A Movie A Day #225: Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005, directed by Neil Fearnley)


The year is 1978.  A television producer named Garry Marshall (Daniel Roebuck) teaches America how to laugh again by casting Pam Dawber (Erinn Hayes) and a hyperactive stand-up comedian named Robin Williams (Chris Diamantopoulos) in a sitcom about an alien struggling to understand humanity.  Despite constant network interference, the show makes Robin a star but, with stardom, comes all the usual temptations: lust, gluttony, greed, pride, envy, wrath, and John Belushi.

The Behind The Camera films, which all dramatized the behind the scenes drama of old television shows, were briefly a big thing in the mid-aughts.  Because they were lousy, they never got good reviews but they did get good ratings from nostalgia-starved baby boomers and gen xers.  I think The Unauthorized Mork & Mindy Story was the last one produced.  It probably would have been better if there had been any sort of drama going on behind-the-scenes of Mork & Mindy but, according to this movie, everyone got along swimmingly.  Williams may get hooked on cocaine but the film squarely puts the blame for that on John Belushi.  The script, which was obviously written with one eye on avoiding getting sued, is sanitized of anything that could have reflected badly on anyone who was still alive when the movie aired.

Stuck with unenviable task of having to play one of the most famous people in the world, Chris Diamantopoulos was not terrible as Robin Williams.  Considering how sanitized the script was, not terrible is probably the best that could be hoped for.  There was not much of a physical resemblance but Diamantopoulos nailed the voice and some of the mannerisms.  Erinn Hayes looks like Pam Dawber but, just as in the actual show, the movie gives her the short end of the stick and focuses on Williams.

For aficionados of bad television, this is mostly memorable for Daniel Roebuck’s absolutely terrible performance as Garry Marshall and a scene in which Williams is heckled in a comedy club but an overweight man who steps out of the shadows and announces that he’s John Belushi!  Roebuck’s performance as Garry Marshall begins and end with his attempt to impersonate Marshall’s familiar voice.  He was much better cast as Jay Leno in The Night Shift.  As for Belushi , since he was not around to sue or otherwise defend himself, the movie goes all out to portray Belushi (who was played by Tyler Labine) as being an almost demonic influence on Williams.   The film’s portrayal of Belushi is even worse and probably more inaccurate than Wired and that’s saying something!

To quote Mork himself: Shazbot!  This movie is full of it.

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Insomnia File #22: Insomnia (dir by Christopher Nolan)


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!

Last night, if you were up at 2 in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the atmospheric 2002 mystery, Insomnia.

I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit by including Insomnia in a series about obscure films that you might find on cable late at night.  While Insomnia does seem to often turn up during the early morning hours, it’s hardly an obscure film.  A remake of an acclaimed Norwegian film, it not only stars three Oscar winners (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank) but it was directed by Christopher Nolan.  Insomnia got a lot of attention when it was first released in 2002.  But, doing an insomnia file about a movie that’s actually about insomnia was just too good of an opportunity to pass up.

I should also mention that I didn’t have insomnia last night.  I was up because I currently have a cold and I watched Insomnia in a feverish and congested haze.  And yet I couldn’t help but feel that, somehow, that was actually the ideal way to watch Insomnia.  With its ominous atmosphere and Nolan’s eye for the surreal, Insomnia plays out like a semi-lucid fever dream.

A teenage girl has been murdered in a small Alaskan fishing village.  The chief of police (played by the great character actor Paul Dooley) asks his former LAPD partner, Will Dormer (Al Pacino), to come to Alaska and help with the investigation.  Accompanying Dormer is his partner and friend, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan).

Dormer has issues that go far beyond anything happening in Alaska.  He’s burned out and he’s plagued by rumors that, in the past, he was a crooked cop.  He’s being investigated by Internal Affairs and, shortly after they arrive in Alaska, Eckhart admits that he’s been given immunity as part of a deal to testify against Dormer.  While pursuing the suspected murderer through the Alaskan fog, Dormer fires his gun.  When the fog clear, Dormer discovers that he’s killed Eckhart.  Was it an accident or did Dormer intentionally shoot  his partner?  Not even Dormer seems to know for sure.  He lies and says that the murderer shot Eckhart.

Working with a local detective (Hilary Swank), Dormer tries to solve the Alaska murder, with the knowledge that, once he does, he’ll have to return to Los Angeles and he’ll probably be indicted.  Because of the midnight sun, night never falls in Alaska and, tortured by guilt, Dormer cannot sleep.  Add to that, the murderer knows that Dormer shot Eckhart.  And now, he’s calling Dormer and cruelly taunting him.

Who is the murderer?  His name is Walter Finch.  He’s a writer and, in a stroke of brilliance, he’s played by none other than Robin Williams.  To me, Robin Williams’s screen presence always carried hints of narcissism and self-destruction.  Even in comedic roles, there was a transparent but very solid wall between Williams the audience.  When he was shouting out a thousand words a minute and rapidly switching from one character to the next, it always seemed as if it was all a technique to keep anyone from figuring out who he really was.  In Insomnia (and, that same year, in One Hour Photo), Robin Williams reveals an inner darkness that he rarely showed before or after.  Finch may possess Williams’s trademark eccentric smile and nervous voice but, underneath the surface, he’s an empty shell who views human beings as being as disposable as the characters in his paperback novels.

Christopher Nolan takes us directly into the heads of these two enemies, with shots of the desolate Alaskan landscape seeming to perfectly capture the inner desolation of two minds destroyed by guilt and paranoia.  (Neither Finch nor Dormer is capable of connecting with the world outside of his damaged psyche.)  As seen through Nolan’s lens, Alaska becomes as surreal and haunting as one of the dream landscapes from Inception.  For those of us who found both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar to be so bombastic that they verged on self-parody, Insomnia is a nice reminder that Nolan doesn’t need a pounding Han Zimmer score to make a great movie.  With Insomnia, Nolan gives us not bombast but a deceptively low-key and atmospheric journey into the heart of darkness.

Ironically, for a film about two men who cannot sleep, Insomnia will haunt your dreams.

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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
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth

Here’s the Trailer for Boulevard, Robin Williams’s Final Film


I made out my latest Oscar predictions before I saw the trailer for Boulevard.  Filmed shortly before Robin Williams’s suicide, Boulevard features his final dramatic performance.  Could Robin Williams receive a posthumous nomination for his role here?  We’ll find out later this year.

Shattered Politics #79: Man of the Year (dir by Barry Levinson)


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The 2006 comedy Man of the Year is a difficult film to review.  Some of that is because it’s not that interesting of a film.  It’s simplistic and predictable.  In fact, the only reason that I’m reviewing this film for Shattered Politics is because I needed an example of a bad, mainstream political film.

However, that’s not the only reason why it’s difficult to write about Man of the Year.  The bigger reason is that Man Of The Year stars Robin Williams and, in many ways, it’s typical of one of his later lesser films.  After his tragic death, it’s even harder to watch Robin Williams waste his talents in a bad film.

And, make no mistake about it, Man of the Year is a bad film.

Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs.  Dobbs, we are told, is the most famous political commentator in America.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Dobbs is meant to be the film’s equivalent of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  However, the difference is that Stewart and Colbert are both obviously liberal whereas, from what little we see of Tom Dobbs show, Dobbs doesn’t appear to have any positions beyond the few vague platitudes that pass for political thinking in most mainstream films.  Dobbs is against special interests.  He’s against career politicians.  He’s against … well, he’s against everything that most people are against and for everything that most people are for.  About the closest that Tom Dobbs come to being edgy is when he makes a stupid joke about Pope Benedict being German.

Anyway, Dobbs is recruited to run for President and he manages to get on the ballot in 13 states!  And he’s even doing well because, apparently in this film’s version of reality, Catholic voters have no problem supporting someone who makes fun of Pope Benedict for being German.  And he’s even invited to take part in a presidential debate.  When asked his first question in the debate, Dobbs starts talking and, because he’s being played by Robin Williams, he doesn’t stop.  The debate spirals out-of-control.  Dobbs goes on and on about the state of America, all the while assuming weird accents and slipping in and out of different personalities.

“Oh my God,” I thought, “he’s had a nervous breakdown.”

Except, of course, he hasn’t.  And, since this is a movie, everyone in America loves his performance.  On election night, Tom Dobbs apparently wins all 13 of his states and he’s elected President!

Except, of course, he hasn’t been.  It turns out there was an error with the voting machines.  Eleanor Green (Laura Linney), who works at the company that built the machines, figures out what happened.  In order to keep her from revealing the truth, the company drugs her and attempts to destroy her credibility and…

Wait, this is a Robin Williams comedy, isn’t it?  Well, it is and it isn’t.  Half of the film is devoted to Tom Dobbs saying things that are supposed to be funny but the other half deals with Eleanor trying to expose a giant cover-up without getting killed.  Director Barry Levinson can’t seem to figure out whether his film is supposed to be an unfunny comedy or a boring drama.  So, he tries to do both and … well, taken by that criteria, the film actually works.  If Levinson set out to be unfunny and boring, he succeeded.

One of the biggest dangers of making a film about a comedian is that, for the film to work, you have to believe that people would actually find the comedian to be funny.  When the jokes aren’t funny, it doesn’t matter how many reaction shots of people laughing that you stuff into the film.  Man of the Year is full of reaction shots.  During the debate, we continually see Eleanor’s teenage son laughing.  (How many teenagers, other than the weird ones and the ones assigned to do so for homework, actually watch a presidential debate?)  During one particularly painful moment, Tom starts rambling while traveling on the campaign bus and we are subjected to countless reaction shots of Christopher Walken and Lewis Black laughing so hard that they look like they might faint from exhaustion.

The problem is that it’s rare that a few hundred people will all start laughing and stop laughing at the exact same time.  Whenever you listen to a truly good comedian, you always hear a few giggles that indicate that at least a few audience members are still thinking about the last joke or else that they’re anticipating the next joke.  Often times, when a comedian says something especially funny or unexpected, you don’t even hear laughter.  You might hear a gasp of shock.  You might hear tittering.  You might hear applause.  You might hear someone shouting like they’re at a sporting event.

What I’m saying is that everyone reacts to humor in their own individual way.  Everyone has a laugh of their very own.  Uniform laughter, like the laughter in Man of the Year, sounds fake because it is fake.

Add to that, nothing that Tom Dobbs says is particularly funny.

So, no — don’t watch Man of the Year.  Watch Dead Poets Society.  Watch Good Will Hunting or Awakenings.  You could even watch Cadillac Man!  But don’t watch Man of the Year.

In Memory of Robin Williams #4: Good Will Hunting (dir by Gus Van Sant)


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After being nominated three times, Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for his performance as Dr. Sean McGuire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting.  The first time I ever watched Good Will Hunting, I was 16 years old and I loved it.  12 years later, I rewatched it for this review and, oddly enough, I did not love it.  In fact, I barely even liked it.  However, one thing that I did better appreciate the second time around was the performance of Robin Williams.

Good Will Hunting was, of course, written by its two stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a self-taught math genius who, as a result of being abused as a child, is full of anger and refuses to allow anyone to get close to him.  His only true friend is Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), a construction worker.  Will works as a janitor at MIT and, when he’s caught secretly solving a complex math problem, he’s taken under the wing of Prof. Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard).  While Will pursues a volatile romance with a med student named Skylar (Minnie Driver, who is good in an underwritten role), Lambeau arranges for Will to become a patient of psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams).  The recently widowed Sean helps Will to come to terms with his abusive childhood and deal with his anger issues.  When Skylar tells Will that she’s moving to California, Will is forced to decide whether to follow her or to just push her away like he does with everyone else.

I can still remember that the first time I ever saw Good Will Hunting, I had such a crush on Will Hunting.  After all, he looked like Matt Damon.  He was smart but he could still stand up for himself.  He was a jerk but that was just because he needed the right girl in his life.  When he finally talked about being abused by his foster father, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to be there for him while he cried.  When he drove off to see Skylar in that beat-up car of his, I thought it was such a romantic moment.  Like, seriously — Oh.  My.  God.

That was the first time I saw the movie.

However, when I recently rewatched the film for this review, I had a totally different reaction to Will Hunting.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve had to do deal with real-life versions of the character but this time, I actually found myself very much not charmed by Will Hunting and his condescending verbosity.  Whereas originally it seemed like he pushed the away the world as a defensive mechanism, it now seemed like Will was basically just a sociopath.  People in both the audience and the movie assumed that, because he was so smart, there had to be something more to Will than just bitter negativity but actually, there was less.  And even Will’s intelligence seemed to be more the result of the fact that director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters Damon and Affleck were kind enough to surround Will with less-than-articulate characters to humiliate.  It’s easy to be the smartest person in the room when you’re surrounded by strawmen.  I got the feeling that we were supposed to impressed because Will cites Howard Zinn at one point but, really, Howard Zinn is pretty much the historian of choice for phony intellectuals everywhere.

(In the interest of fairness, I guess I should admit that I may be biased because I once dated a phony intellectual who was always citing Howard Zinn, despite having not read anything that Zinn had ever written.  Don’t get me wrong.  He owned a copy of A People’s History of the United States and he always made sure it was sitting somewhere where visitors could see it but he had never actually opened it.  I imagine he has since moved on to Thomas Piketty.)

Instead, I found myself reacting far more positively to the character of Chuckie Sullivan.  Chuckie may not have been a genius but at least he was capable of holding down a job, actually cared about his friends, and was capable of communicating with people without trying to destroy their self-esteem.  If I had been Skylar, I would have dumped Will and spent my last few months in Boston enjoying the working class pleasures of Chuckie Sullivan.

But here’s the thing — the main reason that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is good inside of Will Hunting is because Sean Maguire tells us that there is.  As I rewatched Good Will Hunting, I was surprised by just how good Robin Williams’s performance really was.  The compassionate psychologist has become such a stock character that there’s something truly enjoyable about watching an actor manage to find nuance and individuality in the familiar role.   Sean is such a kind and likable character (and Robin Williams gives such an empathetic performance) that we’re willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt as long as he is.  In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams once again had the beard that gave him gravitas in Awakenings.  But he also had the saddest eyes.  It’s the eyes that you remember as you watch the film because it’s those eyes that tell us that Sean has had to overcome the type of pain that Will Hunting will never be capable of understanding.

It’s those eyes, more than anything, that convince us that there might be some good in Will Hunting.

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In Memory of Robin Williams #3: Awakenings (dir by Penny Marshall)


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The 1990 Best Picture nominee Awakenings is exactly the type of film that seems to have been designed to make me cry.

Taking place in 1969 and based (very loosely, I assume) on a true story, Awakenings features Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer.  Dr. Sayer is a dedicated and caring physician but he also suffers from an almost crippling shyness.  He’s at his most comfortable when he’s dealing with a group of patients who have spent the last 40 years in a catatonic state, suffering from a tragic disease known as encephalitis lethargica.  (One thing that I learned from watching this film was that, from 1917 to 1928, there was an epidemic of this disease, with millions either dying or being left catatonic.)  While the rest of the medical establishment (led by John Heard, who always seems to be the embodiment of the establishment in films made in the 90s) assumes that the patients are destined to spend the rest of their lives in a vegetative state, Dr. Sayer is convinced that the patients can be awakened.  He soon discovers that, even in their catatonic state, the patients will react to certain stimulii.  One woman can catch a baseball.  Another appears to react well to music.  And finally, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) — who fell ill with this disease when he was a child — tries to communicate with a Ouija board.

Over the objections of his supervisors, Dr. Sayer treats the patients with an experimental drug.  Leonard is the first one to get the drug and is also the first one to wake up.  While the rest of the patients wake up, Dr. Sayer tries to help Leonard adjust to the 1960s.  At first, everything seems to be going perfectly.  Leonard even manages to strike up a sweet romance with a woman named Paula (Penelope Ann Miller).  However, it soon becomes obvious that the awakening is only going to be a temporary one as Leonard and all the other patients start to descend back into their catatonic states…

It’s easy to criticize a film like Awakenings for being manipulative and sentimental.  And the fact of the matter is that the film is manipulative and it is sentimental and undoubtedly, it probably is a massive simplification of the true story.  (The character played by John Heard is such an obvious villain that he might as well have a mustache to twirl.)  And yes, you know even before it happens that there’s eventually going to be a montage of an amazed Leonard staring at a girl in a miniskirt while Time of the Season plays on the soundtrack.

But, no matter!  It’s a tremendously effective film and it earned the tears that I shed while watching it.  Both De Niro and Williams give excellent performances which add a good deal of depth to scenes that could otherwise come across as being overly sappy.  De Niro has the more showy role but it really but it’s the performance of Robin Williams that really carries the film.  As played by Williams, Dr. Sayer is a fragile soul who hides from the world behind his beard and his professional determination.  When he finally asks a nurse (Julie Kavner) out to dinner, it’s impossible not to cheer for him.

It’s also impossible not to cheer a little for Awakenings.

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In Memory of Robin Williams #2: Cadillac Man (dir by Roger Donaldson)


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Cadillac Man is a film that I had never heard of until I came across it while skimming what was available OnDemand last week.  It was a film that I only watched because it starred Robin Williams.  I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about including it in a tribute to Robin Williams because Cadillac Man was definitely one of his lesser films.  However, while Cadillac Man may not be a very good movie, it does feature a very good performance from Robin Williams.

Released in 1990, Cadillac Man tells the story of Joey O’Brien (Robin Williams), who is the type of car salesman who has no problem approaching a widow at a funeral and telling her that now is the time to consider buying a new car.  Joey’s a good salesman but he’s also deep in debt.  He not only owes alimony to his ex-wife (Pamela Reed) but he also supporst two mistresses, a married one (a hilarious Fran Drescher) and a single one (Lori Petty).   He’s also owes money to the local mafia don and, as the film begins, he’s been told that he has to sell 12 cars in two days or else he’ll lose his job.

On top of all that, Joey also has to deal with Larry (Tim Robbins),  an insane jerk with a motorcycle and an assault rifle who takes the entire car dealership hostage because he’s convinced that his wife (Annabella Sciorra) is cheating on him.  Larry spends most of the movie firing his rifle up in the air and screaming at the top of his lungs (and yet, it’s also clear that the audience is supposed to like him).  As the cops surround the car dealership, Joey attempts to keep Larry under control while also trying to get back together with his ex-wife…

After I watched Cadillac Man, I looked up the rest of director Roger Donaldson’s credits.  What I discovered was that Donaldson has directed a lot of movies (including guilty pleasure Cocktail and the upcoming The November Man) but only one of them has been a comedy.  The majority of his films are dramas like Thirteen Days and action films like November Man.  In short, Roger Donaldson is not a comedy director.   And when directors who aren’t experienced with comedy attempt to make a comedy, they almost always resort to having all of the actors shout their lines and run around like characters in a live-action cartoon.  That is certainly the approach that Donaldson took in Cadillac Man and the end result was a film that far too often tried to substitute chaos for genuine comedy.

(As just an example of Donaldson’s lack of comedic touch, Annabella Sciorra went through almost the entire film with a bloody cut on her forehead.  Even if her lines or her character had been funny, I would have never known it because I was spending too much time worrying about what the eventual scar would look like.)

And yet, here’s the thing.  As bad as Cadillac Man turned out to be, Robin Williams was actually pretty good in it.  Joey isn’t exactly a likable character but you root for him because of who is playing him.  What’s interesting is that the role, even though it was definitely comedic, didn’t lend itself to the manic intensity that was the trademark of much of Williams’s comedy.  Instead, the humor comes from the way that, while everyone else in his life is essentially going crazy, Joey O’Brien struggles to maintain his facade of calm and confidence.  Williams portrays Joey as being the ultimate salesman and when Joey has to try to convince Larry to release his hostages, he approaches it almost as if he’s trying to sell Larry a car and it’s impossible not to admire Joey’s determination to close the sale without anyone else getting shot.  As played by Tim Robbins, Larry is thoroughly unhinged.  In fact, it’s probably one of the worst performances of Tim Robbins’ career but it’s obvious that he and Williams enjoyed playing off of each other.  Whenever Robbins’ performance goes over-the-top, Williams’ performance brings things back down to Earth and provides whatever pleasure one can hope to get from a film like this.

And that’s why, despite the fact that Cadillac Man is not a particularly good film, it’s an appropriate tribute to the talent of Robin Williams.  It’s one thing to give a good performance in a good film.  However, it takes true talent to give a great performance in a total misfire.

And that’s exactly what Robin Williams did in Cadillac Man.

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