Saturday, August 5, 2017

Jodorowsky's Dune

Year 9, Day 217 - 8/5/17 - Movie #2,706

BEFORE: Lately there's been a lot of "Monday morning quarterbacking" where filmmaking is concerned.  Last year I watched that documentary about the failed attempts to make "Superman Lives" with Tim Burton directing and Nicolas Cage as Superman.  Last night we saw another director  film Darth Vader's last scene from "Return of the Jedi" with Dave Prowse under the mask instead of Sebastian Shaw.  And now here's a look at what might have been, if another director had tackled the sci-fi epic "Dune" instead of Alan Smithee.  Sorry, I mean David Lynch.

Producer Gary Kurtz was interviewed in last night's documentary "I Am Your Father", and he's also interviewed in this one...unlike the other films in "Geek Week", which I uncovered on Netflix or Amazon, this one's been on my list for a while - it came recommended by some geek friends I trust, who raved about it, and it's really taken me a lot of effort to link to it.  So good or bad, it's great to cross this one off the list tonight.

THE PLOT: The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky's ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the famous science fiction novel.

AFTER: For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been".  So for any film production, there could be two or three or a hundred writers or directors that try to tackle a project before being removed from a project, or before collectively realizing that a story is just plain unfilmable.  I read the book "Dune" when I was a boy, maybe one or two of the sequels, and this is the conclusion that I draw from this documentary - maybe NO director was right for this project.  Just  maybe, this book was unfilmable, it was too long, too complicated.  I heard that the Sci-fi Channel turned it into a miniseries back in 2000, and had some success with that, maybe that was the better format for it all along.  But Hollywood has persisted, attempting to film another version in 2008, and after abandoning THAT project in 2011, word of a new version is ongoing as of February 2017.

I know, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  But what about "Don't throw good money after bad" or "Quit while you're behind"?  Look, I don't know much about Jodorowsky, I never watched "El Topo" because I'm not that into foreign films - I'm still working up to watching Ingmar Bergman. To fully understand why this project failed, you have to think of the world of the early 1970's, the time after "Planet of the Apes" but before "Star Wars", and in terms of special effects, you have to think of the technology that's in-between "Planet of the Apes" and "Star Wars", which represented a quantum leap of sorts.

The Hollywood summer sci-fi blockbuster hadn't even been invented yet, and here's a director talking about doing this story justice by spending almost $10 million (unheard of in those days) to make a 10-hour or even 12-hour epic film.  What audience would sit there in the theater for 12 hours?  What theater owner would book that film, if he could only screen it once a day?  Let's not kid ourselves, this project was doomed from the start.  But Jodorowsky had a right to his own dream, so he went about hiring French comic-artist Moebius (Jean Giraud) to make the storyboards and H.R. Giger to design the alien worlds and buildings.  Maybe things started to go off the rails when he tried to hire Douglas Trumbull, who did visual effects for "2001" but settled for Dan O'Bannon, who did special effects for "Dark Star", but I digress.

Casting was ambitious as well, with Jodorowsky contacting David Carradine, Udo Kier, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali to play the Emperor of the Galaxy, and Orson Welles to play the overweight Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.  Combine this with his desire to use the music of groups like Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, and you may start to think he was on to something here, but I think that you'd be fooling yourself.  Because casting his own son to play Paul Atreides means, to me, that making a great movie was never really his concern, he was only interested in making the movie for himself, to match the vision that was in his head - and that's where I think a lot of directors go wrong, they're so conceited that they can't step outside themselves and make decisions based on what's right for the movie and therefore what's right for the audience.  So they try to make the film THEY want to see, rather than the one most fans want to see.

Jodorowsky's encyclopedia-sized book of storyboards and costume designs made the rounds in Hollywood, with nearly every major studio praising the work, but refusing to fund the film for one simple reason - the director.  In other words, it's great that you signed Orson Welles to the project (turns out you just had to promise to hire the chef from his favorite restaurant as the movie's caterer) but we're going to pass.  Thanks for coming in, though, and thanks for the paperweight. A few years later, in 1976, the film rights were acquired by Dino De Laurentiis, who hired Ridley Scott to direct and got Frank Herbert to write a new screenplay for a proposed 3-hour version.  Ridley Scott left the project, and with the rights due to expire and the clock ticking, De Laurentiis hired David Lynch in 1981 to finally get this movie made.  David Lynch turned down "Return of the Jedi" to direct "Dune", which makes me wonder if someone's going to make a documentary about what a "Star Wars" film directed by Lynch might have looked like.

And let me repeat what I've been saying for the past two or three years - David Lynch is a terrible director.  I know, we don't have specific ways to define "good" and "bad" where filmmaking is concerned, but I stand by my claim, the guy is a hack.  If it's all subjective, then you can't say that I'm wrong.  Go watch "Dune" as directed by Lynch and tell me that it's good, it's just not.  As he's doing on the current revival of "Twin Peaks", Lynch spent too much time explaining the simple things, not enough time explaining the confusing things, and everything else is relegated to being some kind of "mystery" full of loose ends that never get tied up properly.  And after being presented storylines in "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive" that simply make no narrative sense whatsoever, I'm forced to conclude that this director either takes unfair shortcuts, or has no overall idea what he's doing. But people seem to assume that if the story is confusing and unexplainable, somehow it's a work of genius.  I disagree.

In the long run, I have to believe that the marketplace will take care of itself, the audience has the final word - and even if they're wrong about a movie in general release, a film has a second chance to find an audience later as a "cult classic".  But Lynch's "Dune" is a cult classic for the wrong reasons, people will watch it just to see how badly a movie can be made, so it went from epic to "epic fail".  Do I believe that Jodorowsky's version would have been better?  Nope, just longer.  Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, so why does it keep happening, most recently to that Tom Cruise version of "The Mummy"?  It's because some director couldn't get outside of his own head and make the movie that the audience wanted to see, instead of the one that he (or Tom Cruise) wanted to make.

There's speculation that the storyboards of Jodorowsky's Dune influenced many other projects in Hollywood, from "Star Wars" (Arrakis = Tatooine, Baron Harkonnen = Jabba the Hutt), to "Contact" and the people who left the "Dune" project went on to work on films like "Alien" and "Blade Runner" within a few short years, so make of that what you will.

Also starring Alejandro Jodorowsky, H.R. Giger, Michel Seydoux, Amanda Lear, Nicolas Winding Refn, Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeny, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, with archive footage of Dolph Lundgren, Frank Langella, Chris Foss,

RATING: 4 out of 10 sandworms

Friday, August 4, 2017

I Am Your Father

Year 9, Day 216 - 8/4/17 - Movie #2,705

BEFORE: Another documentary about "Star Wars" today - with both David Prowse and Jeremy Bulloch carrying over.  Tomorrow I can move on to another geek-centric subject.  But since we've got a new "Star Wars" coming out in December - for me that's just 90 movies away - it's a fine time to explore the complexities of the behind-the-scenes stuff.

THE PLOT: David Prowse is an eighty-year-old actor who has lived behind Darth Vader's mask. A group of Star Wars fans find out why he has been apparently forgotten by Lucasfilm during the last thirty years, and decide to give him back the glory he never had.

AFTER: This is a more in-depth profile of David Prowse than the one that was offered up in "Elstree 1976".  While it seems like Prowse's wife wants nothing to do with his time spent as the man in the Vader suit, at least his children were willing to be interviewed - despite the ribbing they took at school when they were kids, about being the children of Darth Vader.  But quite honestly, Prowse comes off as a very sweet man, like a gentle giant, and the best comparison is fellow actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, also interviewed here.  Just because Lou played the Hulk, that doesn't make him an angry or mean person, and if you meet him you may realize he's a very nice guy.

We found out last night that Prowse was previously a body-building champion, who couldn't progress further in competitions because of his "ugly feet".  But doesn't everyone have ugly feet?  He also appeared as the super-hero "Green Cross Code Man" in a public-service campaign to teach kids in the U.K. the right way to cross the streets, and for having a hand in saving so many lives, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen.

Supposedly, two things have kept Prowse on the "naughty list" where Lucasfilm is concerned, and for these reasons he has never been invited to the official Star Wars Celebrations, or any Lucasfilm events since the wrap party for "Return of the Jedi".  First, he allegedly said to an audience back in 1978 (long before anyone knew there would be a sequel to "A New Hope") that he hoped there would be a sequel, in which it could be revealed that Darth Vader was Luke's long-lost father.  Now, maybe this becomes one of those "chicken and egg" things, where no one knows if Prowse thought of this first, or Lucas had been planning this all along, or which occurrence preceded the other.  My theory is that both parties came up with this idea independently - "Vader" is very close to the German word for "father", so it's almost like this notion was hiding in plain sight all along.

The other thing that happened, shortly after Prowse found out that another actor (Sebastian Shaw) would be playing Vader in the scene where his helmet would be removed and his face revealed in "Return of the Jedi", was that someone revealed to the press a year before the film's release that Vader would die in that film.  Lucasfilm must have assumed that Prowse leaked the spoiler to the Daily Mail, but Prowse has denied that, and the reporters at the newspaper back up his claim.  So probably this was done by another actor or a crew member, and Prowse took the fall for it.

To be fair, Prowse did not react well when he learned another actor was hired for the big reveal, and also reportedly was not treated well by the director of "Return of the Jedi", Richard Marquand, who wouldn't even speak to him directly.  (Maybe Marquand was afraid of him, Vader did represent an imposing figure...)  So here we have another "chicken vs. egg" contoversy - hiring another actor to play Vader without telling Prowse was sort of a dickish move, but his bad reaction to it only serves to justify not telling him in the first place.  These are the tough decisions that film directors and producers need to make.  Robert Watts, producer of "Return of the Jedi", did seem genuinely shocked in this film when told that Prowse was almost certainly not the leaker who spoke to the Daily Mail.

Now, when it comes down to the question of "Who Is Darth Vader", this becomes rather difficult to answer.  Sure, Prowse played him physically in three movies, but as I mentioned last night, the helmet made the dialogue recording on the set difficult, so the plan was always to re-record the voice later, and Prowse's voice was deemed to be inferior to the one supplied by James Earl Jones.  (Ironically, in the 40 years since "A New Hope" Prowse's voice has come to greatly resemble Jones's, when played back-to-back they're nearly identical, even though one man is British and the other American.)  James Earl Jones makes little claim to the character, referring to himself as merely a "special effect", and dutifully acknowledging the physical acting and stunts performed by Prowse.

But when you get right down to it, the role of Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker is a composite - made up of at least 5 actors: Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, Dave Prowse, James Earl Jones, Sebastian Shaw, plus Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous in "Rogue One", plus who knows how many additional stunt-men over the years.  And then the various voice-over portrayals in animation, by actors like Mat Lucas and Matt Lanter - and the infamous scuba-tank breathing of Ben Burtt - the character has now become bigger than the original three films, and bigger than any one actor.  So at the end of the day, the character belongs only to Lucasfilm/Disney, and they get the final say in who plays the character and how the character gets used.

Which brings me to this film's conceit - the director of this documentary wants to re-stage the climactic reveal scene from "Return of the Jedi", with Prowse in the costume, instead of Sebastian Shaw.  That's all well and good if Prowse is looking for some kind of closure, but come ON, haven't we seen enough re-edits and revamped versions of the "Star Wars" films?  We've been given not only Lucas' Special Editions, but also remakes from fans who thought there were too many effects, not enough effects, too much racist dialogue, etc.  Stop the madness!  And calling Lucasfilm to ask permission?  Dude, you KNEW they were going to say no, you're as bad as Michael Moore trying to sandbag an interview subject by standing in his office, when you know the security guards are going to escort you out.

The compromise is that the scene from "Jedi" is re-staged with Prowse, only the resulting footage can't appear in this documentary, so really, there's no payoff to this bit, except for perhaps some personal satisfaction.  Still, for a "Star Wars" fanatic, it's great to learn more about the man behind the mask, and why he's barely been a presence at major conventions over the years.  I'm forced to take a point off my score, however, since the director so blatantly inserted himself into the interview process, and then had the nerve to think he could film a scene from "Jedi" better than the original, which again, we NEVER GET TO SEE.

Also starring Kenny Baker (last seen in "The Elephant Man"), Ben Burtt, Lou Ferrigno (last heard in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"), Gary Kurtz, Robert Watts, Marcos Cabota, with narration by Colm Meaney (last heard in "Norm of the North").

RATING: 4 out of 10 signed 8 x 10 photos

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Elstree 1976

Year 9, Day 215 - 8/3/17 - Movie #2,704

BEFORE: Day 2 of "Geek Week" - which, in fact, is going to be longer than 7 days, I think, but it's too late, the name has caught on.  "Nerdy 10 Days" just doesn't have the same ring to it.  Now, usually where documentaries are concerned, I tend to waive my linking rules - the great thing about "Geek Week" is that I mostly don't have to - I think there are going to be two times where the connection is merely thematic, because it turns out that this is a relatively small, insular community, and the same people tend to be interviewed, again and again.

Case in point, the Star Wars community - and it was tempting to hold back this film so I'd have something to screen next May 4 (Star Wars Day), but no, the linking tells me to proceed now, after all, this documentary is screening on Netflix and could disappear without any warning before next May.  So, in "Comic Book: The Movie" there was a small scene where Mark Hamill's character got scared away from a table by three menacing men - and that was a cameo from Peter Mayhew, David Prowse and Jeremy Bulloch, the actors who played Chewbacca, Darth Vader and Boba Fett.  Well, two of them, Prowse and Bulloch, carry over to be interview subjects in this film.  Mark Hamill also appears here, but only in archival footage from the films.  (I hate to resort to that sort of thing, so fortunately, I don't have to.)

THE PLOT: Actors and extras reminisce about their time on the set of "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" and how making the film affected their lives.

AFTER: When I say that a film is right in my wheelhouse, I'm not kidding around.  In addition to being an original hardcore Star Wars fan since 1977, I started collecting autographed 8 x 10 photos of the actors (the collection now numbers 100) which meant I had to pay even closer attention to the names of cast members and their roles.  Then I started linking between movies 9 years ago, and I couldn't help but notice how often actors I recognized from "Star Wars" began popping up in the backgrounds of other films.  Sure, anyone can track Harrison Ford's career, and say they've seen all of his movies, but how many people know that the guy who played Boba Fett also had small roles in THREE James Bond films?  I feel like I know the answer to trivia questions that nobody's even asking...

As luck would have it, I happen to have met all three of those actors who did that cameo last night - I met Peter Mayhew and David Prowse signing at Comic-Cons, and back in 2007 or so the Star Wars Fan Club had an event in San Diego where people got to eat breakfast with both actors who played Boba Fett (Bullock and Daniel Logan).  I've got autographs from three other actors featured here, too - the ones who played Greedo, Biggs and Gold Leader.  Of course, I have rules for the collection, because I didn't want to have to chase down every actor who ever appeared in a stormtrooper or Jawa costume - and those rules are: 1) the actor's character has to have a NAME, and 2) the character must have spoken at least one line of dialogue, even if that's in an alien language.  (Of course, I've been known to make exceptions to the rules, if I encounter a worthy actor, like the guys who puppeteered Max Rebo or Droopy McCool from Jabba's Palace band.

Now, it turns out there's a similar hierarchy on the convention circuit - of course, you've got your headlining actors like Harrison Ford or Samuel L. Jackson, who probably never work the autograph tables, they don't have to.  Then there's the second tier, people like Billy Dee Williams or Ray Park who may have other gigs, but are happy to spend a day or two here and there signing to make some extra cash.  The third tier is probably the people who are MOST famous for being in a Star Wars film, like Peter Mayhew or Warwick Davis, and these people probably live on the convention circuit, making a good living for traveling from place to place and meeting fans.  Then there's the fourth tier, people who maybe appeared in an alien costume or as a random, unnamed X-Wing pilot, who didn't even have one line of dialogue, and may not even appear in the credits.

It turns out that some of the actors in Tier 3 really resent the actors in Tier 4, at least according to these interviews, because they're interfering with their livelihoods.  I know firsthand how terrible it feels when another booth at a convention has a long line of customers, and yours doesn't.  And if proper records weren't kept over who played those background characters, what's to prevent someone from just SAYING they were in the original "Star Wars" movie, or pointing to a helmeted stormtrooper in a scene and saying, "Yeah, that's me, all right..."?   Like that infamous stormtrooper who hit his head on the door, coming into a room on the Death Star - about 10 different guys have claimed to be that actor.  Maybe there was just a lot of bumping in to things on that set.

What you have to remember is that there used to be a thing called Central Casting - people were signed up with this acting agency that worked with the different movie studios, and would show up every day, not knowing what film they'd be hired for, or if they would be working that day at all.  They could end up in a Western, a period drama or a sci-fi flick on any given day, and if they got to be in a restaurant scene, that would be a bonus because it meant they might also get a free meal out of the deal, as long they were willing to sit quietly in the background and pretend to have a conversation.  It seems that Elstree Studios in London, where much of "Star Wars" was filmed, relied on such an agency, or pretty much allowed anyone walking by who would fit in a stormtrooper outfit to be in the movie.

Perhaps the most prominent here is David Prowse, who had attained some fame both as a bodybuilder and as an actor, most notably in a small role in "A Clockwork Orange" and as a sort of superhero who was the face of the U.K.'s public-service campaign to teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street.  This kind of proves that there's balance to the universe, because on one hand he probably scared a lot of kids by playing Darth Vader, but on the other hand, he helped saved thousands of kids from getting run over.  Now, this actor had to live for years with people telling him that anyone could have been the guy inside the suit, especially since his lines were later dubbed over by the voice of James Earl Jones, but the truth here is that Prowse DID learn all of the lines and spoke them on set, and perhaps the first plan was to use those lines, however the helmet did interfere with the recording. And when it came time to re-record the dialogue in Los Angeles, it didn't make sense to fly the U.K. actor to America, when they could just hire another actor who worked in L.A. - plus, if you can hire James Earl Jones, then you hire James Earl Jones.

Much is made here of the lesser-known actors and their lives before and after appearing in Star Wars. Some were classically trained, and one had worked before with Alec Guinness doing Shakespeare, another is proud of his stage work in a Proust piece - but that guy is also comfortable with the fact that when he dies, the first line of his obit is going to mention that he played Greedo, the Rodian bounty hunter.  ("Greedo" is an obvious riff on the Italian gangster name "Guido", but I didn't realize that until I was an adult...)  Over the years, some of these actors have learned not to take their lives too seriously, or let themselves be totally defined by this silly space movie they were in - while others have learned to lean into it, to spend more time at conventions speaking openly with the fans, who have infused every line, every gesture from the original film with ultra-important meaning.

Now, many of the stories here are already well-known by Star Wars fans - the scenes set on Tatooine with Luke, Biggs, Fixer and Camie were deleted from the final cut, because they introduced Luke too early - but Biggs reunited with Luke for the Death Star battle, and the actor who played Fixer was a last-minute replacement for an absent stormtrooper actor, so he ended up being the Sandtrooper who Obi-Wan played the Jedi mind trick on. ("These aren't the droids we're looking for...")  He claims to have bonded with Mark Hamill since they share a birthday, but the IMDB says otherwise.

I think the first time I really noticed a Star Wars character actor in something else, it might have been the film "Strange Brew", which had a lot of intentional SW references, like the hockey players in stormtrooper armor, and unintentional ones, like casting Max Von Sydow, who appeared in Episode VII decades later.  But Angus MacInnes ("Gold Leader") also played the romantic lead, Jean "Rosey" LaRose", and that probably blew my mind at the time.  And then once you start down that path, you might start to see them just about everywhere.

For other actors, it was just a gig, man - and some of these relative unknowns have spent the years since 1977 trying to break into the music business (one guy "almost" had a song he wrote recorded by the Moody Blues) and others had health problems or struggled with addiction, and you might start to realize that every human story is also a tragedy of sorts - but the upside is, they appeared in "Star Wars", nobody can ever take that away from them, and at least if you can look back on the past and tell a good story about it, maybe you're doing OK.  For one brief moment of their lives, they can say for sure that they were in what turned out to be the right place at the right time.

Also starring Paul Blake, Garrick Hagon (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Angus MacInnes (last seen in "Rogue One"), Anthony Forrest (last seen in "Reds"), John Chapman, Laurie Goode (last seen in "For Your Eyes Only"), Derek Lyons (last seen in "Yentl"), Pam Rose and archive footage of Carrie Fisher (also last seen in "Rogue One", sort of...), Harrison Ford (last seen in "Regarding Henry").

RATING: 5 out of 10 action figures

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Comic Book: the Movie

Year 9, Day 214 - 8/2/17 - Movie #2,703

BEFORE: Well, Geek Week is finally here, and if you haven't heard of Geek Week, that's probably only because I made it up myself about a month ago, when I saw all the nerd-related documentaries that are available on Netflix, and then I figured out a way to link them all (ok, most of them) together just before I left for Comic-Con.  Now, technically Geek Week should take place during Comic-Con, but since I'm always away that week, it's been rescheduled for the earliest time that I could link to it.
This one's not on Netflix, I'm starting off by watching this one on iTunes, and the Netflix films kick off tomorrow.

I got back from San Diego just over a week ago, and now that I've had some time to relax and get over my PTSDSD (short for post-traumatic San Diego stress disorder, by the way) I'm finally able to talk about how it went.  (Hint: it wasn't all good...).   I'll get around to that in a few days, I think.

For now, Debi Derryberry carries over from "Norm of the North", and I think a couple other people known for being voice-over actors do as well.  Mark Hamill directed this, and he's famous for his voice-over work also, as the Joker in many of the Batman animated shows.

THE PLOT: The relationship between Hollywood and comic book culture is lambasted in this mockumentary as a beloved heroic character is wrung through the studio system.

AFTER: I do have a connection to this film, which was apparently filmed at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2002, and that might have been the first year I worked a booth there - though I would have been really naive about the whole thing back then, I probably didn't know my way around or how to get anything done, I was just a rookie.  (Fifteen or so years later, I'm considered a veteran, and I think if you add up all my days there I've now lived in San Diego for about 2 1/2 months.) But a couple of years later, let's say maybe 2004 or 2005, Mark Hamill was there with a booth, promoting this film and its release on DVD - and his booth wasn't far from ours, I could glance over and see the man who played Luke Skywalker!  This was a year or so after I started my autograph collection, and since he was promoting this film, he wasn't signing Star Wars autographs that year, so I think I bought a signed photo of him from Official Pix the next year for about $70.  But he did pose with both Billy Dee Williams and Irvin Kershner for a photo, and I was nearby with a camera - unfortunately, I was just learning how to use a digital camera that year, so I have the blurriest copy possible of this once-in-a-lifetime moment.  Hey, that's Comic-Con for you.

By my count, I've met at least 8 of the other actors and comics creators that appear in this film, mostly at various comic-con, and because of who my boss is.  Tom Kenny used to stop by our booth pretty regularly, and so did Matt Groening.  I got my photo taken with Ray Harryhausen one time, he was appearing in the booth next to ours and I couldn't pass up that opportunity.  Through collecting autographs I've met so many Star Wars actors, like the three that make cameos here, and I used to go to the old Marvel stockholder meetings, so I met Stan Lee several times and got him to sign my stock reports (which were printed up like comic books).  And Lloyd Kaufman is another friend of my boss, this year and last year I was on the same plane as him, coming back to New York.  These are the happy accidents that I hope I will remember from my time at Comic-Con, and not how much work it is for me to plan the event, ship all our merchandise there, set up the booth and basically spend most of 4 days waiting on customers, before shipping everything back and getting jet-lagged for the second time in a week.

What's interesting to me is to see a visual record of what the event looked like back in '02.  The carpet was white, not blue, for example, and the aisle marker numbers looked completely different - but also it looks like people could walk around quite easily, there weren't crowds teeming down every aisle.  But maybe they filmed this on a Thursday morning, one of the few quiet times.  Still, they mentioned that the attendance back then was 50,000-60,000, which means that since then, the attendance has doubled, the event's footprint has probably tripled, and the importance increased by a factor of ten.
Also, back in 2002, it's worth noting that a celebrity such as Mark Hamill could walk through the aisles, filming something, and not get mobbed by fanboys every three steps.  (Admittedly, he was in character, with a beard and wig on, but still...) These days, celebrities don't hit the show floor unless they're in disguise or surrounded by a team of bodyguards.  

The film, right, the film - it turns out to be a mockumentary (remember that trend?) about one man's devotion to a comic-book character from the 1940's called Commander Courage, and how upset he is that the character has been rebooted as more of a secret agent, and the book is now titled "Codename: Courage", with Hollywood planning a movie based on the re-boot and not the original.  I feel your pain, fictional fan of the older, simpler comic books.  But comics do need to change with the times, and attract the younger audience, so as much as I hate re-boots, I still understand why they take place.  Fighting against a comic publisher or a movie studio that's changing a famous character around will get you exactly nowhere (like my complaints about "Spider-Man: Homecoming"...) and in fact if you don't like the direction that a superhero comic or movie is taking, I think the easier way to change things would be to get a job at that publisher or movie studio, and work your way up to being the executive in charge.  OK, so it might take a couple of decades, but someone's got to be in charge of character development and continuity, right?

This is all fairly tongue-in-cheek - Kevin Smith's interview, for example, makes reference to the giant mechanical spider that producer Jon Peters wanted him to work into his "Superman" sequel script, which ended up in the film "Wild Wild West" instead.  But this also means, unfortunately, that there's nothing for me to take seriously here, even if I take "Commander Courage" as a thinly-veiled Captain America, he's not real, he's not even fictional, he's just made up for this mockumentary, so nothing really matters in the end.  I mean, I guess it's all one big metaphor for how Hollywood treats its characters and creators, and it shows how much some fans care about this issue, but even then it never really gets around to making a coherent point.  Don Swan is a lovable loser who manages to make everything worse when he gets involved, and manages to sabotage the movie studio's plans, both accidentally and on purpose, but that seems like a very small victory for the little guy, and it may even come at the cost of the greater fan-base, who probably want to see the character evolve and change.

Also starring Mark Hamill (last seen in "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), Donna D'Errico, Billy West (last heard in "Pixels"), Roger Rose (last seen in "The Five Heartbeats"), Jess Harnell (also carrying over from "Norm of the North"), Lori Alan, Daran Norris, Tom Kenny (last heard in "Sing"), James Arnold Taylor (last heard in "Rogue One"), Jill Talley, Kevin Michael Richardson (last heard in "Strange Magic"), Stan Lee (last seen in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"), Kevin Smith (last seen in "The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?"), with cameos from Gary Anthony Williams (last heard in "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2"), Sid Caesar (last seen in "The Cheap Detective"), Jonathan Winters (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Bruce Campbell (last seen in "Oz the Great and Powerful"), Matt Groening, Phil Morris, Chase Masterson, Ray Harryhausen, Gary Owens (last heard in "The Prisoner of Second Avenue"), J.J. Abrams (last seen in "Regarding Henry"), Peter David, Paul Dini, Mark Evanier, Bill Mumy, Bruce Timm, Ron Perlman (last seen in "The Island of Dr. Moreau"), Mike Mignola, Peter Mayhew (last seen in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"), David Prowse (last seen in "The People vs. George Lucas"), Jeremy Bulloch (last seen in "Octopussy"), Hugh Hefner (last heard in "Hop"), Lloyd Kaufman (last heard in "A Liar's Autobiography"), Maurice LaMarche (last heard in "Zootopia"), and the voices of Jim Cummings (last heard in "The Secret Life of Pets"), Tara Strong (ditto).

RATING: 4 out of 10 Overstreet guides

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Norm of the North

Year 9, Day 213 - 8/1/17 - Movie #2,702

BEFORE: There were so many repeat actors in the Adam Sandler 5-film chain, that in a way it was also a Rob Schneider chain - which is a great opportunity to cross this film off the list, since he stars as the voice of the lead polar bear character.  I recorded this one off cable, basically to fill up the DVD with "The Penguins of Madagascar" and the latest "Ice Age" movie on it.  I know it's probably not the best film, but it's been floating in the "unlinkables" territory for a while now, and now it provides a handy link between the Adam Sandler movies and the documentary "Geek Week" chain, which will start tomorrow.

THE PLOT: When a real estate development invades his Arctic home, Norm and his three lemming friends head to New York City, where Norm becomes the mascot of the corporation in an attempt to bring it down from the inside and protect his homeland.

AFTER: Boy, what a stinker of an animated film this one is.  Maybe it's because I snuck out tonight and watched a different animated film in the theater, and that was a (slightly) better film in most ways.  The first obvious thought, when presented with a film about a polar bear, would be to think that this is going to relate somehow to global warning, and the loss of that species' feeding environment as the polar ice-cap gradually melts.  And if that's what you thought, you'd be completely wrong.  What a horrible missed opportunity, there was a chance to make a film that would explain looming climate change to young kids, and get them on board with realizing the gravity of that situation - but no, instead Norm the polar bear has to worry about people building condominium developments in the Arctic region - when that isn't even a real thing, as far as I know.

Who the hell wants to live in the Arctic (or as half of the actors in this film mispronounced it - "the Artic") anyway?  I live in New York City, and even though we're down to only about two large snowfalls per year now, I still think that's too much.  But then again, I'm eagerly awaiting the day when New York's weather is more like what Florida's used to be, I even live at the top of a hill so that maybe I'll still be OK when the ocean levels rise.  My point is, there's a reason why I live where I do, and if I moved up to Canada, even to get away from Trump and most annoying New Yorkers, then I'd have to deal with winter weather 9 months out of the year.  I prefer different seasons, and I'm thinking that most people wouldn't even buy a home in the Arctic, even if it were just a summer home.

To make matters worse, the whole "talking animal" thing is dealt with horribly here - for some reason it made some cartoon sense for the animals in "Zootopia" and "The Secret Life of Pets" to talk to each other in English, or for the animals in "The Jungle Book" to communicate with Mowgli.  But here Norm is the ONLY polar bear that speaks and understands English, though they never explain how that is possible - or why people don't run screaming from the room when a polar bear talks to them.  Is this some kind of genetic mutation, or did Norm get hit by lightning or something?  Again, I realize this is set in a cartoon universe, and the physical rules might be different than our own, but it seems odd to have just ONE animal that can speak English, especially since that animal can talk to the other animals, but none of those other animals can talk to humans.  Or am I overthinking this?

Then we come to the plan, which doesn't work either.  Norm is somehow going to prevent these Arctic condos from being built by pretending to be an actor in a polar bear suit, since there happen to be auditions for exactly this thing going on - what a coincidence!  And then from the inside he's going to take down the developers - "use the Arctic to save the Arctic", he keeps saying.  But in order to get himself in a position to affect the most change, he's got to become a popular character with an 85% (for some reason) approval rating.  So first he's got to help the corporation, in order to be in a position to then take the corporation down.  This is a bit like planning a bank robbery by getting a job as the bank's manager.  Sure, it might make the heist easier, but then there won't be any mystery over who stole the money, because they'll have the bank manager on camera, loading up the bag with money.

Sorry, any way you look at this one, it's a fail.  It's not funny, nor is it entertaining, and the story is just a lot of nonsense.  The one redeeming thing I can say is that it had lemming characters, which functioned more or less like the Minions in "Despicable Me", and at no time did they fall back on that silly urban legend about lemmings committing suicide en masse.  But the rest of it all feels like it was assembled by committee members that didn't get along with each other.

For my purposes, it's an odd coincidence that both yesterday's film, "Sandy Wexler" and this one both featured the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) but I don't think that means much - I'm probably the only person in the world that would watch these two films back-to-back.  Reportedly Adam Sandler might have done a voice for this film too, perhaps as the henchmen in the helicopter, but I can't seem to verify that.  Wow, that's a first, a film that even Adam Sandler is apparently too embarrassed to confirm that he appears in.

Also starring the voices of Heather Graham (last seen in "Bobby"), Ken Jeong (last heard in "The Penguins of Madagascar"), Bill Nighy (last seen in "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), Colm Meaney (last seen in "Layer Cake"), Loretta Devine (last seen in "What Women Want"), Gabriel Iglesias (last heard in "The Book of Life"), Michael McElhatton, Salome Jens, Maya Kay (last heard in "Alpha and Omega"), Ben Diskin, Debi Derryberry (last heard in "Despicable Me 2"), Jess Harnell (last heard in "The Secret Life of Pets"), Charlie Adler, with a cameo from James Corden (last seen in "Into the Woods").

RATING: 1 out of 10 plates of sushi

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sandy Wexler

Year 9, Day 212 - 7/31/17 - Movie #2,701

BEFORE: All of the actors in the Adam Sandler-verse show up in this one - more cameos than I can count, with most of those people playing themselves.  Adam carries over from "The Ridiculous 6", for the last time in this chain, and so do another 6 or 7 actors.

I don't know if I mentioned this before, but I did sort of know Adam Sandler before he was famous - we crossed paths at NYU when we lived in the same dorm, though he was a senior when I was a sophomore, and I remember him getting the first pick of rooms in the dorm lottery - there was a penthouse of sorts in that dorm, and naturally whoever got first pick was expected to select the room on that floor.  We all knew he was going to be famous, because at that time he was appearing on "The Cosby Show" as Theo's token white friend, this was maybe a year or two before he started on SNL. 

THE PLOT: Sandy Wexler is a talent manager working in Los Angeles in the 1990's, diligently representing a group of eccentric clients on the fringes of show business.  His single-minded devotion is put to the test when he falls in love with his newest client. Over the course of a decade, the two of them play out a star-crossed love story.

AFTER: I hate to admit it, but this might be the best Adam Sandler movie of this bunch, maybe one of his best since "Punch-Drunk Love".  Which is not to say that it's phenomenal, it's just better than all the rest, because it feels more sincere, like there's some heart involved, and it's not just about dick jokes and poop jokes.  Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler's real manager, Sandy Wernick (who has a cameo as the man in the vegetative state...), but Sandler plays him like one of his SNL characters here, adopting a silly, scratchy voice and always seeming just a bit out of step with reality.

Wexler's an agent, so he's learned to lie, or more accurately, to tell people what he thinks they want to hear.  It's an acquired pattern of behavior, perhaps a defense mechanism so he doesn't ever come to terms with how moderately successful he is, always trying to break his clients in to something big, but never quite getting there.  And there's actual character growth involved when he finally decides to break the pattern, and start telling the truth, because he believes it will be better for him in the long-term.

Wexler's a screw-up, no doubt, but somehow he's a lovable screw-up, I guess because he comes off as sincere and innocent - or is it naive?  We want him (and by extension, his clients) to succeed because that would mean that the little guy has a chance in this world, and won't be beaten down by the large corporations that dominate the entertainment marketplace. Whether his client is an unlucky daredevil or a wanna-be wrestler, Sandy gives them the attention that they need, or is there for them around the clock, and that's significant.  Which makes me wonder if his type of manager has gone the way of the dinosaur, which would be a shame.                   

The framework, however, is set at some Hollywood function where many known celebrities are asked to give their opinion of Sandy Wexler, and collectively they end up telling the story of his career in the 1990's, which is then seen in flashback.  My problem tonight is not that there are so many flashbacks, but that the testimonials given are not funny themselves, which seems like a waste.  All those comedians (and actors, and singers...) and they weren't given the opportunity to tell jokes, it seems like such a waste.

Still, it's sweet that this hapless, luckless talent manager could develop an attraction to a client that he found working in a theme park, and that the two of them would cycle in and out of each other's lives for a decade, without Sandy being able to work up the courage to tell her how he feels.  You might start to wonder if this is just a romance that takes a long time to get off the ground, or if perhaps it's never meant to be.

Also starring Jennifer Hudson (last heard in "Sing"), Kevin James (last seen in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"), Terry Crews (also carrying over from "The Ridiculous 6"), Rob Schneider (ditto), Nick Swardson (ditto), Jackie Sandler (ditto), Colin Quinn (last seen in "Trainwreck"), Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville (last seen in "Everybody's All-American"), Jane Seymour (last seen in "Live and Let Die"), Luis Guzman (last seen in "The Do-Over"), Ido Mosseri (also last seen in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"), Eugenio Derbez (last heard in "The Book of Life") with cameos from Rob Reiner (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Chris Elliott (last seen in "The Rewrite"), Milo Ventimiglia (last seen in "Grown Ups 2"), Kate Micucci (last seen in "Don't Think Twice"), Arsenio Hall (last heard in "Igor"), Quincy Jones, Pauly Shore (last seen in "For Keeps?"), Janeane Garofalo (last seen in "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion"), Chris Rock (also last seen in "You Don't Mess With the Zohan"), Kevin Nealon (ditto), Henry Winkler (ditto), David Spade (also carrying over from "The Ridiculous 6"), Jon Lovitz (ditto), Vanilla Ice (ditto), Jared Sandler (ditto), John Farley (ditto), Dana Carvey (last heard in "The Secret Life of Pets"), Penn Jillette (last seen in "An Honest Liar"), Jimmy Kimmel (last seen in "Ted 2"), Conan O'Brien (last heard in "The Lego Batman Movie"), Jay Leno (last seen in "The Flintstones"), "Weird Al" Yankovic (last seen in "Spy Hard"), Louie Anderson (last seen in"Quicksilver"), Paul Rodriguez (ditto), Judd Apatow (last seen in "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon"), Lorne Michaels, Mike Judge (last heard in "Nerdland"), Lisa Loeb (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine 2"), George Wendt, Richard Lewis (last seen in "Wagons East"), Jason Priestley (last seen in "Tombstone"), Darius Rucker (last seen in "Shallow Hal"), Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, Mason "Ma$e" Betha, Al B. Sure, Brian McKnight, Tony Orlando (last seen in "A Star Is Born"), Gary Dell'Abate, Dr. Drew Pinsky, Clay Aiken, Downtown Julie Brown, Salt 'n Pepa, Jewel Kilcher, Solofa "Rikishi" Fatu Jr.

RATING: 5 out of 10 record company executives

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Ridiculous 6

Year 9, Day 211 - 7/30/17 - Movie #2,700

BEFORE: Adam Sandler carries over again from "You Don't Mess With the Zohan", as do three other actors (at least...).  Because once you're in the Adam Sandler pantheon of actors, you'll apparently never be hurting for work.  I'm hitting another century mark today, which is usually a call for celebration around here, but since I'm in the middle of this chain of silly Sandler films, the spirit is dampened somewhat.  But still, Movie Year 9 is now 2/3 over, with just 100 films to go - I know it's July, but to me that means that Halloween is right around the corner, and Christmas will be here before you know it.

The real reason for getting back on Netflix tonight and watching this film is that I watched "The Hateful Eight" back in January, and the remake of "The Magnificent Seven" is scheduled for late November, I think - so it would be great in my year-end re-cap to put all three Westerns together - 6, 7 and 8.

THE PLOT: An outlaw raised by Native Americans discovers that he has five half-brothers; together the men go on a mission to find their wayward, deadbeat dad.

AFTER: By now, I've seen all kinds of Westerns - old ones, new ones, serious ones, silly ones.  Even within the "silly" genre, there are those that take themselves seriously and maintain an air of possibility (like "Blazing Saddles", right up until the last 5 minutes, anyway) and those that don't, like "A Million Ways to Die in the West", which is full of intentional anachronisms and jokes that work because they're aimed at the modern audience.  "The Ridiculous 6" aims right down the middle, or maybe it's trying to have it both ways, I'm not really sure.

If I were to take it seriously, and I'm not saying that I do, it would be a quest where a man tries to raise enough money to save his father from a ruthless criminal gang that are holding him hostage, and along the way he happens to meet 5 "brothers from other mothers" who all have different skills that will aid him in his quest.  For extra drama, he's also out to avenge his mother, who died protecting him from bullies.  But somehow I don't think I'm meant to take this seriously, because the comedy is in the journey, not the destination.

My secret weapon tonight was 2 strong beers, I figured if I could get just a little drunk - not enough to fall asleep, just enough to get tipsy - maybe I could turn off the rational part of my brain that would say, "Hey, wait, peanut butter wasn't invented in 1865, so that joke can't work..." and just relax and try to enjoy the film, not take things so seriously.  For the most part that seemed to work, though when a film relies on a burro with massive diarrhea for its gags, you get the feeling that maybe someone's not exactly swinging for the fences.

It takes the first hour of the film to assemble the team, which makes you wonder exactly how much time these guys have to save their father, and whether there actually is a deadline in the first place.  Once joined together as a unit, the brothers then have to figure out the location of their father's "biggest score", which is where the gang is heading.  Meanwhile they also have to defeat the "eyepatch gang" which is trailing them and trying to get a piece of the action for themselves.  Then they score some more money by ripping off a poker game played by some famous historical figures.

They even have time to play the first game of baseball with Abner Doubleday, who seems to be making up the rules as he goes along, all of which are to his benefit.  This might have been the funniest part of the film, especially if you ever wondered who stole the first base or why we have the infield fly rule to begin with. I think this sequence sort of saved the film for me, it was certainly funnier than watching Mark Twain using hip-hop type slang or hearing General Custer make a reference to the film "Home Alone".

The other reason for watching this film was that it somehow appeared near the top of IMDB's ratings on the list of films with 2016 release dates.  I can only assume that Sandler fans voted en masse to influence the scores.  But it was also one of Netflix's most popular films when first released, and again, I think the numbers are skewed there because people could ONLY see it on Netflix, so since the American movie-watching public is currently engaged in a turf war between the various streaming services, I think that as the options for watching certain films get narrower, the ratings are going to be affected by the exclusivity, now and again.  For me personally, with more options open to me now (Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention Academy screeners), that manages to make things both easier and harder.  I can track down more films this way, but this often makes it more difficult to know what to watch next, and also what's going to be available to me in the future, and on which platform to view it.

Also starring Terry Crews (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2"), Jorge Garcia, Taylor Lautner (last seen in "Grown Ups 2"), Rob Schneider (also carrying over from "You Don't Mess with the Zohan"), Luke Wilson (last seen in "Concussion"), Will Forte (last seen in "Keanu"), Steve Zahn (last heard in "The Good Dinosaur'), Harvey Keitel (last seen in "Red Dragon"), Nick Nolte (last seen in "Run All Night"), Jon Lovitz (last seen in "Mother's Day"), Whitney Cummings, David Spade (last seen in "The Do-Over"), Nick Swardson (also carrying over from "You Don't Mess with the Zohan"), John Turturro (ditto), Danny Trejo (last seen in "Planet Terror"), Blake Shelton (last heard in "The Angry Birds Movie"), Vanilla Ice, Julia Jones (last seen in "Jonah Hex"), Lavell Crawford (last seen in "American Ultra"), Steve Buscemi (last seen in "28 Days"), Chris Parnell (last heard in "Hotel Transylvania 2"), Jackie Sandler (last seen in "The Do-Over"), Jared Sandler (ditto), Julia Vera, with cameos from Norm MacDonald (last seen in "Grown Ups"), Dan Patrick (last seen in "The Do-Over"), Chris Kattan (last heard in "Hotel Transylvania 2"), Blake Clark (last seen in "St. Elmo's Fire"), John Farley, Tim Herlihy and the voice of Robin Leach.

RATING: 4 out of 10 sacks of flour