in an interview about finally putting it out: “I keep bringing it up, and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’ The objection should be me. I don’t come off well.”

The full film of LET IT BE has shown up on YouTube in fairly decent quality over the years, but has been quickly taken down. The last time I looked it wasnt there.

Cut to 2019, when it’s announced that Jackson will be tackling the 56 hours of footage the Lindsay-Hogg shot, and putting together a new version of the project which will revert to the original title, GET BACK. Jackson’ intent is to construct a film that utilizes different, unseen footage of the Beatles from the sessions, and give the material a more uplifting spirit. As Sir Jackson said at the time, “Sure, there’s moments of drama - but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.”

The other good news is that the original LET IT BE will finally get a re-release, although only in a digital format. Still, that’s something.

As the above montage shows a lot of promise, this is an exciting time for fans who have waited for the redemption of the reputation of this ill-fated project. With the success of his 2018 doc, THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD, which featured painstakingly restored footage from WWI, Jackson has shown that he can pull off wonders in reviving history. I do wonder how he’s going to deal with the legendary rooftop concert as the original film contained a great deal of the performance. You can’t really have a film about this chapter in the Beatles’ story without it, so he’s got to include it.

I am beyond psyched to see THE BEATLES: GET BACK as soon as I can. The set release date is August 27, 2021 - 51 years, and a few months, after both the album and film, LET IT BE, originally dropped. Here’s hoping that we’ll all still be around next summer to see it.

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Thursday, December 17, 2020


Okay, okay - this is far from exclusive. Every entertainment outlet that exists got and has posted the same pics including the one above, but since I'm always looking for new content I'm going to post them here too. 

This morning I got an email that declared “Amazon Studios will exclusively release COMING 2 AMERICA globally on Prime Video March 5th, 2021.”

The plot you ask? The press release offers this: “Set in the lush and royal country of Zamunda, newly-crowned King Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his trusted confidante Semmi (Arsenio Hall) embark on an all-new hilarious adventure that has them traversing the globe from their great African nation to the borough of Queens, New York where it all began.”

And it looks like the entire cast is returning, with some new recruits: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley, with Wesley Snipes and James Earl Jones. Also starring John Amos, Teyana Taylor, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Paul Bates, Nomzamo Mbatha, and Bella Murphy.

Whew, what a mighty ensemble! Seriously though, I'm all for the resurgence of Eddie Murphy as I adored DOLEMITE IS MY NAME, and loved his return to Saturday Night Live last year, so COMING 2 AMERICA has potential to be a worthwhile watch when March rolls around. So here's the rest of the NON EXCLUSIVE pictures from the upcoming sequel:

So there you go - non exclusive pics from the highly anticipated follow-up to the over 30 year old comedy classic (is it a classic?), COMING TO AMERICA. Maybe the only real surprise is that the nearly 90-year old James Earl Jones looks as healthy and spry as the rest of the cast.

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Thursday, December 10, 2020

Hey, I Finally Saw…HIGHLANDER!

For the last 34 years, I’ve been asked by numerous people (mainly because I’ve worked in video stores and theaters) if I’ve ever seen HIGHLANDER. Obviously I hadn’t, and I would say something like “I’ll get to it someday.” Well, someday came a few weeks back when I got a copy from Netlflix (yes, I still get discs delivered), and got onto my exercise bike to pedal my way through Russell Mulcahy’s 1986 cult fantasy favorite.

My belated viewing of the movie was inspired by the death of the great Sean Connery earlier this fall. I figured that as I’ve seen most of the man’s major work, I should finally tackle this beloved ‘80s epic. Connery’s voice is the first thing heard in HIGHLANDER, as he recites the red text that sets the tone with such high falutin prose as “From the dawn of time we came, movie silently down through the centuries.”

Queen, who, along with Michael Kamen, provides the film’s soundtrack, takes us through the credits and drops us into a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden in 1985 where we meet protagonist Conner MacLeod (Christopher Lambert). When McLeod has flashbacks to a battle in the Scottish Highlands in 1536, I realized that for years, decades really, that I didn’t know the movie’s real premise. I had thought it was about someone from the present (well, mid ‘80s that is) who was somehow thrown back in time to the medieval age and trained by old sage Connery in the ways of sorcery and swordfighting.

I was unaware that HIGHLANDER largely deals with immortality, and that its hero has lived for hundreds of years. MacLeod is being pursued by other immortals, one of which he beheads in a sword fight in a parking garage (parking garage scenes were big in the ‘80s). You see, beheading is the only way to permanently kills an immortal – I did not know that. 

The film bounces back and forth from the gritty Scotland of the 1500s, where we get MacLeod’s backstory as a blacksmith to the gritty New York of the 1980s, where we learn that the man is an antique dealer, which, of course, is fitting. The only part that I got somewhat right is that MacLeod is trained in olden times by Connery’s character, Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez. There’s love interests in forensics specialist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart), and McLeod’s past wife Heather (Beatie Edney), but they are little more than requisite damsels in distress, but Hart and Edney both make the most of their underwritten roles (underwritten roles for women in movies like this were big in the ‘80s). 

An element I didn’t care for was the villain, named The Kurgan, portrayed by a scenery-chewing Clancy Brown. I’ve seen Brown in other films, and he is nowhere near as overwrought as here so maybe he got lost in the ridiculously over the top character.

So I finally saw HIGHLANDER. For the most part, I enjoyed it for its cheesy ‘80s fantasy feel, and the Queen tunes. But I couldn’t really see that special thing that would make it somebody’s favorite film. Also, why didn't anybody tell me that Sean Connery’s role was only 20 minutes long?!!?

Connery does return for HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, but I’ve been advised not to go there. Also I’ve been told not to watch the other sequels (there are four!), which honestly I was unaware of. I had heard of the TV series (1992-1998), but like the original film, I never saw any of it. I also didn’t know that there are novels, comics (sorry, graphic novels), an animated series, and video games. Jeez – how was I so oblivious to the vast extended HIGHLANDER-verse?

I’ll most likely heed the warnings especially when they are stated like this: “DO. NOT. WATCH. THE. SEQUELS” – that came from the comments on a Facebook post I made when I announced I was finally watching the first flick.

I suppose that the movie’s most famous line, and tagline, “There can be only one” is right. On that note, I’ll leave you with this:

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Monday, December 07, 2020

R.I.P. David L. Lander, Who Was So Much More Than Squiggy

For some reason, I was hit by the death of comic actor David L. Lander just as hard as I have the recent passings of musical heroes, and other entertainment legends. It might be because I think I saw every episode of Laverne & Shirley when I was a kid, listened repeatedly to the album Lenny & Squiggy Present Lenny and the Squigtones (that’s its full title), and named the first cat I ever adopted and had for 16 years, Squiggy. One of those. All of them. 

Although the title of this post declares that Lander was so much more than the character of Andrew “Squiggy” Squiggman, this is where we’ll begin as that’s how this performer is best known. Hell, the name Squiggy may likely be on Lander’s gravestone. 

Lander portrayed the goofy greaser for eight seasons, encompassing 178 episodes from 1976-1983. Lander and his friend, Michael McKean, came up with the characters when they were college buddies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then called Carnegie Tech. In 2007, Lander told Lanny Swerdlow of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project that they created Lenny & Squiggy when they were high. 

Apart from entertaining friends with the improved antics of the duo at parties, Lander and McKean didn’t do much with them until 1975, when they were recruited by Penny Marshall, and her brother, producer Garry Marshall, to play Lenny & Squiggy on the sitcom, Laverne & Shirley. They were the upstairs neighbors to Marshall as Laverne and Cindy Williams as Shirley, and there was a running gag to their entrances long before Kramer made his boundryless bursts through Jerry’s door on Seinfeld in the ‘90s. 

You can get the idea from This YouTube montage of many of their entrances:

One of my favorite things that Lander and McKean did with the characters was the aforementioned album by Lenny & the Squigtones. The record features a live performance, recorded at the Roxy in LA in 1978, by the duo with a band (actually including Spinal Taps Nigel Tufnel). The songs are both hilarious and solid, and highly recommended - you can hear the whole album here.

Preceding Laverne & Shirley, both Lander and McKean were in the Los Angeles-based comedy group, The Credibility Gap. Lander joined the now little known outfit in 1969, followed by McKean in 1970. Harry Shearer, who would later go on to work with McKean in THIS IS SPINAL TAP, was also a major member, and through club appearances, radio appearances, and the making of several albums helped keep the project afloat until the late ‘70s. 

Their records are well worth seeking out as The Credibility Gap, seen above with Shearer, Lander, founder Richard Beebe, and McKean, really gave ‘70s era comedy competitors like Firesign Theater and National Lampoon a run for their money, and there’s a fair amount of their material on YouTube – maybe not enough for a rabbit hole deep dive though. This is one of my favorite bits – Lander and Shearer presenting a re-write/update of Abbott & Costello’s classic “Who’s on First” routine. Somehow the sketch makes more sense as it uses the real rock band names of The Who, Guess Who, and Yes for its premise:

For a while there, it looked like Lander and McKean were going to be inseparable comedy partners as they were in multiple movies together including CRACKING UP (Lander’s first film), 1941, and USED CARS. But in the early ‘80s they went their separate ways with McKean starring in a run of movies like SPINAL TAP, CLUE, EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, and, one of my favorites, Christopher Guest’s first film as director, THE BIG PICTURE, while Lander became an ace voice actor for such animated projects as Galaxy High School, A Garfield Christmas Special (he was later on The Garfield Show), WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, Johnny Bravo, A BUG’S LIFE, SpongeBob SquarePants, and too many more to mention. To cap off this look at Lander’s voice-over output, he re-united with McKean in cartoon form on the Nickelodeon show Oswald in the early 2000s. 

This is not to say Lander couldn’t be regularly seen in live action as he did guest spots on almost every TV show you can name from the ‘80s to the Aughts. He put in appearances on The Love Boat, Highway to Heaven, Matlock (yay, Matlock!), Simon & Simon, Married…with Children, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Head of the Class, Family Matters, The Nanny, Nash Bridges, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and even a recurring role (well, three episodes) on Twin Peaks

Lander contributed many memorable bit parts in movies, but his most notable is certainly his role as Radio Sportscaster in Penny Marshall’s 1992 hit, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. The character was perfect for him as he was a huge baseball fan, and was later a talent scout for the Anaheim Angels, and the Seattle Mariners. 

But it all comes back to Squiggy. I had long thought that his last portrayal of the iconic greaser weasel was a surprise cameo with McKean on Saturday Night Live in 1994. The occasion was a sketch entitled Quentin Tarantino’s Welcome Back Kotter, which took advantage of the show’s host John Travolta at the height of PULP FICTION popularity - hence the guns.

I was wrong about that being the guys finale as Lander reprised Squiggy in a 2002 episode of The Simpsons:

There’s also the fact that he played Principal Squiggy in SCARY MOVIE, but I’m not sure I want to count that. 

So Lander, who died at the age 73 from complications from multiple sclerosis, was a much loved comic actor who put an undeniable stamp on pop culture, though it’s one that will sadly fade as what kid is watching Laverne & Shirley these days? He’d definitely fit in with this blog’s Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Name series, as even those who grew up with him only know him as Squiggy. 

Maybe I shouldn’t have said that he “Was So Much More Than Squiggy” because he often referred to himself that way as in his 2002 book, Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis. Maybe I should have said he was “Squiggy & More.” 

As Lander said back in 2007, “Whatever happens, MS can't take it all.” 

R.I.P. David L. Lander

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Monday, November 30, 2020

That Time A Beatle Had A Cameo In A Monty Python Movie

Every now and then, someone posts on Facebook, Twitter, or some social media network that they just noticed that Beatle superstar George Harrison appears briefly in the 1979 comedy classic MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN. They usually note that they have seen the film many times, but only now did they see Harrison’s cameo.

This is because he is easy to miss in a crowded set that does little to single out the legendary musician, despite that John Cleese’s character introduces him to Graham Chapman’s Brian as “the gentleman who's lending us the mount on Sunday.” Watch the 10-second scene:

Harrison only had one line – one word actually (“Hullo!”), but since it was noisy and he was barely audible, it was later dubbed by Michael Palin, doing his best Liverpudlian impression. The bit part was uncredited, but the former Beatle was given a priceless moniker: Mr. Papapadopoulos.

The cameo came about because Harrison was one of the movie’s Executive Producers, and that came about because he largely financed the hilarious biblical satire. According to Eric Idle, a good friend of Harrison’s since they met in Los Angeles in 1975 at a screening of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, Harrison “pawned his house and arranged a loan of $5m. When he was asked why, he just said: 'Because I want to see it'. Not many people pay $5m for an admission ticket.”

It wasn’t Harrison’s first foray in a Python-related project as the year before BRIAN, he played a television journalist, credited as “The Interviewer,” in Idle’s TV movie parody of the Beatles, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. The almost unrecognizable Harrison appears in two scenes in the mockumentary, both set outside the headquarters of Rutle Corps. Watch one of the scenes, featuring Palin’s spoof of Beatles press officer Derek Taylor:

Several years before that, Harrison put in a performance of “Pirate Song” which begins as “My Sweet Lord” then becomes a rowdy sea shanty on Idle’s BBC2 comedy program, Rutland Weekend Television:

Idle directed videos (then called promotional films) for two songs from Harrison’s 1976 album, Thirty Three & 1/3:
“Crackerbox Palace” and “True Love.” Both are highly amusing Pythonesque (of course) films - click on their titles to watch them. 

After BRIAN, Harrison and his manager Denis O’Brien worked on over two dozen films for the studio they founded, Handmade Films, including such classics as WITHNAIL & I, and such flops as SHANGHAI SURPRISE (1986), in which he put in a cameo as a Night Club Singer (that’s how he’s credited).

Anyone who would read such a post as this would no doubt be aware that yesterday was the sad anniversary of Harrison’s death at the all too young age of 58. Luckily he left behind a wealth of timeless work, so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s gone.

The fact that people are still finding and being delighted by a blink and miss it moment in one of the most re-watchable comedies of all time is a testament to his massive legend. To respectfully contradict his good friend, Idle, it’s a legend that will last many lunchtimes.

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