Category Archives: Film and Television

I’m Not Even Supposed to be Here Today…

Quick Stop convenience store at 58 Leonard Avenue in Leonardo, New Jersey. Famous filming location/setting for Kevin Smith’s 1994 indie breakout hit Clerks.

Rough Night: A Morally-Bankrupt Comedy

When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!

Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.

In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.

I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.

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Alien: Covenant – A Messy Prequel-Sequel

Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.

So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.

Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.

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Unsolved Mysteries was Terrifying

This program is about unsolved mysteries. Whenever possible, the actual family members and police officials have participated in re-creating the events. What you are about to see is not a news broadcast.

From 1987 to 1997, Unsolved Mysteries was the scariest thing on television. My parents wouldn’t let me watch it as a kid, so I had to sneak over to a friend’s house after dinner on Wednesday evenings. The format was simple. Each episode featured interviews and reenactments about two or three mysteries involving missing persons, lost loves, unsolved murders, alternative history, and occasionally something supernatural. My favorite episodes featured ghost stories, of course, particularly Chicago’s Resurrection Mary.

It aired on NBC from 1987 to 1997 before being canceled due to declining popularity. CBS picked it up from 1997 to 1999, Lifetime from 2001 to 2002, and Spike TV from 2008 to 2010. None of these continuations had the raw, spine-tingling impact of the original. The show was interactive–featuring a tip line where viewers could call in with information on the cases. Sometimes these tips helped solve the mystery.

Robert Stack (1919-2003), from Los Angeles, California, hosted the show from 1987 until 2002, when he fell ill. Stack was a veteran actor of more than 40 feature films and numerous TV shows with a characteristically deep voice. Stack’s voice, together with the show’s theme music, were genuinely terrifying. To this day, there’s nothing like it on television. What happened? Actor Dennis Farina took over as host on Spike TV, but it just wasn’t the same.

The Founder

The Founder (2016) stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who took a local California fast food restaurant called McDonald’s and turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar empire. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also directed Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Blind Side (2009).

Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines, where I grew up. I passed by the old McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never knew the story of how McDonald’s got its start. Ray Kroc himself was responsible for much of the popular mythology behind the company’s founding. His claim of being “the founder,” despite his first McDonald’s restaurant actually being the ninth, was so ostentatious, it turned out to be the perfect title for a film about his life.

The film charts Ray Kroc’s rise from struggling milkshake salesman to restaurant/real estate mogul, his tumultuous relationship with the McDonald brothers and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and his unshakable faith in persistence. The movie’s first half tells the inspiring story of how Kroc turns around his business prospects despite daunting odds. The second half shows him screwing over everyone who helped him along the way, even stealing a restaurant owner’s wife.

The Founder is historically accurate, for the most part. Some of Kroc’s relationships are simplified for the sake of plot, including omitting a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, the restaurant owner’s wife. In real life, Joan was not actually married to the restaurant owner as the film depicts, but to another man who became a manager at McDonald’s. It also omits Ray’s daughter, Marilyn.

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War Machine

War Machine (2017) stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. It is a savage parody of General Stanley McChrystal and the U.S. and Coalition War in Afghanistan, based on The Operators (2012) by Michael Hastings, a sleazy reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed. Hastings’ hit piece on General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to his resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and retirement from the Army in 2010.

The film opens as hard-fighting General Glen McMahon arrives in Afghanistan to whip things into shape and finally win the war. The narrator tells us General McMahon is a soldier’s soldier, a West Point and Ranger School graduate who eats once a day, gets four hours of sleep a night, and runs seven miles every morning.

His staff includes a civilian press adviser, Matt Little (Topher Grace), X.O. Colonel Cory Staggart (John Magaro), Major General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), “tech whiz” Andy Moon (RJ Cyler), Navy Seal Major Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), Admiral Simon Ball (Daniel Betts), and Sergeant Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen). Together, they believe they can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

General McMahon quickly learns he’s up against some tougher opponents than the Taliban, including obstinate government officials, reluctant NATO allies, and a hostile press. Even U.S. soldiers, given voice by Marine Corporal Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield), are skeptical of their mission and its chances for success. McMahon must use unconventional tactics and the force of his personality to fully implement his grand plan for victory.

In the military, commanders are given a high degree of discretion over their troops. They are accustomed to getting what they want and not hearing the word “no.” Like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain says in the movie Gettysburg (1993), there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield. So it’s easy to see how frustrated generals can be when constantly butting heads with civilian authorities who think they know the general’s job better than he does. War Machine artfully and humorously depicts this situation.

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