Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Centrifugal Fun In The Cinema & TV!

While watching the new movie, BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD DO THE UNIVERSE on Paramount Plus, I found myself triggered into a series of film scene flashbacks. All because of an early sequence concerning the Mike Judge-created characters undergoing training for a space mission at NASA. Now, we’ve gone through these motions in the movies many times so the sight of seeing Beavis and Butthead going through G-force training, meaning being placed in a centrifuge which simulates the 9G forces pilots would encounter while flying is beyond commonplace in these scenerios.

So this process, which is to prevent G-induced loss of consciousness, and extend G-tolerance in astronauts and pilots, has been often used as a delivery device for face-stretching sight gags like we see once more with our dumbass heroes.


Centrifuge G-force training widely became a popular training procedure in the ‘70s, in which it scored some big screen action in Lewis Gilbert’s MOONRAKER (1979). This was the James Bond entry in the great STAR WARS sweepstakes of the era, so there’s a scene early in the film where Roger Moore’s 007 takes a centrifuge ride in a chamber at the villain’s space industries compound. Being Bond, his spin is sabotaged by one a henchman, and the speed dangerously increases so he has to use a gadget (a watch with a dart gun) to escape. 

This scene is played for suspense, and drama – it’s actually one of the few times in the series where Moore’s Bond appears vulnerable, actually shaken and stirred – but it introduces the comic premise that’s been previously identified as “centrifugal farce.”

This comic concept is described by tvtropes.com as being when, “characters subjected to the centrifuge will appear to be traveling at ludicrous speed, complete with comically flapping cheeks, eyeballs bugged out, and squashed faces.”

John Landis’ SPIES LIKE US (1985) contains a definitive example of centrifugal farce involving facial foolishness from the likes of Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase:


The scenes zany capper:

Sight Gag City, huh?

In 1995, the ginormous event of Homer Simpson flying to the stars in the season five Simpsons episode, “Deep Space Homer,” was also accompanied by some centrifugal farce. Unfortunately it makes for a rather poor sight gag in which Homer’s face becomes like Popeye’s – a gag that the DVD commentary revealed was not a favorite of Simpsons creator, Matt Groening’s.

Watch the scene:

Then there’s this wacky scene from Stuart Gillard’s ROCKETMAN (1997), starring forgotten funnyman, Harland Williams:


And this one from Clint Eastwood’s SPACE COWBOYS:


Okay, so that’s centrifugal farce. You can now go about your day.

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

LIGHTYEAR: Mildly Amusing, But Light On Real Movie Magic

Opening tonight at a multiplex near you:

LIGHTYEAR (Dir. Angus MacLane, 2022)

For those who are wondering why Chris Evans is voicing Buzz Lightyear in this TOY STORY spin-off, and not Tim Allen, it’s because in the TOY STORY series, Allen is the voice of an action figure based on an astronaut character that was the star of a movie that was popular in the shared TOY STORY universe.

So, as an opening disclaimer tells us, this is the movie that the toy-owning kid, Andy Davis, saw in 1995, that made him want the Buzz Lightyear toy, and the rest is DISNEY/PIXAR history!

As voiced by Captain America himself, Evans’ version of the character isn’t the self-satirical, goofy concoction that Allen gave us in four films (plus lotsa short films, and video game appearances); he’s a driven, fearless, and earnestly heroic construction.

But while that hardened persona makes this Lightyear a sturdy, serviceable action protagonist, it also makes him to be, well, a kinda boring guy. Evans is a solid, likable presence in the role, but it’s a generic alpha male voice however you cut it.

The immaculately animated film posits Buzz and his fellow Space Rangers getting stranded on a hostile planet in which they have to constantly fight off alien tentacles that comically appear to drag off people out of shot. Buzz attempts to save the colony by testing a new hyperspace crystal in a four-minute space flight, but fails, and finds that it takes him four years into the future.

However, Buzz doesn’t give up, and he tries to pull off the hyperdrive over and over, failing every time, and sadly sees his best friend, Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) age over time - getting married, having a child, having a grandchild, growing old, and passing. This makes for the movie’s most effective emotional material, but, it’s no UP when it comes to real tearful time-moves-on impact, that’s for sure.

This is all setup for the premise of Buzz joining up with the granddaughter of Alisha, Izzy (Keke Palmer), the clumsy Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), and ex-convict Darby Steele (Dale Soules) to save the colonists from an evil robot, Emperor Zurg, whose star-destroyer-style ship is hovering above their city that’s trapped inside a big-ass lazer dome.

The principle source of comedy in LIGHTYEAR comes from Sox, Buzz’s robot cat companion. Voiced by Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, Sox does provide a number of funny moments - I enjoyed his firing of knockout darts at attackers (“I bought you five minutes”) – but he’s a pretty predictably cutesy element that teeters on the edge of wearing out its welcome throughout the adventure.

And maybe I was bothered that the design for Sox reminded me too much of BRIGSBY BEAR.

LIGHTYEAR’s greatest strength is its wondrous imagery. When the visuals aren’t focused on the characters, and function as foregrounds, they are as convincing as live action cinematography in every detail. The scores and scores of digital artists, whose names you’ll have to get through to get to the post-credits stinger, really outdid themselves here.

Unfortunately all the eye-popping majesty on display doesn’t add up to the movie magic needed to make LIGHTYEAR a truly memorable, special experience. It’s fine as throwaway summer blockbuster fare, but it doesn’t make for a must-see origin story, or anywhere near an essential Pixar production. 

Audiences will likely find it entertaining enough, and probably won’t care that it doesn’t go to infinity and beyond, as long as it’s an hour and 40-minute distraction from the heat, or the January 6 hearings, or gas prices, or…well, whatever real world crap you want to escape.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Actors You Recognize, But Don’t Know Their Name: R.I.P. Philip Baker Hall

At some point during the early days of the pandemic, I started a series on Facebook entitled “Actors you recognize, but don’t know their names.” The series, which I moved to this space, paid tribute to such wonderful performers as Lynne Thigpen, Paul Dooley, Mary Kay Place, and Gary Cole (click on their names for their entries), highlighted their credits, and, obviously, aimed to help film fans put names to the familiar faces they’ve seen on screens many times.


One actor I had always meant to get to was somebody who could be considered the King of the actors you’ve seen, but can’t name: Philip Baker Hall, who passed away on June 12 at age 90.


Many obits called attention to what’s possibly Hall’s best known role: Lieutenant Bookman, on the wildly popular sitcom, Seinfeld (“The Library” S3E5 10/16/91). Watch a montage of Hall’s hilarious scenes from the episode here:


Hall really crushing it as the stern, Dragnet-style authority figure led to him being cast in a lot of movies and TV shows after its broadcast. But Hall hadn’t been doing too shabby in the years leading up to it as he had worked steadily since his first film part in COWARDS (alternate title: LOVE IN ’72) in 1970, and his first television role in the TV movie, THE LAST SURVIVORS in 1975.


Except for a part playing a doctor in Michael Crichton’s COMA (1978), on the big screen, Hall toiled in some pretty obscure stuff (THROW OUT THE ANCHOR, anyone?), but for his seventh feature, Hall scored a major role, President Richard M. Nixon, for Robert Altman’s SECRET HONOR (1984). A sweaty, obsessed, and beyond blustery Hall is the only actor in the one-man show that is Altman’s breakdown of the disgraced former Commander-in-Chief, and it’s a staggering piece of work.

From Roger Ebert’s review of SECRET HONOR: “Nixon is portrayed by Philip Baker Hall, an actor previously unknown to me, with such savage intensity, such passion, such venom, such scandal, that we cannot turn away. Hall looks a little like the real Nixon; he could be a cousin, and he sounds a little like him. That's close enough. This is not an impersonation, it’s a performance.”


Since that should’ve been a breakthrough part, Hall steadily worked in film, putting in a small roles in such notable fare as NOTHING IN COMMON, SAY ANYTHING, GHOSTBUSTERS 2, and AN INNOCENT MAN, while regularly popping up in programs such as Benson, Miami Vice, Family Ties, Falcon Crest, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and L.A. Law.


But after booking Bookman on Seinfeld (he also reprised Lt. Bookman on the Seinfeld finale in 1998), his TV career exploded, and in the years that followed he appeared on everything from Cheers to 3rd Rock from the Sun to Millennium to Chicago Hope to Monk to The West Wing to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Big Love to Children’s Hospital to Psych to Modern Family to The Newsroom to Bojack Horseman to Boston Legal to Modern Family - to name over a dozen.


Hall’s film career was equally prolific post Seinfeld From the mid ‘90s on he was in a great many films including THE ROCK, AIR FORCE ONE, SOUR GRAPES, THE TRUMAN SHOW, RUSH HOUR (was also in the sequels), ENEMY OF THE STATE, THE INSIDER, CRADLE WILL ROCK, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, ZODIAC (was also in THE ZODIAC), ARGO, and his last film, the Shirley MacLaine vehicle, THE LAST WORD (2017).

But the grand thespian’s finest work has to be in the three films that he did with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson: HARD EIGHT (1996), BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), and MAGNOLIA (1999). I just rewatched HARD EIGHT, which was Anderson’s directorial debut, as it had been a long time since I’d seen it. I’m glad I did, because I was reminded at what a confidently constructed, and stylishly gritty work it is, and how masterful Hall was as its protagonist, Sydney, who the premise posits as a gambling mentor to the film’s other lead, John C. Reilly as lovable schlub, John Finnegan.

It’s intoxicating, and well worth a streaming rental (I watched it on Amazon Prime) to see Hall suavely glide through the neon-lit casinos of Reno, Vegas, and Atlantic City with his cranky sexy cool swagger.


The film’s original title was SYDNEY, a name inspired by Hall’s character in MIDNIGHT RUN, but he’s not supposed to be the same character as it’s “Sidney” in the previous movie. Although the name isn't mentioned, the movie is an expansion of a short film by Anderson, that features Hall, CIGARETTES AND COFFEE (not to be confused with Jim Jarmusch's 2003 anthology film COFFEE AND CIGARETTES), which you can watch on YouTube.


I was also reminded that in one scene, in which Sydney is being hassled by Samuel L. Jackson as a scheming casino security guard. Jackson says, “I know all those guys you know – Floyd Gondoli, Jimmy Gator, Mumbles O’Malley.”


This foreshadows that Hall would play characters by those names in Anderson’s next two films:

Porn distributor mogul, Floyd Gondoli, in BOOGIE NIGHTS:

Game show host, Jimmy Gator, in MAGNOLIA:

Now sadly, a movie featuring Hall’s PTA trilogy completer, Mumbles O’Malley, will never materialize. 


R.I.P. Philip Michael Hall

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Saturday, June 04, 2022

THE WRATH OF KHAN Is The Greatest Piece Of STAR TREK Property Ever: A 40th Anniversary Post

its inception in 1966, there have been eight live action Star Trek series from the three season run of 79-episodes on NBC to the first season of the new Strange New Worlds series on Paramount+, three animated series from the short lived early ‘70s incarnation with the original cast to the more recent offerings like Lower Decks and Prodigy (also Paramount+ productions), and 13 movies from THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) to the rebooted run launched by J.J. Abrams in 2009.

But no matter how many more versions of Gene Roddenberry’s creation we will be inundated with in the future, one thing I’m betting will still be certain - the single greatest property in the entire franchise will remain to be: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982).

I’m making this declaration, which I believe won’t be a controversial opinion, because today is the 40thAnniversary of the release of the acclaimed sequel, and the film’s status as the best, most satisfying piece of the Star Trek Puzzle should be celebrated on this milestone.

The first film in the franchise, Robert Wise’s STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, was a bit of a let down for fans, as it was criticized for being too cerebral instead of action-oriented, too special effects-driven instead of story-driven, and, most sadly, too long and boring to be a major sci-fi player in the era of the whiz-bang of STAR WARS.

But for the follow-up, the filmmakers, headed by Nicholas Meyer as director, and Jack B. Sowards as screenwriter, got back to basics by making the film not just the sequel to the first film, but also a sequel to one of the original episodes of the ‘60s series: “Space Seed,” which featured Ricardo Montalbán as 20th century genetic superman Khan Noonian Singh. After Khan attempted to take over the Enterprise, Captain Kirk sentenced him and his crew to inhabit a dying world in order to create their own society, but in the 15 years since their exile, the terrain was laid to waste by a nearby planet exploding, and Khan has vowed revenge on Kirk should their paths cross again.

This happens when executive officer Chekov unwittingly discovers Khan and company’s location while on a mission, and he steals their starship, and sets after Kirk while spouting such delicious dialogue as: “I’ll chase him around the Antares maelstrom and round Nibia and round Perdition’s Flame before I give him up!”

Kirk, now an admiral, and his trusty crew including Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Mr. Scott (James Doohan), Mr. Sulu (George Takei), Lt. Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), and the aforementioned Chekov (who wasn’t even in “Space Seed” but was still recognized by Khan), in the Enterprise go up against Khan in the stolen starship Reliant in a series of compelling battles that are matched with compelling exchanges that make up the sharpest, and most powerful screenplay that’s ever graced a STAR TREK movie.

Another powerful factor in the film’s success is William Shatner’s performance as Kirk. Director Meyers forced Shatner to do take after take until his patented over-acting mannerisms had faded, and some more solid, serious acting could go down. Without a doubt, it’s the man’s finest work on screen. O Captain! My Captain! Indeed.

As a kid, STAR TREK II was a godsend. If you think that before it appeared, there was only the three seasons of the original series, and one boring movie – the budding franchise was in its awkward phase until KHAN came along. Then the whole enterprise (sorry) was up and running. The sequels that followed were hits largely beloved by critics and fans, and the many spin-off series that came after added greatly to the overwhelming oeuvre , and it’s very possible that none of it would’ve happened without STAR TREK II.

One funny thread that ran through the classic ‘90s sitcom, Seinfeld, had to do with Jerry’s belief that the 1982 sequel was “the best of those movies.” In the eighth season episode, “The Foundation,” Jerry quotes WRATH OF KHAN at the funeral of his best friend’s (George Constanza played by Jason Alexander) fiancée, telling the parents of the deceased that she’s not dead if we remember her, which paraphrases a line said by McCoy about Spock’s death. Later in that ep, George recreates Kirk’s classic “KHHHAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNN!!!!!!!!” yell:

Perhaps the best, and funniest Seinfeld/Star Trek moment is when Jerry and George show more emotion over recalling Spock’s death in KHAN than they did at the funeral they just attended. George: “It was a hell of a thing when Spock died.” Jerry: “Yeah.”

When J.J. Abrams took the helm of the STAR TREK movie series, rebooting it in 2009, there was much talk that he was more of a STAR WARS guy (he would later go on to make two of those movies), and that the only Star Trek he was familiar with was KHAN. This is a convincing theory as the two TREK movies he made have heavy callbacks to KHAN, including scenes that are directly remakes of scenes in the original film, and the resurrecting of the supervillain character by way of a far inferior version provided by Benedict Cumberbatch. You can read more of my bitching about Abrams’ KHAN misfire in my review of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS from 2013.

So 40 years to the day after its release, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN still remains as the greatest story/entry/production/whatever in the vast Star Trek multiverse. If you don’t believe me, go to Paramount+ and watch, or re-watch, the movie I’ve been babbling about for the last over 900 words. After that, can you really tell me that’s there’s better Star Trek than that? I think not.

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Thursday, June 02, 2022

Wait, Ray Liotta Was In Two MUPPET Movies?!!?

When Ray Liotta passed away last week, tributes poured in largely citing his intense performance as Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic GOODFELLAS, and his touching portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson in Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 baseball drama, FIELD OF DREAMS. Liotta’s other notable work in various films and TV series got some print as well, but one vital item got glossed over, and that's the surprising, and very fun fact that the man appeared in two of the Muppet movies.

In Tim Hill’s MUPPETS FROM SPACE (1999), Liotta appears in the third act credited as “Gate Guard,” a typical authority-figure-our-heroes-have-to-get-past part. In order to infiltrate a top secret national security facility called C.O.V.N.E.T., Miss Piggy utilized her Mind Mist spray to manipulate Liotta, basically turning him into an agreeable, smiling idiot. Watch the scene:

15 years later, Liotta’s second cinematic run-in with the Muppets found him on the other side of the law. In James Bobin’s MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014), Liotta plays a Gulag inmate named “Big Papa,” who mostly lingers in the background like an extra until the Siberian Gulag Revue, the prisoners’ annual talent show. That’s where we hear Big Papa declare “we like Boyz II Men,” and display some rough, but invested harmony singing.

In an interview with We Got This Covered, Liotta explained his involvement: “With the Muppets? We sing and dance. Me and Danny Trejo are in prison, Kermit is there as well as scattered other Muppets. Kermit gets thrown into jail because they think he’s somebody he’s not, and the identical of him, this guy Constantine, is going out and doing bad things. So yeah, we’re just singing and dancing. Tina Fey is the Warden, Ricky Gervais is somebody in it, it was a lot of fun. It’s really funny. It’s all singing and dancing.”


Another interview with Liotta, from the set of MUPPETS MOST WANTED with ScreenSlam, also shows us a bit of how much fun he was having on the shoot:

Now these cameos may seem trivial, maybe even the definition of trivial, but it’s significant to me because of Liotta’s tough guy persona, and that over the run of eight Muppet movies, the human guest stars rarely repeat. The only other example I can find is that Elliot Gould put in cameos in THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979), and THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (1983), but Liotta’s walk-ons were just a little more substantial - one of them even has a name (“Big Papa”) while Gould’s were just “Beauty Contest Compare,” and “Cop at Pete’s” respectively.


It must be noted that Zach Galifianakis played the same character, Hobo Joe, in both THE MUPPETS (2011), and MUPPETS MOST WANTED, but the scruffy comic feels like more of a fit in the world of funny felt than Liotta for sure.


Liotta was only in a few other films of the family-friendly variety (or maybe only one, the animated Jerry Seinfeld vehicle, BEE MOVIE), which is why having two outings with Kermit the Frog and company stands out in his distinguished, and fairly dark filmography. It also seems like a necessary side-line since when looking over Liotta’s career, which spanned over four decades, and contained over 70 movies, I’m not seeing anywhere else where he could really get in some singing and dancing.  

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