Underseen Movie: ‘State and Main’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

One of my favorite parts of “The Ralph Report” podcast has been the Video Vault segment in which Ralph Garman, Steve Ashton and Eddie Pence recommend movies to watch that people may not be particularly familiar with. One episode had the three recommending movies about filmmaking, and Ralph picked David Mamet’s comedy “State and Main.” While listening to him describe this film, it suddenly occurred to me I had rescued a DVD copy of it from a Blockbuster Video store which was about to close forever. It has stood proudly on my shelf for many years, but therein lies the problem; I never took the time to watch the movie, and it was written and directed by Mamet for crying out loud!

So, the question is this, do I put “State and Main” in the “Underseen Movies” category as it was not a huge hit upon its release in 2000, or do I instead put it the one I lovingly titled “No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now?” Come to think of it, maybe I should create a new category entitled “No Longer Gathering Dust on My Shelf” as there are many DVDs and Blu-rays I own which I promised myself to view one day, and yet they still remain unseen by me. So, what are my excuses regarding this? That was a rhetorical question.

Anyway, “State and Main” starts off with a Hollywood film crew invading the small New England town of Waterford, Vermont to make a movie called “The Old Mill.” We quickly learn this crew had been kicked out of New Hampshire as the movie’s star, Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin), has a penchant for underage girls, something many do not take kindly to (need I say why?). Once the director, Walt Price (William H. Macy) arrives, he thinks he has found the perfect location as the town does indeed have an old mill which the film’s writer, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has centered his screenplay around. They quickly find out, however, that the town’s mill has long since burned down to the ground, so several things, among others, need to be changed in the screenplay even if it goes against the writer’s original intentions.

Part of the fun “State and Main” is watching how Hollywood succeeds in bringing out the worst impulses in everyone. Whether it’s the film crew, the cast or the townspeople, everyone is out to get their piece of the pie, and everyone is a player. A plethora of chaos ensues, and this all happens even before a single frame of footage for “The Old Mill” is shot.

When it comes to Mamet, his plays and screenplays cut really deep when it comes to the real world, and his take on Hollywood players can be quite scathing. Just look at “Speed-the-Plow” in which three movie studio employees engage in a power struggle to get a certain movie made while moving up the corporate ladder to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then there was the political satire “Wag the Dog” in which Robert De Niro and Anne Heche and fabricate a war in Albania to distract Americans from a Presidential sex scandal, and they enlist Dustin Hoffman, playing a famous Hollywood producer clearly modeled on Robert Evans. Both projects leave a bitter aftertaste whether you enjoy them or not as Mamet acknowledges how brutal and competitive Hollywood can be when it comes to what gets made and how much truth gets revealed to the world at large.

With “State and Main,” however, Mamet gives us something lighter than he usually does as he revels in the various problems and complexities the characters are forced to deal with. Moreover, while he revels in exposing the Hollywood players for the selfish schmucks they can be, the townspeople prove to be every bit as devious in their own unique ways.

Watching William H. Macy here makes one realize why he and Mamet have had such a fruitful working relationship for so many years. Macy is well versed in the rhythm of Mamet’s dialogue, and he does an excellent job of making his character of Walt Price into a filmmaking veteran who has directed more motion pictures than we are quick to realize. Walt is a pro at handling every and all problems which come his way, and he only loses so much of his cool when one of his assistants tells him his wife has gone into labor. While some directors may be understanding, Macy makes you see why Walt treats the impending birth of a baby as an annoying inconvenience.

Is tempting to say Alec Baldwin was in his prime when he played movie star Bob Barrenger here, but he is still quite the actor after all these years and not just because of his work on “Saturday Night Live.” Baldwin makes Bob into the kind of star whom filmmakers work with against their own best interests as he wants to change the dialogue in the script because it doesn’t sound like something he would say in real life. You want to berate him for his selfishness and remind him he is playing a character and not himself, but Baldwin reminds you of how actors like this one are on an island with themselves to where their egos get the best of them before they could ever realize it.   

Philip Seymour Hoffman left the land of the living a few years ago, and watching him in “State and Main” is a bittersweet reminder of the amazing talent we lost all too soon. As screenwriter Joseph Turner White, the actor gives us the perfect portrait of a man struggling for truth amongst a film crew whom sees the truth as a major inconvenience in the large scheme of things. Even as Joseph is forced to navigate a realm of endless cynicism and casual indifference, Hoffman renders this character as someone whom you believe is determined to remain noble to his beliefs even as many around him have long since given up on morality as a concept.

But seriously, my favorite performance comes from Rebecca Pidgeon as Ann, a local bookseller who helps to lift Joseph out of his latest bout of writer’s block. Right from the start, Pidgeon is so charming and fetching as she delivers Mamet’s dialogue like a true pro and makes Ann into one of the cleverest characters a movie like this could ever hope to have. She is just so much fun to watch here, and I could not help but root for her throughout.

And, with this screenplay written by Mamet, you can sure bet there are many lines of dialogue which sound like something only he could have come up with. Here’s a few worth noting:

“Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.”

“What’s an associate producer credit?

“It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.”

“It’s not a lie. It’s a gift for fiction.”

“I’m going to rip your heart out, then I’m going to piss on your lungs through the hole in your chest! And the best to Marian…”

But my favorite piece of dialogue, and it has always stood out to me even from the film’s trailer, comes from an exchange between Joseph and Ann:

“But it’s absurd.”

“So is our electoral process. But we still vote.”

Now that line remains as true now as it did back when this movie was released, and I can’t help but still laugh at it loudly as the electoral process is being scrutinized today in ways both sound and utterly ridiculous. By the way, Biden won and Trump lost. That is all.

I am not sure where to rate “State and Main” in regards to the other many works of Mamet. At times I wondered if this material might be a little too light for him, but this was clearly not designed to be as emotionally brutal as “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In the end, I think this was a movie everyone in front of and behind the camera had a lot of fun making, and not just because Mamet’s name was on it. A lot of times, movie sets can be nightmarish places regardless of whether or not Scott Rudin is wandering around on them, but the love everyone had for the material is clearly on display here.  

Big thanks to Ralph Garman for giving me and others a reason to check “State and Main” out. Here’s hoping his recommendation will give this film a stronger shelf life than it already has.

* * * 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 * * * *

The Delta Force – Far Better Than The Average Cannon Pictures Release

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008. I am publishing it here because Eddie Pence, vice-host of “The Ralph Report” podcast, recommended it on the Video Vault segment much to Ralph Garman’s unhinged annoyance. Frankly, I am with Eddie on this one. This was a lot of fun!

Ahh, “The Delta Force.” One of my many favorite action movies from the 1980’s! Phil Blankenship and Amoeba Music presented a midnight showing of it at New Beverly Cinema. Although the theater was not as packed as usual, the crowd was super excited to see Chuck Norris kicking terrorist ass like we always expect him to.

The first time I saw “The Delta Force,” I was quite surprised at how well made it was. While there are parts of it which are unintentionally hilarious, the first half is actually well written and directed for the most part. The last half is pretty much what you expected it to be, a cheesy action movie with heroics and explosions. But even on that level, it is a kick ass experience.

At this screening, Blankenship welcomed a very special guest from the movie, Natalie Roth. She played Ellen, the young girl with the Cabbage Patch Kid doll, and she took the time to take questions from the audience. She said Norris and Lee Marvin were both very nice to work with and that Marvin was in bad health throughout the production (this ended up being his last film before his death). Roth also talked about watching this movie several dozen times on the silver screen just to see herself. Funny how she was got let into an R-rated movie considering her age at the time, but anyway.

“The Delta Force” comes to us from the purported king of 1980’s action movies, Cannon Pictures. Led by Menahem Golan, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Yoram Globus, many of their movies would easily rank in the “so bad it’s good” department while others proved to be utter crap as they were more depressing and pathetic than laughable. They made B-movie stars out of Norris as well as Charles Bronson and Jean Claude Van Damme among others. With all this in mind, you really can’t go into a Cannon Pictures movie with a lot of high expectations. In fact, the lower the expectations, the better. This is why “The Delta Force” is unique in this respect. I usually don’t expect the writing or the acting to be any good in movies like these, and while there is some laughable overacting to be found here, the performances for the most part are spot on.

The film was based on the real-life hijacking of TWA Flight 847 on June 14, 1985, and it uses a lot of those same moments from it like the press conference with the pilot in Beirut. It starts off taking some time to introduce us to the soon-to-be hostages like Shelley Winters and her husband played by Martin Balsam, We also meet Harry (Joey Bishop) and Sylvia Goldman (Lainie Kazan) who are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary, Father O’Malley (George Kennedy) and his two sisters from the church, one played by future “NYPD Blue” star Kim Delaney. In addition, we are introduced to the two terrorists who will hijack the plane, and they are played by Robert Forster and David Menachem.

Now having an American actor play an Arab terrorist would be very unlikely in this day and age, but Forster pulls this role off without it ever being laughable. As Abdul, he makes an excellent villain who’s not just another one-dimensional bad guy, but one who is truly threatening to where you believe it when he says he is prepared to die. “The Delta Force” was made back when Forster’s career was heading into oblivion, but he did finally make his comeback with Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” and we have not forgotten how great an actor he is ever since.

Menachem, on the other hand, never knows when to stop overacting. As Moustapha, his eyes open up so wide to where I was convinced they would pop out of his head and ricochet off of a hostage’s head. He is a kick to watch, but his performance did generate a lot of unintentional laughs from the audience at this midnight showing.

Another strong performance comes from Hanna Schygulla who plays the head flight attendant, Ingrid. She is put in a very difficult position as the terrorists force her to pick out the Jews from the passports taken from all the passengers. This is another actor who shows a lot without saying anything, and her close-ups throughout illustrate how she somehow manages to hold it together even when the situation gets worse and worse. I love the moment she has with Forster before she leaves the plane as he perfectly describes her character:

“Ingrid, you’re a brave woman.”

I know I am going to raise a lot of eyebrows by saying this, Norris is not a bad actor. Many think he is flat out terrible, but I disagree. Granted, he is no Laurence Oliver and even he would openly admit this, but as a film actor he has many strong moments. The strength of a film actor is in showing what your character is experiencing without having to spell it out for the audience. Norris has a lot of moments like these, and he is easily a more competent screen presence than others like Jean Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal, both who have since been consigned to direct to video hell. Just look at his face towards the end as he mourns the loss of a comrade. Seriously, you can feel his pain.

Having Marvin in this movie certainly gives it more dramatic heft and believability even when things get increasingly ridiculous in the last half. His craggy face tells you all you need to know about the many tours of duty his character has ever experienced. He is perfectly cast as the unsentimental leader of an elite anti-terrorist force who has no time for pity, and who is always looking out for his men except if he has a timetable to keep.

Before I forget, I have to bring up the film’s score by Alan Silvestri who would later go on to compose unforgettable music for movies like “Back to The Future” and “The Abyss.” This is a classic 1980’s score which chiefly utilized the synthesizers of the time. It is a cheesy score, but I still liked it a lot as Silvestri hits some strong emotional notes, and the theme song is one which will stay with you long after the movie is over.

“The Delta Force” is easily one of the best movies Cannon Pictures could have ever hoped to make. Sure, it led to a lot of crappy knock offs and sequels which nowhere as good. “Delta Force 2” was a direct rip off of Timothy Dalton’s last James Bond movie, “License to Kill.” Sure, it had a great and a truly despicable villain in Billy Drago, but sitting through it was painful and excruciating. The less said about “Delta Force 3,” the better.

After all these years, I think “The Delta Force” holds up very well despite looking more and more dated. True, it is one of those movies which can look at and say, “Only in the 1980’s could you have made this,” but I still get a huge kick out of watching it all these years later. It has also led to some great retro t-shirts which you can still see popping up on the internet every day. You may have seen them here and there, and one of them has this on the front:

“I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I blow them away.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Ralph Garman Continues to Walk the Showbiz Beat with ‘The Ralph Report’

Ralph Garman photo

I first became aware of Ralph Garman when he and Kevin Smith hosted a screening of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema. In the movie, Garman plays Caleb, husband to Sara (Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) who is a shameless member of Five Points Trinity Church, an infinitely homophobic religious sect which puts the WBC to utter shame. While Ralph has no dialogue, he left quite the impression on audiences as film acting requires you to do more with your face than with dialogue.

Caleb Red State

But following the screening, which also served as my introduction to “Hollywood Babble-On,” a podcast I am a die-hard fan of, Ralph demonstrated to the audience a talent he has long since been gifted with, doing voices. Whether he spoke as Al Pacino, Christopher Walken or Sylvester Stallone (“GREEDY AND LAZY!!!”), it was clear he had more than eight voices in his repertoire.

Hollywood Babble On logo

Ralph Garman is an actor and radio personality who has appeared in such movies as “Sharktopus,” “Lavalantula,” “Ted” and “Yoga Hosers” to name a few. On television, he has lent his vocal talents to countless episodes of “Family Guy” and appeared on “The Joe Schmo Show.” But to many, he is best known for his time on “The Kevin & Bean Show,” a Los Angeles morning radio show on KROQ-FM. For almost two decades, he entertained audiences with his impressions and sketches which included him going nuts as Christian Bale and voicing the late Jerry Lewis so well to where he actually ended up talking with Jacques Chirac, the one-time President of France. This, of course, led to a lawsuit, but anyway.

On November 30, 2017, Ralph told audiences he was leaving “The Kevin & Bean Show” after 18 years and was very emotional about departing from a job he was at for a very long time. His exodus was the result of downsizing put forth by KROQ’s new management. To see him get laid off was painful as anyone who has gone through the same thing can understand the shock and sadness of seeing their regular routine upended for the sake of increased profits. It’s like your manager is telling you, “We would love for you to stay. We just don’t want to pay you and we figured you would have a problem with that.”

After interviewing with other radio stations for the possibility of employment, Garman came to realize he no longer wanted to work in an environment where he was told what he could and could not do. So, at the beginning of 2018, he debuted “The Ralph Report,” a weekly podcast which can be found on the membership platform website, Patreon. This has proven to be the perfect place for him to continue his work as he has developed a faithful following of listeners which he lovingly refers to as the “Garmy,” and it is a podcast I very much look forward to listening to Monday through Friday.

The Ralph Report Twitter logo

Wisely, Garman has tailored “The Ralph Report” to have different kinds of segments each day to keep things fresh and to not let it fall into a stagnant rhythm. He continues to “walk the showbiz beat” as he has said for years, looking at the latest news in Hollywood, listing the birthdays of celebrities, and checking out which movies did big business at the box office over the weekend. He also continues to have great fun at the expense of the reality show “The Bachelor” and its various incarnations along with his wife, Kari Watson. Hearing them riff on the latest “Bachelor” episode makes me want to watch it myself, and this is even though I typically live to avoid reality shows in general.

Like any good show, “The Ralph Report” continues to evolve to include new segments such as “Holiday or Holi-nay” in which he looks at each day’s national holidays to determine which one deserves to be celebrated over all the others. It’s constantly astonishing to see just how many holidays can be fit into a single day to where I wonder if there’s any day of the year which does not have one. It also reminds me of a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which the following dialogue was spoken:

    Mayor Quimby: “Henceforth, this date shall forever be known as Flaming Moe’s Day!”

    Advisor: “Uh, sir, this is already Veterans’ Day.”

    Mayor Quimby: “It can be two things!”

Yes, it can.

Eddie Pence eating a peach

In recent months, Garman has also brought on stand-up comedian Eddie Pence to be his vice host, and the two play off each other very well. You also have to give Pence points for bravery as loyal members of the Garmy continue to pester him about the foods he should like but does not, facts he often gets wrong (“EDDIE!!! Is Wrong”), and those who continue leaving voicemails which start off with “DAMN YOU, EDDIE PENCE!” I think he deserves more respect than people often give him, and this is even though I am annoyed with him describing the sci-fi cult classic “Tron” as, in his words, “boring.” Hey, Eddie, no movie which stars Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” for crying out loud, can ever be considered boring. And yes, that includes “R.I.P.D.”

If I have to choose one segment from “The Ralph Report” I have come to like above all others, it is “Sex U.” Ralph originally did this segment on “The Kevin & Bean Show” until KROQ and the FCC forced the program to drop it. At first, I thought it would be poking fun at sex in general or at the sexually inexperienced, but it has proven to be a very thoughtful segment which deals with sexuality issues in an intelligent way. One episode in particular dealt with adult virgins who still find themselves celibate for varying reasons. This is actually a bigger issue than many even bother to realize. How do I know this? I’m not answering that.

But what’s especially appealing about “The Ralph Report” is that it is hosted by a man who remains a very down-to-earth individual. He moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a serious actor, and while things for him may not have worked out the way he expected, I think he has ended up exactly where he needs to be. Ralph has a loving wife and daughter, his love of the “Batman” television show from the 1960’s has proven to be infectious, and he strikes me as a celebrity you can have an easy conversation with. Also, he has taken the large step of creating a business for himself through Patreon, and it has proven to be a success which has nowhere to go but up.

Please keep up the great work, Ralph! I look forward to seeing how “The Ralph Report” will evolve from week to week. Kudos to you as well, Eddie, for being an effective vice-host. Just remember Eddie, I love “Tron” and I mean it. Bye.

Click here to visit “The Ralph Report” website and learn more about the podcast and how to subscribe.

 

‘The Emoji Movie,’ Like its Main Character, is Simply Meh

The Emoji Movie poster

This never seemed like a good idea for a movie. Sure, there was “Toy Story” which brought those toys we grew up playing with to wonderful life, and we had “The Lego Movie” which featured those building blocks in a story which had profound things to say about the power of our imagination. But emojis? Seriously, where can you go with those things? They are just faces with one single emotion to exhibit. How can you possibly make a movie out of them?

Going into “The Emoji Movie,” I was reminded of an episode of “Hollywood Babble-On” in which Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith ranted about the news of this movie being made following a bidding war between three studios.

“To go into a room and say, ‘Guys, I got the idea. You know the fucking face at the end of your text with the fucking tongue out and one eyebrow is up and shit? You know that shit? Here’s my idea. Hey, bring out my Power Point presentation. See that fucking round yellow face? That’s going to be my new movie!’ WHO FUCKING THINKS LIKE THAT?!”

“We could go pitch ‘Hieroglyphics: The Movie!’”

“But ‘The Emoji Movie?’ A movie about the emojis? What’s it going to be, the fucking family of emojis going on vacation together and, oh no, Tongue-Out is upset because Cross-Eyes is pissed off that Thumbs-Up is hogging the backseat? WHAT THE FUCK?! Seven figures they paid for this idea! Seven figures!”

Actually, what Garman thought the story would be could have been more interesting than this. ‘The Emoji Movie,” like its main character, proves to be a meh affair with jokes which fall flat more often than not, a voice cast which cannot lift the material up beyond its banal confines, and ideas which were dated by the time this movie went into pre-production. The fact it is coming out at a time when GIFS are proving to be very popular doesn’t help either.

For the most part, “The Emoji Movie” takes place within the cell phone belonging to Alex (Jake T. Austin), a human teenager who lives and sleeps with his phone like every teenager does to where kids colliding with each other because they can’t take their eyes off their devices is to be expected. Fortunately, there are no scenes of teenagers texting while driving which is a relief. Imagine how traumatic it would be for children to watch them getting into a car crash because the characters were texting each other about the latest school gossip.

Anyway, inside Alex’s phone live the emojis who are always around to help provide him with text responses which need no description with words, and among them is Gene (T.J. Miller), a meh emoji, who is super-excited about going to his first day at the office. Gene just wants to be a normal emoji like everybody else, but we soon discover he is capable of exhibiting multiple expressions and ends up having a panic attack which shows him to be anything but meh. Smiler (Maya Rudolph), whose infinite smile cannot hide her vindictive nature, orders Gene to be deleted from the phone. Of course, Gene manages to escape her cheerful façade and goes on a mission to become a normal emoji like all the others.

Director Tony Leondis was interested in exploring life inside a phone, and he also explored the plight of being different in a world which unrealistically expects everyone to be the same. The latter part is noble as we need movies which remind us all of how we should not exclude those who are different (you listening Donald Trump?) as this world is hard enough without people ostracizing others who are not seen as the norm. Even in this day and age, we need these stories as life seems to mostly be about conforming to societal norms, and not everything can or should be the same.

Regardless, this movie never has enough to work with. The problem with emojis is they, as characters, are far too simplistic. You cannot do much with them as their role in life or, in this case, Alex’s phone has been decided from the get go to where, even if they tried to do something, there’s no real reason to expect anything different from they are already programmed to do.

The plot of “The Emoji Movie” also suffers as it is the same kind of story where the underdog goes on a journey which will eventually lead him to becoming the hero, at which point everyone will accept him for who he is. It sucks a lot of times when you know the outcome long in advance, and it really tears away at the inspired movie this one could have been.

Leondis was clearly inspired by the “Toy Story” movies as well as “The Lego Movie,” but those movies managed to surprise us not just with their splendid animation, but with their stories which took audiences on rides they weren’t really expecting to go on. “The Emoji Movie,” however, isn’t much more than your typical outsider movie, and this is a shame as so much more could have been done here. This could have been an insanely inspired movie, but instead it travels down a road many of us have already traveled one too many times. Kids may get a kick out of it, but adults will be left wondering why this one couldn’t be as good as anything Pixar puts out.

Many shots are taken at various mobile apps like YouTube, Instagram, and even Candy Crush, a game for which I still get countless invitations to play (FYI, I’m not interested). Even Pikotaro’s “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen” video makes a brief appearance, reminding us it was 2016’s most viewed video on YouTube. However, Leondis and his screenwriters, Eric Siegel and Mike White, don’t mine this material enough for all the satirical value it holds. Moments like the reveal of Candy Crush generate a chuckle, but nothing in the way of real laughs.

It’s a real shame because the voice cast is nothing short of terrific. T.J. Miller of “Silicon Valley” fame makes Gene an emoji we want to follow along with, and Anna Faris lends her everlasting charm to the codebreaker emoji Jailbreak. Maya Rudolph makes Smiler a wonderfully devious presence as her infinitely cheerful demeanor and pearly white teeth reveal her to be anything but truly happy. James Corden brings the same giddy energy he brings to his late-night CBS show to the role of Hi-5, and he steals just about every scene he has. I also have to say the casting of Steven Wright as Gene’s father, Mel Meh, was priceless.

Sir Patrick Stewart, however, is wasted in a role I expected to be the real scene stealer here, the poop emoji. Stewart has some choice moments which had me chuckling a bit, but he disappears from this movie too often to where I wondered why the filmmakers bothered to cast him. And the scene where poop is in the cube shouting “red alert!” makes me pine for another “Star Trek: The Next Generation” movie which will probably never happen. Regardless of how you felt about “Star Trek: Nemesis,” the “Next Generation” crew still deserves a better curtain call.

There was an animated movie which came out earlier this summer called “Captain Underpants: The Epic First Movie” which I wasn’t expecting much from when I walked into the theater. I came out of the movie pleasantly surprised as it proved to be very entertaining, full of imagination, and wonderfully subversive. I was hoping “The Emoji Movie” would surprise me in the same way, but the cards were stacked against this one right from the start. Emojis only have one function, to show a specific emotion. While Gene can show off many different emotions, it doesn’t change this fact. What we are left with is a thin story with jokes which are as funny as the hopelessly corny ones at all those Disneyland park shows, and animation which, while not at all bad, never comes across as the least bit wondrous. And yes, there is a post-credit sequence, but don’t bother waiting for it. All it does is show the fate of a certain character, and the moment is over in a flash.

“The Emoji Movie” does have a short-animated film preceding it called “Puppy!” which is based on the “Hotel Transylvania” franchise. It has Dennis getting a puppy, albeit one which is almost as big as King Kong. This short might pale in comparison to the ones Pixar makes, but it is very funny and playful and everything “The Emoji Movie” could have been.

Perhaps Garman was right. It would have been better to do an emoji road movie. Leondis would have had more luck with this genre than “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” did.

* * out of * * * *

‘Red State’ is the Best and Most Unlikely Film from Kevin Smith

Red State movie poster

Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.

The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.

The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.

The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.

With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.

Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.

Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.

This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.

Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.

Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Yoga Hosers

Yoga Hosers poster

I like Kevin Smith. I’ve always liked him ever since he unleashed “Clerks” on audiences worldwide. “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma” were wonderful movies as they delved into personal matters in both intelligent and hilarious ways. “Red State,” his best movie to date, showed him breaking out of his comfort zone and giving us something we could not have seen coming. I’m also a big fan of his various podcasts, especially “Hollywood Babble-On” which has him and Ralph Garman laughing at the expense of celebrities of all kinds (especially Justin Bieber). I even have good things to say about “Tusk” which most people hated.

But when it comes to “Yoga Hosers,” I’m afraid I can’t give it a positive review, darn it. The movie has some inspired moments and appealing performances, and there were scenes which had me laughing quite loudly. Still, this motion picture is nowhere as inspired as Smith thinks it is. It’s not as bad as his misbegotten “Cop Out,” but it does run out of gas long before it arrives at the end credits.

“Yoga Hosers” is the second film in Smith’s “True North” trilogy, and it has the two teenage female clerks from “Tusk,” Colleen Collette (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith), returning to the silver screen. The two still work at the Manitoba convenience store Eh-2-Zed, but they occasionally use excuses like having a urinary tract infection to escape the register and go to the backroom where they sing songs like Anthrax’s “I’m The Man.” Being teenagers, they obsess over cute boys almost as much as they do over their cell phones and texting. When one of the hottest looking boys at school, Hunter Calloway (Austin Butler), invites them to a senior party, they couldn’t be more excited if they tried.

But of course, something gets in the way of their well-laid party plans, and it’s not just their parents. The Colleens soon discover an ancient evil rising from beneath Canada’s crust, one which proves to be a product of Canadian Nazis. Soon, an army of Bratzis (little Nazis made out of bratwursts) are unleashed, and it is up to these two clerks who are not even supposed to be here today to save the world from destruction and salvage their social standing at school in the process.

Knowing that Smith has quite the love for weed, I can’t help but describe “Yoga Hosers” as half baked. There are some wonderfully creative ideas on display in the movie, but they are never fully realized. The Bratzis are at best one joke characters, and Smith (who plays the Bratzis) can’t wring much in the way of laughs out of them. The whole Canadian Nazi flashback is beautifully filmed, but it is also rushed to where only so much of it stays with you. And when the movie ended, I came out it saying, “That’s it?” I hate, hate, hate, hate coming out of any movie like that.

The special effects are incredibly cheesy, but then again this movie only had a budget of $5 million dollars so it’s pointless to expect “Avatar” visual effects here.

On the upside, the cast is very good. Harley and Lily are of course best known for being the children of famous people, but enough of that already. Both are best friends in real life, and they share a great chemistry together onscreen. Even when the material fails them, they are very appealing throughout and make you want to keep watching “Yoga Hosers” in the hopes it might improve. Harley herself has one of the movie’s best moments when she utters a famous line from “Clerks,” and you will definitely know it when you hear it.

Johnny Depp returns as legendary man-hunter Guy LaPointe, the same character he portrayed in “Tusk.” Depp must have relished the opportunity to be in a movie, any movie, which wasn’t bankrolled by a studio for millions and millions of dollar to where the weight of the world was weighing on him to the tune of another box office bomb. While Guy seemed like a bit of an unnecessary addition to “Tusk,” the character is a more welcome presence here as he teams up with the Colleens to bring an end to the Canadian Nazis promise of domination.

Justin Long also has some hilarious scenes as the Colleens’ yoga guru and mentor, Yogi Bayer. This character is so far removed from the one he played in “Tusk” as Long revels in playing an over the top character whose teaching methods in the way of yoga, while not exactly sound, do come to aid these ladies when danger looms large.

But the one man who steals every scene he has in “Yoga Hosers” is Ralph Garman who plays Andronicus Arcane, a resurrected Canadian Nazi who is also very good with celebrity impressions. Garman has a blast doing his various impressions, some of which are excellent, and it generated a lot of laughter and near applause at the screening I attended.

Still, despite all the fun everyone seems to have had making “Yoga Hosers,” not enough of it translates over to the audience. More jokes miss than hit, and the movie never works as a comedy, fantasy or horror movie. Looking back, I wonder what Smith was hoping to accomplish with it other than to make the kind of teen movie he wished he saw as a kid. At times the story feels like it is all over the place, and the humor after a while becomes too broad for its own good.

All the same, I do have hope for Smith as I’m confident he can recover from this missed opportunity. The writer/director plans to conclude his “True North” trilogy in the future with “Moose Jaws,” and the title already has me excited. While he looks to be making amends to all those movie critics who bashed “Tusk” and “Cop Out” without an ounce of remorse, they will still be coming after him on this one. Here’s hoping we get “Clerks III” sooner rather than later.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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