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Worth seeing more than once
'Decadence' is an excellent documentary that deserves a bit more attention. I caught it by accident on the Smithsonian Channel, of all places, and it hooked me right away.
Director and host Pria Viswalingam takes viewers on an tour of the various ways in which Western society has become dysfunctional. This includes the breakdown of the traditional family, the new role of sex, the runaway power of corporations, and, ultimately, our loss of spirituality and corresponding shift to mindless materialism.
The tale is told with lots of excellent location photography, and some really worthwhile interviews with people you haven't seen a million times before. I particularly liked how Viswalingam inserts himself as a silent background presence in some of the 'candid' scenes of everyday life. It's a clever bit of technique.
This is not to say that I agreed with everything Viswalingam has to say. On the contrary, I totally disagree with his conclusion: that Western civilization is falling, and will inevitably do so catastrophically. On the contrary, I see the fall of irrational belief systems as a positive thing, and today's social disorder as a necessary and likely a rather brief phase, which presages the emergence of a far more mature, truly global civilization.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed all of Viswalingam's examples, and I found his philosophical observations to be deep and thought-provoking. Rather than reinforcing my own views, this film forced me to reconsider them, to examine our world in a new light. I therefore recommend 'Decadence' highly to anyone interested in understanding the state of the world today.
There's so much packed into 'Decadence' that I'd gladly watch it several more times, if not for one final complaint. At $30 on the creators' Web site, the DVD is horribly overpriced - and just for good measure, it's only available in Australia! But keep an eye on those obscure specialty channels. This film is well worth tracking down.
Celebrity Name Game (2014)
What a dismal come-down for Craig Ferguson! This show is boring, predictable, embarrassing and, above all, brutally DUMB - yet another show in which doing well depends on knowing stuff that no intelligent person could possibly care about.
It's hard to describe the horror of watching brainless middle-aged contestants squealing and jumping up and down as they guess at meaningless factoids while being spoon-fed transparent clues by the smirking Ferguson. This show makes The Price is Right look like Grandmaster-level chess by comparison.
The phrase "dump-truck full of money" comes swiftly to mind, when wondering why Ferguson might choose to debase himself in this way. This is a sad, miserable career choice by a once-creative performer. Spare yourself, and avoid witnessing his utter humiliation.
Dark, gritty and intelligent - a brilliant start
After just two episodes, this show seems to be drawing a lot of negative reviews. However, most of these come from comic-book uber-fans, resentful that there are no capes and masks in the show. Of course, that's exactly the point - this show is about the mythic Gotham *before* it exploded with 'super' heroes and 'super' villains. It uses the dark, surreal *style* of the Batman comics to ask some fascinating questions about morality and the relevance of 'extreme' characters in the real world.
The seventy-plus-year-long Batman saga is fundamentally a fable about morality. It asks if one man can make a difference, against inconceivable odds. The limitation of the premise is that this one man has amazingly super-human abilities - a vast intellect, enormous wealth, Olympian athletic abilities, and few, if any, human frailties. Gotham, the series, obviously wants to dig a little deeper. Could such a person exist? And if he doesn't, what can normal people do in his absence? In the real world, the activities of a Batman are supposed to be carried out by the police. But we're seeing the police increasingly losing its way - tasked with upholding absurd laws, often pitted against the public they're meant to protect and serve, increasingly isolated and compelled to act out of self-interest rather than altruism.
Gotham takes that situation to a stylized, surrealized extreme. It shows us a police force that's completely forgotten morality. Forgotten that it must set an example, uphold the law TO THE LETTER, if it expects anyone else - public or criminals - to take it seriously.
Into this dark, exaggerated world comes One Honest Cop - James Gordon. He's young, he's confused, he's out of his depth - a lot closer to the real-world Frank Serpico than the mythical Dirty Harry. What can he do, when confronted by a system that expects him to be crooked - to embrace the shades of dark grey? In the first two episodes, we get the feeling that Gordon may be the man for the job - but that he has a lot to learn. He has the moral fibre those around him lack. He's obviously plenty tough. But he needs to learn how deep the sickness goes, and what lies at its roots.
It's a fascinating premise. I can't wait to see it developed.
Lots of reviews are complaining about bad acting, bad writing and bad directing. What?? Maybe this show is TOO literate for them. The plotting is in fact clever, the dialog flavorful. The acting is uniformly top-notch, much better overall than in cartoony shows like Arrow (which I do like a lot, but in a very different way). The direction, the look and feel and mood of Gotham, are near perfect.
As the title implies, Gotham, the city, is the real star. This show is about a strange and desperate city, which could represent a lot of cities in America today. (Detroit comes to mind.) This is a show for desperate times, a platform for talking about desperation itself - about a desperate need for heroes, who refuse to appear politely on queue. It's a show that suggests maybe the heroes are *us* - regular people like Jim Gordon. People who can't solve the problems with magical gadgets and over-the-top abilities. Who just have to make do with basic human courage, and some unshakable principles.
Who knows how Gotham will develop? So far, it's a real breath of fresh air to at least two tired genres (cop shows and comic heroes). Let's hope that smart viewers discover it quickly, and don't overlook it because of its fanciful Batman tie-in. Yes, it's at heart a comic book - but it's the darker, more intelligent, more imaginative kind, that rarely gets enough acknowledgement.
Fans need to take a deep breath and accept this show for what it is - a side-trip, not the main superhero event they crave. Non-fans need to give Gotham a try, with an open mind. This *could* be a really great show. I hope we'll have the chance to find out.
Hemlock Grove (2013)
Persistence Pays Off
This isn't so much a review, as a bit of advice to all those who've given up on Hemlock Grove: patience!
Whatever you're expecting from Hemlock Grove, you're probably wrong. This is a show that dares to go its own way. A show that delights in blowing away your expectations. It's not about what you think it's about - even after you think you KNOW what it's about.
As I write this, I'm about halfway through the second season. And I still haven't entirely made up my mind about Hemlock Grove. I'm less sure than ever that I know what it's 'really' about. But I no longer care. It's a devious, twisted, brain-scrambling ride, and I'm on board right to the end.
Here's the right way to watch this show. Enjoy the weird atmosphere. The spooky, expressionist visual style. The kinky, off-beat characters. The bizarre plot twists. Don't try to pigeonhole any of it - even when (especially toward the end of the first season), you may be tempted to do so.
And above all, don't give up. This really is a very good show. Good in ways that other shows don't even attempt. Hemlock Grove is the Netflix paradigm truly paying off - a show that doesn't expect you to wait a week between episodes, that doesn't need to sell breakfast cereal or feminine hygiene products, that doesn't have to satisfy either censors or audience preconceptions.
Hemlock Grove is definitely not a show for everyone. But you'll never know if it's a show for YOU unless you stick with it, much longer than you would with most shows you're 'just not quite sure about.' If you still feel no spark after finishing the first season, okay, go watch something else. But you may be surprised to find you've fallen under its demented spell.
Under the Dome (2013)
Under All Expectations
So much potential, so completely wasted. A great concept: town suddenly cut off from the rest of the world. Great characters: shady mayor, gangster trying to go straight, nutzo deputy, and on and on. Great acting, solid production. Only one thing missing: the tiniest shred of logic.
I stuck with this mess well into the second season, hoping it would gradually pull itself together. But on the contrary, it just kept getting dumber and dumber. NOBODY does the most obvious things: taking stock of available resources, setting up rationing, organizing a militia... not even talking to the outside world! Given that the Dome is transparent, regular communication with the outside would be trivial. Anyone can think of a dozen ways to do it, ranging from high tech (fiber optics) to high school (holding up cards with letters of the alphabet).
Meanwhile, increasingly preposterous details about the nature of the Dome are dribbled out at an ever-decreasing pace, with an eye to prolonging the agony through (I'm told) five seasons. Are you kidding? The way to get through five seasons is to pump out MORE details, MORE action, MORE plot development. Not to stretch a thin idea until it vanishes entirely.
I resented the needless cliffhanger at the end of Season One, but I came back in hopes that someone (Brian K. Vaughan, maybe?) would pull this miserable tangle of loose ends back together. But no luck. I no longer care what the Dome is, or how long it will remain in place. I merely wish that those responsible for its creation could be permanently incarcerated within it.
Mister Buddwing (1966)
Some Kind of Masterpiece
I'm not surprised to see mixed reviews for this odd, artsy and challenging film. I only caught it by accident, as part of the day-long tribute to James Garner aired by TCM a few days after he'd passed away. Despite being a life-long fan of Garner, this was a film I'd missed. When it started, I didn't even know what it was. For the first few minutes, I didn't know it starred Garner.
This turned out to be an extremely fortuitous way to experience Mister Buddwing. I was enthralled by the visual style even before I knew what I was watching. As the narrative evolved, I became even more enthralled. This is a miraculously good film - perhaps not perfect, but so audacious it really deserves a 10 out of 10. (And I hand them out *very* grudgingly.)
There are many things to enjoy here, but I'll focus on just three aspects of the film.
First and foremost, there's the magnificent black and white photography of New York City in the 1960s. It works both as pure composition and as a visual tribute to the 'old' New York, that dark, grimy one that was already fading into history when this film was made. I'd say this film does New York at least as well as Woody Allen's Manhattan, and in support of a far more clever drama. (I'm a huge Allen fan, but I see Manhattan as one of his rare failures - aside from the photography.)
Second, there's the clever structure. Some reviews have noted that it does work like a stage play. But in a good way. The story progresses by a series of repeated approximations. Several different women all serve as surrogates for Buddwing's lost love, Grace. Each portrays a different aspect of this phantom lady, and each helps to flesh out a different aspect of Buddwing's life - both for him and for us. Bits of dialog echo from one version to another. Mirrors play an important role, accentuating the reverberations. This film is as good a cinematic simulation of a drug trip, or a lucid dream, as you're going to find. You really start to feel that there's a memory that's just escaping you, a reality that you can't quite recapture.
Third, there are the performances. Angela Lansbury deserves special credit for her frowsy blonde, an uncharacteristic part that reminds us of this lady's true acting prowess. The other women are all excellent, in their own ways. Suzanne Pleshette is adorable, Katharine Ross at her most wholesomely appealing, and Jean Simmons at her most acidic. Jack Gilford has a wonderful bit as "Mr. Schwartz," and George Voskovec is perfect as 'God.' ("You're crazier than I am," wails Garner.)
Hollywood rarely creates this kind of 'art' film. Mister Buddwing could be slipped into a Fellini, or Antonioni or Bergman retrospective, without seeming out of place. But where so many 'art' films are merely 'arty', Mister Buddwing gets it right. It's got human drama, wit and enormous style. It's not merely vague, or obscure; it's visionary. It's about something.
In short, I can't recommend this film highly enough. Don't expect The Thrill of It All, or Maverick, or Murphy's Romance. Think of Mister Buddwing as a more-romantic companion to 36 Hours. Or a 1960s equivalent of Forest Gump. This is clearly intended as a film about redemption, not of just one man, but of an entire generation that was just awakening to the realization that it had lost its way.
Black Swan (2010)
Neither Fish Nor Fowl
Black Swan is brilliantly directed and impeccably acted. But beyond that, I'm not sure how impressed we should be. It uses masterful technique to sell shallow and possibly fallacious insights.
On a dramatic level, the film shows us a feeble, repressed, self-destructive person, who - despite being offered an unimaginable opportunity - spends most of the running time whining, panicking, or blubbering. This may be a valid basis for a story (albeit a dreary one), but it offers very little in the way of novelty or nuance. There are no detours in Nina's character arc. You can fill in the ending of the film after watching the first five minutes.
Black Swan also misrepresents the creative process. The 'obsessive, self-destructive ballerina' is a tired cliché, which didn't ring true in The Red Shoes, and doesn't hold up any better here. Ballet, like any art, is NOT produced by mystically 'losing yourself.' It's created through long hours of intense, tightly-focused and highly-skilled effort. In other words: boring WORK. 'Talent' is 90% perspiration; obsession and psychosis are entirely optional. (And not particularly common.)
Aronofsky does a beautiful job of presenting Nina's inner journey in visual, symbolic terms. But that journey is neither pleasant nor particularly instructive. Nina's failing is ultimately no more than a lack of commitment.
The Walking Dead (2010)
Dead Show Walking
I was totally hooked on this show through the first couple of seasons. This was the zombie show I'd been craving. Tense action, strong characters, engrossing zombie lore...
Then it all went to pieces. First, the series bogged down on the farm. Yes, the drama still worked. But the momentum was draining away. The group of survivors was still operating rationally, but petty bickering was starting to blur the focus on - you guessed it - ZOMBIES.
And then came the idiotic, inevitable Governor. The sad end of so many survival series (e.g. the UK's Survivors, both versions), when they stop being about - you guessed it - SURVIVAL, and turn into some sort of endless squabble with the neighbours. Perpetuated by our heroes acting like idiots: trusting total strangers, allowing thugs to take them by surprise EVERY time, getting captured singly or in groups, negotiating for terms, serving as slaves, and generally making a once-exciting series into a misery.
Note to screenwriters: making a show that's about ZOMBIES and SURVIVAL into one about endless conflict with armed goons is a textbook example of JUMPING THE SHARK. Zombie shows are about fighting zombies! Big zombies, slow zombies, fast zombies, hordes of zombies. Z-O-M-B-I-E-S. Print that word out and staple it to your foreheads.
What's more, shows about tough, sharp-witted SURVIVORS are FUN, whereas shows about hapless VICTIMS are DREARY. After a global apocalypse, the interesting characters will be thinking very hard about 1) how to survive till next week; 2) how to improve their situation, with better armament, better shelter, better organization; 3) how to rebuild a stable civilization; and 4) how to understand and reverse the plague that destroyed the old civilization. Any group that lets its attention stray from these concerns are not 'survivors' - and NOT INTERESTING.
I reluctantly gave up on The Walking Dead after suffering through a dozen or more episodes that were no longer even remotely about zombies, survival or worthwhile characters. I kept hoping the show would pull itself out of the quagmire and carry on as it had begun, but after a while I just didn't care any more.
Let's hope the NEXT zombie-survival series will have a bit more staying power.
Occasionally good, often lame
I had high hopes for Oliver's new show, especially after catching his intelligent and hilarious take on Net Neutrality. Unfortunately, Last Week Tonight only occasionally hits those peaks.
Much of the time, Oliver is content to shoot rubber bullets at sitting-duck targets. Occasionally, he misfires spectacularly, and simply goes along with the official US government line rather than challenging it. For example, Oliver seems blissfully unaware that 90% of Crimea is ethnically Russian, and - far from needing to be forced at gunpoint, as Oliver suggests - favored a return to Russia long before the recent conflict erupted in Kiev. The situation in the Ukraine has endless nuances worth exploring (pro and con), but Oliver glosses over them all and contents himself with ridiculing Putin - an easy, politically-correct target that everyone from David Letterman to Saturday Night Live has already exploited ad nauseam.
On the other hand, Oliver does score points with his coverage of the Indian elections, a huge news story which - as he points out - has been studiously ignored by the Western media. Can This Week Tonight ferret out more such stories that truly do need comment? It's not an easy task, and it's hard to say whether Oliver has the serious commitment it will require.
After five episodes, Oliver seems to be positioning himself more as a sort of 'Jon Stewart with profanity.' This makes him far less interesting as a commentator than his HBO compatriot, Bill Maher. Maher has some strange opinions, to be sure, but at least they're always uniquely his own. He offers a valid, informed and always iconoclastic perspective, worth hearing even when you vigorously disagree with it. He's also a lot funnier than Oliver.
We can hope that Last Week Tonight will evolve. As it sits now, it's only occasionally amusing, and frequently redundant.
Penny Dreadful (2014)
A promising start
The first episode of Penny Dreadful does a number of things right, making me hopeful for the future of this series.
1. The atmosphere is perfect: dense, Gothic, surreal and unsettling. The camera work is fluid and imaginative, and the grimy London settings are really well designed, almost expressionist at times. I was particularly impressed by the scenes in the gentlemen's club, shot from a high angle, and laid out in a curious Victorian grid-pattern.
2. The characters range from predictable but very welcome, to genuinely unique. Timothy Dalton is the former: a generic British adventurer, about equally suggestive of Alan Quatermain, as seen in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, real-life explorer extraordinaire. But the pink-haired Egyptologist is a character I've never quite seen before. His dialog is colorful, erudite and truly off-beat.
3. The dialog, now that we're on the subject, is literate and dense. This alone would make the show worth watching. There's a Victorian flamboyance about it, but also some real intellectual content. When's the last time you heard the word "outré" spoken by a character in a TV series?
4. The pace, the steady evolution of the plot, are a refreshing change. Too many shows are forced to rush ahead because they're not really about anything. Moment-to-moment activity is all they've got. Penny Dreadful feels like it's building up something more than that. (Time will tell.)
5. Finally, a very welcome omission: the shortage of jump-scares. There's really just one, and it's placed in such a way that it's almost a spoof of itself. Several other situations, which most shows would have exploited for a cheap shock, are handled with admirable subtlety. There is some gore, but no more than needed to establish a seriously scary tone, a sense of danger.
Penny Dreadful isn't exactly going where no entertainment has gone before. It's clearly 'inspired by' two previous efforts. Most obviously, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic that came off rather poorly on the big screen. But also the very under-rated film Van Helsing, which brilliantly re-imagined the classic horror movies of the 1930s, but failed to find an audience perhaps because of its highly energetic style.
Penny Dreadful seems to have learned from both of these sources. Where League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was lightweight and loose with logic, Penny Dreadful is atmospheric and well-plotted. Where Van Helsing was kinetic and flamboyant, Penny Dreadful is quietly creepy.
All in all, it's off to a great start. Let's hope the producers can continue 'in the same vein.'