His Maximum Effort Persists

Deadpool 2 (2018)
Dir: David Leitch
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin and Karan Soni

So, I haven’t gotten a blog in yet on Inception.  I did get one out for Darkest Hour.  And, I definitely drafted one for the original Deadpool, in which I ask why wouldn’t the Academy toss out some nominations for this Fan favorite, starting with a discussion for the writing adaptation race?  My point in bringing up these other titles is that it’s kind of a rare thing anymore, particular for someone who eats, sleeps and breathes films the way I do, that a film delivers.  And Deadpool 2, ladies and gentlemen, delivers.  Particularly when you consider all of the trailers, special clips, images, social media posts – for there to still be a LOT of surprises when I saw the film opening weekend is a real tribute to the film and its marketing campaign.

By the time the official trailer debuted in late March, I was eagerly awaiting more DP2.  Heck, I was excited when the studio treated us to that little vignette in which DP tries to change his clothes in a phone booth, a clip which certainly tossed a wink and a nod towards the original Superman.  I loved the first film, and the social media materials that had already been put out by the campaign had nailed it!  Consider these items, which are aside from the typical, official trailer:

  • Another video of Reynolds, in full costume as the anti-superhero, riffing off of old Bob Ross PBS videos
  • The very description of the movie, which reads as follows, “After surviving a near fatal bovine attack, a disfigured cafeteria chef (Wade Wilson) struggles to fulfill his dream of becoming Mayberry’s hottest bartender while also learning to cope with his lost sense of taste. Searching to regain his spice for life, as well as a flux capacitor, Wade must battle ninjas, the yakuza, and a pack of sexually aggressive canines, as he journeys around the world to discover the importance of family, friendship, and flavor – finding a new taste for adventure and earning the coveted coffee mug title of World’s Best Lover.”
  • In the week before open, the campaign dropped a clip in which Deadpool visits former soccer star David Beckham at home – see that one below.  It’s incredibly funny, and has earned over 21.4M views.
  • For the next clip, consider the variation on an old saying, “Don’t be afraid to ask – but also, know how to ask…”  Star Ryan Reynolds wrote a letter to fellow Canadian pop star Celine Deon.  The substance of the letter was essentially Reynolds’ feelings that no one has had an amazing soundtrack song since Deon sang for Titanic.  His question to her, “why not do it again, but for Deadpool 2?”  The video below is amazing, but be sure to see the behind-the-scenes variations, too.  And, when you see the film, you’ll surely agree that the use of this song and its placement in the film is hilarious.
  • There were a lot of other really special clips, but this one was significant in that most promotional materials that come out after opening weekend are very standard.  They typically tout “#1 movie in the world,” or “the action hit of the summer is here,” or other quick messaging for encouraging Fans to see the film in theaters.  Take a look at the final clip linked below, which literally pays tribute to the Deadpool Fans – and, in a funny way, TV classic The Golden Girls.

Referring to the second bullet above, it’s true – when you look the film’s official videos up on YouTube or if you’re browsing for DP2 on iTunes, this is the description that follows.  So, the deadpan, socially awkward sense of humor that defines the character was embraced by the marketing campaign not only in the first film, but also in this sequel.  Having a star like Reynolds, with his “all in” participation and energy is very rare, and to the campaign’s credit, they capitalized upon his involvement once again.  And, as opening weekend approached, the campaign kept pivoting with co-stars like Josh Brolin supporting star Reynolds in promoting DP2.

So far, I’ve focused mostly on the promotional campaign, because I think it’s a test case of what can be done when you have a dynamite character, a smart script, a truly dedicated lead actor and a marketing department willing to take risks.  But, let me say I saw the film on its opening weekend, and it’s such a satisfying feeling when you look at the trailer or at least become aware of a film debut you’re interested in – and the experience of going to the theater to see it pays off.  The storyline, involving Deadpool losing someone close to him and his subsequent attempt at righting some of his wrongful behavior towards becoming a true member of the X-Men, works the way the first one did.  The plot allows for plenty of action, lots of new characters and cameos, not to mention DP’s breaking of the fourth wall and incessant comedic dialogue.  Now, I’m not a comic book expert and I certainly missed some of the jokes and references that were obviously entertaining to other fans in that theater that weekend.  Again, I think this speaks directly to the script’s success – that both superfans and guys like me, who love the action/comedy genre, even if it spills over into superheros – this story got to both of us.

With all of these positive comments considered, be aware that the film is extremely violent, just like its predecessor.  If the first one didn’t resonate with you, definitely be aware that the sequel is very much the same “maximum effort” at not only entertaining action Fans, but also presenting a tongue-in-cheek parody of the superhero genre.  And, if I’m pressed to advise what stood out in DP2, I’d have to say Josh Brolin as Cable.  I couldn’t believe – particularly having seen so much of the teaser marketing materials – how much the actor brought to the role, and how the story kept his involvement anything but vanilla.  Not to say that Colossus and my boy Dopinder and the other supporting characters weren’t funny – just that Cable was a true gem.

Deadpool 2 – IMDB Link

And finally, here are some of the amazing posters the campaign assembled.  I think it’s worth a pat on the back that the marketing department at 20th Century Fox gave the go ahead to share all of these – I mean, look how fun they are!

Deadpool 2 Movie Posters

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So, um… Smoking Is Bad for Us?

SKIP – The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Dir: Lorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone and Barry Keoghan, who played the kid who dies on the boat in Dunkirk

In reference to the title of this entry, anyone who finishes Deer and has a strong sense of what the theme was is most definitely going to disagree with the following commentary.  I just happened to note how the movie uses tobacco smoking as an activity, a visual to show that another character has been sucked into the whirlwind of emotions and violence created by an allegorical idea, which this movie explores.  To put my frustration in perspective, let me say that I’m sure fans of Lars von Trier must love this film.  For anyone who knows my opinion of that so-called artist, that should put my feelings towards Deer in immediate context.

Before reading further, just know my primary goal in drafting this entry is to make sure that none of my pals back in Cincinnati see this on VOD and think, “Oh yeah! They shot that here – maybe I’ll give it a try…”  Well, don’t.  Let me advise any of my fellow hometown crowd to actively avoid watching this two hour exercise in frustration.  Readers of this blog have surely noticed how “SKIP” entries have been rare lately, and I try to keep it that way.  But with Deer, I’d rather you watch Tombstone, Happy Gilmore, Heat or any other of your favorites again for the 20th time.

I do, however, insist that everything in artistic endeavor has a positive and a negative.  Whether it’s a painting in the museum, a sculpture in the park, an old monument – or an independent movie like this, I like the idea that it’s healthy to talk about one’s feelings if they find the art off-putting.  To briefly elaborate, I read a lot of social media commentary related to films for my business.  And let me tell you, my biggest constructive criticism is simply to say you hate something is not enough.  Take the time to explain why.  Use your words.  Avoid emojis, which always make me think of Orwell’s 1984.  Describe your feelings and for God’s sake, give us a reason to finish your commentary.

Naturally, I have to hold myself to the same standard.  I mean, just because Deer was a “SKIP” for me, it doesn’t mean that the “artist’s intent” didn’t receive positive “audience reaction” by other moviegoers.  It wasn’t received well by me, at least related to 85-90% of the film.  The beloved 10-15% I’m referring to is specific to the incredible locations that the production used in my hometown of Cincinnati.  In fact, some of the early scenes are shot from Covington, KY, which is also very dear to me.  The resulting skyline you see of that picturesque little midwestern town had my hopes up.  And, on a separate positive note, let me say that I appreciate the efforts of the actors, their interest in tackling such a script… And, I especially liked the work of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis.  Not sure if it was him or the director, but their tribute to Stanley Kubrick is noticable with Deer.

Now that all the positives are out of the way, let’s dive in with the frustration.  The very philosophy of the film, the question suggested by the title, was never well executed in the story or the dialogue or the visual references of the film.  At least not so that I noticed it.  In reading other reviews, I now understand it was presented, but that’s a bad sign in and of itself that I missed it.  But, is this story with these characters in this setting the most appropriate, the most entertaining the most engaging possible for testing this theory that one life must die to balance out an improper death?  From this humble bloggers perspective, no.  Where’d the kid (Keoghan) learn this bit?  What’s the foundation of it?  If you’re trying to sell us on the idea that this mentally ill 16 year old is somehow justified in his actions… not off to a great start.

I think the thing that upset me the most about Deer is the involvement of child actors and/or characters, however you want to perceive the involvement of underage people in the film.  If you’re going to specifically include teens, children, sons and/or daughters in a violent, dramatic exploration of revenge, mental illness, kidnapping, murder, etc… well, son, you’d better have a good reason to do so.  And, you’d damned well better execute it well here.  Consider yourself 0-2, Mr. Lanthimos.  I’m not a parent, but if I were, and my child’s representation sent me this script, we’d have to have a serious reset on the kinds of roles they were sending my son(s) and/or daughter(s) out for.  And the response to their playing any role in Deer would be a hard but polite, no.

The element of a 16 year old kid – brilliantly portrayed by Barry Keoghan, to the young actor’s credit – who is meticulous and calculating enough to find some kind of poison that to my knowledge, doesn’t bloody exist, is another gaping hole right in the middle of Killing.  I mean, Mr. Lanthimos co-wrote this… why not make the kid in his early 20s?  As in he’s had years to investigate the whole thing?  And by the way, how’d he dose the kids?  How’d he get in the goddam house with no one noticing?  How did he acquire this mystery postion?  Did he mix it himself…?  Or, is it just his understanding that an old myth is at fault?  And if that’s the case… how is he an authority to bring this fact to the family?  On and on the holes are exposed.

And, perhaps most egregious is the impotent behavior of the hero/anti-hero, however you want to perceive him, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).  If I had read the script well before this title was produced, I’d have asked specifically, why does a doctor this smart go to the kid’s house?  Why does he bang on the door, yell at the mom, who’s apparently not home?  What takes him so long to tell his wife the truth – and why would she agree to sexually please him in the manner she does in the late scenes of the film after her husband takes apparently no interest in saving their children?  And for those who suggest, “Well, he had no way of saving them!”  You and I must agree to disagree, because your perspective is definitely that of the filmmakers.  The idea that a killer is going to tell you what he’s doing – and then you’re going to continue running tests and really taking your time figuring it out at the hospital… that is a really difficult idea for me to embrace or believe in any way shape or form.  Finally, looking at things from the other perspective, that the kid had nothing to do with it and this is just the universe holding the doctor responsible for a wrongful death, well… I’d love to see the reactions to anyone if I turned in a spec like that.

And another thing…. in a brief scene late in the film, Dr. Murphy goes in to talk to his kids’ principal, and he asks him, “If you had to choose one of them, which would it be…?”  And the principal just… well, what?  What’d he do?  I think he answers something opaque like, “Well, gee… that’s a tough one.”  And after the doc left, then what?!?  Guess he just swiveled around on his chair, looked at some more files, took a nice long peek out the window at the green grass…??  Let me offer a four letter word: hole (as in the story, in the third act, in our very human nature).

In the end, this title is a real example of my general frustrations with some films over the past several years.  While Deer had a fantastic location, and ummmm… well, it had smoking in it… there wasn’t a whole lot to appreciate.  I can’t imagine seeing this film in theaters at the end of a long week.  I’d be furious.  I mean, who the hell is the audience for the movie?  This link reports it made over $5M worldwide and over $1M domestically.  Were these moviegoers like me who liked Mr. Lanthimos film, The Lobster, which I thought was one of the best movies of 2016?

Here’s hoping his next effort, the upcoming drama The Favourite, returns more to his sensibilities from The Lobster.

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Why I Love Film – The Narrow Margin on TCM

The Narrow Margin
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, David Clarke, Don Beddoe and Paul Maxey

With the summer movie season already upon us thanks to the record breaking Avengers: Infinity War‘s release in late April, I was chatting recently with folks back home about the theater experience.  It’s funny how much we take for granted by going to the cinema here in Los Angeles.  Of course we’ll get there super early.  Obviously we’re going to select our seat before entering the theater.  Most of the time, we expect stadium seating with a chair easily mistaken for a recliner.  But, back in my hometown of Cincinnati, like many “flyover states,” the theater experience is much different.  Theaters aren’t as nice, the experience is generally perceived as either a real treat – or a totally indulgent, impulsive purchase.

Now, I appreciate “event films” like the aforementioned Avengers, the Star Wars films, and Fan favorites that dot the calendar year.  Oftentimes, it seems the “theater experience” is touted in everything from the advertising for a movie – we’ve all heard copy like, “experience it in IMAX,” – to the resulting conversation as we walk to our cars.  For example, I was seriously relieved to have seen Dunkirk in theaters last year, as that’s a superb film “experience,” which would have had its overall effectiveness diluted to a certain extent by watching it at home or, heaven forbid, on an even smaller screen.

But, as I stayed up on a late Saturday night after everyone went to bed watching The Narrow Margin, presented by Noir aficionado Eddie Muller on TCM, I realized the at-home “in the mood” movie viewing is an experience all its own, too.  I didn’t want to start an episode of a TV show I’m watching.  I wasn’t in the mood for more sports highlights.  I wasn’t ready for bed, either.  It was too late to go meet some pals at the local watering hole.  So, as I’m scrolling through the cable menu options, I come upon TCM and see that this suspense film called The Narrow Margin is starting in five minutes.  Well, hot damn – let’s use the facilities, grab another great Cincinnati beer and put up our feet!

To start, Mr. Muller does a great job of offering some context for these films before starting.  I lament the fact that we seem to have abandoned a technique often used in 80s films, one I call “the scroll.”  This is that rolling bit of detail that would display on screen before a film got underway.  Recently, I saw it again in the Schwarzenegger action/sci-fi film,The Running Man.  The “scroll” in that film informed us that in a dystopian future, the governments had essentially collapsed into one due to famine and shortages of natural resources – and the only thing really keeping the public in line was the weekly airing of a game show called The Running Man where criminals got an opportunity to pay their debt to society in one night, or die trying.  In the same way, Muller introduces Margin with an enthusiastic prelude.  We get insight into the actors, particularly Marie Windsor and what the film did for her career.  His commentary gives us, the viewers, a heads up that now would be a good time to change your mindset – and enter another world.

And in this case, that world is one of “Noir”, a delicious film sub-genre that straddles the lines between action, drama, melodrama, suspense, thrillers and sometimes horror and even comedy.  These movies celebrate and explore that gray line between the evil that Man is capable of, with his desire for truth, justice and love.  For its Fans and viewers, noir’s definition is much like its storylines, characters and classic black-and-white look.  The Narrow Margin captures all of these elements in exemplary fashion, starting with the story.

Imagine two surly looking gents disembarking an old train in early 1950s Chicago.  The opening scene follows these two guys, who look like criminals but are soon revealed to be LAPD detectives who are in town to pick up an important mob witness and escort her back on the train to Los Angeles.  The witness is played by the aforementioned Windsor, with a real snarkiness and attitude that you can’t help but grin at.  It’s like her character’s eyebrow is stuck halfway up her forehead and she can’t go more than ten minutes without throwing a dismissive shrug.

In the course of taking the witness downstairs, the elder detective is murdered and the protege, Det. Sgt. Walter Brown, is crestfallen.  He forces himself to do the job as the movie unfolds, but as played by Charles McGraw, we believe as the character wrestles with the failure of his partner’s death.  Now, the train is littered with tough talking, spurious looking gangsters, of course.  As Brown comes across these hoodlums, it’s fun to watch the interactions and how they build and top.

Margin is kind of like “Die Hard” on a train as presented within the rules of noir, which include the good guy, the shady gal, the numerous hoodlums, the innocent gal and her son – and some surprising twists among other supporting roles like the conductor and a passenger named Sam Jennings.  Portrayed by the very portly Paul Maxey, he has one of the best lines in the film as Brown tries to pass him in the narrow train walkway – “There’s only two people in the world who like a fat man, his grocer and his tailor.”  But the greater point is that part of this experience of watching an old film because you’re in the mood – you never know how they’re going to remind you of more modern films, and how today’s filmmakers are always “borrowing” from their predecessors.  And by the way, that’s a good thing, whether they credit the previous generation for their influencer or not.

There are fistfights and twists leading towards the climax, but for me, it’s also the little things you get to observe in watching these old films.  Compared to a painting in a museum, these old films (pre late 1960s) are moving lessons in how life used to be.  Consider one scene in which everyone’s gone to sleep on the train, and the next shot is an exterior of the train tearing towards its Los Angeles destination.  We cut back inside to one of the compartments that has just a curtain on either side of the narrow walkway.  And one of the hoodlums pulls away the curtain to take his little sundries kit to the sink at the back of the car.  He washes up in this community sink on the train because he got the cheap ticket – and the guy behind him does a real job of demonstrating (with pre-method acting, surely) how frustrated he is with how long the hoodlum took.

Now, I have never taken a train across the U.S., and I certainly can’t take one from back in the 1950s.  I was fascinated by the small spaces the hero is forced to work within – and how the communication to and from the train worked with bags snatched off of poles as the train sped by.  These little details are exactly the kind of things I was in the mood for when I saw the film listed in the cable guide.

Which brings me to my greater point about the smaller, “in the mood” home movie experience.  Whether or not you’ve had a day of resolution or frustration, a movie can oftentimes be the perfect salve before hitting the sack.  I knew that in 90 minutes, I would have seen a film from a genre I really like – and that the story would be resolved.  Unlike another episode of TV or infinite sports highlights, movies still have that unique power to entertain us for a finite period of time – and offer a complete resolution, too.  And, do all of this entertaining in the comfort of our own home, with our dog or cat in one hand and our beverage of choice in the other.

IMDB for The Narrow Margin

TCM – Noir Alley Page

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“You are so sly… but, so am I.”

Manhunter (1986)
Dir: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Tom Noonan, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina and Joan Allen

I’ll probably never forget the first time I saw Manhunter.  I was in high school, and it was a really weird night where I was already on edge, having had a really bizarre evening at the restaurant I worked at.  Long story short, this guy who used to work on the cooking line with me came in to get his last check – and essentially went berserk.  I mean tossing dishes, throwing anything he could get his hands on at staff and customers alike before running out the front door.  I don’t know – I heard rumors of girlfriend problems and some steroid use The man was jacked, no doubt about that.  I guess the point is that I drove home thinking about how it’s really difficult to say you know anyone fully.  I mean, aren’t there folks at your work place you’ve had doubts about?  What do they do when they’re not with you at work, particularly that really quiet guy?  Well, that night when I finished Manhunter, I figured that the fictional employees where Francis Dollarhyde worked surely had similar thoughts.

Whatever the case, watching this Michael Mann thriller after such an event was probably not a great idea.  This movie is, for me personally, one of the most intense and essentially scary thriller/suspense films I can think of.  And, having recently rewatched on Amazon Prime, I found myself supremely impressed with numerous aspects of the movie.  We’ve got a real color palate in play, which has become a hallmark of Mann’s filmography.  We have a duo of villains that scare the hell out of you every time they’re on screen, even if the scene is somewhat standard in nature.  And, we have an intense, behind-the-scenes investigation, which shows us things along the way and keeps us engaged with the story from the initial, creepy images through to the last shot.

So, let’s start with a more academic discussion about the visual feel of Manhunter.  Remember, Mann was an executive producer on the 1980s hit Miami Vice, which aired on NBC for seven years.  Sure, you can argue that Vice was a classic example of a niche TV show that “jumped the shark,” but you can’t argue the cultural phenomenon that show sparked.  Much of it was related to the neon, the pastel colors and outlandish shots of the ocean that became synonymous with the show – and influenced everything from pop music to fashion.  Similarly, this 1986 film has a real palate that helps visually tell the story.

Consider the bookend scenes of the film, which take place in Captiva, FL.  The blues that appear on screen, whether they’re of the Gulf of Mexico or the interior of Will Graham’s bedroom, give a sense of comfort and home.  The blue hues of this temperature are not seen in the seriousness of Act Two or any scenes related to Lecktor or the killer on the loose, referred to as The Tooth Fairy, played with the utmost tone of villainy by character actor Tom Noonan.  But, they sure are dominating the film’s poster, aren’t they?  As discussed in previous posts about the importance of a movie’s poster, many other films could take a page out of Manhunter‘s playbook.

Instead, when Graham interviews Dr. Hannibal Lecktor – yes, that same Lecktor made infamous by Best Picture Silence of the Lambs – the cell is stark white and full of florescent overhead lighting, which fits the direct nature of Lecktor’s dialogue and the seriousness of the institutional set.  One of my favorite shots is of Graham, leaving the interview in a cold sweat, running down this crazy ramp that goes up four stories into the correctional building.  Look at how industrial and stark this image is compared to the rounded, comfy edges of home in Captiva.  Long story short (too late) – Manhunter is a must watch for cinema students who want to apply a well thought color palate to accentuate their story.  And for the casual moviegoer who finishes a film and can’t quite describe why they enjoyed it so much, Mann’s specific choices related to color are one of those subtle things that makes that kind of difference in your viewing experience.

But, as referenced in the previous paragraph, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor is indeed a character in Manhunter – and, fun fact, this was the villain’s debut on screen.  Played with the same direct swagger that Anthony Hopkins so famously captured in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, Brian Cox does a thorough job of creating unease whenever his character is onscreen.  I probably saw the actor for the first time in Braveheart as the hero’s Uncle Argyle.  In Manhunter, everything from his dialogue to his attitude to the way Mann shoots him through the cold bars of the cell lends itself to that feeling of discomfort and terror.  As in Silence, Lecktor is being used.  Hero Will Graham, portrayed with genuine intensity by William Petersen, wants Lecktorto help him get inside of the at-large killer, the Tooth Fairy.  Lecktor is naturally reticent, particularly considering it was Graham who put the Doc in prison for murdering college students.

So, Manhunter shares some of that plot through line of a killer helping the investigator capture another killer.  And the Tooth Fairy is some kind of movie villain.  Tom Noonan deserves a lot of credit for how intimidating he is in some of his scenes, and how delicate his character appears when romancing his colleague Reba McClane, played with her usual emotional truthfulness by Joan Allen.  The unexpected scenes of these unlikely characters’ romance really throws us viewers for a loop, and makes the urgency of Graham’s investigation all the more hyper.  In fact, Mann takes the time to pause the action, and focus on the relationships between the villain and the hero – a rare choice in a thriller/suspense film.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I find the investigation a perfect plot for a two hour film experience.  We willingly buckle up for the ride, with that safe feeling in the back of our minds that says, “no matter how bad this gets, we know it’ll all be over soon…”  Well, maybe that’s why Manhunter effected me so much – this film never feels safe.  Perhaps it’s the introduction of Graham’s family, or the fact that his wife is thoroughly concerned with Graham’s health after the Lecktor experience.  Or, maybe it’s that I love cheering for a hero that’s willing to be shoved back into the grinder to find another killer of this violent magnitude – because he knows he’s good at it.

Whatever the case, the scenes of investigation here are noteworthy.  Consider when a guard at the prison is able to lift a piece of toilet paper containing a message that the Tooth Fairy sent Lecktor.  The way Graham’s investigative team pulls that evidence apart and rushes against the clock to use it and replace it in the Doc’s cell without him noticing… it’s phenomenal cinema!  And, that’s where the line that I used to entitle this post came from.  Will Graham is a powerful hero – but, unlike so many other cop dramas and action-adventure films, he’s not superman.  When he finally does talk his way into cracking the case, the combination of Petersen’s acting, Mann’s patient, long take and the superior soundtrack combine for one of my favorite moments in the movie.

So, whether it’s the unique color palate, the skin-crawling performances of the villains or the natural intensity of the movie’s investigation, I really encourage you to try this one.  I was surprised, when I did a recent audit of Ronhamprod.com that I hadn’t covered a Michael Mann film yet – and this one is a great start.  I’ll put it this way – if you enjoyed HBO’s True Detective, I’m sure you’ll dig Manhunter.

And, enjoy this link, which has a lot of images from the film, many of which really capture the color palate discussed in this post – IMDB – Manhunter Cast & Crew

 

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If King Arthur Played Baseball…

The Natural (1984)
Dir: Barry Levinson
Cast: Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Wilford Brimley, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, Robert Prosky, Richard Farnsworth, Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Darren McGavin

*** Burke Favorite ***

When asked by a befuddled and confused Elmer Fudd “What season is it?” in one of the numerous cartoons in which they co-starred, Bugs Bunny, who’s posing as a game warden replied, “It’s baseball season, sonny!”  He tossed the ball across the snow covered terrain, and Elmer went off, blasting the ball up and down the hills to conclude the episode.  Well, turns out baseball season really IS upon us.  And while The Natural doesn’t have such slapstick comedy included, with the exception of perhaps one montage establishing the “ne’er do well” behavior of the fictional Knights ball club, it is an ideal, excitement inducing film to watch as another glorious baseball year begins.  So, in honor of Opening Day 2018, let’s look at an American version of King Arthur in the form of Roy Hobbs, who wouldn’t be complete without Wonderboy – his Excalibur.

I love, love, love this movie.  Anyone who loves baseball can watch it – and anyone who detests the game, yet loves the David & Goliath story set up can watch it as well.  Or, if  baseball isn’t necessarily your favorite sport or movie backdrop, but you know the multiple stars in this cast, you’ll dig The Natural.  Regardless, what I’m trying to say is, this is a crowd pleaser – much like the game that dominates its story.  Even if you don’t care for the minutiae that makes up baseball history and stats, or you don’t care for the ball park itself except for its tasty treats, The Natural has something for everyone.

The film begins with a boy on a farm, tossing the ball with his dad.  What could be more iconically American than that, right?  Well, the seed is planted right from the first page of the script as the father encourages the boy to be the best he can be.  That night, there’s a terrific lightning storm on the farm – one which cuts a huge tree in half right outside the farmhouse.  Well, the boy takes it upon himself to take a part of that tree, which is most certainly a physical piece of the very location where he grew up, and sculpts it into a sword – or, if you prefer, a baseball bat with the name, “Wonderboy” and an image of the lightning bolt.  This action suggests that Roy Hobbs, this boy who is about to follow his destiny as we watch, is one to remember such nights as true bookmarks in an extraordinary life.

Hobbs is in love with two things – baseball, and Iris (Glenn Close).  On the night before he’s to take the train to go see about playing for one of the big teams, he loses his virginity with Iris in the barn.  Next day, he’s on the train all right, and his manager notices a reporter, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), traveling with none other than the Man himself, Babe Ruth (Joe Don Baker, another character actor that fills in an enormously recognizable cast).  When the manager tries to introduce Hobbs, Mercy is positively rude.  He has no time for hicks and hayseeds who want to play in The Show, to use a Bull Durham term.  Well, when the train stops and the manager challenges The Babe to take some pitches from Hobbs, claiming he’s sure the young man can strike the legend out… we have our first “lean in” moment of the film.

Within this same episode, we’re also introduced to a single Siren in the form of Barbara Hersey.  On the train, there are references to pro athletes being murdered – and Harriet Bird, for untold and mysterious reasons, is out to get The Babe.  That is, until she sees Hobbs pitch to him.  Seduction unfolds, and before Hobbs knows it, he’s been shot in his own hotel room by Bird, who then… flies away?  We never know.  She’s a Siren – who knows how they operate.

I’m not ruining anything for you as these early scenes unfold quickly before the film cuts to 16 years later.  What we end up watching is not the dominant career of a ball player based on a Babe Ruth kind of star.  Instead, we see an underdog, a guy who’s nearly out of time trying to make that mark he never got to make – and still has hopes of leaving a legend behind.  The mythical elements continue throughout the film.  There’s another hero in Hobbs’ outfield position, the current star of the Knights in the form of Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen).  You might say the minotaur reveals himself in the form of the evil judge who owns the team (Robert Prosky).  The judge sits in a cave or office completely in the dark, although he can see Hobbs…  And his lackey is literally a Cyclops, a gambler/string-puller named Gus Sands played by none other than the father from A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin.  You could even make the argument that another Siren swoops into Hobbs’ life in the form of Memo Paris (Kim Basinger).

These are very American gothic sort of settings, characters and actions, and they all fit the traditional mythical set-up of heroes and quests.  The Natural is no different.  And, it works.  Whether you equate the American Hobbs to Hercules or King Arthur doesn’t really matter.  What does count is that this guy, despite his bad luck and years of rolling around, finally gets his shot.  And, isn’t that why we watch the great game itself?  How many things have to go right and break their way for that batter to be up in the bottom of the 9th of the World Series with two on, two strikes and two outs…?  Enjoy this new baseball season – and, The Natural.

The Natural on IMDB

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This St. Patty’s Day, We Ask – “Kwoup?” or, “Appeah?”

The Departed (2006)
*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Adam Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, James Badge Dale, and Jack Nicolson

For anyone who has seen Best Picture winner The Departed as many times as I have, I’m sure you know what the title of this entry refers to.  First off, this film deals with the Irish in Boston, so it’s appropriate we offer our take on St. Patty’s Day.  Second, the early scenes of the film, which culminate with maybe the latest title card introduction in movie history, offers this exact question, as posed by Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan:

“Here’s a question. Do you wanna be a cop? Or do you wanna appear to be a cop?”

Now, please, watch the film.  Even if you’ve seen it before, watch it again.  You’ll see that this line, as typed above, does the line no justice once Queenan’s thick, Boston accent is applied to this dialogue.  Much like the movie is a two edged sword dealing with the deception and difficulty in living a life full of lies, let’s look at The Departed from two angles – not only as a great crime thriller loaded with a cast of the highest calibre, but also as the kind of film that makes superb, social fodder among the moviegoers who adore it.

Center from left to right: Sergeant Dignam (MARK WAHLBERG), Captain Ellerby (ALEC BALDWIN) and Colin Sullivan (MATT DAMON) head up the surveillance team, including Brown (ANTHONY ANDERSON, seated far right), that is monitoring a meeting between CostelloÕs gang and the Chinese Triad in Warner Bros. PicturesÕ crime drama ÒThe Departed.Ó
PHOTOGRAPHS TO BE USED SOLELY FOR ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY OR REVIEWS OF THIS SPECIFIC MOTION PICTURE AND TO REMAIN THE PROPERTY OF THE STUDIO. NOT FOR SALE OR REDISTRIBUTION.

When I first heard about this film, I thought someone was messing with me.  In my youth, Goodfellas had been one of my first rated R experiences.  I hated Casino at first – take it easy, guys – then ended up really appreciating it.  Let’s not even scratch the surface of Heat.  The point is, I absolutely relish the experience of watching epic crime sagas, which just happen to have everyone in Hollywood co-starring in them.  So, when I heard in the trades about The Departed, then confirmed the cast on IMDB, I nearly fainted.  I remember thinking, “…. and NICHOLSON, too?? Come on!”

So, when I went to Westwood on opening night in early October 2006, I had my hopes running awfully high.   And the experience did not disappoint.  Again, for those of you who’ve seen it, I’m sure you can appreciate how the audience of maybe 1,200 moviegoers kept gasping and crying out during the finale with the elevator.  I’m sure you’ll laugh with me as I remember the “teething… gnawing RAT…” delivery by Nicholson, which was beautifully placed, much needed comic relief.

The Departed is about the truth, and the pursuit of truth always makes for a worthwhile film.  To villain Frank Costello (Nicholson), is Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a cop – or is he really an undercover cop that Queenan has planted in his organization?  To all his fellow investigators, is Colin Sullivan (Damon) the “worker” he seems to be, or will his shady behavior from time to time uncover something more?  Well, the superb set-up from writer William Monahan establishes the neighborhood criminal kingpin in Costello.  He’s been “mentoring” a group of young boys for years, and Colin Sullivan grows up under his tutelage – and becomes a cop that is willing to inform Costello of anything he’s interested in.

The “yin” to this criminal “yang” is Costigan, who is seen going through the same state police training program as the elder Sullivan does.  Quickly, they graduate and enter the police force.  But, there’s a problem for Costigan in that his uncle was a huge player in Costello’s organization who recently met his demise.  Captain Queenan (Sheen) and his lackey, Sgt. Dignam (Wahlberg, who steals many of the scenes he’s in) advise Costigan that, if he wants to serve the commonwealth, it’ll be in the midst of a special, undercover assignment that only the three of them will know about.  Because with his family’s criminal background, there’s no possibility Costigan would be a state police officer in even five years.

This story set up yields a film full of action, violence, corruption and wild visuals.  Scorsese and team – especially editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose IMDB filmography is an overwhelming volume of movie hits – are firing on all cylinders.  Consider the question from earlier, which Costello was surely wondering about young Costigan suddenly entering his neighborhood.  What better way to find out the truth than break open the young man’s cast holding his broken wrist in place – and proceed to smash said wrist with the man’s boot?  That’s the kind of moment contained in this film.  And, much like other Scorsese greats, these scenes are equally superb as stand alones as they are the necessary piece of Monahan’s labrynth puzzle.

In watching the film recently, I was fascinated by the constant editing style, which offered two different perspectives within the same scene.  Consider when Sullivan is in the elevator at one point, and his Costello provided cell phone buzzes.  The shot goes completely 180 from above Sullivan’s head down below his waist and looking up.  It’s as if the film is visually reminding us that this man has just turned off “cop” and is about to turn on “criminal.”  Another visual consistency throughout the film is the “X” in the background.  In the DVD extras, Scorsese admits how he wanted to pay homage to 1930s gangster films, which would often place an “X” of some kind behind criminals who were guaranteed to join the departed by the end of the film.  Keeping an eye out for these makes for a fun rewatch.

And another item I noticed in this latest viewing was the part of James Badge Dale, who plays Trooper Baragan.  He’s one of the guys that Sullivan graduates from the academy with, and he plays a supporting role as one of Sullivan’s investigation team as the film progresses.  Particularly once you know the twist of the film, watching this character and his reactions and when the camera gives him moments throughout becomes really interesting.  It’s this character that links to another point I wanted to make, and that is that this movie is actually based on a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, which was released a few years before Departed.  I was fascinated in watching that original how different the ending in, and how you could certainly argue that Monahan and The Departed’s filmmakers made a conscious choice to make this Best Picture winner’s conclusion much more western.

Lastly, I love to use this film as a great example of how movies and their dialogue become a social currency, particularly among guys after a few drinks.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Why don’t you just get me a bottle of scotch… and a hand gun” in response to close pals asking how my week has gone.  I have asked and I’ve been asked at the bar, “you sure you don’t wanna make it a cranberry juice?”  And of course, the “do you want to be a KWOUP… or do you want to APPEAH to be a KWOUP” dialogue from Queenan early in the film became the go-to line between my brother and a close pal a few years back.  To its credit, The Departed won a lot of awards – but even if you don’t follow the accolades, it’s oftentimes the dialogue that you’re able to experience outside of viewing the film itself.

 

IMDB – The Departed

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Our Second Annual – Top Ten Films of 2017

The Top Ten Films of 2017 – A Summary of Each, and Reminder Re: #10
An Annual Ronhamprod.com Presentation

Welcome to ronhamprod.com’s second annual list of the best films from last year, as always, in preparation of the Academy Awards coming up this very evening!

Here’s the list for 2017 for your consideration, discussion and pleasure.  As always, these films are in no particular order, and followed by our perception of the film’s genre:

  1. It (Horror)
  2. Logan (Superhero)
  3. Darkest Hour (Drama/Biography)
  4. Shape of Water, The (Independent Drama/Romance/Musical)
  5. Icarus (Documentary)
  6. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO (Independent Drama/Comedy)
  7. Dunkirk (Drama)
  8. Battle of the Sexes (Drama/Comedy)
  9. All the Money in the World (Drama/Thriller)
  10. ____________________ (TBA)

As we said last year, there are a lot of films released annually in the United States.  In 2017, trust Box Office Mojo reports there were 726 movies released theatrically in this country BoxOfficeMojo – 2017 Titles.  You folks can probably tell by now – I adore films and always expect I will.  But even I can’t make it out to see two films a day minimum.  That said, I don’t see how I, or any other film critic, analyst, handicapper, etc. is qualified to say, “THESE are the top 10…”

Sure, all of this analysis and discussion is arbitrary and subjective anyhow – which is part of the fun of Awards Season.  That said, we here at Ronhamprod.com will always leave #10 respectfully blank.  I mean, I hate admitting that I haven’t gotten to Thor: Ragnarok, or The Phantom Thread, or Coco or Boss Baby or Wind River or The Florida Project or a host of other titles from last year just yet.  I will, but… that’s why #10 is our “free space.”

But, let’s look at the film’s up for Best Picture Oscars this year that are not on our list:

The Phantom Thread
I have not seen this latest from Paul Thomas Anderson.  IN fact, I may as well say that I haven’t loved any of this particular filmmaker’s works except Boogie Nights and the recent Inherent Vice – which is odd because, I can find very few film pals that liked Vice.  Regardless, I’m in no hurry to see Thread, despite the legendary Day-Lewis offering his final work with this title.

Call Me By Your Name
I also haven’t seen this one.  I’ve been told it’s fantastic and the footage I saw at The Contenders last November did indeed look like Name is a true “film,” and not Oscar fodder that’s in there to round out the field.

Lady Bird
Look… I’m not the audience for this film.  I went to Catholic school, as discussed in this entry here – Silence Review – Ronhamprod.  I went through teenage years.  Despite the fact I love independent cinema, Lady Bird didn’t resonate with me the way other recent dram-edys like The Big Sick did.  I’m super glad that this title resonated with so many Academy voters, but for me, the best thing about the film is the editing.  Nick Houy did a masterful job of cramming an entire senior year into 90 plus minutes.  Think about your senior year of high school for a moment.  Remember how there are specific, undeniable moments that will forever be etched into your mind?  And, how fast it all went?  The biggest impression made upon me from Lady Bird was how the film just keeps… moving…. along.  Oh, we’re doing the play.  Now, we’re submitting to colleges – and begging Dad to help.  Then, our heart got broken – that sucked.  But, then we got suspended, remember?  Then we got that job that, well, didn’t last too long.  So…. kudos to Houy, who did another masterful job with HBO’s The Night Of, for accurately capturing that deluge of memories and feelings into a very compact run time.

Get Out
There isn’t a lot that I can say about this horror film that hasn’t already been said.  I watched Key & Peele on Comedy Central for years, and was very entertained.  My interest and acceptance of horror films has had a renaissance in recent years as evidenced in this entry, Oscars 2016 – The Witch, and the upcoming It blog.  But, I’ll respectfully leave it at that.

The Post
I really enjoyed Tom Hanks in this Steven Spielberg directed newspaper drama.  His subtle notes, like the feet on the desk that Jason Robards so adeptly worked into scenes in All the President’s Men, are easy to take for granted.  I don’t suspect that I’m the only one that felt this effort was a little rushed, for lack of a better term.  This is not to say it isn’t a good film or one worth seeing.  And, as usual, the technical and “mise-en-scene” of the film is expert.  Think of the authentic sets, costumes, cigarettes and “feel.”  These are all elements that are easy to take for granted – but which are all very difficult to synthesize.  In the end, I was glad to see The Post in theaters, and I enjoyed it.  But, was there room for improvement for this entry in the Spielberg cannon – sure.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO
Please see my upcoming entry for this film, which I really enjoyed.  I think it’s impressive to go to a theater and have multiple instances where the entire crowd was laughing hard, only to be pin-drop quiet moments later…  Not every part of MO was exceptional, but I do love those films that force conversation and thought the day after you see them.

The Shape of Water
Ever since Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve been interested in Guillermo Del Toro’s work.  Shape is similar to Labyrinth in that the preview definitely gives you a sense of how the film might play for you – but leaves plenty to be revealed.  Focusing on a very particular place in time with terribly unique characters, Shape is like watching your favorite symphony directed by a conductor who is new to your ear.  You’ve been in love, I’ve been in love – but we’ve never experienced a love like this.  This film wasn’t perfect, and I’m very, very confused how of all the awards it’s nominated for, the film is NOT up for best visual effects?  I’m also confused by some of Del Toro’s choices with the story, perhaps starting with Michael Shannon’s character’s fingers.  Regardless, what I think is especially worth celebrating when it comes to Shape is this – of all nominees, this and Dunkirk are the most cinematic.  That is, most of their story is told through moving images – which is the way it should be.  Speaking of…

Dunkirk
I bloody loved this Christopher Nolan vision, which I first viewed with very dubious eyes.  I remember when the teaser came out all the way back in the summer of 2016, a full year before its debut.  My initial thought was, “they know how this WWII story went, right?  They’re really going to make a full movie about this?”  But, I’m fully willing to admit when I underestimate a film, and this is certainly one of those instances.  I adored the script’s construct of sharing three very different storylines that unfolded within the same event.  Taking several days for Tommy’s story (played by impressive newcomer Fionn Whitehead), spacing Mr. Dawson’s civilian vessel storyline across one day (the always moving Mark Rylance) and rounding the story’s foundation out with fighter pilot Ferrier’s (Tom Hardy) hour long tale was a most unusual construct – but one that worked.  And, to the film’s credit, the editing by Lee Smith kept the film tight, not a moment too long.  This film had the etchings of a three hour epic, but was better told in its two hour stretch.  I’m really glad to see that big man cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema has been nominated for Dunkirk, as it was thrilling to see the behind-the-scenes footage at The Contenders last fall, in which he’s seen lugging the huge, 70mm Panavision cameras into the Dunkirk surf.

Darkest Hour
Please enjoy my take on this Gary Oldman starring film here!

For Your Consideration – Honorable Mentions
In Season Two of Netflix’s hit drama, The Crown, I was fascinated by an episode in which one of the British subjects has the audacity, the gall, the temerity to draft an editorial suggesting what The Crown might do to (ahem) leave some traditions behind – and essentially, enter the 20th century with the rest of us.  To my interest and viewing pleasure, it turns out the British monarchy actually did embrace some of the suggestions made by the young man.  To that end, I think this year in particular warrants the consideration of an “Honorable Mention” for those that got write-ins, or exceptional work that there’s simply no fit for that year…  I’m not even suggesting we have a moment on stage, just a simple, write-in category where these filmmakers can be given notice for jobs well done.

Top of that list, in my humble opinion, is Ridley Scott for directing All the Money in the World.  The veteran director took a real stand in editing out Kevin Spacey from the film, looping in Christopher Plummer and working with the film’s financiers to successfully re-shoot, re-edit and do all of it within the weeks necessary to make the film eligible for this year’s awards season.  While the awards season deadline is the icing on the cake, the real “Honorable Mention” worthy action was a veteran, A-list director taking a stand against the long running behaviors of a few in Hollywood, which needs to change and is in the process of changing.  It’s easy to post on social media and make a quick speech denouncing these behaviors – but it’s quite another to spend lots of money, and convince your cast and crew to adjust their schedules and spend their valuable time on such an effort – an effort I consider to be well worth while, and worth honoring.

So, enjoy the Oscars this year!  I think I really enjoyed Dunkirk and Darkest Hour most, simply because I’m such a WWII history geek.  For me, my hopes are highest for Gary Oldman and the documentary Icarus.  Regardless, we’ll have some follow up posts shortly, but all in all, I think we can agree it was another interesting year in the Academy’s history.  And I’ll admit – I am anxiously awaiting to see how Mr. Kimmel will reference last year’s ummmmm, mis-step?

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Should We Play Monopoly, Jenga, Scrabble – or Something More Intense?

Game Night (2018)

Dir: John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Kyle Chandler, Michael C. Hall and Jesse Plemmons

Let me ask you this – what was the last comedy you saw, in theaters, that made you laugh till you hurt?  If you responded Daddy’s Home 2, Father Figures or A Bad Mom’s Christmas, well, fair enough… but I haven’t gotten to those titles just yet.  I did see Baby Driver last summer (discussion here on ronhamprod forthcoming), and while that would definitely be classified an action-adventure if perhaps an action-comedy, I encourage you to try Game Night.   Particularly if films like Baby Driver, True Lies, Anchorman and The Hangover are your cup of tea, I think you’ll find Night well worth the trip to cinemas.  That’s right, I included The Hangover in the discussion for this new action-comedy.

So, that should give you an indication of how funny a Night it is.  As you’ll see from the trailer below, Jason Bateman stars as Max and Rachel McAdams is his wife, Annie.  They have great chemistry as that uber-competitive couple who has made “game night” part of their regular routine.  Part of the film’s strength is that the script from Mark Perez has a great grab – we all know a couple like Max and Annie, or we ARE that couple.  An early montage does an entertaining job of showing us how these two came to be husband and wife in expedited fashion, having met at a bar’s game night.  We also soon learn over a discussion with the couple’s fertility doctor concerning Max’s sperm count, that Max gets a lot of stress from competing not just in games, but particularly with his big brother, Brooks.

Kyle Chandler, who many viewers will no doubt remember as Coach Taylor from TV’s Friday Night Lights, co-stars as big brother Brooks in a very different role from the wholesome, mentor/father-figure Taylor.  Brooks has always got money, he’s always got another trip planned, he still picks on Max – and the sibling rivalry theme mixed into Night is part of its fun.  Also, Chandler isn’t the only Friday Night Lights alumni in the cast.  Jesse Plemmons, who co-starred on Lights as the lovable, n’er-do-well Landry, basically steals the show as Gary.  This guy is Max and Annie’s next door neighbor.  A law enforcement officer whose wife recently left him, Gary is eternally dressed for work – and apparently physically attached to his little white dog, seen in many of the film’s promotional materials.  Gary is awkward to the nth degree, without pushing the schtick to the point it’s not funny anymore.

As the trailer teases, the game night that Brooks plans goes in a lot of unexpected, action-packed and funny directions.  The beautiful thing about Game is that the trailer does not give it all away.  Doesn’t even come close!  Further, unlike a lot of comedies recently released, this one does not go too far overboard in any way.  It stays within the realm of physics and reality – and does not have the gross-out humor that some movies – Dirty Grandpa comes to mind, regrettably – have resorted to in Act Three, if not throughout.  Yes, there’s violence, but that’s definitely justified by Perez’s script,  and it’s handled well by directors Daley & Goldstein who worked on the Vacation remake and Horrible Bosses.  Incidentally, Daley has a cameo as the trivia emcee early in the film – and you might remember him from another TV show, Freaks & Geeks.

With all these references to comedies and action packed films, it’s a tribute to the producing team, who basically trusted these funny talents to do their thing – in front of and behind the camera.  Just like a good suspense novel, Night sets up several unique, intriguing characters, who we’re always excited to return to as this chapter ends and the next one starts.  In that respect, Game Night is like a funny, suspenseful page turner because of the other couples involved.  There’s Ryan and Sarah who are on their first date.  Ryan is part of the game night’s usual crew, and he’s always bringing a different date – but the smart Sarah is definitely his match.  Then there’s Kevin and Michelle, who have an awkward wrench thrown in their relationship concerning a possible hookup with a celebrity.  And, there’s the bad guys who shift and evolve along with the rest of the story right up to the end.

When considering my comparison to The Hangover and True Lies, I’m sure a lot of reviewers have to worry about over-delivering.  But, we here at ronhamprod have no such scruples.  I’m saying it loud and proud – go see Game Night.  Considering an Oscar season that features awfully deep, dramatic films, I think the Game is well placed.  And by the way, if you have that couple or friend that is a game fanatic, always dragging you to trivia night or scheduling the next competition at their place… it’s almost your obligation to take them.

Game Night on IMDB

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A Comedy with a Double Meaning

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)
Dir: David Wain
Stars: Will Forte, Domhnall Gleason, Matt Walsh, Emmy Rossum and Joel McHale

This super-fun comedy is available right now on Netflix, and there are several things it has going for it.  A Futile and Stupid Gesture concerns the story of the National Lampoon, the infamous printed magazine from the 1970s that some can say was the foundation of some of the 70s and 80s funniest films, not to mention sketch show Saturday Night Live.  Mind you, I’m not making these claims – these are suggestions made by the film…  And, for the record, the poster here is a riff off of one of Lampoon’s more infamous magazine covers, which involved the same pistol – but a poor little puppy in place of Mr. Forte!

What I like about Futile was its balancing act between truly funny chapters in the Lampoon history, and these heartfelt, dramatic moments where you just wring your hands in frustration for Doug Kenney, the center of the story.  Kenney is played by Will Forte, who with his recent roles keeps convincing me he’s one of the more under estimated actors of this generation.  For example, one of my main notes of hesitation in seeing Alexander Payne’s superb family drama, Nebraska, was Forte’s inclusion in the lead role.  For the record, let me just say – how wrong I was!  And, Futile is no exception to this rule.  It seems Forte is able to handle both the comedy, which we knew from early on in his career, and the dramatic aspects of the role.

Kenney’s story starts all the way at the beginning, as it does in a lot of “did you know” styled biographical films.  But, the inclusion of Martin Mull as his narrator is an example of great, artistic writing design.  For those of you who knew Kenney’s story before Futile, you’ll know what I mean.  Regardless, it’s also Mull’s charm that lets the film get away with some of its really funny moments, like when they introduce many of the writers for Lampoon.  Soon after, they also show us the cast of the radio show, including stars early on in their career like Bill Murray and Gilda Radner.  It’s at this moment that Mull enters frame and basically calms the audience down, with a comment similar to, “Oh, you don’t think this guy looks like Bill Murray?  Well do you really believe Will Forte is 27 in this scene?  As matter of fact, here’s a whole list of other items we changed or altered for screen time and to make this thing more interesting….”   And then, a scroll appears onscreen!  Long story short – I love the film calling out today’s audience of “fact checkers.”  It’s like this comedy is saying, “leave it for politics!”

Finally, Forte’s performance is made easier I think by the immensely talented – and recognizable – cast.  In fact, you might say Futile and Stupid is worth a watch just for the fun of playing “who’s that actor?”  The movie is so chock full of fun appearances and cameos that it really rolls along.

SPOILER, in summary:

If I had a complaint with the film, I think it’s one we all share and lament – Kenney, like so many other talents in our beloved entertainment industry, left us too early.  I wish I could crack the code on how to cheer up the “sad clowns” like Kenney and others like him.  Anyhow, I was impressed how the film shows his decline, and sorry to see that some of his friends were actually culpable in his self-destruction.  It’s rather rare to have a comedy that makes you laugh – and makes you think the next day, too.

Fun Follow Up:

Also on Netflix is Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, which is a 2015 documentary covering very much the same subject, but with a more formal presentation.  Now, Netflix is claiming I’ve seen this film – but I’ve no memory of doing so!  However, having seen Futile, I am quite interested to see how the facts and fiction do compare… IMDB – Lampoon Documentary

IMDB Link to A Futile and Stupid Gesture

 

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Living Through the Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour (2017)
Dir: Joe Wright
Stars: Gary Oldman, Stephan Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James

With the Academy Award nominations nearly upon us, I feel like it’s a great time to talk about Darkest Hour.  There were several aspects of the film I thought played very well, especially on the big screen.  And, with Mr. Oldman a shoe-in for a nomination, now is as good a time as ever to see this compelling, entertaining historical drama.  There are so many fascinating sub-chapters to WWII history that have been adapted for the big screen, and Darkest Hour certainly deserves insertion amongst these volumes.

When you think about British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, certain characteristics no doubt pop to mind.  My first introduction to Mr. Churchill may well have been dining at Churchills on the Queen Mary when I was vacationing with my family back in 1988.  There was his image, complete with that genuine, grand-fatherly smile, that subtle little hunch in his posture and that balding head.  As I got more interested in history and came to know more about Churchill’s essential part in winning the war in Europe, more of these characteristics entered my perception of this icon.  All of which makes Mr. Oldman’s performance a superlative example of biographical portrayals.  Everything from the makeup to the posture to the pattern of speech to his costumes transforms the actor we’ve watched all these years into the Prime Minister, the grand lion himself.  After a while, I bet you’ll stop looking for the “fat suit” or the makeup – because they’re seamless.  Oldman simply is the man.

And, he is the man in May of 1940, a veritable sliver of Churchill’s voluminous history.  Part of why the film deserves so much credit, in my estimation, is that it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew.  Darkest is not a three and half hour epic that attempts to translate key episodes in the early life of its main character to foreshadow and somewhat explain later chapters.  Instead, its thesis is that Churchill and the European theater of WWII shared a “darkest hour” in that month of May 1940.  Fair enough – and refreshing to take in a more abbreviated take on an iconic character, even if I was craving more by the end!  And it’s by focusing on this limited amount of time that we get some enormously interesting details.  For example, I had no idea that Winston had been appointed Prime Minister the same month.  For as much political clout as he had, the man was dramatically tossed into a most desperate situation.

The last element that I’ll speak to towards hopefully convincing those of you who haven’t seen Hour to see it in theaters is the phenomenal cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.  The design of the visual scheme most definitely puts you in the period, whether it’s the dust of battles, the harsh, overhead luminescence of the underground wartime offices or the softer glow of Buckingham Palace.  Take a look at how different the light feels when Churchill visits with the King compared to when he holds meetings with his wartime cabinet… Also, Delbonnel goes further with a true visual representation of what it must have felt like to be Mr. Churchill in those desperate days.  Much like being backed into a corner, totally isolated, most alone in his political views and his social circles, Delbonnel and director Joe Wright take the opportunity several times – without over-doing the effect – to visually illustrate Churchill’s lonely state in those days.

All told, this drama turned left when I thought it was going uphill.  Hour kept me on my toes – and gave me the greater, almost patriotic feeling of envy for living under truly great leadership.  What with the government shutdown only hours old, perhaps I felt more compelled to draft this entry as counter-programming to some of the stories we’ve seen in the news media as of late.  How refreshing would it be if one of our representatives showed up at our workplace, or on the train, the bus or at the grocery?  See Darkest Hour to see what I mean…

Final Note: the following day after seeing this title, I had a serious craving for a glass of champagne and a foot long cigar to accompany my breakfast…

Darkest Hour – IMDB Link

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