Monday, January 31, 2022

When A Celebrity Dies, Social Media Thrives

Celebrities used to die in threes, now they seem to die daily. That means that much of one’s time on social media is regularly spent reacting or simply observing the activity surrounding a famous fallen figure. In the days that follow, a consensus processing of the star’s demise can be witnessed. Here are is the procedure presented day-by-day. You just may see yourself in it. 

Day 1: The celebrity’s death is a global event. Tons of people make R.I.P. posts on Facebook, Twitter, and every other social media platform. Some offer stories of loving the dearly departed’s work since childhood, others post YouTube clips, there are remembrances from folks who met them in person, memes, and photos galore. It all feels heartfelt, sincere, and we all seem to be on the same page about how this artist’s achievements made this a better world.


Day 2: The backlash. We wake up to posts by people who aren’t fans, who want to point out bad things the artist did, and tell us that the star wasn’t who you thought they were. Maybe the artist cheated on or was violent to their partner, or maybe their art was racist or sexist or offensive in some manner; whatever it is, internet posters want their objections to the previous day’s adulation heard.

Day 3: A mixture of the last two day’s sentiments. Though the posts about the famous deceased are less frequent, they still randomly appear as there are some people who didn’t hear about it until a considerable time after the fact, and are catching up. 


Day 4: The global event winds down. There still are tribute posts, but most people have moved on. Now, this applies mainly to A-listers, B and C-listers have a shorter online mourning period. Major stars like David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, Tom Petty, Prince, etc. are still getting tribute posts – hell, I just saw someone post likewise about George Harrison and he’s been dead since 2001.


The one thing that can quicken the life of this cycle is if some other beloved celebrity passes not long after the original famous person passed. Example: A week ago, trash rocker Meat Loaf died. Less than a day later, comedian Louie Anderson died. That means that there were people who were mourning overtime.


While writing this, I find out that Howard Hesseman just died. So, of course, folks are posting pictures and clips mostly of his iconic character, Dr. Johnny Fever from WKRP in Cincinnati. That’s what I did. Sadly, as much as I love the guy, he’s largely known to people of a certain age who watched him on TV 40 years ago so he’s not A-list, and his homage will be short lived. In a day or two, Hesseman’s demise will be put aside for the social media homage to the next famous fallen figure, and the cycle will restart.


I’ll end now with a picture of Dr. Johnny Fever that I drew 40 years ago. I think I was trying to capture him one of his greatest moments, his “Give it to me straight, Doctor, I can take it!!!” declaration from the show’s pilot.


More later...

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

‘Tis The Season For Some Screenings Part 2

The holiday season may be over, but the season for catching up with movies from the previous year continues, sometimes long into the new year. This sequel to a post by the same title (except for the numbers) from last month, so there may be more entries. Now, I saw very few films in the theater, so these are reviews of three films I watched on DVD or Blu ray. Enjoy!

THE TENDER BAR (Dir. George Clooney, 2021) *

I’ve long maintained that Ben Affleck isn’t a bad actor, he’s just not a very interesting one. He’s a likable guy, unless you’re an avid tabloid reader, but he’s not a very compelling, or vital presence in many of his movies. Here, in George Clooney’s eighth film as Director, he puts in a fine performance as the wise, and wise-cracking Uncle Charlie, a mentor to the film’s protagonist J.R. Maguire (a self-consciously ernest Tye Sheridan).

In flashbacks, J.R. is played by Daniel Ranieri, while Ron Livingston narrates Wonder Years-style as an older J.R. Much of the story is centered around the Maguires Long Island home, where J.R.’s mother (Lily Rabe) brought her son to get away from her ex-husband/his ultra-unreliable father (Max Martini). 

And then there’s the always reliable Christopher Lloyd. The gruff iconic actor embodies Grandpa Maquire, who also doles out advice to the young J.R., as well as accompanying him to a father/son breakfast at school. Affleck’s Charlie works as a bartender at a pub named The Dickens, where Sheridan’s J.R. drinks with his Yale schoolmates. J.R. finds love and heartache with classmate Sidney (Briana Middleton), pursues his dream of being a writer, tries to deal with his deadbeat dad, and bonds further with Uncle Charlie.

Beyond those broad strokes, not much happens. The film, based on J.R. Moehringer’s autobiographical novel of the same name, goes through these familiar coming-of-age motions without a lot to say. THE TENDER BAR isn’t a bad movie, it’s just not a very interesting one.

* THE TENDER BAR is available streaming on Amazon Prime.

CYRANO (Dir. Joe Wright, 2021) **

While every adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac that I’m aware of presents its lead character with an abnormally large nose, this version features the protagonist as a four-foot, five-inch dwarf. Peter Dinklage and his normal-sized nose, reprises his starring role in the off-Broadway production in 2019, as does Haley Bennett as Cyrano’s love interest, Roxanne. 

As in every version, Cyrano pines for Roxanne, but believes his physical size makes it impossible for him to win her over. Cyrano masks his heartache with his quick wit, and sword-fighting skills, both of which Dinklage swiftly carries off. Dinklage comes close to carrying the entire film, if it wasn’t for the strong ensemble that includes Kelvin Harrison Jr., Bashir Salahuddin, and Ben Mendelsohn.

What I didn’t know going in is that this adaptation is a musical. Its score, and songs were largely composed by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger of the Ohio rock band, The National. I like The National, but although there a few solid tunes, mostly the music is forgettable. Dinklage would be the first to admit that he’s no singer as well, but somehow he, again, carries it off. Director Joe Wright’s filmography is full of polished, elegant films, and CYRANO is no exception due to it being the fourth collaboration between Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. 

The screenplay, written by Erica Schmidt, who happens to be Dinklage’s wife, is faithful to the original story, but constructs its own framework of sharp dialogue, and pleasing poetic stances. Overall, I enjoyed CYRANO, but I don’t think that it’s the definitive version of the classic stage play (not that I’ve seen every other revamping, but Steve Martin’s 1987 take, ROXANNE, is probably my favorite). Dinklage is clearly the reason this film is worth seeing. As lovely as the rest of it is, it’s mere decoration for Dinklage’s irresistible performance.

** CYRANO is set to go into limited release in theaters next month on February 25th.


ATTICA (Dir. Stanley Nelson, 2021) ***

I first became aware of Stanley Nelson at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival some time ago. A number of his films, which for the most part deal with racial justice, have been a part of the long-running PBS program, American Experience. Nelson’s work is devoid of flashy stylistic packaging, which means that there aren’t animated segues, or glitzy graphics; they’re just collections of the most relevant footage of their subjects’ vital storylines, sometimes augmented with era-appropriate music. They’re bare bones and all the better for it. Nelson’s latest, ATTICA, is summed up in its opening text: “On September 9th, 1971, inmates at Attica, 20 miles from NYC, took over the prison.” 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST Is A Loosely Autobiographical Charmer

Opening today exclusively in the Triangle at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh:

BELFAST (Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2021)

enneth Branagh’s 19th film as Director, but only second as writer, is one of his best films.

Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1969, the story concerns life in the time of “The Troubles,” a long-running conflict that pitted the Catholics against the Protestants. The riots that result, as well as the reactions of the townspeople are seen through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year old who witnesses a violent mob infiltrating his neighborhood in the film’s opening sequence.

Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan), and Ma (Caitríona Balfe), have friction over whether they should relocate, as Pa commutes to England for work and wants his family with him. Ma doesn’t want to leave because she’s emotionally attached to her home since birth. More interesting is Buddy’s grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). Pop’s love advice to Buddy, harboring a crush on a classmate (Olive Tennant), oozes with wisdom and charm. I wish Dench were given more to do, but her dour appearance fits in authentically with the material.

Buddy falls into a bad crowd, well, mainly one member of a bad crowd really, Moira (Lara McDonnell) who tries to train him how to shoplift. This makes for an amusing scene in a local shop in which a frantic Buddy steals Turkish Delight, which he doesn’t even like. Dornan’s Pa has his neck breathed down heavily by the sinister Protestant rioter Billy Clanton (a perfectly cast, and effective Colin Morgan), who wants Pa (really, that’s how he’s credited) to join and be loyal to the cause.

Watching Buddy amble around his historically bleak environs may strike some as reminiscent of JOJO RABBIT, but, while there is a good deal of humor in BELFAST, it’s more grounded and less goofy. Completely different in its sentimental tone as well.

Although BELFAST is a black and white picture, it’s a nice touch that when the family goes to the movies, the scenes we see from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, AND ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. are in color. There are other color moments as well.

The film is appropriately awash in mostly classic tracks by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, including a new song, “Down to Joy.” The new tune is being talked about as a possible Oscar nominee, despite that it dates back to the early ‘70s. I guess because it was unreleased, re-recorded for the movie, and its title is slightly re-worded, it qualifies.

Even with feel-good contrivances such as how a confrontation with Clanton is thwarted, and Dornan’s rendition of the pop standard “Everlasting Love,” which I thought had to be someone else’s singing, but I was wrong), BELFAST is a modestly moving movie that’s optimistic about peace, families sticking together, and how childhood is a precursor to a complicated life. All of the cast are exceptional, but Hill as the conflicted kid in the middle of it all, puts in a convincing performance that provides the film with its heart. He's one to look out for.

Brangh, who considers this his most personal work, has produced a touching, loosely autobiographical period piece that ought to satisfy independent film audiences, and simply entertain whomever it happens upon. Expect BELFAST to get lots of awards season action (in fact, it already has).

More later...


Friday, January 07, 2022

The Drew Barrymore Movie That Riffed On Peter Bogdanovich’s Love Life

Sophisticated cinema connoisseur and dapper director Peter Bogdanavich, who passed away this week, inspired indie filmmakers, like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach; the many movie critics who dream, and have dreamed of making movies themselves, and folks who wear a bandana around their neck like it’s an ascot.

But a 1984 rom com, IRRECONCIBLE DIFFERENCES, starring Ryan ‘O Neal, Shelly Long, and Drew Barrymore, then a hot commodity because of E.T., used more than an outline of Bogdanovich’s scandalous love life in the ‘70s to beef up the backgrounds of a fame-seeking married couple who are getting sued for divorce by their daughter.

Let’s start with ‘O Neal in the Bogdanovich role. This makes some sort of sense, as O’Neal starred in three of Bogdanovich’s films. O’Neal’s character, Albert Brodsky, earned a Doctorate of cinema at NYU, then had a thesis published which led to an offer for a professorship at UCLA. O’Neal, who plays the part perfectly with crack comic timing and a palpable on-point pathos, his Brodsky hits the road to Los Angeles to accept the job, and pursue his dream of becoming a director.


Bogdanovich also started in New York, working as a programmer of films at the Modern Museum of Art, and writing movie criticism for Esquire. In the mid ‘60s, Bogdanovich and his wife, Polly Platt (1939-2011), moved to LA to pursue his dream of becoming a director.

Both film historians, Bogdanovich and Brodsky meet an influential grey-haired director/producer – in Bogdanovich’s case, cult legend Roger Corman; in Brodsky’s case, David Kessler (Sam Wanamaker) - through which they get their first big breaks.


Alongside Brodsky is Long as Lucy Van Patten, an aspiring children-books writer. While her husband is struggling with a screenplay, she works on getting her real estate license, but she quits that to help with screenplay and becomes its co-writer.


Except for the c0-writing, Bogdanovich’s spouse, Platt, has little in common with her big screen counterpart. While a hitch-hiking Allen met Lucy on a muddy road out in the middle of Indiana, Peter met Polly in summer stock in New York, but they did drive across country together to the same destination. 


As Peter (I’ve decided to go with the principals’ first names from here on), learned the ropes as an auteur, Polly became a highly acclaimed production designer, and worked on four of her husband’s films. 


Which brings us to the filmographies of Albert and Peter. We’ll start with the fictional one, Albert. With the help of his wife, Albert’s debut, An American Romance, is a big hit, which puts him on the movie map, while Lucy is left out of the lime light. Their next film, Gabrielle, also connects with audiences, but signals the end of Albert and Lucy’s marriage when Albert falls for the actress cast in the lead. That would be Sharon Stone, in one of her first films, as the gold-digging damsel, Blake Chandler.

The third time isn’t the charm for Albert, whose bloated GONE IN THE WIND-esque “Atlanta” movie-musical project flops big time, and Blake leaves him for the limo driver.

Back in the real world, Peter made double the amount of movies than Albert, but he had to wait until his fourth film for his scandal. The true classic of his filmography, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, won two Oscars, and slew of other awards, and it won Peter the heart of budding starlet, Cybill Shepherd. Polly left Peter, though she still worked on a few of his films, and Peter and Cybill went on to make two huge financial duds, DAISY MILLER and AT LONG LAST LOVE. Elements of these films are parodied in Albert’s “Atlanta,” and another similarity is that after these failures, Cybill left Peter for an auto parts dealer.

Returning to the world of make believe, Lucy’s arc involves having a best-selling book which seemingly tells all about her and Albert’s relationship, something Polly didn’t do (though there’s supposed to be her unpublished memoir that will maybe one day see the light), but she has appeared in numerous documentaries like EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULL, and DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE, giving insights into her days with Peter.

Now, I have to address Drew Barrymore, as I have her name in this post’s headline. Her part consists mostly of looking put-out, and pissed-off at her neglectful parents, and she definitely nails that. But some of her line readings are weak, and it’s hard to pin down how good an actress she is. But that’s because she was nine years old! Still, she’s now 46 and I still can’t pin down how good an actress she is.


Putting aside the comparisons between Peter Bogdanovich and Albert Brodsky, IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES holds up as a witty look at divorce among the ups and downs of show biz. It was an interesting idea for them, that being rom com writer gurus Nancy Myers, and Charles Shyer, to fashion much of the plot around the tabloid details of a famous director’s dalliances. More than interesting is that it largely works.


More later…

Monday, January 03, 2022

Betty White: TV Legend, But Film Star? Not So Much

A few days ago, the world was saddened by the death of Betty White. The comedy icon, who had been dubbed “The First Lady of Television, passed just a few weeks before her 100th birthday leaving behind a rich body of work from her radio performances in the ‘40s to her numerous game show stints (she was on everything including The $25,000 Pyramid, Password, and Hollywood Squares), her own program, The Betty White Show, in the ‘50s (she also had a show by the same name in the ‘70s), and of course her classic roles as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on the seminal The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rose Nyland on the popular ‘80s-‘90s sitcom, The Golden Girls, and beyond.

But what about her filmography? She’s been in a bunch of movies, but most were cameos or voice-overs. Why didn’t she ever breakthrough as a movie star? The obvious answer would be that she was too busy on the small screen, to take film acting seriously. Since everyone else is paying tribute to her extensive television background, I thought we’d look at her less heralded movie history, and see what it tells me.


Alongside her tireless TV activity, White appeared in around three dozen movies. This may not be accurate as her career goes way back, and there is little information to be found about a lot of films those days.


White’s first film, TIME TO KILL was shot four years before her TV career was launched. She is credited as “Lou’s Girl” in the 1945 army training short, which is also notable because DeForest Kelley (McCoy from the original Star Trek), and George Reeves (‘50s Superman) have parts. White’s brief screen-time can be seen here, and you can find the full 2o minute and change pretty easily via Google.


According to Wikipedia, White was in a 1951 film called THE DARING MISS JONES aka WILD WOMEN. There’s not much I could deduce about this movie except that it’s about the uprising of a thousand virgin women. WHITE SIRENS OF AFRICA is yet another alternate title. White was most likely little more than an extra, as one would guess by hers being an uncredited role.

It was over a decade later that White returned to the big screen in a much more significant film than her previous film work, ADVISE AND CONSENT, a 1962 political drama based on a novel that won the Noble Prize. White played the fictional Senator Bessie Adams in a star-studded cast headed by Henry Fonda. It’s not available on any streaming service I know, but the last time I checked, the whole film is on YouTube, as is this clip of one of White’s scenes (maybe the only scene – I haven’t watched the whole thing).

Now get this, White’s next movie gig was 24 years later. I can’t tell if BIG CITY COMEDY (1986) is a showcase of sketches or stand-up comedy, I can just tell you that she was credited as “Self.” It’s listed as a documentary on IMDb so maybe it is stand-up. It hardly looks like a movie too, as it’s only an hour. I bet it’s an 80s cable special that maybe got some theatrical showings. I dunno. Let’s move on.

It was yet well over another decade before White went all cinematic again, and it was in an unexpected genre. The movie was HARD RAIN, an action heist thriller starring Christian Slater and Morgan Freeman. Most notable was that her Mary Tyler Moore co-star, Ed Asner, also appeared in the film, but I can’t remember if they have any scenes together.

It was received terribly by the critics, and it flopped harder than the rain, but White, whose part mostly consisted of bickering with her co-star Richard Dysart, got out unscathed especially since her scenes were the only ones that came close to working.


The next entry, DENNIS THE MENACE STRIKES AGAIN (1998), is a straight-to-video release so I won’t spend much time with it, but I’m most struck by the casting of White as Martha Wilson, wife of the forever put-upon grumpy old man George Wilson as portrayed by comedian legend Don Rickles, in his last film role no less.


1999’s LAKE PLACID had White again wading into unfamiliar water as it was a horror flick concerning a ginormous crocodile. It was a equipped with a capable B-list ensemble headed by Bill Pullman, but White herself could’ve been seen as B-list at the time. The movie was largely panned by critics, but it made enough to spawn five (!) made for TV sequels. I wonder if White was invited back to the franchise, but, I dunno, she may have been killed in the original.


Also that year, White was featured in Rob Reiner’s icky marriage-on-the-rocks rom com, THE STORY OF US, starring Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer. White played Lilian Jordan, the mother of Bruce Willis’s character. His father is played by Red Buttons, so here’s another case of pairing up old familiar comic farts.

Next up, White lent her voice to the live action Disney production, WHISPERS: AN ELEPHANT TALE. She voiced an elephant named Round, surrounded by yet another B-list crowd. No, I don’t mean you, Angela Bassett.

I’m going to skip over a few straight-to-video titles, and TV movies (TOM SAWYER, THE RETREIVERS, WILD THORNBERRIES), and head to a throwaway 2003 Steve Martin/Queen Latifah vehicle entitled BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE. Funnily enough, White’s character is credited as Mrs. Kline, Peter’s racist neighbor. I don’t remember her in it, or much else because this is one ultra-forgettable film. 


Even though I’m ignoring TV movies for the most part, I’ve got to mention White’s cameo in 2003’s RETURN TO THE BATCAVE: THE MISADVENTURES OF ADAM AND BURT. You can probably guess that the telefilm stars Adam West and Burt Ward as themselves in a wacky adventure that acted as a tribute to the Batman TV series of the ‘60s. There was a running gag on the show in which the caped crusaders are climbing by rope up the side of a tall building, an illusion created by the camera being turned to a 90 degree angle. During their climb, there would be a celebrity cameo in which stars like Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., and Don Ho would pop their heads out of their windows to make some (often meta) wisecrack.

In RETURN TO THE BATCAVE, White fulfills the part of the brief guest starring role by opening here window to complain about Batman and Robin’s noisy ascent, then spouts out, “All night long, people going up and down the walls – it’s enough to drive you crazy!” Great writing, that ain’t. What's funnier than that is that White's credit is actually “Woman in Window During Batclimb Sequence.”

To show where she was in her career, in the 2000s she played three different Grandmothers – Grandma Sophie in THE WILD THORNBERRIES (2001), Grandma Annie in THE PROPOSAL (2009), and Grandma Bunny Byer in YOU AGAIN (also 2009).

Apart from her involvement in the animal activism (her biggest passion) documentaries YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS, IN SEARCH OF PUPPY LOVE, BETTY WHITE GOES WILD, and BETTY WHITE: CHAMPION FOR ANIMALS, the grand lady shined in a string of animated films. She contributed voice work to PONYO (2008), THE LORAX (2012), TOY STORY 4 (2019), and TROUBLE (2019), which was her final film role.

Looking over White’s filmography affirms the obvious: she was a television goddess; not a cinematic deity. Her movie roles were largely in forgettable films, many of which are unavailable or, at least, hard to find. With her brief insubstantial pop-ins in many of her film appearances, she didn’t get a chance to really strut her stuff. If only someone had written a movie vehicle for her talents. If only.

That’s okay. She left behind a vast array of quality work on the small screen that is, of course, her true legacy. She won seven Emmys, and countless other awards (including a Grammy!), so she’s not really lacking an Oscar. She probably didn’t care about that anyway. But whatever the medium, she appeared to be having a lot of fun.

My personal TV career favorite is her part as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her wicked delivery of sometimes racy, sometimes cruel, one-liners was delicious. I preferred Sue Ann to her performance as Rose on The Golden Girls. Sure, Rose was really funny, but I liked White better as a razor sharp, smart professional than as a ditz. 


If anyone has a favorite example of White on the silver screen, please speak up via the comments below. I doubt that there will be anyone speaking up though, we all know that in this business we call show, White was most at home on what used to be called “the boob tube.” Hell, she may have even coined that phrase.


More later...