‘Beetlejuice’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

Your enjoyment level for Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” is going to depend on how you feel about Burton as a director.  He is an eccentric director with a flair for style and bright, vivid colors.  However, in my view, I sometimes feel as though his characters and stories can distance themselves from audiences.  I realize he has many devoted fans and “Beetlejuice” is one of his most beloved films.  Whenever Halloween rolls around, I know it is a film which families sit around and watch together, even though there is an F-bomb and some odd innuendos which parents might find off putting to young children. As a first-time viewer of the film, I found I liked certain elements of it, but not nearly enough to recommend it or call it a Halloween classic.

One thing “Beetlejuice” definitely has going for it is the talents of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder.  Whenever they are on screen together, the film is really hitting the right notes.  The character of Beetlejuice, played by Michael Keaton, is barely in the film, which is odd considering he is displayed so prominently on the film’s poster and in its title.  It is more about the dilemma of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Davis and Baldwin) wanting to enjoy two weeks of a nice, quiet vacation at their Connecticut country home.  All of this is thrown for a loop when they get into a car accident and perish.

Now, they are ghosts that have returned to their home, only to find it has been taken over by the Deetz family, which includes Charles (Jeffrey Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara), and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), although the film is quick to point out that Delia is the stepmother of Lydia.  Delia has plans of her own for the house with the help of her interior designer, Otho, played by Glenn Shadix. The father, Charles, is looking to make a real estate deal with the property and its surrounding areas.  Lydia is suspicious of the place when she notices the ghosts of Barbara and Adam looming over the house.  Here is the catch—Lydia is the only one who is able to see or notice them.

Since Barbara and Adam want the Deetz family out of their home, they are desperate to come up with any solution.  They enlist the help of Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton), even though he comes with a lot of baggage, according to their afterlife caseworker, Juno (Sylvia Sidney). She is very familiar with all that comes with Beetlejuice and warns them to stay away from him.  In her mind, the best way to get this family out of the house is to find creative and simple ways to scare them into moving out.  When Barbara and Adam find this harder than they thought, they say the name Beetlejuice three times, and he appears ready and willing to help, as long as there is something in it for him.

The major problem with “Beetlejuice” is just that, Beetlejuice.  As an audience, are we supposed to like this guy?  He wants to get married to what we assume is an underage teenage girl.  He is very perverted around Barbara and is not all that funny or interesting. For the most part, as a viewer, I found him quite annoying on screen.  This is no fault of Keaton, as he is simply playing the character as best he can based on the screenplay he was given and the direction of Burton. Baldwin tries to carry the movie on his back along with the help of Davis, but their charms are not enough to make this film worthwhile.

It’s hard to deny the great make-up and special effects which are on display in “Beetlejuice.”  The concept for the film is rather creative as well.  The actors are ready and willing to do whatever they can to help the flick. However, because Beetlejuice is so obnoxious and the film is so over-the-top and filled with tricks, there is really no heart to the story.  It’s not scary or funny, so it fails as a horror/comedy.  It is nice to look at, filled with some clever scenes, and there is good acting on display.  In the end, this is not enough to save this film which relies too much on style instead of substance.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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4K Info: “Beetlejuice” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese. It has a running time of 92 minutes and is rated PG.  The film is presented in 2160 Ultra High Definition.  With 4K, you can’t help but be impressed by the HDR (High Dynamic Range), especially on a film like this.  It really stands out.

Video Info:  The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version.  The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.

Audio Info: The 4K Audio is Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish.  For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English 5.1, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Three Hilarious Episodes from the Animated “Beetlejuice” TV Series: “A-Ha!,” “Skeletons in the Closet,” and “Spooky-Boo-Tique.”

Theatrical Trailer

Danny Elfman Score Audio Track

Should You Buy It?

Much like my review of “The Goonies,” if you LOVE “Beetlejuice,” you will be very, very happy with the 4K update.  You might not be so happy with the lack of special features.  If they are going to upgrade a film to 4K, you would expect they would add some new special features which look back on the film.  This is not the case here.  If you are strictly in this for the visual and audio upgrades, you will get your money’s worth.  If you haven’t seen the film before and are not a Tim Burton fan, this film is not going to win you over. I would say rent it just to say you have checked it out as Halloween is fast approaching.

‘The Goonies’ Movie and 4K/Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent Tony Farinella.

This was my first viewing, ever, of “The Goonies,” which might sound almost sacrilegious to film fans that love this flick and have watched it numerous times.  To many, it is considered a classic film with quotable lines and loveable characters.  I went into the film with high expectations, and I’m sad to report that I left extremely disappointed.  The film is very dated, and it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. However, if you are a fan of the film and have been looking to an upgrade for a while, the 4K release from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment will certainly satisfy you.  For those, like myself, who are new to the film, I don’t know if it will win over any new fans.

The film was directed by veteran Richard Donner from a story by Steven Spielberg and a screenplay by Chris Columbus.  When you factor in a young cast which includes Josh Brolin, Sean Astin and Corey Feldman, all of the ingredients were there for an enjoyable film with a cast full of wacky characters. This is one of the major problems with the film—the characters.  They are loud, screechy and supremely annoying.  It is hard to get behind this rag-tag group of misfits in the same way you would get behind the Losers Club in “It” or the friends in “Stranger Things.”  The film doesn’t waste time in getting right into the action, which ensures the character development is left with a lot to be desired.

The premise of the film follows a group of friends known as The Goonies.  They consist of Sean Astin as Mikey; his brother Brand, played by Josh Brolin; Jeff Cohen as Chunk; Corey Feldman as Mouth; Jonathan Ke Huy Quan as Data along with their female counterparts in Kerri Green as Andy and Martha Plimpton as Stef. Judging by some of their names, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to piece together how they received their nicknames. They are about to lose their homes in the Goon Docks unless they can come up with some big money and fast.

This leads them on a treasure hunt to come up with a way to save their homes.  Hot on their tails, however, is a crime family known as the Fratellis: Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey), Jake Fratelli (Robert Davi), and Francis Fratelli (Joe Pantoliano).  They also have a deformed younger brother named Sloth (John Matuszak), whom is often neglected and mistreated by his family.  They are also looking to get some of the treasures on the ship, which used to belong to “One-Eyed Willy,” the original Goonie.

While “The Goonies” is never boring, and Donner keeps the action moving at a rapid-fire pace, at almost two hours, it feels like sensory overload.  As a viewer, I felt like I was on this never-ending mission that I didn’t really care about because I didn’t care for the characters.  They are likable when they are not screaming, shrieking or being completely over-the-top.  The film shines during the quieter and more tender moments. I was hoping the film would focus more on the friendships between the characters and the families.  The families are basically non-existent and played for laughs as clueless parents, which was a major problem with many young children’s/teenage films in the 1980’s.

In the end, if you enjoyed “The Goonies” in the past and it is a film you are known to watch over and over again, you will surely watch it over and over again on 4K as it looks out of this world.  If you are new to the film (in the minority like myself), I can’t really see you getting much out of this film as a first-time viewer.  Even though it is a children’s movie, I wouldn’t recommend it for young children today based on some of the language and innuendo.  While films and shows today owe a great deal of gratitude to “The Goonies,” it is very much a film of its era. I can’t say it holds up very well.

* * out of * * * *

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4K Info: “The Goonies” is released by Warner Brothers Home Entertainment on a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack, which comes with the Blu-Ray and a digital code. The film has a running time of 114 minutes, and it comes in the following languages: English, Latin Spanish, Canadian French, and Brazilian Portuguese.

Video Info:  The film comes on 2160 Ultra High Definition for the 4K Version.  The Blu-Ray comes in 1080p High Definition.

Audio Info: The 4K Audio is DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: French and Spanish.  For the Blu-Ray, it comes with Dolby TrueHD: English 5.1, Dolby Digital: English 5.1, English 2.0, French and Spanish. Subtitles for both versions are in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Commentary (with Hidden Video Treasures) by Richard Donner and select cast members.

The Making of the Goonies Featurette

Cyndi Lauper “The Goonies ‘r’ Good Enough” Music Video

Outtakes

Theatrical Trailer

My goal with this review was not to be a contrarian, but I realize I’m probably one of the few people in the world who is not in love with “The Goonies.” As mentioned, it had everything, on paper, I was looking for in a film like this.  All of the pieces just didn’t add up in the final product.  It was tough to finish this one, as even though the action is wall-to-wall, I found myself checking out of the story because of a lack of interest in the people involved in the action.  I’m glad to say I have seen it, so I can check it off my list of highly thought of films I need to see.  However, I can’t recommend this one as a purchase unless you absolutely love the film. You will be thrilled with the transfer, the 4K look of the film, which is beautiful, and the astounding high dynamic range that comes with 4K releases.  For everyone else, if you really want to see it, get it from your local library.

Jim Kirkwood, An Extraordinary Mentor to Many

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.

It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.

Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.

When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.

Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.

Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.

Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.

Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).

For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.

Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”

Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.

Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.

Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:

“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”

“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”

“I told you to pick up the pen!”

“I DID!”

“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”

“Fine!”

So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:

“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”

This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.

But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.

On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.

In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”

I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.

Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:

“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”

Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.

Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.

I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.

I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.

I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.

Gene Hackman and Anne Archer Cannot Save ‘Narrow Margin’

Narrow Margin” was released in 1990, back when movie remakes were as rare as people owning cell phones. Yes, it is a remake of the 1952 film noir “The Narrow Margin,” and it tells the tale of a Los Angeles deputy district attorney tasked with keeping a witness to a murder safe from a pair of hitmen as they travel through Canada in a train. What we have here is a movie with a terrific cast, some great stunts and sharp cinematography, but it also doesn’t have much of a brain in its head as the characters make one ridiculously stupid decision after another.

The movie starts with Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles where she has been set up on a blind date with a lawyer named Michael Tarlow (the late and still missed J.T. Walsh). Things go fine between them until Michael has to take a phone call in his hotel room and invites Carol along with him, not wanting to leave her alone. But then well-known gangster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) arrives along with his henchman Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) and doesn’t hesitate in accusing Michael of stealing money from him. Michael, overwhelmed by his guilt, confesses his crime to Leo who offers to forgive him, providing they never do business together again. But we all know that gangsters are not big on honesty, and Leo has Michael murdered right on the spot. But, of course, they have no idea Carol is hiding in the bathroom and has witnessed everything.

Like any person who knows how rich and crooked people get off too easy in the real world, Carol flees Los Angeles, and yet she is somehow easy to find as Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) and Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) come to find her hiding out in a remote cabin in Canada. And as you might expect, it doesn’t take long for these three to realize the gangsters have followed them as they were dumb enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in their path. Dominick is killed, and Robert and Carol escape onto a train headed for Vancouver. But, surprise, surprise, they are trailed by a pair of ridiculously well-dressed hitmen determined to take them out, and the movie turns into a cat and mouse thriller as Robert tries to keep Carol alive despite their dire and claustrophobic circumstances.

Now “Narrow Margin” does take place in a time where technology was nowhere near what it is today, but it is hard to believe even back then that a person could easily disappear without much of a trace. The fact these gangsters have little trouble in following Robert to where Carol is hiding out shows what terrible preparation he and Dominick put into finding and keeping her safe, and these guys are public servants for crying out loud!

Then there are the two hitmen played by Bennett and James Sikking, the latter I remember fondly as the Captain of the Excelsior in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” They come onto the scene dressed to the max in expensive suits and shiny ties which more than spell out to the audience they are bad guys on the prowl. I guess it is asking too much for these hitmen to dress like they are average passengers as doing so just might make them harder to detect. But no, these guys have to show to everyone just how rich and stylish assassins can be to where they are impossible to miss.

There is also the issue of those assassins failing to follow Hackman back to his cabin where they just might find Archer hiding. When you look closely at the screenplay, you will see it has plot holes Christopher Nolan could have flown that giant airplane from “Tenet” through. The characters keep making an endless number of idiotic mistakes, and it just drains much of the suspense and tension “Narrow Margin” hoped to have. There is also a character reveal towards the end, but you can see that one coming from a mile away.

It really is a shame because “Narrow Margin” has the benefit of two great actors headlining it. Gene Hackman is a lot of fun to watch in a role others would have played too broadly. He has a great scene where he faces off with the two hitmen and explains why he won’t accept a bribe to give up his witness. Hackman plays the scene in such a playfully devious way to where it serves as a reminder of why he is one of the best film actors ever. Put him in a bad movie, and he will still give a terrific performance in it no matter what.

Archer appeared in this movie not long after she co-starred in “Fatal Attraction,” a classic which had us all wondering why in the world would Michael Douglas cheat on her with Glenn Close. She makes Carol Hunnicut into a heroine who is both strong-willed and deeply vulnerable as she struggles to stay alive from one moment to the next. She also has strong chemistry with Hackman to where they make quite the team, and the fact they are unable to fully suspend your disbelief is not entirely their fault.

“Narrow Margin” was written, directed and photographer by Peter Hyams. One of his great strengths is in crafting action sequences which truly leave you on the edge of your seat. A car almost going over a cliff is a cliché used in many action movies, but Hyams makes it work to great effect here as watching it almost made my heart stop. There are also a number of great stunts performed on top of a moving train, many performed by the actors themselves. Hyams really knows how to keep audiences riveted to where it is almost worth watching this film just for the action sequences alone.

But in the end, “Narrow Margin” proves to be more laughable than exciting as the characters do far too many idiotic things we can all see right through. Its trailer made it look like a top-notch thriller you would be foolish to miss out on, but sadly this is not the case. When Hackman and Archer cannot save a movie with their strong performances, not much else can.

* * out of * * * *

‘Robin’s Wish’ Sets The Record Straight About The Late Mr. Williams

As with the deaths of Jim Henson, River Phoenix and Phil Hartman, Robin Williams’ hit me like a punch in the gut and left me speechless for a time. Here is a man whose work I had followed ever since I first saw him in Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” and we have always known his brain to work at 100 miles a minute. He was an extraordinary talent who kept us laughing hard as he managed to improvise routines out of what seemed like thin air. The fact we were now living in a world without him seems unreal even today, and there are times when I think August 11, 2014 should be designated as the day the laughter died.

Among the striking images shown in the first few minutes of “Robin’s Wish,” other than the beautiful vistas of San Francisco and Marin County, are images of newspapers, magazines and tabloid rags which pondered over why the Oscar-winning comedian committed suicide. Was it because he suddenly left a 12-step program where he was dealing with alcoholism? Was he in dire financial straits? Was he upset the show which marked his return to television, “The Crazy Ones,” was cancelled after only one season? Did he really never get over the death of John Belushi? Did all those years of drug and alcohol abuse finally catch up with him? In the wake of his passing there were many questions, and they eventually became rumors which spread like wildfires. As many sought to get to the truth, the rest of us felt so far removed from it.

The documentary “Robin’s Wish” is filmmaker Tylor Norwood’s attempt to set the record straight about what really happened to Robin Williams and why he died. It also serves as a deep examination of disease Lewy Body dementia (LBD) which may sound new, but has actually been around for many, many years. We also get a close and personal look at Robin’s last days before his tragic death, and it proves to be both very sad and yet hopeful all at the same time.

Instead of a full-fledged biography, Norwood looks specifically at Robin’s evolution as an actor and comedian. We see Robin talk about how the brain is “an extraordinary three-and-a-half-pound gland” and that he does not have an act as much as he does a “cesspool of consciousness.” He discusses his time at Julliard in New York where he got heavy duty training as an actor, and of how he left before he could have graduated and moved back to San Francisco to find acting work. When he couldn’t find any, he started doing stand up comedy in which he succeeded in, as one close friend put it, in “demolishing” every single audience he performed in front of. Back then, everyone was in awe of his talents as his mind moved at lightning speed, and this was only the beginning. Like them, we were in awe of what he could do.

Throughout, the documentary moves back and forth from his life to the subject of the LBD which, while it may pale in comparison to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or ALS, can be every bit as debilitating and deadly. UCSF Professor Bruce Miller is shown describing it as a devastating disease which is fast and progressive and a killer. It also increases mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, and paranoia and delusions are also major symptoms. There is no none cure for this disease as of yet, and it usually ends in suicide. But even worse, is often misdiagnosed.

Robin’s widow, Susan Schneider, did not have a name for what killed her husband until she read his autopsy report. Initially, Robin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but this was not the case. Susan says had Robin known what he was suffering from while he was alive, then he would have at least had some peace. As for Professor Miller, he described Robin’s case as being the most devastating case of LBD he had ever seen, and he was amazed the “Good Will Hunting” actor could move or walk at all.

As “Robin’s Wish” goes on, we see how LBD came to affect the actor long before he died, and it is devastating to witness the effect it had on his comedic gifts. Whether it was on the set of “The Crazy One” or the third “Night at the Museum” movie, he started to have trouble memorizing his lines and coming up with stuff to improvise. At one point, he tells someone how he is not himself anymore, and you feel his disassociation around everyone to an infinite degree. To realize you are not who you once were has got to be horrifying.

Learning about this mental disintegration from friends and colleagues such as Rick Overton, David E. Kelley and Shawn Levy helps to shed light on what Robin was going through as LBD was already taking its toll on him. To see someone lose gifts few are ever endowed with is painful, and it also reminded me of the last time he was a presenter at the Oscars. Whereas in the past he would come up with some hilarious thing to say or take aim at Jimmy Swaggart (“Remember, there is no such word as audit in the Bible, okay?”), he simply just listed the nominees and read the winner. Many wondered why he seemed so listless, and now we know.

Schneider deserves a lot of credit for being so open about Robin’s struggles as she still feels the pain of his death from day to day. The love they had for one another was very real, and we see the two of them at their wedding and in many pictures which illustrated just how close they were to one another. She also shares why the two of them had to sleep in separate beds at one point as Robin’s insomnia worsened to where he woke up at early hours and accidentally injured her.

“Robin’s Wish” does make a solid case for how serious a disease LBD is, and after watching the documentary there is no doubt this is what killed him. It makes clear what a wonderful soul he was as he took the time to meet with soldiers who were wounded, children who were sick and others who needed a laugh during a dark time in their lives. It also makes clear of the fact Robin was clean and sober at the time of his death. Drugs and alcohol did not rob us of him.

If there is anything I feel is left out here, it is the thoughts and feelings of others close to Robin such as his children or his ex-wife Marsha Garces whom he was married to for 20 years. Their absence here makes me wonder how they feel about all of this. Perhaps they were not invited to participate or chose not to. Even though this is not meant to be a full out biography of Robin Williams, it feels like some pieces are missing which would have made this portrait more complete.

“Robin’s Wish” is not the easiest documentary or movie to sit through as we know how it ends. The void the famous comedian and actor left in his wake is still deeply felt all these years later, and it is impossible not to feel bad for his closest friends. This is especially the case for the one friend who was informed of Robin’s death over the phone by a reporter who said he died by suicide. This is not the way to inform someone of their friend’s passing.

Nevertheless, as sad as “Robin’s Wish” may seem, it also filled with hope. As debilitating as LBD was for him, he fought it like a warrior even if he did not know exactly what he was fighting. We are also reminded of his perspective on life which he earned through a lot of life experiences and mistakes he learned from. To him, life was always about other people, and he simply wanted to make everyone feel less afraid. Norwood definitely finds the right note to end this documentary on as, while Robin may be gone, he shows we can still carry on his legacy from one generation to the next. No one who knew Robin Williams will ever forget the impact he had on others, and no one ever should.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to find out how you can donate to the Lewy Body Dementia Fund of the American Brain Foundation.

‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

Alejandro Iñárritu Takes Us Through The Brutal Wilderness in ‘The Revenant’

Alejandro Inarritu pushed cinematic boundaries in 2014 with “Birdman,” and now he did it again in 2015 with “The Revenant.” Based on the novel by Michael Punke, the movie transports us back to 1823 when frontiersmen and fur trappers traveled the states of Montana and South Dakota, and some of them soon came to discover just how unforgiving nature could be.

Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting party searching the land for animal pelts. In a seriously intense scene, Hugh ends up getting mauled by a bear to where he looks to be on the verge of breathing his last breath. One party member, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), becomes insistent on killing Hugh as dragging his seriously wounded body through the elements threatens to slow everyone down and put them all in the crosshairs of Indian tribes looking for revenge.

Fitzgerald ends up trying to smother Hugh to death, but he is interrupted by Hugh’s Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who calls out for help. But Fitzgerald, overwhelmed by a fear of dying, ends up stabbing Hawk to death and gets the rest of the group to leave Hugh for dead and move on to safer grounds. But despite being so mortally wounded, Hugh rises up and pursues Fitzgerald over thousands of miles as he is driven by an unshakable force known as vengeance.

Inarritu, along with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts us right in the middle of the action to where we, like the characters, never feel safe for a second. Arrows are flying everywhere and we are in an environment which we are not as familiar with as we would like to think, so the specter of death is always just around the corner.

What’s especially brilliant about “The Revenant” is how it captures both the beauty and unforgiving nature of the wilderness. The vistas captured are incredible to take in but this is also a movie you will want to put on a heavy coat while watching what Inarritu has caught on camera. The weather is so fierce here to where you can’t help but wonder how anyone could possibly survive it. Heck, I cannot help but wonder what watching it would be like in a 4DX theater. Could theater owners bring the temperature to subzero levels and provide audience members with parkas?

With “The Revenant,” DiCaprio finally nabbed the Best Actor Oscar which had eluded him. While I wished he had gotten his first one for his go-for-broke performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it seems very fitting he got it for a performance which has him suffering through the worst a human being could ever be forced to experience. In movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and even “The Basketball Diaries,” he has shown a fearlessness in delving into a character’s dark side or a part of them which can never be easily controlled.

DiCaprio makes you feel every ache, pain and broken bone Hugh experiences in his infinitely long journey. Much has been said about how incredibly difficult it was to make “The Revenant,” and it looks like few had it harder than this actor did. We watch DiCaprio traverse a viciously cold landscape while lacking the ability to talk, and he even resorts to an “Empire Strikes Back” form of survival by keeping warm in a dead animal’s carcass. DiCaprio has never been an actor to fake an emotion or deliver a moment less than truthfully, and he certainly doesn’t do that here.

Also excellent in “The Revenant” is Tom Hardy who, just like he did in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” portrays a character forced to survive in the harshest and most unforgiving of environments. Fitzgerald could have been just another one-dimensional villain in this movie, but Hardy imbues him with a wounded humanity that makes him far more lethal and frightening. Just watch the scene in which Hardy faces down the barrel of a gun and just try to think of another actor who could be as convincing as him in a moment like this.

Tremendous performances, amazing cinematography, the most vicious bear attack in recent cinematic history along with a haunting music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto help to make “The Revenant” one of the best and most unforgettable movies of 2015. Inarritu remains unwavering in his directorial vision and he has given us a movie that grabs you and never lets you go until the credits start rolling. While some motion pictures get overshadowed by their behind the scenes struggles, this one does not. Of course, this will not stop people from talking about the making of “The Revenant” for years to come.

Oh by the way, this movie is “inspired by true events.” This is much more honest and fitting than saying it is “based on a true story.”

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: When this movie was released, some were under the mistaken impression that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character got raped by a bear in one scene. This rumor ended up spreading like a wildfire, but anyone who has seen “The Revenant” can attest this is not what happened at all. DiCaprio gets attacked because he accidentally comes across some bear cubs, and this shows that you never ever mess with the mama bear.

Skylar Astin on Being the Moral Compass in ’21 & Over’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2013.

Skylar Astin has had the privilege of entertaining us onstage in the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” and onscreen in movies like “Hamlet 2” where he sang the song “Raped in the Face” and “Pitch Perfect” in which he appeared opposite Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Now he’s starring in “21 and Over,” the comedy which marks the directorial debut of “The Hangover” screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Astin plays Casey who quickly proves to be the moral compass the other main characters need to survive the mess they end up getting caught in.

I got to catch up with Astin while at the “21 and Over” press conference held at the Saddle Ranch Chop House off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Now when it comes to college comedies like this one, most actors would prefer to play the character who is wild and crazy and comes across as the life of the party. Casey, however, is exactly the opposite of that even though he gets into as much trouble as his friends do. Still, Astin saw the benefits of playing such a level headed and grounded character in this film.

Skylar Astin: “You’ve got to have a moral compass of the movie and you got to like steer the ship a little. It’s cool that we all got our opportunity to be funny though.”

One pivotal scene in “21 and Over” has Astin and his co-star Miles Teller walking around campus wearing nothing but a tube sock over their privates. Now this could not have been a very comfortable scene to do, especially when you have a lot of people on set looking at you and wondering how much time you spent at the gym. Astin talked in detail about he approached this scene in the film which was filmed in Seattle, Washington.

Skylar Astin: “Funny enough, it was supposed to be approached very delicately. We were told that it was going to be a closed set and that it was gonna be the warmest day of the shoot. It turns out that it’s freezing, everyone’s there, and actually at our first costume fitting they just had a sock and a little underneath sock to keep everything in place and they’re like ‘here’s your fitting!’ At first, we had a moment of where it was like fight or flight, and I think I was just like ‘let’s just do it man. We have to do it eventually.’ I just de-robed and was like this is everything I got. I don’t think I was like proud, but I just had to play the role of being okay with it. I had the idea of making the whole crew where just socks and they didn’t oblige, especially the women, but it worked out thankfully.”

In the film, Astin and Teller take their best friend from high school, Jeff Chang (played by Justin Chon), to celebrate his 21st birthday in an appropriately drunken style. Now the really good actors are able to draw on their own experiences when playing the role, and we couldn’t help but wonder if Astin has been through similar nights in his own life. It was actually a bit surprising to hear the similarities he shares with Casey.

Skylar Astin: “Personally for me, my younger brother is my best friend and my partner in crime and I’ve definitely had several nights that had the spirit of this movie. I’ve always been the one that has a good time, but at the end of the bender it’s like ‘both of our phones are dead and we both have to call our parents and tell them we’re alive.’ That’s kind of always been my responsibility so I can relate to the feeling of just being a little irritable on those nights but also letting loose and have a good time. There is a little bit of Casey in me, but I don’t think I’m as much of an over thinker though. I always try to draw from personal experiences and my own personality whenever I play a role, and it’s not hard to play a role that close to my age, close to home and in a movie that I would go see if I wasn’t in it.”

Working with two different directors on the same film must seem challenging as this is typically a one-person job. What if one director tells you to do one thing and the other director instructs you to do the exact opposite? Where do you draw the line? Astin, however, said both Lucas and Moore were on the same page as they had written the screenplay together and have been friends for many years. As a result, there was never any conflict between either of them.

Skylar Astin: “What they have in common is that they are both the writers so it comes directly from one vessel. That’s always really great as an actor to have that wealth of knowledge coming from two voices. For me, I loved the different kinds of conversations that I would have with each one. Since I had a love story on top of the funny moments, there were different kind of conversations like the leading man type of thing I would have with Moore and to be more sincere in certain moments, and then Lucas was great because he was giving me jokes every five minutes. So, I had this well-rounded voice coming from two different people. They worked together so well, and they almost know this age better than I do and I’m closer to it. It’s kind of crazy.”

For a film filled with such drunken debauchery as “21 and Over,” Skylar Astin proves to be the most well-rounded person these characters need to get them through the night. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

‘Burn After Reading’ – Another Darkly Comedic Film From the Coen Brothers

WRITER’S NOTE: Ralph Garman selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 14, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” It was an excellent selection on his part.

WOW! That was quick! Following Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, they gave us their follow-up of “Burn After Reading” a short later. Some filmmakers take their sweet time following up a cinematic triumph of theirs, but the Coens did not want to waste any time. This film follows the tradition of them making a movie which is the polar opposite of what they previously gave us. Most reviews at the time mentioned of how the Coens went from making “Fargo” to giving us “The Big Lebowski,” and how they went from “The Man Who Wasn’t There” to “Intolerable Cruelty.” With these brothers, it is always important to expect the unexpected because they are never out to do the same thing twice.

I’m not going to bother comparing “Burn After Reading” to “No Country for Old Men” because the only thing these two have in common is they were made by the same people. It’s like comparing the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” to Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” and this threatens to say more about the critic than it does about the films themselves. This particular one is more of a lightweight effort you could ever expect from the Coens, and it is a reminder of how hysterically dark their comedy can get.

“Burn After Reading” is a crazy movie to say the least, and it does not really have a plot as much as it does a plethora of characters who are unleashed on us through a selfish act of utter stupidity. As a result, there is no rug of any kind which can tie this room of a movie together. The main drive of the action comes from Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who discovers a disk at the gym he works at which contains classified information from a former CIA operative, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich). Along with his fellow co-worker, Linda Litzke (the always fantastic Frances McDormand), they both connive to act as “good Samaritans” and give the disk back to Osborne, providing he pays them several thousands of dollars as a reward. Naturally, this plan, which was not given much thought to begin with, goes awry and involves many others in this scheme, all of whom are never entirely sure of what they have gotten themselves into, or of whom they can trust.

Let’s look at the characters, shall we? Chad is a personal trainer at the Hardbodies gym who is, to put it mildly, rather dense and not playing with a full deck. His manager, Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins) doesn’t want to get involved in this blackmail plan, but he simultaneously has a huge unrequited crush on Linda, and she is upset because her insurance won’t cover the various forms of plastic surgery she wants to get. In the meantime, she is going through the motions of internet dating and ends up meeting Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). Harry is actually married and in the midst of an affair with Osborne’s wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), and she herself is planning to divorce her husband who is now in the midst of writing his memoirs. In the midst of all this, CIA Officer Palmer DeBakey Smith (David Rasche) reports to his superior (the priceless J.K. Simmons) of the goings on, and of the ways they are going to keep this all under wraps.

Are you with me so far? Clearly, this is a movie which will benefit from more than one viewing to keep up with everything. Like I said, there is no real plot to speak of, other than the blackmail of Osborne Cox. While in some movies this would be an Achilles heel, it works for the Coens as it allows you to keep guessing as to what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, it has another surprise up its sleeve. There were moments both funny and shocking, and I was eager to see what would happen next.

“Burn After Reading” combines a lot of actors the Coen brothers have worked with over the years like George Clooney and Frances McDormand, and they also got to add newcomers to their strange cinematic universe like John Malkovich and Brad Pitt. It’s a kick to see all these actors let their hair down in a film which was never meant to be taken seriously by anyone.

The most inspired performance in this movie comes from Pitt. Clean shaven, thin, buff, and an avid bicycle rider, his character is a hilarious creation of a physically fit moron who has no clear idea of just how in over his head he is. It was funniest performance since his ultimate stoner of a character, Floyd, in “True Romance.”

Another one who is a huge kick to watch here is Clooney as he blows away just every bit of coolness in his system to play an increasingly neurotic philanderer who is always on the verge of anaphylactic shock as he keeps warning everyone he hangs out with about his life-threatening allergies. To see Clooney let loose here is a reminder of how he constantly tries in real life to not take himself too seriously. It also makes you wonder if he and Swinton will ever be in a movie together where they play characters who have a healthy relationship with one another. Keep in mind, they previously appeared together in “Michael Clayton.”

It’s actually a shock to realize this is the first time Malkovich has ever worked with the Coen brothers. He lets it all out here as a CIA operative who quits his job after being demoted in part because of his drinking problem. To see this actor go completely nuts at all the complete idiots he has to deal with is such a hoot. Not many actors can play a character who is quick to absorb the situation they are in and yet still remain in the dark when it comes to the truth of the matter. Malkovich may prefer the stage to the silver screen, but it is always great to see him do something like this.

Frances McDormand gives this movie one of its most lovable characters, in a manner of speaking, as she makes Linda into someone who wants to be free of the ravages of getting older. Seriously, give McDormand the smallest role in a movie, and she always succeeds in making it one of the most unforgettable. If you would like further proof of this, check her out in John Sayles’ “Lonestar.”

Richard Jenkins ends up giving us perhaps the saddest character here, and it is one we hope we don’t end up being. You know, that one person who is forever punished eternally with the pangs of unrequited love. Throughout, Jenkins shows you in his eyes of how much he wants to be with Linda, and he reminds us of how he remains one of the most dependable character actors working in movies.

And I loved the scenes between Rasche and Simmons in the offices of the CIA and how flippant they seemed about the situations which occurred here. I have yet to see another movie where you have CIA members seeming rather laid back in the decisions they make. It never comes down to doing what is best for their country, but of how to make this strange chain of events not get too overwhelming or hectic. Their inconvenience is the biggest problem because it involves secrets getting out, and of more responsibility and paperwork. Seriously, who wants that?

“Burn After Reading” may not be on the same comedic level of brilliance like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but it sure is a lot of fun and filled with more daring and originality than many movies which came out in 2008. Many have described it as a “trifle” from the Coens, but you have to admire what they accomplished here as it never fails to entertain from start to finish. We can also take comfort in the fact that these brothers continue to entertain and enthrall us from one film to the next, and their artistic brilliance never lets us down.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *