RIP MUHAMMAD ALI: The Greatest at the Movies and on TV


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I’ve sadly written way too many RIP posts this year. It seems 2016 hasn’t been kind to many of the greats in entertainment. Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, truly transcended his role as the Greatest Heavyweight Boxing Champion of All Time. His stance against the Vietnam War and subsequent stripping of his title for refusing to enter the draft on religious grounds (he converted to Islam shortly after winning his first title) made him a divisive character during the tumultuous 1960’s and cost him three prime years of his career. He came back and won the championship twice and, love him or hate him, no one could deny his skills in the ring or the strength of his convictions.

Ali was a flamboyant showman in a sport full of monosyllabic bruisers. He made outlandish predictions (“Count on me, he won’t last three”), spouted poetry (“I float like a…

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Tag Team Turmoil: …ALL THE MARBLES (MGM 1981)


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Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper , the worlds of professional wrestling and the movies had long been entwined. After all, they’re both show biz! Grapplers like Nat Pendleton , Mike Mazurki, Tor Johnson , Harold Sakata (GOLDFINGER’s Oddjob), and Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi in THE GODFATHER) made the successful transition from the squared circle to Hollywood, not to mention Mexican luchadores like El Santo and Mil Mascaras, who starred in the ring and in their own series of movies south of the border. Even early TV wrestling phenom Gorgeous George had his own feature film, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

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1981’s …ALL THE MARBLES was made just before the Hulkamania craze started a boom in pro wrestling’s popularity. It’s a serio-comic character study centering on small time manager Harry Sears and his two young charges Iris and Molly,  better known as tag team The California Dolls. Harry and Iris…

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Insomnia File No. 17: The Suburbans (dir by Donal Lardner Ward)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you were still awake at 3:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1999 comedy, The Suburbans!

And, in all probability, you would have fallen asleep before it was over.

This film tells the story of four guys who used to be in a band.  The name of the band was The Suburbans and, in 1980, they had a hit with a song called … wait … what the Hell was that song called?  See, this is an example of how slapdash The Suburbans was.  The whole point of the film is that they had a hit song but the movie goes off in some many different and random tangents that I can’t even remember what the name of this very important song was.  All I remember is that the song didn’t really sound like it would ever be a hit (no, not even in the 80s) and that the four guys really didn’t seem like they would ever be rock stars.

Anyway, The Suburbans only had that one hit and now, nearly twenty years later, all the band members are leading conventional lives in the suburbs.  Oddly, they all appear to live in the same suburb and they’re all still best friends.  Craig Bierko is the former lead guitarist, who is now a doctor of some sort.  Will Ferrell (yes, that Will Ferrell) is the former bass player who now works with computers.  Tony Guma is the overweight drummer who is at the center of a lot of scenes, presumably because Guma co-wrote the script.  Donal Lardner Ward is the former lead singer.  Along with starring in the film, Ward also directed it.  That might explain why, despite not being a very interesting character, everyone in the film is portrayed as being in love with him.

The Suburbans briefly reunite to play at Ferrell’s wedding.  A music executive (Jennifer Love Hewitt) happens to be at the wedding.  It turns out that she used to love The Suburbans and their one hit!  (The problem is that Jennifer Love Hewitt was only 20 when this film was made, which means that, when the Suburbans were famous, she would have only been a year old.)  She arranges for The Suburbans to reunite for a pay-per-view special and…

…and then a lot of stuff happens.  And I do mean a lot of stuff.  But what’s odd is none of that stuff adds up to anything.  Ward’s girlfriend (played by Amy Brenneman) is briefly threatened by Hewitt but, fear not — Donal Lardner Ward is the world’s greatest guy!  Occasionally, one member of the Suburbans might argue with another member of the Suburbans but fear not — they’re all great guys!

What’s funny is that, after spending 81 minutes with these characters and listening to their oppressively relentless quippy dialogue, you still don’t feel like you know a damn thing about any of them.  You never even find out how The Suburbans first got together or what inspired them to write their one hit in the first place.  Nor do you find out why they broke up.  They’re just sort of there and we’re supposed to care.

I guess I should mention that Ben and Jerry Stiller are both in the film.  They play Hewitt’s bosses and it’s painful to watch both of them.  Apparently, the director just said, “Ben, say something funny!” and the result was an endless scene of Ben Stiller saying whatever popped into his head.

(I should also probably mention that J.J. Abrams produced this movie.  Yes, that J.J. Abrams…)

If you track down the Suburbans on DVD, you’ll notice that the cover art is pretty much centered around Jennifer Love Hewitt and Will Ferrell.  What’s funny is that neither Hewitt nor Ferrel really get to do much in the movie.  (That said, Ferrell’s performance is enjoyably odd, even if it does feel totally out of the place.)  The entire movie is centered around Tony Guma and Donal Lardner Ward.  After all, they wrote and directed the damn thing.  So, I guess if you’re a Tony Guma fan, The Suburbans is the movie for you!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger

Insomina File No. 16: Kill The Messenger (dir by Michael Cuesta)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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Last night, if you were awake and unable to get any sleep at 1:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Cinemax and watched the 2014 conspiracy thriller, Kill The Messenger.

Kill The Messenger opens with one of those title cards that assures us that the movie we’re about to see is based on a true story.  We are then introduced to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a California-based reporter who we know is a rebel because he has a precisely trimmed goatee.  Gary is interviewing a suspected drug smuggler (Robert Patrick) at the smuggler’s luxurious mansion.  Suddenly, the DEA storms the house, shouting insults and roughly throwing everyone to the ground, including Gary.  It’s actually exciting and promising opening, one that perfectly establishes both Gary as a truth seeker and the U.S. government as an invading army that’s fighting a war that’s full of collateral damage.

Gary, of course, has nothing to do with smuggling drugs.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If he was treated unfairly by the DEA, it’s just because the government is serious about winning the war on drugs!

Or is it?

Following up on a tip, Gary comes across evidence that, in order to raise money for pro-Amercian rebels in Central America, the CIA not only helped to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but also arranged for the drugs to largely be sold in poor, minority neighbors where, in theory, no one would notice or care.

When the story is finally published, Gary is briefly a celebrity.  Not surprisingly, the government denies his accusations and start tying to discredit him.  However, Gary also finds himself being targeted by his fellow journalists.  Angry over being outscooped by a relatively unknown reporter, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both launch their own investigations.  Instead of investigating Gary’s allegations, they jealously and viciously investigate Gary himself.

Soon, both Gary’s career and his family are falling apart and Gary finds himself growing more and more paranoid…

Remember when everyone was expecting Kill The Messenger to be a really big deal?  It was due to come out towards the end of 2014, right in the middle of Oscar season.  Jeremy Renner was being talked up as a contender for best actor.  Then the film came out, it played in a handful of theaters for a week or two, and then it sunk into obscurity.  Some commentators even complained that Focus Features buried the release of Kill The Messenger and that the film was ignored because of its leftist politics…

Of course, it’s just as probable that Focus Features realized that The Theory of Everything was more likely to charm audiences than a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic.

Or it could have just been that, despite telling a potentially intriguing story, Kill The Messenger was an oddly bland film.  Other than one scene in which he admits to cheating on his wife, Gary Webb is portrayed as being such a saint that it actually causes the film to lose credibility.  (Don’t get me wrong.  For all I know, he was a saint.  But, from a cinematic point of view, sainthood is never compelling.)  This is one of those earnest films that gets so heavy-handed that, even if you agree with what the movie is saying, you still resent being manipulated.  (Of course, some of us have grown so cynical about the media that we automatically doubt the veracity any movie that opens with those dreaded words: “Based on a true story.”)  Watching Kill The Messenger, one gets the feeling that a documentary about Gary Webb would probably be more compelling (and convincing) than a fictionalized dramatization.

(Unfortunately, if you think it’s difficult to get an audience to watch a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic, just try to get them to watch a documentary about … well, anything.  I know most of our readers would probably happily watch a documentary but that’s because y’all are the best and a thousand times better than the average person.  Love you!)

Here’s what did work about Kill The Messenger: the performances.  Jeremy Renner, who also produced this film, gives an excellent performance as Gary, especially in the scenes where he realizes that both the government and the press are now conspiring about him.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the traditionally thankless role of being the supportive wife but she still does a good job.  And finally, Ray Liotta shows up for one scene and is absolutely chilling in that way that only Ray Liotta can be.

Kill The Messenger doesn’t quite work but, thanks to the cast, it is, at the very least, a watchable misfire.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace