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Artemis Fowl

When COVID-19 hit and movie theaters shut down, studios had to make a decision about what to do with movies that were scheduled for summer release. Disney decided to push back several of their theatrical releases including “Black Widow” and “Soul.”

They did announce that one large-budget movie — costing $125 million to make — would be not be released in theaters and instead would come straight to their streaming platform Disney+. Studio acted like they were being gracious by releasing “Artemis Foul” online to stream, especially considering the new service has been light on new, exclusive, original content. “The Mandalorian” is great but the rest of the original content on the site is quickly thrown together reality-based shows and docu-series.

Turns out Disney wasn’t doing us a favor by releasing “Artemis Fowl” on their streaming service. They were dumping a stinker to avoid the embarrassment of a box office dud. Even if there were no virus to harm movie theater sales, “Artemis Fowl” is a disaster of a franchise starter. A joyless CGI-spectacle that crams an entire sci-fi/fantasy novel into 90 minutes, leaving us with a very confusing plot and characters we just don’t care about.

It would be a cliche “dad joke” to say in jest that: “‘Artemis Fowl’ is truly fowl” but this movie is so bad that it deserves such an unoriginal insult. A lazy insult for a lazy movie.

“Artemis Fowl” is based on a 2001 young adult novel by an Irish author and was immediately optioned to become a film series, likely another “Harry Potter” but with a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. It tells the story of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who kidnaps a fairy.

The movie was in production hell and kept changing writers and directors. Eventually Kenneth Branagh, the acclaimed Shakespearean actor/director took a stab at it, following up his other big CGI productions such as “Thor” and “Cinderella.” (He’s much better at Shakespeare, by the way).

Now I haven’t read the books (I was a senior in high school when this came out) but apparently this film version is not very faithful, turning Artemis Fowl from a criminal mastermind to just a really smart kid who wants to save his dad. They removed any anti-hero element in this adaptation. Colin Ferrell plays his father and apparently he was just added in reshoots and they completely changed the plot.

I don’t like to criticize child actors but Ferdia Shaw doesn’t come off as promising, but it’s not really his fault given the awful screenplay. Josh Gad, more of a veteran of Disney fare such as “Frozen” and the “Beauty and the Beast” live action remake, does a better job at elevating a weak script and provides some mild comedic relief (although he’s not in it enough). Judi Dench looks like David Bowie with a strange hairstyle in the movie.

The story itself is pretty nonsensical and they try to help you follow along with endless exposition and characters repeating things that were just said. It’s as if the focus group told people they found the story confusing so they just added bad writing.

I think the real problem with the plot is that the movie is only an hour and a half long and that might seem merciful for such a bad movie, but perhaps a few extra minutes to build the world and flesh out the characters would have helped. Maybe. I’m not sure, but it’s possible.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t have to drive a pack of kids to the movie theater and pay an insane amount of money to sit through this stinker. I watched it at home while I did other things. My investment is low and so the bar was set pretty low. But even then I really can’t say I enjoyed watching this one. If it’s just to entertain the kids for 90 minutes, you can put on a much better that you all can enjoy (try “Onward”). If you’re just putting on background noise while you organize your sock drawer, then just watch that episode of “The Office” for the umpteenth time. If you were a huge fan of the books, my guess you’ll be disappointed. It’s not the worst movie ever made but just one you don’t need to waste your time watching.

Who knows. Maybe “Artemis Fowl” will follow the path of “The Golden Compass,” “Lemony Snicket” or “Percy Jackson” and earn a streaming-platform reboot in the form of a TV series rather than a movie (“Percy Jackson” series was announced for Disney+ after the two failed film adaptations).

In the end, “Artemis Fowl” joins a long list of failed YA-novel adaptations that were trying to be the next “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” or “The Hobbit.” It joins the likes of the three I already mentioned, along with “Ender’s Game,” “Mortal Instruments” and “Beautiful Creatures.” Even the franchises of “Divergent” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” started to lose their appeal in later entries.

There are nine books to mine material from and so this is a movie yearning for a sequel. But to do that would truly be fowl (sorry).

Becky

★★★1/2

I’m not gonna lie, after the last week or so we’ve all endured it was therapeutic watching a 13-year-old girl straight merc a quartet of neo-Nazis.

“Becky” (available on VOD as of Friday, June 5) focuses on our titular heroine (Lulu Wilson) who’s just recently lost her Mother to cancer. Her father, Jeff (Joel McHale), is moving on from their mutual loss faster than Becky would like. He’s dating Kayla (Amanda Brugel of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and has invited she and her son, Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe), to spend the weekend at their lake house where he intends to propose marriage.

Jeff’s plans become derailed when Becky gets bummed by these developments and bails to her fort in the woods. Matters are further complicated when a stranger named Dominick (Kevin James) shows up to their front door claiming to have lost his dog. Dominick’s intentions become clearer when he begins disparaging the mixed race couple – he’s the leader of a hate group who’s escaped from prison and is currently looking for a key within the house that’ll grant him access to the movie’s McGuffin. Dominick’s crew comprised of Apex, Cole and Hammond (Robert Maillet, Ryan McDonald and James McDougall, respectively) join him in holding the burgeoning family hostage. Their only hope for survival and/or rescue is Becky.

Wilson does an admirable job in the titular role, but isn’t given much to play aside from sadness and anger. McHale is much more earnest here than I’ve seen him before. The real headline-grabber is “The King of Queens” himself going full-on Paul Blatzi: Neo-Nazi. I’ve always thought of James as the poor man’s Chris Farley, but he proves himself to be both adept and threatening in a serious role. I wish writers Nick Morris and Ruckus (Awesome name!) and Layne Skye gave James more scenery to chew, but it’s fun to see the comedic actor dismantle his nice guy image.

The actor who impressed me most was Maillet, a giant of a man whose height is listed anywhere between 6’ 10” and 7’ 00”. Audiences will likely remember Maillet from his days wrestling as Kurrgan in the WWE or a fight sequence against Robert Downey Jr. in “Sherlock Holmes.” Apex is a horrendous human being, but Maillet convincingly conveys decency and regret that serve in stark contrast to the character’s abhorrent actions.

“Becky” has often been referred to as a Hard R “Home Alone.” There’s merit in that comparison, but the movie this most reminded me of is Steven C. Miller’s “The Aggression Scale” from 2012. That was a good flick; “Becky” is a better one. It’s lean (93 minutes) and mean (there’s eye trauma reminiscent of Eli Roth’s “Hostel”). That said, it’s also capital “S” sleazy. I dug it enough that I plan to backtrack and check out directorial duo Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s previous efforts, the Elijah Wood/Rainn Wilson horror-comedy “Cooties” and Dave Bautista actioneer “Bushwick.”

The Last Days of American Crime

★1/2

“The Last Days of American Crime” (now available on Netflix) is exactly the sort of movie you’d expect a dude named Olivier Megaton to direct. That is to say … it’s a lot.

Megaton is a disciple of French action maestro Luc Besson who previously directed “Transporter 3,” “Colombiana,” “Taken 2” and “Taken 3.” When your best film to date is “Taken 3” you might as well tackle a two and a half hour crime epic, no? The basis of “American Crime” is a graphic novel by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini. This story could’ve been easily told in two hours or less, but Megaton’s maxing out in masturbatory mode.

“American Crime” takes place in Detroit (with Johannesburg doubling for filming) in 2025. Society is doing away with police forces in favor of the American Peace Initiative, which will send a signal to the human brain that will prevent people from perpetrating crimes.

In the week leading up to API’s launch, career criminal Graham Bricke (Édgar Ramírez) is pitched one last score by Kevin Cash (Michael Pitt). Cash did time with Bricke’s brother, Rory (Daniel Fox, who I didn’t buy as Ramírez’s sibling for a single second), who committed suicide behind bars. Cash suggests that the heist would be an upturned middle finger to the system that did Rory in. Along for the ride is Cash’s fiancé, Shelby Dupree (Anna Brewster), a hacker with issues of her own resulting from tussling with the FBI. Investigating the trio is William Sawyer (Sharlto Copley), a cop who wants to get his last licks in before being rendered irrelevant by API.

Ramírez is a talented actor who received glowing notices in the titular role of Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos.” I mostly think of him as a performer who often excels in works of mediocrity – Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us from Evil” is a textbook example of this trend. Ramírez is a good-looking cat and a captivating on screen presence, but he’s given absolutely nothing to sink his teeth into here. Bricke is dull as a brick.

Pitt is an actor I’ve admired in numerous projects over the years – Larry Clark’s “Bully,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” Michael Haneke’s second go-around with “Funny Games” and the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” He’s absolutely bonkers as Cash in “American Crime.” This is mega-acting that would make even Nic Cage blush. I haven’t seen a performance this BIG and weird in a mainstream movie since Eddie Redmayne raspily scream-whispered his way through “Jupiter Ascending.” I respect Pitt for taking big swings here and when he connects it’s captivating, but when he misses it’s a whale of a whiff.

Brewster cuts the lithe figure prominent amongst female protagonists in Besson’s work. She does fine work as Dupree, but the role as written is horribly misogynistic. Dupree’s introduced to the film by having sex with Bricke in a bar bathroom. He notices bruising on her neck, which she shrugs off saying, “I deserve them.” Heroin is forcibly shot into our heroine’s arm by a captor, she’s rescued by Bricke, goes into withdrawal, hurls from her heron hangover and seconds later sucks face with our hero. Cash at one point tells Bricke, “You can have the bitch,” which decidedly objectifies this poor woman.

Copley has been known to be a bit of a ham himself (see Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium”). He leaves all the hot-dogging to Pitt and is saddled with an absolute nothingburger of a role. I suspect Copley was already in Joburg, it was only a few days of filming and the coin sounded cool.

“The Last Days of American Crime” wants so desperately to be edgy, but mostly it seems like Megaton consulted with a 12-year-old boy regarding what’d be rad. (“You want Cash to drive a chrome Hummer? You got it!”) He distilled the youngster’s ideas through a middle-aged man’s sensibilities and some shoddy, digital, televisual cinematography courtesy of “High School Musical 2” lenser Daniel Aranyó to deliver an inaction flick where action doesn’t occur until 85 minutes in. If Megaton wanted to be edgy making a movie about how law enforcement deals with the populace there’s plenty of material out there … he simply needed to dig beneath the surface.   

Shirley

★★★1/2

I’m probably the least qualified person to write a review of director Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” a biographical drama about renowned horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), which debuts on Hulu and VOD Friday, June 5. 

I’ve never read any of Jackson’s work. I’ve seen both versions of “The Haunting” (1963 and 1999), but haven’t watched a single episode of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” I haven’t seen any of Decker’s other movies, but have heard good things about “Madeline’s Madeline.” I haven’t read Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name upon which the film is based. I know Moss more from her movie roles (“The Invisible Man,” “The Kitchen,” “Us”) than I do her highly acclaimed television turns (“Top of the Lake” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”). I’ve only seen one episode of “Mad Men” – Jared Harris whooped Vincent Kartheiser’s ass on it.

It’s the early 1950s in North Bennington, Vt. Fred (Logan Lerman, late of Amazon Prime’s “Hunters”) and Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”) are a pair of newlyweds who are staying with Professor Stanley Hyman (ace character actor Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, the titular Shirley. Fred is working as an assistant to Stanley at Bennington College in hopes of securing a tenured position. Meanwhile Rose is roped into indentured servitude in Stanley and Shirley’s home working as maid, housekeeper and cook despite being with child.

Stanley and Shirley are horrible people. Stanley is a pretentious philanderer looking to squash his protégé’s aspirations. Shirley is an agoraphobic with a penchant for insults. Sitting down for the first meal Rose has prepared, Shirley calls her a slut and makes assertions about she and Fred having had a shotgun wedding. In spite of this, the two women strike up an unlikely friendship … possibly due to a lack of other options.

Much of the movie’s acclaim has been heaped upon Moss and her performance. She’s good as she reliably is per my limited sample size. This lady plays mania exceedingly well. The performance that most impressed me however was that of Young. She’s the actual lead of the movie and undergoes the greatest change. Young was impressive in “Assassination Nation,” one of my favorite films of 2018. She’s even better holding her own here against acting heavyweights such as Moss and Stuhlbarg. Speaking of Stuhlbarg, he’s deliciously douche-y as Stanley. I wanted to bust his Hyman in the face. He’s like the evil flip side of Stuhlbarg’s “Call Me by Your Name” role. Lerman isn’t given nearly as much to chew on, but you see the beginnings of academicians’ and husbands’ worst traits in his performance. 

“Shirley” connected with me … more on an intellectual level as opposed to an emotional one. It’s fascinating and well-made. I ignorantly expected “Shirley” to have more of a horror bent to it, while it’s actually more of a domestic drama. In the end, it’s a portrait of two couples who ultimately interestingly mirror one another.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

For today’s audiences, a story about an every-day man struggling with alcoholism might feel like an after school special. It’s a subplot in a network soap opera, not meaty enough to carry an entire film script.

But in 1945, the issue of alcohol addiction had not truly been explored on screen in an honest way. Director Billy Wilder, known for films like “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Sabrina,” and “Some Like it Hot,” was inspired to adapt Charles R. Jackson’s novel after Wilder’s co-writer on “Double Indemnity” began drinking heavily during the work on that film.

Wilder wanted to make a realistic movie that didn’t exaggerate but also didn’t downplay the dangers of alcoholism. He wanted almost a documentary feel and insisted that the movie be shot on locations instead of built sets in order to add realism. He actually filmed inside the Bellevue Hospital which was never allowed before or since.

The movie’s story revolves around a writer played by Ray Milland, who won Best Actor for his performance. He’s supposed to go away for a long weekend with his brother to celebrate his ten days sobriety. He convinces his brother and girlfriend to go see a concert together while he relaxes by himself and writes. He promises he’ll make their 6 p.m. train. They search his apartment for booze and find none and they know he has no money so they agree to the deal. He finds $10 hidden in a tea pot that was meant for the housekeeper and he snatches it to buy two pints of rye whiskey and uses the change to buy a few shots at the local bar. Even the bartender knows he needs to slow down his drinking. His plan is to bring the bottles on the trip, not that he actually needs them but having them nearby makes him feel safe and secure.

Well, obviously he gets wasted out of his mind and misses the 6 p.m. train and the weekend turns into a sloppy drunk blackout. He begins to recall how he met his girlfriend, played by Jane Wyman, who was once married to Ronald Reagan in real life, and the movie goes back and forth between flashbacks and current day. By Saturday, he’s broke and begging for booze. By Sunday, he wakes up in rehab and the staff informs him he’s going to get the DT’s and see little animals as hallucinations.

“You know that stuff about pink elephants? That’s the bunk,” the orderly tells him. “It’s little animals! Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the keyholes. See that guy over there? With him it’s beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending but it’s pretty powerful.

The musical score by Miklós Rózsa makes extensive use of the theremin, an instrument that gives that eerie, wobbly sound that you might have heard in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Throughout his career, Rózsa earned 17 Oscar nominations and won three times for Spellbound (the same year as “The Lost Weekend”), “A Double Life” in 1947 and Ben-Hur in 1959.

“The Lost Weekend” is also famous for being the first movie to show the montage of a man walking slowly toward the camera as neon-signs float eerily around him to show that he’s been wandering the streets for bar after bar. That’s been parodied many times (see the “Futurama” image below) and it started with this movie. That’s where it comes from.

Interesting enough, the liquor industry at the time launched a campaign to undermine the film even before its release, even hiring mobster Frank Costello to offer to buy the movie for $5 million to burn the prints. The industry claimed that the movie would hurt sales of alcohol or could even lead to calls to bring back prohibition.

All in all, “The Lost Weekend” is a historic film and — when watched by today’s audiences — a very good movie but maybe not a great one. It hasn’t aged as well as Wilder’s other classics. The screenplay is top notch with witty dialogue and great quotable lines. Milland doesn’t have the charisma of William Holden or Jack Lemmon but he’s capable in the role. The story itself meanders and stretches believability at times. It seems to repeat itself without reaching a proper boil at the right time. But despite these minor criticisms it’s still very good. Maybe not in my top 200 movies of all time, but I can’t quibble with its win for Best Picture in 1945.

I’m No Longer Here

★★★★

“I’m No Longer Here,” which won the Golden Pyramid Best Film and Best Actor prizes at the Cairo International Film Festival and was a selection of the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, made its debut on Netflix Wednesday, May 27.

The film tells the story of Ulises (newcomer Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño), a 17-year-old boy living in Monterrey, Mexico. Ulises is the leader of Los Terkos, a youthful street gang in the area. Ulises and his crew don’t engage in criminality so much as they dance to cumbia (Definition per Wikipedia: “a broad genre of popular music that originated among Afro-Colombian populations in the Caribbean of Colombia, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in El Salvador, the Andean region and Argentina.”), drink and do drugs. The young men in Los Terkos sport baggy threads and funky hairdos.

Things are going swimmingly enough for Ulises until a fateful day when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and observes a gangland massacre. The attack’s lone survivor thinks Ulises set them up. The perpetrators want to eradicate the sole eyewitness. Ulises leaves his friends and family behind and flees to the New York City neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens.

Ulises isn’t welcomed with open arms to the United States. He’s mocked and ultimately physically attacked by his room and workmates for the way he looks and the music to which he listens. He tries to kick up some scratch by dancing to cumbia in the subway, but is accosted by crazies and hassled by police for permits. Ulises does occasional odd jobs for an elderly bodega owner and begins squatting on the shopkeeper’s roof unbeknownst to him. It’s here that he meets Lin (Angelina Chen), the old man’s 16-year-old granddaughter. She takes an immediate liking to Ulises, but he’s ultimately more of a cultural curiosity than a friend.

Treviño impresses in his acting debut. He brings great vulnerability to the role. His Ulises overcomes a huge hurdle in being immensely likable despite me hating the way he looks. Ulises’ haircut is the worst ‘do committed to film since Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker’s doo-doo ‘dos in Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element.” I had to laugh when Ulises’ bullies made a crack about him looking like he was from “Dragon Ball Z” despite it being unkind.

“I’m No Longer Here” is written and directed by Fernando Frias, who helmed all six episodes of Fred Armisen’s HBO series “Los Espookys.” It’s not an especially flashy movie, but it’s a sensitive and attractive one. The shot compositions dreamed up by cinematographer Damián García, who lensed much of Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” are highly evocative of place and feeling. The filmmakers let the dance sequences breathe, which allows the craft to come to the forefront. This isn’t an overtly political film, but it certainly makes a clear-cut case for asylum and acceptance.  

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!” — Norma Desmond

Right now, the movie industry might be undergoing a metamorphosis. Due to COVID-19, the theater-going experience is endangered and more and more movies will go straight to streaming services and rentals from home. Sitting in a theater on opening night as a crowd of people laugh and cheer might become a thing of the past.

Hollywood has seen seismic shifts before and every time there’s always a relic of the past that gets left behind. A part of the world that is unable to adapt to changing times.

Maybe the biggest change came with the invention of “talkies.” Silent film stars who made obscene fortunes on a weekly basis were suddenly out of work. Some adapted. Charlie Chaplin made a few sound films and was even nominated for an Oscar. Others became reclusive. They became hermits, alcoholics and addicts. Some had mental health problems and some committed suicide.

They love you one day. The next day you’re forgotten. That’s Hollywood.

No movie has captured this reality truer than Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard.”

This film noir classic tells the story of an out-of-work screenwriter played by William Holden who stumbles upon the mansion of Norma Desmond, a long forgotten silent film star that is in such denial about the world passing her by. Silent film actress Gloria Swanson — who had a similar stint of fame but actually handled the transition well by just moving to TV shows and plays — creates one of the most fascinating characters in movie history. She’s almost a monster with her clingy behavior and treatments meant to keep her looking young. When Holden enters her gothic mansion, which has been quiet for some years, Desmond is almost like Dracula, a seductive parasite who plans to suck the youth of this unsuspecting chap. “Sunset Boulevard” is not just a film noir classic, but it’s also a horror film and, at times, a dark comedy.

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors and he certainly is underrated. He won Best Director and Best Picture twice for “The Long Weekend” and “The Apartment,” along with several awards for screenwriting. He also made “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Sabrina,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Fortune Cookie.” He eschewed the visual flair of Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock and the politics of Frank Capra. Instead he was interested in human emotions. He wasn’t afraid to cast against type, giving lovable TV star (and the Absent-Minded Professor) Fred MacMurray the chance to play despicable characters. Most of all, he was a witty writer who know how to craft some of the most famous lines in cinematic history.

“Sunset Boulevard” ends with one of the most famous quotes in all of movies: “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” In case you haven’t seen this one, I don’t want to give too much context to spoil the ending. But it’s the perfect way to finish the movie.

Setting is important to Wilder in “Sunset Boulevard.” He takes sunny Los Angeles and still gives it the grim look of a film noir classic and obviously you can see how David Lynch was inspired for his own movie “Mulholland Drive.” Norma Desmond’s mansion is perfectly ugly inside and every detail has been considered.

Wilder nails the casting too. He wanted an actual silent film star for the role and he considered Greta Garbo and Mae West. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were considered for Holden’s part.

Some turned down the role because they were offended by a romantic relationship between an older woman with a man half her age. Others thought it made Hollywood look bad.

Gloria Swanson didn’t want to submit to a screen test, saying she had “made 20 films for Paramount. Why do they want me to audition?” They worked that into the movie and Norma Desmond says, “Without me there wouldn’t be any Paramount.”

Holden was fairly unknown, having just served in World War II. After the movie, he teamed up with Wilder again for “Stalag 17” and won a Best Actor award.

Erich von Stroheim, who actually directed Swanson in some silent films, plays her loving man-servant Max. His Austrian accent makes him seem like the Igor to her monster. He slinks around the shadows like The Phantom of the Opera.

“Sunset Boulevard” is pretty dark when you consider when it came out. It hold the mirror up to Hollywood in a gruesome way that still packs a punch 70 years later.

“Sunset Boulevard” ranked 16th in the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movies ever and it certainly deserves it. It’s available to stream for free if you have an Amazon Prime subscription.

Best Picture Catchup: Marty, In The Heat Of The Night, Terms of Endearment, The Last Emperor

Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.

I decided to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services.

I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997. After four weeks, I’ve added 16 movies to my list, making my new count 60 out of 70 movies.

I think I’ve added a new favorite movie this week and I discovered that 1967 might have been the best year for movies ever. Enjoy!

Marty (1955)

I understand why I didn’t see “Marty” before I did. Ernest Borgnine is not an actor with star power among today’s audiences. The movie poster looks corny (he’s smoking a cigarette and has a smile like Groucho Marx). And it’s not a movie that most people talk about or reference. It’s not like other older movies like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane” where the imprint on cultural consciousness has been made.
But what “Marty” lacks in fame it makes up for in emotion and true acting. It’s a sad but sweet story of a lonely man played by Borgnine in a role that won him the Oscar. He’s in his mid thirties and he lives with his mother still. His brothers and sisters have gotten married but he hasn’t met the right girl and he starts to wonder if he’ll ever meet her. His mom keeps asking, “When are you going to get married?” to the point where he responds in angry tears that he’s an ugly man and no woman wants to date him. While watching this, my heart sank. We’re so used to seeing confident leading men in old movies, so to see someone with their insecurities laid bare like that took me by surprise. Borgnine’s character goes out with his friends one night and he meets a shy plain jane named Clara. She’s a girl who doesn’t consider herself attractive (and Marty’s friends don’t think so either) but he’s smitten with her. She’s nice and smart and sensitive and she believes in him when he talks about his dream to buy his boss’s butcher shop. Marty is on cloud nine and you think they’re going to race toward a happy ending until Marty’s traditional Italian mother starts to worry about her son leaving her and she begins to guilt him and try to break up his relationship. His friends — jealous that he wasn’t hanging out with them — start to trash the girl too. Although, his friends are pretty terrible to him and only seem to use him as a wingman to occupy the female friends of their dates so they can try to get some action themselves.
In the end, Marty stands up for himself and it reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time, another Best Picture winner five years later: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” In that story, Jack Lemmon plays a lonely bachelor who keeps getting kicked around in life and is unlucky in love. Finally, he stands up for himself and takes control of his life.
I don’t want to get too personal, but I’m going to share a little about my own life and why I really connected to both “Marty” and “The Apartment.”
I’m now 36 years old and I’ll have been married for three years when Labor Day weekend rolls around. My wife and I dated for a year before getting married, so I was in my early 30s when I found the right girl. Now, that doesn’t seem too late in life, but I will say dating in your late twenties is not as fun as dating in your early twenties. You start to get frustrated at the bad dates. You start to get down on yourself. You see all of your friends get married and have kids and you wonder if it’s just luck or if you’re doing something wrong. In the movie, when Marty kept being asked by his family or friends when he was going to get married, any single person in their 30s knows what that feels like. It gets annoying.

Here’s the dialogue between Marty and his mother that just broke my heart and I think won Borgnine the Oscar.

“Marty: Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man’s life when he’s gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased after enough girls in my life. I-I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more. I just called up a girl this afternoon, and I got a real brush-off, boy! I figured I was past the point of being hurt, but that hurt. Some stupid woman who I didn’t even want to call up. She gave me the brush. No, Ma, I don’t wanna go to Stardust Ballroom because all that ever happened to me there was girls made me feel like I was a-a-a bug. I got feelings, you know. I-I had enough pain. No thanks, Ma!
Mrs. Pilletti: You’re gonna die without a son.
Marty: So I’ll die without a son.
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty, put on the blue suit, huh?
Marty: Blue suit, gray suit, I’m just a fat, little man. A fat ugly man.
Mrs. Pilletti: You not ugly.
Marty: I’m ugly, I’m ugly, I’m ugly!
Mrs. Pilletti: Marty –
Marty: Ma, leave me alone. Ma, whaddaya want from me? Whaddaya want from me? I’m miserable enough as it is. All right, so I’ll go to the Stardust Ballroom. I’ll put on a blue suit, and I’ll go. And you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache. A big night of heartache.”

If you wondered who wrote this great script it’s Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright and screenwriter who is responsible for one of the best movie scripts ever: “Network.” This movie started off as a made for TV movie but was redid for theaters with a new cast.
The female lead is an actress you might not have seen before. Betsy Blair was married to famed dancer/actor Gene Kelly but her acting career was stalled when she was blacklisted for holding left wing views and attempting to join the Communist Party. She was only cast in “Marty” — for which she earned an Oscar nomination — because her husband threatened the studio that he wouldn’t appear in the film “It’s Always Fair Weather.” I wonder about all of the great acting performances we missed out on due to the Hollywood Blacklist.
It’s hard to say if “Marty” deserved to win Best Picture that year because, if I’m being honest, I have not seen any of the other films I noticed were nominated. The other Best Picture nominees were “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” “Mister Roberts,” “Picnic” and “The Rose Tattoo.” Honestly, I had not even heard of these movies before. Perusing the movies that came out that year, I suppose “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Man With the Golden Arm” or “Blackboard Jungle” could have been contenders. My favorite movie that came out in 1955 was “To Catch a Thief,” a terrific Alfred Hitchock movie. But my guess is “Marty” was the best choice.

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

This is a great movie, but let’s get this out of the way: I’m not sure it should have won Best Picture that year. “In the Heat of the Night” is a tense crime thriller with great performances by Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier but the 40th Academy Awards might go down as one of the best years in movie history. Here were the other nominees for Best Picture that year: “The Graduate,” “Bonnie & Clyde,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Doctor Dolittle.” Disregard that last nomination for a minute (I’m not a big musical person) and that’s a list of some of the best movies ever made. In addition, there were some other awesome movies that did not get Best Picture nominations that year: “Cool Hand Luke,” “In Cold Blood,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “Barefoot in the Park.” So to say that “In the Heat of the Night” isn’t as good as some of those other movies is no knock against it. That’s a killer year for movies.
If you aren’t familiar with the flick, “In the Heat of the Night” is the story of a black homicide detective who helps a slightly prejudiced small town Southern police officer solve a mysterious murder. It has one of the most famous lines in movie history when Poitier exclaims, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” and that actually became the name for a sequel they made. The crime itself is pretty much by the numbers and the mystery unravels like an episode of “Columbo.” It feels like a TV procedural at times which is why it isn’t surprising that it did become a TV series in the 1980s. But what makes this movie excel is the acting of Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor that year and Poitier, surprisingly, was not nominated for this movie or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” that year. Kind of a snub, but at least he had already become the first black male actor to win an Oscar back in 1963 with “Lilies of the Field.” If you’re going to make a list of the best actors of all time, Poitier makes that list. If you make a list of best black actors ever, he’s at the very top. No competition. Maybe Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Mahersala Ali and Viola Davis make the top five, but Poitier is at the very top.
My favorite scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” might be toward the end when the two men are drinking scotch and talking to each other honestly and candidly about their lives. They say so much with just their facial expressions and pauses between words. It elevates the entire preceding movies.
Interesting cameo in this move: Scott Wilson, who you might recognize as a old man Hershel Greene in “The Walking Dead” TV series (he passed away two years ago in real life), plays a man who was initially suspected of the murder. It’s weird to see him as a young man but the voice is unmistakable.

The Last Emperor (1987)

Right before I watched “The Last Emperor” for the first time, I watched another one of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s movies for the first time as well: “Last Tango in Paris.” It’s a controversial art film in mostly French starring Marlon Brando as a widower who has a purely carnal relationship with a woman he barely knows. It’s sexual and disturbing at times (I wouldn’t want to hear the words, “Pass the butter” after this movie) but Brando’s acting and Bertolucci’s direction turned it into a masterpiece of sorts. More than a decade later, the Italian director won an Oscar for “The Last Emperor” an epic historic biopic that still feels artistic and intimate even with its grand scale.
It’s the story of the last emperor of China based on his book and after reading the Wikipedia entry about him he’s certainly worth a movie. He became emperor at an insanely young age and was isolated from the world. He breast fed until he was eight years old and they had to force his wet nurse out of the Forbidden City. He adored Western culture and his tutor (played by Peter O’Toole in the movie) opens his eyes to the rest of the world. He talks about running away and going to Oxford. Eventually, China becomes a republic and the emperor is no more. Despite never wanting to be emperor originally, he begins to miss the power and he gets into bed with Japan who manipulates him and installs him as a puppet emperor of Manchuria. Eventually he serves 10 years in a prison camp for war crimes and the movie jumps back and forth a bit.
It’s a beautifully shot movie with great acting and impressive sets. It really was shot in the Forbidden City in China and it was the first Western movie to do so. The first 90 minutes is filled with gorgeous shots of the palace and the movie begins to drag when it leaves the city. I’m amazed at the access that the Chinese government gave this filmmaker, especially when you consider this is not a propaganda piece for the Chinese. It shares the good and the bad about Chinese history. It doesn’t smear Mao or the emperor but it shares some truths. Some things are cleaned up though. The emperor was cruel and sadistic as a youth, forcing the eunuchs in his palace to be flogged for his amusement. The movie touches on that when he asks a eunuch to drink ink for his entertainment but it’s downplayed quite a bit. The producer recalled the approval process for the screenplay with the Chinese government: “It was less difficult than working with the studio system. They made script notes and made references to change some of the names, then the stamp went on and the door opened and we came.”
It’s an amazing achievement for film and I think it was deserving of the Best Picture. The other nominees were “Fatal Attraction,” “Broadcast News,” “Hope & Glory” and “Moonstruck.” Given those choices, they made the right decision. Although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, my choice for that year would have been Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I wasn’t a big fan of this one. I like Shirley MacLaine a lot. Like I said before, I love the movie “The Apartment” and she’s the female lead in that one and she’s settled nicely into a sassy old lady role. She was great in Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” and her appearance on “Downton Abbey.” Jack Nicholson might be in my top 5 favorite actors of all time and he oozes charisma in this movie. Both of them won Oscars deservedly for this movie and John Lithgow earns a nomination too (I’ve been a fan of his for years as well). I think my problem is with Debra Winger. She’s a good actress, but I just don’t like her. Apparently her directors and co-stars feel the same way and she’s a difficult actress to work with which is why despite two Oscar nominations in the 1980s her career sputtered to a stop. Her character isn’t extremely likable and she doesn’t help the cause much. What’s interesting is the amazing chemistry between her and MacLaine despite the fact that they hated each other in real life (MacLaine seemed to love the fact that she took the Best Actress Oscar from Winger who was also nominated).
There’s some good things about this movie. The scenes between MacLaine and Nicholson are classic and you almost wish there were more of them in the movie. The ending is a cliche tear jerker but it’s effective.
I think my problem with this movie is that it’s just an adequately made romantic comedy with a cancer twist at the end (I’m sorry to spoil it for anyone). It just feels like the Oscar bait moments are shoved in at the end and it doesn’t earn its pathos.
I also got annoyed at how repetitive the score was. The same music played over and over in every scene I felt like I fell asleep with the DVD menu on and the music was on a loop.
I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the film work of James L. Brooks who won Best Director for this one. He is a TV pioneer, having created the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Lou Grant” and “Taxi” and being a founding producer on “The Simpsons.” But when it comes to films he can’t seem to break from the romantic comedies. I genuinely like “As Good as it Gets” but I’m in the minority it seems when it comes to not caring for “Spanglish.”
I didn’t hate “Terms of Endearment” but it’s not one of my favorite movies. Should it have won Best Picture? I might have picked “The Right Stuff” that year.

Debt Collectors

★★1/2

Yeah, I’m pretty much the President of The Scott Adkins Fan Club … to the point where a buddy of mine recently joked on Facebook that we, “should just bone and get that shit over with.” For those not in the know, Adkins is an English martial artist who stars in a whole slew of direct-to-video action movies. Adkins’ latest effort, “Debt Collectors,” a sequel to his 2018 vehicle “The Debt Collector,” released on DVD on Tuesday, May 26. For the time being it appears to only be available via Redbox (fitting for the current king of DTV action), but per Amazon it will be available for purchase on Tuesday, June 2. The movie’s Facebook page also says it’ll be available to rent on VOD Friday, May 29.

It’s kinda strange that a sequel to “The Debt Collector” even exists as (spoiler!) its protagonists for all intents and purposes died at the first picture’s conclusion. This is all written away – French (Adkins) escaped with two bullets in his chest in a coupe belonging to Sue (Louis Mandylor, whom my wife excitedly recognized as Carl, Joey’s “twin” on “Friends”). Sue died twice on the operating table, but was ultimately revived.

The duo’s reunited seven months after their near-death experience when Sue appears at the bar where French is working as a bouncer. Sue is looking to recruit French to assist him in making three collections. Before Sue can even make the offer, French is fired for his latest roughing up of ruffians. Hard up, French accepts the opportunity. Their targets are: Mal Reese (Marina Sirtis of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), a Las Vegas club owner who used to make time with Sue; Esteban Madrid (Cuete Yeska), the thuggish proprietor of a boxing gym and Cyrus (Vernon Wells AKA Bennett from “Commando”!), the owner of a motorcycle garage. These folks took out loans from Barbosa (Tony Todd), who was dispatched in “The Debt Collector.” Barbosa’s brother, Molly X (Ski Carr), holds French and Sue responsible, so he forces their handler, Tommy (Vladimir Kulich, the Russian gangster Denzel clipped at the end of “The Equalizer”), to put them on the case in hopes that he’ll get paid and they’ll get laid to rest.

There’s as much good about “Debt Collectors” as there is bad. As much as I love Adkins, these movies actually belong to Mandylor. He kinda reads like Mickey Rourke prior to all the plastic surgery. His Sue is the emotional center of these pictures and he’s simply much cooler and more substantial than Adkins’ French. In the flick’s best scene Sue and French duke it out with one another. The fight stands toe-to-toe with the skirmish between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David in “They Live” both in brutality and duration. This isn’t subtle stuff – the two begin scrapping in front of a dumpster after French concludes that Sue’s been lying to him – the dumpster has the word “Gaslighter” graffitied on it.

As for the bad, Carr doesn’t have nearly the presence Todd did in the big bad role. Go figure, a dude who made his bones as a dancer on “Soul Train” doesn’t have the gravitas of Candyman. The concluding shootout is also sort of a joke. Everyone’s in Tommy’s club, which reads like it’s 20 feet by 20 feet, and yet the gunfight goes on forever. Stuntman-turned-director Jesse V. Johnson employs the same coupla shots of Molly X’s henchwoman, Felix (first-time actress Charity Collins), firing machine pistols and loading then unloading a grenade launcher all the while annoyingly/hilariously exclaiming variations on a similar line, e.g. “Take this, bitch!,” “Take this, mf’er!” Budget and good sense be damned!

“Debt Collectors,” also known abroad as “The Debt Collector 2,” “Payback” and my personal favorite the Japanese variant, “2 Bad Buddies” (this is commonplace for low-budget genre fare such as this), is the sixth collaboration between Johnson and Adkins. It’s a lesser work for them. I greatly preferred “The Debt Collector,” “Savage Dog,” “Triple Threat” and “Avengement” (these are all available for streaming on Netflix). Their only joint effort I enjoyed less was “Accident Man.” Rumor has it “Debt Collectors” will be available on Netflix in three months … I don’t think audiences would be delinquent in waiting until then.

The Lovebirds

★★★1/2

“The Lovebirds,” which was originally supposed to premiere at SXSW on Saturday, Mar. 14 before opening theatrically Friday, Apr. 3, made its debut on Netflix Friday, May 22.

Directed by Michael Showalter (best known for being a member of comedy troupes The State and Stella, starring in “Wet Hot American Summer” and for directing 2017’s “The Big Sick”) and scribed by actors-turned-screenwriters Aaron Abrams and Brendan Gall, “The Lovebirds” focuses upon Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae). Jibran is a documentarian; Leilani an advertising executive. We see the couple fall in love, flash forward four years and watch as they’re on the precipice of breaking up.

The couple is en route to a dinner party with her friends. The barbs between them grow sharper as each mile passes. When their fight reaches its apex, Jibran suddenly strikes a bicyclist (Nicholas X. Parsons) with their vehicle. The bicyclist is OK and in a hurry to get the hell outta there. Another man (skilled character actor Paul Sparks) opens the driver’s side door, claims to be a police officer, tells Jibran to hop in the back seat, gets in the driver’s seat and is in hot pursuit of the bicyclist. The man eventually catches up with the bicyclist and runs him over … repeatedly. As quickly as he got in the car the man gets out and splits. 

Jibran and Leilani, worried that they’re gonna get fingered for the murder, flee the scene. They put their differences aside to investigate the crime and clear their names. Their investigation leads them to interrogate a frat boy named Steve (talented actor and comedian Moses Storm) and as quickly as you can say, “Fidelio,” to an “Eyes Wide Shut”-esque orgy.

I enjoyed “The Lovebirds” a good deal, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Showalter and Nanjiani’s accomplished previous collaboration, “The Big Sick.” The movie starts strongly and maintains this momentum until its halfway point where it begins to drag a bit … this is an issue for a flick that runs a scant 87 minutes. In spite of the sluggishness, Nanjiani and Rae are funny and charming enough to carry the picture to its conclusion.

I was more familiar with Nanjiani coming into the film than I was with Rae. I knew Rae more by reputation than repertoire. I’ve heard many good things about her HBO series “Insecure,” and found her hilarious calling out perceived racism and sexism while announcing the Academy Award nominations with John Cho earlier this year. Nanjiani is good here – Rae is better. She’s an attractive and humorous presence. She even gets the movie’s best and funniest line quoting the commercial slogan of a popular breakfast product.

Somewhat reminiscent of other romantic action comedies such as “Date Night” or “Game Night” wherein couples have a crazy evening that brings them closer together, “The Lovebirds” is better than the former and worse than the latter. It’s much funnier and saltier than “Date Night,” but lacks the flash and panache of “Game Night.” So far as mindless weekend entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse than “The Lovebirds.”