ZEROVILLE (2019)

September 26, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In this age of comic book movies and remakes, creative and artistic filmmakers are to be commended for sticking to their vision, no matter how cloudy. James Franco has put together a most unusual career as both actor and director. Here he takes on both in this adaptation of Steve Erickson’s novel, with a screenplay by Paul Felten and Ian Olds. It’s a movie seemingly made for movie nerds, but this particular movie nerd, while enjoying some of the homages, mostly found this to be too messy to recommend.

James Franco plays Vikar, a socially inept loner with a shaved head and permanent scowl. On that head is a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift from A PLACE IN THE SUN, the first movie the sheltered Vikar ever saw (11 months ago), and the one that initiated his obsession with movies. Vikar finagles his way into the industry – first as a set builder, and then under the tutelage of veteran film editor Dotty (Jacki Weaver) – reaching award winning status as a filmmaker. Along the way, the character of Vikar recalls Chauncey Gardner in BEING THERE. Is he a genius, or so simple-minded that his thoughts are accepted as brilliant?

It’s 1969, and in an early scene, Vikar is interrogated by police regarding the murder of Sharon Tate. This is our first indication that fact and fiction will be blended here to make whatever points the film is trying to make. Vikar befriends Viking Man on the set of LOVE STORY, and we soon realize John Ford wannabe Viking Man (played by Seth Rogen) is a stand-in for John Milius … a Hollywood legend worthy of his own film. The two new friends attend a beach house party where a group of up-and-coming filmmakers are brainstorming in the living room. Represented are Steven Spielberg, spit-balling a shark movie; George Lucas, yammering about robots; and a young Scorsese and Coppola.

Vikar is soon attracted to and dreaming of a beautiful actress named Soledad Paladin (Megan Fox). This shift of gears to romance from industry commentary does the film no favors. The film is at its best when Vikar is navigating the waters of a Hollywood in transition, including an old school power producer played by Will Ferrell. One of his scenes has him singing “Lum-de-lum-de-lai” in an odd show of power as he attempts to win the girl. Others making an appearance include Danny McBride, Dave Franco, and Craig Robinson – as a burglar who educates Vikar on the nuances of SUNSET BOULEVARD, Erich Von Stroheim, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Joey King has a key role as Soledad’s daughter Zazi, and she even sings on stage.

There are so many nods to Hollywood, that the film plays more like an experimental art project or trivia game than an actual story. The famed Roosevelt Hotel is featured, as is Frances Ford Coppola’s (played by Horatio Sanz) out-of-control film set of APOCALYPSE NOW. A quite colorful description of John Wayne is offered up, and the silent classic THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC takes center stage. We even get Iggy Pop and The Stooges at CBGB, and the first song we hear is “It’s My Life” by Eric Burdon and The Animals.

A key note here is that this was filmed in 2014, and has been caught up in a quagmire of bankrupt distributors ever since. That could explain the questionable flow and editing, but we can assume the wild camera angles were all part of Franco’s plan. It really plays like an experimental film and it covers a few years, though we are never really sure how many. The twist at the end is pretty easy to predict, and unfortunately, it leaves us wondering where an obsession with cinema is likely to lead us.

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THE LION KING (2019)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is at times so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded of a National Geographic program with ultra-High Definition photography. So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-animated/generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains. The look of the film is as revolutionary as when the first TOY STORY stunned us in 1995. We had never seen animation like that then, and we’ve never before seen computer effects like this. What is familiar are two early songs, “The Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago. Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s US), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble. James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodward voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa the warthog and Timba the meerkat. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple. Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as IRON MAN 2 (2010), IRON MAN (2008), and ELF (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (BRAVE, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version. Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

The beloved 1994 version didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature film because the award didn’t exist until 2002; however, it did spawn the 1997 Broadway smash musical. This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago. The story and characters, while familiar to those age 30 and up, will be a whole new viewing experience for today’s kids. So while we may prefer the 1994 animated version, kids today will likely be enthralled by this updated look. And we all better get used to it, because Disney has 18 more “live action” remakes in the works (some of which will actually be “live” action).

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LONG SHOT (2019)

May 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN (1990).

We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.

When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.

Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.

Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.

Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.

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STEVE JOBS (2015)

November 5, 2015

steve jobs Greetings again from the darkness. Does it take the smartest guy in the room to write about the smartest guy in the room? Probably not, but as Aaron Sorkin shows in writing about Steve Jobs, it can’t hurt. It’s an impressive filmmaking team that, in addition to Sorkin, includes director Danny Boyle, and a cast of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Seth Rogen, John Ortiz and Perla Haney-Jardine … that’s a lot of talent, prestige, and award-winners.

The film is based on the terrific authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson (which I recommend). Rather than tackle the entirety of the book or Jobs’ life, a theatrical approach is taken with three distinct acts covering 16 years centered on product roll-outs: Macintosh, 1984; NeXT, 1988; and iMac, 1998. You might notice that two of those products are considered major flops, but the focus is on the persona of Jobs, not the performance of the products. Director Boyle makes his presence felt by filming appropriately in each of the segments: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998. He also brings a sweeping beauty to the visuals … whether it’s Jobs storming through a hallway, or the maze of activity backstage at each roll-out.

In today’s world, it’s humorous to witness the cult-like atmosphere that develops around Apple products, and it’s equally comical to see the small-minded types who refuse to credit Jobs or Apple for catapulting consumer technology ahead by decades, and for achieving levels of financial success never before reached. Although it’s difficult to separate Jobs from Apple, Sorkin and Boyle are very clear in their focus on the man. In fact, the movie could be viewed as a kind of dysfunctional family – both genetic family and work family.

Rogen plays Steve Wozniak and Stuhlbarg plays Andy Hertzfeld, both part of the original Apple team with Jobs. There are some pointed exchanges between these three characters, with the most eye-raising being when Woz asks Jobs, “What do you do?” It’s the best display of what makes Jobs different than others, and his answer is one of the most disheartening compliments ever heard. There are multiple extended sequences with Jobs and his quasi-father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). These two rip through Sorkin dialogue the way Michael Jordan once sliced through defenses. Most cruel are the exchanges between Jobs and Chrisann Brennan (Ms. Waterston) – the mother of his daughter Lisa (though he refused to acknowledge being her father).

For those familiar with the role of Joanna Hoffman in Jobs’ career, you will be duly impressed with the performance of Kate Winslet … playing the only one who could consistently stand up to the relentless pressure and lofty expectations.

There are soft references to (future) iPods and iPads, and Jobs’ break-up with Apple is dramatized, but it’s the individual scenes of interaction with others that makes this entertaining and challenging to watch. There is nothing likable about Steve Jobs the man, but Fassbender’s fine performance does allow glimpses of humanity beneath the God-like aura Jobs presented. Was Jobs a genius? Was he an extreme social misfit?  Was he a cruel family man due to his botched adoption as a kid? Regardless of where you place him in the realm of technology development, it’s difficult to argue with Woz’s proclamation that one can be “decent AND gifted”. It’s not binary.

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TAKE THIS WALTZ (2012)

July 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. We have watched Sarah Polley grow up on screen. She began as a 6 year old child actress and evolved into an indie film favorite. Now, she is finding her true voice as a film director … and what a unique voice it is. In Away from Her (2009), she told the heartbreaking story of a husband’s struggle with losing his beloved wife to Alzheimer’s Disease. Now we get the story of Margot, who just can’t seem to find happiness or fulfillment within the stability of marriage.

Margot is played exceedingly well by Michelle Williams. I would say that without the casting of Ms. Williams, this film would probably not have worked. There is something about her that prevents us from turning on her character when she veers from her loyal, if a bit lacking in passion, husband Lou (played by Seth Rogen). Williams and Rogen have the little things that a marriage needs … a language until itself and the comfort of consistency. What Margot misses is the magic. She thinks she finds that in her neighbor Daniel, a rickshaw driver played by Luke Kirby. Daniel is the type that every guy inherently knows not to trust, yet women somehow fall for. He is a subtle and slow seducer. The kind that makes it seem like everything is innocent … right up until it isn’t.

Margot has that most annoying of spousal traits: she expects everyday to be like a trip to Disneyland. The best scene in the movie occurs when Lou’s sister (a terrific Sarah Silverman) confronts Margot and tells her that life has a gap and that you will go crazy trying to fill it. It’s a wonderfully insightful line from writer/director Polley. Of course, we understand that this is Margot’s nature and she learns that sometimes broken things can’t be fixed.

Another great scene occurs in the women’s locker room after water aerobics. There is a juxtaposition between generations of older women and younger ones. We see the differences not only in physical bodies, but in the wisdom that comes with age. More brilliance from the script. The one scene that I thought crossed the line was the “martini” scene. I found it tasteless, vulgar and far more extreme than what was called for at the time. But that’s a small complaint for an otherwise stellar script.

As terrific as Ms. Williams and Ms. Silverman are, I found Seth Rogen to be miscast and quite unbelievable as a dedicated cookbook-writing guy who has pretty simple, yet quietly deep thoughts about how a marriage should work. Again, this didn’t ruin the film for me, but I did find him distracting and quite an odd choice.

It’s filmmakers like Sarah Polley that keep the movie business evolving. Her viewpoint and thoughts are unique and inspirational, and should lead to a long career as a meaningful writer/director. Oh, and the use of Leonard Cohen‘s “Take this Waltz” song fit right in over the credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of intimate indie films OR you want to follow the career build of Sarah Polley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer light-hearted Rom-Coms to thought-provoking relationship insights

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50/50

August 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The great Richard Pryor had a portion of his act dedicated to having a heart attack, based on his real life experience. I guess if he can generate laughter from a coronary, there is no reason writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness) can’t treat Cancer as Comedy. There is little doubt that the subject matter of this film will limit its audience, but for those brave souls who give it a shot, I believe you will find it funny, touching and insightful.

The film introduces us to Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is a very nice, very normal, very low-key guy who works at a radio station as a writer … a very conscientious radio writer. Adam experiences a nagging pain in his back, which is unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. After a few tests, the emotionless doctor informs him that he has a rare spinal cancer … also very unusual for a healthy 27-year-old. From this point forward, the film borders on brilliance at times.

 Adam’s girlfriend is played by Bryce Dallas Howard; his mother by Angelica Huston; and his best friend by Seth Rogen. Each reacts in different ways to Adam’s diagnosis, but what’s really interesting is not just how these people react, but also how Adam reacts. He moves forward in his meticulous manner, but all the while we know the emotions are brewing. We see this in his sessions with his therapist-in-training played by Anna Kendrick.

Seth Rogen’s character is basically a carbon copy of his act in 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. He spews profane one-liners faster than our ears can process. Usually I find myself quite put off by anything Rogen is involved with, but his character here provides the far-fetched balance that this story requires.  Despite the aggressive front, Rogen’s character is a true friend with a heart … and one who doesn’t hesitate to share his medicinal marijuana.

 So while Rogen’s character generates much of the laughter, the real treasure of this film is in the subtleties of each character in certain moments … and each character has their moment. Many will compare this to Adam Sandler‘s film Funny People, which also starred Seth Rogen. But this movie has infinitely more depth and substance than that one offered, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a significantly better actor than Sandler.

My warning: brace yourself. The theatre was filled with tears and sniffles, with significant laugh out loud moments mixed in. This is an emotional, self-reflective film that will confound you as you inexplicably laugh while listening to cancer talk.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you would like to see a totally different take the devastating effects of cancer … on health, emotions, relationships, etc – all done in a very personal, believable style.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t get your head around the idea of Cancer as Comedy

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THE GREEN HORNET

January 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. There was much uproar when Tim Burton rolled out his 1989 feature length BATMAN film. He took the campy TV series, turned it inside-out, and created a dark brooding Batman … more in-line with the tone of the comics. In a near polar opposite move, writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg took the dead-pan humor and straight-laced characters of the Green Hornet TV series and have delivered a slacker version for their Gen Y fans.

Being a fan of the mid-60’s TV series, but too young to have experienced The Green Hornet radio series which ran from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, I will readily admit that I am not a fan of Mr. Rogen’s re imagined Hornet. However, I will also admit that Kato-vision and the new Black Beauty are very cool. And Jay Chou as Kato works very well. He exudes cool and brilliance and an understanding of his role.

 Where this film fails miserably is every time Seth Rogen utters a line of dialogue. Yes, EVERY SINGLE TIME. The film has no chance to build momentum through action or bad guy story line despite the presence of Christoph Waltz. Rogin slobbers through another line of dialogue and it’s like the air brakes on a semi locking up on icy roads. It’s just brings the flow to a standstill.

Besides Chou and Waltz, who are both very good, other supporting work is provided by Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos and Edward Furlong. Diaz, Olmos and Furlong have little to do and Mr. Wilkinson was the perfect choice as Britt Reid’s dad … if only Britt Reid weren’t Seth Rogen! While adaptation can be a good thing, I doubt creator George Trendle had this in mind when he wrote the original Green Hornet character as the great nephew to the Lone Ranger. Rogen seems to think the Green Hornet is a spin-off of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.

I am going very easy on director Michel Gondry because it appears he did all he could visually, while making do with a weak script and a lame lead actor.  Mr. Gondry has directed such feasts as ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and BE KIND REWIND, so he gets credit for the good parts of this one. 

If you see this film in 3-D, you can play with the glasses and easily identify which scenes were filmed that way and which weren’t. I would encourage you to only use the glasses when necessary, because the colors are definitely muted through the lenses.

My final complaint is the minimal use of the iconic Green Hornet theme song (Flight of the Bumble Bee) made famous by the great Al Hirt (link below). We get only a taste of it in the final scene. So, realizing I sound like an old geezer, I will say that I enjoyed Kato, Black Beauty and the action scenes, but desperately miss Bruce Lee, Van Williams and the uber-coolness of the original.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have little or no experience with the TV series or the comic book line OR you believe Seth Rogen is a comedy genius.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are dedicated Green Hornet purist OR you suspect that Seth Rogen and Pauly Shore are related.