Nickelodeon/The Last Picture Show

This two-disc set is basically the agony and the ecstasy from the collected works of film critic/scholar turned boy wonder writer-director-actor Peter Bogdanovich. Placed in reverse chronological and quality order, Disc One is 1975’s agonizing “Nickelodeon,” one of a series of box office and/or critical failures that ended the young director’s early career hot streak. A forced slapstick comedy drawn very loosely from the silent era reminiscences of Hollywood greats Leo McCarey, Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan, it’s a good-natured but entirely unfocused bore despite the strong efforts of an all-star cast led by Burt Reynolds and Ryan O’Neal, and featuring Tatum O’Neal (“Paper Moon”) and John Ritter (“Three’s Company”), among many others. The disc includes both a brand new black and white director’s cut alongside the original color theatrical version, but it will take more than the majesty of monochrome to save this one. Bogdanovich’s DVD commentary provides better movie history and better entertainment.

“The Last Picture Show” is, of course, something completely different. On his second feature, Bogdanovich blew the 1971’s cinema world’s collective mind and drew comparisons to his friend and mentor, Orson Welles, with this crisply wrought black and white adaptation of an early Larry McMurtry novel. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it details the late teen years of two high school football players (Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges) and a manipulative beauty (Cybill Shepherd) following in the footsteps of her unfaithful mother (Ellen Burstyn) in a rapidly dying Texas town. A minor cause celebre at the time because of its nudity and blunt sexuality, its glory is its acute visual storytelling and Robert Surtees’ masterful photography, a biting and heartbreaking script, and a large number of genuinely tremendous supporting performances. In particular, Cloris Leachman as a deeply lonely housewife who falls for a high school boy and Western mainstay Ben Johnson (“The Wild Bunch,” “Wagon Master”) as the charismatic walking embodiment of the town, Sam the Lion, won entirely deserved supporting acting awards. A sardonic yet humanistic exploration of fractured relationships and poor choices, it remains a riveting and moving work of cutting edge movie-making from a true cinematic reactionary.

Click to buy “Nickelodeon” and “The Last Picture Show”

  

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This Weekend’s Box Office: A Test of Star Power (Updated)

I’m trying to get out of the house this evening for a change, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I jump the gun slightly on this week’s b.o. preview. That means we won’t be hearing from Bullz-Eye critics this week or some of my other usual suspects, though updates are not impossible if something earth shattering grabs my attention.

Anyhow, we’ve got an interesting weekend shaping up as two superstar vehicles, starring a total of three veteran megastars, do battle with yet another ultra-powerful Pixar/Disney feature, “Up,” and a genuine sleeper, “The Hangover.” In fact, the modest, no-star, R-rated comedy surprised almost everyone last week by narrowly defeating the wildly popular PG Pixar film.

The HangoverAs the Hollywood Reporter‘s Carl DiOrio reminds us, the well-received comedy did about twice as well as it was expected to do (and it was already expected to do quite well), grabbing $45 million on its opening weekend and additionally doing strong business during the week, when some of us adults decide to hit the movies. Variety says largely the same thing.

Still, there is one potential powerhouse this week in what, again per DiOrio, turns out to be the third version of the NYC subway thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 123,” first seen in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and then again in a 1998 TV movie with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. This a fifty-something superstar two-for-one package in which Denzel Washington’s transit nerd will face off against badass hijacker John Travolta, backed up by a very strong supporting cast led by James Gandolfini, who seems to be getting the best reviews of anyone connected with the film.

Indeed, the critical consensus on this one is not especially kind, perhaps hurt by the recent resurgence of interest/respect for the original film by those of us in the Filmgeek-American community. Critics can’t help comparing it to the compelling and blackly humorous original. The Onion‘s always interesting Nathan Rabin has hard words for “L.A. Confidential” screenwriter Brian Helgeland (stepping into the shoes of Peter Stone, one of the wittiest screen-scribes of his day), hyper-maximalist director Tony Scott, and especially the former Vinnie Barbarino:

John Travolta’s wildly successful post-comeback crusade to become synonymous with crap continues with…Tony Scott’s bracingly awful remake/desecration of the classic ‘70s thriller. The miscalculations begin with Travolta’s distractingly Tetris-shaped facial hair—long rectangular sideburns paired with a geometric Fu Manchu—and extend to every facet of the production. Cursed with following in the outsized footsteps of world-class heavy Robert Shaw, Travolta devours the scenery; his performance is 0% inspiration, 100% perspiration.

Nevertheless, a picture like this is not made or broken by reviews, though word of mouth (or word of Blackberry and text message or cell phone) is another story. It’s expected to do well, and possibly hit the #2 spot, but I wouldn’t bet on it doing any better.  On the other hand, it’s got Denzel Washington, who should never be discounted. (And, for pity’s sake, read my new Bullz-Eye feature on the actor’s back catalog: “Washington Insiders.” Plug, plug, plug.)

Expectations are more modest for a new family vehicle for Eddie Murphy from Nickelodeon, “Imagine That.” The film pairs Murphy in a comedic father-daughter situation with young Yara Shahidi. Between a rather soft premise and that Nickelodeon imprimatur, especially with a sub-meh 36% on RT, it’s hard to imagine this one having much appeal outside of pre-tween girls, die-hard Eddie fans, and families who’ve already seen “Up” five times. Still, the family mojo is always good for something. Let’s see if our nation’s dutiful parents push this one into the top five or six… [Update: I also note, via our own now-linked to review by David Medsker, that the premise is somewhat simliar to both “Up” (which I haven’t seen yet) and the Adam Sandler vehicle “Bedtime Stories” (which I will likely never see, not matter how accurate Dave is when he says that Keri Russell “oozes cuteness”…if she oozes anything, that would be it). Though Dave has some mild kind words for the Murphy film, I don’t think that it helps with its’ appeal much, either.]

That’s pretty much it except for three interesting films in limited release. For starters, we have a well-reviewed (though not ecstatically so), moody science fiction film called “Moon” from Duncan Jones — who can’t escape being David Bowie‘s son — with Sam Rockwell as a cloned astronaut and Kevin Spacey as the voice of a HAL-9000/Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android-esque ship’s computer. Film geeks will also be curious about a new film from filmic godfather Francis Ford Coppola, “Tetro” which has been getting a mixed response. (Currently 50% at RT — that’s pretty precisely mixed.) It’s opening just on the coasts.

It’s also only opening in L.A. and New York, but look to be hearing more about the new RT 95 percenter documentary “Food, Inc.“, on the hot topic of the politics of what we’re all eating, as the year wears on. It’s also got a great trailer — the notional tomatoes are on me.

  

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TCA Tour, Jan. 2009: “The Penguins of Madagascar”

Although I have a wonderful daughter, I would not begin to claim that she’s quite ready to embark on a regular schedule of seeing movies in the theater. She’s getting there, having successfully sat through both “The Simpsons Movie” and “Kung Fu Panda,” but she really burned me when we had to get up 15 minutes into “Horton Hears a Who” (she was big on Horton, but not so much on the Whos), and, unfortunately for her, it’s the latter experience that I tend remember when it comes to considering taking her out for an afternoon at the picture show. As a result, I’m not really up on my “Madagascar” mythos…well, except to know that David Medsker disliked the second movie so much that he gave his screener DVD to to my daughter just to get it the hell out of his house. But what can I tell you? The kid and I watched it, and maybe it’s just because I hadn’t seen the first one and had nothing with which to compare it, but I kind of enjoyed it.

I’m guessing, therefore, that I will also probably enjoy the new Nickelodeon spin-off series, “The Penguins of Madagascar,” since it seems to maintain the same general kind of humor as the films.

Jeffrey Katzenberg was proud enough of the series to turn up and introduce it personally, though he quickly made it clear that his only interest was to praise the show and the franchise which spawned it, because when he was asked if the show was perhaps a sign that TV and the movie industry were becoming more closely intertwined, he merely blinked and began, “So the reason why I’m so excited about ‘The Penguins’ TV series…”

Katzenberg quickly laughed, but his eventual answer wasn’t terribly illuminating. “‘Madagascar 2’ was the Number 1 film released in the last quarter of 2008,” he said. “It’s done outstanding business here and around the rest of the world, and I think we’re just excited about being able to broaden the franchise and move these beloved characters, these core characters of the penguins, onto Nickelodeon. I don’t think it changes our distribution opportunity.”

Boring, Jeffrey, boring.

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Kids Today: “Drake & Josh: Best of Seasons 1 – 2”

I admit it: I’m a Drake Bell fan. It doesn’t have anything to do with his Nickelodeon sitcom, though; it’s all because of his music career. Have you heard his stuff? The guy’s so much of a Jellyfish fan that he covers “Joining a Fan Club” in concert…and does it pretty damned well, too. That’s why I requested this set to review back in August…and, yet, when it arrived, I was unable to bring myself to put it in the DVD player. When it came right down to it, I found myself asking a question that, to be fair, I probably should’ve asked before making the DVD request: is appreciating a guy’s musical output really enough of a reason to endure watching a sitcom aimed at an audience that’s about 20 years younger than I am? The answer: not really. After seeing Bell’s co-star, Josh Peck, appear in the Michael Rapaport flick, “Special,” however, I decided that the time had come to get off my old arse and get it over with.

As it happened, watching “Drake & Josh: Best of Seasons 1 – 2” wasn’t nearly as excruciating an experience as I’d feared it would be, which was certainly a nice surprise, but the most surprising thing about the experience was the fact that Peck’s photo on the cover of the DVD bears absolutely no resemblance to the actor as he appeared in the first few seasons of the series. He spent the third and fourth seasons of the show divesting himself of a fair amount of weight, as it turns out, but I guess the folks responsible for packaging this best-of set decided that offering an accurate presentation of Peck’s weight during Seasons 1 and 2 wouldn’t do as well to inspire the show’s predominant audience – teen-aged girls – to buy the set. (To be fair, they did manage to find room for a cast photo from the era on the back cover.)

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