Saturday, December 31, 2022

Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Name: Jackie Hoffman

Since many folks have been watching Rian Johnson’s GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY over the holiday season on Netflix, I thought I’d single out one of the minor members of the all-star ensemble who is perfect for this series about actors you’ve seen many times but can’t name. That would be veteran performer, singer, and comedian, Jackie Hoffman, who has a brief role as Dave Bautista’s character’s mother (credited only as “Ma”) in GLASS ONION, her 17th film part since her first big screen appearance in ONE WOMAN SHOE in 1992. Her film work includes notable parts in KISSING JESSICA STEIN, LEGALLY BLONDE 2, GARDEN STATE, THE EXTRA MAN, and BIRDMAN.

Hoffman, who got her start with Chicago’s famous comedy improv group, The Second City, has almost as many theatrical credits starting with the Off-Off-Broadway production of One Woman Shoe in 1995, and continuing through such On-Broadway major musicals as Hairspray, Xanadu, The Addams Family, Chicago, On the Town, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with her latest stage work being in The Tattooed Lady in this last year. She has also had a string of one-woman stage shows with such titles as “The Kvetching Continues,” “A Chanukah Charol,” and “Jackie's Valentine's Day Massacre” for which she wrote, and composed music.

The 62-year old actress has also shined a lot on the small screen having appeared on such shows as Strangers With Candy, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, The Good Wife, America Dad!, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Only Murders in the Building. But one of her most memorable roles has to be as Mamacita, Joan Crawford's housekeeper in the FX mini-series, The Feud, about the famous rivalry between Crawford and Bette Davis while making Rober Aldrich’s WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). She really crushed it in that. So here’s to the great, Jacqueline Laura Hoffman, who, with hope, will get more notice from you people.

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Friday, December 23, 2022

The Mixed Bag Behemoth That Is Damien Chazzelle’s BABYLON

Now playing at nearly every multiplex near me:

BABYLON (Dir. Damien Chazzelle, 2022)

Back in the innocent Before Times of 2016, Damien Chazzelle’s LA LA LAND became an international sensation that almost won Best Picture at the Oscars (actually for a minute it looked like it did win the big one, but it still swept with six other wins). The Harvard-educated wunderkind’s 2018 follow-up, the Neil Armstrong biopic, FIRST MAN, while not making as big as a splash, also garnered great reviews, and a bunch of nominations (it won one Oscar), but I doubt his latest exuberant epic depicting Hollywood’s decadent early days will get anywhere near comparable award season action.

But BABYLON sure does its damnedest to get attention from its stunning opening, circa 1926, in which we meet over-eager immigrant Manuel “Manny” Torres, played by Diego Calva in his first English-language speaking role, as he wrangles an elephant to a hilltop mansion in the desert of Bel Air for one of the most intense, wildest parties seen on the silver screen in recent memory.

The sordid soiree that every corner of the debauchery the camera mesmerizingly swoops to capture is held by the head of the fictional Kinoscope Studios, producer Don Wallach (Jeff Garlin), and in attendance is silent movie A-lister, Jack Conrad, played by current day A-lister, Brad Pitt, looking and seeming even more jaded, grizzled, and world weary than in his last couple of pictures, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and BULLET TRAIN, respectively.

To the flamboyant accompaniment of a group of musicians headed by Chinese-American caberet singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo, serving the same sort of side-line role that John Legend did in LA LA LAND) ’s whose blaring trumpet the camera keeps closing in on as if to get inside, Manny meets the movie’s real star, Margot Robbie as Nellie LeRoy, the definition of a fresh-off-the-bus, aspiring actress, and they maneuver around the cocaine-alcohol-fueled orgy for the rest of the night until Nellie gets her big break because another starlet doesn’t make it out of the beyond-bacchanalian bash alive.

This extended opening sequence goes on and on, but that’s unsurprising as the film has the intimidating run-time of three hours and 15 minutes, so strap yourself in. After the party fades into the harsh sharp light of day, we get into the heart of the film’s premise, the dawn of talking pictures, via a series of scenes taking us through how Manny, Jack, and Nellie deal with their fates in the changing industry.

There’s a lot of lush, engaging activity alive in the narrative, but there’s also a lot of disgusting, unpleasant imagery, including a fair amount of vomit too, culminating in a sex dungeon set-piece (you read that right) with a pretty pleased with himself Tobey Maguire as creepy mob boss James McKay that really tasted the limits of my patience, and tolerance for whatever point Chazelle is making with this sleazy spectacle that appears to glamorize rather than condemn such ugliness. 

The story of how sound came in and destroyed the careers of key silent film players is, well, as old as it is at over a hundred years ago, and it’s not given a fresh spin here, just a more in-your-face, look how f-ed up it was, tawdry take by writer/director Chazelle, who went big on bawdy, but short-changed us on insightful substance. At times it feels like the film’s entire reason for being is to be the dark flip side to the sunniness of the Los Angeles of LA LA LAND. 

I will give a shout out to a juicy Jean Smart (Charlene from Designing Women for you old-timers) as Elinor St. John - its a very familiar showbiz gossip columnist character, but Smart does a lot with very little and somehow stands out in all the colorful crumminess.

Pitt, Robbie, and Calva do good invested work, especially Robbie who steals the show dancing on the bar in sloshy take after take of a wonderfully clichéd saloon scene, and, despite the abundant puke, cinematographer Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND, FIRST MAN, NO TIME TO DIE) provides captivating shot after shot (he’s the only one that really deserves an Oscar nod here IMHO) so there’s enough going on for me to recommend this not-so tall Tinseltown tale, but with strong reservations.

BABYLON is a mixed bag of a bloated behemoth that many movie-goers may hesitate clearing a chunk of their day for, but for those who are intrigued, and are Chazelle fans, I’d say it’s worth a big screen viewing. I’ll also say make it a matinee, because you’ll want to see some sunlight after, and then maybe take a shower.

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Thursday, December 22, 2022

Flashier, Shinier Knives Are Out For Superficial Fun in GLASS ONION

Streaming on Netflix starting tomorrow, 12/23:


(Dir. Rian Johnson, 2022)

For the follow-up to his 2019 resurrection of the all-star comic whodunit, KNIVES OUT, Rian Johnson does what is expected in a sequel – he goes much bigger with a glitzier production, a flashier ensemble, and a much more convoluted premise. To hold it all together, the only returning cast member, Daniel Craig, brings back his absurd southern accent to reprise the role of the dapper, self-satisfied private detective Benoit Blanc, for his new film series after stepping out of the shoes of 007. 


Craig’s Blanc this time finds himself on a private island compound in Greece named the Glass Onion (actually Spetses, a Greek island in the Peloponnese) owned by smarmy tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton). The occasion is Miles’ murder mystery party weekend to which he invited his best friends including Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn) scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.) former model turned fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), Twitch streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista), and his girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline). 


But Miles didn’t invite Blanc, who infiltrated the garish get-together at the lavish doomed art deco palace with Mile’s prized Porsche displayed on a rooftop, and an art collection starring the real Mona Lisa on loan from the Lourve, to assist Helen Brand (Janelle Monáe) in investigating the death of her sister, Miles's ex-business partner Cassandra “Andi” Brand, whose passing hasn’t been reported yet. You see, Cassandra sued Miles but lost the company to him, so Blanc believes she was killed by one of the friends/party guests who perjured in their testimony during the lawsuit. Got that? 


Blanc disrupts Miles’ murder mystery play plans, and the night dissolves into a group hangout, which itself gets disrupted by a real murder, which I won’t spoil. Then the convolutions really flare up with over-the-top acting (by everybody), gunplay, motivation-revealing flashbacks, and a lot of third act destruction that finds Johnson recalling less his oft-cited inspiration, Herbert Ross’s 1973 all-star whodunit, THE LAST OF SHEILA, and more the overly broad set-piece smash-ups in the Steven Spielberg mega flop 1941 (1979), and Richard Benjamin’s THE MONEY PIT (1985), especially in the lack of laughs department.


The look of the movie, courtesy of Johnson’s longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin, does pop, but I can’t say it’s any more stellar than the visuals on such likewise travel setting porn like HBO’s The White Lotus. It’s a fitting comparison, because these KNIVES OUT Netflix productions feel more like TV than genuine cinema - and I saw a theatrical screening.


GLASS ONION is surface level entertainment; a piece of superficial fun that goes by smoothly, but very little of it will stick in the mind later. One of its most memorable, and amusing moments is simply a shot of Craig making an entrance at the pool in striped swimwear. This got a bigger laugh than any of the dialogue or anything else in the entire film, and it says a lot that it’s one of the only things I can really recall later. 


That pretty much sums up Johnson’s second KNIVES OUT MYSTERY - it’s engaging enough in the moment, but you’ll won’t be left with much cinematic nourishment afterward. A third film, in which Craig will again star, is set to follow, so, even if its way less substantial than his previous gig, at least he’s got this fluffy, fun but ultimately forgettable franchise to run with. 

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Thursday, December 15, 2022

AVATAR 2: Immersive AF Imagery, Un-Immersive AF Story

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. James Cameron, 2022)

In the 13 years since AVATAR grossed billions, won Oscars and became one of the biggest movies ever, I’ve never heard anybody say that they couldn’t wait for a sequel. Have you? I mean, despite its brand, James Cameron’s blue people utopian epic appears to have no real fanbase. Whenever I see it posted about on social media, the comments are usually negative; when my film buff friends in my feeds post pictures of their movie memorabilia, I never see any AVATAR stuff; and in all my conversations about movies in the dozen years, I’ve never heard any interest, or speculation about what would happen in a follow-up.

But here we are, after years of Cameron hammering away on unleashing a further franchise, with the second entry in the saga, AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. But will it be an event movie with anything near the power of the first one’s release in December, 2009? Doubtfully, although I bet it’ll sill make major bank, because while it’s visually a stunning achievement with some of the most immersive cinematic 3D imagery I’ve ever experienced, it has one of the most un-immersive narratives I’ve ever experienced as well. In other words, ATWOW is a beautifully packaged big-ass bore.

Essentially, Cameron, co-writing with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who wrote the recent run of PLANET OF THE APES movies), has fashioned exactly the AVATAR sequel that one would expect beat-by-beat with Sam Worthington reprising his role as U.S.-marine-turned-tall-lanky-blue-alien Jake Sully, fighting to protect Pandora from another attack by who they call the “Sky People.”

Our blue lead, Worthington, and his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) now with obnoxiously precocious - god, I hate when they hiss - kids (Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), and a scruffy blonde human hang-around named Spider (Jack Champion), have to relocate after the evil clichéd Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), brings the RDA (the fictional Resources Development Administration) down on their Na’vi land to colonize and exploit the movie’s McGuffin (the Unobtanium for now!), a chemical that can halt aging (“it just stops it!” somebody says in an example of the screenplay’s sparkling banter).

The bulk of the film’s often unbearable middle third involves the blue fam assimilating with the aquatic green reef people that live on the Pandoran shores. That’s where we get a lot of pretentious talk about respecting the liquid life ‘n such. The closest to entertained, and maybe a little touched, I was during these strained sequences, came from a subplot involving the second-oldest son’s friendship with a whale-like sea creature, but even that was over-earnestly tinged with cringe.

The green people of the Metkayina tribe, are headed by Cliff Curtis as Tonowari, and an unrecognizable Kate Winslet (first time ever in motion capture!) as Ronal, who help bring some gravitas to the ham-fisted dialogue that clunks through the meticulously crafted set-pieces, but like everything else, are merely additional decoration.

Sigourney Weaver returns in a weird way as a different character – Jake and Neytiri’s pregnant teenage daughter, Kiri – which I don’t want to understand, and there are human cameos by Giovanni Ribisi, Edie Falco, and Brendan Cowell, but the most wasted performance has to by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as a corrupted biologist who has one good line (“That’s why I drink”).

Way before the halfway mark through three hours and 15 minutes, AVATAR 2 loses its eye-popping power, and morphs into a slog that I couldn’t shake no matter what the spectacle-ambitious Cameron kept throwing at me. Amazing effects, and innovative state of the art designs just can’t disguise what a profoundly unengaging, and just plain uninteresting experience this long-gestating, little-enthused about sequel is. 

ATWOW was the first film in ages that I had to wear 3D glasses for (at a damn Lie-MAX too), and I think I’m deciding now that I’m not gonna do the same for AVATARs 3, 4, and 5 (due in 2024, 2026, and 2028). Maybe I’ll feel different in a few years, but right now, I’m pretty done with all this expensive blue blather.

More later...

Thursday, November 10, 2022

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER Is More A Mourning Companion Than A True Sequel

Opening this evening at every multiplex in the multiverse:

(Dir. Ryan Coogler, 2022)

The MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is if your living situation has been living under a rock for the last quarter of a century) is such a propelling machine that not even the death of the lead actor of one of the biggest hits in the franchise will halt any production going forward. Of course, I’m talking about Chadwick Boseman, whose untimely demise in 2020, changed the course of the series as his performance as T'Challa / Black Panther was largely the reason the first installment earned over 1.3 billion at the box office, was hailed as one of the best films of the MCU, and was the first superhero film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

But the 2018 BLACK PANTHER was very rich with other elements that scored with audiences so the idea that a sequel could build on the world of Wakanda (the fictional technogically advanced African nation that’s home to T’Challa and his family), particularly in the role of the sister of our dearly departed, Princess Shuri, played by Letitia Wright. Wright, who also reprised Shuri in two AVENGERS entries, INFINITY WAR and ENDGAME, unsurprisingly has been upgraded to the star in this go round as anybody can guess she ends up donning the shiny, black and purple panther suit, and helmet herself to take on the title.

Also returning are Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s River Tribe War Dog lover, Nakia; Danai Gurira as Okoye, general of the all female fight forces, the Dora Milaje; Angela Bassett as Ramonda, The Queen Mother of Wakanda, Winston Duke as T’Challa’s former challenger, M’Baku; and, well, I’ll just stop there and say that it looks like every major player from the first one is back, even Michael B. Jordan puts in a welcome cameo as N’Jadaka, the main antagonist in the original.

After a Marvel Studios opening logo fashioned as a stunning, emotional tribute with multiple images of Boseman filling up the onlines of the company’s letters, we are taken into an emotional emergency sequence in progress in which we witness Shuri been shaken by the death of her brother by some unspecified disease (it sure wasn’t the colon cancer that took the actor in real life). The first chunk of the film is a very somber, and thoughtful mediation on grief as T’Challa’s family and friends attempt to move on but the shadow of their fallen king and protector looms large over them and the movie as a whole.

But there is a plot here involving the powerful metal Vibranium, the series undeniable McGuffin, and how the whole world wants it including this film’s adversary, Namor (Tenoch Huerta) The king of Talokan, an ancient civilization of underwater dwelling people. Caught up in this is MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), and another welcome reprise: Martin Freeman as CIA agent, Everett Ross, who has some awkward scenes that don’t quite gel with another Marvel veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, who is basically a slight variation of her hateful Veep character.

Over the course of its two hours and forty minute running time, there are the big noisy (the volume at the press screening I attended was particularly loud) action sequences – this time concerning yet another bombastic bridge-set battle, and a ginormous finale ocean-set battle, but the quieter, contemplative moments of mourning are what the movie’s really about. 

Wright’s Shuri carries WAKANDA FOREVER with her spunk driven to fill the space left behind by her brother, with her genuine sadness over the loss coming to surface throughout her heartfelt performance. As the movie is bookended by visual memorial tributes made out of choice shots of Boseman, and so much of it focusing on the grief surrounding T’Challa’s death, it felt more like more like a mourning companion to the original BLACK PANTHER than a true sequel to me, but on that level it mostly works that to its benefit. It’s like the action scenes could’ve been completely cut, and a straight super hero drama could be fashioned from the footage, and it’ll probably have the same intended impact.

It may fall short of being a completely satisfying follow-up, but this glorified BLACK PANTHER epilogue of sorts does fall in line with the rest of Phase four of the MCU, being that it’s a serviceable entry as the 30th film in the franchise. Meaning it will be devoured, and spit out by the hardcore, seen and disposed by the casual fans, and ignored by the rest of the movie-going public, who apparently are the minority as these super hero movies are still dominating the big screen landscape. Until that changes, at least there’s some real emotion, and sentimentality in a project like this to inject some soul, and a heart, and an African drum beat to Disney and Marvel’s never stopping movie machine when its most needed.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

KING CRIMSON AT 50: Light On The Then, Heavy On The Now

(Dir. Toby Amies, 2022)

oday, Toby Amies' new documentary about the legendary British band, King Crimson, with a title as long as many of the prog rock band's epic songs, opens in a limited theatrical release, which will be followed by its worldwide one-night-only digital event release on October 22nd.

Now, I've never been into prog rock - nothing against it, there has been some of it that I dug, but just never really explored the genre - so the legend of King Crimson is largely new territory for me. Loving rock docs, even ones about artists/bands that I'm not into, I love to be educated by a well crafted film, full of archival footage, and insightful anecdotes, on the background of beloved musical icons, but early on in this half century celebration of Robert Fripp and company I could tell that this film is no cinematic Wikipedia page.

With only minor asides to the past, Amies' film focuses on King Crimson's pre-pandemic 50th Anniversary tour in 2019, as there's only a handful of clips from the band's late '60s and early-mid '70s heyday, so we spend more time hanging in hallways and mulling about in concert venues than informing newcomers like me to their history.

The film opens on vast shots of an elaborate theater, with stunning exteriors dominated by silver glass domes, and a majestic palace of an interior. Thing is, this beautiful venue is never identified (I learned later that it’s the Parca Della Musica Auditorium, and no date is given). This is the norm throughout the rest of the movie as much live performance material is featured, but without informative info presented. Venues aren’t even listed in the end credits so a rock geek like me who cares about such stuff has to do his own research to put this stuff in proper context.

But what I did get as a takeaway is that King Crimson leader / founder / conceptual mastermind Fripp is a pretty prickly fellow. Several times, Fripp acidly snips at Amies, putting down his questions (“preposterous tosh” he calls one line of questioning), and he just regularly seems annoyed, but he also waxes on wistfully, and pretentiously about the shaping of his vision through different line-up changes through five decades.

It’s impossible to not use the word pretentious when talking about King Crimson, as it’s my understanding that pretentiousness is imbedded in the prog rock genre. So a newbie like me, with little connection to their extensive catalog, may get lost in some of the lofty talk about their process.

But surrounding that is juiciness in the sideline interaction of band members like multi-instrumentalists Jakko M. Jakszyk, and Bill Rieflin, who was suffering from colon cancer on the tour, and passed in 2020. There’s also some cool commentary from the likes of Adrian Belew, Ian McDonald, and Bill Bruford.

There have been 22 members of King Crimson over the years, but this film only covers 14 of them. The rest are given an “Absent from the film, but not forgotten” mention at the end. I can’t decide whether it’s funny or offensive that Rieflin’s cat is given some screen-time over even a tiny mention of any a bunch of legit ex-members of the band, especially as it’s only a 96-minute film.

KING CRIMSON is undeniably for fans over the uninitiated, and the parts with the followers, whether joyous audience shots, or fun interview bits at whatever concert hall, are some of the best moments, but since a newbie like me got a taste of this grand band’s appeal, maybe you will too. But I would’ve preferred more back story as there’s only a handful of old timey TV and live clips, and it would have been nice to hear more about the songs, and the sets chosen for the tour - you know, the music itself, man!

I’ll have to do that research myself, I guess. Dammit, I hate when docs make me do my own research!

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Friday, October 14, 2022


Opening in a limited theatrical release somewhere today:

(Dir. Martin Owen, 2022)

he genre of the undead flourishes again in this odd offering from Martin Owen (L.A. SLASHER, LET'S BE EVIL, KILLERS ANONYMOUS, THE INTERGALACTIC ADVENTURES OF MAX CLOUD), Releasing in theaters today, and dropping on VOD platforms on October 18th. Billed as “a modern fairytale, except with zombies,” the dark comedy stars Max Harwood as Oliver, a timid teenager trying to find his way through suburban life after his mother passes.

For this “zombedy,” as some are calling it, Director Owen worked from a screenplay by Piers Ashworth, and the project re-united him with cinematographer Håvard Helle, who had shot his last several movies. Notably, the one recognizable name involved is Emilio Estevez, who executive-produced the film.

Shot in Canada (Vancouver, British Columbia), but set in an unspecified everytown, the film is set in 1987 amid a surreal blend of pastels, kitschy household trickets, and Alf reruns always on the TV. Harwood's awkward Oliver, after the tragic, yet deliciously colorful death of his mother (Carol Anne Watts), comes to a catharsis about his lonely situation at a cemetery, and starts to dig up various bodies, and bring the undead to live with him at his suburban home. Basically, Oliver has taken the initiative in his life to dig up some friends.

Oliver’s first post mortem pal is Mitch, played by a shades or bandaged head-wearing Hero Fiennes Tiffin in a tuxedo. After a close call, Oliver bandages the head of his corpse-lish companion, and asks, “You know, you could’ve been caught; what would you have done?” to which we get the plucky reply: “Play dead.” Yes, Tiffin, whose character is credited as Mitch, is a zombie, but a talking, aware one, so the undead aren't like the walkers in The Walking Dead or many of the other shows and movies in the wide genre.

Our protagonist even arranges the deteriorating undead like a family on a couch poised for a photographic portrait that’s used as a touchstone throughout the film. This sentimentality is balanced out with disgusting scatological humor like a vomit bit that goes on too long, and too many close-ups of gruesome organ mishaps presented as goofy sight gags.

Oliver’s supporting cast includes Susan Wokoma in a stand-out role as Oliver’s sassy maid, and a blonde/blue-haired punk Tallulah Haddon, as Oliver’s love interest. There’s also zombie friends such as Evan Ross, Hammed Animashaun, Ben Miller, and Jacob Sartorius who live it up in party and diner scenes. Some sketchy types like a dapper Nicholas Stone, and Ashley Benson as social workers decorate the fringes of the film but end up having little consequence to the story.

This fairytale concerning the undead as companions for a lonely boy conveys a tone and a stylistic approach recalling Wes Anderson, Tim Burton, and Edgar Wright, but the film isn’t fleshed out enough to stand with the works of those masters. THE LONELIEST BOY IN THE WORLD is likable enough, but is more weird than actually funny, and its characters aren’t as endearing as the film wants them to be. 

Funny thing is, for a film set in, and aiming to ape the ‘80s, it’s the type of movie that would’ve been a cult film back in the actual Reagan era of four decades ago. It would’ve most likely fallen in with the likes of DROP DEAD FRED, WEIRD SCIENCE, or even THE TOXIC AVENGER. But now it’ll likely fall through the cracks, and not gain the odd-interest audience that it’s looking for. While I may have found it too obtuse, underwritten, and just plain strange for the sake of it, I bet there’s some kid or lonely boy or girl out there it will speak to.

More later...

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Fun With Screener Watermarks

One perk about being a film critic is getting advance screeners of movies in the form of physical discs (DVDs, Blu rays), or private links to movies online. Because of piracy, many of them are watermarked because if the screener is bootlegged by way of discs or illegal Internet downloads, the watermark allows authorities to trace things all the way back to their disc of origin.

Sometimes the watermark pops just up every now and then throughout the film (like the one with my email address from GET BACK above), but a lot of the time it’s there the film’s entire run, and that can be annoying, especially when your name is misspelled, and right in the middle of the screen:

That may have impacted my review of CONFESS, FLETCH, which you can read here. But then one of the only plusses about CLERKS III (my review) is that they got my name right, and it was not in bold face so it was softly embedded, and appeared lower on the screen, so I could ignore it better:

The one for BREAKING (my review) was just my initials so that was an ideal one too:

And finally, here's a shot of Sigourney Weaver holding a picture of a young Kevin Kline from THE GOOD HOUSE, which you can read here.

So apparently this post was to clean out my picture folder, and to plug some recent reviews.

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Friday, October 07, 2022

Majorly Problematic David O. Russell’s Mildly Problematic AMSTERDAM

Now playing at a multiplex or arthouse near you:

AMSTERDAM (Dir. David O. Russell, 2022)

To say that it started out so richly promising, but then got all screwy, and messy, could go for this movie, and for David O. Russell’s entire filmmaking career. After making a minor splash back in the ‘90s with such offbeat comedies as SPANKING THE MONKEY, and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, then making a breakthrough with THREE KINGS, Russell has built a reputation for abusive behavior on his sets.


Tales have run rampant of Russell headbutting George Clooney in a fight while shooting THREE KINGS, and verbally berating Lily Tomlin (calling her the C-word in a video you can still find on YouTube), and Amy Adams on I HEART HUCKABEES, and AMERICAN HUSTLE respectively. However, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and even Tomlin herself have made more than one film with him so there’s that.


Then there’s the allegations of sexual assault involving his 19-year old trans niece, so, yeah, Russell has baggage, and he’s never been a favorite filmmaker of mine. But I’ve liked some of his films albeit in a fairly superficial way, as they are usually visually appealing, have fine casts, and zippy narratives. I haven’t felt that they’ve added up to vital cinematic statements, and I sure don’t see that in his latest offering, the so-called mystery comedy thriller, AMSTERDAM, which stars Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington as a trio of World War I combat vets, who come together in 1933 to foil a fascist plot to overthrow the U.S. government.


Bale is undoubtedly the lead protagonist as he anchors nearly every scene as the crochety Dr. Burt Berendsen, a war veteran with a prosthetic eye. It’s another fully realized Bale character, and he’s a joy to watch fumbling through the film, whether lovelorn over his estranged wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), or bantering with Washington as his best pal lawyer, Harold Woodsman, who glides through the movie’s snazzy set-pieces with his smooth, dapper demeanor.


Rounding out the triad that recalls the trios of hipster friends in obvious Russell touchstones as FrançoisTruffautJULES AND JIM, and Jean-Luc Godards BAND OF OUTSIDERS, is Robbie, working those saucer eyes as nurse Valerie Voze, who Bale’s Burt, and Washington’s Howard first meet in 1918 WWI, and re-unite in Manhattan in 1933. 

The complex, or clunky (or both) plot mechanics, housed in a lot of talky exposition, involve the murders of General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) and his daughter Liz (Taylor Swift), and a political scandal with a surprisingly invested Robert De Niro as General Gil Dillenbeck, who is based on real-life figure, Major General Smedley Butler, keying into the film’s opening declaration that “A lot of this actually happened.”


Russell has amassed a film full of stars as we’ve got a straight faced Chris Rock as another war buddy turned legal associate, an elegant Zoe Saldaña as a coroner /possible love interest for Burt, Michael Shannon, and Mike Myers as bird-watching spies (my favorite characters); and a wonderfully smarmy Rami Malek, and an an amusing uppity Anya Taylor-Joy as Valerie’s wealthy, snobby brother Tom, and his wife Libby. 


When the strands of the narrative, which is based on the 1934 “Business Plot,” a scheme hatched to overthrow the democratic government in place of a dictatorial regime, lead to a messy reveal that somehow doesn’t have its intended impact, the film’s capering falls short of the cleverness it’s straining for. 

Misguided moments abound, like a fantasized shooting of someone because they’re annoying gag, and a number of attempts at Coen brothers-style comic set-ups that don’t pay off, so the film falls short of a romp, but it still has a likable bounce to it as the camera of master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki crisply bops around the nifty New York-period sets, courtesy of designers, Patricia Cuccia, and Erin Fite. 


I consider Russell’s AMSTERDAM to be only mildly problematic, because it’s a light endeavor thats ambition feels like an afterthought after all the polished stylings have gone through their paces. Much like AMERICAN HUSTLE, the film is style over substance, but it can be quite enjoyed on that surface level. Bale’s performance alone makes it worth seeing, and there are other considerable artistic merits such as its great visuals, so if you don’t try to dig too deep, or expect a mind-blowing history lesson, you’ll get a decent, but disposable time at the picture show.

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Friday, September 30, 2022

A Wicked Sigourney Weaver Elevates The Light Comic Addiction Drama, THE GOOD HOUSE

Now playing at a indie arthouse or multiplex (mostly multiplexes) near you:

(Dir. Maya Forbes & Wally Wolodarsky, 2022)

New England realtor Hildy Good is a very familiar character. As portrayed by a wickedly sardonic Sigourney Weaver, she could be a younger third wheel to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s Grace and Frankie, as she also had a homosexual hubby for decades, with her denial over her excessive drinking likewise being par for the course (“I was born three drinks short of comfortable, that’s all,” she confides).

The 72-year old Weaver breaks the fourth wall to bring us into her world, in which she drives around the fictional seaside town of Wendover, Massachusetts (looks exactly like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) stressing about her struggling real estate agency, schmoozing with potential clients, and pretending that she’s living a sober life after an intervention from her constantly fretting family.

But Hildy has been enjoying multiple glasses of wine in cozy night hangs with her friend Rebecca (Morena Baccarin), who is having a secret affair with a local psychiatrist friend of Hildy’s (Rob Delaney). Our lush of a lead is also having romantic thoughts about an old flame named Frank, played by a crusty Kevin Kline, who previously starred with Weaver in DAVE (1993), and the ICE STORM. Kline’s scruffy construction contractor character is a welcome sight right off the bat, essentially summoning an older version of his persona in THE BIG CHILL as he dances to the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” at the gas pump.

After telling us that “Thanksgiving is a lot to ask of a sober person,” Weaver’s Hildy sneeks vodka throughout the holiday dinner evening with her ex-husband (David Rasche), her daughters (Rebecca Henderson and Molly Brown), but the evening goes by without incident, charmingly even, until her shaky drive home, that we learn the next day she blacked out on.

Another thing about Hildy is that she’s a descendant of the Salem witches, and has slight psychic abilities, but this isn’t a fleshed out element, and only serves for a connection in the third act conflict involving a missing child. Considering all of Hildy’s issues, intertwining a tinge of the supernatural in her milieu seems a bit silly, but perhaps it had more meaning in Ann Leary’s original novel.

The love story between Hildy and Frank injects some kooky charm into the proceedings as Weaver and Kline have a cute, lived-in chemistry, but their romance, or fling, seems more like a subplot, or sideline that could’ve been cut, and not affected the rest of the narrative much.

There’s enough juiciness in its wit and warmth to recommend THE GOOD HOUSE, but its real merit is in what Weaver brings to it. It’s surprising that the iconic actress has never won the Oscar in her career over half a century, especially as she’s won nearly every other award (Golden Globes, BAFTA, Screen Actors, even a Grammy). This film, even if it doesn’t make much of a splash, could lead to her fourth Academy Award nomination when her peers give their For Your Consideration screener of it a whirl. 

Deserving nomination or not, Weaver, with just a little help from an in-his-aging-element Kline, and a capable but unspectacular supporting cast, elevates this light comic addiction drama with her “Yankee stiff upper lip,” as Frank calls it. 

As I’m a former drinker, Hildy’s brand of denial hit home for me with cringy moments like of the secret drinking during Thanksgiving scene, and I so hated that I related to her lying exchanges with concerned friends and family, but by the end, I was content with my time with the actress/character, and didn’t mind that the mechanics of the movie that houses her weren’t up to her scale.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

CONFESS, FLETCH: Jon Hamm’s Fletch Chases Chevy’s Lazily

CONFESS, FLETCH (Dir. Greg Mottola, 2022)

After decades in development hell, investigative journalist Irwin M. Fletcher returns to the big screen, albeit in a limited release that will largely not be noticed. For those not in the know, Fletch is a character created by Gregory Mcdonald for a series of popular comic mystery novels that kicked off in the mid ‘70s, and is best known from his incarnation as Chevy Chase in two movies in the ‘80s - one a comedy classic, FLETCH (1985); the other, FLETCH LIVES (1989) not so much.


For the last three decades, the concept of rebooting FLETCH has come and gone a bunch of times. From all accounts, it began with Kevin Smith in the late ‘90s planning a project dubbed SON OF FLETCH, which would’ve involved Chase, but that fell through when Chase was an asshole to Smith or something. Then the project later became FLETCH WON, based on the tenth book in the series, and names like Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, and Jason Lee (Smith’s choice) were batted around. 


That’s how it would go – every now and then, word would spread about a FLETCH reboot, some names like Zack Braff (yeah, right), John Krasinski, Justin Long, Jason Sudeikis, and even Dave Chappelle are thrown around, then the project disappears. But out of the blue last summer, a trailer appeared featuring Jon Hamm of Don Draper/Mad Men fame smarming his way through some decent one-liners in a new comic thriller, and 33 years later, Fletch lives again.


But is Fletch really such an iconic character that needed resurrecting? His detached, above-it-all master of the sarcastic arts demeanor has been done to death by dozens of comic actors in countless comedies – it was an archetype long before Fletch came around, but Chase’s straddling of the line between being a witty, yet edgy charmer, or being an sexist, inappropriate asshole has branded the role. I’m not saying that Fletch as a character concept is problematically out-of-date, just that his persona just isn’t that appealing or funny as Mottola’s film thinks he is. 


This is despite a valiant effort by Hamm to fill Chase’s shoes. In the film’s first moments, we watch our the preppy-attired Lakers fan enter a luxury apartment in Boston to find a woman’s dead body lying on the carpet. This cold opening, involving Fletch trading forgettable banter with police detectives played by the slightly embarrassed looking actress, Ayden Mayeri, and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., sets the movie’s stylishly lackadaisical tone. When Fletch ques the film’s title card with the line “I’m an open book,” it doesn’t have any impact or sense of any excitement – it’s almost as if the film wants us to react to it with a “meh.”

From there we are taken into a plot concerning the kidnapped father of Fletch’s girlfriend Angela Di Grassi (Lorenza Izzo), with the ransom being a Picasso painting worth millions. While a suspect for murder, and switching identities more often than his underwear (not really, but that was the tagline on the original’s poster), Fletch does his unctuous, self-amused thing in talky set-pieces engaging quest stars like Kyle MacLachlan as a snooty germaphobe art dealer who has a cringy EDM dance scene, Annie Mumolo as a flighty free-spirited train-wreck of a neighbor (the film’s oddest scene tone-wise); most embarrassingly, Marcia Gay Harden as the horny cliché of an Italian Countess; but most thankfully, Hamm’s Mad Men co-star John Slattery as Fletch’s former editor for a welcome newsroom, and drink at a bar bit cameo.

The stakes with the stolen art, the murder mystery, whatever, feel so low that it’s hard to care or remember details while the movie rolls on. In Ritchie’s first FLETCH, the premise was simple, but had teeth, and the film lived from quotable quip to quip (the Onion even once satirized its reputation with “Area Insurance Salesman Celebrates 14th Year of Quoting Fletch”) but here, the lines are so-so, with maybe every fourth or fifth one being slightly chuckle-worthy, and the whole vibe, and energy doesn’t even try to gel.

I still like the idea of Hamm as Fletch, and feel that there could’ve been something more here if there was more of a spark or fresh take on the material as the 1976 novel it came from was an acclaimed award winner, and could’ve served for a weightier adaptation. I bet director, and co-writer Mottola, and first-time screenwriter Zev Borow’s script could’ve gotten there in a few drafts.

While this is a certainly a sturdier, and better crafted film than Chase’s last turn as Fletch was given, that lame film actually had more laughs. CONFESS, FLETCH is a half-assed reboot that probably would’ve been better as a Hulu series or on some such platform as Fletch just doesn’t feel like it could or should be a cinematic deal these days. This type of snarky storytelling with its lazy plotting, light twists, and jaded jokery is the stuff of television anyway.

And that’s where you can find Hamm’s first foray as FLETCH - on a bunch of streaming services (Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, etc.) now for $19.99, then next month on Showtime (premieres on Oct. 28, 2022) for whatever that service costs.

I’d suggest putting it on the Underhill’s bill. 

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

MOONAGE DAYDREAM: A Sensory Overload Of A Bowie Biodoc Blast

Now playing at indie theaters, multiplexes, and, with hope, an IMAX near you:

(Dir. Brett Morgen, 2022)

It’s fitting that preceding this film’s IMAX presentation, one has to wade through a bunch of trailers for upcoming sci-fi-themed blockbuster wannabes because Brent Morgen’s David Bowie biodoc (of sorts) epic posits its subject as an alien visitor who came and conquered our planet way back when.


Of course, that’s the premise of Bowie’s iconic 1971 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and it’s a great starting off point for this artsy AF two hour and 15 minute sensory overload of footage (both classic archival, and never-seen-before film and video), photographs, drawings, paintings, unpublished writings, interview clips, and every possible Bowie-related scrap of material imaginable.


Morgen, previously responsible for such top notch docs as THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, and KURT COBAIN: MONTAGE OF HECK, sculpts a thriving portrait that captures Bowie’s career in an dazzling fever dream of a driving narrative that beautifully bathes the audiences in its immersive, non-stop imagery. It’s like the psychedelic sequence climax in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY became this Bowie movie, if you can go with that – I sure can.


In its opening set-up, we hear the voice of intellectual television personality Dick Cavett give the then up and coming glam rock star a colossal build-up intro on his 1974 talk show: “Rumors and questions have arisen about David, such as who is he, what is he, where did he come from, is he a creature of a foreign power, is he a creep, is he dangerous, is he smart, dumb, nice to his parents, real, a put-on, crazy, sane, man, woman, robot, what is this?”


Cavett, and a few other interviewer’s voices can be heard throughout the film, but it’s largely Bowie’s own softly spoken tones that take us through his journey or journeys as each incarnation whether it be Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, Halloween Jack, or even the mainstream ’80s era “Let’s Dance” dude has his own intertwined path. Speaking of “Let’s Dance” – it’s far from my favorite Bowie, but cut to Morgen’s expertly edited montage of choreographed dance bits spanning our beloved entertainer’s career, it’s a joyous delight.


One framing device involves video of a bleached blonde Bowie from around the shooting of Nagisa Ôshima’s MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE in Java, in Indonesia in the early ‘80s. We witness a demure superstar-in-hiding casually walking around his hotel, and surrounding town, and get a sense of him as the genuinely open-minded, and curious chap that can make a big splash when he wants in an explosion of make-up, costuming, and ultra flashy theatrics, but somehow doesn’t come off pretentious when he tries to explain his artistic intents.


As for the music itself, Bowie’s incredible back catalog is well represented with booming live footage from familiar sources such as D.A. Pennebaker’s ZIGGY STARDUST concert doc (1973), Alan Yentob’s BBC doc, Cracked Actor; various music videos, and TV appearances in which such classics as “All the Young Dudes” (a hit he wrote for Mott the Hoople, but Bowie would reclaim live), “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” and dozens of other crowd-pleasers are delivered in all their popping glory which kept my head bobbing throughout.


A powerful highlight for me was Bowie’s belting out a definitive rendition of his 1977 near standard “Heroes” to a mesmerized stadium of crazed fans on the Isolar II: 1978 World Tour. It’s a piece of grainy, dark film, but the clarity of Bowie’s tour de force performance is stunning, while the song passionately churns forward.


MOONAGE DAYDREAM obviously isn’t a conventional, straight forward documentary so don’t go looking for defined dates, details, or the chronological context - it does adhere somewhat to a timeline, but skips around within various eras - that other such films will provide. I consider it to be a living, breathing collage of the best bits of Bowie’s Sound+Vision manifesto that might bombard non believers, but will undoubtably satisfy long-time disciples, and bring new converts into the fold.


Having listened to Bowie for decades, and having had the immense pleasure of seen him live twice (in 1990, and 1995), I can attest that Morgen has amassed a spectacular sensory-overload of a portrait of an artist in his many primes. See it on the biggest screen you can, while you can, and let the children boogie.


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Thursday, September 15, 2022

CLERKS III Is For The Hardcore, While The Rest Of Us Will Cringe Hard

CLERKS III (Dir. Kevin Smith, 2022)

“Whatcha looking at? That’s how we did it in the ‘90s, son!” yells Jason Mewes through his creepily perfect white AF teeth in what feels like his 1000th performance as the obnoxious drug-dealer Jay early on in the third installment of Kevin Smith’s CLERKS, releasing this week through Fathom Events (Sept. 13-18).


Thing is, everything in this, maybe the most unnecessary sequel in the history of unnecessary sequels, is how Smith did it in the ‘90s. Smith’s filmmaking skills have barely progressed from 29 years ago, nor has his dialogue which revels in the same old scatological concerns designed for teenaged senses of humor, and we’re just yet again given characters going through the get-your-shit-together motions with a lazy, yet good natured run through skit-like scenes.


These characters, our returning leads Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) begin the trilogy finale where they left off in CLERKS II, working at the QuickStop, bitching about pop culture, and passing time playing hockey on the roof with what looks like the cast of Smith’s AMC show, Comic Book Men. In the 15 years since the second one, Dante’s wife Becky (Rosario Dawson) has passed along with their unborn daughter so there’s that potential emotional element.


In the middle of a sloppy religious discussion (including a “Bourne Nativity” trailer joke), Randal suffers a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital where he’s operated on by Amy Sedaris as a wise-cracking doctor. While recovering, Randal has the impulse to find his purpose in making the movie of his life, a movie about a guy who works in a convenience store with “all of the shit you and I have said sitting at this counter, they’re all scenes now,” as he tells a skeptical Dante.


Obviously, the low concept premise is that Randal is going to make the original movie CLERKS, so the film goes all meta with bits that recreate the making of the 1994 production but with Randal in the Director’s chair (Smith’s Silent Bob serves as the cinematographer). Meanwhile, a long grief-stricken Dante visits his wife’s grave for a pep-talking cameo by Dawson, which triggers major O’Halloran crying action, the waterworks of which flow through a lot more of the movie than a CLERKS sequel should allow.


Speaking of cameos, we’ve got a slew with the obligatory wacky auditions sequence in which the immortal CLERKS line “I’m not even supposed to be here today,” and then other random movie lines are spouted by slumming-it celebrities Fred Armisen, Danny Trejo, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Freddie Prinze Jr., with an appearance by longtime Smith crony, Ben Affleck, who always pops up in every View Askewverse entry, to do some lines from MEET THE PARENTS for some reason.    


When Marilyn Ghigliotti returns as Dante’s ex-girlfriend, Veronica, from the original, she is seen shooting her scene as her 61-year old self, but Randal’s film captures her and O’Halloran in their grainy black and white youth in, of course, footage from CLERKS. Other bit players from CLERKS show for similar b & w scene recreations, and it’s a cute conceit, not without its charms, but it can’t help from feeling icky in an overly sentimental, self-celebratory way.

Dante really nails it when he says Randal’s film project will “cinematically suck his own dick,” so at least Smith is up front with this self love intent. And maybe all this revisionism its so that Silent Bob can now be skinny in his redone part as Smith hasn’t been too fat to fly Southwest in a long while.


The third act involves more trouble in bromance land as Dante and Randal get into a climatic argument about their strained friendship, and this results in another epiphany for about the real subject of Randal’s CLERKS redux. This is all very talky material which mostly rolls along, but there’s a tone deaf and forced feeling to interactions when other people enter the main duo’s frame.


That aside, the ginormously overriding issue with CLERKS III is how achingly unfunny it is. The overly hip talk falls flat, lame one-liner after another, and every attempt at gags, like a subplot about QuickStop co-worker Elias (Trevor Fehrman, an unfortunate holdover from CLERKS II) selling Christ-themed crypto-kite NFTs, just resulted in some of the biggest cringes I’ve experienced in my entire movie-watching history.


However, if CLERKS is a favorite movie of yours, then this style of fan service might just be your thing. I enjoyed the amusingly raw 1994 original, and a few of Smith’s other films over the years, but I don’t have the emotional connection needed for this final (I hope) hang with the convenience store crew to resonate. The fates of Anderson, who largely doesn’t have a film career apart from his work as Randal in this franchise, and O’Halloran as these supposedly lovable losers just doesn’t hold much weight for me these days, especially with the lack of genuine laughs. 


But while I found CLERKS III to be an ultra cringe-fest of masturbatory movie-making, the one endearing takeaway I can gather is that at least Kevin Smith never forgets who his friends are.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Rialto’s Goodbye Marquee And Their Cryptic Current Status

I’m finally getting around to posting my video of the last marquee change at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh, NC, when it closed at the end of last month (August 28). In it, you can see Ambassador Entertainment principle, Bill Peebles, put up the last letters for the Rialto’s message to moviegoers: “THATS ALL FOLKS…UNTIL.”

The event also served as a retirement party for Peebles, where it was good to see some of my fellow co-workers from the past (I’ve worked for Ambassador Entertainment since 2009).

So that was the end of the AE era of the Rialto, and at that time there was no news of a possible buyer, or any word on the building’s fate, but right now the marquee reads:

I’ve inquired to the Rialto’s General Manager, Wes Farrell, who can be seen handing the letters for the marquee in the video above, about the meaning of the marquee (it has obvious connotations, sure) and have so far received no comment. But it is indeed intriguing.


One last shot for now:

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