December 9, 2011

Robin Scherbatsky Is Pregnant!... No Wait, Cancel That

After noticeably beginning to lose steam last year, How I Met You Mother has been really good this year. But then, in the middle of what is probably its strongest season in years -- a season featuring the "The Blitz", "The Ducky Tie", an old video of Marshall as "Beercules", and the return of the "Slutty Pumpkin" -- the HIMYM writers nearly sabotaged the whole thing with an apparent misstep that could have ultimately meant the end of the longrunning CBS series.

In case you don't watch, what I'm talking about is the character of Robin (played by Colbie Smulders) announcing that she was pregnant. When this happened two episodes ago I had terrible visions of what lay ahead. I figured they'd keep us on the hook for weeks as we wondered whether the father was Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) or Kevin (Kal Penn.) I figured they might even throw us a retcon curve and reveal that Robin hooked up with Ted (Josh Radnor) late one night, so the baby could also be his.

Robin would then go through turmoil as she decided when and how to tell the father; Lily would be supportive and thrilled because she had someone to be pregnant with; the guys would somehow bond over this new development and the whole show would start to look an awful lot like Thirtysomething.

Fortunately none of this happened. In this week's episode, Robin declared that she wasn't pregnant after all. In fact (and we know this because the entire premise of the show is that it's one big recollection) Robin will never become pregnant because she can't have kids.

It seems the whole pregnancy thing was just a red herring. I'm not sure why the HIMYM writers went this route but the most likely answer is that they threw the show's viewers this curveball strictly for the hell of it and because they're smart enough to know the perils of sitcoms that pursue pregnancy storylines.

If television history has taught us anything, it's that when it comes to longrunning shows, pregnancy represents a "Hail Mary play" for a creative team that's running short on new ideas. What happened to Rachel on Friends and Jamie Buckman on Mad About You are good examples of how adding a pregnancy (and a resulting baby) to an established sitcom doesn't work to the betterment of a show. It definitely wouldn't have worked for HIMYM.

For one, pregnancy and parenting, at their core, is for grown-ups. It's serious business only made comical onscreen when the parents of the kid are unprepared or have no idea how to deal with a child (and how many times can we watch the old cliche'd gag of someone not knowing how to hold a baby or change a diaper?)

Making our beloved Robin Scherbatsky (formerly known as Robin Sparkles) pregnant would have killed the light-heartedness of the show. Also, a good deal of HIMYM's comedy is derived from the fact that Robin, Ted, and Barney are all single; and that they hang out together in a bar and they each have their respective romantic entanglements that often turn comically disastrous. Robin being pregnant (with Barney and Ted as possible fathers) would have ruined all that. As a mom-to-be, Robin hanging out in a bar, hooking up with assorted guys would have gone from funny to disturbing pretty quick.

Plus, part of the reason Robin's so endearing is because she repeatedly demonstrates that she hasn't got it figured out yet. We identify with that and we laugh at (and at the same time, root for) her as she stumbles through relationships and career moves. Many of us have had that time in our lives when we were just like Robin -- seemingly a grown up who's got it all together, but deep down we're really just confused and trying to find our way.

Sure, a pregnant Robin would have created opportunities for a few funny plotlines in future episodes, but what the writers really would have done is fundamentally and permanently altered the entire mood of the show, while simultaneously painting themselves into a corner. Because, let's face it, with a baby in tow, Robin, Ted, Barney and the rest of the gang were going to be limited in what kind of wild shenanigans they could get into. And they were going to have to change... most likely for the worst.

December 2, 2011

Like Mother, Like Daughter: Janet and Paulina Gretzky

Paulina Gretzky (daughter of "The Great One" himself, Wayne) made the news this week. The 22-year old aspiring actress/model/singer (Hey, as long as you're aspiring, you might as well be a triple-threat, right?) posted too many racy photos on Twitter and (depending on who you want to believe) her account was either temporarily shut down by Twitter administrators, or by Paulina herself -- reportedly, at the request of her father.

I decided to check this out, mainly because I had totally forgotten Wayne Gretzky had kids and I was curious and I must say the "too sexy" pics are actually fairly tame. Rumor has it that Wayne is currently in negotiations to purchase a large interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs, so perhaps that has something to do with why this non-story has such legs. Or perhaps Paulina is just very media savvy and she herself is the one responsible for alerting everyone about her father's objections. 

Anyway, though I was underwhelmed by the "scandalous" nature of the photos, I was awed by how much Paulina looks like her mother. Paulina's mom is Janet Jones(-Gretzky), who back in the 80s, was a rising Hollywood starlet with a very bright Hollywood future.

Jones came on the scene virtually out of nowhere, playing the female lead opposite Matt Dillon in Garry Marshall's highly underrated coming of age comedy, The Flamingo Kid, in which Jones played love interest Carla and proved both physically stunning, and surprisingly competent acting-wise. The role gained Jones a good deal of attention in Hollywood, and after a supporting role in the movie version of A Chorus Line, she played the lead role of a top ranked gymnast in the 1986 film, American Anthem. About a year later, Janet began her relationship with Wayne and in 1988 the two were married in a ceremony that was considered Canada's version of a royal wedding.

After that, Janet Jones' show business career all but ended. She was in the very forgettable Police Academy 5, and did one of those Sports Illustrated husband/wife swimsuit photoshoots, but hasn't had a significant role in a movie or TV series since 1987. Presumably, she gave up acting to raise her family (the Gretzky's have five kids in all) and play loving wife to the greatest hockey player of all-time, but it's still a shame we never got to see more of her.

But anyway, back to Paulina. Take a look at the photos below and tell me she doesn't look EXACTLY like her mom 25 years ago. It's a case where you're positively blown away by the power of genetics.

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November 25, 2011

Trailer Friday for November 25, 2011

An all new set of trailers and our hearty commentary. Enjoy.

The Sitter (December 9)

"Adventures in Babysitting meets Superbad with a smattering of Sex Drive."

"Adventures in Babysitting is right. The movie's already drawing tons of criticism around the internet for copycatting. And deservedly so -- it's the exact same movie, only with tons of f-bombs!"

"It really is disgraceful how much they stole from that movie -- reluctant babysitter, same number of kids (3), taking them into the city to an all-black nightclub, criminals chasing them... The list goes on and on."

"This seems really raunchy. What kind of parent would let their child act in a movie like this? Still, I did laugh when he whispered, 'I f**king hate you too. I'll destroy you,' to the little girl."

"Bruh, I want 'Soul Baby' to be my new nickname!"

Melancholia (Now playing)

"Melancholia is the perfect title for this film. I wanted to like that trailer but it was really depressing."

"In fairness, it's a movie about a shaky marriage set against the backdrop of a rogue planet crashing into the earth. So tell me, what's there to be happy about?"

"By the way, Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for this."

"That's also where the director Lars von Trier sabotaged himself by making jokes about Nazis during a press conference. It's painful to watch."

"Nazi jokes to a roomful of Frenchmen?... Dude, know your audience!"

New Year's Eve (December 9)

"Ensemble pieces like this, Valentine's Day, He's Just Not That Into You, that have the multiple storylines going on at the same time, always seem really gimmicky to me."

"Box office poison Ashton Kutcher in the same movie with box office poison Katherine Heigl... Why didn't they throw in Nicholas Cage too? This film has no chance."

"Zac Effron, Jon Bon Jovi, Carson Daly, Seth Myers... I can't imagine any heterosexual men would want to see this."

"My focus is on the women. Halle Berry is still hot. Jessica Biel looks great too. But someone needs to tell Sofia Vergara that her spicy Latina schtick is wearing thin."

"I guarantee you, Robert DeNiro will only be in that one scene you saw at the very end."

The Hunger Games (March 23)

"I know this movie's based on a popular novel but there's not a lot of originality here. I see elements of Orwell's novel 1984, Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery", "The Most Dangerous Game", Stephen King's "The Long Walk", and The Running Man."

"It's also very similar to The Condemned, which was distributed by the same studio -- Lionsgate."

"The release date is what concerns me. March and April are typically months where studios clear the decks for summer releases they think are going to make a lot of money. Scheduling this for March 23rd makes me think execs in the know don't believe this movie's any good."

"Stunt casting Lenny Kravitz and featuring him so prominently in the trailer should also be a warning sign."

My Week With Marilyn (Now playing)

"So I heard this is based on a supposed real-life incident that took place when Marilyn was filming The Prince and the Showgirl."

"I'm planning on seeing it. Michelle Williams is the new Jennifer Jason Leigh. Young actress who started off doing light, teen-oriented stuff. You didn't think much of her at first but she turned out to be really talented."

"Absolutely. Shutter Island, Blue Valentine... She always chooses interesting roles and she's always really good."

November 22, 2011

USC-UCLA "I Love L.A." Music Video

With college football season starting to wind down, this weekend features a full slate of games between the sports' biggest rivals -- Alabama/Auburn, Pittsburgh/West Virgina, Georgia/Georgia Tech, Ohio State/Michigan, Florida/Florida St., and one my personal favorites, USC/UCLA.

In honor of the occasion, I dug into the Pop Culture Fiend Archives and tried to find something relevant. What'd I come up with?...

Two things. An old "Beat UCLA" button I got at the USC bookstore, and this VERY old video from The Pop Culture Fiend Archives of an ABC-TV produced promo for the game.

There was no date on the tape I culled this from, but I'm pretty sure it's circa 1989. I was able to deduce this based on clues in the video -- shots of Larry Smith (USC head coach from 1987 to 1992), USC 1989 All-American defensive back Mark Carrier (#7 in the group of players you see at the very beginning), and a cameo from Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis from the ABC comedy Anything But Love, which premiered in 1989.

I have to say, no matter who you root for in this rivalry, you gotta love this video's highly apropos use of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." Also, if anyone sees this and can identify the blonde majorette grooving in front of the UCLA band, please hit us up on email. (We've had a crush on her for 30  years. Of course, now that I think of it, she'd be in her early fifties by now but oh well.)

Oh, and in case you're wondering, this game ended in a 10-10 tie -- the seventh and final tie in this 82 year old rivalry.

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November 11, 2011

Trailer Friday for November 11th, 2011

Hi folks, it's Trailer Friday again. Check out our in-the-moment commentary on an all new crop of movies.

Immortals (November 11)

"I missed Clash of the Titans and was kind of disappointed by Troy but still enjoyed it. This looks way better than both."

"Not enough audience for this movie. It's probably gonna do poorly at the box office. Too bad -- I love my Greek mythology movies."

"I dunno, the last big picture the director [Tarsem Singh] did was that J. Lo movie The Cell, which was one of the worst movies I ever saw."

Snow White and the Huntsman (Summer 2012)

"This film has a lot to live up to. The writer got an unbelievable $3 million for what was essentially a spec script. That said, the trailer looks awesome! Of the two Snow White movies, this is definitely gonna be the one to see."

"Someone needs to return that magic mirror to Home Goods. There's no way that skinny, pasty, Kristen Stewart is "fairer" than Charlize Theron. Also, it's hard to buy Stewart as an ass-kicking action hero."

"Agreed. Seriously bad casting for that lead role. Stewart always looks so mopey and bored. Like she's thinking, 'Yeah, being a movie star sucks.'"

Project X (March 2)

"Can't Hardly Wait meets Risky Business with a smattering of The Blair Witch Project."

"First of all, they need a more original title. Project X is the name of an 80s movie about astronaut monkeys. No bullshit, Matthew Broderick was in it."

"Sex-starved teens have a wild party and wreck the house while their parents are away -- how original!"

"Here's a red flag for you -- Todd Phillips [Old School, The Hangover] is listed as producer but DIDN'T write or direct."

Justice (November 18)

"Why, oh why, do they keep giving Nicholas Cage starring roles? Box office poison."

"I say the exact same thing about Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, and Anna Faris. But seriously, this could be good. Roger Donaldson [No Way Out, Thirteen Days, The Bank Job] has a lot of great thrillers on his resume.'"

"Seems very predictable. Did anyone NOT think the favor the guy was gonna ask for was for Cage to kill someone?"

A Thousand Words (Coming soon)

"Broad, high-concept comedies like this -- Liar, Liar comes to mind -- often work. Wish I'd thought of that premise."

"High-concept... or gimmicky? It worked for Liar, Liar, not so much for Yes Man. It's all in the execution."

"I agree it's a great premise but judging from that trailer, they're not doing enough with it. I was expecting to laugh out loud watching that preview and it just didn't happen."

"This movie would work better with a stronger supporting cast. Someone like Chris Tucker as the best friend and Halle Berry instead of Kerry Washington as the girlfriend."

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November 10, 2011

Who Slept With Who On Gilligan's Island?

Over the course of human history, there have been many questions that have plagued mankind... What's the meaning of life?... Are we alone in the universe?... How could all those teenage Twilight fangirls possibly think Robert Pattinson is good looking?... And do we really need TWO Snow White movies?

But none of these questions compare to the one eternal mystery that every man, woman and child inevitably comes to ponder...

"Who had sex with who on Gilligan's Island?"

After considerable research in which I examined the series, the subtext of the individual episodes, and the psychology of the characters, I was finally able to definitively deduce who each of the castaways slept with during their many years on that damn island.

When you examine the Seven Deadly Sins of Gilligan's Island, you'll see that Ginger represents lust. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it's Ginger who is at the epicenter of all sexual activity among the castaways. So first off, Ginger did the Professor. You figure, the Professor is very studious, right?... He’s only interested in his experiments and he doesn’t pay Ginger any attention. That turns her on. (You know how chicks are always attracted to guys that ignore them.)

After that, Ginger did it with Mr. Howell. Why?.. One word, money. He probably promised to buy her a house, or jewelry or a movie studio or something after they got rescued. You see, people think that Ginger was this big famous movie star that was probably super-wealthy in her own right. The truth is Ginger was a "B"-movie actress who starred in a lot of low-budget films. Check this list of movies she mentions having starred in prior to being marooned on the island -- The Hula Girl and the Fullback, Mohawk Over the Moon, Belly Dancers of Bali-Bali, and Rain Dancers of Rango-Rango.

See what I mean? We're not exactly talking Schindler's List here, are we?

If Ginger Grant were an actress today, she'd be a lot closer to Carmen Electra than Meryl Streep. So you figure, when it came to her Hollywood career, Ginger was looking to get TO the top, by letting Mr. Howell get ON top... of her.

Okay next, Mary Ann had sex with Ginger. How do I figure?... You have to study the backstory of the characters. Mary Ann is a sweet, innocent, naïve little farmgirl from the midwest --probably still a virgin. Meanwhile, Ginger is this big Hollywood celebrity. You know, with that whole sixties, swinging lifestyle -- free love and what not. She was probably into all kinds of kinky stuff.

So one night, Ginger and Mary Ann go for a moonlight swim in the lagoon... Skinnydipping... They get back to their hut; they have a little champagne... (In case you're wondering where they got the champagne, Mr. Howell opened a case to celebrate after they escaped from the headhunters the day before.) So anyway, they’re in their hut, toweling each other off, sipping champagne... one thing leads to another... Next thing you know it turns into a late night 90s Cinemax movie starring Shannon Tweed.

Alright, later on -- not right away, but later -- after a couple of years on the island, Mary Ann and Gilligan hooked up. And that made Ginger jealous, so she seduced Gilligan and they had sex. Now I know what you’re saying, "Ginger was just a huge freakin’ slut!"... You are correct.

That leaves the Skipper. So who was banging him?... Nobody. Maybe Ginger threw him a bone one day and made out with him, or let him feel her up or something, but that's it. No coitus of any kind.

And finally, who was doing Mrs. Howell?... No one. Think about it. If you were on a deserted island and needed sexual gratification -- Mrs. Howell, or a hallowed out coconut?...

I rest my case.

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October 28, 2011

Hey Everyone, It's Trailer Friday!

Every other Friday (or so) we all get together to view bunch of the latest movie trailers. So check out what we watched and enjoy the commentary:

Warning: Explicit Content

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas [red band trailer]

"Yes! Harold's girlfriend [Paula Garces] is back, wearing lingerie and talking dirty!"

"Speaking of Kumar, Kal Penn is looking kinda old... and pudgy."

"This movie actually looks like it could be okay. Babies doing drugs is always good for a laugh."

Tower Heist 

"Tea Leoni's Hollywood career is like a Wack-a-Mole game. Every so often she pops up completely unexpectedly, then disappears again."

"It's been 25 years but Eddie Murphy's still got it. It's like as soon as you see his face, you smile."

"Is anybody else looking at Matthew Broderick and thinking, 'Wow, Ferris Beuller really let himself go."?

Piranha 3DD

"Was that Doc Brown from Back to the Future?"

"Cool -- Ving Rhames has guns for legs just like Rose McGowan in Planet Terror."

"Ten bucks says this movie never makes it theaters and goes straight to DVD."

"Campy, low-budget crap... But hey, can we watch that 'Double the D's' part again?"

The Mighty Macs

"The producers of this movie are targeting a very specific demo -- Catholic, women's college basketball fans."

"Isn't Marley Shelton supposed to be in this movie -- cause I don't think I saw her in that trailer."

"That 70s Show meets Hoosiers with a smattering of Sister Act."

In Time

"Interesting -- this is from the same writer who did Gattaca."

"Love the premise. Very Logan's Run-ny-ish."

"This could be a great movie. I seriously hope that puss Justin Timberlake doesn't ruin it."

"They had me the second Olivia Wilde's face hit the screen."

Related Links:
Trailer Friday for November 11th, 2011
Trailer Friday for November 25th, 2011

October 21, 2011

Signature Songs: The Bangles

Starting a new series today called "Signature Songs". In it, I'm going to be talking about the songs that are the best examples of the work of individual recording artists. For example, the signature song for Madonna would be "Like a Virgin. Why?... Because in addition to being a major hit, it includes many of the musical elements Madonna is best known for.

Making a determination like this requires a lot of generalization, because over the course of her  career, Madonna recorded songs in many different styles (as did many other longstanding artists.) For example, consider "Hung Up", which has that ABBA sample and is very "techno-ey"; "Take a Bow", which is a sad ballad replete with violins and other classical instruments; and "Physical Attraction", which is classic synth-ey 80s dance-pop.

But the reason "Like a Virgin" is Madonna's signature song is because it's the best representation of her "classic" self as a person and an artist. In other words, if you were forced to stereotype Madonna music, or choose one song to save in a time capsule so future generations could know what type of artist she was and what type of music she made, the best choice would be "Like a Virgin". And it has less to do with how big a hit "Like a Virgin" was than it does the fact that "Like a Virgin" includes the optimal combination of ingredients from Madonna's musical catalog. "Like a Virgin", for example, includes a lot of synthesizers -- as did most of Madonna's early hits ("Everybody", "Borderline", "Lucky Star", "Angel", "Dress You Up", "Into the Groove".) Like many Madonna songs, "Like a Virgin" is danceable, and perhaps most importantly, "Like a Virgin" is overtly sexual, both in title and lyrics -- and we all know that Madonna has certainly put her sexuality at the forefront of much of her music and her life.

Again, I'm generalizing somewhat and I understand that whether it's a solo act, a group or a band, an artist's music will likely evolve over time. Almost invariably, they'll start to explore different genres and musical styles, draw inspiration from new sources, perhaps collaborate with other artists, and otherwise begin to make music that's entirely (sometimes radically) different from what they're most well known for and/or were creating earlier in their careers.

Notice I said, "almost invariably." Mainly because there ARE artists who don't evolve very much and continue to churn out the same type of music. Their sound never (or barely) changes and they remain pretty much the same from the start of their careers to the finish.

Punk-oriented bands like The Ramones and Green Day come to mind. Certain "heartland" rockers like Springsteen and John Mellencamp also seem to be making pretty much the same type of music they did when they were first starting out. For example, recent Springsteen tunes like "Radio Nowhere" off 2007's Magic and "The Last Carnival" from 2009's Working On a Dream, would fit in perfectly next to cuts like "Badlands" and "Prove it All Night" on Bruce's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. (And judging by the two photos above, it looks like Bruce's wardrobe hasn't changed much either!)

The presumption is that heartland rock and punk rock are extremely well-defined sub-genres that are closely married to very specific attributes, attitudes and ideals. Heartland-rock, epitomized by Springsteen, Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, is often socially conscious and draws its themes from traditional American values like fairness, hard work, community, and loyalty. When the music an artist produces is so "rooted" this way, it's understandable how that music might only minimally change, even over a long haul (as opposed to what are perceived as more "disposable" or "manufactured" genres like glam rock for instance.)

Punk rock is also deeply rooted in very strong and specific ideals. It's stripped-down, fast-paced, angry, and anti-establishment. So as soon as a punk rocker begins making music that moves away from these core themes and attributes, that artist immediately loses their "punk identity" and starts to become something completely different. (They also run the risk of completely alienating their fan base and the core audience they worked so hard to gain.) This may help explain why bands like The Ramones, Social Distortion, and The Offspring made/make the same style music over their 20+ year careers.

Okay, that was quite a digression. I was talking about "signature songs" and the artist I'm going to begin with is The Bangles. Their signature song -- "If She Knew What She Wants".

No, not "Manic Monday", the Bangles first major hit and their most enduring song. And not "Eternal Flame", the band's only #1 record. "If She Knew What She Wants" gets the nod because The Bangles were formed largely based on founding members Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson and Debbie Peterson's shared love of The Beatles, The Byrds, and sixties psychedelia and "If She Knew What She Wants" represents the perfect blend of these three influences.

"If She Knew What She Wants" borrows the "jangly" Rickenbacker guitars found in the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn! and "Mr. Tambourine Man", but also adds a ton of terrific harmonies, reminiscent of not only the Beatles, but the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas as well. Also, if you listen closely, you'll find "If She Knew What She Wants" is structurally similar to the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" (which also features Rickenbacker guitars by the way.)

I dug through the Pop Culture Fiend Archives and found this performance of The Bangles performing "If She Knew What She Wants" on Late Nite with David Letterman (circa 1987, I believe.)

I've heard the group sing this song many times (including live) and this is arguably their best performance. From Susanna's distinct croon, to their clothes (check out Vicki's 60s-style go-go boots and hairdo) to their impromptu dance moves, this was The Bangles at their peak. The only question is, as an all-girl band that almost certainly had to go through a lot to be taken seriously, why are they not playing their own instruments?...

Oh well, in any case, enjoy!

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October 12, 2011

Proof That Even Really Bad Comedies Usually Have At Least One Good Laugh: Coup De Ville Edition

The "Louie, Louie" scene.

Coup de Ville is road comedy about three brothers -- a military man (Daniel Stern), a nebbish square (Arye Gross), and a cocky delinquent (Patrick Dempsey) -- forced to drive from Detroit to Miami to deliver their mom's Cadillac. There's very little that's memorable about this film... except this one scene.

In it, the three brothers enter a RAGING debate regarding the true lyrics of the famous 1963 Kingsmen hit, "Louie, Louie". The argument centers on the largely unintelligible lyrics and whether the tune is a "dance song", a "hump song", or a "sea chanty".

As a whole, Coup de Ville is largely unfunny. But everything about this one scene is perfect -- particularly the dialog, the pacing, and the acting. Dempsey's crude analysis and explanation of the lyrics is nicely juxtaposed with that of Gross, and Stern is awesome as the oldest brother, who initially ignores his siblings, but then eventually gets sucked into the debate. You gotta especially love the part where he says, "Oh Bobby, shut up, you don't know what you're talking about." He's just so bullying, sarcastic, and dismissive -- just the way older brothers are in real life. Also comically realistic is how everything escalates and these guys get so worked up over something so trivial -- very Seinfeld-esque.

Related Posts:
Proof That Even Really Bad Comedies Usually Have At Least One Good Laugh: Dude, Where's My Car Edition
Proof That Even Really Bad Comedies Usually Have At Least One Good Laugh: Skin Deep Edition

October 7, 2011

Real Steel Review in Zero Words

There you have it... If you don't believe me, check the trailer:

October 4, 2011

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 2

Be sure to check out Part 1 

15. Memphis Belle
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Written by Monte Merrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Tate Donovan, Billy Zane, D.B. Sweeney, John Lithgow, David Straithairn, Sean Astin, Harry Connick, Jr.

Excellent ensemble piece based in part on the true story of the crew of the "Memphis Belle", the first bomber in the 8th Air Corps to successfully complete 25 missions during WWII.

A vicariously thrilling tale of courage and comaraderie punctuated by some fine performances by some charismatic young actors, including Billy Zane, D.B. Sweeney, Eric Stoltz, Harry Connick, Jr. Matthew Modine as staid pilot Dennis Dearborn, and Tate Donovan as his glory hungry co-pilot Luke. The film so accurately captures the look of the period and the story is so engaging, you'll be on the edge of your seat for over an hour hoping the young crew can defy the odds and make it from their base in England to their German target and back.

Killer Sequence: Ironically, the film’s most powerful moment occurs not in the air with the young heroes, but back on the ground when John Lithgow, as an army Colonel working on publicizing the success of the Belle crew, reads through a collection of letters from the loved ones of soldiers killed in battle.

14. Shakespeare in Love
Directed by John Madden
Written by Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Rupert Everett, Judi Dench

A very clever premise sets this film in motion as it provides a fictional account of a young William Shakespeare in the process of penning Romeo and Juliet (or as it was originally titled, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.) With Joseph Fiennes (Ralph’s little brother) as the young bard and Paltrow (who won an Academy Award for her flawless performance as his treasured Viola) the
film expertly plays connect the dots and “What if it happened this way?” with the circumstances
surrounding the original production of what is arguably Shakespeare's most well-known play.

Paltrow’s character is slightly reminiscent of Julie Andrews’ in Victor/Victoria in its’ “woman dressed as a man playing a woman” theme but otherwise, Norman and Stoppard’s Oscar winning screenplay is uniquely original and sprinkled with clever literary references and in-jokes that add a rich subtext to the film. Some very funny supporting performances from Rush, Wilkinson, Firth, and a scene stealing Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I make the film even more of a must-see.

Killer Sequence: The film's climax sees Viola sail for Virginia with her husband. But as Shakespeare begins to write Twelfth Night, he imagines her shipwrecked and their love enduring for all time.

13. Groundhog Day
Directed by Harold Ramis
Written by Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie McDowell

Refreshingly inventive comedy from one of the funniest and most
underrated filmmakers working in the comedy genre, Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Analyze This, National Lampoon’s Vacation). Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical and condescendingly obnoxious weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right. In a series of hilarious sequences, Phil at first fears, then exploits, laments and finally makes the most of his situation. One of the most original comedies in years, featuring a subtly brilliant comedic performance by the always superb Murray.

Killer Sequence: Phil uses his unique predicament to rob an armored car and seduce a sexy diner patron.

12. Braveheart
Directed by Mel Gibson
Written by Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau

Scottish hero William Wallace is profiled in this sweeping Mel Gibson epic. In only his second directorial effort, Gibson manages to delicately balance the frenzied chaos of the riveting battle scenes with more quietly dramatic moments like those featuring Patrick McGoohan and Sophie Marceau as King Edward the Longshanks and Princess Isabelle, respectively. McGoohan delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as does Gibson, who wound up with two of the golden statues (Best Director and Best Picture.) Brilliantly photographed by John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Almost Famous) this film rivals David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as the best of it’s genre -- the historical action/drama.

Killer Sequence: Any of the seemingly logistically impossible battle scenes, particularly the one after Wallace appears in blue warpaint and delivers an inspiring speech to his troops.

The Godfather Part III
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Written by Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo
Starring: Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Joe Mantegna, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Diane Keaton, George Hamilton, Sofia Coppola

Much (unjustly) maligned third installment in the Coppola trilogy based on Mario Puzo’s best seller about the rise of an Italian crime family. Coppola was justifiably criticized for casting his inexperienced daughter Sofia in the pivotal role of Mary Corleone (a part that was to be portrayed by Winona Ryder until she dropped out of the project.) But Sofia’s amateurish performance aside, Godfather III is a superior film that would be much more highly regarded if it weren’t for the fact that its’ two prequels are considered two of the best movies in cinema history.

In a film that was nominated for Best Picture (G3 haters always seem to forget that) Coppola tells the tale of a now repentant Michael Corleone and his attempts to extricate himself and his family from the mafia ties created by he and his father. Coppola cleverly weaves his story around actual historical events, placing Michael at the center of the rise of the Atlantic City casinos and the political/corporate upheaval of the Vatican during the early 1980s. Andy Garcia is charismatic as Michael’s loyal but ambitious nephew, Vincent, who wants to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, and there are fine supporting performances by Joe Mantegna as Michael’s slimy nemesis Joey Zaza, and the overlooked Richard Bright as Al Neri.

Despite production problems that severely impacted his ability to deliver a worthy sequel (Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen, had to be killed off and Diane Keaton’s role as Kay was severely reduced -- reportedly because the pair each wanted more money) Coppola succeeded in making a film that stands on its own but is also true to its predecessors in both theme, characterization and visual style. A totally engrossing movie and one that provides closure on the story of the Corleones, the mafia family to which all others (both real and fictional) are now compared.

Killer Sequence: Every Coppola film has at least half a dozen, but nothing was more gut wrenching than witnessing Mary’s assassination (and Michael’s anguish) on the steps of the opera house.

Related Posts:

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 4

September 27, 2011

Will the Ultra-Cool The Playboy Club Find Its Audience?

The new fall TV season is here and we're watching a bunch of new shows like Whitney, Two Broke Girls, How To Be A Gentleman, Pan Am, and probably our favorite debuting series, The Playboy Club.

In a nutshell, it's Mad Men, meets American Dreams with a smattering of The House Bunny.

Like Mad Men, The Playboy Club features an ensemble cast, and is set in the early sixties in a workplace where all of the male characters are unapologetically misogynistic. The lead character, Nick Dalton (Eddie Cibrian) channels the cool, suave persona of Don Draper and like Draper, has a mysterious and shady past.

The American Dreams comparison refers to the plotlines of that show (which also took place during the 1960s) being set against the backdrop of real life events. American Dreams, for those who don't remember the overlooked but critically acclaimed series, traced the lives of a Philadelphia family as they experienced the tumultuous culture shifts of the 1960s. The JFK assassination, 1964 Philadelphia riots, Vietnam War, and American Bandstand TV show (produced in Philadelphia at the time) were just a few of the many real-life events incorporated into show episodes.

The Playboy Club is set to travel this same historically accurate route, teasing storylines that incorporate the infamous Chicago mob, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the Mattachine Society, one one of the country's earliest pro-homosexual organizations.

And there's a lot more going on with The Playboy Club, like the ongoing murder/coverup/investigation of a mafia kingpin, and (also like American Dreams) spot-on recreations of actual musical performances. (The premiere episode featured Ike and Tina Turner performing at both The Playboy Club and at Hugh Hefner's Chicago Playboy Mansion.) There's also a healthy dose of workplace romance, and lots of sexual tension between Cibrian and Laura Benanti who plays Carol, the club's resident den mother (hence, the "House Bunny" comparison.)

But if the primary reason you think you might be interested in this show is for the titillation factor, then you won't be dissapointed. There are plenty of sexy, bunny-eared, cotton-tailed bunnies flitting around. (Hey, you know you've got a sexy show when Jenna Dewan is only the third most attractive female cast member.) The clear standout, however, is the gorgeous Amber Heard as Maureen.

We first noticed Heard in Never Back Down back in 2008 and since then, she has taken on a series of curious roles in a number of offbeat films (Pineapple Express, Zombieland, The Joneses) presumably waiting for that breakthrough role that will make her a household name. Maybe the upcoming The Rum Diary, in which she co-stars with Johnny Depp, will serve that purpose. But on the other hand, maybe television is where she'll wind up -- at least for awhile.

In any case, there's an awful lot to like about The Playboy Club, but you have to wonder if it will
last. As a period piece with a large cast, it's an expensive show and will need to garner good ratings in order to survive. How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men have helped CBS own
Mondays for years, making it more difficult for The Playboy Club to draw the viewers it
needs to stay afloat. The debut scored a disappointing 1.6 rating (in the key demographic of 18-49 year olds) and yesterday's episode did slightly worse. Clearly, the show is being hurt by WWE Raw and (on the east coast) Monday Night Football, which combine to siphon off a huge share of male viewers.

Too bad, because The Playboy Club is a quality show. Guess we'll enjoy it for as long as we can.

September 23, 2011

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 1

Came across an article on Rolling Stone's website titled "The Worst Songs of the 90s" and it triggered two thoughts:

First, the list is full of songs that were MONSTER hits, including "Achy Breaky Heart", "Ice Ice Baby" and "My Heart Will Go On". Regardless of how you feel about Billy Ray Cyrus, Vanilla Ice or Celine Dion, it's important to remember that these songs (and the others on the list) weren't popular for nothing people. Radio stations were playing them, people were buying them, and folks all over the country were jamming to them whenever they were played on the radio, at clubs or at parties -- WHICH WAS ALL THE TIME!

So I guess what this list tells us is that for a 10 year span twenty years ago, the majority of us were complete idiots.

Either that, or just maybe, when we look back at our musical (and other pop culture) choices, we sometimes turn into hyper-critical revisionists. (But that's a blog post for another time.)

The other thing this article tells me is that maybe 80s nostalgia is finally winding down and is being displaced by 90s nostalgia.

So with that in mind, let's jump on board with a list of:

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s:

20. Higher Learning
Written and Directed by John Singleton
Starring: Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, Michael Rappaport, Ice Cube, Tyra Banks

Director John Singleton’s follow-up to his fine but overly praised Boyz N The Hood is far more ambitious and more technically sound than his previous work, as the tensions created by racial conflict mount, and eventually wreak havoc on the campus of a large California university. Singleton’s interesting camera work, the broader scope of his story, and the performances he elicits from his ensemble cast (particularly within the storyline depicting how Michael Rappaport, as a freshman misfit, falls in with a band of local skinheads) are all evidence of his growth as a filmmaker. An extremely engaging and realistic examination of race relations among college students and the ingredients that can sometimes lead to conflict.

Killer Sequence: The disturbing climax where Rappaport goes on a killing spree at the school is (sadly) all too familiar these days.

19. Happy Gilmour
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Written by Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
Starring: Adam Sandler, Carl Weathers, Christopher MacDonald, Julie Bowen

Adam Sandler plays the title character, a golf phenom whose sensibilities and demeanor are more suited to the hockey rink than the PGA Tour. Reminiscent of Caddyshack (not only in subject matter but also theme and characterizations) this film has a broader appeal than Sandler’s quirkier, earlier effort, Billy Madison. A home video classic and the picture that kicked Sandler’s movie career into high gear.

Killer Sequence: Hard to top that fight scene with The Price is Right’s Bob Barker.

18. Friday
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Written by Ice Cube, D.J. Pooh
Starring: Ice Cube, Chris Tucker, John Witherspoon, Anna Maria Horsford, Nia Long

Twenty-five year old director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job) capitalized on the growing popularity of urban, inner city dramas (Boyz N The Hood, Menace to Society, Juice) by showing us a fun side of life in the hood. Ice Cube, as Craig, proves that he can do more than just scowl into the camera, but the breakout star here is Chris Tucker as Craig’s drug peddling friend Smokey, who expertly jives, whines and connives his way through a film that traces a lazy Friday afternoon in the lives of the two slackers. Tucker creates one of the funniest and most memorable film characters of the decade and Friday's success on home video led to two sequels.

Killer Sequence: Craig settles the score and shows what it really means to be a man in his final confrontation with the neighborhood bully Deebo.

17. Armageddon
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh, Robert Roy Pool
Starring: Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton

Director Michael Bay (of the Transformers movies) proved that he is master of the action genre with this sci-fi thrill-ride. It’s a familiar storyline: Gaggle of oil drilling miscreants fly into outer space, crash land on an asteroid that’s hurdling towards earth, and somehow manage to blow it up and save the world... (Okay, so the story’s not so familiar...)

This was the second of two runaway asteroid movies in less than a year (Deep Impact was the other) but producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribbean, Gone in Sixty Seconds, Top Gun) and star Bruce Willis know their way around an action movie like no one else. Throw in some killer special effects and a little comic relief courtesy of Steve Buscemi, and this movie scores big time as thrilling, edge of your seat, pass the popcorn entertainment.

Killer Sequence: The opening CGI scenes of midtown Manhattan being decimated by a meteor storm.

16. Schindler's List
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Thomas Keneally, Steve Zaillian (Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley

Steven Spielberg has perhaps enjoyed more success than any other filmmaker in history. In the 90s, his films grossed over $1.2 billion at US box offices. Though many of his pictures have also been critically acclaimed (Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun), Schindler's List is still considered Spielberg's masterpiece. Disturbing, heartrending and uplifting all at once, the film tells the then little-known story of Czech business magnate Oscar Schindler, and how the morally bankrupt war profiteer finds his heart and saves his soul by orchestrating the escape of hundreds of his Jewish workers from the clutches of Third Reich. It’s impossible not to be moved by this film or the performance of a commanding Liam Neeson in the title role. Filmed mostly in black and white, the movie has an almost documentary type feel, particularly during those scenes depicting the atrocities committed by the Nazis. This film solidified Spielberg as not only the world’s most popular and successful directors, but also one of its’ most important and enduring.

Killer Sequence: The once callous Schindler breaks down in front of his workers, openly and inconsolably weeping as he tells them, “I didn't do enough.”

Related Posts:

The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 2
The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 3
The 20 Most Must-See Movies of the 90s: Part 4
Defining Films of the Decades