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Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…

Deep Throat Is Back! (No, Not The Porno)

Now playing in the Triangle area:


MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (Dir. Peter Landesman, 2017)


For over thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat – the nickname (yes, inspired by the porno) of the informant that gave vital information about the Watergate burglary to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 – was one of the biggest political mysteries in history.

In 2005, former FBI agent Mark Felt revealed that he was the confidential source, Woodward confirmed it, and decades of speculation in which folks suspected White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff Alexander Haig, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and even White House press aide/later broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer to be possible candidates were over.

Now Felt’s story is told in this film based on the books, A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington by Felt and John OConnor, that’s can be seen as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN told from the point of view of, well, one of the President’s men although one that doesnt work for the President directly. A grim, stoic Liam Neeson plays Felt, who more than once is referred to as a G-Man’s G-Man.

The film opens on April 11, 1972, 203 days before the election for Richard M. Nixon’s second term, with Felt meeting with Dean (Michael C. Hall) and letting him know that his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, has files full of damaging secrets on everyone in power. “We’re the FBI, Felt says chillingly. “All your secrets are safe with us.”

However, after Hoover dies, Felt is passed over by Nixon for the job of FBI director, with one of the President’s shady yes-men, L. Patrick Gray portrayed by Martin Csokas, getting the prime position.

Gray attempts to squash Felt’s investigation of the Watergate break-in in June of ‘72, which if you don’t know your history, involved five men getting arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office/apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were found to have ties to the CIA and later the White House, which led to the toppling of Nixon’s Presidency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s hard not to do as MARK FELT takes its time getting to the juicy stuff such as the famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris), because Landesman’s screenplay wants us to see what a solid, uncompromised government official Felt is. We learn that he and his wife, Audrey (an underused Diane Lane), are worried sick about their missing daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture or something (it was the ‘70s), but Felt is so by the book that he won’t use the power of the FBI to find her.

Neeson’s nuanced, grim performance as Felt is among his finest work, but the movie keeps trying to build up dramatic heft but never quite gets there. Daniel Pemberton’s overly pulsating score doesn’t help as it dominates too many scenes, and tries too hard to make everything more ominous. They should’ve learned from the minimalist soundtrack for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to use those edgy strains sparingly.

There’s also too many House of Cards-ish aerial shots of D.C. framed to make the town look evil, and the whole interior look of the film is dark blues and greys with Oliver Stone-style mood lighting. We get it – the Nixon era was dark and gloomy. Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (sorry, I can’t help bringing that movie up over and over), Nixon is only seen in archival footage on background TVs, but dammit if his sinister presence isn’t all over this tense, but sadly not too thrilling thriller.


As there are striking similarities with the situations surrounding our current President whose name I hate typing with the leaks, the cover-ups, the dishonesty etc. this tale couldn’t be more relevant, but this dry run through the facts doesn’t have enough narrative drive to make it essential viewing.

Felt is described in the film’s postscript as “one of the most impactful whistleblowers in American History,” but his portrait here lacks impact. The story of the Watergate scandal was, of course, so much better told in that 1976 movie I keep referring to because this film could never shake it out of my mind.

In other words, Neeson is fine as Felt, and, sure I’d rather see him in something like this instead of another TAKEN movie, but Deep Throat will always be Hal Holbrook to me.


More later…

BLADE RUNNER 2049: Even More Of A Slow Burner Than The First One

Now playing at multiplexes from here to the off-world colonies:

BLADE RUNNER 2049

(Dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
Now, for a long time I didn’t think that there would actually be a sequel to BLADE RUNNER. But then, I didn’t think there’d be more episodes of Twin Peaks, more PLANET OF THE APES movies, or another GHOSTBUSTERS, or…well, you get the idea.

So, yeah, I should know better than to discount what the studios might still consider viable commercial properties. So here’s the long-awaited BLADE RUNNER 2049, coming 35 years after Ridley Scott’s original, but, wait, it’s actually more the follow-up to the DIRECTOR’s CUT that was released in 1992, or maybe it’s the sequel to the 2008 FINAL CUT.

There has been much debate as to which version of the first BLADE RUNNER is the definitive one (we can disregard the International Theatrical release, the US Broadcast version, and the Workprint), mainly because there’s an argument as to whether or not the protagonist, Rick Deckard (Harrison ford), is a replicant (a human-like robot, for those not in the know), and which version confirms this (or not).

Denis Villeneuve (PRISONERS, SICARIO, ARRIVAL), working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancer, who co-wrote the original with David Peoples, and co-wrote this one with Michael Green; posits a new LAPD Blade Runner named K played by Ryan Gosling, who’s trying to solve a mystery involving a box he found on a mission full of the bones of a replicate.

The film tells us right off that Gosling’s K is a replicant, who may be a little conflicted about having to retire his own people as we learn in an opening fight scene with Dave Bautista (Drax in the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies) as a runaway replicant.

Through some detective work, with his boss, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) breathing down his neck, K discovers that the remains belong to a replicant named Rachel, who died in childbirth. That’s the same Rachel – the replicant played by Sean Young that Deckard fell for and left Los Angeles with for greener pastures at the end of the first one.

Meanwhile, we see K’s homelife where he interacts with his love interest, an electronically produced hologram named Joi played by the fetching Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who really breathes a lot of life into this project. At one point, Armas secures a prostitute (Mackenzie Davis) for K so that she can engage with a surreal threesome with him.

By this point, one is probably wondering ‘what about Deckard? Where’s he?’ Well, get comfy as BR 2049 is two hours and 43 minutes and it’s well over half the movie before it gets to Ford.

In the meantime, we meet Jared Leto as the sinister yet zen-like Niander Wallace, who’s the films equivalent to the original’s Dr. Tyrell as he took over the corporation from him; Sylvia Hoeks as Wallace’s killer servant Luv, Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, a designer of the implanted dreams in replicants’ minds, and Lennie Jame as Mister Cotton, who runs a child labor camp, and helps K find Deckard.

K is led to believe that he may be the son of Rachel and Deckard, as there’s a memory of a wooden horse that he previously thought was implanted, but the date carved in it is his birth-date which is the same date carved in the tree where Rachel was buried.

Ford’s Deckard finally gets his screen-time in the last third, and it’s the lovably gruff, grumbling, rough and tumble performance we’ve come to expect from the 75-year old icon. It’s a shame he couldn’t have entered the movie sooner.

When I was 12 and saw the original BLADE RUNNER – the 1982 theatrical release – I wasn’t a fan at first. I found it to be very slow, dreary, and I disliked Deckard’s drab demeanor (I was expecting something more along the lines of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, I guess), but with repeat viewings it really grew on me. The 1992 DIRECTOR’S CUT really won me over, and I also loved THE FINAL CUT, though I’d be hard pressed to list what were really the crucial differences.

Upon seeing the trailers for this sequel, I knew one thing – even if the film is a disappointment story-wise, it’s was going to look amazing. And, sure enough, it looks fantastic. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ Oscar worthy visuals beautifully capture Dennis Gassner’s production design which expands on the definitively dystopian world of the original, adding the vast orange vistas of the deserts outside of LA, and the gorgeously lit lairs of Wallace’s opulent palace.

You’ll have plenty of time to luxuriate in those sets, as the film stretches out for long sequences, between what few action scenes there are, where K is flying or walking through them to get to his various destinations.

While the visuals expand on the look of Deckard and company’s world, the narrative doesn’t expand much on the idealogy of the world Phillip K. Dick created in his 1967 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” because Fancer and Green’s screenplay predominantly focuses on circling back on the events of the previous installment.

Also circling back is the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch that jars throughout with otherworldly pulsing electronica that re-purposes the main themes of Vangelis’ soundtrack for the first one.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 has moments that are eye-poppingly immersive yet it also has moments that are dull as hell. 


To fully embrace the experience, it will definitely help to be a fan, or have at least seen the original. But it’s even more of a slow burner than the first one was. If you saw the original (or any version) and thought it was boring, then this one will bore you even more.

But Overall, Villeneuve’s take on the BLADE RUNNER is a fascinatingly flawed anti-epic that should delight the casual and the hardcore largely because it’ll give them something new to talk about.

However its received, I bet that decades from now, there’ll be a different version (BLADE RUNNER 2049: THE FINAL CUT perhaps?) that we’ll all probably prefer.


More later…

The Derivative AMERICAN MADE Gets By On Tom Cruise’s Confused Charm

Now playing at a multiplex near everyone:

AMERICAN MADE (Dir. Doug Liman, 2017)

Let’s be honest – this movie has been made many times before. It’s the GOODFELLAS model of a cocky guy who does corrupt things to get the good life, while his wife on the side initially disapproves, but then is wooed by all the money coming in. This all, of course, ends badly, but not before some flashy montages stuffed with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and some comical scrapes with the law.

AMERICAN MADE’s subject Barry Seal, buoyantly played by Tom Cruise, has even been portrayed five times before – mostly on the small screen by Dennis Hopper in the TV movie DOUBLECROSSED, by Theddeas Phillips in an episode of the Spanish language series Alias el Mexicano, by Dylan Bruno in an episode of Narcos, and by David Semark in the mini-series America’s War on Drugs.


Just last year, Michael Paré had a supporting part as Seal in the true crime thriller THE INFILTRATOR starring Bryan Cranston.

So yeah, Seal’s story has been touched on just a little bit.

We meet Seal here as a bored TWA pilot in the late ‘70s who is recruited by a smooth, scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson (EX MACHINA, THE REVENANT, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), as CIA operative Monty Schafer, to fly reconnaissance missions in Central America to collect counter-intelligence. Since when he tells his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) the name of the company he’s been offered to work for is called IAC, which stands for “Independent Aviation Consultants,” she says “that sounds fuckin’ made up,” he keeps his new job secret from her.

On one of his missions he is approached in Panama by the Medellín Cartel, made up of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), to smuggle cocaine for them from Columbia to Louisiana. This results in one of the film’s most thrilling sequences in which Cruise, who did much of his own flying stuntwork (of course he did), has trouble clearing a short jungle runway and almost crashes into the trees.

Seal gets into running guns for the Contras and is given his own remote airport in Mena Arkansas, where he hires several pilots to help him on his many missions. There’s always got to be a slimy character that may screw up things for the wheeling and dealing lead and it comes in the form of Lucy’s brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones).

SP Seal has to contend with that along with the DEA, CIA, the Contras, the Sandinistas, and the Reagan White House, where we get cameos by Oliver North (Robert Farrior), and George W. Bush (Connor Trinneer).


While AMERICAN MADE, written by second-time screenwriter Gary Spinelli (the little-seen STASH HOUSE was his first), recalls the formula of the aforementioned GOODFELLAS, and covers the same ground that the also aforementioned THE INFILTRATOR, SICARIO, WAR DOGS, SAVAGES, and especially BLOW did, it’s an enjoyable romp that features Cruise’s most invested acting in ages (take that, THE MUMMY!).

Cruise delightfully puts a cynical spin on his TOP GUN persona of old, and carries the movie with his charm even when he’s mostly confused about how in over his head he is.

It may be an overly familiar ride that plays fast and loose with the facts, but it entertains for most of its running time, and it’s commendable that it doesn’t ape the Scorsesean style as extreme as AMERICAN HUSTLE did.

Though not as good as their previous film, EDGE OF TOMORROW, this film has director Liman and Cruise appearing to work well together, which bodes well for their proposed sequel to EDGE. Maybe that one will have a better, less generic title than their first two efforts.

More later…

BATTLE OF THE SEXES Should’ve Been A Drunk History Sketch With The Same Cast

Now playing at theaters, surprisingly mostly multiplexes, near me:

BATTLE OF THE SEXES

(Dirs. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
This is the time of year that we get movies like this. Star-studded dramatic re-tellings of historical or quasi historical events packaged as prestige pictures or, to use a more accurate term, Oscar-bait.

In this overly earnest one, Husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) put Emma Stone and Steve Carrell through the true story motions of portraying reigning women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and former champ Bobby Riggs, who faced off in a famous match in the early ‘70s.

King, who was 29 at the time, was challenged by the 55-year old Riggs, shortly after striking out on her own tennis tournament and union just for women after disagreements with the US Lawn Tennis Association about equal pay. Timely, huh?


The film juggles three strands – it’s the story of Carrell as the washed-up, compulsive gambler Riggs trying to get back on top, it’s the story of Stone’s King having an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) to the chagrin of her husband (Austin Stowell), and it’s the story of sexism in the burgeoning era of feminism.

But as promisingly rich as those elements initially appear, they only brush up against each other and fail to help form a compelling narrative. King is depicted as a driven, focused player; Riggs a goofy self-promoter, but they never clash in any impactful manner. There’s a lot of lip service given to the theme of women overcoming the idea that they’re the weaker sex, but the film lacks the passion to fully engage with its premise.

That’s perhaps, as with other recent true story prestige pictures such as SULLY, and LION there’s only really 20-30 minutes of story here. This results in long draggy stretches with little juice. Stone’s former Broadway co-star Alan Cummings comes in to add some sass to the project, but as much as I liked the mini-“Caberet” re-union, his role as a smirking fashion designer feels contrived (especially in his final lines) even though it’s based on a real person.

But I’m hesitant to blame writer Simon Beaufoy because he has had better experience with adapting true stories (127 HOURS, EVEREST, his Oscar-winning screenplay for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) before. The responsibility falls on Dayton and Faris for their lightweight and overly conventional approach to this material.

I think this movie would be an excellent segment of the Comedy Central show, Drunk History, with the same cast. If you haven’t seen the show, it involves celebrities (usually comedians) being filming while getting intoxicated and recounting historical events. For example, one episode features sloshed comic actor Steve Berg explaining the behind-the-scenes making of CITIZEN KANE, while in black and white recreations, Jack Black plays Orson Welles, and John Lithgow as William Randolph Hearst, act the scenes out, even lip-synching Berg’s quotes.

The fact that several comic actors – Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, and Chris Parnell (all SNL alumni) – appear in supporting parts, and the film is most lively when it goes for a laugh, makes me wish for a Drunk History version even more.

As it is, despite some invested acting by Carrell and Stone, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is a bland, formulaic trip through dated clichés and the expected tropes of a period piece soundtrack (bad timing including Elton John’s “Rocket Man” for obvious reasons), and the obligatory photos of the real people at the end. It’s a well-intentioned, and relatively well-made drama, but it’ll most likely be forgotten by the time the awards season comes around.

Also, while the concept of a hyped-up tennis exhibition helping to change things is an intriguing premise, when it comes to the climax of the match itself, the realization that tennis is among the least cinematic of sports is hard to escape.

And that’s even when the stakes were as high as they supposedly were in September of 1973 at the Houston Astrodome in an event that was watched on T.V. by millions of people.

More later…

Things I’m Glad Didn’t Catch On: Sequels With “Another” In Their Titles


N
ow, I acknowledge that this is a silly thing to harp on, but I’m happy that the idea of putting the word “another” in the title of sequels didn’t catch on.

This thought only came about because I stumbled onto the long forgotten follow-up to the 1982 Eddie Murphy hit, 48 HRS, on TV last night, which was lamely titled, ANOTHER 48 HRS.

This kind of titling is lazy as hell, but it’s actually truth-in-advertising because the film was a lame rehash that deserved such unimaginative labeling. The 1990 action comedy was a modest hit, but lambasted by critics (it stands at 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). There was actually talk of a third film for the franchise entitled YET ANOTHER 48 HRS, but thankfully that never materialized.

Three years later, Touchstone Pictures hedged their bets on a sequel to their 1987 hit STAKEOUT, and brought back stars Richard Dreyfuss, and Emilio Estevez, and added Rosie O’Donnell for some reason in what was dubbed ANOTHER STAKEOUT. Notice how similar to ANOTHER 48 HRS the type style for “Another” is:

This definitively inessential sequel flopped big-time and was largely panned (it’s at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes) during the summer of 1993, and it’s probably a movie you’ve never heard of. Hell, few folks today even remember the original STAKEOUT as I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a reference to it.

Anyway, the use of ANOTHER in a title died with ANOTHER STAKEOUT and that’s a good thing. Just saying the title out loud shows how awful an idea it is – you can’t help saying it after a sigh in a tired voice in italics: “Here’s ANOTHER…”
So they tried to make that happen twice, but there’s a device that’s even lamer that was only used once: putting MORE in front of the recycled titles, as in MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

So glad that didn’t catch on either. I mean, can you imagine how unbearable it’d be to see ads for movies like MORE HORRIBLE BOSSES or MORE ZOOLANDER?

It’s great that so many sequel titles these days don’t just slap a Roman numeral on the end, they have ampersands and subtitles ‘n all, because they really should at least try to disguise that it’s the same ole thing again, right?

The use of “another” appeared to imply that the studios were being cynically upfront about the shoddy quality of their recycled products. Here’s another one, kids! Collect ‘em all.

So this has been my look back at the brief era in which a badly chosen yet accurate word graced a couple of lame sequel titles.

R.I.P. ANOTHER 1990-1993

More later…

Ben Stiller’s Squirm-Inducing Midlife Crisis Continues

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

BRAD’S STATUS (Dir. Mike White, 2017)

“Dad, are you having some kind of nervous breakdown or something?” asks Austin Abrams as Troy, the son of the neurotic worrywart Brad, played by Ben Stiller.

Brad denies it, but looking over the recent filmography of the 51-year old comic actor/writer/director who portrays him, it sure does seem like Stiller is fond of having his midlife crisis play out over and over again on the big screen.

It can be traced back to Stiller’s 2008 satire TROPIC THUNDER, in which he starred as airheaded action star Tugg Speedman. In a clip of an interview with Access Hollywood, Tyra Banks puts it to Speedman: “You’re on the wrong side of 40. You’re childless and alone. Somebody close to you said, ‘One more flop and it’s over.’” Stiller’s Speedman responds, “Somebody said they were close to me?”

But the crisis really began in earnest with Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG (2010). Stiller played the title role, a miserable misanthrope who sabotages every potential relationship with his miserable misanthropy after suffering, yep, a nervous breakdown.

After some forgettable commercial comedies – THE WATCH, TOWER HEIST, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY – Stiller teamed up with Baumbach again for a much more successful look at the neuroses around aging: 2015’s WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. In it Stiller plays yet another New Yorker, a documentary filmmaker who, with his wife played by Naomi Watts, befriends a young hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) because he longs to be young and hip again.

Even Stiller’s ZOOLANDER 2 from earlier this year touched on this theme with Stiller’s Derek Zoolander and Owen Wilson’s Hansel being tricked into wearing garish red jumpsuits that say “Old” and “Lame.”

So that brings us to Mike White’s BRAD’S STATUS, which features Stiller as a guy who is tormented by thoughts of being a failure while on a trip to visit prospective colleges in the Boston area with his son, the aforementioned Abrams. Brad runs a non-profit in Sacramento, has a lovely wife played by Jenna Fischer, and a 19-year old son who could possibly get into Harvard, but he can’t help thinking about his college buddies who are all much bigger successes than him.

Brad feels not just “fleeting jealousy, but real pain” when he sees his old pal Craig Fisher, played with supreme smarm by Michael Sheen, on TV as a political pundit/ bestselling author. He feels the same about seeing that his former friend, a bigtime movie director played by the film’s writer/director White, has his house in Architectual Digest, and hearing that another buddy portrayed by Owen Wilson, is a extremely wealthy business man with his own jet. Oh, yeah, there’s also Jermaine Clement as a retired internet mogul who lives in Hawaii with two young girlfriends.

So comparatively, Brad feels he’s got nothing to show for his life of hard work, and that there’s no potential there for anything better, but learning that his son has a shot at Harvard may yet be the light at the end of the tunnel.

Abrams’ Troy is weirded out by his Dad’s behavior, but deals with it admirably. They go out to dinner with musician friends of Troy’s played by Shazi Raja and Luisa Lee, and Brad is smitten with these young ladies while cynical about their idealism, which he believes will fade like his has.

While Brad only speaks on the phone with his friends played by Clement, and Wilson, he meets Sheen’s Craig Fisher for a meal, but it doesn’t go well. In fact, after the Roger Moore-athon impression dueling in THE TRIP TO SPAIN, it’s the most cringe-worthy scene in an independent film this year.

BRAD’S STATUS is funny, but not laugh out loud funny, it’s more inner squirm funny. Stiller’s Brad has fantasies throughout the film about his friend’s charmed lives, and they are among the film’s most amusing moments, but the movie is best when it makes us nod and relate with Brad’s reckoning with his relevance. This comes in the form of Stiller’s voice-over narration, a device that is often overused, but White’s writing which within them takes on various relatable rationales and dark avenues of thinking, is pleasurably on point.

A thoughtful and witty indie that while it dances on the edge of being a downer, BRAD’S STATUS has as much of a hopeful gleam in its eye as its protagonist does when he cries at a climatic classical concert involving Raja playing flute to the accompaniment of Lee on violin. It’s a scene that’s as squirm-inducing as it is moving, but by that point in the film, you’ll be used to that.


More later…

THE TRIP TO SPAIN: Third Time Is So Not The Charm

Opening today at an indie art house near me:

THE TRIP TO SPAIN (Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2017)

So, just like in the first two TRIP films (THE TRIP and THE TRIP TO ITALY), it begins with a phone call between Welsh comedian/T.V. personality Rob Brydon and the much better known British actor/writer/producer Steve Coogan.

“Let’s do a series of restaurant reviews – this time, a trip to Spain for the New York Times,” Coogan suggests to Brydon and off we go for another round of immaculate meals at posh restaurants, where the dinner conversation consists of dueling celebrity impressions.

The traveling fine dining duo trot out their comical takes on the voices of Michael Caine (one of their specialties), Mick Jagger, John Hurt, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, and Roger Moore, among others (this film is heavy on the Moore mimicry, which is interesting because it was shot in 2016, way ahead of the James Bond actor’s death in May of this year).

They take a road trip along the coast of Spain, stopping in villages and towns such as Getaria, Hondarribia, Santiago de Compostela, Sos del Rey Católico, Prejano, and Cuenca, Almagro, and Granada.

Now I had to look those places up (thanks to The Telegraph’s The stunning filming locations from the Trip to Spain), because they aren’t properly identified in the movie. Neither are the names of the restaurants they visit, which is odd because they are supposedly reviewing them, and they frequently cut to shots of the chefs preparing their food in the kitchen. Apart from that, there’s not many shots of the food either.

No, the scenery and foodie theme is just a backdrop to the impressions with each droll broke improvising bits and skits with their exaggerated characterizations.

This can get pretty annoying especially when the impressions falter. We learn that Coogan does a better Jagger than Brydon (Brydon even does Jagger doing Michael Caine at one point), Brydon does a better Sean Connery than Coogan, but neither of their Roger Moore voices is spot on, though Brydon’s comes the closest.

This makes for most cringeworthy scene in the movie, where Brydon rambles on and on as Moore while Coogan, and their lovely lady guests (Claire Keelen, Marta Barrio) sit by awkwardly trying to converse.

They have these meals, then retire to their hotel rooms and have phone conversations – Coogan with his agency, son, and girlfriend; Brydon with his wife and an agent claiming he can make him a big star. These suggest conflicts and some sort of plot development but not much comes from them, it’s always back to the impressions.

This is frustrating because Coogan has a possibly juicy storyline about a project he’s working on – a follow-up to PHILOMENA, which he starred, co-wrote, and produced – getting green lit, but they want to bring in another writer. Coogan starts off the film on a high from his success with PHILOMENA (something that he brings up often), but there are hints that his star isn’t on the rise anymore, while Brydon, happily married with kids, may be on the verge of a breakthrough but these ideas never go anywhere.


Instead we get scenes of these guys dressing up like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot, and making a stop at the Monastery of San Juan de la Peña in Jaca, Spain, which is fabled to be the resting place of the Holy Grail – something they, of course, riff on.

As with the previous films, THE TRIP TO SPAIN is the result of six episodes of the BBC TV series of the same name being edited together into a feature film. This makes me wonder if this material might be less tedious in its original format.

What we have here is a aimlessly talky travelogue, with these sad blokes doing endless impressions for an overlong running time (the film is one hour, 47 min). Despite some funny moments, such as Brydon’s Brando reciting Monty Python’s “The Spanish Inquisition” sketch, and incredible looking locations, this third time is so not the charm.


More later…

Summing Up The Cinematic Summer Of 2017


Reportedly this summer was the lowest grossing at the box office in many years. The low turnout can be blamed on franchise fatigue (more ALIENS, APES, CARS, TRANSFORMERS, and PIRATES, anybody?), the abundance of big budget bombs (THE MUMMY, KING ARTHUR: THE LEGEND OF THE SWORD, DARK TOWER, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS), and all the good TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Twin Peaks: The Return, Game of Thrones, and Glow competing for people’s attention. But whatever the case, despite several gems, it’s been an abysmal season crowded with bland blockbuster wannabes.

It started off promising last May with James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, a solid sequel to the big Marvel hit from three summers ago. GOTGV2 had a juicy role for Kurt Russell as the father of Chris Pratt’s character, Peter Quill (or Star Lord, if you prefer), a bunch of amusing action sequences and gags, and a stellar soundtrack going for it, and audiences responded by making it the third top grossing movie of the year. Read my review.


The next few sequels that followed – Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT, David Bower’s DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: THE LONG HAUL, and Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES came and went quickly, with only PIRATES turning a profit despite bad reviews (it’s at 30% on the Rottentomatometer). I only saw PIRATES of these three, and I’m pretty tired of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack schtick so I didn’t care for it (read my review: PIRATES 5: DEAD MEN TELL NO NEW TALES), but at least I enjoyed the Paul McCartney cameo.


I wanted to see the latest ALIEN sequel on the big screen, but didn’t get around to it. I’ll probably catch it someday on Blu ray or streaming, but I’m not really dying to.

Early June, the summer was shaken up by the major success of Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN, the first actually good movie of the new DC Extended Universe. 


The gorgeous Gal Gadot portrays the iconic superheroine in the WWI era adventure, and with the help of Chris Pine, and a supporting cast including Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis, she lassoed up a satisfying piece of entertainment (read my review). Now, I’m just waiting for Zack Snyder to get the franchise back off track with JUSTICE LEAGUE (also featuring Gadot) this November. 


Another superhero favorite, Spider-Man, returned the next month, and restored the character to his former glory after Marc Webb’s forgettable THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN movies with Andrew Garfield. Featuring a likable kid in the form of Tom Holland, who was introduced in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, the extremely fun (and funny) experience of John Watts
 SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was embraced by moviegoers to the tune of over $300 million, and critics to the tune of a 92 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Read my review.

Another sequel that did well at the box office was Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin, and Eric Guillon
’s DESPICABLE ME 3 (though not great critically – 61% on Rotten Tomatoes), but not being a fan of the series or the whole Minions thing for that matter, I opted out.

Of the other summer sequels, I took a hard pass on CARS 3 as the CARS series is my least favorite Pixar franchise, but I took in Matt Reeves THE WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, and found it to be a good not great entry in the rebooted series. It contains some powerful visuals, the enjoyable comic relief of Steve Zahn voicing one of the few talking apes who calls himself “Bad Ape,” and Woody Harrelson as the villain, a sinister Colonel who wants to kill off Andy Serkis’ ape leader Caesar and his army, but it’s never been one of my favorite franchises, and I’m not really itching to see more APES movies after it. 


As for the fifth TRANSFORMERS movie, which made over $600 million yet is still considered to be an underperformer – I have never seen one of the TRANSFORMERS movies all the way through, and Im not considering changing that.

One of the worst, if not the worst, movies of the summer was Alex Kurtzman’s THE MUMMY, which was primed to kick off Universal’s Dark Universe series, but its commercial and critical failure (here
s my pan) may cause the powers that be to reconsider things. Tom Cruise is bound to do much better in the Doug Liman
’s upcoming AMERICAN MADE, which is getting some early buzz, so don’t worry about him – he’ll be just fine.

The comedy genre fared horribly during the summer months with flops such as Lucia Aniellos ROUGH NIGHT (saw it – lame waste of a talented cast headed by Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon), Jonathan Levines SNATCHED (didn’t see it, but it looked lame – sorry, Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn), Seth Gordons BAYWATCH (another I skipped for what should be an obvious reason), and Andrew Jay Cohens THE HOUSE (also didn’t see despite being a fan of both Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) which was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences.
However, in the world of independent film, there was a comedy this summer, a rom com no less, that did great business, and got critical acclaim to boot: Michael Showalters THE BIG SICK. The film, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan is the story of how Nanjiani met his later wife, and stuck with her while she was in a coma, while dealing with her worried parents played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. It’s a real witty charmer that has now played for over eight weeks at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh where I work part time. I haven’t seen a movie connect with audiences at our local indie arthouse like it has in a long time. My review.

A few other indies that didn’t connect as well: Trey Edward Shults’ IT CAME AT NIGHT and David Lowery’s A GHOST STORY. Of these, the former, starring Joel Edgerton as a man whose family is holed up in a house in the country while a plague ravages the land, had its edgy moments but was far from fully fleshed out, while the later, featuring Casey Affleck as a ghost – in a white sheet with eye holes, mind you – was just plain weird as I wrote in my review.

In the non franchise department, there’s Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER, a crackling crime thriller, with a great cast including Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx, and an even better soundtrack. It wowed crowds and critics, including me as I declared in my review that it was the best film of the summer.


Another non sequel that I enjoyed was David Leitch’s ATOMIC BLONDE, starring Charlize Theron as a kick ass MI6 field agent on a mission in West Berlin during the waning days of the cold war. It’s a bit uneven and wonky at times, but has some excellent set pieces including a stunning fight in a stairwell, a sharp lead performance by Theron, and a well chosen ‘80s soundtrack. Hmm, that’s three films this summer with great soundtracks – not bad.

Up there with BABY DRIVER in quality is Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, an immersive war epic that I’m glad I saw in 70 mm. I had a few issues with its structure, which I discussed in my post, Notes on DUNKIRK, but was overall impressed by Nolan’s work, his best since INCEPTION. I bet we’re going to hear a lot more about it come Oscar season.

Lastly, I hate to say I was disappointed in Steven Soderbergh’s late summer entry, LOGAN LUCKY, which many critics have praised.


I loved its premise – a hillbilly heist centered around robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway in my homestate of N.C. – and its cast including Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and especially a bleach blond Daniel Craig – but the job is pulled off with very little conflict, the stakes don’t feel very high as folks can be broken out of and back into jail for the caper with ease, and none of these people are believably related to each other – Driver and Tatum sure don’t look or act like brothers, nor do Craig and the two hayseeds (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) who are supposed to be his kin. Still, there were some amusing moments, and I appreciate the effort by Soderbergh to do a variation on his OCEAN’S ELEVEN movies, even if I’m not a fan of those either.

So that’s the summer of 2017 at the movies. One could argue that a season that boasts the likes of BABY DRIVER, DUNKIRK, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, WONDER WOMAN, and THE BIG SICK can’t be completely written off, but that’s only six films out of over 40, so sadly they weren’t enough to save the summer from sucking. The fall, where historically the films get better, can’t come soon enough.


More later…

And Now, The Top 10 Celebrity Diets Throughout History

Editor’s note: This is a sponsored guest post by pop culture maniac Allan Dayfold:

The Top 10 Celebrity Diets Throughout History

As long as there have been celebrities, there have been diets. Whether it’s for a movie role or simply to look go…

Elvis & STAR WARS: 40 Years Ago Today

Elvis Presley died on this date in 1977. STAR WARS was released earlier that summer. 


So the big pop culture question is: did Elvis see STAR WARS? 

Sadly, the answer from every source is no, he didn’t, but he wanted to. The day before he passed he was trying to obtain a print of the movie so he could watch it with his daughter, Lisa Marie. Three days before that, he had taken her, and his girlfriend Ginger Alden to see the then latest James Bond movie, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, the last film he saw at the cinema (the picture above is of them in his 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III coming back from the movie).

I posted the above blurb a year ago today on Facebook – the 39th anniversary of the Kings death – and doing new research now I see that I wasn’t alone in wondering about whether he saw the hugely popular space epic. The STAR WARS blog, Episode Nothing, had a very similar post entitled Did Elvis see Star Wars?, and in 2014 the Elvis blog, elvispresleyexpert.wordpress.com, even asked “Could Star Wars have saved the life of Elvis Presley?”

As far back as 2005, the site everything2.com, also speculated about it, and pondered if the movie’s director, George Lucas, ever saw Presley in concert.

It’s too bad that one of the biggest films of all time wasn’t seen by one of the biggest performers of all time. I, of course, can’t (or don’t want to) speculate on whether if it wouldve saved him, but I bet he wouldve loved it.

More later…

Notes On DUNKIRK (Three Weeks Into Its Run)

It’s been three weeks since I first saw Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic DUNKIRK, but I wasn’t in a good headspace then. My wife and I were having some major work done on our house involving installing hardwood floors so I was exhausted from moving tons of books, CDs, DVDs, records, etc.

I had mixed feelings about the movie, but I recognized some greatness there so I decided to see it a second time. But this time was in the way Nolan intended it to be seen – in IMAX 70 mm. The visuals were indeed impressive and the story threads came together better than my previous viewing, but I still felt a disconnect.

The film, which Nolan wrote and co-produced in addition to directing, follows three narratives – “The Mole,” about the thousands of soldiers stranded on the beach of Dunkirk, France over the course of a week waiting for rescue boats over the course of a week; “The Sea,” concerning a civilian (Mark Rylance) sailing his boat with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend (Barry Keoghan) to help with the rescue effort over the course of a day; and “The Air,” which involves three Spitfires piloted by members of the Royal Air Force engaged in dogfights over the course of an hour.

Nolan’s attention to detail in recreating the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 is immaculate via the usage of restored boats and planes from the actual event, practical effects, and a minimum of CGI.

I’ve heard many folks complain that in the “The Mole” storyline the characters are hard to tell apart. Fionn Whitehead as a private named Tommy, who is pretty much the protagonist of the thread, and a fellow soldier played by pop singer Harry Styles do blend in with the masses on the docks, but perhaps that’s the point.

“The Air” narrative which has Tom Hardy, and Jack Lowden on a mission to take down German dive bombers over the infinite ocean may be the most exciting of the three intertwined scenarios, but several times Nolan cuts away right as the scenes are getting the most compelling. Lowden almost drowning because he can’t get his cockpit open after crash landing in the sea deserves to be seen in full, but Nolan can’t help but dive back into another thread, and the momentum gets lost.

The most emotionally grounded storyline is “The Sea” as a stoic Rylance holds steady to his goal to save as many men as possible, even when a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy that his boat picks up violently tries to get him to turn his boat around. Murphy, a veteran of a few Nolan films (BATMAN BEGINS, INCEPTION), is only credited as “shivering soldier,” and that about sums up his role.

Kenneth Branagh, as a British Naval Commander, brings a touch of dignified gravitas to his part, but mainly just stands around on the pier watching what’s happening around him.

So basically, don’t go in expecting fully fleshed out characters. There may be precious little dialogue, but there’s plenty of genuine suspense, gripping action, and incredibly vivid cinematography (thanks to Hoyte van Hoytema’s 54-Pound IMAX Camera) to make up for it, and to make up for the failings of Nolan’s previous film, INTERSTELLAR.

DUNKIRK is engaging to a considerable degree, but not as immersive an experience as it could’ve been as its fractured narratives bog it down. Hans Zimmer’s intense score, which at times beautifully blends with the scary sound of attacking dive bombers, does a lot to tie together the three strands, but they still clash in ways that was at times frustrating.

I still would recommend Nolan’s work here because there is a lot of power in the imagery and the depiction of touching humanity, which, as I said before, is most present in Rylance’s storyline.


It may fall short of being a masterpiece, but it comes close – especially when seeing it a second time in IMAX 70 mm. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

More later…

A Lot Of A GHOST, Not Much STORY

Opening today at a few theaters near me:

A GHOST STORY (Dir. David Lowery, 2017)


I walked out of this extremely weird movie in a daze. I wasn’t sure what the hell it was that I just watched. I mean it’s a movie about a ghost who appears as a guy in a children’s Halloween costume – that is, seriously, a white bed sheet with eye holes.

Let me backtrack – the film begins with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a couple living in a house in semi-rural Texas who appear to be preparing to move. Affleck gets killed in an automobile accident and we cut to Mara identifying his body at the hospital. After she places the sheet back over his head and leaves, Affleck sits up and then walks through the building’s halls unseen by anybody because, you know, he’s a ghost now.

He makes the journey back to their house and stands there motionless watching Mara as she mourns. He watches her eat a pie. A whole pie. This scene feels like it goes on forever. Mara eats until she goes to the bathroom to throw up in the background.

Time passes and the ghost stands motionless watching Mara pack up and move away. A new family made up of a single mother and her two kids move in and he watches them. One night in a fit of anger (I guess) he throws and smashes dishes in the kitchen which scares them and they move out shortly after.

Then the house appears to be taken over by hipsters who have impromptu parties with pretentious discussions. Singer/songwriter, and friend of director Lowery, Will Oldham delivers a speech about mortality and the futility of time (I think) that perhaps spells out the movie’s meaning but I dunno.

At some point, the ghost waves to another ghost (identical bed sheet situation) through the window of the house next door and they speak in subtitles with no sound (the ghosts get subtitles but the Spanish-speaking mother and her kids don’t). The other ghost says he’s waiting for someone, but he forgets who. All through this, Affleck’s ghost scratches at one of the walls trying to retrieve a tiny note that Mara’s character wrote and left in a crack.

More time passes, and the house gets demolished by bulldozers, and a shiny, modern building is built in its place where the ghost stalks the glass halls. Then we go back in time two hundred years to when European settlers were taking over the land. He stands and watches as history repeats and ends up watching Affleck and Mara again, then he watches as Affleck becomes a ghost, who he watches from behind.

I wonder how much Affleck actually visited the set because for the bulk of the movie it could’ve been anybody under that sheet. Especially since you can’t see eyes behind the holes – just darkness.

The self conscious artsiness of this film, which is all told in long, stationary shots in a square aspect ratio, makes me think that Lowery is trying to get as far away from the commerciality of his last project, PETE’S DRAGON, as he possibly can. Horror fans will likely be baffled by it because, except for the moment the bulldozer comes crashing through the wall, it’s not a scary experience. Haunting is more what Lowery was going for, but while it does indeed have some effective eeriness, it just goes on and on without a truly meaningful point to be made.

There’s maybe a good 20-minute or so short film that could’ve been made with these elements that would spare us all the existential tedium. The only story here is the passing of time, and that wasnt enough to keep me engaged.


But it is a gutsy move for A24 to release a film such as A GHOST STORY during the overcrowded dog days of summer – I admire that – but I can only recommend this picture to people who like being weirded out – very slowly.


More later…