MANK (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Just a writer.” The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.

More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher’s first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it’s based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It’s a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the “best” movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special. Director Fincher’s film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz’s writing process for ‘Kane’, some background on Mankiewicz’s career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics.

Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J “Mank” Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he’s still at one of those gatherings.

Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be “write what you know”, and don’t drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.

We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer … writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane’s wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank’s wife “Poor” Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).

Director Fincher’s masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion – both talented, yet not quite allowed in the “club”. Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots” (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).

Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor’s race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers – quite the mishmash of disrespect.

The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank’s contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It’s filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.

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THE PROM (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story” has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it’s a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi’s, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what’s needed to revamp their careers is a ‘cause celebre’. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep’s campy “Not About Me” a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman’s Fosse-esque “Zazz”. Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren’t many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it’s likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps – complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It’s a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way.

Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020

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LOVE, WEDDINGS & OTHER DISASTERS (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Very much in the same mold as the late Garry Marshall’s VALENTINE’S DAY (2010), NEW YEAR’S EVE (2011), and MOTHER’S DAY (2016), this one also utilizes the multi-story approach with all characters ultimately crossing paths as a payoff. If you are familiar with those movies, then you know what to expect here. However, if you are not familiar, there is no good way to prepare you, other than you’ll either love it or hate it.

Writer-director Dennis Dugan has been a frequent Adam Sandler collaborator, with movies landing in the “good” (HAPPY GILMORE, 1996), the “bad” (GROWN UPS 2, 2013), and the “ugly” (JACK & JILL, 2011). Mr. Dugan’s co-writers here are married couple Eileen Conn and Larry Miller. The cast includes Oscar winners Diane Keaton (ANNIE HALL, 1977) and Jeremy Irons (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, 1991), and many faces you’ll recognize from other films.

The opening sequence will be enough to let you know where you fall on the ‘love it or hate it’ scale. Jessie (Maggie Grace, TAKEN) is skydiving with her local news anchor fiancé, and their mid-dive argument leads to a break-up and a crash landing into a lakeside wedding. The video (there’s always a video these days) goes viral, and Jessie becomes a social media celebrity burdened with the moniker, “Wedding Trasher” … not the best marketing for a wannabe wedding planner.

Jessie goes up against legendary wedding planner Lawrence (Mr. Irons) for the soon-to-be Mayor’s wedding, which loosely ties into the Mayor’s brother’s participation in a TV Game Show called “Crash Couples”, where mismatched folks are chained together in hopes of taking home the one million dollar prize. The show is hosted by the film’s director, Dennis Dugan. Lawrence is an egomaniacal high-falutin wedding planner and all-around rude dude who gets set up on a blind date with Sara (Diane Keaton), who is, yes, actually blind. Her entrance is just one of the painfully overdone physical pratfalls dropped in throughout the film, presumably to appeal to a wider comedy audience.

Andrew Bachelor plays the charismatic laugh-a-minute guide on a Duck tour who goes searching for his “Cinderella” … love at first sight for him. Next up we have Diego Bonita as a sensitive guitar player in the band Jessie wants to hire for the Mayor’s wedding. And I’ve yet to mention the involvement of the mafia thanks to the Mayor’s brother’s partner in the “Crash Couples” game. The multitude of characters and story lines all intersect at the wedding Jessie has planned – an event with hurdles just high enough for her to conquer. Some of the characters tie in more easily than others, but it’s best to just go with the flow here, no matter how cringe-inducing it might be at times.

On the bright side that surely most of us can agree on, Elle King (Rob Schneider’s daughter) is superb as the singer in the park who reappears throughout. Her songs fit the story, and her voice and sound are top notch and quite welcome. Romantic comedies sometimes get a bum rap, and few slide as cleanly into the “love it or hate it” mode as this one.

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DEAR SANTA (2020, doc)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In an era when being nasty to those who don’t share your opinion is de rigueur, it’s such a pleasant relief to watch a story centered on generous folks who want nothing more than to bring joy to others … especially those in need. Director Dana Nachman is fast becoming a master of ‘feel good’ documentaries, and this one fits nicely with her recent projects, PICK OF THE LITTER (2018) and BATKID BEGINS: THE WISH HEARD AROUND THE WORLD (2015).

Bringing a smile to our face quickly is the opening where kids excitedly talk about Santa Claus and the letters they write to him. There is nothing more pure than a young child’s hope and belief that someone is devoted to delivering happiness, and yes, presents! A quick history lesson explains that kids have been writing letters to Santa for more than 150 years, and in 1912, the United States Postal Service began Operation Santa – a way to process the letters being sent to Santa Claus each year. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the program was opened up to the public, and only recently has gone online. These days, it’s a remarkably coordinated effort involving individuals, companies, organizations, and non-profits.

We visit big cities and small ones as director Nachman shows us the impact these “North Pole elves” have on their communities. A ‘Countdown to Christmas’ is used to keep track of the deadline facing each and every person. We see how the USPS has digitized the letters and categorizes according to location, age, and type of request. There is even discussion about the surprising variances in gift requests based on geographic locations. It might also interest you that many adults write letters to Santa each year, although it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that many of these are folks facing tough times, and their requests tend to be necessities like mattresses for the kids or a functioning appliance.

Most of the letters to Santa are heartfelt, and many are requests for others rather than gifts for themselves. Families displaced by fire or divorce will surely strike an emotional chord, as will the reactions of the “elves” reading the letters. Delivering the many donated gifts requires a highly coordinated effort – especially when live animals are involved. Yes, sometimes pets are requested, and again, the joy on the faces of those receiving gifts may only be equaled by the smiles by the givers.

The true spirit of giving at Christmas is on display throughout, and we have director Nachman to thank for bringing this to light. There are so many generous and caring people involved with the program, and their goal is to make sure others experience joy at this time of year. If you are interested in getting involved or learning more, the website is https://www.uspsoperationsanta.com/

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ELYSE (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t sure what to make of Elyse Bridges as we are first getting to know her. She seems a bit unstable and unpredictable, and even her husband Steven and her mother are at a loss with how to get along with her. The Bridges live in a beautiful modern mansion, and their live-in help is excellent at helping take care of their son, something Elyse seems to have minimal interest in.

Of course this is a movie, and things aren’t always what they seem. Writer-director Stella Hopkins and co-writer Audrey Arkins keep us guessing for quite a while before revealing the twist. Ms. Hopkins is the wife of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and it’s her directorial debut. Many filmmakers would appreciate having the advantage of a built-in Oscar winner to give their film a shot of prestige, and he does just that, elevating the film with his all-too-brief turn as a psychologist.

Surprisingly, this movie doesn’t belong to Mr. Hopkins, as his role is relatively minor. Instead, it’s Lisa Pepper in the titular role that has us initially grasping at straws, trying to make sense of her behavior. Ms. Pepper only rarely acts in films, as this is her fourth film spread over 13 years. Elyse’s attorney husband Steven is played by Aaron Tucker, whose movie credits come even less frequently than Ms. Pepper’s. This film is a bit of a reunion for Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins, as well as Ms. Pepper and Mr. Tucker, as they all previously appeared together in the 2007 film SLIPSTREAM (written and directed by Sir Anthony).

The pieces finally come together in the third act, and by that time, it’s quite apparent that director Hopkins was attempting to create a stylish psychological drama that keeps the audience guessing. There are a couple of references to “The Wizard of Oz”, including Dorothy’s quote, “If we walk long enough, we will surely come to some place.” Not much more can be said without spoiling the story and what caused the changes within Elyse. Memories are a field of study with many unanswered questions, and the unfortunate path of Elyse is spurred by a single event … something that could happen to any of us. Anthony Hopkins is credited with writing music for the film, and it would have been nice to have him in a few more scenes.

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PRINCESS OF THE ROW (2020)

November 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Van Maximilian Carlson and co-writer A. Shawn Austin touch on a wide variety of controversial topics in this one: PTSD, Veterans’ Affairs, homelessness, foster care, social workers, and mental illness. At the heart of their story is the touching and strong bond between a father and daughter, even when life’s obstacles become too much to overcome.

Tayler Buck delivers a career-changing performance as Alicia Willis (ANNABELLE: CREATION, 2017), the adolescent daughter of Sgt Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Edi Gathegi, “The Blacklist”), an Iraqi War veteran whose PTSD is linked to a brain injury sustained while deployed. Bo is mostly non-verbal and often disconnected, and living a tough life with the homeless on Skid Row. Alicia is devoted to her father, and worships him as the man who told her bedtime stories when she was young. Those memories not only inspire her to take care of him now, but also to write her own award winning short stories, and to view her life as a sort of Fairy Tale (rather than a tragedy).

We learn that Alicia has already been in three foster homes, including one with her mean-spirited aunt (Tabitha Brown), who likely took her in only for the money. Social Worker Magdalene (Ana Ortiz, “Ugly Betty”) shows true compassion for Alicia, and understands the love she has for her father. Of course Magdalene is also pragmatic and does her best to find a stable environment for Alicia. That’s where writer John Austin (Martin Sheen) comes in. He and his wife agree to take in Alicia, despite this putting her a 10 hour drive from Bo. But distance can’t hold her back.

Following Alicia around is exhausting, yet fascinating. Director Carlson and cinematographer Maz Makhani do a terrific job of capturing her various adventures – each with the purpose of being with her father. Alicia understands, and we see evidence, of Bo’s unpredictability and propensity for violent outbursts. Oh, but in those few fleeting moments when the father she remembers reappears, it’s emotional and heart-warming. Alicia has a wonderful line that will surely touch viewers. She says, “I love it when you come back to me.” And so do we … the world seems right, even if it’s only a blink.

This performance should elevate Tayler Buck amongst young actors, and we will likely be seeing her quite often over the next few years. And as strong as she is here, we shouldn’t overlook the work of Edi Gathegi and Ana Ortiz, or even Martin Sheen (now 80 years old), who always seems a natural for movies with a message. Jessica Childress sings a beautiful song, “Walk with Me”, that is the exact fit for this film that puts love and hope amidst misery and hopelessness.

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ZAPPA (2020, doc)

November 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frank Zappa’s music was never considered mainstream. His songs were rarely played on the radio. In his entire career, he charted one Top 40 song, and that was driven by his daughter. To some, he was known as a political activist and a spokesperson first, and a musician second. At times he was an enigma and a rebel or maverick, and he’s even described as trying not to write a hit song. Alex Winter may be best known as Bill in the “Bill and Ted” movies, and he’s also a successful documentary filmmaker (DEEP WEB, 2015). This time out he turns his focus on the career and life of Frank Zappa.

One of the first things we see is Frank Zappa taking us on a tour of his personal vault located at his Laurel Canyon home. It’s an enormous private collection that captures quite a bit of history from the 1960’s forward. Zappa points out some of his favorites including his jams with Eric Clapton in the basement and music with his friend Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). These are original masters of Zappa’s work over the decades, and he was nothing if not prolific, releasing 62 albums during his career, and another 53 following his death in 1993.

Acting as bookends for the film are clips of Zappa’s 1991 live show in Prague, where he is helping celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops. It’s also his last guitar performance on stage. An incredible amount of footage exists of Zappa pontificating on one subject or another, sometimes on television, sometimes in front of news cameras, and even in front of a Senate committee. His music and his life was usually focused on social commentary, opinions not always popular with the establishment.

It’s very interesting to hear Zappa talk about his early influences, particularly how he never outgrew his love for editing – something that began with the 8mm films at his childhood homes. He didn’t begin playing music until his early teenage years, and it was orchestral before rock. He always considered himself a composer, and what a prolific writer he was. It’s an unusual film in that it not only tracks the timeline of his career, but we are privileged to hear Zappa’s opinions directly from him thanks to the unending recordings and archival footage available.

Mr. Winter includes much more than Zappa. We hear from musicians that made up the Mothers of Invention, including Steve Vai, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and an emotional Ruth Underwood. We also hear from renowned Rock n Roll groupie Pamela Des Barres, and Frank’s wife Gail. It’s noted that Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention in 1969, and there were many iterations that played afterwards. Some of the prominent names included violinist Jean Luc Ponty, and Howard Kaylan and Marc Volman of The Turtles fame. There is even a terrific clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing on stage with Zappa and his band … shocking for anyone not familiar with Yoko’s infamous primal screams.

One of the best stories included is how Zappa’s biggest hit came to be. A note from his young daughter, Moon Unit, introducing herself to her frequently absent father led to a collaboration on the single “Valley Girl”, which cracked the Top 40. There are also stories on his dreaded hosting of “Saturday Night Live”, as well as pieces on the Kronos Quartet, London Symphony Orchestra, and Ensemble Modern performing his music. In 1979, Zappa became the first musician to go completely independent with his own label, and this is only a few years after he was seriously injured by being attacked on stage.

Some may recall Zappa’s appearance in front of the Senate committee in regards to the drive to include Parental warning labels on published music. Zappa viewed this as nothing more than censorship, and he was one of the few musicians to fight the battle against the opponents led by the wife of White House Chief of Staff James Baker. Zappa was certainly a man of principles, and had no time for those who weren’t. It was pancreatic cancer that took his life, but a life well lived it was. His time as a symbol of freedom in Czechoslovakia is proof that he never shied away from standing up for what he believed in. So like his music or not – he surely didn’t care. But he respected those who cared for society and freedom. Filmmaker Winter does a nice job with a two hour run time, when the material exists for a 4 part series.

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UNCLE FRANK (2020)

November 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Alan Ball has been behind such high profile projects as Best Picture Oscar winner AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), “Six Feet Under”, and “True Blood”. This time, he is writer-director-producer for a film that he partially based on his own father. Repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, death, and family dysfunction all play a role in a film that starts out beautifully insightful and then morphs into something totally different.

Paul Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. When we first see Frank, he is the calm amidst the chaotic family gathering in their tiny hometown of Creekside, South Carolina. His 14 year old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, IT) serves as our narrator, and she quickly discloses her admiration for her favorite uncle. He’s a college professor at NYU, and the only adult “who looked me in the eye”. He even wore after shave! The two are oddities in this family since they both love to read, have deep conversations, and can’t escape Creekside soon enough.

Beth is too sheltered to realize that Frank has kept his homosexuality a secret from the family. She’s shocked at how cross the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) acts to his son Frank, which contrasts to his affinity for his other son, and Beth’s father, Mike (Steve Zahn). A terrific ensemble cast fills out the family: Margot Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe (Frank’s mother), Judy Greer as Kitty (Mike’s wife), Lois Smith as Aunt Butch (Frank’s stuck-in-the-past Aunt), and Jane McNeil as Neva (Frank’s sister).

We flash forward 4 years and Beth is now a freshman at NYU where her favorite uncle is a professor. Of course it doesn’t take long before Frank’s secret is revealed, and Beth meets his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdisi, who is director Alan Ball’s real life partner) and their pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. When the call comes through that Daddy Mac has died, the film shifts to the road trip portion of the show, and the excellent tone set in the first half is shattered.

With a shift to Frank’s perspective, we experience his flashbacks to childhood and what caused the rift with his father. The memories of his first encounter with another boy turn horrific, and explain much about why Frank and his closed-minded father don’t have a relationship, and why Frank has a nasty history with booze. The road trip itself is enlivened thanks to the enthusiastic presence of Wally, a man with a good heart who tries to always be there for Frank. This is a coming of age trip for Beth, but her role goes pretty quiet until the ending.

The story has elements of small southern town contrasted to New York City, and the pent up frustrations that accompany a life of closeted homosexuality and lack of honesty with one’s family. The bond of family outsiders could have been a full movie unto itself, but filmmaker Ball chose to explore numerous emotional points, rather than one. The unforgivable nature of Frank’s dad provides an emotional wallop that embraces the melodrama of the film’s second half. It’s sure to draw out tears from more than a few viewers, and a film that connects like that, surely has something to say.

Premieres on Amazon Prime on November 25, 2020

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THE MYSTERY OF D.B. COOPER (doc, 2020)

November 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nearly 50 years have passed and it remains the only unsolved Air Piracy case in America. For HBO, documentarian John Dower (MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE, 2017) chronicles the investigation and four main suspects in the mystifying D.B. Cooper case. It’s a case that has fascinated people and frustrated authorities for five decades.

On November 24, 1971 – Thanksgiving Eve – a man using the name Dan Cooper (a communication mix-up caused him to be later identified as D.B. Cooper) boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Portland. Once in the air, he handed Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow a note informing that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane. His demands were simple: $200,000 in cash and 4 parachutes. In Seattle, his demands were met. He released the passengers, keeping only the crew on board. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, Cooper jumped from the Boeing 727 under the cover of darkness and rain over a heavily forested area. As far as authorities are concerned, he’s never been seen again.

Some presume he died on the jump, while others turned him into a folk hero. He was credited with an act of defiance during times of economic hardships for many. The “Cult of Cooper” was born, as was one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Director Dower interviews some key folks and shows clips of interviews and statements of interested parties who have since passed. The structure of the film revolves around the four main suspects … those who have not been ruled out. Segments are devoted to each of the four: Duane Weber, Robert/Barb Dayton, LD Cooper, and Richard McCoy.

Personal testimony and recollections from relatives and associates of these four leave us with little doubt that a case can be made for each, and those going on camera absolutely believe “theirs” is the infamous DB Cooper. We hear from Duane Weber’s wife who states her husband confessed, “I’m Dan Cooper” on his death bed. Robert/Barb Dayton was one of the first me to have a sex change operation, and his neighbors provide details on Dayton’s own confession, “I am Dan Cooper”. Marla Cooper was 8 years old when the hijacking even took place, and she recalls specifics of her Uncle LD Cooper, and being told “We hijacked the plane” and “We’re rich!” Lastly, Richard McCoy was arrested 5 months later for a copycat hijacking. His pattern was quite similar and his facial features almost identical to the DB Copper sketch.

Tina Mucklow was the flight attendant on the hijacked flight and she provides details of that fateful event, as do other members of the flight crew, a passenger who observed most of what happened on the first flight, and a retired FBI agent who worked the case. Two authors, Bruce Smith (“DB Cooper and the FBI: A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking”, 2016) and Geoffrey Gray (“Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper”, 2011) provide significant insight into the research they have conducted into the investigations. There seems to be plenty of criticism of the FBI in regards to lost evidence (cigarette butts from the flight, fingerprints), and a delayed ground search that gave Cooper a 40 hour head start.

Some reenactments are used here, but a significant portion is filmed interviews with those who have something to say about the investigation, or who DB Cooper might be. The 1980 discovery of 3 bundles of cash with matching serial numbers on the banks of the Columbia River is discussed, and a possible explanation is provided in one of the segments. It’s likely you’ll come away from this as baffled as the authorities have been for 50 years, but also loaded with some good fodder for holiday conversation (via Zoom, of course).

Premieres November 25, 2020 on HBO

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STARDUST (2020)

November 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Traditionally, an “unauthorized biopic” will contain some of the less-desirable, and often more entertaining aspects of its subject; however, writer-director Gabriel Range (with co-writer Christopher Bell) admit up front that this is mostly “fictional”. Since David Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, announced that the family was not participating in the project, we somehow miss out on both the personal “dirt” and the actual music of the icon. What remains is an odd couple road trip representing Bowie’s first American tour in 1971.

Johnny Flynn stars as a young (early 20’s) David Bowie. Flynn is a musician-actor recently seen as Mr. Knightley in this year’s excellent EMMA. He’s very talented, but certainly bears little physical resemblance to the androgynous waif of early-1970’s Bowie. We first see Flynn’s Bowie through his dream during an airplane flight. The riff on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is our first clue that the film will track Bowie’s transformation from David Jones to David Bowie to Ziggy Stardust. It plays as a search for his identity … though he mostly just seems to desire being hailed as a star, rather than a musical genius.

Jena Malone appears as Bowie’s first wife, Angie. She’s presented as quite controlling and eager to bask in the success she expects from her husband. We also see her teasing their open marriage, and pregnant with Duncan. When Bowie lands in America, he’s put through the ringer with U.S. Customs and Immigrations – his flowing dress doesn’t help. Bowie is disappointed that Mercury Records has sent Ron Oberman (an excellent Marc Maron) as his station-wagon driving publicist – not exactly the red carpet he envisioned.

Bowie and Oberman on the road is the highlight of the movie. Bowie is relegated to playing the worst imaginable gigs … like a Eureka vacuum salesman conference, while Oberman preaches practicality. Beyond that, Bowie seems self-defeating at every opportunity and we never quite understand his motivation. Miming during an interview with a rock publication can’t seem wise to anyone, no matter how offbeat they perceive themselves. On top of the disastrous American trip, Bowie is dealing with the “family curse”, as his mother describes it. Bowie’s brother Tony (Derek Moran) is shown battling a mental illness, likely schizophrenia. Of course, given his gene pool, David is concerned for his own well-being.

Recent biopics of Elton John (ROCKETMAN, 2019) and Freddie Mercury (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) are perfect examples of what this film is not. This is more of an exploration of identity before Bowie became an iconic theatrical rocker. The influences of Iggy Pop and Marc Bolan (played by James Cade) are hinted at, but mostly the birth of Ziggy Stardust just seems to happen. Commencing countdown to a biopic of a musician before he’s famous, and being handicapped by not having access to his original music, is quite a challenge, and considering those things, even if it’s watchable, it’s likely to be crucified by Bowie devotees.

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