Sunday, December 31, 2023

Great Moments In Fourth Wall Breakage: SUPERMAN Edition

In this latest entry in the ongoing series, Great Moments in Fourth Wall Breakage, that salutes those meta moments in movies when a character makes an aside to the audience, we’re going to look at the SUPERMAN series. That is, the one that began with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, continued, with diminishing returns, through II, III, and IV in the ‘80s then reviving in the 2000s with SUPERMAN RETURNS.

At the end of Richard Donner’s classic 1978 original (a personal vote for best superhero movie ever), Christopher Reeve’s Superman soars high above the earth, while John Williams’ triumphant score sweeps, after defeating Lex Luthor’s plan to nuke California, surveying the status of our big blue globe, then looks directly into the camera, and smiles. It’s a warm, ‘don’t worry, I got this,’ grin, and this footage, with slight variations from outtakes from the shoot (sometimes his right arm goes up when he flies off; sometimes not) is used to end the film’s three sequels.

Bryan Singer’s attempt to reboot the series in 2006 with SUPERMAN RETURNS also did its take on the ending flyby, but in this version, Brandon Routh (pretty much a Reeve clone) looks knowingly, with a slight, sly smile, at the camera but doesn’t show any teeth before he flies off.

This was the last time for the concluding fourth wall breakage in series, as Henry Cavill’s Superman in MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and JUSTICE LEAGUE (all of which are awful) hasn’t been shown friendly acknowledging the audience, and it’s one of the many reasons this most recent version of the character has been embraced like Reeve’s was (and still is). I’m not saying that not having the final smiling flyby is like a James Bond movie without the gun barrel intro, but it’s close.

So Superman is such a mighty being that he even knows he’s a movie star, and his end of adventure smile for us always put an appealing cap on the caper. I wonder if we’ll see a Superman movie with that moment in it again.

Now here's a YouTube compilation of all of the flyby endings from SUPERMAN to SUPERMAN RETURNS:

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Saturday, December 30, 2023

That Time Orson Welles Ended His Career (And Life) On An Episode of Moonlighting

Last October, the ‘80s comedy detective series, Moonlighting, began streaming for the first time ever. The ABC show was a huge must-see TV hit in the mid ‘80s, but because of its absence, it has been largely forgotten until this event. Now viewers can see Bruce Willis - now non-verbal, and retired due to dementia - at his most verbal as the wise-cracking gumshoe David Addison, trading quips with the softly-lit Cybill Shepherd as former model Maddie Hayes in all their 67-episode run on Hulu, and all of our pop culture worlds are better for it.

At least mine is, as I was a kid when it aired in the ‘80s, and it brought back a lot of memories, and one I was delighted to be reminded of was that Orson Welles made his last appearance on the program. The film-making legend, and personal favorite, passed away a week after shooting his introduction for the season 2 episode, “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice,” (aired: Oct. 15, 1985) capping off his incredible career in a much better, way more classy way than his last film appearance, the voice of Unicron in the animated 1986 flop, TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (I kid you not).


According to Moonlighting writer, Debra Frank, Welles shot his bit, an intro in which he warned viewers that much of the night’s episode would be in black and white, on October 4, 1985, remembering that because it was her mother’s birthday.

After Welles passed on October 10th, they added this to precede his intro:

From the same 2005 Moonlighting DVD bonus featurette that revealed that, “Inside the Blue Moon Detective Agency, the Story of Moonlighting, Part 2,” Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron told the story of how they got Welles for the gig:


“They (the network) felt that, like THE WIZARD OF OZ, which was a movie that was shown in this country every year, and every year they went to great lengths to explain to people that the first part is in black and white, the second part is in color – there’s nothing wrong with your television set, ABC thought it was important to offer that kind of assurance to the audience. 


So we thought, well, who should do this? I don’t know, again, it just cracked me up, Orson Welles. You know, here’s the man who probably made the most beautiful black and white film, you know, ever. So I wrote this thing, which he ultimately said, you know, about which he ultimately said, ‘a very special monochromatic, blah blah blah blah, Moonlighting, so get Grandma and the kids and lock them in the basement…” A pretty funny thing, so I called him up, and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this thing, and to my amazement he said, ‘Well, send it over,’ so I sent it over, and he called back and said, ‘I think it’s funny.’”


Caron misquoted his own writing so here is Welles’ opening intro to “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” (and you can watch a YouTube clip of it below):


“Good evening, I’m Orson Welles. Tonight, broadcasting takes a giant leap backward. In this age of living color, and stereophonic sound, the television show, Moonlighting, is daring to be different, and share with you a monochromatic, monophonic hour of entertainment. Approximately 12 minutes into this evening’s episode, the picture on your television screen will change to black and white. Nothing is wrong with your set, I repeat, *nothing is wrong with your set*, tonight’s episode is an experiment, one we hope you’ll enjoy, so, gather the kids, the dog, grandma, and lock them in another room, and then sit back and enjoy this very special episode of Moonlighting.”

It’s quite something to think that this was the grand man’s last appearance before he shuffled off of this mortal coil. It’s not surprising after years of hard living, which his girth, and trademark cigar smoking (though it does look cool) in this short video does give ample evidence, that he died at age 70, but it’s a fitting testament that, a week before he died, he could put in such a witty, wise, and even warm cameo in what was then one of the hottest programs on, and go out on such a hip, and humorous final note.


It's also funny that there’s the Cybill Shepherd connection in that Welles used to stay in the guest room of her house with Peter Bogdanovich in the ‘70s, but that’s a whole ‘nuther blogpost.

More later...

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

‘Tis The Season For Oscar Bait Biopics: MAESTRO, FERRARI, and NAPOLEON

Yes, it’s that time of year again when the studios drop the big prestige pictures, and this round of Oscar-bait biopics are for sure the most prestigious this season. As these three films, each big ass, lavish productions with big ass names behind, and in front of the camera, are going to be in theaters or available streaming over the holidays, I thought I’d give ‘em the ole Film Babble Blog appraisal, so here goes:

MAESTRO (Dir. Bradley Cooper, 2023)

Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2018 directorial debut, A STAR IS BORN, garnered criticism when early buzz revealed that the actor (also the film’s co-writer, and producer) wore a large prosthetic nose to enhance his resemblance to his subject Leonard Bernstein, but upon being incredibly charmed by Cooper's lush, loving tribute to the iconic composer/conductor, it is not a critique that holds much weight.

For the nose just fades convincingly into the face of Coopers Bernstein, or Lenny to his friends, fronting a lived-in, layered, and authentic-feeling performance that is sure to get plenty of accolade action in the weeks, months, and years to come. Coopers portrait has a predictable structure - the narrative is initially told in black and white flashbacks (the film switches to color as it moves into the modern era) structured as remembrances in interviews by the elder Bernstein shown in crisp color - but it transcends this convention with its fluid style, and poetic, tuneful tone.

In a portrayal that rivals Cooper’s, Carey Mulligan beautifully plays Bernstein’s wife of 26 years, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. Their relationship is the crux of the story as we see that despite his homosexuality (i.e. affairs with men), Felicia loved Lenny, and put up with his infidelities, though we witness that taking its toll.

For the uninitiated, Cooper and Josh Singer’s screenplay serves up Leonard Bernstein 101, from his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943 to scoring such Broadway classics as On the Town, and West Side Story or classic motion pictures like ON THE WATERFRONT to his legendary conducting of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973, among other career highlights sharply shot by cinematographer, Matther Libatique (PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM).

With superb supporting work by Sarah Silverman, Matt Bomer, and Maya Hawke, MAESTRO is Cooper’s moving love letter to Bernstein, and the evolving emotional languages of the times he lived in, and helped shape musically. It’s one to stream on up when it hits Netflix tomorrow (December 20).

FERRARI (Dir. Michael Mann, 2023)

Michael Mann makes sleek, streamlined, manly movies about powerful, conflicted men and his latest fancy flick about Italian car racing entrepreneur Enzo Ferrari is no exception. A coiffed, gray haired Adam Driver plays the motor mogul in a measured, stoic manner, which is offset by the tirades by his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), who, in an early scene shoots at him with a gun his mother scoffs at him for giving her.

“Your mother missed on purpose,” Enzo says as he visits the tomb of his dead son, Dino. “One day, she won’t, and I’ll be in here with you.” Such sets the tone as the movie veers from the love triangle between Enzo, Laura, and his secret mistress (a possibly miscast, but still affecting Shailene Woodley) and his race track excursions in 1957, when the tragedy of the Mille Miglia occurred killing nine spectators - a profoundly disturbing shot as Mann, via Director of Photography, Eric Messerschmidt, stunningly captures (with the help of some CGI, of course).

Driver and Mann’s approach may be cold, and overly slick, but FERRARI is a purposeful portrait with a lot of gusto and glorious oomph especially in its racing sequences. It doesn't reach the heights of previous Mann movies like HEAT or COLLATERAL, but it is far and above his last works, PUBLIC ENEMIES and BLACK HAT for certain. It's well worth getting out of the house for when it opens Christmas Day.

NAPOLEON (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2023)

Since its release at the end of last month, Ridley Scott’s long awaited historical epic about the infamous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, has gotten mixed reviews, and underperformed at the box office - bad news for a movie that cost 137 million.

But does the film deserve that unimpressive reception? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes, as it suffers from horrible dialogue (“You think you're so great just because you have boats!” is an actual line), uninspired performances (actually Joaquin Phoenix does his best with a questionably written role, but no one else in the cast offers much energy) has lengthy sequences that drag, and overall left me with an empty feeling.

This is largely because Scott’s treatment, scripted by David Scarpa (a screenwriter whose previous work including THE LAST CASTLE, and the 2008 remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is less than stellar), is all about how pathetic its subject is, despite having conquered most of Europe in the 19th century.

Napoleon calls his wife, Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) a slut because while he’s off at war, she's taking lovers, which inspires ridicule in the press, and much of the narrative concerns their rocky relationship. This material is strained, and dull, with the more successful scenes being the battles. Scott, with the aid of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, takes us convincingly into such major skirmishes as the Battle of Austerlitz, which, taking place on a frozen lake, visually pops more than anything else in the movie.

More than once, I was reminded of a moment in Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH, a parody of War and Peace that also features Napolean, where Allen’s character observes that the battle he's in looks different to the generals up on the hill, and the film cuts to a flock of sheep instead of soldiers being driven forward.

So, yeah, NAPOLEAN is a very mixed bag that proves that the Joaquin Phoenix movie to see in 2023 is Ari Aster’s BEAU IS AFRAID.

So, two out of three ain’t bad when it comes to this season’s Oscar-bait biopics.

More later...

Thursday, November 30, 2023

When Nicholas Cage Dreams Become Nicholas Cage Nightmares

Opening this evening, and tomorrow nationwide:

DREAM SCENARIO (Dir. Kristoffer Borgli, 2023)

In over 100 movies since he first hit the big screen in 1981, Nicholas Cage has forged an iconic, eclectic, and just plain crazy career to which no other actor’s filmography can possibly compare. The often-manic man’s many looks, which all still look like him, along with his all-over-the-place, yet strangely specific delivery has made him into a world-wide-recognized walking meme, and a genre onto himself. Admit, before you even know anything about a new movie – whether it’s good or bad – the fact that it’s a Nicholas Cage movie is alone appealing.


That’s why Cage is perfectly cast in DREAM SCENERIO, writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s second feature, in which he portrays Paul Matthews, a schlubby, bald biology professor (with a big prosthetic nose btw), who for some reason starts popping up in the dreams of a sizable percentage of the population. But he doesn’t appear in the dreams of his wife, portrayed by a jaded Juliane Nicholson) apparently in real life either; but his daughters (Lily Bird, and Jessica Clement), actually consider calling him a cool dad when Cage’s Paul goes viral. 


Our hapless non hero enjoys the spotlight as he’s craved some sort of fame for a long time we find in an early scene when he’s upset about not getting credit in an article a former colleague has written that he believes borrowed from his research. We get from this that the guy is rather pathetic, and, despite the attention, Paul is concerned that people tell him that he’s just a bystander in their night visions – “You don’t do anything, you’re just there” – one woman tells him - and that he just walks through not helping when the dreamer is in peril.


Then the film takes a dark turn when the Paul in people’s dreams starts becoming violent, and even murderous, and a shadow grows over his image meaning that a book deal he was hoping for looks to be doomed, and the viral PR firm he’s been working with (headed by another piece of perfect casting, an aptly glib Michael Cera with the perfect name of Trent) goes from pitching high profile campaigns (“we think we can get Obama to dream about you”) to saying they can maybe get him on Tucker Carlson.


DREAM SCENARIO is a witty piece of cringe cinema that is incredibly compelling, but can be incredibly unpleasant as one can completely get Paul’s spouse telling him, “It’s really embarrassing to be married to you right now.” Possibly the most I cringed was when a young woman, Trents assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula), wants Paul to help recreate her sex dream about him, and, well, I’m not going to go any further because it makes me shudder just thinking about it. Throughout this film, I can’t count how many times I squirmed in my seat for this guy.


Yet, with its imaginatively punchy premise, and Cage’s fearlessly awkward performance that feels like it could stand as one of his most authentic characters, this is one of the best films of the year. Despite its darkness, it has affection for Paul, considerable empathy for his predicament, and strong thematic thought-provoking points about cancel culture.


Borgli’s surreal satire is another win for the indie studio A24, who just came off winning the Best Picture Oscar for EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, and I love how it has a possibly unintended connection to the company’s re-release of Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE, the classic Talking Heads concert film celebrating its 40th Anniversary. Like the cringy sex scene, I won’t spoil it, but I’ll just say that the band’s David Byrne’s famous over-sized suit is involved, and leave it at that.


Finally, I must share the nifty Nicholas Cage sleep mask I got at the press screening:

More later...

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

THE MARVELS: An Immaculate But Way Clunky Mess of a Marvel Movie

Opening at every multiplex in the multiverse:

THE MARVELS (Dir. Nia DaCosta, 2023)

A decade or so ago, the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe was a lot of fun. What with all the interlocking storylines from film to film, and the charisma and humor of leads like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson (all of whom can be seen shining in the Marvel logo banner than begins every movie), many movie-goers and myself enjoyed quite a few of the ongoing adventures of the AVENGERS, and off-shoots like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. 


But now, after over 30 movies, the whole thing has become a big, bloated franchise that I hear more people dis than praise these days. This new release, serving as a sequel to Captain Marvel and an extension of a show I haven’t seen (Ms. Marvel), tries as it might to offer some difference, and diversity, in its leads being three females – respectively Brie Larson as Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers, Teyonah Parris as Proton/Monica Rambeau, and Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan – but they seem to be winging, rather than helming, their way through this immaculate mess of a Marvel movie.


The premise having to do with ancient glowing bracelets (this film’s MacGuffin/Infinity Stones) sought after fiery villain Dar-Benn, played by a crazy-eyed Zawe Ashton, and a couple of our female leads body-switching when they use their powers at the same time, never built any momentum, with action sequence after action sequence piling up with little impact.


While she sure can’t sing as can be seen in a strange musical number with her alien prince played by Park Seo-joon, Larson is a fine actress (she well deserved her Oscar for 2015’s ROOM), but she mainly serves as a straight person to her co-stars and the scenery. She does lighten up dancing to hip hop with Parris and Vellani (whose spunk does charm at odd moments) in one scene, but otherwise her stoic demeanor is frankly dull throughout.


THE MARVELS looks mahvelous, as Billy Crystal’s SNL character Fernando would say (outdated reference lost on younger readers), with its incredible cinematography by Sean Bobbit (another Academy Award winner), that presents eye-popping visuals of space stations, alien terrains, and cats with tenacles coming from their mouths that can devour whole human beings, and such sights can surely amuse.


But the action surrounding that doesn’t excite, and worse, the comedy that should be the saving grace is awkward, and clunky AF. This latest Marvel offering doesn’t improve on the last entry, ANT MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA (Lord, I hate that title!), and makes me weary of considering what’s to come. There’s no way this Marvel machine is gonna stop, but maybe some flops like these will slow it down so some quality control can be instigated. Here’s hoping because even Samuel L. Jackson, here playing Nick Fury for the umpteenth time (15th, I think), can’t even muster much edge for this beyond played out material. 

More later...

Thursday, October 26, 2023

THE KILLER Contains Fassbender & Fincher's Icy Execution In Neo Noir

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all: 

THE KILLER (Dir. David Fincher, 2023)

A neo noir thriller about an unnamed professional contract hitman may seem a curious choice for David Fincher as a follow-up to MANK, his ode to old Hollywood, but it makes sense as an attempt for the filmmaker to scale down, and get back to basics. 


This globe-trotting series of chapters, each containing a different hit, is based on a 1998 French graphic novel by Alexis “Matz” Nolent, features a stoic Michael Fassbender in the title role, who we get to know through his constant monologuing (or self-narration).


Right before Fassbender’s Killer takes aim, we hear his personal pep talk in voice-0ver: “Stick to the plan. Anticipate. Don’t improvise,” and “Fight only the battle you’re paid to fight.” Problem is, the film opens with our anti-hero botching a hit, missing his target, and having to flea through the streets of Paris to allude the police, but with precise, and very entertaining maneuvering.


When he returns home to the Dominican Republican, he finds his lavish home has been broken into, and his wife (or girlfriend – we aren’t told which), played by Sophie Charlotte, has been attacked and is in the hospital on a respirator. 


Using aliases with the names of ‘70s, and ‘80s TV characters (Howard Cunningham, Lou Grant, Sam Malone, George Jefferson, etc.) Fletch-style, ‘The Killer’ travels to New Orleans, Florida, New York, and finally Chicago to visit, and off the likes of his handler, ‘The Lawyer,’ Hodges (Charles Parnell), ‘The Brute’ (Sala Baker), ‘The Expert’ (Tilda Swinton), and ‘The Client’ (Arliss Howard).


At the half-way mark, an amped-up fight sequence between Fassbender, and Baker that goes through several rooms and utilizes every item within reach the combatants can grab to use as weapons JOHN WICK-style shakes up the movie from its moody intensity. However, it could’ve been more captivating than it is as it’s shot in very dark interiors, and at times it’s hard to tell which silhouette is who.


Helping the narrative’s flow, provided by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, who previously collaborated with Fincher on SE7EN, is our titular assassin’s constant listening to the Smiths through ear buds (the film features bits of over 1o of the British mope rock band’s tunes). Otherwise, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also Fincher veterans) superbly score up the rest of the (of course) dark, edgy soundtrack.


Fincher’s 12th film is engaging overall, and has a number of juicy moments - Fassbender’s restaurant sit-down with Swinton, in a delicately classy performance, as another contract killer being a stand-out – but ultimately it felt a bit empty as its lead, for all his weighty talk about being a superior being to most of the inhabitants of our planet, doesn’t feel like a fully fleshed-out persona. 


The Killer’s lack of back story, and his meticulously constructed methods that we aren’t given much insight into, make him feel as layered as a character in a video game. Fassbender does a fine job with Walker’s words, and convincingly hits his mark acting as well as action-wise, but the iciness of both his and Fincher’s execution made it hard for me to care. So while it’s a stylish exercise that has its merits, THE KILLER left me cold.

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: The Film Babble Blog Review

Opening tonight at a multiplex near us all:

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2023)

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction novel, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, one can sense that this will be a film full of a lot of intense talk. This is apparent in the sit-down meeting between Leonardo DiCaprio as WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart, and Robert De Niro, and his uncle, William King Hale, a rich, revered cattle rancher.


Their conversation contains nothing surprising – it’s largely a set-up about what DiCaprio’s Ernest is going to do having come to Fairfax, Oklahoma to live, and work for his uncle in the early 1920s – but as an intro to these men, it’s a compellingly crafted scene that gives us a lot of hints via the advice of DeNiro’s King (as he wants to be called) as to not only what Ernest will face in the Osage community, but how he should and shouldn’t react.


But while that quiet scene sets the tone, and gives the audience plenty of foreshadowing; Scorsese aims to interject disturbing, stark shots depicting a number of the murders of the many Native Americans, killed because of the oil found beneath their land. 


We get to see their wealth being discovered in a stunning opening sequence, going back to 1897, that features several members of the Osage Nation dancing in celebration in slow motion as they shower in the bubblin’ crude from a burst oil well. Hard for a film buff not to recall THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but Scorsese’s distinct style keeps that thought from lingering very long.


Ernest works as a chauffeur for one of the rich Osage women, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), and before long he takes a shine to her. After a courtship with an eager Ernest attempting to charm a sly Mollie, they marry, but as the ominous music below the surface tells us, evil is afoot. 


The murder of Mollie’s sister Anna (a bawdy Cara Jade Myer) is one of the movie’s main mystery threads, alongside the mounting murders of the Osages, and who planted a bomb under the house of Mollie’s other sister, Rita (Janae Collins); all true episodes in what has been called the “Osage Reign of Terror.”


In their first film together under Scorsese (their first and only film together previous was Michael Caton-Jones’ THIS BOY’S LIFE in 1993), DiCaprio, and De Niro put in career-best performances. The desperation, and greed in Ernest is captured by Scorsese six-timer DiCaprio in his most unlikable, yet most engrossing character, a guy who only seems truly passionate when he’s talking about money.


De Niro, who has often been criticized for walking through movies, brings crusty, lived-in layers to King. The grand actor’s portrayal of this political boss’s power stands with his best work, and perfectly falls in line with his past collaborations with Scorsese, this being their tenth time together taking on toxic masculinity.

Gladstone provides a stoic, knowing persona for Mollie, who gives us another quietly unnerving presence in a film full of them. It's being labeled a breakout performance, and I agree. The actress has been acting in film for over a decade in such films as FIRST COW, CERTAIN WOMEN, and THE UNKNOWN COUNTRY (which she co-wrote), but the strength of her acting here will undoubtedly put her on the movie map.

As in many Scorsese films, there are too speaking parts to give proper shout outs to, but Jesse Plemmons, who was also in the Director's last work, THE IRISHMAN, as a gruff, humorless FBI guy does a good job, and there are interesting turns by Jon Lithgow, Scott Shepherd, and Brendan Frasier, as well as notable cameos by musicians Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Pete Yorn.


Scorsese’s KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON joins David Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER in my forming best films of 2023 list. Both share the similarities of being historically themed epics with challenging running times (OPPENHEIMER is 3 hours; KILLERS is 26 minutes longer), but both justify what many might consider punishing lengths with their immersive pacing, and absorbing storylines. 


Scorsese’s latest isn’t as visually flashy as Nolan’s, but cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the film a sepia-tone look that gives it authentic look. I also must mention the superbly subtle, bluesy score by the late, great Robbie Robertson (his 12th collaboration with the Director), and the use of ‘20s popular music, the perfect placing of such is a Scorsese trademark.


One of my only complaints with this immaculate masterwork is that the subtitles for the Osage language aren’t consistent. The film begins with captioning being present for a character speaking the language, but in other scenes it doesn’t appear. In one crucial moment, De Niro’s King makes a declaration to a crowd in Osage - seemed like that should be subtitled. 


That’s a small quibble as Scorsese’s 26th dramatic feature is a profoundly powerful picture well worth your three and a half hours. At age 80, Scorsese proves again that he’s still what it takes to make movies of vivid vitality. The excitement of seeing the legendary filmmaker bringing together his two biggest leading men to give us this magnificent piece of pure cinema is what going to the movies is all about. So don’t wait for streaming, go to it – you’ll be glad you did.

More later...

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

60 Years Ago Today, The Twilight Zone’s Nightmare At 20,000 Feet Made Pop Culture History

Sixty years ago today, the third episode of the fifth season of CBS’s wildly popular anthology show, The Twilight Zone, aired featuring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, and a premise that has become a historic part of pop culture.

The episode was entitled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with Shatner playing Robert Wilson, an airline passenger who was just released from a sanatorium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown as Rod Serling’s opening narration tells us. This makes the difference from many other TZ installments as usually the protagonists have no mental health baggage so when Wilson yells about there being something on the wing of the plane, people have plenty reason not to believe him.


That something that Shatner’s Wilson determines is a gremlin, jumps away whenever he tries to get anyone to see him, so he goes crazier and crazier until he actually steals a gun from a sleeping policeman to kill the creature to keep it from tearing apart the engines.

It’s an effectively scary story with some of Shatner’s best acting, sharp direction by Richard Donner, who would go on to helm SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, THE GOONIES, and the LETHAL WEAPON series; and a superb script by Richard Matheson, who wrote many TZs, and notable works such as THE OMEGA MAN (remade later as I AM LEGEND), SOMEWHERE IN TIME, and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.

In a 2016 interview with The Aquarian, Shatner talked about the episode with Brian Reesman:

“So this guy on the airplane was actually a Czechoslovakian acrobat * in a furry suit like you would buy for your child to go to a Halloween party, but nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how stupid it is that at 500 miles an hour the guy is not aerodynamic. They just accept what this little suit means, which is, I guess, fear of flying.”

* Actor/stunt performer Nick Kravat

20 years after Shatner’s ill-fated flight, the episode was remade for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (released June 24, 1983) by George Miller (MAD MAX) with John Lithgow in Shatner’s shoes, although his character is renamed John Valentine, and there’s no mention of a mental hospital stay – he’s simply crazy scared of flying.

The segment, which is the fourth in the film following TZ efforts by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante; is much edgier, and more amped up than the original, but it doesn’t top it – it co-exists as another worthy adaptation of Matheson’s original short story that appeared in the anthology, Alone by Night (1961).


The parodies of “Nightmare of 20,000 Feet” are too numerous to mention (the Wikipedia page for the episode lists about a dozen) as every comedy show from The Simpsons to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to, of course, Saturday Night Live has taken it on. Here’s SNL’s from 2010 with Jude Law in the Shatner role, and a hilarious Bobby Moynihan as the gremlin (somehow they even work musical guest Pearl Jam in there too):

Jordan Peele’s 2019 TZ reboot had an episode that might be best considered a re-imagining entitled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the new-fangled take, written by Marco Ramirez (from a story by Peele, Simon Kinberg, and Ramirez), Adam Scott plays passenger Justin Sanderson who this time is spooked by a podcast about a missing plane that makes him think the flight is doomed unless he saves it. It’s good stuff like the rest of Peele’s TZ run, which sadly ran only two seasons.

But the best capper to celebrate the anniversary of this legendary TZ episode is from the sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, which starred Lithgow as alien masquerading as a college professor. In the 1999 episode, “Dick’s Big Giant Headache Part 1,” Lithgow’s Dick Solomon meets his superior, The Big Giant Head (portrayed by a drunk-acting Shatner), at an airport. When asked how his flight was, Shatner’s character replies, “Horrifying at first, I looked out the window, and there was something on the wing of the plane!” Lithgow’s Dick responds, “The same thing happened to me!”

And that, my friends, is one of the best meta moments in TV history. So heres to sixty years of there being something on the wing of the plane that nobody but you can see.

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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Gareth Edwards’ THE CREATOR: Solid But Unsurprising Sci-Fi

Opening at a multiplex near you tonight, and tomorrow:

(Dir. Gareth Edwards, 2023)

Despite helming such ginormous franchise installments in the GODZILLA (the 2014 reboot), and STAR WARS universes, Gareth Edwards isn’t quite yet an A-List, household name filmmaker. That doubtfully won’t change much with his newest effort, his fourth film, THE CREATOR, as it’s not getting much publicity from its studio, Twentieth Century Fox, and looks like it might not get much attention from movie-goers this coming weekend. 


If THE CREATOR does indeed fail to connect with audiences, that will be a damn shame as it’s a fairly solid sci-fi yarn with fine performances, cool visuals, and a thoughtful premise about a war between humans and AI that actually shows soul for both sides. And its on par with Edwards best work, 2016s ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY.


A quick newsreel presentation opening, which, by the quality of the video in the clips, heavily implies that this film’s version of Earth adapted to having robots around earlier than our modern times (a year is never identified, but we get the idea that the film is set several decades in the future). Something went wrong with the relations between man and machines, and the AI overlords nuked Los Angeles, and a full-scale war resulted with North America outlawing all of the technology.


Our protagonist, an ex-special forces agent named Joshua, whose played by a wide-eyed John David Washington, probably happy that he’s in a sci-fi flick that’s easier to follow than TENET; is recruited to kill what they call “Nirmata,” that is the robotics master of the title. 


In a scene we’ve seen many times before, Washington’s Joshua refuses the assignment until military bigwigs Colonel Howell (Allison Janney), and General Andrews (Ralph Ineson) tell him that the mission could re-unite him with his missing wife, Maya (Genna Chan).


S0 off Joshua goes with Janney’s Howell, and a crew that includes country music singer/songwriter Sturgill Simpson as Drew to venture behind enemy lines in New Asia, where he finds the threat in the form of a humanoid robot child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), who Josha names Alphie.


The movie becomes a familiar, formulaic road picture up until its race against the clock finale aboard the U.S. superweapon NOMAD, a space station that scarily scans the planet with blue beams – these are among the many cool visuals I was talking about. It’s never boring, but Edwards’ plotting, from a screenplay he wrote with Chris Weitz, never surprises as its story beats all recall its influences from APOCALYPSE NOW to BLADE RUNNER to, its most obvious touchstone, A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.


There’s also the similarities in the relationship between a warrior carting around a kid with incredible powers that THE CREATOR has with The Mandalorian, and even THE GOLDEN CHILD.


So, yeah, not the most original material, but there’s a lot to enjoy in Edwards’ latest starting with Washington’s edgy yet earnest performance, alongside Academy Award®-winning actress Janney as a hard as nails army lifer, who, with this and I, TONYA, has gotten as far from her original breakthrough character of C.J. from The West Wing as she can get.


There’s also Ken Watanabe as a Japanese robot who brings gravitas to his somewhat perplexing part as one starts to realize that Edwards has a more sympathetic to the synthetics theme than you might think going in. 


This fine cast, the gritty when it needs to be, glimmering the rest of the time cinematography by Greig Fraser, and Oren Soffer; and Han Zimmer’s fitting score (often broken up by rock music cues by the likes of Radiohead, and Deep Purple), are what makes the movie worthwhile.


THE CREATOR will be dismissed as too derivative by many (sort of like ROGUE ONE was), but it worked for me, and if movie-goers give it a chance (that is, if they hear about it at all), I bet it’ll function like the best AI for them too.

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Sunday, September 17, 2023

Anatomy Of A Voice Cameo: Robert Redford In White House Plumbers

ne of the best elements of the highly entertaining HBO mini-series, White House Plumbers, about the bumbling team of ex-CIA and FBO operatives who broke into Watergate in 1972, is its strong cast.

Headed by Woody Harrelson, and Justin Theroux as Richard M. Nixon’s political fixers Howard Hunt, and G. Gordon Liddy; the five episode run, which premiered in May of this year, also features fine supporting efforts from Lena Headey, Judy Greer, Domhnal Gleeson, and Katherine Turner. 

But a surprise casting choice came in episode 4, “The Writer’s Wife,”from Robert Redford reprising, or literally phoning in his famous role as Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward from Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 classic, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Sure, it’s an uncredited voice-only appearance, and it’s only a few lines, but its notable because they didn’t just use the audio from the 47-year old film, Redford newly recorded his end of a phone call with Harrelson’s Howard Hunt with a little change in the dialogue. So let’s compare the scenes side-by-side.


In ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Redford’s Woodward tries to reach Hunt first at the White House, then the Mullen public relations firm, where he is surprised to hear Hunt pick up. In White House Plumbers, Hunt receives the call at home.

Agitated, as he was before he ever got on the phone, Hunt replies:

This is the line that’s a bit different, as it originally went like this:

And this is how it goes down this time around:

The difference being that White House Plumbers got Woodward’s question to be more accurate - the crucial evidence of the envelope with Hunt’s name on it doesn’t appear in the 1976 film. Also Redford says “The Watergate” unlike the earlier take. Next, we see a shot of Woodward’s yellow legal pad where he notes Hunt’s reaction.

Hunt’s comment is exactly the same in both versions:

And from Redford/Woodwards end:

Hunt hangs up, and the cameo is done. Halfway through putting together this post, I found that someone had done a mash-up combining the scenes on YouTube - something I should’ve figured someone would do. I’ll leave you with it what one commenter calls, and I agree, an awesome Easter egg:

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Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Summer ’23: How BARBENHEIMER Rose Above All The Flopbusters

m most likely the last person who writes about film to weigh in on BARBIE, Greta Gerwig’s billions-grossing fantasy comedy, but since the season is winding down, I thought I’d opine at how it, and its odd blockbuster bedfellow, OPPENHEIMER became a huge event, or even a movement this last summer at the cinema (or more aptly, the multiplex).

The build-up to the release date (July 21) for both films prompted many memes, fake trailers, and a lot of op-ed action to comically address the internet phenomenon that was dubbed BARBENHEIMER (it even has a Wikipedia page!), as it seemed everyone thought it was so hilarious that two such polar opposites were opening on the same day.

Christopher Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER was the true winner artistically as it’s a must-see-on-the-big-screen masterpiece (read my review), but while BARBIE was far from an essential work, it’s a fairly fun piece of satire. A radiant Margot Robbie, as “Stereotypical Barbie,” perfectly brings to life the first ever live-action version of the Mattel model doll, who lives in the surreal Barbieland, a largely pink, plastic world populated by discontinued Barbies - the identifying of which, like Video Girl Barbie, Barbie’s friend, Pregnant Midge; and Sugar Daddy Ken, is a running joke throughout the film (aided by Helen Mirren as “The Narrator” - another nice touch).

With both the charm of his sympathy, and his stupidity, Ryan Gosling’s Ken more than holds his own with Robbie’s Barbie, and may even get more laughs. The premise, which deals with Barbie beginning to become human, and journeying to the real world (present-day Los Angeles) to find the troubled little girl whose influence on her doll brought on Barbie’s existential crisis (something like that), is pretty basic fish-out-of-the-water stuff, but it moves along briskly gag to gag.

Will Ferrell, in a role that could be his character from THE LEGO MOVIE, but I bet that’s just wishful thinking, plays the Mattel CEO bad guy here with an all-male (not true in real life) Board of Directors. A mostly funny Ferrell’s loud bluster bounces around the lavish boardroom, another example of Sarah Greenwood’s excellent production design, that calls upon the War Room in DR. STRANGELOVE. That’s actually the second Kubrick reference on display as the movie opens with a hilarious parody of the apes at the dawn of time sequence at the start of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

However, it did feel a bit padded with a chase sequence through a maze through corporate office cubicles before heading into more standard automobile activity that could’ve been cut completely, and not made a difference - especially as the movie is nearly 2 hours. Also, as funny as Gosling’s big number “I’m Just Ken” is, it felt uneven in that the movie seemed to decide to become a musical in its last third.

One of BARBIE’s most controversial moments comes in the form of a fiery America Ferrera as Gloria, a Mattel employee who unites with our heroine, and accompanies her back to Barbieland. Ferrera gives a speech, more like a rant, about the struggle of being a woman in a man’s world - sample line: “You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining.”

Ferrera’s mouthful (which you can read in full here) is effectively edgy, yet heartfelt part of the film, 
but that didn’t stop many on the right to condemn BARBIE as a preachy, man-hating piece of left-wing propaganda. One such dickhead, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who called the film, “the most woke movie I’ve ever seen,” actually set a trashcan of Barbie toys on fire to make, uh, some point. If you’re glutton for punishment, you can watch Shapiro’s 43-minute review, which features him setting what looks like a few hundred dollars of Barbies ablaze.

An over-used expression these days by Shapiro, and many of the folks at Fox News, is “if you go woke, you go broke,” but the incredible success of BARBIE proves that to be B.S., just like just about every rule that anybody makes about going woke. Sure, it can be seen as just a silly spoof of a toy for little girls, but Gerwig, and co-writer (and her long-time partner) Noah Baumbach had some layers they wanted to playfully explore, and it makes for a movie that’s sure to be a repeated, and relished part of pop culture for a long, long time.

But while the double bill of BARBENHEIMER is the big hit of our hottest ever summer, there was another notable phenomenon, that being that this has been the era of the flopbuster. Sometimes, as the Urban Dictonary defines it, a flopbuster is a movie that was supposed to be a blockbuster but flopped at the box office, other times, it’s a terrible movie that still makes lots of money.

This summer was jammed packed with flopbusters including THE FLASH, INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY (read my review), HAUNTED MANSION (my review), and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING PART I. As people were probably burned out, or felt burned, by Indy since his last, much lambasted adventure, or passed on Cruise’s latest mission while ignoring its acclaim, and turned their nose up at THE FLASH, like I did, despite it containing the return of Michael Keaton’s Batman, it seems obvious why audiences opted instead for the brainer/no-brainer combo that is BARBENHEIMER.

In the wake of the success of BARBIE, it was announced that Lena Dunham, of HBO’s Girls fame, was going to make a movie based on Mattel’s ‘90s mini-doll “Polly Pocket.” Actor/writer/director Randall Park had a great reaction to that:

“Barbie is this massive blockbuster, and the idea is: Make more movies about toys! No - make more movies by and about women!”

Now, is that really so woke an idea?

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