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Archive for the ‘Brian E. Wilson’s movie reviews’ Category

by Brian E. Wilson

Community

Once upon a time, and for one brief shining moment, controlled chaos ruled on NBC’s Thursday night schedule. In the time slot (Thursday, 8pm EST) where the bouncy and affable Friends once earned big ratings with its cozy view of young New Yorkers living in impossibly amazing NYC apartments, NBC placed the quirky, idiosyncratic, absurdist, and inventive Community. Created by Dan Harmon, with episodes directed, written, and produced by a host of wildly creative people, Community could have been a standard sitcom about a narcissistic, recently disbarred lawyer (the very funny Joel McHale, daring to be obnoxious and off-putting) who joins a study group with a bunch of misfits at the fictional Greendale Community College and becomes a better person as a result. However, the show defied the rules of a typical sitcom. It didn’t try to be cozy or cater to a big crowd. It had loopier things on its mind.

During the first few seasons, the aforementioned misfits include the pop culture obsessed and socially awkward Abed (the brilliant Danny Pudi), his wide-eyed naive buddy Troy (the effortlessly funny Donald Glover), the nerdy nursing student Annie (the delightful Alison Brie), the devout Christian mother/baker Shirley (the wonderful Yvette Nicole Brown, an expert at delivering lines both sweet and menacing), the hapless pot-smoking political activist Britta (the great Gillian Jacobs who commits to the role like there’s no tomorrow), and the wealthy and mentally addled Pierce (an enjoyably cranky Chevy Chase). In later seasons, Glover, Chase, and Brown would leave, and the fantastic Jonathan Banks, Keith David, and Paget Brewster would join the study group. (more…)

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Gilligans-Island-Cast

by Brian E. Wilson

Of all the shows I have written about (and will be writing about) for this epic series of TV essays, Gilligan’s Island (created by Sherwood Schwartz, who would go on to produce another re-run staple The Brady Brunch) is the most by far the one that will make some people scratch their heads and ask, “really, that show?” Although many people my age have fun, nostalgic childhood memories of watching re-runs of this goofy comedy about seven castaways struggling to get off an uncharted desert isle, many of us realized (even as kids) that the very premise of the series more than borders on the ridiculous. I mean, it has been widely noted that the lyrics in the famous opening theme song (“The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle”) reveal a major plot hole. We are told twice that the S.S. Minnow charter boat left with its two person crew (the Skipper and bumbling first mate Gilligan) and five passengers (the millionaire couple Mr. Thurston Howell the Third and his wife Lovey, the movie star Ginger Grant, the resourceful scientific genius The Professor, and the bright-eyed Mary Anne) for a three hour tour…A THREE HOUR TOUR! And yet Mr. Howell and the three women have enough clothes and luggage for a three MONTH tour (the Skipper, Gilligan, and the Professor pretty much have the same outfits for the entire run).

For 98 episodes over 3 seasons (the 1st season in black and white; the remaining two in color), these comically doomed characters tried to no avail to get off this island. And each plot was sillier and more implausible than the next. (Quick note: the show’s first season had 36 episodes! Compare that to the current comedy series showing on cable or on streaming services. For comparison, Netflix’s hilariously nonsensical The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has taken 3 seasons to air 39 episodes.)

And yet something about the show clicked. Even though it had plots like Gilligan’s mouth becoming a radio receiver after his molar gets bopped and starts rubbing up against a silver filling (yes, that old plot), or the castaways developing superhuman strength after eating radioactive vegetable seeds (don’t try this at home!). (more…)

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wkrp

An essay by Brian E. Wilson

“Just maybe think of me every once in a while.”—Steve Carlisle, WKRP opening credits

For this blog essay about the terrific WKRP in Cincinnati, I have to rely on memory. I became an instant fan of this series the moment it premiered on CBS on September 18, 1978. I made sure to catch every single one of its 90 episodes until its rather abrupt cancellation (the final one aired on April 12, 1982 with an unresolved cliffhanger). CBS of course made this difficult thanks to many time slot moves and shifts. More on that later.

Although the show became a hit in syndication, allowing me to enjoy several of the episodes numerous times, I haven’t watched it in 30 years. When the series came out finally on DVD a few years ago, I learned that the song-heavy show about a radio station that changes its format from sleepy-eyed unhip programming to wide awake rock pop and soul couldn’t obtain the now expired rights to some of the music played on the show. Some scenes and episodes apparently have been altered. Reading about this, I suddenly became a purist. I want the real thing. The original.

Still, what’s telling about how much I enjoyed this show is how well I still remember it, how certain episodes and situations and lines have stayed with me over the years. I know most people reading this series of blog entries must be TV fans who have spent a significant amount of time in front of the ole telly. And as a teen from 1978 to 1982, I certainly did. I must be honest though. I barely remember some of the shows I watched during this time. And yet WKRP in Cincinnati…it struck a nerve with me, a kid fascinated with DJs, top 40 radio, well, all things radio, and TV shows that could be goofy one moment and then thoughtful and serious the next. (more…)

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ebert-siskel-favorites

A Top Ten Celebration by Brian E. Wilson

In the true spirit of Gene Siskel (the late great movie critic from the Chicago Tribune) and Roger Ebert (the late great movie critic from the Chicago Sun-Times), I decided to put this appreciation of their television work in the form of a Top Ten list. Without any further delay (Siskel & Ebert would want me to get right to the good stuff), here are My Top Ten Reasons for Liking, Really Really Liking Watching Siskel & Ebert Praise, Pan, Discuss, and Argue About Movies.

1. The Pairing of Their Personalities Intrigued and Entertained. You probably know the story of Siskel & Ebert’s broadcast history. They started out in 1975 on WTTW, a Chicago-based PBS affiliate. The show called Sneak Previews became successful and PBS put them into national syndication. In 1982 they left PBS for another syndication deal, and the resulting show was called At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. In 1986 the Mouse came knocking and Buena Vista helped them create Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. Despite the name changes, the show’s format stayed the same. The critics would review a number of movies, show clips, give one of their famous thumbs ups or thumbs downs to each film. Along the way they dedicated special shows to such topics as underrated actors. While preparing for this essay, I went on YouTube and looked at a bunch of their televised reviews. And I was so happy to discover that hearing them discuss movies still entertains even when they are talking about pictures decades old. There was simply something special about this collaboration even though they reportedly (and famously) didn’t get along. They didn’t talk down about the movies they discussed. The tension between them added a real zip to the conversations. They seemed to genuinely surprise each other, in both good ways and in ways that clearly frustrated them. During the ’80s and ’90s other critics (including Michael Medved, Jeffrey Lyons, Neal Gabler, Rex Reed, Dixie Whatley) were paired up in attempts to duplicate their success, but it was all to no avail. Siskel and Ebert, from rival Chicago newspapers, who initially couldn’t stand each other, had a peerless chemistry.

2. They Championed Under the Radar Films. As a budding cinephile growing up in a small town with little access to independent and world cinema, I learned about a wide variety of movies from them. They did not just stick to studio releases. Thanks to them I heard about such films as Errol Morris’ pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, Gregory Nava’s searing El Norte, Jerzy Skolimowski’s great 1982 drama Moonlighting, among others. After I moved to progressively bigger cities, I had more access to the films they highly recommended, such as Carl Franklin’s blistering One False Move and Steve James’ powerful basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. They used their show as a platform to celebrate works that otherwise had little exposure. (more…)

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer:  A Discussion by Steve Sposato and Brian E. Wilson

Warning:  This discussion includes major spoilers and assumes the reader has seen the entire series.  Proceed at your own risk.  And now let’s cue the amazing Nerf Herder theme for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

buffycast

Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…

Brian:  I have written a few essays for Wonders in the Dark solo, but for this piece I invited my BFF (Buffy Friend Forever) Steve Sposato to join me in a Q and A about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This groundbreaking series, set in Sunnydale, California, ran for seven seasons starting in 1997 and ending in 2003.  Based on a rather goofy 1992 cult film, the show (created by the movie’s screenwriter Joss Whedon) became one of the most acclaimed ever on TV with its surprisingly potent mix of supernatural horror, comedy, romance, and emotional drama.  Over seven seasons, viewers followed Buffy as she fought demons, vampires, monsters, other humans, and gods all the while trying to survive high school, then college, then life.  The series became quite existential as Buffy struggled with her role as the Slayer, her loneliness increasing with each new season.  Although she had a group of friends, affectionately called Scoobys by fans, attempting to help her, Buffy became angsty about being the one and only Slayer.  It became apparent from the start that this series was something special, trying new things, demanding a lot from its viewers, and rising above its jokey title.

Steve: People say we’re living in a golden age of TV, which is probably true, though I think current TV is sometimes self-servingly overhyped. To the extent that this is a golden age, however, I’ve always felt this VCR-era series has been underappreciated as a key show that paved the way. It departed from most TV of its time in ways that are now taken for granted: consistent quality, season-long story arcs (the season-is-equal-to-a-novel idea), and increasingly dark and edgy storytelling, violence and death exacting a toll on the characters. It’s not a show that re-sets at the end of every episode, although it easily could have been: Buffy saves the day, all’s back to normal again. How dull that would have been.

Also, it was aired on an outsider network (the WB for the first five seasons; UPN the last two) willing to support creative risks (though not always the budget for them) in pursuit of a niche audience, pretty much the standard model today. But Buffy wasn’t a male anti-hero, so she’s often left out of the Sopranos-based definition of the new golden era (which some have argued is over, anyway).

Brian:  Everything you say is true.  The creators of Buffy wanted to show that every action on the series had impact on its characters.  Things could not be undone. Everything accumulated, weighing down on Buffy’s shoulders by Season 7:  failed romances, fraught friendships, losing her mother, financial responsibility, moral responsibility, the constant being on call as the one and only chosen Slayer.  What I appreciate about the series is although we would sometimes get an angry and/or confused “I want to get away from this all” Buffy, the show ultimately didn’t make her an anti-hero.  She is the hero from start to finish, even though she makes mistakes and flips out in some key episodes.  When the burden is lifted from her shoulders in the series’ final episode, in the most beautiful way possible, I for one felt a sense of relief for her, that she deserved this happy resolution after 144 episodes. (more…)

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rwac1

by Brian E. Wilson

“YOU’RE TEARING ME APART!!!!”

I have seen Rebel Without a Cause several times with an audience and this famous line, yelled with great anger and frustration by James Dean’s misunderstood character Jim Stark at his elders, brings about a wide variety of reactions.  When I saw the movie in a college film studies class in the 1980s, my snarky peers chuckled and laughed at it, later calling Dean’s emotional line delivery campy and over-the-top.  Surprised that this guy presented as the epitome of cool on merchandise such as posters, postcards, and calendars (that still sell well today, along with Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe nostalgia) could be capable of losing his cool so dramatically, many in the class dismissed him.  Also, in the ’80s, I am sure many were also giddy with the fact that Jim Backus (known mostly as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) plays Jim’s meek father.  What they didn’t seem to notice is that Backus gives a effective performance in the role, and that Dean plays off him beautifully.

Yet at a packed screening in a revival house in the early ’00s, the “You’re Tearing Me Apart” moment led to a gasp and then stunned silence.  The rawness of the moment still startles.  People attending the screening obviously had the ability to transport themselves back to when this movie was initially released.  In 1955, Jim Stark’s explosion of confusion must have struck a nerve with a generation disillusioned with their parents.  I wrote an essay for this series on Stand by Me (#62) and I was alive when that film came out and could write from experience about what impact that film had at the time of its release.  For Rebel, I wasn’t, so over the years I have listened to and read anecdotes and comments of family members, friends, instructors, critics, and others who caught the film at the time of its release.  Many said it struck a chord and that Jim finally said with deep emotion what many teenagers wanted to say.

Also, at the time of its release (October 27, 1955), Dean’s fans were mourning his very recent death (September 30, 1955).  He died at the age of 24 in a car accident.  He lived to see only one of his films, 1955’s East of Eden with his brilliant Oscar nominated performance, play in theaters.  So watching Dean’s Jim Stark experience emotional turmoil in Rebel must have been painful for his many young fans. (more…)

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stand-by-me-movie-still

By Brian E. Wilson

Ah, nostalgia.

After offering to write this review of Rob Reiner’s nostalgic Stephen King adaptation, set in 1959, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia myself.  Memories of catching this funny, profane, surprisingly moving gem in August 1986 came flooding back to me.  The movie, about four misfit 12-year-olds (all with distant and/or neglectful fathers) forming a temporary bond as they travel by foot to see their first real dead body (an older boy struck by a train), set itself apart that summer.  I ended up watching it several times at the theater over the next few months, but would not see it again until I recently revisited the movie.  Although I was heading into my senior year of college at the time of its release, Stand by Me still spoke to me as I struggled with the notion of wanting to be a writer (just like the film’s lead character Gordie, beautifully played by Wil Wheaton as a boy, and Richard Dreyfuss as a reminiscing adult called simply “The Writer”).

Taut, economically directed by Reiner (I forgot that the film is only 88 minutes long), the film works on so many levels:  as a rollicking yet tear-jerking vehicle for its young stars, as a sensitive if troubling coming of age story, and as a successful big screen treatment of a Stephen King novella called “The Body.”  The modestly budgeted film not only became one of my favorite movies of 1986, but a sizable hit, and one that helped Ben E. King’s gorgeous title song (co-written by the singer, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller) return to the Billboard Top Ten one more time.  (Do yourself a favor, and look at the wonderful video with an effervescent Ben E. King doing some classic dance moves with stars Wheaton and River Phoenix on YouTube.)  Side note:  the trivia hound in me must note that the movie is set in 1959, but the tune didn’t come out until 1961–but hey, why quibble, when a song is this good and so appropriate thematically?

Before I revisited the movie (for the first time in around 28 years), I asked myself “will this film hold up?”  I am happy to report that it does. (more…)

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