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.

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