Joan Rivers, 1933-2014

When I wrote my tribute to Robin Williams, who knew I was being prophetic with my opening line.  One has to wonder if the afterlife was getting low on comedy with the passing of two giants in such a short time…

One’s memory of Joan Rivers depends largely on when you were first exposed to her.  In thinking about it, I see 3 distinct eras for one of the hardest working woman in entertainment:

  • Stand-up comedienne – to be fair she did this her whole life, but it was her early career that launched everything else
  • Talk-Show Host/Plastic Surgery – From her time with The Tonight Show to having her own daytime talk show, the stories had a hard time competing with the amount of stories related to her fascination with plastic surgery
  • Fashion Critic – the acerbic wit turned loose on the red carpet as she said things we wished we could to people

For me, I was exposed to her during the second era.  I remember her being Johnny’s permanent guest host, and then I remember the bitter feud that developed due to her wanting to take a shot at her own show on Fox.  To date, she is still the only female to have hosted a late-night talk show on a non-cable network.  It was also during this time I remember hearing (and sharing) the plastic surgery jokes.  To me, a bright spot is when she appeared in Mel Brooks’s Star-Wars parody, Spaceballs.  If you think about her role, it sort of symbolizes her career over the years:  no matter how much people tried to keep her in the background or “keep her down” in general, she always managed to produce quality, memorable work.

One of the best things to happen to her this year was Jimmy Fallon’s olive branch to her to come back on The Tonight Show.  In both appearances, one could tell she was happy to be back on a show whose history was intertwined with her career.  Now one hopes that she and Johnny have reconciled in the great comedy club in the sky…


The November Man


Most people naturally think of James Bond when they hear the name Pierce Brosnan, particularly when the word “spy” is in the same sentence.  Given the strong association of any actor who has played that iconic role, any spy movie not relating to the world of James Bond has to be better than the average spy movie due to the immediate comparisons to the Bond franchise.  Even more importantly, a new spy movie that is not being touted as a reboot or remake should not immediately evoke memories of a movie that was out 13 years prior.

After a long Labor Day weekend that had me moving apartments, I needed a movie.  Part of my bribery…err…convincing of my buddy Russ to help out was that I would cover the cost of the movie.  The original plan was to see Guardians of the Galaxy since Russ had not seen it; unfortunately the times didn’t work out.  The November Man fit the schedule and was one that captured our interest.  Only downside was that it was a Regal location; however the AMC at Downtown Disney is hampered by poor parking.

The November Man centers around a spy who has retired and is enjoying life out of the spy game.  An old handler shows up with a mission that requires Brosnan’s special touch.  What follows is a fairly formulaic movie with predictable plot points.  What was jarring for me was that within the first 10 minutes I immediately flashed on the memory of watching 2001’s Spy Game with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.  Sadly this memory kept popping up throughout trying to watch The November Man.  Spy Game had a better story, which made things worse.

The charm of Brosnan does a lot of the heavy lifting of this movie, but it is not enough to save it.  The director and writers are to blame for this mess.  I wanted to include the trailer as part of this review, but can’t due to the fact that the majority of the contents are from the last 30 minutes of the movie.  That makes it way too easy to spoil already easy-to-detect plot points.  The positive of the afternoon was that we saw it at matinee price.

My advice: wait for cable or streaming.  It is not worth making a trip to the theater, particularly when USA has aired better options with Burn Notice and Covert Affairs…

St. Elmo’s Fire

When I first started this blog 7 years ago, part of the mission was to highlight movies that were no longer available on the big screen that people should see.  Yet I didn’t want to review everything I came across while flipping channels.  So any movie seen at home had to be on DVD.  That evolved to Blu-Ray, and now it evolves to include Digital (downloaded or streaming).  One of the neat things right now is that VuDu and Flixster are running promotions to give you 5-10 movies for free.  Unfortunately these are not all good movies, but free is free.  I may never watch 17 Again, but it costs me nothing but a little pride by having it in the digital locker.  It is through this promotion that I acquired tonight’s subject.

The mid-80s were an interesting time for movies.  John Hughes was at the peak with his Breakfast Club/Pretty In Pink crew.  Studios kept looking for the next John Hughes-like project to capture those easily spent dollars from teenagers and young 20s.  As the Brat Pack started growing out of high school roles, so did the audience.  St. Elmo’s Fire was supposed to have the winning formula: 3 cast members from The Breakfast Club (Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, and Ally Sheedy), Rob Lowe, and a director by the name of Joel Schumacher.  To be honest, the worst thing for this movie tonight was me seeing his name at the beginning; it definitely led me to looking for faults.  When this came out in January of 1985 (yes, almost 30 years ago), I was just in 9th grade.  I saw the trailer and had no interest in it.  As the years went by, I still never found a reason to watch it, despite friends being amazed that I never had.  It was the random selection for tonight, as I wanted to watch a movie that I had not seen.  Since it has been 30 years since this movie came out, I am not really worried about giving too much away; that said, if you haven’t seen it, know that I am going to be talking about major plot points.

The movie centers around a group of friends that have just graduated college, and are trying to find their way into making that next step in the journey of life.  Sadly, the person or persons who wrote this story took the easy path of creating one-dimensional characters.  As the plot was being written, one can tell that there is no confidence in the audience to handle the real consequences of certain problems and events of the movie; that results in many of the subplots being trivialized at the end, making the viewer feel cheated of resolution.  Here is my breakdown of the subplots:

  • Emilio Estevez – In a random emergency room encounter, he spots his college freshman crush, Andie McDowell.  Over the course of the movie, he tries to gain her attention and affection.  The only problem is that he becomes obsessive to the point of stalking.  Yet, he seems fine by the end of the movie after getting a kiss from her.  This story seems to fuel the argument that it is ok to stalk women as long as you get some attention from them.  Terrible character, terrible actions, absolutely no consequence.
  • Demi Moore – Her character is the attention whore of the group.  She lives extravagantly and does drugs as a way to impress everyone.  Eventually her house of cards falls apart, and she shows depression.  Again, though, no consequence, and certainly no discussion of her drug habit.  The closest is a 1 minute scene where two of her friends try to talk to her and she runs away.
  • Judd Nelson/Ally Sheedy/Andrew McCarthy – This was a cliché nightmare.  Judd Nelson wants to be a mover and shaker, and wants Sheedy to be his wife.  She wants to take things at a moderate pace.  McCarthy spends the first half of the movie dealing with people thinking he is gay.  This leads to the stereotypical denials and angry reactions.  Of course this was in 1985, when AIDS hysteria was at its height and homosexuals were used as punch lines in movies.  So after McCarthy spends the first half of the movie being mysterious, he all of sudden moves in to sweep Sheedy off her feet after she has an emotional breakup with Nelson over his infidelity.  Sheedy’s character felt the most genuine through out the movie, which made her one of the few sympathetic characters.  McCarthy would have been equal had the story not anchored him with the idiotic gay “red herring” plotline.
  • Rob Lowe/Mare Winningham – This was actually the plot line that felt the least contrived.  Winningham loves the bad boy Lowe, which is not popular with the family.  She also wants to focus on working her job, which allows her to help those in need.  yet her family wants her to get hitched to some no-name guy, stay home and spit out kids.  The fact that she stays true to her ideals and finally stands up to the family is good character growth.  It is her strength in telling Lowe no over and over that eventually gets Lowe to realize that he can’t be “Peter Pan” forever and he must grow up.  That said, his character is one that does not deserve any of the rewards he receives.

st elmo fire

Ultimately, this movie represents what would happen if the worst of the Seinfeld crew merged with the worst parts of the Friends crew, and you removed all of the comedy.  Even those that complained about the group from How I Met Your Mother being unrealistic would find them genuine next to this group of characters in this movie.  By the time this movie ended, I was ready to email and call every person who ever told me to watch this movie, and ask them for $8 to cover what I would have paid to see it in the theaters in the 80s.  A majority of the characters are irredeemable and everything that was made to feel important at the beginning was thrown away by the end of the movie.

My advice: Skip this movie – there are so many better movies out there.  Instead, spend 4 minutes and watch the only good thing to come out of the movie: John Parr’s song, Man In Motion…

St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)–John Parr

Batman: Assault On Arkham

Batman-Assault-on-ArkhamOver the past 6-7 years, Warner Brothers and DC have done a great job in making and releasing direct-to-video animated movies.  In most cases, they have done so well that fans often are left wondering why they can’t have the same success on the big screen.  Assault On Arkham is the latest entry in the animated DCU, and, much like its title, it packs a punch.

Assault is based on the Batman universe created for the Arkham Asylum/Arkham City video games.  It is also the first Batman animated movie to not be based on events already published since Batman: Gotham Knight.  While Batman is in the title and figures into the movie, it is really about the Suicide Squad.  For those not familiar with the Squad, it is a grouping of some of the more popular villains that can do some good every now and then.  The Squad gets its missions from Amanda Waller, only person not in prison that is not afraid of Batman.  For each mission, the objective is simple: get what Waller wants, or die trying.  That last option includes her remote-detonating bombs that have been implanted.  In this movie, the Squad is to infiltrate Arkham, recover something the Riddler has hidden, and then bring it back.  There is a subplot of Batman looking for a hidden nuclear bomb made by the Joker, as well as another subplot relating to Harley Quinn and her “sweet Puddin”.

Much like the video game, there is plenty of action.  Make no mistake: this movie is rated PG-13, and I feel it is a hard PG-13.  Unlike most DCU animated movies, the body count is high and the bloodshed is shown on-screen.  As I watched this, I couldn’t help but think about an episode of Kevin Smith’s podcast, “Fat Man on Batman”, where he was doing a “live” commentary of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker with Paul Dini.  During that podcast, it was discussed how WB was reluctant to release the first version because it involved shooting someone on-screen.  Of course that was 14 years ago, and Warners has changed.  The other jarring thing that makes this a hard PG-13 is the partial nudity displayed by Harley and Killer Frost.  Now don’t get that excited – both were from the back, but Harley was more exposed and hers led into a sex scene.  While Frost’s reasons made sense, Harley’s scene felt gratuitous.

The voice work was ok.  Kevin Conroy was excellent as usual, as was the use of CCH Pounder in reprising her Justice League/JL Unlimited role of Amanda Waller.  John DiMaggio was wasted as King Shark, when had done so well as Joker in Under The Red Hood.  When you have the guy who got great reviews while being compared to Mark Hamill for the Joker, then YOU USE HIM AGAIN.  Instead they went with someone else that did ok.  The new person doing Harley was fairly decent, but felt like she was impersonating Tara Strong – if she reprises this role again, she should change it enough to make it unique from Tara.  That is what Tara did to differentiate herself from Arleen Sorkin.  All of the other vocal performances were serviceable, but none really stood out.

The Blu-Ray comes with the following features:

  • Digital copy
  • DVD version
  • Commentary track
  • Making-of featurette
  • Sneak peek at next feature to be released (Justice League: Throne of Atlantis)
  • Harley Quinn featurette
  • 4 bonus cartoons
  • Best Buy exclusive: plastic Harley Quinn figure

My Advice:  If you just want action/violence with a thin semblance of story wrapped in the guise of the Batman world, then have at it.  This is definitely not for kids under age 13 due to the violent deaths.  I just wish they had spent more time developing a better story that would have made us care as to why we are watching this.  While I have included the trailer below, notice that it acts like the violence will be about the same level as the other movies.

Batma: Assault On Arkham Official Trailer from Warner Brothers and DC Comics

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

As one grows up, there are actors and actresses that you expect to pass away during your lifetime.  Many, when they do pass, tend to evoke the response of “wow, they lasted that long…”  Then there are those entertainers whom you expect to be there forever.  For me, Robin Williams is one of those that falls in the latter category.  Since hearing the news, I knew that I would have to write this, and that I would need to do it while the feelings were fresh.  I just wasn’t sure how I wanted to approach it.  So I spent some time away from the computer and watched The Birdcage.  After finishing it, I felt ready to write.

The only way to properly do this is to approach it as if I were talking about my latest adventures at the movies.  Instead, as the soundtrack to Hook plays, I am going to tell you about how I grew up with the boy who truly never grew up.

morkandmindyIn the late 70s, I was but a wee lad.  Watching TV with the parents was fun as I got my weekly diet of Happy Days.  In 1978, a strange episode aired that looked to be a weird way for Happy Days to try to capture some of the interest people were having in aliens after the mega-success of Star Wars.  An alien named Mork showed up and my TV watching changed.  Mom was never big into science fiction, so mainly Dad and I would watch Mork & Mindy each week.  Mom would catch snippets every once in a while.  We moved out to Cheyenne, WY, in 1979 – a place that was as alien to us as anything that would pop out of a spaceship.  While living there, we happened to visit Boulder, CO, where the show was set.  We soon moved back east, but I kept watching.

popeyeIn 1980, my first exposure to the idea of making animation live-action happened when I heard they wanted to release a live-action Popeye, with Mork in the title role (I was 9 and only knew of him as Mork).  I wanted to see it, but my parents were not interested due to hearing bad things about it (i.e. it was a bad movie).  So I never got to see it on the big screen, but I have seen it on video since.  While it is not great, it is ambitious, and the casting of Robin Williams and Shelly Duval was spot on.  I think it didn’t do well because it wasn’t Mork being Mork or a frenetic Robin Williams doing his stand-up.  In what would become a theme for him in the 80s, people were not ready to accept Robin Williams the actor.

While Williams started exploring his acting range, the results were mixed in audience reception.  Even though he was the main character in The World According To Garp, all of the news seemed to circulate about how John Lithgow played a transsexual.  Moscow On Best_of_times_posterThe Hudson received good comments from critics for Williams’s acting, but bombed at the box office due to how it was marketed versus what unfolded on the screen.  At this point, Mork & Mindy had been off the air for two years and newer stand-ups like Eddie Murphy had stolen the comedy spotlight.  Williams didn’t let it dissuade him from taking interesting roles, but he did make sure there was room to work his comedic skills.  In 1986, he paired up with Kurt Russell in The Best Of Times.  By this point, I was 16 and would go see a broader range of movies.  Mom has always like Kurt Russell and asked me to go see this with her.  The movie is about two men replaying the final big high school football game in their career, and playing the “what if?” game of what life would have been like if they had won the game.  The movie also delved into some relationship stuff without getting too heavy.  While not a great movie, it wasn’t bad.  That same year, Robin Williams showed his humanitarian side by teaming up with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal to headline Comic Relief, a charity that focused on the homeless.

Who knew that all of this would be the quiet before the storm…?

Good_Morning,_VietnamIn 1987, audiences were finally mature enough to appreciate the range of Williams’s acting with Good Morning Vietnam.  Based on the life of Adrian Cronauer, Williams played an Armed Forces DJ that was supposed to help keep up morale.  The story evolves as he becomes known to the locals, and is despised as a “rebel” by his superior officers.  Many of the “broadcasts” in the movie are improvised bits from Williams.  While there were comedic moments, Disney was taking a big risk with this film.  Released under the more-adult Touchstone banner, a lot of the movie is focused on the character development of Williams and the complexities surrounding Vietnam.  Having been a baby when Vietnam was happening, it was difficult to put the movie in a proper frame outside of what I knew from history books.  In addition to creating one of the most quotable lines over the past 30 years in movies, Williams picked up what would be his first of 4 Oscar nominations, and kick off a 5 year-run that firmly established him as an actor for all genres.  This was also the start of a long partnership with Disney.  In 1989, Robin Williams provided the onscreen talent for the Disney/MGM Studios Animation tour when the park first opened.  This remained in place for about 12-15 years.

1989 brought us another iconic role from Williams in the form of Dead Poets Society.  Now, as much as it pains me to say this, I have not seen this movie.  It came out while I was recovering from a severe accident that sidelined me from seeing movies over a 4-5 month time span.  It garnered another Best Actor nomination, but the Academy was still reluctant to honor his work.  Upon hearing of his passing today, Erik Childress offered this video clip as to how the Academy should remember him during next year’s telecast:

Dead Poets Society Ending

This was followed by another dramatic movie, Awakenings.  While Robert De Niro got the nomination for Best Actor, many thought that Robin Williams should have been nominated for his work as the doctor.  At this point, it is now 1991, which saw the release of two vastly different, but important entries to Williams’s filmography.  The Fisher King continued the dramatic path that Williams had been on and earned him yet another Oscar nomination.

hook-posterThen Christmas 1991 arrived with Steven Spielberg’s ambitious live-action tale of Peter Pan titled Hook.  While some of my friends get annoyed with my waxing poetic about the soundtrack for this movie, what they haven’t heard a lot about is how much I truly enjoyed this movie.  I liked the idea of seeing what happened if Peter Pan grew up.  The movie also featured a cast that had star-power at every level.  Sadly, too many audiences let the production trouble news affect how they saw the movie.  Regardless, this movie shows us the struggle that Robin Williams was having: people wanted him to be the boy who never grew up, but he had more serious responsibilities.  This movie works because it is his soul.

1992 saw a continuation of the Disney partnership in two ways.  Disney was able to get Williams to become the voice of a robot for the revamp of their 360-Circlevision attraction in the Magic Kingdom.  While the video is long, check out his performance, and notice how the Imagineers even made the robot look like him.  Thanks goes out to WDW News Today for providing this video:

The Timekeeper

Yet this pales in comparison to what was unleashed at Christmas.  Disney raladdineleased Aladdin and continued its streak of blockbuster animation.  Those who had missed out on the 70s and 80s when Robin Williams was at his zaniest, got a full taste with this movie.  Prior to this, Disney had steered clear of anything that would “put a date” on their movie.  In casting Williams as the Genie, Disney had to allow some pop culture to seep in in order to capture the full performance.

The final movie in this improbable 5-6 year run was Mrs. Doubtfire.  Continuing the path of family-oriented movies that started with Hook, Williams plays a father that is divorced from his family.  He assumes the role of a housekeeper in order to stay close, and the typical hijinks ensue.  Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan help tell this tale, and it remains light-hearted enough to still be considered a comedy.

birdcageSadly though, streaks are meant to be broken.  What followed seemed to be the story of his movie career: iconic hits with a lot of mediocre to bad movies in between.  Jumanji, while intriguing as a concept, suffered from poor story development.  Nine Months was more for Hugh Grant than Robin Williams.  1996 brought us another memorable movie, The Birdcage.  What made this interesting is that Robin Williams had to play the straight man to all of the wackiness around him, no pun intended.  Yet it is in the quiet moments that you see the true power of his talent as he wrestles with choices that parents go through.

1997 finally brought the role to Robin Williams that would validate his acting in Good Will Hunting.  For his turn as a psychologist, Williams was honored with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  While he never won when nominated as Best Actor, he won the only time nominated as a Supporting Actor.  The family-oriented pictures continued with his remake of the Absent-Minded Professor titled Flubber.

2002 saw another part of Williams – his dark side.  Insomnia and One Hour Photo both showed how he could be a truly terrifying villain if he wanted to be.  While I did not see One Hour Photo, I did see Insomnia and was blown away by his performance.  Sadly the only other movies I saw him in were the two Night At The Museum movies.  This is because I would hear bad things about the other movies right before going to see them.

Fittingly, my time with Robin Williams ends where it began: on television.  CBS aired The Crazy Ones in the 2013-2014 season.  While it never did well in the ratings, I watched it because I enjoyed seeing him on the small screen again.  He does have 4 movies in post-production that will come out.  Yet I can’t help but think selfishly of all of the unknown comedy we, the fans, will miss because he is gone.  The last time I felt this way was when Phil Hartman tragically passed.

While rumors swirl as to why he passed, I want to remember Robin Williams as he sought to bring joy to others.  The best way to close this out is with the music video for Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy.  Not only is the message poignant tonight, it shows a young Robin Williams playing on camera…

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

My thoughts on the world of movies…