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Sunday, March 4, 2018

The 90th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

"The Shape of Water" vs. "Three Billboards" – or Will They Have to Get Out for "Get Out"?

By Chris Sabga

Nothing was going to top the chaos and buzz of last year's Oscars, but the 90th annual Academy Awards felt like its age.
Before the Show

Jimmy, Warren, Faye, and That Mix-Up!

A year ago, I wrote:

To Jimmy Kimmel's credit, the lengthy ceremony raced by. This may be the most fun I've had watching the Oscars in years."

Part of that was because of last year's shocking "twisting ending," which became the "water cooler moment" of the broadcast.

"La La Land" was announced as Best Picture – and then it wasn't. In a stunning faux pas by presenters and "Bonnie and Clyde" stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it turns out the wrong movie was named. (They were somehow mistakenly handed the envelope for Best Actress, which went to Emma Stone for "La La Land.") Their error was acknowledged – as the world collectively held their breath and gasped – and then the actual winner was announced: "Moonlight" scored Best Picture in one of the most surprising upsets in Oscar history.

Jimmy is back this year, and so are Warren and Faye – but I don't expect lightning to strike twice. If anything, I'm anticipating an even more by-the-books and controlled ceremony than usual, and that's really saying something considering how stuffy and rigid the Oscars normally are.

Any Potential Surprises?

The "safe money" seems to be on "The Shape of Water" or "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." But will the entrenched "business-as-usual older Oscar voters split the vote between the two projected front-runners, paving the way for another film entirely to reap the big reward? Could the Academy's efforts to recruit a younger and more diverse voting base end up "playing spoiler" and pushing ahead a movie like the wonderfully creative and buzz-worthy "Get Out" instead?

Full results are listed at the end.

The Oscar Ceremony

The Host: The opening monologue was more serious than usual. Only a few clever jokes broke up the unusually heavy atmosphere.

Between Parkland, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, there's not much to laugh about these days. As Kimmel said later on, "reality can be depressing."

Still, Jimmy is a natural and can easily do this for another ten years like Billy Crystal and Bob Hope before him.

Best Oscar Speeches: The speech by the winners of "Coco" about representation – people of all races, colors, and creeds needing to see themselves on screen – was possibly the first great one of the night.

Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton using sign language during their entire speech for "The Silent Child" was amazing – and quite fitting considering both the subject matter and star of their movie.

I loved Jordan Peele's speech for Best Original Screenplay. He talked about wanting to give up 20 times because he didn't think anyone would ever actually agree to let him bring "Get Out" to the screen. I'm glad he kept writing, because not only did he get to make his movie, he won the Oscar for it.

Frances McDormand – long overdue for an Oscar – made an impassioned plea for women's rights and equality. She mentioned the term "inclusion rider" in her speech. What does that mean? According to The Hollywood Reporter, she's asking for "requirements in contracts that provide for gender and racial diversity." I expect that to be the most talked about issue brought up at the Academy Awards, both within the industry and by the moviegoing public at large.

Best Presenters: Eva Marie Saint – who admitted she's older than Oscar – did such a classy job of recapping her career and presenting the award for Costume Design.

Taraji P. Henson positively beamed when she revealed that Mary J. Blige is the first person ever nominated for both Best Song and Best Supporting Actress in the same year.

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani – two names people "have trouble pronouncing" – were funny, charming, and inspiring. They recounted their journey to the film industry as immigrants from Kenya (Lupita Nyong'o) and "Pakistan and Iowa (Kumail Nanjiani) – two places people in Hollywood can't find on a map."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were hilarious. I love Tiffany Haddish!

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made the most of their second chance. Their presentation was short but sweet.

I was hoping they would announce a winner that wasn't even nominated – a terrific punchline to last year's monumental mistake – but no one was willing to be that daring this year, much to the show's detriment.

Best Moments: Jimmy Kimmel announced that speeches wouldn't be interrupted by music this year. Instead, Lakeith Stanfield ran out and re-enacted a scene from "Get Out." Oscar winners whose speeches are too long, Kimmel said, will have to "get out." Cute!

The "Price is Right"- like jet ski contest for shortest speech – which was won by Costume Designer Mark Bridges.

Best Dressed: I don't usually care about this, but the timeless Rita Moreno was in the same dress tonight that she wore 55 years ago when she won the Oscar for "West Side Story" in 1962 – and she pulled it off spectacularly!

Biggest Surprise: None in the major categories. Both Documentary awards and the Live Action Short Film winners went against general projections. Otherwise, this was the most predictable Academy Awards in years.

Overall: There were a few good lines, and Kimmel is a comforting presence, but this year's ceremony felt too safe and stuffy. After last year's fiasco, it seemed everyone went out of their way to avoid making any mistakes at all. There were a few good zingers and moments, but almost everything was too buttoned up and restrained. The winners were predictable, and with an overabundance of musical acts, video tributes, and skits, the show was too long.

Full Results

Best Picture: "The Shape of Water"

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman, "Darkest Hour"

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Allison Janney, "I, Tonya"

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water"

Best Animated Feature: "Coco" – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Best Adapted Screenplay: "Call Me by Your Name" – James Ivory

Best Original Screenplay: "Get Out" – Jordan Peele

Best Foreign Language Film: "A Fantastic Woman" (Chile)

Best Documentary Feature: "Icarus" – Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan

Best Original Song: "Remember Me" from "Coco" – Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez

Best Original Score: "The Shape of Water" – Alexandre Desplat

Best Cinematography: "Blade Runner 2049" – Roger Deakins

Film Editing: "Dunkirk" – Lee Smith

Costume Design: "Phantom Thread" – Mark Bridges

Makeup and Hairstyling: "Darkest Hour" – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Production Design: "The Shape of Water" – Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Sound Editing: "Dunkirk" – Alex Gibson, Richard King

Sound Mixing: "Dunkirk" – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

Visual Effects: "Blade Runner 2049" – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Best Documentary Short: "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" – Frank Stiefel

Best Animated Short: "Dear Basketball" – Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant

Best Live Action Short: "The Silent Child" – Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

A Hilarious Love Letter to Video Games

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 20th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, 
Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Cast: The Rock, Kevin Hart, 
Jack Black, Karen Gillan, 
Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, 
Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, 
Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, 
Missi Pyle, Marc Evan Jackson 

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is an unapologetic love letter to video games that left me laughing almost nonstop.

The film begins with four high school kids getting detention: shy nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), stocky football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain, whose character seems like an obvious nod to NFL player William "The Refrigerator" Perry), socially-awkward loner Martha (Morgan Turner), and vapid teen queen Instagram addict Bethany (Madison Iseman).

There are a couple of fun adult cameos, with Marc Evan Jackson as the principal (he's perhaps best known for his role as Shaun from "The Good Place," playing the same type of dryly entertaining character here) and Missi Pyle ("Dodgeball") as the coach.

As punishment, the children are forced to clean the school basement. There, they discover a dusty old video game system. The cartridge included is, of course, "Jumanji." As soon as they press "Start" on the controller, they're suddenly inside the game, where they literally turn into the characters they just selected.

  • Geeky Spencer becomes musclebound action hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (The Rock).
  • Imposing football star Fridge shrinks into a mini-refrigerator, embodying the much shorter and scrawnier form of zoologist Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
  • Bookish outcast Martha morphs into buxom Lara Croft wannabe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), complete with a tight top and overly short pants that could work nowhere else but in an over-the-top action movie or video game like "Jumanji." (Luckily for them – and us – "Welcome to the Jungle" is both.)
  • And – most hilariously of all – phone-addicted queen bee Bethany transforms into Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), not realizing until it's too late that Shelly is actually short for Sheldon.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" smartly spends several minutes allowing the kids to explore their new bodies, characters, and abilities. It's hysterically funny watching them to react to such an unimaginable situation.

But the real fun comes from the way "Jumanji" inhabits the world of a video game, with amusing nods to all of the quirks and idiosyncrasies gamers take for granted that are bizarre in any other context.

Almost every video game has a "life bar." So, too, does this one – in the form of disappearing tattoos on the characters' wrists. There are also pop-up menus in most games that display important information. In the world of "Jumanji," a character can press on his or her pec like a button to bring up a list of skills, strengths, and weaknesses – the funniest of which are cake (weakness) and dance fighting (strength). Naturally, death is never final in any game – unless you're down to your last life. Like many video games, dying in "Jumanji" takes the form of a quick explosion – poof! they're gone – and then the character falls down from the sky to play again. Real-word logic and physics don't apply here, just as they don't in many games. There are also "NPCs" – non-player characters – who repeat the same scripted, stilted dialogue whether appropriate or not. The most amusing of these is their tour guide, Nigel (Rhys Darby).

All of this will seem like a foreign language to anyone who has never picked up a video game controller, but any gamer reading this will smile in recognition.

The Rock, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black do an incredible job of portraying confused, scared kids who are stuck in new bodies and trapped inside a video game. They may be adults in the world of "Jumanji" but they're still really children. That has its benefits too, though, because Spencer can use his gaming skills to progress from "level" to "level" with the goal of getting everyone back home to the real world. As much as I love The Rock and Kevin Hart (I hope they do 20 more movies together), and as great as Karen Gillan is here, the underrated Jack Black steals the show as a shallow teenage girl who now has to contend with being a fat middle-aged man.

As the fearful foursome progresses, they eventually run into two other major characters. Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas) seems like a heroic fighter pilot but he's really another kid named Alex who is also stuck in the game. He's down to his last "life" and afraid to move forward because a tough "level" has claimed his previous" lives." They all have to contend with the villainous Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who is the "final boss" – another video game staple.

"Welcome to the Jungle" comes 22 years after 1995's "Jumanji." but it's a standalone "sequel" that requires no knowledge of the original. However, there is one reference to Robin Williams' character, Alan Parrish, from the first film. There are also nods to The Rock's other career – as a professional wrestler. In an action scene, we see The Rock's finishing move, the Rock Bottom, and his character refers to himself in the third person at one point like The Rock always did in the WWE. All of that is right in line with the clever winks provided throughout.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is the rare example of an action-comedy that's smartly written, has clever characterization, and is actually funny. It's the perfect movie to see when you need to take your mind off your problems and simply laugh in the dark for two hours. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The 90th Annual Academy Awards: Nominations and Notes

The Oscars Turn 90 – Here are the Silver Screen Surprises of This Year's Nominations

By Chris Sabga

Just as I did last year, I will list the nominees and then examine the "Silver Screen Surprises" for each of the main categories.

Which films and performers was I surprised to see on the list?

Were there any surprising omissions?

And the Oscar goes to...
Best Picture

"Call Me by Your Name"
"Darkest Hour"
"Get Out"
"Lady Bird"
"Phantom Thread"
"The Post"
"The Shape of Water"
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Surprises: With all of the hoopla surrounding "Wonder Woman," I really expected it to the lead the pack – and maybe even win. Instead, it has been completely shut out. That's somewhat surprising in the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp where women are rising up and exposing widespread systemic sexual abuse, unfair gender wage gaps, skewed power dynamics, and many other major problems both in and out of Hollywood. It's long overdue. If there was ever a movie I assumed the Academy would choose as a "symbol" of everything that's happened, it was this one. In the past, phony Tinseltown has shamelessly attached itself and certain movies to major issues going on in the world in a futile attempt to "look progressive." While this omission is sure to upset many, perhaps it's a sign that everyone in Hollywood finally realizes that these women aren't going anywhere – nor should they – and a token nomination or award isn't going to be enough this time to solve all of the very real problems plaguing the film industry.

However, in the battle of "superhero movies," my heart was with the surprisingly powerful and poignant "Logan" – which stripped the iconic X-Men characters of most of their powers and instead explored their humanity and fragility. Alas, it too was completely omitted from most of the major categories.

Another major omission, for me, is the wonderful "The Big Sick." It takes real artistry to turn a movie about a girl in a medically-induced coma into one of the funniest and most heartwarming films of the year. Combining comedy and drama is never easy, and this movie does it effortlessly.

Of the current nominations, none of them are even remotely shocking to me. They're the same movies I've seen in other awards ceremonies and on various prediction lists for the past several weeks.

Lead Actor

Timothée Chalamet, "Call Me by Your Name"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Phantom Thread"
Daniel Kaluuya, "Get Out"
Gary Oldman, "Darkest Hour"
Denzel Washington, "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Surprises: "Roman J. Israel, Esq." has been plagued by critical scorn and audience indifference, so I wasn't necessarily expecting Denzel to show up here. He is always solid though.

James Franco was predicted to be the front-runner at one point for "The Disaster Artist," but allegations of sexual misconduct may have put the deep freeze on his Oscar chances – and his career in general. A far cry from just one year ago where Casey Affleck faced similar accusations and sailed away with the Academy Award anyway. #TimesUp indeed.

I loved Kumail Nanjiani's semi-autobiographical performance in "The Big Sick," and while expected, I'm still sad to see him left off this list.

Lead Actress

Sally Hawkins, "The Shape of Water"
Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Margot Robbie, "I, Tonya"
Saoirse Ronan, "Lady Bird"
Meryl Streep, "The Post"

Surprises: Meryl Streep gets an unexpected nomination. Oh, who am I kidding? There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Meryl Streep getting nominated for an Academy Award.

Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe, "The Florida Project"
Woody Harrelson, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Richard Jenkins, "The Shape of Water"
Christopher Plummer, "All the Money in the World"
Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Surprises: I'm not sure I was expecting both supporting actors to be nominated for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but you can never go wrong with Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

Patrick Stewart's heartbreaking turn in "Logan" as an elderly superhero who can no longer control his powers was unjustly overlooked by the Academy. Surely, we could've had one billboard outside Ebbing, Missouri in this category to make room for the former Captain Picard.

Speaking of former TV actors, Ray Romano's kicked puppy dog performance in "The Big Sick" was quietly powerful – and unfortunately nowhere to be found in this category.

Supporting Actress

Mary J. Blige, "Mudbound"
Allison Janney, "I, Tonya"
Lesley Manville, "Phantom Thread"
Laurie Metcalf, "Lady Bird"
Octavia Spencer, "The Shape of Water"

Surprises: No real surprises here. Octavia Spencer has become the new Meryl Streep with all of the nominations she's racked up over the years – not that I'm complaining, because she's terrific. It's also nice to see Laurie Metcalf too.


Christopher Nolan, "Dunkirk"
Jordan Peele, "Get Out"
Greta Gerwig, "Lady Bird"
Paul Thomas Anderson, "Phantom Thread"
Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water"

Surprises: With "Wonder Woman" not in the Best Picture race, its director Patty Jenkins isn't here either. Neither is James Mangold for "Logan."

Animated Feature

"The Boss Baby" – Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
"The Breadwinner" – Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
"Coco" – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
"Ferdinand" – Carlos Saldanha
"Loving Vincent" – Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Surprises: I never expected "Loving Vincent" to be recognized. Look for a review soon!

Adapted Screenplay

"Call Me by Your Name" – James Ivory
"The Disaster Artist" – Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
"Logan" – Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
"Molly’s Game" – Aaron Sorkin
"Mudbound" – Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Surprises: "Logan" gets something at least – this is its one and only nomination – but can it win?

Original Screenplay

"The Big Sick" – Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
"Get Out" – Jordan Peele
"Lady Bird" – Greta Gerwig
"The Shape of Water" – Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Martin McDonagh

Surprises: No real surprises, but I'm happy to see "The Big Sick" here. This is its lone nomination.

Other thoughts: This is the first Oscars of the post-Weinstein era. In addition to being a horrible monster accused of multiple counts of sexual assault and misconduct, he also used his considerable power and influence to shift the awards advantage to movies under his own banner. Ask any regular person why they stopped taking the Oscars seriously and they'll likely point to the year "Shakespeare in Love" upended "Saving Private Ryan." Now, "Shakespeare" was a nice little trifle of a movie – I enjoyed it well enough – but nothing in it comes close to the staggering open scene of "Ryan." Let's hope for a purer and fairer Academy Awards this year.

Note from Silver Screen Lawyer: Please automatically assume "alleged" or "allegedly" are attached to every sentence written here about famous and powerful men accused of sexual abuse and misconduct, whether the words are actually present or not – even if they aren't grammatically correct or otherwise appropriate to include. Also, add "Mr. [Fill-in-the-Monster-Here] unequivocally denies any allegations of non-consensual sex."

The rest of the categories and nominees are:

Animated Short

"Dear Basketball" – Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
"Garden Party" – Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
"Lou" – Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
"Negative Space" – Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
"Revolting Rhymes" – Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer


"Blade Runner 2049" – Roger Deakins
"Darkest Hour" – Bruno Delbonnel
"Dunkirk" – Hoyte van Hoytema
"Mudbound" – Rachel Morrison
"The Shape of Water" – Dan Laustsen

Best Documentary Feature

"Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" – Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
"Faces Places" – JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
"Icarus" – Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
"Last Men in Aleppo" – Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
"Strong Island" – Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

Best Documentary Short Subject

"Edith+Eddie" – Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
"Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" – Frank Stiefel
"Heroin(e)" – Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
"Knife Skills" – Thomas Lennon
"Traffic Stop" – Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film

"DeKalb Elementary" – Reed Van Dyk
"The Eleven O’Clock" – Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
"My Nephew Emmett" – Kevin Wilson, Jr.
"The Silent Child" – Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
"Watu Wote/All of Us" – Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film

"A Fantastic Woman" (Chile)
"The Insult" (Lebanon)
"Loveless" (Russia)
"On Body and Soul (Hungary)
"The Square" (Sweden)

Film Editing

"Baby Driver" – Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
"Dunkirk" – Lee Smith
"I, Tonya" – Tatiana S. Riegel
"The Shape of Water" – Sidney Wolinsky
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Jon Gregory

Sound Editing

"Baby Driver" – Julian Slater
"Blade Runner 2049" – Mark Mangini, Theo Green
"Dunkirk" – Alex Gibson, Richard King
"The Shape of Water" – Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Sound Mixing

"Baby Driver" – Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
"Blade Runner 2049" – Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
"Dunkirk" – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
"The Shape of Water" – Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Production Design

"Beauty and the Beast" – Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
"Blade Runner 2049" – Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
"Darkest Hour" – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
"Dunkirk" – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
"The Shape of Water" – Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Original Score

"Dunkirk" – Hans Zimmer
"Phantom Thread" – Jonny Greenwood
"The Shape of Water" – Alexandre Desplat
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – John Williams
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Carter Burwell

Original Song

"Mighty River" from "Mudbound" – Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from "Call Me by Your Name" – Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from "Coco" – Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from "Marshall" – Diane Warren, Common
"This Is Me" from "The Greatest Showman" – Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Makeup and Hair

"Darkest Hour" – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
"Victoria and Abdul" – Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
"Wonder" – Arjen Tuiten

Costume Design

"Beauty and the Beast" – Jacqueline Durran
"Darkest Hour" – Jacqueline Durran
"Phantom Thread" – Mark Bridges
"The Shape of Water" – Luis Sequeira
"Victoria and Abdul" – Consolata Boyle

Visual Effects

"Blade Runner 2049" – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" – Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
"Kong: Skull Island" – Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlon
"War for the Planet of the Apes" – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Movies I Missed: A Charlie Brown Christmas

I'm Finally Watching the First Peanuts Special

By Chris Sabga

1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has been a classic childhood holiday staple for over five decades.

Everyone's childhood except mine.

Whenever I'd tell people that I've never seen "A Charlie Brown Christmas," shock would take over their faces. Then their voices would lower. "You've never seen it?" they would whisper in hushed tones, clearly aghast by the mind-boggling information I've just given them. I could see it in their eyes and read their minds: To them, I lived the most deprived childhood possible.

Actually, my childhood was great! I spent it watching another Christmas classic: "Die Hard." Yippee Ki-yay...

My friend Neil from the YouTube channel "IWALVG" (I Will Always Love Video Games) found himself in the opposite situation. He had never seen "Die Hard." Of course, most 9-year-olds probably aren't going to be watching that like I was. Still, it's now decades later and we both had a gaping hole to fill in our respective pursuits of cinematic Christmastime cheer. He still hadn't seen "Die Hard" and I'd never seen "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Well, Neil lived up to his end of the bargain. Now it was my turn.

I found the movie in a double-feature DVD with "The Peanuts Movie" for $9 at Walmart. A $5 VUDU digital movie code knocked the price down even further in my mind. Other than a very lucky Goodwill find, it was never going to get any cheaper than this.

It was either now or never.

As soon as I pressed the "Play" button, I was instantly charmed by "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

It tells a very simple – but powerful – story. Charlie Brown has become depressed by the over-commercialization of Christmas. Lucy needs someone to direct the school's Christmas play. She recognizes that Charlie Brown needs a project to sink his teeth into. They agree to help each other out. Will Charlie Brown rediscover the joy of Christmas?

We all know the answer to that, of course.

One of Charlie Brown's tasks is finding the perfect Christmas tree for the play. Even people who have never seen "A Charlie Brown Christmas" – such as me, before now – know about "the Charlie Brown tree." It's famous outside the movie. It may be a tiny, wilted, shedding, pathetic little tree – but Charlie Brown sees something special in it that nobody else does. Will everyone else eventually see the tree the way Charlie Brown does?

Again, we all know the answer to that.

There's a scene with Linus reciting a Bible passage that he says demonstrates the true meaning of Christmas. Something like that would probably never be allowed today. Believe it or not, it was frowned upon for different reasons back then. According to the DVD extra "A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas," it was suggested to "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz that comic strips were "too crass" for Biblical verses. Schulz took offense, and rightfully so, because he was a tremendously gifted storyteller whose medium of choice just happened to be the unique art form of comic strips. There was nothing lowbrow about what he was doing with Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, and the gang.

The beauty of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is in its stark simplicity. In only 25 minutes, it tells a wonderful story and fills its viewers with the cozy warmth of Christmas.

It took almost three decades for Charlie Brown to finally appear in another Christmas special: 1992's "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown." The Peanuts gang's return to Christmas is entertaining enough, but it lacks the magic, powerful storytelling, and emotional wallop of the original. It tends to meander on a bit, unlike the more focused "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It works as a double feature with the original, but it's unlikely to stand the test of the time the way the 1965 classic has. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: Batman vs. Two-Face

Adam West vs. William Shatner

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 17th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Animation, Action, Comedy
Running Time: 72 minutes
Director: Rick Morales
Writers: Michael Jelenic, James Tucker
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, William Shatner, 
Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, Sirena Irwin, 
Thomas Lennon, Lee Meriwether, William Salyers, 
Lynne Marie Stewart, Jim Ward, Steven Weber, 
Wally Wingert 

In the 1960s, Adam West's Batman and William Shatner's Captain Kirk were two of the most iconic characters in all of television. In "Batman vs. Two-Face," a sequel to the wonderful "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders" set in the colorful "Whap! Pow! Bang!" universe of the 1960s "Batman" show, West and Shatner are together at last – terrible TV movies notwithstanding – as both best friends and archenemies. Thanks to the powers of animation, they haven't aged a day since the '60s.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Dr. Hugo Strange's latest invention: a device that sucks out and isolates the evil from Gotham's super-villains. What could possibly go wrong? With a quack like Strange at the helm, it doesn't take long to find out. Things go awry – because of course they do – and undefeated lawyer Harvey Dent (who bears a striking resemblance to a young William Shatner) is transformed against his will into the villainous Two-Face. I was not expecting that in the first five minutes of the film.

After rehabilitation and plastic surgery, Dent is allowed to practice law again. However, the former legal ace is now reduced to being the assistant to the assistant district attorney. It's quite a fall from grace – and a ready-made formula for a super-villain origin story. Or is it? When Two-Face (Shatner) inevitably resurfaces, Batman (West) refuses to believe his "old chum" Dent is the man behind the dual identity this time – despite the repeated protests of a jealous Robin (Burt Ward).

"Return of the Caped Crusaders" featured such a memorable rogues gallery of villains – The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman – that any sequel would be hard-pressed to top them. While Shatner's Two-Face is a more-than-worthy adversary, he's not the only one who makes an appearance. "Batman vs. Two-Face" dips deep into the lore of '60s Batman show and trots out a couple of suitably corny c-level baddies: the felonious pharaoh King Tut (Wally Wingert) and the literary lout The Bookworm (Jeff Bergman). If you didn't just smile, you've never seen the magical TV series all of this is based on.

(And if you're a fan of the other villains, don't worry: there are several cameos and a surprising deleted scene – hidden in plain sight on the Blu-ray – featuring arguably the most popular criminal adversary in Gotham City nowadays.)

Adam West and Burt Ward have never sounded better. Julie Newmar's Catwoman also returns in a reduced role (along with another cat-related surprise I won't spoil). Shatner is surprisingly restrained in his voicing of Two-Face – if you were expecting his usual long pauses and various Shatner-isms, they're not really there – but he does a nice job of making Dent and Two-Face sound distinctive from each other.

Like "Return of the Caped Crusaders" before it, "Batman vs. Two-Face" feels like an extended episode of the old show – and that's exactly how it should be.

Which movie is better? I slightly favor the first because I remember feeling so so giddy with glee watching a reunion unfold before my very eyes that I never thought would be possible. But I've heard from Bat-fans who prefer this one. Either way, you're going to have a great time.

In one of the extras, Burt Ward revealed that he and Adam West have been submitted to "The Guinness Book of World Records" as the only two actors who have worked together over the span of 50 years. "Batman vs. Two-Face" ended up being Adam West's final role before his death at the age of 88. The very end of the credits features a touching text tribute to the "Bright Knight" that is guaranteed to make even The Joker shed a tear or two. These are special films, and we're lucky to have them.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: The Babysitter

A Gory Good Time

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 13th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: TV-MA
Genre: Horror, Comedy
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: McG
Writer: Brian Duffield
Cast: Judah Lewis, Samara Weaving, Robbie Amell, 
Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Emily Alyn Lind, 
Andrew Bachelor, Leslie Bibb, Ken Marino, 
Samuel Gilbert, Zachary Alexander Rice, Doc Duhame, 
Jean Claude Leuyer, Miles J. Harvey

"The Babysitter" is a fun movie. It won't change the world. It may not contend for any awards. It probably won't make any top ten lists (except maybe mine). But none of that matters – because when it comes to pure unbridled enjoyment, few films this year have been better.

This is the kind of movie where you know what the last line of dialogue will be before it even begins, but that doesn't matter either. There's comfort in its cliches. Even though "The Babysitter" sticks to the same basic framework we've seen countless times before in other horror movies, it's keenly aware of the tropes it's embodying and parodying.

It's a horror-comedy that's probably more comedy than horror, but blood gets shed here by the gallon; as exaggerated as the effect is, it's certainly not for the squeamish.

Cole (Judah Lewis) has to be the biggest baby on the block. He's the only kid in his class who still has a babysitter. But he has convinced himself to be okay with that, because his babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving), looks like a 1980s pin-up model with her long flowing blonde locks and thick pink lipstick. Why does he need a babysitter? I assume it's because he's seemingly afraid of everything. Cole asks his mother (the always welcome Leslie Bibb) if he's a coward – he uses a less PG word, of course, in a funny scene. Out of earshot, she agrees that he is. His list of fears include spiders, needles, bullies, even driving a car. I have no idea why his father (Ken Marino) is giving him driving lessons in the first place, though. That initially made me assume Cole must be close to 15 – really too old for a babysitter. As it turns out, he's only 12 – which is probably still slightly too old. Still, the scene does build to something later on. That's one of the strengths of the screenplay – all of the quieter early moments do eventually pay off in big and small ways.

On the school bus, Cole's best friend, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind, of the prolific Alyn Lind family that's all over the place), convinces him to stay up past his bedtime to see what babysitters do after their little charges have been tucked in for the night. The naive boy googles an "adult" word he's just learned but he remains confused by the meaning. He doesn't know quite what to expect as he crouches down by the stairwell in his jammies to spy on his babysitter and her friends (played by Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Andrew Bachelor, and Bella Thorne). A game of Spin the Bottle leads to a few racy kisses and the other usual teenage shenanigans.

Then the murder, mayhem, and bloodshed begins!

Young Cole is traumatized by what he has just witnessed, but he knows he has to act fast. From this point on, "The Babysitter" becomes a chase movie, as the little boy is forced to outrun, evade, and somehow outsmart his suddenly twisted babysitter and her warped cadre of cronies.

The inevitable kills are gruesome but creative. The situations surrounding them are comical: Robbie Amell's murder-happy character is shirtless for most of the movie, for no apparent reason, while Bella Thorne's vapid cheerleader repeatedly laments losing a (presumably) surgically-enhanced breast during the melee.

All of this works because of the believable bond established between babysitter and boy. In a sweet early scene, they discuss who would be on their "Intergalactic Dream Team" composed of various science-fiction characters – such as Captain Kirk, Picard, and Jeff Goldbum from "Independence Day," among others. It's heartwarming to see Bee channel her inner geek to make Cole feel more at ease – she's clearly familiar with these shows and isn't just pretending to share a common bond with the kid for the sake of a paycheck. Therefore, despite her depraved desire to take the "blood of an innocent," she remains oddly likable throughout the film.

"The Babysitter" is over-the-top in its blood-soaked violence and wildly suggestive dialogue, but it also has an innate niceness about it that makes it a very enjoyable – and yes, pleasant – way to spend a dark, stormy night.

You can watch "The Babysitter" on Netflix.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: The Debt

The Cost of History. The Price of Vengeance.

By Chris Sabga

Note: "The Debt" was released on this date seven years ago. Presented below are my thoughts from 2010, with only a few alterations made for clarity or to interject my current perspective.

Release Date: August 31, 2010 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: John Madden
Writers: Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, 
Peter Straughan. 
Original Film ("Ha-Hov"): Assaf Bernstein, 
Ido Rosenblum
Cast: Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, 
Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, 
Jesper Christensen 

"The Debt" details the legend of three young Israeli agents and the dangerous secret mission they risked their lives to complete – or did they?

Their names are Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold, and David Peretz. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds play the older versions of these characters, while Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington ("Avatar") do the heavy lifting as their younger incarnations.

This movie presents an intriguing fictional take on real-life historical events. It begins in 1997 as a book is being presented about the trio's exploits. Back in 1966, they were sent to capture a Nazi – the Butcher of Birkenau – who experimented on Jews during World War II.

Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds are all fine in their parts, but the film really belongs to Chastain, Csokas, and Worthington. When "The Debt" was first released in 2010, I don't think I had ever seen Chastain or Csokas before. They do a tremendous job. I remember thinking that Chastain must have been an unknown foreign talent – that's how convincing she is in this role. Obviously, the California-born actress has since gone on to great success. Worthington has the least flashy part, but it's a good performance considering how different it is from the charismatic, tough soldier he played in "Avatar."

The dreaded Butcher (portrayed by Jesper Christensen) is downright chilling at times. At first, he lulls the audience in with a false sense of security despite his odious character. But from time to time, his true roots will surface out of the blue, and you won't believe some of the truly ugly things he says. Even after all these years, the Butcher remains one of the most detestable cinematic villains of the decade – because of the root of his evil comes from a very real and unfortunate place in human history.

Remade from the 1997 Israeli movie "Ha-Hov," "The Debt's" foreign roots are obvious right away from its feel and pacing alone. Hollywood generally doesn't make these types of films.

If you still haven't seen "The Debt," do yourself a favor and avoid reading or viewing anything about it. I went into the movie almost cold – aside from watching the trailer a few times – and that's definitely the best way to experience it.

"The Debt" isn't perfect – for example, I would've switched the roles Wilkinson and Hinds played – but it presents a number of interesting themes.

Does the burden of truth outweigh the legacy of history? Or as Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman so eloquently stated, "In a place that’s as haunted by history as Israel is, can a lie ever really serve to prop up a larger truth?"

Does the price of justice come at too high a cost?

And is it ever too late to seek revenge?