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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?  

Monday, July 17, 2017

Remembering Martin Landau

A Magical Career

By Chris Sabga

Martin Landau has always been one of my all-time favorite actors. His death at the age of 89 – on the same day as legendary horror director George A. Romero – was a 1-2 sucker punch.

But what a life Landau lived!

North By Northwest

After several television roles, Martin Landau's first appearance on the silver screen – as the menacing Leonard in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" – was quite possibly the greatest film debut anyone could ask for.

He took a big risk in the way he portrayed Leonard in the 1959 film: "I chose to play [him] as a homosexual – very subtly," Landau admitted in an interview – a taboo no-no for that time period.

Landau became an instant star.

Spock You

For the next two decades, he crisscrossed between film and TV appearances. His most notable work on the small screen was in "Mission: Impossible" and "Space: 1999." He turned down the role of Spock in "Star Trek." That iconic character, of course, went to Leonard Nimoy instead. Ironically, Nimoy ended up essentially replacing Landau on "Mission: Impossible."

The Ups and Downs of a Great Career

Among Landau's many film roles during this period, he played opposite Sidney Poitier in the unnecessary, contradictory, overrated mess of a sequel "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!" The first film featuring the groundbreaking Virgil Tibbs character, "In the Heat of the Night," remains an essential classic. "They Call Me Mister Tibbs" doesn't come close to its predecessor's greatness, but Landau was good in it.

In 1982, Landau appeared along with Jack Palance and Donald Pleasence in "Alone in the Dark" (not to be confused with the much-maligned version directed by Uwe Ball and starring Christian Slater and Tara Reid). The horror thriller is about a pair of mental patients (Landau and Palance) who break out of a hospital in order to torment their psychiatrist (Pleasence). I have to admit: I've never seen it – but I've always wanted to. Unfortunately, the DVD has been out of print for years and there's seemingly no Blu-ray or digital release on the horizon. While it surely can't match the expectations I've built up for it in my mind, it still sounds like nutty fun. There is (or was) a low-quality version on YouTube, but I can't bring myself to watch it that way. Eventually, I will get my hands on this holy grail!

After decades in Hollywood, Landau's greatest fame would arguably occur in the 1990s and beyond.

Karloff Does Not Deserve to Smell My Shit!

Bela Lugosi never uttered those words about Boris Karloff, but Martin Landau famously did when he played Lugosi in 1994's "Ed Wood." Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – the director and star of "Ed Wood," respectively – are generally "mood" people for me. In other words, I have to be in the mood for them – and I'm usually not. Yet, "Ed Wood" remains one of my favorite films ever – and Martin Landau is the main reason why. As the long-suffering and loyal Lugosi, his incredible performance is undeniably the heart and soul of the film. Landau was richly recognized for his work in "Wood" by winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in what has to be one of the most competitive categories I've ever seen: Samuel L. Jackson for "Pulp Fiction" and Gary Sinise for "Forrest Gump" were also nominated the same year. (He also nominated before in the same category two years in a row – but didn't win – for 1988's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors.")

Sal Bandini – Wanna Wrestle!!!

What in the living holy hell was the great Martin Landau doing in a professional wrestling vanity project like 2000's "Ready to Rumble"? I still don't know! He did work with wrestler George "The Animal" Steele a few years earlier in "Ed Wood," so perhaps that had something to do with it? But whatever Landau's reasons were, like the old pro he was, he made the most of it.

This is what I wrote about his appearance and performance at the time (for
"As awful as some of the material is, there is one bright spot – the character of Sal (Martin Landau). His hilarious performance as King's 105-year-old trainer saves the movie from complete disaster. It is a shame that he isn't used more often, but he definitely steals the scenes he's in. He must be a huge wrestling fan. Either that or he needs money desperately. How else can anyone explain why such a distinguished and celebrated actor would agree to partake in such a dud?"
I've warmed up to "Ready to Rumble" in the years since. No, it's still not a good movie – or anything close to resembling one. Woefully inaccurate and mind-numbing in its dumbness, it displays an astounding lack of respect for wrestling – which makes no sense to me, because what other audience was this intended to attract? But Martin Landau – good old Martin Landau – is an absolute treat to watch.

The Magic of the Movies

At best, 2001's "The Majestic" was stylish but wildly uneven. At worst, it was artificial and sappy. Despite that, it contains one of my favorite performances and speeches ever. Of course, both came courtesy of the wonderful Martin Landau.
"Any man, woman, child could buy their ticket, walk right in. Here they'd be, here we'd be. 'Yes sir, yes ma'am. Enjoy the show.' And in they'd come entering a palace, like in a dream, like in heaven. Maybe you had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn't matter anymore. And you know why? Chaplin, that's why. And Keaton and Lloyd. Garbo, Gable, and Lombard, and Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Cagney. Fred and Ginger. They were gods. And they lived up there. That was Olympus. Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? To have the privilege of watching them. I mean, this television thing. Why would you want to stay at home and watch a little box? Because it's convenient? Because you don't have to get dressed up, because you could just sit there? I mean, how can you call that entertainment, alone in your living room? Where's the other people? Where's the audience? Where's the magic? I'll tell you, in a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it."
It's such a beautiful mission statement and rallying cry for why we all love going to the movies so much. Despite the rude patrons, bright cell phones, and numerous other drawbacks, there's still nothing else quite like the theatrical experience.

When Martin Landau was up on that screen, it was magic.  

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Coming to America: A Royal Anniversary Celebration

Coming to America Premiered on June 29, 1988 – and Became an Instant Classic

By Chris Sabga

Ready to feel old? "Coming to America" is almost 30. It premiered nearly three decades ago, on June 29, 1988. That makes it 29 years old, to be exact, in 2017.

It was an instant classic.

Everyone knows the story by now (and if you don't, see the movie ASAP!): Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is tired of living a lavish lifestyle of resplendent royalty – which includes being bathed by beautiful women and having his shoes tied for him. "I tied my own shoes once!" the domineering King Jaffe Joffer (the great James Earl Jones) confessed to his son. "It is an overrated experience." (I agree!)

But Akeem's problems go beyond baths and shoelaces.

Being the prince of Zumunda, Africa, also means submitting to an arranged marriage. "I want the woman to love me for who I am," Akeem insists, "not because of what I am." Therefore, the Prince of Zamunda declares that he's coming to America to find his bride. "But where," his servant and friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) wonders, "can one find a woman with grace, elegance, taste, and culture? A woman suitable for a king." The answer, of course, is Queens.

Queens, New York, that is.

The prince immediately finds a job in America – as a janitor. He works at a fast food restaurant called McDowell's – not to be confused with McDonald's, you see. "Look, me and the McDonald's people got this little misunderstanding," his new boss, Cleo McDowell (John Amos, "Good Times"), explains. "See, they're McDonald's – I'm McDowell's. They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick. We both got two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions, but their buns have sesame seeds. My buns have no seeds." McDowell's, however, has something McDonald's never will: Lisa (Shari Headley), the boss's beautiful daughter.

As good as Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall are in this movie, especially together, James Earl Jones steals every scene as the bombastic King Jaffe Joffer. Madge Sinclair, who portrays Queen Aoleon, is every bit as superb – especially when she stands up to her overbearing but loving husband: "Put a sock in it, Jaffe," she chastises, "the boy is in love." 

Indeed, it's love at first sight for Akeem.

And it was love at first sight for audiences when "Coming to America" premiered in 1988 – and in all the decades since. Not one single person I know dislikes the movie. It's remembered with such great warmth, fondness, and affection. The mere mention of it never fails to elicit a smile from a person's face. Even my own immediate family unanimously loves the film, and we're all very different people in every other way. That's because there's something for everyone in "Coming to America." The performances, characters, writing, and dialogue are all exceptional – and exceptionally hilarious. 

In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy was known primarily for his wisecracking, blue collar, off-color roles in "Trading Places," "Beverly Hills Cop," and "48 Hrs." While those remain cherished classics, "Coming to America" stands out for one reason: its inherent sweetness. Yes, the movie certainly earns its "R" rating with several raunchy jokes and situations, but it's ultimately nice and innocent in a way the others aren't. That is the secret of its success.

Fun Facts:
  • Diehard fans of "Coming to America" already know that both Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall portray multiple characters. Their makeup by Rick Baker was nominated for an Oscar that year. Beetlejuice won, which I suppose is understandable, but my heart is with "Coming to America."
  • "Coming to America" was Cuba Gooding Jr.'s first film. He plays the boy in the barbershop.
  • Look for Samuel L. Jackson in a small role as the robber who holds-up McDowell's.
  • Future "E.R." standout Eric LaSalle shows up as Lisa's boyfriend.
  • Comedian and future "Family Feud" host Louie Anderson is behind the McDowell's counter as the fry cook.
  • Frankie Faison chomps cigars and chews scenery as Murphy and Hall's landlord/slumlord.
  • Akeem's fictional homeland of Zamunda in Africa was named after Bob Zmuda, who is best known for his association with Andy Kaufman.
  • "Coming to America" contains a great reference to "Star Wars" (Episode IV): King Jaffe Joffer commands: "Do not alert him to my presence. I will deal with him myself." In "Star Wars," Darth Vader orders: "No. Leave them to me. I will deal with them myself." James Earl Jones portrayed both characters. He played Jaffe and provided the voice of Darth Vader.
  • There is also a reference in "Coming to America" to Eddie Murphy's earlier film "Trading Places": Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche reprise their roles as Randolph and Mortimer – only this time, they're homeless and penniless. Akeem helps them out by handing them a sizable chunk of cash. Would Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine from "Trading Places" have been so generous? Probably not.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Small Screen: Why You Should Be Watching The Carmichael Show

Influenced by Norman Lear and Unafraid to Tackle Bill Cosby, Jerrod Carmichael is Creating Must-See-TV

By Chris Sabga

In the 1970s, screenwriting and producing legend Norman Lear ruled the small screen – television – with groundbreaking programming that explored politics, religion, and life from all angles. Whether it was Archie and Meathead going back-and-forth about hot topics on "All in the Family" or a middle-aged woman having an abortion on "Maude," Lear's shows captured the gritty reality of America the way few others ever had – or ever have since. 

However, instead of creating a trend that lasted through the '80s and beyond, Lear's blunt but nuanced vision of the world disappeared in favor of more wholesome and "family-friendly" shows like "The Cosby Show" (which I will get back to shortly), "Full House" and everything on ABC's "TGIF" block. While I certainly grew up loving those as well, there was nothing that could compare to Archie Bunker or "The Jeffersons."

In 2016, I read an article about a show I'd barely heard of, NBC's "The Carmichael Show," tackling a show we've all seen, "The Cosby Show." Everyone knows the shocking and sordid story of Cosby's downfall by now: Comedian Hannibal Buress made a "joke" about Cosby's holier-than-thou attitude toward the young African-American community, with the "punchline" being that Cosby is a rapist.

"Pull your pants up black people! I was on TV in the '80s," Buress mocked, imitating Cosby. "Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches."

From there, endless numbers of women came forward stating they'd been drugged and raped by the '80s sitcom "role model." Cosby went from being lauded a hero who could do no wrong – his sterling influence tenuously linked by "The New York Times" to the rise of America's first black President, Barack Obama – to an internationally reviled pariah who made the whole world feel disgusted and ashamed for ever liking him in the first place.

"The Carmichael Show" was going to go there. The Season 2 episode – titled "Fallen Heroes" – covered Bill Cosby from every angle, including the uncomfortable ones. In one conversation, the characters debated the guilt they felt for being fans of "The Cosby Show" back in the '80s and the unspoken lament that his actions had tainted their childhood memories. How do you reconcile the same man who brought such joy to so many people with the information we have now? Is it okay, the Carmichaels questioned, to still be entertained by a brilliant comedian who is so repulsive in his personal life? Every member of the family had their own wildly differing – and sometimes taboo – take on Bill Cosby and "The Cosby Show."

Norman Lear would have been proud. (Actually, he is!) The Cosby episode – and "The Carmichael Show" in general – is exactly the kind of television Lear would have been writing and producing in the 1970s. It stars comedian and actor Jerrod Carmichael – playing a character of the same name – with an incredible cast portraying his family: Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier as his parents, Amber Stevens West as his biracial girlfriend (a topic that comes up more than once during the course of the show), and LilRel Howery and Tiffany Haddish as his brother and ex-sister-in-law.

After reading about the Cosby episode, I knew I had to catch up and binge-watch "The Carmichael Show" from the beginning! "Fallen Heroes" is but one of the many thought-provoking topics "Carmichael" covers. In the first two seasons, the show has memorably debated gentrification ("Gentrifying Bobby"), depression ("The Blues"), gay and transgender issues ("Gender"), and various other trending topics.

Two of the most memorable episodes, for me, both took place in the second season:

In "The Funeral," the stoic but sometimes blustery patriarch of the Carmichael clan, Joe Carmichael, is tasked with planning his father's funeral. Joe's breakdown at the end and admission that his dad had abused him is powerful, heartbreaking, and absolutely gut-wrenching. It's one of the finest moments of David Alan Grier's long and distinguished acting career. (Bonus: Look for "Jeffersons" alum Marla Gibbs as Joe's mom.)

When "President Trump" aired, its episode title was both a jarring shock to the system and apparently ironic – portending an event that seemingly had no chance in hell of ever happening. At the time, Trump was just another candidate – albeit one who was steadfastly gaining momentum. Yet, here we are today: the episode "President Trump" and President Trump himself are now a reality.

Even though Jerrod Carmichael is the star of the show, he isn't afraid to take the unpopular position. Whether it's supporting controversial gentrification neighborhood overhauls or offensively trolling on social media, Carmichael's character is okay looking like "the bad guy." But he remains endearing – just as Archie Bunker always did, despite his blatant bigotry – because the show always sprinkles its tough issues with layers of warmth and tenderness.

No matter how heated the arguments get, "The Carmichael Show's" family dynamic is its biggest strength. The Carmichaels are real and relatable. They have a deep mutual love and respect for each other. That's why I love them back, even when they're making me mad!

The Carmichael Show airs on NBC. You can watch the first two seasons on Netflix.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: The Disappointments Room

Well, The Name of the Movie Certainly Can't be Accused of False Advertising...

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 9th, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: D.J. Caruso
Writers: D.J. Caruso, Wentworth Miller
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, 
Duncan Joiner, Lucas Till, 
Gerald McRaney

In the olden days, well-to-do parents with disabled or deformed children sometimes locked them away and hid their existence from society. A less-than-perfect child was considered a source of "shame" and a "disappointment." They would be imprisoned in a tiny space – a "disappointments room" – with very little sunlight and no social interaction outside of parents and servants. Their lives were often – mercifully – brief.

If that tragic practice sounds like a terrific setup for a paint-by-numbers haunted house/ghost movie, congratulations, your name is D.J. Caruso or Wentworth Miller. (They wrote the screenplay.) Everyone else will lament the major missed opportunity to tell a compelling story about one of the darkest customs in American history.

Perhaps it's unfair of me to fault the movie for what it was never going to be – especially when I knew going in that it was a psychological horror thriller, not a historical drama – but the fascinating concept of a "disappointments room" has so much potential that's not realized.

Here's what we do get: The movie begins idyllically, with a seemingly happy family on a road trip – a wife, Dana (Kate Beckinsale), her husband, David (Mel Raido), and their little boy, Lucas (Duncan Joiner), buckled safely into his carseat – all singing "If You Want To Know Who We Are" by Gilbert and Sullivan. As they belt out the "We are gentlemen of Japan" portion of the song, the husband basks in the "American" experience they're enjoying. The wife points out that Gilbert and Sullivan are actually English. London-born Kate Beckinsale isn't though, at least not in this movie. That's always a disappointment to me, but she mastered her American accent to perfection back in 1999's "Brokedown Palace," so there's no need to shove her in a "disappointments room" for flexing her linguistic muscles and acting chops.

As it turns out, they're moving from a cramped apartment in the city to a giant house in the secluded countryside – never a good idea in this type of film – because Dana lost her infant daughter only three months after giving birth. Needless to say, she has been suffering psychological trauma since then. Before long, she discovers a mysterious room – a "disappointments room," of course – and starts to see the long-dead previous owner lurking around ("This Is Us's" Dr. K., Gerald McRaney, whose superb talents are completely wasted here in a throwaway role) and an ominous black dog reminiscent of "The Omen." There's also a handyman (played by the new "MacGyver," Lucas Till) who shows up to fix a roof leak. His presence seems to serve only one purpose, which I won't spoil.

I've spent so much time focusing on what "The Disappointments Room" isn't that I've given short thrift to what it is – a somewhat enjoyable psychological horror thriller with a decent little mystery driving it. I had a fair bit of fun watching it. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

The problem is, though, that the narrative never quite comes together in a completely satisfying manner. Spooky things happen, and then the movie is over.

What's real and what isn't? Ultimately, to the detriment of "The Disappointments Room," it never actually matters.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: Logan

A Family Affair

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 3rd, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 137 minutes
Director: James Mangold
Writers: James Mangold, 
Scott Frank, Michael Green
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, 
Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, 
Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, 
Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle, 
Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse

My cousin Mike Sabga (credited as Michael "3D Mike" Sabga) worked on "Logan," which is a hell of a cool thing. lists him as the film's Video and Computer Supervisor. One look at his IMDb page reveals that he's had an incredible career. His credits range from cinematic classics like "Catch Me If You Can," "Ocean's Eleven," and the wonderful "Mud" to television staples such as "CSI," "CSI" Miami," and "Brothers & Sisters" (among many others in both mediums). But "Logan" may represent the pinnacle of his numerous achievements in Hollywood. When I found out my cousin was involved, I couldn't help but feel immensely proud – and even more excited than ever to see the movie. 

It is appropriate, then, that "Logan" is all about family.

James "Logan" Howlett (Hugh Jackman) is older now but not necessarily any wiser. The ravages of time have not been kind to the once mighty Wolverine. He has degenerated into a broken down alcoholic who drives a limo make ends meet. Mutants like him have become a dying breed. But they're not totally extinct just yet.

Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in even worse shape. He's now 90 years old and his health is failing. What's more dangerous than a mutant with full control of his capabilities? A mutant without any control at all. Seizures cause the former Professor X to unleash his powers randomly and recklessly. In their younger years, Xavier became like a father to Logan. The X-Men were their family. That is why Logan still tends to the old man – with the help of Caliban (a surprisingly touching Stephen Merchant), an "albino" allergic to sunlight. I get the sense that he, like Logan, has become another surrogate son.

Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) is an 11-year-old girl in danger. Her caregiver (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) begs Logan to protect them both. I don't think it's a spoiler to mention who Laura's father is. Her trademark claws make that obvious. 
Mike Sabga - AKA "3D Mike"

All of the actors in "Logan" are top-notch, but it's Patrick Stewart, in particular, who delivers an Oscar-caliber performance. It's a shame these types of roles are generally shunned by the Academy. 

This is a much rougher and grittier version of Wolverine. Harsh language, gratuitous violence, and graphic bloodshed dominate several scenes. The main characters spend most of the film bloody, bruised, and badly wounded. The kills look like something straight out of a seedy slasher flick. "Logan" is strictly for adults – and I love that!

But beneath its grimy exterior beats a big (bleeding) heart.

For a series all about mutants and powers, "Logan" may be the most human superhero story ever told. Logan and Charles are no longer saving the world – they can barely save themselves. Despite their gifts and heroic backgrounds, it's their failings and frailties that take center stage here. Even Wolverine and Professor X aren't immune to the realities of aging and the traumas of the past finally catching up to them.

Think about the countless superhero movies we've all seen over the years. The good ones have captured our imaginations, thrilled us to the very core, and introduced us to worlds and powers that are quite literally beyond belief. "Logan" has done something different and more: It caused me to shed a tear.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The 89th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

The Most Shocking Ending in Oscar History?

By Chris Sabga

Oscar Sunday began with the shocking news of Bill Paxton's death at the young age of 61 after complications from surgery. He was one of my favorite actors and the highlight of too many classics to name, including "Weird Science," "Aliens," and my personal favorite of his, the incredible "Frailty."

There's only one way to begin writing about this year's Academy Awards, and that's at the end. "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.

Before the Show

I wrote (rather naively, in retrospect): "La La Land" is expected to sweep this year's votes. With fourteen nominations and thirteen potential wins (it's nominated twice for Best Original Song), it certainly has all the momentum going into tonight's ceremony. Will there be any surprises? (Oh yeah!)

Full results are listed at the end.

The Oscar Ceremony

The Host: Jimmy Kimmel was consistently funny and entertaining. The stunt with the tour bus passengers getting a surprise meet and greet at the Oscars was cute. His "feud" with Matt Damon also led to many hysterical moments, including a hilariously over-the-top tribute to "We Bought a Zoo." Kimmel may have been the best Oscar host in years. He was so good that I could see him comfortably assuming this role for the next 15 or 20 years.

Best Oscar Speech: Viola Davis with stirring words, so beautifully expressed, about lost dreams and living a life. "Viola's speeches," Silver Screen Sister gushed, "are as good as her acting."

Best Presenters: According to Silver Screen Sister, Mark Rylance's comment about women "opposing without hatred" was the best line of the night. I concur.

John Cho and Leslie Mann were also warm and witty in paying respect to film scientists and technologists – material that would have been dull in lesser hands.

Best Moments: The surprise appearance of the real-life Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who was depicted by Taraji P. Henson in "Hidden Figures." Her ovation was heartwarming and well-deserved.

Another unexpected appearance came from Michael J. Fox as a presenter after Seth Rogen paid tribute to him and "Back to the Future." It was really nice to see him – and the famous DeLorean.

The winners of "White Helmets" led a rousing standing ovation in support of Syria.

Best Dressed: You're on the wrong site.

Biggest Surprise: Besides the unbelievable "twist ending"? "Hidden Figures" being shut out of every single category was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

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

Full Results

Best Picture: La La Land Moonlight

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Viola Davis, Fences

Best Directing: Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Best Animated Feature: Zootopia

Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight

Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman (Iran)

Best Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America

Best Original Song: “City of Stars,” La La Land

Best Original Score: La La Land

Best Cinematography: La La Land

Film Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Costume Design: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Makeup and Hairstyling: Suicide Squad

Production Design: La La Land

Sound Editing: Arrival

Sound Mixing: Hacksaw Ridge

Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Best Documentary Short: The White Helmets

Best Animated Short: Piper

Best Live Action Short: Sing

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The 89th Annual Academy Awards: Nominations and Notes

The Silver Screen Surprises of This Year's Oscars

By Chris Sabga

This year, I'm going to keep it simple and true to the theme of this site. 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

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Surprises: "Arrival" has gotten rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, but I never expected an "alien" movie to get nominated for Best Picture. After all, the Oscars tend to be rather exclusionary and snooty about such things – at least in the main categories. There are exceptions, of course – especially in the years since the Best Picture category has expanded from five movies to a maximum of ten (there are nine this year) – but it's still a surprise.

"Hacksaw Ridge" also received strong acclaim, but I'm still surprised to see it here. This nomination represents Mel Gibson's return to Hollywood's embrace after a decade of turmoil with himself, others, and the film industry at large.

"Lion" also came out of nowhere, but Dev Patel should be familiar to most audiences from past Best Picture victor "Slumdog Millionaire."

Nowhere to be found is the troubled "The Birth of a Nation," which some predicted as early as last year's Academy Awards to be a lock for this year's. Mixed critical reception and ugly rape allegations for its writer, director, and star, Nate Parker, have seemingly shut it out of the Oscar race.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Surprises: Because I wasn't expecting to see "Hacksaw Ridge" nominated for Best Picture, I also wasn't expecting to see its star, Andrew Garfield, nominated in this category.

"Captain Fantastic" didn't have the hype or buzz of some of the other predicted Oscar front-runners, but I'm happy the Academy is mixing it up and making it more interesting this year with the inclusion of Viggo Mortensen.

The omission of Tom Hanks for "Sully," I suppose, is somewhat of a surprise.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Isablle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Surprises: French actress Isabelle Huppert has gotten some of the best reviews of her career for Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," so I'm not entirely surprised to see her nominated, but I wouldn't have been surprised if she wasn't because of the film's controversial subject matter: A woman who was sexually assaulted doesn't report the crime to the police but instead seeks out her rapist.

Ruth Negga has gone from "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." recurring guest star to Oscar nominee. No surprise, though, for anyone who knows the quality of her work. She draws people to her. Her soulful and enigmatic eyes and expressions are impossible to look away from.

While I wasn't expecting it to happen, I'm downright upset by the snub of Rachel Weisz for "Denial." It was an incredible performance and unjustly overlooked.

Silver Screen Surprises reader Lauri has more than a few problems with the nomination of Meryl Streep and the omission of another actress. Warning: Most of her rant was unfit for publication. "*BLEEP*... Meryl *BLEEP* Streep over Amy Adams in Arrival????????????????????" she screamed. "Who the *BLEEP* is she *BLEEP*-ing with this year? Amy Adams was so robbed. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! *BLEEP*"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Surprises: Chris Pine garnered the best reviews of his career for "Hell or High Water" but Oscar mainstay Jeff Bridges received the nomination instead – his 7th since 1972. It's hard to argue with that level of quality.

The inclusion of Dev Patel surprises me the same way "Lion" surprised me in the Best Picture category.

While Meryl Streep was recognized for "Florence Foster Jenkins," Hugh Grant was completely shut out of both the Leading and Supporting Actor categories. That's especially surprising considering that he has received the best reviews of his career for this film.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Surprises: The parts played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer struck me as leading roles, not supporting, but the Academy has a history of playing fast and loose with this designation if it gives the actor a better chance of winning.

There is no sign of Spencer's co-stars, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, in either of the Acting categories. That's surprising to me.

Could this be Viola Davis's year? I would have mixed feelings about that. She's so incredible as an actress than anything less than a Leading Role Oscar seems like almost a snub.

I'll also take this opportunity to sound the trumpet again about Rachel Weisz, who should have been nominated for "Denial." That was definitely a leading role, but what the hell, I would have accepted her here too.

Best Directing

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Surprises: Whether accurate or not, it is commonly believed that the movies recognized in the Best Directing category are the five "true" Best Picture nominees – a throwback to when only five films were considered for the Academy's top award. If that's truly the case, "Arrival" being on this prestigious list is definitely unexpected.

Best Animated Feature

Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Surprises: No "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders"? Okay, I wasn't really expecting it, but it's some of the most fun I've had all year.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Hidden Figures

Surprises: It would be silly to be surprised by "Arrival" at this point after all of its other nominations, but if you had asked me yesterday, I wouldn't have predicted its inclusion in this category – simply based on past Oscar history.

Best Original Screenplay

Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women

Surprises: "The Lobster" receives its one and only nomination in this category.

Best Foreign Language Film

Land of Mine (Denmark)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
The Salesman (Iran)
Tanna (Australia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Surprises: After Isablle Huppert's somewhat surprising Best Actress nomination for "Elle," I almost expected the film to show up here too. Alas, it didn't.

Other thoughts: "La La Land" has scored a record 14 Oscar nominations, a feat achieved by only "All About Eve" and "Titanic." If it wins all or most of the Academy Awards, that would make for a very dull and predictable show. The Oscars have become better about that in recent years, so we'll see. This does appear to make "La La" a front-runner for Best Picture though.

The rest of the categories and nominees are:

Best Documentary Feature

Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America

Best Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Trolls
“City of Stars,” La La Land
“The Empty Chair,” Jim: the James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go,” Moana

Best Original Score

La La Land

Best Cinematography

La La Land

Film Editing

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

Costume Design

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

Production Design

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

Sound Editing

Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

Sound Mixing

Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Visual Effects

Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Documentary Short

4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Best Animated Short

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Best Live Action Short

Ennemis Intériuers
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights