Film Review: “Godzilla vs Kong”

  • GODZILLA vs KONG
  •  Starring:  Godzilla, King Kong, Alexander Skarsgard
  • Directed by:  Adam Wingard
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 53 mins
  • Warner Bros.

It’s March.  Do you have your brackets ready?  Who are you picking?  Rodan?  Mothra?  Typhon?  How about King Ghidorah?  With a name like that, how can he lose?  Quite easily it turns out.

Off the coast of Florida an unusual creature emerges from the ocean.  It’s our old pal Godzilla and he’s pretty pissed.  As CNN reports the news, they question what turned this once “friendly” monster into a…well…MONSTER?

Meanwhile, on Skull Island, King Kong is just minding his own business when he suddenly finds himself captured and flat on his back on a barge on the ocean.  Destination?  I’m not telling.

Short on story but HUGE on special effects, “Godzilla vs Kong” is a perfect example of the mindless entertainment we need right now.  Sure, Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown and Kyle Chandler – who must really enjoying working with Mr. Kong since he also starred in Peter Jackson’s epic 2005 King Kong” – emote in all the right ways but come on, you came for the Titans!!

As the two title characters make their way towards the inevitable battle, they have some fun along the way, destroying cities and battling other badies.  Millions (conservative estimate) of innocent people are killed as entire city blocks full of apartment buildings are knocked over like dominoes.  But you don’t care about them – you cheer every punch and laser=breath blast, clearly taking sides in the Fight of the Century!

The film is well paced and the visual effects are amazing.  I just watched the original 1933 “King Kong” the other night and the effects here make the early stop-motion effects used in that film look like…well…early stop- motion effects.  The effects come courtesy of Peter Jackson’s WETA shop and are so clean you can count every hair on Kong’s back as the wind blows through it and every scale on Godzilla’s rather large body.

Sure, you could stay home this weekend and watch the basketball Final Four, or you can treat yourself to the Ultimate March Madness and see “Godzilla vs Kong!” 

Streaming/Television Review: TINA

  • TINA
  • Starring:  Tina Turner, Angela Bassett and Oprah Winfrey
  • Directed by:  Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin
  • Rating:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • HBO Documentary Films

I have a confession to make.  And before I fill you in, let me assure you that my wife already knows.  I have loved Tina Turner since 1975 when I saw her as the Acid Queen in “Tommy.”  When the 80s hit, and I became a young adult, her music and her talent made my crush seem all the more worthwhile.  Of course, thanks to her best-selling autobiography and the film “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”, the world knows that Ms. Turner’s life wasn’t all singing and dancing.  And who better to tell the story of that life then the legend herself.

“TINA,” premiering on HBO and HBOMax this Saturday night, March 27, tells the amazing story of Tina Turner in five parts.  First up is the story of IKE and TINA.  By all accounts, Ike Turner was a terrible person, but while saying that I also must note that he was a very talented musician who is widely credited for helping create the very first rock and roll song, “Rocket 88.”  A chance meeting with Ike Turner by Ms. Anna Mae Bullock of Nutbush, Tennessee led to one of the most popular musical groups of the 1960s, the Ike and Tina Turner review.  Here we learn how Ike actually gave Anna Mae the name Tina, without her knowing it,  We learn of the music and the popularity and we also learn about the horrible way Ike treated her.  A lot of the film consists of a recording of an interview Tina did with “People” magazine in 1981, as well as current conversations recorded with Tina in 2019.  I won’t belabor mentioning the abuse Tina suffered (in fact, this is something she is tired of talking about, as she tells more than one reporter) but to hear the stories in her own voice is heartbreaking. 

The other four parts of the film follow the path that Tina Turner took to get to where she is now, the unchallenged Queen of Rock and Roll.  And all along that path there were setbacks.  Her first single, “River Deep, Mountain High” didn’t achieve the success it deserved.  Her divorce from Ike left her with nothing but her name, something she had put in the divorce decree.  Stuck doing Vegas-type shows, she yearned to fill stadium with pure rock and roll.  You know how the story ends, but to see and hear it told by the lady herself is a grip worth taking.

Full of amazing interviews and even more amazing vintage footage, TINA is a must see!   

Film Review: “Nobody”

  • NOBODY
  • Starring:  Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen and Christopher Lloyd
  • Directed by:  Ilya Naishuller
  • Rated:  R
  • Running time: 1 hr 32 mins
  • Universal

BOB ODENKIRK – ACTION STSR!!!

Seriously.

A handcuffed man, his face badly bruised, sits across a table from two detectives.  They stare as he takes a can of cat food out of his pocket, then opens it.  They stare more as he pulls a kitten out of his jacket.  “Who are you,” they ask?

Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) leads a pretty dull life.  Wake up.  Make breakfast. Jog. Catch the bus.  Go to work.  Come home.  Repeat.  The same dull life, day after day after day.  Until the day he hears a noise downstairs in the middle of the night.  He comes across a pair of burglars, who confront him.  Suddenly his teenage son tackles one of the baddies and Hutch has the opportunity to take out the other.  Instead he lets them go, drawing the ridicule of everyone from his neighbor to the cop that takes the report.  He catches more hell at work from his boss – also his father-in-law – (Michael Ironside) and his brother-in-law (Billy MacLellan).  He remains un-phased until his daughter notes that her kitty-cat bracelet is missing, innocently commenting that it must have been stolen.  This comment, despite the innocence in its mention, triggers something in Hutch, who heads out on a mission.  And what a mission it is.

Action-packed from beginning to end, “Nobody” is a true cousin to films like “Death Wish” (the Bronson one, not the horrible Bruce Willis remake) and “Straw Dogs.”  A film about a seemingly mild-mannered man who reaches his breaking point.  Only Mitch is much deadlier because he has a past.  An amazing past that puts him square on the top of the “People You Should Never Mess With” list.

Odenkirk, probably best known as Saul Goodman in the acclaimed series “Better Call Saul,” is a revelation here.  I’ve been a fan since he appeared with David Cross in “Mr Show with Bob and David” and have enjoyed his supporting work in films like “The Post” and “Nebraska” proves himself a capable leading man.  His is a character you keep learning things about, slowly understand how (and why) he is able to do what he does.  The supporting cast is also very good, including Nielsen as Hutch’s somehow understanding wife, Aleksey Serebryakov as a Russian mobster and the always entertaining Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s father, who apparently has passed down some of the family skills. 

The film is perfectly paced – no slow spots and plenty of amazing action, all set to some great tunes that set the tone of the on-screen action.

Blu-ray Review: “News of the World”

  • NEWS OF THE WORLD
  • Starring:  Tom Hanks, Helena Zendel and Ray McKinnon
  • Directed by: Paul Greengrass
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • Universal Pictures

News is everywhere today.  Back in my day, you needed to watch television to learn what was happening, both locally and around the world.  Or subscribe to a newspaper.  Today there are 24 hour television news networks, Facebook, Twitter and all other assortments of way to get the word out.  So imagine having to gather in a darkened room, pay ten-cents and have someone read you the news.  If you can then allow me to introduce you to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

Now that the Civil War has ended, Captain Kidd (Hanks, outstanding as usual) earns his living traveling the country on horseback, picking up newspapers along the way.  He is known as a “News Reader,” and his choice of stories, and the way he tells them, earn him a decent living.  It’s 1870 and tonight we find him in the town of West Falls, Texas preparing for an evening of reading.  As he continues on his travels he comes across a young girl named Johanna (Zendel) who had been raised by Kiowa Indians but is now being sent to live with her remaining living relatives (her parents having been killed). Kidd takes her to the local settlement but is told by the authorities that he can either wait with her for three months – when the necessary people are scheduled to arrive – or take her to her family himself.  She is now his responsibility.  Determined to reunite her with her relatives, Kidd sets out with Johanna into the wild Texas wilderness.

Though well-paced, “News of the World” is not the type of film I expected from Paul Greengrass, whose amazing action work includes three “Bourne” films, “Captain Phillips” and the heart-wrenching “United 93,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Director.  Along the way to San Antonio (where Johanna’s relatives have settled) the pair run into all kinds of problems, including a band of no-goods who at first try to buy Johanna then decide to take her with violence. But Captain Kidd is a sharp guy – and a hell of a good shot.  As the film progresses, Kidd and Johanna form a bond.  He is protective of her as a father would be and she does her best to help him with his business, imploring those interested in Kidd’s news service to ante up a dime. 

Hanks is his usual excellent self, seemingly able to inhabit any character he plays, much like Jimmy Stewart did in his career.  Ms. Zendel is equally outstanding.  Already the youngest actress (she is currently 12 years old) in history to win the Lola for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” at the German Film Awards for her performance in 2019’s “System Crasher,” her inability to speak English only intensifies her work as most of her communication is done through body language and with her eyes.  It’s plain to see that Johanna has seen plenty in her young life and Ms. Zendel lets you see it on screen.

The film is beautifully photographed, with much credit due to Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Sweeney Todd,” “The Martian”).  He shoots the Texas landscape beautifully and a scene where Kidd and Johanna are caught in a sandstorm is breathtaking.  

The film has been released on home video to coincide with the Academy Award nominations, of which it received four: Original Score, Production Design, Cinematography and Sound. Surprisingly, besides containing one of Hanks’ best performances, the actor was not nominated.

The disc also comes with plenty of extras, including Deleted Scenes,several Featurets and an Audio Commentary by director Paul Greengrass.

Meet Our New Contributor: Keith Stevenson

As Media Mikes celebrates their 11th Anniversary, we are proud to welcome Keith Stevenson to our stable of writers.

Keith has been a lover of cinema since he was a young man and runs almost 20 film pages on Facebook, with a total membership of almost a quarter-of-a-million fans. His pages include tributes to JAWS, the ALIEN anthology, Directors Ridley and Tony Scott, Spike Lee and Black Cinema and Filmology – A Cinema Group, in which he writes about films of all genres. Give the page a look by clicking HERE

Look for his first essay, on the film TAXI DRIVER, later this week!

Welcome aboard, Keith!!

Television Review: ESPN Films 30 for 30: “Al Davis vs the NFL”

I had only been in Baltimore about a year when it was announced that the NFL”s Baltimore Colts would be moving to Indianapolis. The mood in the city was like a close friend had died. But teams moving was really nothing new in 1984. I grew up in Tampa and I still own t-shirts for the Tampa Bay Giants and the Tampa Bay White Sox, two teams that held their cities ransom with a threat to move in order to get new stadiums built.

In 1980 the Los Angeles Rams moved from L.A. to Anaheim (since then they’ve moved to St. Louis and back to L.A.). Seeing Los Angeles as a prime place to have a team, Oakland Raider managing partner /Al Davis decided to move his team to the empty Los Angeles Coliseum, with the promise of upgraded facilities and, of course, more money. But it wasn’t easy.

Entertaining and informative, “Al Davis vs the NFL” is another feather in the ESPN 30 for 30 cap. The film introduces both Pete Rozelle, who would become NFL commissioner and Davis, who helped found the American Football League (AFL) and soon became the managing partner of the Oakland football team. We see Rozelle in 1963 refusing to comment on a possible merger with the upstart AFL (it happened in 1966) and Davis’ team always running into bad luck, especially against the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. Glory comes so close for the silver and black, only to be dashed away by Franco Harris’ “Immaculate” Reception one year, and a field of solid ice two years later. Now Davis and Rozelle go head to head in Federal Court to decide where the Raiders will play next.

Told through archival footage, and narrated by reenactors, The film is an amazing look back at a much simpler time in sports. Though quite popular in the mid-1980s, football did not have the amazing impact it has now. As “Just Win, Baby” becomes the phrase of champions, we learn how simple animosity between two men led to a landmark legal decision. We are also reminded of some of the great sportscasters of that decade, including Howard Cosell, Phyllis George, and Curt Gowdy. The legal battle is fun to watch, as neither Rozelle nor Davis want to be the first to throw in the towel.

Of course, if you follow football you know that soon the Browns went to Baltimore and became the Ravens and the Oilers left Houston for Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Raiders returned to Oakland and then, this year, began -playing in their new home city of Las Vegas. You’ve heard the saying “you can’t tell the players without a scorecard?” Well, these days, you can’t tell the NFL without an Atlas!

Just in time for the Super Bowl (go Chiefs!), “Al Davis vs the NFL” airs on ESPN this Thursday, February 4. It will also run on ESPN+ after the broadcast.

Film Review: “STALLONE: Frank That Is”

  • STALLONE: AS IN FRANK
  • Starring:  Frank Stallone, Sylvester Stallone and Richie Sambora
  • Directed by: Derek Wayne Johnson
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 13 mins
  • Branded Studios.

I love me some Frank Stallone.

I was first introduced to his music when his group, Valentine, appeared as the street-corner singers in the Academy Award winning film “Rocky.”  I played the soundtrack album to death and one of my favorite tracks is Stallone’s song “Take You Back.”  He also contributed to and performed several songs for the film “Staying Alive,” including the top 10 hit “Far From Over,” which earned him Grammy and Golden Globe nominations for best motion picture song.  Criminally it was NOT nominated for an Oscar, the category that year being overtaken with songs from “Flashdance” and “Yentl.”

As an actor, Stallone has turned in fine work in films like “Barfly,” “Hudson Hawk” (a guilty pleasure of mine) and “Tombstone” (he is the card player that accuses Doc Holiday of cheating early on in the film).  With all of these achievements you’d think he would be a household name like his brother, Sylvester.  Unfortunately despite his talents, that is one shadow he has never been able to escape.  Until now.  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…Frank Stallone.

This entertaining documentary begins with Frank Stallone in the next phase of his career…doing big band songs.  Dressed to the nines, and sporting a pair of Frank Sinatra’s cuff links, he takes the stage to great applause.  He is in fine voice and the crowd loves him.  We learn that he always had a love for music and, when he caught Elvis Presley on television, vowed to make it his career.

Growing up in Philadelphia he played in a couple of different bands.  He then formed Valentine, a band with several different line-ups (the third version is the one that appeared in “Rocky.”)  Along the way he worked with both Darryl Hall and John Oates, who played guitar in Valentine 2.  In a conversation with Oates we learn that, after he left the band he hooked up with Hall.

Having a song in the most popular film of 1976 should have been a ticket for musical stardom for Stallone and his group.  Unfortunately, when the band had a gig it was often introduced as “Frank Stallone and Valentine,” much to Stallone’s chagrin.  The shadow of his movie star brother followed Frank as a solo artist, with newspaper ads touting him as “Sylvester Stallone’s Brother, Frank.”  One club announced his appearance by simply noting that “Rocky’s Brother” was playing.

But it isn’t just music that Stallone does well.  We learn he is also an accomplished boxer and, as I noted, a fine actor.  Unlike some “actors” who only get cast because they have more famous family members – I’m looking at YOU, Joey Travolta.  You too, Don Swayze – Stallone never used his brother as a stepping stone.  In fact, sometimes the name was a curse.

As the film progresses we are treated to a bevy of Frank’s friends, touting his talents.  Among them are big brother /Sly, Billy Dee Williams, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Talia Shire – who can understand Frank’s frustration at being known as someone’s brother (her maiden name is Coppola, as in Francis Ford, and she wanted to be judged on her talents, not get a job because of who her brother is) and Steven Bauer.  Attesting to his musical talents you have such musical icons as Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, Guns and Roses bassist Duff McKagen and the ever-young Frankie Avalon. 

If you’re looking for a film in which the underdog keeps fighting, and you’ve already seen “Rocky” a hundred times, I hope you give “Stallone: Frank That Is” a look. 

Win a Blu-ray/DVD copy of “Honest Thief,” starring Liam Neeson

Media Mikes has teamed up with their friends at Universal Pictures Home Entertainment to give one random reader the opportunity to win a Blu-ray/DVD copy of Liam Neeson’s latest action film, “Honest Thief.”

The film, written and directed by Mark Williams (“The Accountant,” “Ozark”) stars Neeson as a notorious bank robber who turns himself in, only to be betrayed by a pair of corrupt F.B.I. agents.

All you need to do is let us know in the comments below what your favorite Liam Neeson film is. Is it one of his action flicks, like “Taken?” Something romantic like “Love Actually?” Or something prestigious like “Schindler’s List?” Let us know below. One random entry will be chosen and that reader will win the prize. This giveaway ends at 11:59 pm CST on Sunday, January 3, 2021. Winner will be notified by email. GOOD LUCK!

“Honest Thief” is now available wherever you can purchase Blu-rays or DVDs.

Film Review: “Wonder Woman 1984”

  • WONDER WOMAN 1984
  • Starring:  Gal Gadot, Chris Pine and Kristen Wiig
  • Directed by: Patty Jenkins
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  2 hrs 32 mins
  • Warner Bros.

FINALLY!!

Originally scheduled to be released LAST December, Wonder Woman has

finally returned to the big screen.  And after more than eight months of dark times, moviegoers (and theatre owners) will be glad to see her.

We find ourselves on the Island of Themyscira.  An event to rival the Olympics is about to begin.  Among the participants is the young girl Diana (Lilly Aspell), anxious to compete against the older contestants.  Diana is leading the race when a mishap slows her down.  She tries to “Rosie Ruiz” her way to victory but is stopped.  Upset at losing she is comforted with the words, “Your time will come.”

1984.  A strange time in the world.  A time of popped collars, fanny packs, video arcades and pay telephones.  We meet a now adult Diana Prince (Gadot) at her job at the Smithsonian.  We also meet a new employee, meek Barbara Minerva (an amazing Wiig), so unassuming that she literally has to introduce herself to the supervisor that hired her.  A recent robbery attempt – which Diana as Wonder Woman foiled – has led the F.B.I. to a cache of stolen ancient artifacts which were being sold on the black market.  They have asked the Smithsonian to identify some of the pieces, including an odd piece that is referred to as “the Wishing Stone.” Sounds like a cool item but remember the old adage: be careful for what you wish for.

Jam packed with action as the film travels the world, from Washington D.C. to Egypt, “Wonder Woman 1984” is a thrill-ride of a film guaranteed to get your heart racing.  Gadot continues to bring new aspects of the character to the forefront, here showing the longing and sadness she has endured since her boyfriend Steve Trevor (Pine) died at the end of 2017’s “Wonder Woman.”  As you can see above, Chris Pine is in this film (he’s also in the trailers so I’m not giving anything away) but I’m not going to say anything about how he got here.  I will say that, with his wide-eyed astonishment at what he sees 70 some years after his death (when trying on parachute pants he inquires if everyone parachutes), Pine is perfect in the role.  Wiig is a revelation.  Sure she can be funny, but here she is also vulnerable as well as downright nasty.  As scamming oil dealer Max Lord, Pedro Pascal chews the scenery like Gordon Gekko on speed.

The film is beautifully shot and Ms Jenkins’ direction flows smoothly, though at two and a half hours the film could have used some trimming.  Hans Zimmer’s score sets the mood of the film and energizes the action scenes. 

We missed out on this one last December.  Thankfully Santa thought we were nice enough this year to drop Wonder Woman in our stockings! 

P.S. – Sit through the end credits – you won’t be disappointed that you did! 

A Conversation with Author and Filmmaker Nicholas Meyer

It’s hard enough establishing yourself as one of the best in one field.  Nicholas Meyer has achieved this goal in several.  His first novel, “The Seven Per-Cent Solution,” introduced a new generation of fans to the exploits of Baker Street’s best known sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. 

Following the enthusiastic greeting of the film version of the novel, for which Meyer wrote the script, he made his film directorial debut with 1979’s time-travel classic “Time after Time.” For his next project he simply created the greatest “Star Trek” film in the series when he took the helm on “Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan.” 

Mr. Meyer then proceeded to frighten everyone living in the Midwest with the television film “The Day After,” which told the story of the town of Lawrence, Kansas dealing with the devastating effects of a nuclear bomb. Twenty years after the film aired my son went to the University of Kansas, which is in Lawrence, and the first thing I thought of was this film. 

His other films include “Volunteers” with Tom Hanks and John Candy; “Company Business” with Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov (which he also wrote) and the final adventure for the Original Series cast, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”

Stepping back from directing after his wife passed away from breast cancer at the age of 36, Mr. Meyer has continued to write, not only novels but for both the big and small screen.  Mr. Meyer recently took some time out of his schedule to talk about his career, past, present and future. I should note that I am posting this on Christmas Eve, Mr. Meyer’s 75th birthday. Happy birthday sir!

Mike Smith:  You graduated from Iowa State with a degree in filmmaking and drama.  You also wrote film reviews (hope for me to yet to become successful).  What was your career goal upon graduation?  Acting?  Directing?

Nicolas Meyer:  My motives were doubtless inchoate.  All I knew was I wanted to “Make Movies” (I’m guessing I meant Directing), but hadn’t much of any idea how to go about it.

MS:  Your first success was the Sherlock Holmes novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.”  Did you have to get approval from the Conan Doyle estate before you began writing?

NM:  “Where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise.”  I had – typical – no idea the difficulties I would encounter with the avaricious and totally mismanaged Conan Doyle estate.  Had I known what I was in for, I doubt I would have written the novel.

MS:  You’ve written three additional Holmes stories.  Was this a favorite character of yours when you were younger?

NM:  I fell in love with Holmes around age 11 when my father gave me “The Complete Holmes” to read.

MS:  You received an Academy Award nomination for your adapted screenplay of “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.”  Was it easy to convince the studio to allow you to write the script?  Did they try to pair you with another writer?

NM:  It was very easy as I refused to sell the rights to the book unless I got to write the script.

MS:  Do you have a favorite story about the making of “Time after Time?”

NM:  I was amused when my producer’s wife, Nel Jaffe, suggested that Malcolm McDowell and his leading lady, Mary Steenburgen, were falling in love.  “Nonsense,” I thought, I’m simply a brilliant director.  (NOTE:  McDowell and Steenburgen married shortly after the film was released and were together for a decade).

MS:  Were there any “rules” you had to follow on “Wrath of Khan?”  Did you ever have an idea that was nixed from above because it wasn’t something “Trekkie?”

NM:  I was pretty much left to my own devices writing and directing the movie.  Sometimes the film’s producer, Harve Bennett, would reel me in.  I remember at one point Carol Marcus warns her son against killing Kirk – “You’ll be a parricide!” I wrote.  Harve said, “Nick, no; you’ll be killing your father.”  That sort of thing.  Occasionally the cast would offer corrections: “This isn’t the way so-and-so talks” and I’d make those kind of adjustments. 

MS:  You are the only director to pull what I considered an award worthy performance from William Shatner.  Every time his voice cracks when he describes Spock’s souls as the most….human it brings a tear to my eye.  Much more emotional.  How did you address the character with Shatner?

NM:  I found the trick with Mr. Shatner was to make him do scenes several times.  He would get bored and stop attitudinizing.  He’d stop “acting” and start “being.”  That said, Shatner’s performance is his own and all credit for it belongs to him.

MS:  A favorite memory from working on “Wrath of Khan?”

NM:  Really a post film memory.  I was talking with my friend John McNamara (NOTE: Mr. McNamara’s credits include the television series “The Magicians” and the feature film “Trumbo”) and I mentioned that my favorite shot in the film is the pullback in the torpedo bay as the torpedo is lowered and makes its way towards the audience.  I said, “I know it’s an anachronism from old Pirate movies but I couldn’t resist.”  Whereupon John protested, “what do you mean ‘anachronism?’ The weapon’s electronics were all out of commission.  They had to go that way!”  To my way of thinking this is a perfect example of the imaginative contribution of the audience, essential for successful artistic experiences.  You want people’s imaginations engaged.  Or, as Shakespeare puts it in “Henry V,” “On your imaginary forces, work!”

MS:  This is a question inspired by my friend Andrew Armstrong, who is the biggest“Star Trek” fan I know and who is quick to point out little things that most people would never notice.  Did you ever get scolded by a fan about Khan recognizing Mr. Chekov, even though Chekov wasn’t in the “Space Seed” episode that inspired the film?

NM:  Yes he was, but on a different deck!

MS:  You have a bit of matchmaker in you.  Shortly after “Time After Time” Malcolm McDowell  and Mary Steenburgen were married and Tom Hanks met Rita Wilson on the set of your next feature, “Volunteers.”  Could you see then the career Hanks had in front of him?

NM:  I confess I could not.  I thought Tom was (and is) a terrific actor and a wonderful human being.  I was delighted he and Rita fell – and remain – in love.  I knew he’d have a career but couldn’t dream how big it would get.

MS:  I imagine if was a fun set working with both Tom Hanks and John Candy.  Do you have a favorite memory from “Volunteers?”

NM:  The scene where they are sitting next to one another on the plane and Candy talks about Albert Speer’s quote that fear is victory’s fuel.  No matter how many times we rehearsed this, Tom couldn’t keep a straight face – and I’m talking MONTHS between rehearsals and shooting.

MS:  Apparently DeForest Kelley did not want to direct (I joke – I actually think Shatner did a competent job with TREK V, especially when you read his book about the experience)  and you were brought back to close out the Original Series portion of the “Star Trek” film legacy with “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”  How did you manage to squeeze Christian Slater into a cameo?

NM:  Christian’s mother, Mary Jo Slater, was my casting director.  She mentioned that her son was a big fan. 

I highly recommend Mr Meyer’s book detailing his amazing career.

MS:  Are you working on anything currently?

NM:  I co-created (with Frank Spotnitz) the Italian television series “Medici, Masters of Florence.”  I’ve published my fourth Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols.”  The paperback edition just came out November 10th and the fifth novel, The Return of the Pharoahm” will come out next fall.  I’m also working with Frank Spotnitz on a new television series. 

If you want a more in-depth look at Mr. Meyers work, you can visit his official website HERE

Film Review: “News of the World”

  • NEWS OF THE WORLD
  • Starring:  Tom Hanks, Helena Zendel and Ray McKinnon
  • Directed by: Paul Greengrass
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 58 mins
  • Universal Pictures

News is everywhere today.  Back in my day, you needed to watch television to learn what was happening, both locally and around the world.  Or subscribe to a newspaper.  Today there are 24 hour television news networks, Facebook, Twitter and all other assortments of way to get the word out.  So imagine having to gather in a darkened room, pay ten-cents and have someone read you the news.  If you can then allow me to introduce you to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

Now that the Civil War has ended, Captain Kidd (Hanks, outstanding as usual) earns his living traveling the country on horseback, picking up newspapers along the way.  He is known as a “News Reader,” and his choice of stories, and the way he tells them, earn him a decent living.  It’s 1870 and tonight we find him in the town of West Falls, Texas preparing for an evening of reading.  As he continues on his travels he comes across a young girl named Johanna (Zendel) who had been raised by Kiowa Indians but is now being sent to live with her remaining living relatives (her parents having been killed). Kidd takes her to the local settlement but is told by the authorities that he can either wait with her for three months – when the necessary people are scheduled to arrive – or take her to her family himself.  She is now his responsibility.  Determined to reunite her with her relatives, Kidd sets out with Johanna into the wild Texas wilderness.

Though well-paced, “News of the World” is not the type of film I expected from Paul Greengrass, whose amazing action work includes three “Bourne” films, “Captain Phillips” and the heart-wrenching “United 93,” which earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Director.  Along the way to San Antonio (where Johanna’s relatives have settled) the pair run into all kinds of problems, including a band of no-goods who at first try to buy Johanna then decide to take her with violence. But Captain Kidd is a sharp guy – and a hell of a good shot.  As the film progresses, Kidd and Johanna form a bond.  He is protective of her as a father would be and she does her best to help him with his business, imploring those interested in Kidd’s news service to ante up a dime. 

Hanks is his usual excellent self, seemingly able to inhabit any character he plays, much like Jimmy Stewart did in his career.  Ms. Zendel is equally outstanding.  Already the youngest actress (she is currently 12 years old) in history to win the Lola for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” at the German Film Awards for her performance in 2019’s “System Crasher,” her inability to speak English only intensifies her work as most of her communication is done through body language and with her eyes.  It’s plain to see that Johanna has seen plenty in her young life and Ms. Zendel lets you see it on screen.

The film is beautifully photographed, with much credit due to Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Sweeney Todd,” “The Martian”).  He shoots the Texas landscape beautifully and a scene where Kidd and Johanna are caught in a sandstorm is breathtaking.  

If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I wish Tom Hanks would do a Western – and the “Toy Story” films don’t count – your wish has been granted.  Think of “News of the World” as an early Christmas present.    

Film Review: “The Dissident”

  • THE DISSIDENT
  • Starring:  Omar Abdulaziz, John O. Brennan and Hatice Cengiz
  • Directed by: Bryan Fogel
  • Rated:  PG 13
  • Running time:  1 hr 59 mins
  • Orwell Productions

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi National, walked into the Saudi consulate office in Istanbul, Turkey in order to obtain the necessary paperwork to marry his fiancé.  He was never seen again.

We open in Montreal, Canada where we meet Omar Abdulaziz, a friend of Khashoggi, is traveling on the subway.  While telling the interviewer he does not feel safe he receives a text.  It informs him to be careful and to change his cell phone number.  The final words are chilling:  “They are going to kill you soon.”  So begins a film that anyone concerned with Human Rights and the right to speak freely MUST see.

We learn much about Khashoggi, both the person and the journalist.  A long time, and popular, Saudi reporter he trumpeted the successes of the Royal Family for three decades.  Enter crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, referred from now on, and in the film, as MBS.  Promoting himself as a new kind of leader (he opens movie theatres and allows women to drive) MBS is the man in charge of the oil, which is the lifeblood and currency of Saudi Arabia.  However, he is in reality not a nice guy and soon Khashoggi begins

to write negatively about him.  Being the age of social media, Khashoggi beings sending unflattering tweets.  Twitter is a big deal in Saudi Arabia, with over 80% of the population tweeting daily.  To combat the negativity, MBS employs hundreds of “trolls” to drive down the popularity of Khashoggi’s tweets – not allowing them to trend – and spread disinformation.  Fearful for his life, Khashoggi leaves Saudi Arabia in late 2017 in self-exile.  But he doesn’t stop writing.

I try to keep politics out of my writing – you’re here to get my opinions on film, not my political beliefs – but the film is a fair, and damning, report on the way the world works.  Jumping back and forth between Abdulzazzi’s travails in Canada and the last year of Khashoggi’s life, it’s clear to see that, as Cyndi Lauper used to sing, “Money Changes Everything.”  Many world leaders, including US President Trump, immediately side with MBS, who proclaims his innocence in the matter of Khashoggi’s death.  Even when Turkish police are finally able to search the Embassy and develop evidence – a room is spackled with blood under the black light, a Saudi agent is seen leaving the Embassy in Khashoggi’s clothes, only to go a few blocks, duck into a restaurant rest room, and exit in different clothes.  Still, ideas like “rogue agents” are thrown out as quickly as beads at Mardi Gras.

We also learn the more personal side of Khashoggi, as we meet his fiancé Hatice Cengiz.  She talks about his gentle side.  How he loved the Lazy Boy recliner she had purchased him and how they spoke of marriage.  Bravely she continues to speak out about Khashoggi’s murder, hoping that SOMEONE will hold MBS responsible.  In fact, as I write this comes word that Ms. Cengiz is calling on President-elect Joe Biden to make good on a campaign promise to get accountability in Khashoggi’s murder, asking Biden to release the CIA’s classified report once he takes office.  I should note that President Trump read the CIA’s report and dismissed it.

A powerful film that will make you think long after it’s over, “The Dissident” is one of the best films of the year. 

Film Review: “HAM; A Musical Memoir”

  • HAM: A MUSICAL MEMOIR
  • Starring:  Sam Harris, Todd Schroeder
  • Directed by: Andrew Putschaegel
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 57 mins
  • Global Digital Releasing

Now that there are 10,000 television channels to choose from, it seems like every one of them have a talent contest program.  “American Idol.”  “So You Think You Can Dance?” “Masked Singer.’  “Masked Dancer.”  ‘So You Think Your Monkey Can Sing?” (coming to the Animal Planet, probably sooner than we think).  But the one that really started it all was an early 1980s program called “Star Search.”  “Star Search” ran for fourteen seasons (13 in the 80s-90s and one in 2003) and introduced the world to such talented performers as Brad Garrett, the band Sawyer Brown, Billy Porter (more on him later), Adam Sandler, Alanis Morisette, Sinbad, Britney Spears and Sutton Foster.  But the best and the brightest to come out of “Star Search” was first season Grand Champion Sam Harris.  After his big win, it was all fame and fortune and success.  Right?

A filmed version of Harris’ award winning off-Broadway show, “HAM: A Musical Memoir” is an entertaining – and deeply moving – look at the life of a boy with a dream and the sacrifices he had to make to keep that dream alive.  Still looking youthful at age 59, Harris takes the stage, accompanied on piano (and in banter) by Todd Schroeder.  We learn that the showbiz bug bit Harris at an early age – 3 ½ – and his early days were happy.  His father was an athletics coach and, when he tried out for Little League and was offered the position of team water boy he realized he was “different.”

A job at Opryland in Tennessee at age 16 released him from the bonds of his Oklahoma home.  It also introduced him to, as Harris calls it, “the Summer of Scott.”  With his dreams still in his sight, Harris heads to California, where he performs in night clubs – sometimes to an empty audience.  Harris talks about his audition for “Star Search” and how he was originally rejected.  He emphasizes these stories with several musical numbers, from familiar show tunes to original songs written by Harris and Schroeder.

But it’s not all music and laughter.  In the most emotional part of the film, Harris explains the emptiness in his young life, how he felt he had not lived up to his father’s dreams for him and how he decided to take his life.  He does not succeed, obviously, but the scars from the incident, and so many more from his life, are evident in his heartbreaking delivery.

I have seen Harris a few times in concert and had the amazing opportunity to catch an early preview of “Grease” before it went to Broadway, which starred Harris as Doody and Billy Porter (told you he’d be back) as Teen Angel. (The show also featured a very miscast Rosie O’Donnell and a very young Megan Mullally, who would go on to star on “Will & Grace,”).  The fourth number in the show is “Those Magic Changes,” which Harris performed.  He brought the house down.  I remember turning to my friend when the applause died down and commenting “well, that’s the show-stopper!”  And it was, though Porter’s “Beauty School Dropout” was a close second.  We had been invited to the cast party after the show and I was able to chat with most of the cast – even got a few to sign my CD of the show (already recorded).  It was a great night and one I still think of, even though I went home with a massive crush on Susan Wood, who played Sandy!

I still have my CD – Sam signed it in silver!

Performed on an almost empty stage (there’s a bench and few props), “HAM” succeeds on Harris’ genuine and unvarnished look at his life, warts and all.  If you are a fan of Harris – as I am – this is a film for you.  If you aren’t familiar with him, I recommend you give it a look.  Not only for the music and laughs, but for the honesty Harris shares.

Film Review: “All Joking Aside”

  • ALL JOKING ASIDE
  • Starring:  Raylene Harewood, Brian Markinson and Richard Lett
  • Directed by: Shannon Kohli
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 23 mins
  • Animal Mother Films

The story is told that, in 1833, a friend visited actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you?”. Kean smiled up at his visitor weekly and assured him it wasn’t.  “Dying is easy,” Kean replied.  “Comedy is hard.”

Not sure if that is a true story or not but it has lived on through the ages.  Jack Lemmon was fond of saying it and, in the film “My Favorite Year,” Peter O’Toole’s character also uses it.  I’ve been told I’m a funny guy but I don’t have three minutes of stand-up to offer.  I have great respect for my friend Sandy Bernstein, who many years ago, in her fifties, decided to give stand-up comedy a try and she has been quite successful at it.  It’s not for everyone.  But Charlene “Charlie” Lewis Harewood) is a 21 year old wannabe who’s not afraid to take the stage.  Unfortunately, she should be.

A well-crafted story grounded by excellent performances, “All Joking Aside” is one of those little films you might miss if you blink. Charlie’s first attempt on stage is ruined by a heckler who dresses her down from the audience for her topic selection.  Charlie later learns that her tormentor is Bobby Carpenter (an excellent Markinson).  A decade earlier he was THE comic that everyone wanted to see, with new material nightly and a disdain for doing television and movies.  Charlie finds out that in his last appearance on stage Bobby got into it with a customer and assaulted him with the microphone, blinding the customer.  Charlie tracks Bobby down and convinces him to teach her the ropes of comedy.  From how to design your set list to which jokes to lead with first.  And, most importantly, to observe and write daily.

Raylene Harewood is “Charlie” Lewis

A film about stand-up should, of course, be funny and “All Joking Aside” has some side splitting moments.  But it also has heart, which makes it a rarity in the genre’. The heart here comes from the performances of the three leads.  As Charlie, Miss Harewood begins as a girl with a dream (and a medical condition) who is not afraid to face down either.  Mr. Markinson, a veteran of several television shows with recurring roles in “Mad Men” and “The L Word” among others, is well-cast here.  At first you’re not sure of his motives for initially heckling Charlie, then agreeing to help her but as the film plays out, they become evident.  And I must also single out Mr. Hewitt, who plays the owner of the local comedy club and whose relationship (and influence) with Bobby helps drive the film.

As I said, the film is well written and nicely paced.  If I had one problem with the film it’s that it makes it look very easy to just walk into a comedy club and get on stage.  Not in New York City!  If you don’t believe me, ask my friend Sandy!

My funny friend Sandy Bernstein

And if you’d like a couple of extra laughs, you can follow Sandy at http://www.sandybernsteincomedy.com/

Film Review: “BELUSHI”

  • BELUSHI
  • Documentary
  • Directed by: R.J. Cutler
  • Rated:  Not Rated
  • Running time:  1 hr 48 mins
  • Passion Pictures

He was the first movie star of MY generation.  Springing almost seemingly from nowhere he appeared on my television one late Saturday night and remained there for five years, giving my friends and I unending laughs and so many catch phrases – “but NO!” – to take us all the way through high school.  He made hit films, inspiring an amazing Toga Party at my house that is still part of Tampa’s legacy.  He is John Belushi, the subject of an incredible new documentary airing this Sunday, November 22, on SHOWTIME.

Told though audio interviews with many of the people who knew him best, ‘Belushi” introduces us to a young man that was seemingly born with a will to succeed.  As a young boy he would entertain his neighbors, had a successful band and was King of his high school prom.  When he and a couple of friends form their own imrov group it isn’t long before they are asked to audition for the prestigious Second City Comedy Troupe.  He becomes the first person to audition for the group and be asked to join the First Stage group, not learn the ropes in the touring company.  This leads to New York, the National Lampoon show “Lemmings” (and their weekly radio show) and, eventually, “Saturday Night Live,” which my friends and I all watched in my living room the night it premiered.    Soon came Hollywood, albums and fame but sadly the demons also came along with them.

John Belushi in his final film, “Neighbors”

The son of Albanian immigrants, John’s father came to America with dreams of becoming a cowboy.  Instead, he settled his family in Wheaton, Illinois and opened a restaurant.  Both of his parents were ashamed of their accents but John and his brothers and sisters loved America and set out to find their dreams.    When he meets Judy Jacklin at high school (their first date is the senior prom) he finds someone who loves him unconditionally.  The film highlights many letters that John sent to Judy throughout his life.  Whether they contained good career news, or his heart breaking words while dealing with his various addictions, the love he has for her is front and center.  Conversations with Judy, and best friend Dan Aykroyd, reveal the John Belushi nobody really knew and the ache in their voices when they explain they did all they could do to save him from his demons  is real.   After the release of their last film together, “Neighbors” – a film that was not loved by critics – Aykroyd describes talking to Belushi and finding him “sad and defeated.”  Aykroyd informs John that he is writing their next project and that it will be a success.  That film was “Ghostbusters.” 

But “Belushi” is also a testament to the man’s talent.  Early performance clips, including his audition tape for “Saturday Night Live,” show a man

Full of love and humor John only wanted to share both with people.  In 1978 John Belushi did something no other entertaining ever did.  In one week he not only starred in the No 1. Show on television – “Saturday Night Live” – but also in the No 1. Film that week, “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” To add to this historic achievement, he also, along with Aykroyd, had the No 1 Album in the country – “Briefcase Full of Blues” – with the Blues Brothers.  Through the audio interviews, we hear from many people that knew John best, from his mother and brother, Jim, through people that worked with him over the years, including Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Penny Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Richard Zanuck and Lorne Michaels. It is these performances that are the highlight of the film.  I have always maintained that John Belushi would have had a career similar to Robin Williams.  Both men had unlimited range and talents and I would not have been surprised if Belushi won an Oscar one day.  Sadly, we will never know what joys John Belushi could have given us.  But the ones he left us in a single decade of work are much more than most performers leave in an lifetime.