Thursday, November 26, 2015


It’s Thanksgiving and there is quite a lot to be thankful for from this year’s films. In fact, appropriate for today, here are 26 of them:

1.) The Best Actress race this year is plentiful. With esteemed names like Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Charlotte Rampling, Charlize Theron, Carey Mulligan and Maggie Smith are all in the mix, as it's clearly been a banner year for female leads.

2.) Alicia Vikander should be on that short list for “Ex Machina”, but no matter, she was a virtual unknown a year ago, and now she’s one of Hollywood’s breakout stars of 2015. And she's considered the supporting actress frontrunner for her role in "The Danish Girl" which opens wide this weekend.

3.) Speaking of “Ex Machina”, writer/director Alex Garland’s sci-fi three-hander garnered great reviews and box office.

4.) So did “The Martian”, and it proves audiences will line up at the Cineplex for sci-fi, even if there are no drooling aliens or toy chains come to life in it.

5.) Jennifer Lawrence was picked by Entertainment Weekly as their “2015 Entertainer of the Year” and she truly is the biggest, most reliable and endlessly exhilarating talent onscreen these days. And she’s pretty darn hilarious off-screen with her candor, self-deprecation, and friendship with Amy Schumer.

6.) And speaking of Amy Schumer, the brilliant comic became a big movie star this year with her funny and touching turn as both actress and writer of “Trainwreck.”

7.) “Inside Out” was one of Pixar/Disney’s best ever animated features. And to think it’s about what goes on in the brain of a young girl borders on the miraculous from sexist Hollywood.

Original caricature of Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS. (copyright 2015)
8.) Johnny Depp returned to greatness with his villainous turn in “Black Mass.”

9.) George Miller aced the reboot of “Mad Max.”

10.) The ubiquitous Tom Hardy shone bright four times this year, in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Revenant” and twice, playing the notorious Kray twins in “Legend.”

11.) Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was the best action hero this year.

12.) Truth is stranger than fiction and often more dramatic too. Look at all the heralded films based on true stories – “Spotlight”, “Trumbo”, “The Danish Girl”, “The Big Short” …and those are films that just opened in November!

13.) James Bond may be 50 but with the success of “Spectre”, we’ll be seeing a lot more of 007. (And likely, Daniel Craig too, despite rumblings of retirement.)

14.) The Academy’s Governor Awards went to the legendary Debbie Reynolds, Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee. Bravo! (Next year, how about honoring Catherine Deneuve, Donald Sutherland and Kurt Russell?)

Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee
15.) And Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands gave great speeches too. Too bad Reynolds was sick. She would’ve been something accepting her lifetime Oscar for sure.

16.) Chris Pratt lived up to all his hype after last year's "Guardians of the Galaxy." He was the best thing in "Jurassic World."

17.) The horror genre shone bright with the excellent “It Follows”, “The Gift” and “The Green Inferno.”

18.) Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and starred in the aforementioned "The Gift" and excelled in "Black Mass" too. What a year he had!

19.) The ever-versatile Rose Byrne made even her wigs funny in this summer’s hit comedy “Spy.”

20.) Despite being a box office bust, the brilliant summer film “Love & Mercy” is likely to make Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks strong contenders for supporting acting awards this season.

21.) Eddie Redmayne broke the sophomore curse after winning the Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” last year with a sure-to-be-nominated performance this year for “The Danish Girl.”

22.) And composer Alexandre Desplat finally won gold, after eight nominations, with his whimsical, yet haunting score for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

23.) “Bridge of Spies” was brilliant. So was “Steve Jobs”, even if the former is making money and the latter isn’t. And there was so much brilliance in the effects in “The Walk”, it literally took your breath away.

24.) John Williams was finally chosen as an AFI Lifetime Achievement recipient and is the first below-the-line talent ever to be named. Bravo, maestro!

25.) Oscar Isaac’s star continues to rise this year on film (“Ex Machina”) and TV (“Show Me a Hero” on HBO), and it’s only going to be more prominent with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

26.) And indeed, the return of “Star Wars” is a big Christmas gift for film fans everywhere. It’s already breaking early box office receipts. Now, let’s hope it’s more “Empire Strikes Back” than any of Anakin’s backstory.

The force has really been with movies this year in a lot of significant ways, both critically and financially. Hopefully, Tinsel Town will keep up the terrific output, especially in making smaller and more adult-focused films that give us more and more reasons to go to the Cineplex, and not just stay home and binge-watch Netflix. Thankful indeed, all movie fans should be this Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


Original caricature by Jeff York of Daniel Craig as James Bond 007. (copyright 2011)
SPECTRE, the new James Bond movie that opened November 6 in the United States, is on track to make $74 million this weekend. Despite star Daniel Craig’s stated desire to not do another Bond, he’s probably apt to return to the series after another big success such as this. Still, his secret agent does rather definitively drive off into the sunset at the end of the picture, in an Aston Martin db5 no less, so perhaps his days as 007 are indeed over. So where does the franchise go from here? Is it as simple as finding a new lead?

There are a number of talents being bandied about as potentially the next super agent man. Popular actors from the UK like Idris Elba, Tom Hardy and Damian Lewis are getting a lot of chatter online for being in the running. Australian Hugh Jackman has expressed interest in taking a crack at the British spy role. And some fans even feel that it’s time for a Jane Bond with someone like superstar Angelina Jolie filling the role. But is there a larger change that could truly give the series a whole new lease on life?

What if the Bond franchise went back to its origins - the Ian Fleming books from the 1950’s? That’s right, give it a true reboot, a start over, a 2.0 that’s actually more like a prototype. It could be just what the series needs for a plethora of good reasons. Here are five of them:

Most of the original stories haven’t been dramatized

Early on, the Bond movies were adapted from their source material. However, when Roger Moore took over the role, the films were often quite different from what Fleming penned. A few used a book’s name and little else. A VIEW TO A KILL  has little to do with the Bond tale From A View To A Kill except for its title. The original story there is about a motorcycle dispatch-rider, not pirating Silicon Valley. If STAR TREK and SPIDER-MAN can completely start over from scratch with their origins story, why can’t Bond? He already did in CASINO ROYALE with Craig's Bond earning his Double O status. So if there are so many original Fleming stories that really haven't been put on the big screen, how hard would it be to start over there? 

It would distinguish Bond from other franchises

Over the years, a number of film franchises have not only imitated Bond, but they’ve trumped him in many ways. The Jason Bourne films, the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies, the FAST AND FURIOUS sagas – they all owe a lot to the man with a license to kill. And in many ways they equal if not surpass the action that Bond laid the groundwork for in the early 60’s. And there are lots of TV series dabbling in the spy game too and giving it much more heft than Bond. Shows like HOMELAND immediately spring to mind, and this year, the new series BLINDSPOT and QUANTICO are venturing into such territory too. 

And let’s face it, when SPECTRE starts paying homage to James Bond’s greatest bits from other movies, the blurring of lines and franchises has become all too cannibalizing. When Christoph Waltz’s bad guy in SPECTRE shows up with a nasty scar slice across his face it gets a few unintentional laughs from the audience because it’s all too reminiscent of the comical Dr. Evil character from the AUSTIN POWERS series that lampooned Blofeld. Perhaps it's time for Bond to move away from the modern mimics.

The Cold War has come back

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has become a big threat to the world and America seems to be inching towards another Cold War with his country with every new day. Wouldn’t Bond’s battles during the original Cold War in the 50’s and 60’s be perfect to revisit, not only because they're his origins but because they'd be relevant to today? And since every period piece is always a commentary on our modern world anyway, it would be perfect to go back to the future with Bond.

He'd be the gentleman spy once again

Compared to most of the other Bonds, Daniel Craig’s take was much more brutal, even thuggish. There’s not a lot of the gentleman spy informing his performance the way it did those of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. If the producers wanted to move away from Craig’s take on the role, and have the next Bond truly feel different, they could go back to the Cold War around the mid-20th century when a more gentlemanly Bond would have been in vogue. Tom Hiddleston is one actor who could do that version of the spy, don't you think?

It would simplify things

With every new film, and there have been 24 official Bond films in the franchise now, the demand for bigger stunts, more gadgets and pricier locations has come close to taking over the stories. Product placement doesn’t help either as it too is a major distraction. The original Bond stories didn’t have all the electronics and modern world accoutrement obviously, and that would probably be a good thing for the series which often feels bloated. Bond needs to be more of a spy anyway, and that means more espionage and less humongous set pieces. It's great to see him take down buildings and such with his theatrics but what if his work was more secretive? Isn't that what a spy is supposed to be? It was in those Cold War days.

If the franchise stays modern, Bond will likely thrive. And if the producers pick the right actor, then most of the worry is over. But frankly, for all the exquisite brilliance of CASINO ROYALE and SKYFALL, the other two Craig movies didn’t live up to them. QUANTUM OF SOLACE is considered a low water mark in the franchise, and it’s too early to tell how SPECTRE will live in the pantheon, but with some like Fortune magazine calling it "the worst Bond in 30 years", it would seem that Bond is still very hit or miss aesthetically, even though it reaps in millions and millions at the box office. That alone suggests that narratively, Bond needs to be on firmer ground. The original Fleming books would be a marvelous way to keep the character planted firmly. And the myriad of existing stories not tapped would give the producers films for a least another decade.

Such a bold, but frankly obvious move, would be a no-brainer for Bond. The X-Men franchise's success in going back in time with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST should encourage the Bond franchise to follow suit. And the franchise should never just be about recasting anyway. Even with all the expectations we all have for the series, good stories are paramount, but that hasn't always been the case. 

And Bond needs really good enemies to make the stories have resonance too. We know he's going to survive so there has to be something significant at stake. Wouldn't the fate of the world during the atomic age in the mid-20th century be a perfect place to land? Audiences have seen Bond tussle with plenty of megalomaniacs over the past few decades. Going back to post-WWII, when the West didn’t know for sure who are friends were, even if they were our allies, would give the films a great jolt of energy and some real edge. In fact, such tropes would likely leave movie audiences much more shaken and very well stirred. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015


Halloween is merely a week away, so of course TV and the Cineplex are inundated with all kinds of delights for boys and ghouls. One of the best offerings, that has just premiered on VOD this weekend, is an animated version of five Edgar Allan Poe stories called EXTRAORDINARY TALES. Poe’s work is always extraordinary, and so is this collection of small films.

Adapting Poe to the screen is challenging for filmmakers, and their work has always been very hit or miss. Roger Corman did an admirable job putting THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER up on the big screen in the 1960’s, but his version of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is best forgotten. Few have tried to adapt Poe since, most likely due to the difficulty of making his dreamlike narratives and metaphorical characters seem three-dimensional onscreen. But animation doesn’t need to stay tethered to any form of reality, and that gives the medium plenty of license to play with Poe via scale, composition and extravagance.

For example, the first extraordinary tale is “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and the animators render it with designs that could never be achieved in reality. Creating hallways as wide and long as football fields would look well, cartoonish in reality, but here such exaggeration plays sublimely. The illustrations turn the house into one ginormous tomb.

Indeed, the house of the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher is a character in the story, and its arc is the most dramatic. Thus, the animators have a field day rendering each crack, creak and crumble of the d├ęcor. The sound design complements it thoroughly and even the whistles of wind surging through the halls in the evening suggest mourning. Yet, despite such caricaturing, it plays fantastically. Who hasn’t read the story and envisioned a mansion as foreboding as this? It’s the perfect marriage of style and substance with Poe. Add into the mix, the droll and devilish narration of the late, great Sir Christopher Lee, and you’ve got the best short right at the start.

Some other celebrities pop up contributing voice narration throughout the remaining four.  “The Tell Tale Heart” uses an old radio recording of Bela Lugosi enacting the piece. It was recorded well over half a century ago, but Lugosi’s cryptic take on the young man’s story of murder and madness fits Poe’s words like a hand in a bloody glove. The animation here is sparse, drawn only in black and white. It may remind you some of Frank Miller’s drawings for Sin City. It gives this episode an appropriately nourish feel too.

The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro performs the vocals for the Spanish prisoner in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” If you think his inclusion is a bit of stunt casting, you’re correct. However, he’s actually a very good actor and gives the role a fitting machismo and urgency.

The look of “The Pit and the Pendulum” has a computer game feel to it and one would think animating rats and that horrible blade would have inspired the animators to go big and fantastical, but they don’t. Instead, they keep it real. In fact, the only real visual gimmick they employ is a split screen effect to create urgency as time is running out for the man pinned under the pendulum. It will remind of the TV series “24” and it was probably the intent of the cheeky animators here.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” isn’t quite the grabber that those other Poe stories are, but here it’s done well and deft as the shortest entry. Narrated intensely by Julian Sands, the look here vamps the EC comics of the 1950’s, and one of this segment’s charms is that the character of the mesmerist is drawn to look like Vincent Price. Price, as you’ll recall, starred in most of Corman’s big screen Poe adaptations in the sixties.

Corman’s best film was THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and to honor him, they cast the veteran filmmaker to voice the few lines of the story’s main character Prince Prospero. This short’s short on narration, and it’s the only quibble you could really have with it. The visuals are trying to speak a thousand words, but it could use some of Poe’s sinister editorializing on the upper class partying during a plague that is consuming the countryside.

 Still, the visuals here are the most stunning in the film. The characters are all tall, thin and move slowly, as if they don’t have a care in the world. Moving from one scene of debauchery to the next, we see gamblers, fornicators, and drunkards partying like they’ve got all the time in the world. When the Red Death shows up to make sure they’re all touched by the pox as well, he moves at the same gliding speed. It’s a fantastically fiendish visual joke. He’s just like them. And soon, they’ll be like him too.

The framing device that holds the five stories together is that of a talking raven visiting a grave site where he discusses Poe’s work with one of the statues. The statue is the Angel of Death, and she and the raven discuss Poe’s legacy as a writer, as well as the impact of various deaths on his life, like his mother’s when Poe was child, and his wife Virginia. It adds some smart context to Poe beyond what his stories say about the author. And the scenes are beautifully rendered by animated paper cut-outs that play like Poe’s pages come to life.

Triple threat Raul Garcia wrote, directed and co-produced this enchanting Halloween treat. And if his take on Poe doesn’t quite chill the blood as the author’s original prose did, well, that was probably a given going in. What wasn’t is how spectacularly successful this outing would be at bringing the lauded author’s stories to visual life. It stands as one of cinema’s best Poe adaptations. Five of them, actually. And in this season, that’s quite a trick.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


While a 70% fresh rating for CRIMSON PEAK over at is nothing to balk at, Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic horror love story is worthy of better reviews than it has gotten. And its $13.1 million box office it’s first weekend isn’t bad either, considering it opened against the child friendly frightener GOOSEBUMPS and Steven Spielberg’s latest BRIDGE OF SPIES not to mention STEVE JOBS opened wider last weekend too. No matter though, Hollywood insiders and pundits are already exclaiming CRIMSON PEAK flopped. So why did this incredibly produced and expertly acted thriller not pan out with critics or audiences enough?

Old school horror may be lost on today’s audiences

Almost any weekend that a horror film opens, it scores with young audiences and dominates the box office. CRIMSON PEAK did not. Is the fact that it’s a period piece just too foreign to most? Maybe it has less to do with the period of the late nineteenth century and more with how director del Toro presents it. The film has a classical feel to it, very Edgar Allan Poe, very Vincent Price in its way. Are refinement and diction, along with petticoats and cravats, lost on too many teens today? Likely, if they’re used to the contemporary and rougher horror styling of the handheld, “found footage” mockumentary sub-genre. CRIMSON PEAK is almost quaint in its way, which may simply play as way too sincere for 2015 cynicism.

It opened in the wrong month

What? How can October, the month of Halloween, be the wrong month for a horror movie? It can if there are too many other films demanding our attention, and let’s face it, autumn is now the Oscar season as serious-minded film after serious film opens. Granted, the production values in CRIMSON PEAK are award-worthy, but the horror genre has never been Oscar bait, so it gambled opening when it did against so many films in the race. Perhaps if it had opened in the dull dry months of August or early September CRIMSON PEAK could’ve reigned. But when big studio films like THE MARTIAN, BRIDGE OF SPIES and STEVE JOBS are getting all the talk and ink, as well as flocks of the movie-going public, it’s hard for its competitors to get noticed.

The trailers gave away too much

For decades now, trailers have been giving away too many of the best scenes in movies. It’s even worse in the coming attractions for the horror genre as some of the best “boo’s” are exposed, nullifying their visceral effect in the actual movie. The CRIMSON PEAK trailers and commercials on TV showed far too much of the ghosts and gave away a lot of the plot. Heck, even the bleeding snow was shown repeatedly, and that’s one of the best bits in the film. Did the ads for CRIMSON PEAK give audiences too much of a peak? Yes, and it’s a shame.

Entertainment is inundated with horror right now

You'd think that a big budget horror movie ($55 million) from a major studio known for horror (Universal) with a tony cast (Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska) would be a major event, right? Indeed, yet there is so much top drawer horror being done on TV these days that it may very well be stealing cinema’s thunder. AMERICAN HORROR STORY on FX just started its fifth season. That show’s creator Ryan Murphy also has a hit on Fox with his SCREAM QUEENS parody aimed at teens. And then there’s the sublime FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, now halfway thru its superb second season on the El Rey Network, shrewdly mixing tequila and Transylvania. Are audiences getting so many thrills and chills on weeknights that their weekends don’t need satiating? It would seem a strong possibility.

The scares aren't shocking enough

Shockingly, CRIMSON PEAK is rated R. There’s nothing in it that compares to the graphic and disturbing scenes on display in the premiere of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL a few weeks ago. Yes, CRIMSON PEAK has adult themes, but it’s scares are more Gorey than gory. Perhaps del Toro’s more sophisticated approach to the genre is not overt enough for the modern audience raised on SAW, HOSTEL and others. The best horror is driven by dread, not bloodletting, but most of the Hollywood product these days goes a lot farther than CRIMSON PEAK with its violence. This one may have almost seemed quaint in comparison.

If you haven’t seen CRIMSON PEAK, you shouldn’t let some of the negative buzz out there keep you away. It’s a superb thriller, expertly rendered in every way. It may not be as frightening as a lot of what’s on TV, but that shouldn’t keep horror fans from seeking out one of the year’s very best genre efforts.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Original caricature by Jeff York of John Williams (copyright 2015)

By now, every movie fan knows that John Williams was named the 44th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on Thursday, October 8. (I'm still celebrating it!) And most fans know the outstanding scores he wrote for such seminal classics as STAR WARS, JAWS, SUPERMAN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, HOME ALONE, the INDIANA JONES movies, as well as the first three HARRY POTTER films. But John Williams has been a major force in Hollywood for 60 years now and there are some fascinating facts about the brilliant composer that most fans are unaware of. Here are 10 that make his legend even more significant.

He was Johnny Williams when he first started in Hollywood

When John Towner Williams first came to Tinsel Town as an orchestrator and studio musician, he went by the moniker “Johnny Williams.” He was a big time jazz pianist and the more casual name suited the genre. He may have been classically trained at Julliard and the Eastmen School, but when he was first in the biz he went by a name less formal and far jazzier.

He played the opening riff for the PETER GUNN theme

Speaking of jazz, that’s Williams playing those famous opening bars for Henry Mancini’s composition for the Blake Edward TV series PETER GUNN (1958-1960). Williams did a lot of studio work then, playing his expert piano for other famed Hollywood composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein. Soon he would be their contemporary, but in his early Tinsel Town years, he was a sought after (ahem) “Gunn for hire.”

Williams wrote a number of TV theme songs

Did you know that Williams composed the underscore for the pilot episode of GILLIAN'S ISLAND? Even more importantly, Williams penned theme songs for 1960’s adventure series like TIME TUNNEL, LAND OF THE GIANTS and LOST IN SPACE. In fact, Williams wrote two theme songs for the show about the Robinson family. The first year’s theme was deemed too dark by CBS so Williams wrote a more upbeat second version. That sufficed for the show’s final two seasons.

Williams scored a lot of disaster films

Continuing his collaboration with Irwin Allen, the producer of LOST IN SPACE, TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS, Williams scored three seminal disaster films for him in the 1970’s. He scored THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO and received Oscar nominations for the first two. Before he was Steven Spielberg’s favorite composer, he was Allen’s.

His first Oscar was for adapting Broadway

Sure, he was Oscar nominated for his scores for VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969), but it was his adaptation of the Broadway hit FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 1971 that got him his first statue. Since then, Williams has gone on to win four other Oscars, along with 49 nominations in total. That’s an individual total second only to Walt Disney (56 nominations, 26 actual wins).

His CLOSE ENCOUNTERS theme was penned before filming

Spielberg needed Williams’ musical sequence for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND before filming as it would play such a large part in the filmed narrative. Hence, Williams wrote his simple but sublime five-not theme months before he wrote the rest of his score for the film.

He succeeded Arthur Fiedler as conductor of the Boston Pops

Fiedler was a legend, directing the most popular orchestra on the planet, and when he stepped down after almost 50 years as conductor, the Pops knew they needed another big name. They turned to John Williams in1980, an artist at the peak of his fame. He accepted and raised the Pops baton for 13 years.

NBC loves him

Not only has Williams written the theme for the NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, but he also wrote the “Olympic Fanfare” for NBC and the theme for NBC’S MEET THE PRESS.

His favorite score is a “close” call

Of all of his scores he wrote, his favorite is CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Williams described it as “…more than just Cellophane going through a projecting machine, it had a kind of life.” The AFI picked “Star Wars” but Williams liked another sci-fi theme better. 

Williams is the only below-the-line AF Lifetime recipient

Up until last week, the AFI had never awarded any talent who wasn’t a director, producer or actor. No screenwriter (unless they were also a director), no costume designer, no cinematographer, and no composer. Thus, the choice of Williams is significant on a number of levels. Like the criteria for the award, he is an artist who truly changed movies and whose work has stood the test of time. He’s also been a household name for five decades, so it’s long overdue. Still, with this huge, career-capping accolade, the AFI has finally evened the score.