As Predicted Pixar Saves The Sucky Summer Day

(Dir. Lee Unkrich. 2010)

Like many film folks, in the days before a long awaited sequel in a beloved franchise appears I like to revisit the earlier movies – especially if I haven’t seen them in a long time. It’s to remind me of the flavor of said films, yet it can also feel like doing homework sometimes. Re-watching the first TOY STORY (1995) and its follow-up TOY STORY 2 (1999) though, wasn’t like doing homework at all. The films hold up as immensely enjoyable endlessly inventive masterworks.

The TOY STORY films established Pixar Studios as the leading creators of CGI-animated features that built a beautiful track record of critically acclaimed hits including some of the best films of the last decade – FINDING NEMO, UP, WALL-E, and RATATOUILLE to name a handful. It’s easy to be cynical about sequels, but Pixar is a name to be trusted, and you won’t go wrong trusting them here. The return of Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks), Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and their fellow toy friends is happily up to the high standards of their canon and even more happily its one of the few cinematic saviors of this summer of suck.

It’s been over a decade since we’ve last seen the disparate troop of talking toys and we catch up with them as their now teenage owner Andy (voiced by John Morris) is packing for college. The toys fret over their fate – will they be stored in the attic, sold in a yard sale, or thrown away? To their surprise, Andy picks Woody to take with him to school and puts the others in a garbage bag. Luckily he’s just taking them to the attic, but in a moving mix-up they are taken to the curb by Andy’s mother (voiced by Laurie Metcalf).

Woody tries to save them, but nearly gets thrown away himself. After freeing themselves from the garbage bag, the toy troop (including the returning voices of John Ratzenburger, Don Rickles, Joan Cusack, Estelle Harris, and Wallace Shawn) realize that their life with Andy is over and that they should collectively climb into a box set to be donated to Sunnyside Daycare. Woody wants them to return home, but his friends immediately take to the lushly lit facility and the warm friendly welcome by the leader of the left behind toys: a pink strawberry teddy bear named “Lotso” – short for Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (wonderfully voiced by Ned Beatty).

While Woody tries to get back home, the toys find that things aren’t what they seem at Sunnyside. I’ll hold off on further major story Spoilers!, but I’ll just report that there’s a romantic subplot sponsored by Mattel in which Barbie (Jodie Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton), Buzz Lightyear gets his settings stuck in a Spanish mode, and there’s a young girl (Emily Hahn) who Woody is briefly in the custody of that owns a few other new toy characters (voices of Timothy Dalton, Beatrice Miller, Javier Fernandez Pena, and Bud Luckey).

A superlative sequel in which all of the elements of the wealth of close scrapes, captivating chases, and absorbing attention to the exorbitant detail of the TOY STORY world are attended to excellently. It’s funny, exciting, and sometimes even scary, yet it will most likely be remembered for its strong emotional pull. The previous films were well rooted in sentimentality about the innocence and imagination of childhood balanced by the sad acknowledgment that these joys are fleeting, and play-time has to end someday. TOY STORY 3 doesn’t shy away from these themes; it enriches them further making it the most thoughtful and touching film of the series.

Pixar (and Disney) did it again. They made a wonderful movie that will take everyone from children to grown adults on a ride from doubling over with laughter to being reduced to tears. They also made so a 40 year old man can admit that, without shame, he can get worked up about a cast of animated plastic playthings accessing their worth. See? It felt good admitting that. Really good.

More later…

Andre Gower Of THE MONSTER SQUAD: The Film Babble Blog Interview Part 1

This Wednesday at 8:00 PM, The Colony Theater in Raleigh will be screening the 1987 cult classic THE MONSTER SQUAD as part of their popular “Cinema Overdrive” series. In addition to the exciting experience of seeing a rare 35 MM print of the beloved film, what makes this showing extremely special is the star of the movie Andre Gower is going to be on hand as host and will take questions from the audience. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Gower to talk about THE MONSTER SQUAD and how it so strongly still holds up but in the first part of our chat we discuss some of his fascinating resume that surrounds that milestone.

Dan: Forgive me for cribbing off your IMDb profile or even Wikipedia but was The Young And The Restless your first role?

Andre Gower: No, there was some stuff before that – there were guest spots and a lot of stuff that IMDb and Wikipedia wouldn’t have. But that may have been one of the earliest regular things.

D: So as a kid you were on a ton of TV shows – T.J. Hooker, St. Elsewhere, The A-Team – how did those come about?

AG: Just through the regular audition process. Back in the day, now of course this is before cable, before the Fox network, there were only 3 channels. So there were always younger people doing stuff – there was even a smaller group of younger people who did the majority of everything. If you were lucky enough to be in that kind of group as a young young youngster then as you got up to teenage years and late teenage years, to be part of that teen scene, the teen magazine part of pop culture, and then if you’re on a successful show or a number of successful shows, or either a bunch of films then it works out pretty good. I hung in the circles back in the day, I was in the late 80’s Brat Pack being a mid teenager. Of course that’s when THE MONSTER SQUAD came out. Right after that I did the show Mr. President with George C. Scott back when Fox was a brand new network.

D: Is it true that you turned down the Bud Bundy role on Married With Children to do Mr. President?

AG: That’s true.

D: Ever had any regrets about that?

AG: No, I mean it’s always nice to think about what might have been, and look David Faustino is a old friend of mine – I’ve known him for years, but when you look at the situation at the time, what was being offered, you can’t do hindsight, you never know what’s going to happen.

D: Right, you can’t guess what show is going to be picked up.

AG: Sure, and when you’re dealing like in that situation with a show on a brand new network – you get offered one and it’s an unknown show, it’s written very racy and not even the pilot is guaranteed to air and nobody knows anybody who is associated with it. On the flip-side of it you have another show that is produced by Johnny Carson’s production company – it’s produced by Ed Weinberger. It’s starring George C. Scott and Conrad Bain, it’s guaranteed for 2 seasons and they were offering me like 3 times the money! The other show that wasn’t guaranteed they’d air the pilot – what show are you going to take?

D: (laughs) Well, just the George C. Scott factor alone, I think that would tip the scale.

AG: Right, one’s a vehicle and one’s not. (laughs) One’s a potential waste of your time and you’re not going to be able to do anything else. I mean I should’ve done both. Same network – what do they care? (laughs)

D: (laughs) I couldn’t really find much info on Mr. President. I mean, it seems like they’ve released just about every TV show you could think of on DVD these days, some that are only one season so it seems like a release of that wouldn’t be so farfetched.

AG: Well, it may be a thing with George C. Scott’s estate – I don’t know. It would be interesting to go back to it because it was an inaugural show on a new network. It was a lead show starring 2 icons and made by an icon.

D: It seems like it was a proto West Wing.

AG: It was sort of an interesting look at something that had been done before but not really done before – characterizing the United States President and life in the White House. Whereas The West Wing did it and it was modern because it was time for it. I’ve done 3 or 4 television shows that were 3 or 4 years ahead of their time…or more. That’s why they went one season, 2 seasons.

D: And those would be?

AG: One was Baby Makes Five, regular family sitcom, ABC I think. This was Peter Scolari’s own show. It was right after Bosom Budies. He’s the one that people said was going to be the star because he’s the talented one. Tom Hanks who?

D: I remember reading that for Bosom Buddies, they actually paid Scolari more than Tom Hanks because he had more experience.

AG: Yeah, Tom Hanks took a long time to actually get anything. He was in a few failed shows, a few really bad low budget movies that you just don’t ever hear of. And then he did SPLASH and it just starting coming around. But Peter Scolari was a trained actor on a hit network television show so they said ‘we’re giving him his own show’ and it was a little ahead of it’s time with the fact that it was a show that had a huge family with young kids and there wasn’t that many…okay, well besides The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family which was nichey and 60’s, you know that was 3 camera sitcom – there wasn’t a live audience type show before this with a lot of kids. They had this great relationship between the grandmothers – one was kind of racy, one was kind of conservative. It was coming into some really really interesting writing and really good timing. We had great guest stars on that show. We did 6 episodes. It was a spring replacement and it didn’t get picked up but it was well done.

D: Was it the time slot maybe?

AG: Who knows? It just might not have tested well. And that’s the trouble with television, especially sitcoms, because you look at the shows that do go on to become famous shows – go watch your favorite shows and see the first season. They’re all terrible. The difference is that with either the network or the production companies kept them on to find their footing and seasoned. The characters got to develop and mold into what they’re going to be. Because all a successful sitcom is…is what’s funny about a show is when a character says something because you’re expecting him to say exactly that. That’s what you get used to do in a sitcom. Look at Friends, look at Seinfeld – how many times can Kramer come in the door funny?

D: People forget Seinfeld took a while to get going.

AG: Took a long time. That was obviously a show that was cutting and ahead of its time and was allowed to come into itself, and then it changed television. Baby Makes Five was great, Peter Scolari went on to do a ton of stuff.

D: I loved him on Newhart.

AG: Right, he went right into Newhart. I was on the Newhart set all the time – I learned how to juggle from Peter Scolari. So I’m a juggler because of Peter Scolari. Another show was for ABC that was shot out of 20th Century Fox that was called Heart Of The City. This was like ’86, ’87. Very ahead of its time. Cop drama, homicide detective, dark cast, dark storylines – it was about a cop who has 2 teenage kids and their mother gets killed in a very cliché drive-by being that it’s 1986. So he has to raise these 2 kids – one’s a boy, one’s a girl, dealing with family issues, dealing with adolescent boy issues, dealing with teenage girl issues, talk about sex and drugs and drinking and dealing with all this stuff while this guy’s trying to be a detective. Shot dark, lit dark, shot at night because he worked the midnight shift, had to deal with his kids during the day. I played this street kid drug dealer that he busts in the pilot and he becomes interested in my story so I became a re-occurring character. He ends up becoming romantically involved with my mother because he’s trying to figure out why I’m out here doing this. The mother was Kay Lenz, and the 2 kids were Jonathan Ward and Christina Applegate. So if you look at 2 or 3 years down the road when Fox becomes a network, all 3 of us out of this show have our own shows on Fox.

D: how long did Heart Of The City run?

AG: We went 2 seasons. My arc went from the pilot all the way to the end. I go off the show because I get sentenced, then back and forth because I escape and do all this stuff. It’s a very cool role – I never played a 13 year old drug dealer running down all the alleys of downtown LA. Very cool, but you know a little ahead of its time. Then what, 5 years later you have NYPD Blue. Dark, brooding, nudity, language, you know it’s like ‘oh, this show is shocking too.’

Coming up in Part 2 – Andre Gower and I discuss THE MONSTER SQUAD and its legacy. Please stay tuned.

More later…

Soundtrack September: 10 Favorite Fake Film Bands

As a concluding piece for Soundtrack September here’s another patented Film Babble Blog list. Despite that this is something that’s been covered a lot on the internets (see for example), I decided to put my own personal spin on it. Now, I tried to avoid bands that began on television, like, say, The Blues Brothers or Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, but #1 on this list itself originated on a TV special so that was difficult to do. For the most part though these are fictional groups introduced to us on the silver screen. So here they are:

Film Babble Blog’s 10 Favorite Fake Film Bands

1. Spinal Tap from THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)

I know, it’s an incredibly obvious choice but this list wouldn’t exist without David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) as one of England’s loudest bands and stars of Rob Reiner’s cult classic rockumentary. Their soundtrack set the template for music parodies while the film’s faux documentary style is still a vital formula today (see The Office). Now celebrating their 25th anniversary Tap still tours, usually with the Folksman (also consisting of the same folks) from A MIGHTY WIND opening and have just released a new album: “Back From The Dead” so the line fine between fantasy and reality gets more and more blurred as time goes on, or is it the fine line between stupid and clever I’m thinking of?

2. Max Frost and the Troopers from WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) James Dean lookalike Christopher Jones fronts this great group of rowdy rebels (including future Ohio Senator Kevin Coughlin and future famous funnyman Richard Pryor) in this teen exploitation flick that’s as ridiculous as it is fun. Here’s a clip of Jones, Jim Morrison style, lip synching “Shape Of Things To Come” which was actually a #22 hit on the US Billboard charts:

Incidentally songs credited to Max Frost and the Troopers were on the soundtracks to the Dennis Hopper film THE GLORY STOMPERS and Jones’ AIP film followup THREE IN THE ATTIC.

3. Circus Monkey from BANDWAGON (1996) As the focus of a funny and touching portrait of a indie band just starting out, Circus Monkey (Kevin Corrigan, Steve Parlavecchio, Lee Holmes, and Matthew Hennessey is an endearing quartet of indie underdogs. I’m biased about their inclusion because the movie was filmed in my area by NC native John Schultz (formerly a member of the Connells) with a gig set at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro as well as a climatic concert filmed at the Rialto theatre in Raleigh, but I still strongly stand by the choice – their songs (especially “It Couldn’t Be Ann”) are catchy and their story a heartfelt one. Sadly it has never been released on DVD but here’s the trailer to tide you over until it is:


A great girl group shoo-in from one of my favorite could be cult films that came up in another recent list. Again in the interest of space check out my original review.

5. Eddie and the Cruisers in EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (1983)

My pal “Pinball” put it best in his essay for Soundtrack September in the previous post. Read it here.

6. The Wonders in THAT THING YOU DO! (1996) Tom Hanks directorial debut features the fab fascimile of The Wonders – literal one hit wonders (like you couldn’t figure that out) that had one catchy ditty that actually became a real life hit (# 41 on the Billboard Top 100). The band consisted of Tom Everett Scott (“the smart one”), Johnathon Schaech (“the talent”), Steve Zahn (“the fool”), and Ethan Embrey (uh, the unremarked upon one). The film is a guilty pleasure I usually stop on when changing channels – the title song is so damn catchy!

7. The Five Heartbeats in THE FIVE HEARTBEATS (1991) Robert Townshend’s homage to the heyday of Motown, with obviously the Four Tops and Temptations as template, is another film that wore its way into my heart through multiple cable airings. The music and merit within definitely give DREAMGIRLS a run for its money – “A Heart Is A House For Love” recorded by the Dells (another obvious influence) is a Helluva song.

8. Stillwater in ALMOST FAMOUS (2000) This 70’s arena rock band was concocted out of stories about interaction with such bands as the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynard (among others) during Cameron Crowe’s days as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, but they still seem like a real living breathing entity mainly because of his angsty autobiographical angle. Stillwater, which features Jason Lee and Billy Crudup as its Plant/Page or Glimmer Twins or what have you, only had one song on the official soundtrack: “Fever Dog” written by Heart’s Nancy Wilson (also Crowe’s wife).

9. Citizen Dick from SINGLES (1991) Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier is definitely in the right place at the right time – in a grunge band in Seattle in the early 90’s. With a wardrobe and songs written by Green River/Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament as well as all of Pearl Jam as fellow band members, Dillon has more than a little help from his friends. None of Citizen Dick’s songs are on the soundtrack but “Spooner” written by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell can be heard in an acoustic version can be heard in the background at one point.

10. Otis Day and the Knights in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)

Another seminal band that started out fake but got real after the fact. The Delta’s toga party favorites, fronted by Dewayne Jessie, put out an album produced by George Clinton called “Shout” in 1989 and have been touring as “the number one party band in America” to this day.

Okay! One last special mention: Autobahn in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. The nihilist Kraftwerkian band consisted of Flea, Peter Stormare, and Torsten Voges. Sure we never hear a note of them * but damn that album cover ought to count for something!

* Correction: We do actually hear “Wie Glauben” – supposedly an Autobahn tune in the movie and the soundtrack album. From composer Carter Burwell’s notes at “The story also involves a band of nihilist Germans, and in their final scene their music is playing on a boombox. For this I wrote “Wie Glauben” (“We Believe” in German) a techopop tune.”

More later…

ANGELS AND DEMONS: The First Big Bad Movie Of The Summer

ANGELS AND DEMONS (Dir. Ron Howard, 2009)

Symbologist Robert Langdon, the hero of the critically condemned yet commercially successful 2006 film THE DA VINCI CODE, is back in this bloated blockbuster wannabe adaptation of Dan Brown’s inconsequentially controversial bestselling book. As played by a unusually stiff Tom Hanks, Langdon, who was described by Brown as “Harrison Ford in a Harris tweed”, is no franchise powering figure – obviously he’s no Indiana Jones but come on, he’s not even in the league of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan who Ford played in a few durable 90’s thrillers.

After the Pope dies and Cardinal candidates are kidnapped with the Vatican under terrorist threats, Hanks is called upon by Vatican police officials to do his deciphering clues thing. He suspects the Illuminati – the secret society considered to be the “power behind the throne” and with Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as his obligatory dark haired female companion, he runs around Rome spouting exposition connecting the dubious dots. As the Pope’s shifty eyed assistant, Ewan McGregor seems eager to chew scenery but stalks the shadows instead, lacking a coherent character. So does Stellan Skarsgård as a police commander in charge of a bunch of black suits with ear pieces also running from location to location for reasons you’re likely to forget. “I need a map with all the churches in Rome!” Hanks yells in possibly one of the least gripping moments in recent movie history.

Like its predecessor, ANGELS AND DEMONS looks great (Salvatore Totino’s luxurious cinematography being one of the sole saving graces), but the emptiness is endless with the actors, director, and everyone involved grasping for a gravitas that simply isn’t there. Ron Howard has made many solid accessible films – FROST/NIXON was one of last year’s best movies – so with hope, he’ll leave Dan Brown’s mechanical formula history playtime theatrics behind from here on out. I was reminded in one of the many long boring stretches of this intensely tedious film that I saw Howard/Hanks’s first film together, the man meets mermaid rom com SPLASH, in the same theater almost exactly 25 years ago. Now, come to think of it, that was a fun movie with a more plausible take on mythology. Wish they’d make another like that next time around.

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Politics Schmolotics: A Droll CHARLIE WILSON & A Serious BREACH

Alan Rudolph: “Does Political scare you?”
Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins): “Political doesn’t scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.
Alan Rudolph: “This is politiely politically radical, but it’s funny.”
(Dir. Robert Altman, 1991)

Politics doesn’t play well at the multiplex. If you don’t believe me just ask the makers of LIONS FOR LAMBS. Despite critical acclaim people have stayed away in droves from just about every Iraq-related drama and especially documentary fare like NO END IN SIGHT as well so it appears that these days – political scares moviegoers. Keeping this in mind I made it out to the Lumina Theatre last week to see the Mike Nichols/Tom Hanks comic drama CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (which actually at #6 on the box office charts is doing pretty well) and I cozied up to the warm DVD player to watch BREACH so consider me unafraid of political. Or at least political pop pieces like these:

CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (Dir. Mike Nichols, 2007)

The charismatic senator famed for funding arms for Afghanistan against Soviet occupation is a tailor made role for Tom Hanks. He’s a charmer with a bevy of buxom secretaries, always a stiff drink in hand, and a penchant for punchy one-liners like “You know you’ve reached rock bottom when you’re told you have character flaws by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup”. Unfortunately the film is as glib as his character. Hanks glides through many West Wing-esque walk and talks (with the Aaron Sorkin scripting that’s got to be a given) and his scenes with Julia Roberts (as Texas socialite and activist Joanne Herring) with such a winking detachment that we never really feel invited in to his story – as fascinating on the surface as it is.

It starts out so promising – for instance Phillip Seymour Hoffman has a show-stopping shouting intro but then even he falls back into a laconic gruff presence. At one point, as if to borrow the gravitas from a far better satirical standard barer, Ned Beatty shows up to give a speech which helps the proceedings a little but NETWORK this ain’t. With the A-list gloss stripped away Wilson’s war story would be better told as a History Channel documentary. Sure, it sucks that people opt for fake history bullshit like NATIONAL TREASURE over films based on such juicy real events but when it’s the too smug for fun CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR – moviegoers might be better off with cinematic junk food.

BREACH (Dir. Billy Ray, 2007) “He was trying to commit the intelligence equivalent of the perfect crime” says Paul Moore of his former collegue Robert Hanssen (from a MSNBC report enititled “Mole” included as a bonus feature on the just released DVD). Hanssen, who sold military secrets to Russia during the height of the cold war, has had his story told before (the 2002 TV movie MASTER SPY: THE ROBERT HANSSEN STORY starring William Hurt) but this time the perspective is through the eyes of an upstart FBI agent wannabe Eric O’Neill (a stoic but moody Ryan Philleppe).

As Hanssen, Chris Cooper, in a career best performance, is suspicious but mostly oblivious to the scrutiny his position and power was undergoing. O’Neill is kept in the dark too at first – thinking that he’s assigned to Hanssen because as he is told by a handler (Laura Linney) that he is a sexual deviant. Despite this he builds a grudging respect for the man and even believes that his superiors have no case. This naive view shatters as the world of Hanssen’s making becomes mindblowingly clear. Some liberties were taken with the story – in actuality O’Neil knew going in what they were after Hanssen for – and a number of dramatic liberties are taken but the essence of the story remains sharply intact. Like Billy Ray’s previous film – the excellent SHATTERED GLASS the tension has a palpable edge missing in a lot of current thrillers. BREACH is a quietly absorbing tightly told tale of homegrown espionage and one that never forgets or lets us forget how high the stakes are.

More later…