Friday, August 28, 2020

New Trump Doc UNFIT: A Good Case For What We Already Know

Debuting today on digital/streaming, VOD platforms, and in select theaters:

(Dir. Dan Partland, 2020)

One of the most used statements about Donald J. Trump before and after his Presidency was that he is “unfit for office.” Dan Partland’s (American Race, Going Hollywood) first feature length documentary, UNFIT, examines exactly why with anecdotal commentary by various psychology experts, political analysts, historians, and former Trump cohorts, including the oily yet surprisingly insightful Anthony Scaramucci (The Mooch!).

As can be expected from the title, the film is presented as a thesis that darts around Trump’s history attempting to break down 45’s psyche through segments with such titles as “Malignant Narcissism,” “Gaslighting,” and “Is Democracy Dead?”

The first and one of the most prominent of the interviewees is George Conway, an attorney, and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, but is probably best known as the husband of Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to The President. Conway, most amusingly and accurately tells us that “Donald Trump is like a practical joke that got out of hand.”

Agreeing with Conway are such noted Psychologist, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts as John Gartner Ph.D., Lance Dodes M.D., and Justin Frank M.D., but who disagree with “The Goldwater Rule,” which states that it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about public figures whom they have not examined in person.

Former White House Communications Director (for 11 days!) Scaramucci appears to give us his take (s) on Trump and, like I said above, has weighty insights aplenty about his former boss. The slick, quick talking entrepreneur certainly knows his history, and is right on the money, sadly, when he says that Trump “is a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist, and an avatar for that anger.”

One interesting difference of opinion on the topic of Trump’s bigotry occurs when The Mooch says “He’s an asshole, but that’s different from being a racist,” while Conway (again, Kellyanne’s husband) tearfully states, “This man is a racist, he is evil.”

Meanwhile Trump is seen in a clip that’s been shown a bazillion times saying “I am the least racist person that you have ever met.” A truly batshit crazy moment in a career of batshit crazy moments.

Partland then goes further back in time with the help of Ruth Ben Ghiat, who speaks about Trump’s similarities to Mussolini, and Interwar Historian Cheryl Koos, who compares him to Hitler.

Now if those historical comparisons may seem overly familiar, as well as the bulk of the material about the film I’m babbling about, that’s because its themes and theories about Trump are obvious to the Nth degree. So much of the video footage has been aired and re-aired that any insight, whether comedic or psychological, has already been drenched dry.

Nonetheless, UNFIT is a weighty watch and has many smart moments. My favorite of the interview subjects is former Intelligence Officer Malcolm Nance, who once called presidential advisor Stephen Miller “Baby Goebbels” on one of his many appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. Nance terrifyingly talks about people who are willing to bet their lives on Trump being a bluffer, a strategic thinker, who won’t start a nuclear war, while acknowledging that he’s a pathological liar. “You don’t know what the stakes are,” Nance chillingly concludes.

UNFIT could use more of that urgency, and less of all the obvious overused clips, but it does what it sets out to do. It makes a thorough, well-illustrated case. If only it its diagnosis wasn’t something we already knew everything about going in.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

$24.95 To Stream The New BILL & TED Sequel? That’s Bogus!

This Friday, the long awaited third entry in the BILL & TED series will be released on premium video on demand and select movie theaters. Thing is, the movie which reunites Alex Winter as Bill S. Preston, and Keanu Reeves as Ted Logan as older versions of the time-travelling teens that won over comedy lovers decades ago, is available on many streaming services for the unappealing price of $24.95. 

What, do you think we’re made of money, dude?

Now, this isn’t anything new. The last film I saw in theaters before the Pandemic lockdown was THE INVISIBLE MAN, starring Elizabeth Moss. I enjoyed the thriller and recommended it to my parents, but was not aware that its price on video on demand was $19.99. I thought it would be $10 at the most – like the price of a movie ticket at the theater (yes, I know tickets in NYC are close to $15). Since then, I’ve seen that many new films were priced in that range since all the theaters had closed down.

In this age where many people are unemployed, and struggling, it seems like more affordable rates – like $9.95-$14.95 - for films like BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC would not only be a nice gesture, it would mean bigger profits as more people would be likely to order them up. 

In early June, a comedy entitled THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND, starring SNL’s Pete Davidson, was released via video on demand for $19.99. I find Davidson funny, and wanted to see the picture, but not for that price. I doubt there were many others that shelled out for it either. It’s now available for around $5.99, so I bet that fans of BILL & TED will just wait a bit for a likewise more reasonable rental price.

This bugs me as I think the folks in charge of what rents for what price are missing an opportunity to build an audience for new VOD titles with less pricey programming. Are there really enough folks, even hardcore fans, willing to pay $24.95 for the third go-around of BILL & TED to make it a big hit? I doubt it, but I could be way wrong. I just know that I’ll probably wait, and may rewatch the originals in the meantime since it’s been decades since I’ve seen them.

I just can’t bring myself to spend that much money for a rental, even if it’s a movie I’m highly interested in. Can you?

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Paul Dooley


You may know him best as Molly Ringwald’s father in SIXTEEN CANDLES, or maybe as Wimpy in Robert Altman’s POPEYE, or as Max Von Sydow’s doofus assistant in STRANGE BREW, or maybe…dammit, you’ve got to know him from something!

POPEYE was one of a bunch of Altman films that he appeared in like A WEDDING, A PERFECT COUPLE, HEALTH, O.C. AND STIGGS, and THE PLAYER. Other films include DEATH WISH, BREAKING AWAY, SLAP SHOT, SHAKES THE CLOWN, all three CARS movies, and three of Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv movies - WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, A MIGHTY WIND, and FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. 

A couple of things I didn’t know before - Dooley was a comedian in the 60s, who performed frequently on The Tonight Show, and was part of the Second City players. He released a stand-up album entitled Booked Solid (the picture above is from the record’s cover). But most surprisingly (at least to me) is that he created the PBS program, The Electric Company. How about that?

Dooley’s other TV credits just go on and on but I’ll highlight apperances on Get Smart, Bewitched, The Golden Girls, Thirtysomething, Dream On, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Shameless - this seriously only scratches the surface as this is another one of those mad prolific actors that make you wonder if they ever sleep.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Jason Bernard


Bernard, who passed in 1996, is another one of those prolific performers whose filmography makes my jaw drop. He started out in the soap, Days of Our Lives, then worked steady through the ‘70s with appearances on the hit shows Starsky & Hutch, M*A*S*H, and The White Shadow, and in the movies CAR WASH, and COMA.

The ‘80s were just as busy with turns on every show that aired from The Cosby Show to The Facts of Life to Cagney & Lacy to even The Dukes of Hazzard. Bernard’s filmwork during the era had him popping up in such titles as WARGAMES, FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, BIRD, NO WAY OUT, and ALL OF ME which had my favorite role of his, Steve Martin’s blind musician buddy, Tyrone Wattel.

While Bernard has played many doctors, cops, teachers, and reverends, the part he seemingly played the most was that of a judge. He held court in THE STAR CHAMBER, I WAS A MAIL ORDER BRIDE, EQUAL JUSTICE, LIAR LIAR, and even an episode of Night Court. Happy Birthday your Honor, wherever you may preside.

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Friday, August 14, 2020

That Time Stanley Kubrick Wanted Steve Martin To Star In EYES WIDE SHUT

For Steve Martin’s Birthday today, I decided to blog about an odd moment in the iconic comic actor’s career: his brief, almost creative relationship with Director Stanley Kubrick.

Ever since I first heard about it decades ago, I’ve been highly amused that reportedly one of famous filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s favorite films was THE JERK. Apparently, Carl Reiner’s 1979 comedy, which featured the feature length film debut of the legendary comedian Steve Martin tickled Kubrick’s funny bone, and even inspired him to try to cast Martin as the lead in his last feature, 1999’s erotic thriller EYES WIDE SHUT. Of course, this didn’t happen – Tom Cruise got the role in the end – but the fact that it could have happened is pretty insane.

But, as Martin relayed on an episode of Charlie Rose, it was actually a British broadcast of his stand-up act in 1980 that made Kubrick call the comic up for a meeting.

Martin: “It might have been before 1980, because I don’t think THE JERK was out, but I came to London to do my stand-up act on television. Then I got a call from Stanley Kubrick the next day saying, ‘I’d like to meet with you.’ So I went to his estate, and he pitched me what became EYES WIDE SHUT.”

Rose: “That was ’80, it wasn’t made until 1999.”

Martin: “Right. It was based on a book by Schnitzler, and I think the book was called ‘Rhapsody’ – it had different titles and translations. And it was an enigmatic book, a beautiful, beautiful book. And then, of course, it never happened.”

It should be noted that Kubrick also considered Bill Murray, Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks for the lead. Funny that had comic actors in mind for the part that wound up being played by Cruise.

After sorting through a lot of interviews and articles about Kubrick, I’ve come to the conclusion that the tales of Kubrick’s love for THE JERK may have been a bit overblown. Many internet posts mention that it was one of his favorites but no quotes or other citations are given.

But it did make lists Kubrick made of his favorite movies, but then so did WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP, so it was certainly a favorite.

This quote from Kubrick’s right-hand man, Jan Harlan, maybe summed it up best: “He didn’t think THE JERK was such a good film, but it is true that he considered Steve Martin as an actor. Early days!”

Early days indeed. Marin has proven in a few films, like David Mamet’s THE SPANISH PRISONER, that he has dramatic chops, so I would love to see his version of EYES WIDE SHUT. Maybe he would’ve been miscast as the doctor who goes deep into New York’s sexual underground because his wife told him she almost cheated on him, but I think he could’ve pulled it off.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

GROUNDHOG DAY Is A Genre, And I’m Okay With That


During the last several months , one movie has been brought up a lot during the pandemic: GROUNDHOG DAY. Obviously this is because many of us have been quarantined since March, and it feels like we’re repeating the same day over and over just like Bill Murray’s character, weatherman Phil Connors, in the 1993 Harold Ramis comedy classic.

In the 27 years since its release, GROUNDHOG DAY’s popularity has grown as it has become shorthand for overly repetitive situations (it was even referred to as such in a speech by President Bill Clinton in 1996), an Award-winning Broadway Musical, a video game, and, most importantly for our purposes, a genre. 

One early example is Tom Tykwer’s excellent 1998 thriller RUN LOLA RUN. While it would be wrong to say that the German director’s movie is indebted to Ramis’s as it has its own themes and vibe, it still belongs to the genre as it largely concerns seeing its protagonist Lola (Franka Potente) maneuver through the same series of events in different ways. In the frenetic film, Lola is racing against the clock to save her boyfriend’s life, and it seems that Lola is aware of her repeated predicament.

Other GROUNDHOG DOG-styled thrillers followed including PRIMER, SOURCE CODE, DAY BREAK, and a number of less memorable movies, but the one that stands out from the crowd was Doug Liman’s 2014 sci-fi action film EDGE OF TOMMORROW (terrible generic title that was marketed on DVD/Blu ray as LIVE DIE REPEAT). The movie features Tom Cruise playing against type as a cowardly Army Major who gets caught up in a time loop while fighting aliens.

With the help of a superb Emily Blunt, also playing against type as a tough as nails Special Forces soldier, Cruise’s character evolves into a fighting machine and conquers the day just like you knew he would. EDGE, or LIVE, is a clever take on the GROUNDHOG DAY genre with an over-active inventiveness that makes it never feel like a retread.

Not as successful, but still entertaining, is Christopher Landon’s 2017 horror comedy mystery HAPPY DEATH DAY. Set at a college in New Orleans, Jessica Rothe wakes up to find herself reliving the day she was murdered (her birthday) and having to figure out who killed her so that the time loop will stop looping. At one point, GROUNDHOG DAY is referenced by her would be boyfriend (Israel Broussard), who’s stunned to hear that Rothe’s protagonist has never heard of the film (or Bill Murray either). HAPPY DEATH DAY is a fast paced, and fun throwaway, but it really didn’t need a sequel, HAPPY DEATH DAY TO U (2019).

After a brief theatrical run, a movie premiered this summer on Hulu called PALM SPRINGS, starring Andy Samberg, and Cristin Milioti, which applied the GROUNDHOG DAY blueprint on a rom com largely taking place at a wedding. One difference this time is that Samberg’s character is already in the infinite time loop when the story begins. Milioti gets trapped in the loop with Samberg, but she is more determined to get out of it, while he mainly downs beer after beer and makes slacker-minded wisecracks. 

This is another movie which finds ways to go in different directions with the premise, and is a fine, funny addition to the GROUNDHOG genre. It may be as disposable as HAPPY DEATH DAY, but it’s an amusing diversion that I enjoyed watching on a recent depressingly repetitive night under lockdown.

On the television front, many shows have done GROUNDHOG DAY-themed episodes including Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, Fringe, Xena: Warrior Princess, Star Trek, Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mindy Project, Charmed, and many more. But the 2019 Netflix series, Russian Doll, gets extra kudos for making a whole series out of the Déjà vu device. 

Natasha Lyonne (who co-created the show with Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland) stars as a New Yorker who keeps getting killed then finding herself back in a friend’s bathroom at her 36th birthday party (like HAPPY DEATH DAY, the repeating day takes place on the protagonist’s b-day). 

As the cynical, exasperated Nadia, Lyonne makes for a compelling character, and the NYC hipster scene is a perfect backdrop for the variously changing situations. Glad to hear that Russian Doll has been renewed for a second season.

So GROUNDHOG DAY is definitely its own genre, and I for one think that’s a good thing. Folks who might complain that its cementing a formula that will become more and more predictable, I would argue that there are many formulas that have been overdone and yet still stand. Sure many of them suck, but every now and then some new creative juice is injected into them and the form becomes fresh again.

The time loop premise of Ramis’ comic masterpiece (co-written by Danny Rubin) is a flexible one with as many infinite possibilities as there often are time loops in the premises themselves.

The cherry on the top of the cake is that it was just announced that GROUNDHOG DAY will be resurrected as a TV series. The funny thing is that the project is planned as a sequel to the 1993 taking 30 years after the original. The only cast member that’s been announced so far is Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the annoying insurance agent Ned Ryerson the first time around.

Here’s hoping the producers of the TV reboot will capture at least some of surreal spirit and hilarious humor of the original. If not, it looks like we’ll have infinite alternates for time after time to come.

More later...