#ThrowbackThursday – The Great Buck Howard


Original US release date: March 20, 2009
Production budget: Unknown
Worldwide gross: $900,689

The Great Buck Howard is a bit of a mystery.  Not the film, itself, but the circumstances surrounding the film.  The low-budget production, distributed by Magnolia Pictures, never really reached an audience.  Despite its charming narrative and characters and its brand-name cast, virtually no one is aware of its existence.  I only know of it, myself, because I seek out anything featuring Tom Hanks.  But, despite featuring Hanks (albeit in a glorified cameo), his son Colin, Emily Blunt, and John Malkovich, and also despite garnering solid reviews, the film never expanded beyond a release in 55 theaters.  Yes, there was apparently a small budget (I say “apparently” because the budget for the film was never publicly released), but there was seemingly enough to afford some serious star power.  Perhaps after that, there was no money left for marketing and/or getting the movie a nationwide release.  I’m only speculating.  All I can say for sure is that I believe the movie has mass appeal for general moviegoing audiences, so it’s sad that it never got the chance to succeed on a larger scale.

Inspired by the real-life magician/illusionist/mentalist the Amazing Kreskin (for whom writer-director Sean McGinly was road manager), The Great Buck Howard stars John Malkovich in the title role as a longtime celebrity stage illusionist whose star has fallen with time.  Told from the perspective of his newly hired road manager Troy (Colin Hanks), Howard sets about trying to reignite his career and become the major attraction that he was in his heyday.


Howard, himself, is a satisfyingly complex character, played wonderfully by Malkovich.  Howard loves what he does, he loves your town, and he loves the attention.  But, as is the case with many professional entertainers, he’s also very self-absorbed, placing his own success and public perception above all else, including the people around him.  He isn’t mean-spirited, and never truly becomes unlikable, but he’s often inconsiderate if things aren’t going to his own liking.  Though he cares about other people, he cares about himself just a little bit more.  It can be debated whether this makes him more honest than most or just kind of a jerk, and that gray area is part of why it works so well.

Colin Hanks’s Troy probably gets the most screen time – even more than Howard.  We are seeing the story unfold through his eyes.  Troy’s father (played by his real-life father Tom Hanks) is not exactly thrilled with Troy’s vocational choices, preferring him to be a lawyer.  as a result, Troy feels he has something to prove.  Along the way, he meets Valerie, another of Howard’s entourage, and they hit it off, forcing the two to routinely choose between business and pleasure.  Hanks and Blunt both turn in effortlessly endearing performances, easily winning over the viewer with their lightheartedness and easygoing natures.  You want to root for them and they present an appealing alternative when Howard is going through one of his more abrasive phases.


Ultimately, the film is about the desire in us all to retain our relevance in a world that is constantly threatening to pass each of us by.  Adapt or die.  Howard struggles to adapt, as so many entertainers (and non-entertainers) have before him.  He no longer understands the world around him or what audiences are drawn to.  Becoming a relic, he is no longer able to survive in the comfort zone he has always held so dear.

In contrast, Troy is trying to find his place in the world at the beginning of his life.  He has yet to figure any of that out for himself.  Despite being on opposite ends of life, Troy’s struggles are reflected by Howard’s.  But what is clear to both of them is that people are wired to do certain things.  It’s possible to settle for something else and find what is generally defined as “success”.  But if there’s no personal satisfaction involved in the work – if there’s no passion – then is there really any success?


I suspect that McGinly put a lot of himself into this film and particularly into the character of Troy.  Aside from both of them being road managers for popular illusionists, both are also doing what they can to follow their passions.  McGinly has yet to hit it big, but he hasn’t given up (he has another film coming up soon starring Deborah Ann Wohl entitled Silver Lake).  I hope he finds his way.  I strongly suggest giving him a chance by seeking out The Great Buck Howard.  It’s a warmhearted, crowd-pleasing tale with an impressive cast, plenty of laughs, and memorable characters.  It deserves an audience, and you can help it find one, even nine years later.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Great Buck Howard

#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne


Original US release date: July 1, 2011
Production budget: $30,000,000
Worldwide gross: $72,008,245

Back in 2011, Tom Hanks released Larry Crowne, a film that he directed and co-wrote, along with Nia Vardalos.  The marketing mostly centered around the fact that the film co-starred Hanks and Julia Roberts.  It wasn’t their first film together, but it was the first where they both played to type.  Despite that, the box office returns were mediocre and the reviews were even worse.  Hanks and Roberts are two of the biggest, most-beloved movie stars of the last thirty years.  How could something that seemed like such a sure thing go so wrong?  What happened?  Was the film really that bad?

Larry Crowne follows the eponymous Larry Crowne, portrayed by Hanks.  Larry is the typical wholesome good guy that has largely defined Hanks’s career – or at least the public perception of his career.  When Larry is let go from his longtime sales position at a mass-market retailing chain for not having a college education (and therefore possessing the least upside of anyone else at the location), he decides to rectify his situation by finally pursuing a degree.  He enrolls at a local community college and learns more about himself than is dictated by any syllabi, just as he affects the other students and his professors by injecting his infectious optimism into their lives.


The role of Larry Crowne does little to nothing to push Hanks to the boundaries of his talents, but it’s still an endearing part and it’s always nice to see Hanks play this sort of fatherly, uplifting character to supplement the more challenging roles that he has also tackled during his career.  He is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, led by Julia Roberts.  Roberts plays Larry’s speech professor, Mercy Tainot.  Mercy is cynical and beaten – her enthusiasm for life stamped out by the people around her.  Her students are uninspired and her husband (Bryan Cranston) sits at home all day, looking at PG-13 photos of women in their underwear (the movie’s interpretation of “porn”).

Backing up Hanks and Roberts is a who’s-who of talented actors – many of whom have gone on to become huge names in their own right.  Included in the cast is the aforementioned Cranston, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, George Takei, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who should be a much bigger star than she is), Wilmer Valderrama, and Hanks’s real-life wife Rita Wilson.  Of this group, contributing the most to the film are Malik and Mbatha-Raw.  As a college professor, myself, I can confirm that Malik’s Steve Dibiasi is the most like a real-life college student.  He provides much of the film’s humor (of which there is quite a bit, and pretty much all of it lands, to some degree) and is supremely likable in spite of Dibiasi’s annoying tendencies and entitled approach to life.  Mbatha-Raw’s Talia is a fellow student who takes an immediate liking to Larry and helps him adapt to modern-day college life.  Talia is an unusually upbeat character for Mbatha-Raw, who typically plays more serious parts.  It’s refreshing to see her smiling and joking and revealing a rarely-seen side of herself, displaying some versatility along the way.  She’s exuberant and adds an element of life and energy to the film that would have been noticeably lacking without her presence.


So, what happened?  Why didn’t the film blow the box office away and rack up $200+ million in worldwide box office receipts?  Three things, I believe:

  1. The reviews.  As I mentioned, the reviews were rather critical of the film upon its release.  Or, at least, on first glance.  Upon further inspection, they generally acknowledge that the film has it’s positives, but plays it too safe.  I can’t argue that it’s not safe.  But it’s also so entertaining and charming along the way that it shouldn’t really matter, in my estimation.  I laughed quite a bit, I enjoyed the performances, and I was invested in the characters.  I can deal with safe.
  2. The title.  Honestly, does Larry Crowne stand out as a title in any meaningful way, at all?  Even when I hear the title, myself, I have to ransack my memory in order to recall which movie it was and what it was about.  Unless the character is already a household name, titling a film with just said character’s name is risky.  I have always maintained that John Carter would have performed at least somewhat better at the box office if it had been called John Carter of Mars.  Sometimes, it works out (such as with John Wick), but it’s a gamble.
  3. The marketplace.  This film was released on July 1, right in the middle of blockbuster season.  What was it up against?  A week prior saw the release of Cars 2.  On the same day as Larry Crowne was released, Transformers: Dark of the Moon also hit theaters.  Midnight in Paris and The Town were also still hanging around, pulling in the adult crowds with counterprogramming.  Had the movie opened in the spring or the fall, I think it would have gotten more attention and performed more admirably at the box office.  Even with mostly-underwhelming reviews, people love Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and want to support them.  But timing matters.


So, while Larry Crowne isn’t an exercise in groundbreaking filmmaking, it’s still a fun, delightful time with laughs and wit abound.  It’s sadly been forgotten in the six years since its release, but it’s an appropriate movie to watch when one is in the mood for something light and uplifting.  And it’s a fun game of Spot-the-Future-Star, to boot!  Larry Crowne isn’t an all-time classic, but it deserves better than its reputation – or its lack thereof – suggests.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Larry Crowne

66. Kubo and the Two Strings


This is what I love about the movies.  I get absolutely ecstatic when some little film comes out of left field with virtually no warning and shows the whole world how movie-making is supposed to be done.  It happens every year.  Usually a few times.  Kubo and the Two Strings is one of those instances in 2016.

I went in hopeful.  I could tell the film had potential.  The animation looked great.  The reviews were looking just as good.  And it appeared to be something totally fresh.  But nothing is ever a guarantee until it happens.  And it happened.  Did it ever happen!

I’m going to start with the animation.  I just . . . I just have to.  The film is animated using stop motion, but it’s so smooth and fluid that my brain could hardly comprehend it.  My eyes kept trying to convince me that the film was animated with CGI and said brain was almost convinced.  Only the barely-perceptible frame changes during mouth movement when the characters were speaking kept me firmly rooted in reality, but holy cow!  I’ve never seen such amazing stop motion work.  Never.  Some of the scenes are so absurdly massive in scale and bombastically complex that I have a hard time even understanding how the animation and effects teams pulled it off.  Unbelievable work.  Just unbelievable.

And, on a related note, the art and character design is equally magnificent.  What’s the highest degree of superlative for “beautiful”?  Once you decide, throw it out and create a new word that’s about three degrees higher.  That is how Kubo not only looks but also feels.  I reveled in each new glorious location that the film transported me to and could hardly wait to see the next.  And the Sisters!  Those villainous Sisters are the sleekest, coolest-looking characters I’ve seen in any film in a long, long time.  Whenever they appear, their mere presence commands the viewer’s attention and then their voices (deliciously performed by Rooney Mara) seize it and hold it captive.   I felt myself perk up and smile every single time they arrived because (and I know I’ve used this word, already, but it’s too on-the-nose to use another one) they were just . . . so . . . frickin’ . . . cool!!!

Thankfully, each of the characters are well-written, well-developed, and well-rounded.  They all have decipherable and believable motivations as well as a purpose to serve within the overarching narrative of the film, itself.  The cast is brilliant in their efforts to bring these characters to life and how satisfying it must have felt to them to have made such a wonderful film without ever having to change out of their pajamas!

And though the movie takes place in a fictional world with majestic locales, mystical artifacts, and monstrous creatures, the internal struggles that each character deals with are very real and relatable.  Death, betrayal, and having to make the hard choices between one’s own dignity and the acceptance of family are very deep subjects to mine and Kubo manages to do so with grace and elegance.

And fun!  The action scenes are amazing, both in conception and execution, and each of them feeds into both character and story development.  Kubo is easy to empathize with as our protagonist and Monkey and Beetle fulfill their roles, as well.  But the story is so intricate that I feel like I need to see it again with the benefit of hindsight to make sure I caught all of the clues at the beginning before the backstory and character motivations are fully revealed.

And that sounds perfectly fine to me!  I frankly can’t wait to see Kubo again!  Because of the poor scheduling of my local theater, I had to see it in 2D, tonight.  I need to catch it in 3D when I can.  It’s too gorgeous not to.  That aside, Kubo is everything a film should strive to be.  It’s original and imaginative with deep, complex characters and story, while also featuring jaw-dropping visuals and being exceptionally entertaining.  If I had a concern coming into Kubo, it was that the film wouldn’t be much fun and would take itself too seriously in an effort to be perceived as quote/unquote “artistic”.  Those fears were completely unfounded.  I had a blast watching Kubo and it’s still as artistic a film as we’re likely to see all year!  Plus, for the first time that I can remember, I don’t believe that Disney or Pixar has the best animated film of the year.  But that accolade is quite frankly a restrictive glass ceiling of a compliment for Kubo.  It isn’t just a great animated film; it’s one of the best films of the year, period!  Congratulations to director Travis Knight and studio Laika!

The only question that remains in my mind is whether enough people will see it to elevate it from a sure-fire cult classic to the full-blown worldwide classic that it deserves to be.  Please, please, please support this film!  You say you want something fresh, original, and quality?  Here it is!  So prove that you mean it!  Go see Kubo and the Two Strings!  Like, now!

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66. Kubo and the Two Strings