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Hairspray Live! (2016)
Arguably the best of the live musical TV events
NBC and Fox seem to be leading the way with broadcasting live musical events and the results can be hit or miss. For every success like The Wiz, there is a misfire like The Sound of Music (is there any way to remove the horrid miscasting of Carrie Underwood in that debacle from our collective memories?). Shortly prior to the broadcast of Hairspray Live!, Fox completely stumbled with a dunderheaded effort of The Rocky Horror Show. Mercifully, Hairspray barely edges out The Wiz as a prime example of when things come together nicely.
By now most people know the story of the hit stage play and film focusing on chubby 1960s Baltimore-based teen Tracy Turnblad, whose dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, winning the heart of hottie Link Larkin, and championing the cause of integration for African-Americans, while taking on white Barbie nemesis Amber von Tussel and her monstrous mama Velma, producer of the very show that Tracy hopes to conquer.
The story is fun, the music by and large is bright and lively, and the production numbers veer between both personal and lavish. NBC does a creditable job of mounting a mammoth and rousing production. Although I am uncertain why they chose to omit the very funny production number The Big Dollhouse.
If there are any stumbles it comes in some quibbles in the casting. Maddie Baillio is an energetic Tracy and holds the center of the show together, but she is probably the least impressive singer/dancer of the Tracys that I have. Baillio's singing seems to take on a breathy air when notes become too strenuous for her - which is a bit too often. She does a lot of vocal straining here. Ditto, her dancing is mediocre at best, so when everyone in the cast keeps harping on what a great dancer she is, they come off a tad delusional.
Stage legend Harvey Fierstein returns to play Tracy's mom Edna, a rotund introvert forced out of the house by Tracy's popularity. I missed Fierstein on stage, but seeing him here I actually prefer John Travolta's more vulnerable take on the role in the film. Fierstein is amusing, but he cannot sing...at all. The majority of the lyrics to the songs are garbled by his trademark gravelly voice (let's be honest, Carol Channing has a gravelly voice, but she knows how to use it for effect and does not garble lyrics!) to the point where one feels like they are straining to make heads or tails of what he is saying. By contrast, Martin Short is a delight as the eternally upbeat Wilbur Turnblad.
Of the supporting cast, Garrett Clayton is a bit too bland and Ken Doll-ish as Link. Derek Hough is surprisingly strong as Corny Collins. Both Kristin Chenoweth and Dove Cameron hit all the right notes, both acting and singing-wise as the villainous Von Tussels. Cameos by performers as Rosie O'Donnell, Sean Hayes, and Ricki Lake actually seem pretty pointless.
The film's biggest misfire in my mind is the miscasting of Jennifer Hudson in the pivotal role of Motormouth Maybelle. Hudson sings well, but she is not much of an actress (fluke Oscar win included). One could best describe her efforts here as pleasant, but nothing disguises that she is all wrong for this part. Motormouth Maybelle is written as (and previously been played as) an older woman with weight issues. Watching the youthful and skinny Hudson sashay into the room, one is puzzled when she sings a song to Edna about how she has accepted her own "extra large largesse," because Hudson does not currently share any of these elements. One could get away with casting Queen Latifah in the part. One could even imagine the thrill of seeing an Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle play the role. But Hudson is completely wrong.
Still, for these quibbles, at the end of the day, this production largely succeeds because it is such a blast of good spirits and its message of fighting for a good cause and racial harmony seems more timely than ever in the Era of Trump Supporters.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
I have been a fan of a number of efforts from the Coen Brothers. Truthfully, even when they miss the mark, I am still able to find something worthwhile in the effort. The Big Lebowski is the exception to that rule. I originally saw it in theaters, where it played for an eyeblink and received mixed reviews. It was one of the few films my family has ever walked out on. I caught it later on cable and watched it to the end to see if I missed anything worthwhile, since it had inexplicably developed a cult following. The answer was a resounding no.
In what can complimentary be deemed a plot, the action centers on a zoned out bowler nicknamed The Dude, who somehow is mistaken for the title billionaire and gets pulled into what must be the most ill-conceived kidnapping plot in the history of cinema.
The ludicrous nature of the action would seem to recommend it to comedy, but the film is devoid of laughs. Unless the idea of a young woman's body parts being sent via mail is especially funny to you. The film introduces one needless and ostentatiously bizarre character after another in order to drum up some semblance of entertainment, but since none of them are important to the "plot" and have nothing of comical worth to contribute, it all seems a huge waste.
The dialogue is basically thinking up new ways to drop the f-bomb every 10 seconds. What passes for comedy is having the avuncular narrator (Sam Elliott) actually stop the proceedings at the midway point to good-naturedly ask The Dude why he has to to use such chronic foul language, to which The Dude responds with another f-bomb. How meta! How coy! And to rouse viewers lulled into a stupor, there are occasionally pointless unrelated fantasy sequences.
Julianne Moore shows up to no avail, speaking in some wacko old-Hollywood actress rhythm (think Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy). But whereas Leigh's impersonation had a legitimate reason to be, Moore's quite simply does not. Jeff Bridges can be an amazing actor and has contributed some wonderful cinematic contributions. This is not one of them. It seems incomprehensible that a following has cropped up around this character, because The Dude is little more than a cipher. The Dude is a completely passive non-entity, who spends the duration in a zoned out state. He seems to have nary an opinion on anything and it is inconceivable that anyone could mistake him for the title character, much less a sentient being at all. The plot careens him from one improbable and unfunny set-up to another eliciting little in the way of energy or emotion from him. He is just not remotely interesting here.
The only appealing or likable characters in the film are Elliott's narrator and Steve Buscemi, as a perpetually sunny and helpful fellow bowler. Alas, Buscemi is basically here to be bullied, brutalized, cursed at, and finally die. If most of the cast is awash in unlikable and appalling characters, the worst by far is John Goodman. The normally reliable Goodman is so over-the-top that his every moment on screen is like fingernails down a chalkboard. He plays The Dude's "best friend", a completely incompetent bully who inserts himself into everything to the detriment of all involved. He drops the f-bomb as much as The Dude and treats everyone around him with loud-mouthed contempt. He is an illiterate, detestable, brutish bore and the performance desecrates the screen, yet the filmmakers actually seem to think his antics are a riot. The film is pretty awful without Goodman's godawful work, but with his participation it descends even further into cinematic hell.
I cannot think of anything to say complimentary about the film and the fact that this abomination was vomited forth by otherwise talented filmmakers seems inexcusable.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
Pointless drawing room melodrama
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are two thespians who could arguably make reading the telephone book into a vivid experience, but even their copious talents are sorely tested with this pointless drawing room melodrama of manners. The Remains of the Day is yet another in a seemingly endless parade of staid British interior decorating historical dramas that propagated during the 1980s-1990s from the Merchant-Ivory stable. When the concept worked, one had solid films like Howard's End or A Room With a View. When it failed, you got The Remains of the Day.
Set circa WW2, stiff, rule-bound butler Hopkins finds his narrow worldview challenged by the arrival of sunny head housekeeper Thompson, who is not afraid to lock horns with him in his British manor domain. The relationship ostensibly moves from friction to grudging respect to something much deeper.
There are a number of problems that plague The Remains of the Day that hinder the enjoyment of it, despite the best efforts of its leads. Despite being sprinkled with some notable performers, the supporting cast is shamefully underused and forgettable. Everyone seems to have been directed to underact to the point of catatonia. Even Thompson, playing a somewhat more vibrant character than her cast members, seems unduly restrained here.
The pace can generously be described as sluggish. This is made worse in that most modern audiences will not understand or relate to servants who give up all hope of lives for themselves in order to live vicariously through buffoonish upper crust snobs. Nothing brings this home more so than the ludicrous sequence wherein Hopkins refuses to present at the side of his father's deathbed so that he can ostensibly serve drinks to the Nazi-sympathizing lord of the manor (played on one strident note by James Fox). This episode may well be historically accurate, but it seems a foolish move to a modern viewer and fails to endear the lead character, whose emotions are often so repressed throughout the film as to make him seem robotic.
Worse, there is no character arc here. We open the film with Hopkins strait-jacketed into his role as an unbending, unemotional servant. There are moments throughout where he has some obvious interior struggle, especially with the arrival of Thompson, but he never breaks through this facade. When Thompson's character resigns from the manor in protest, we again think that there will be some forward momentum for Hopkins's butler, but again he fails to change. At the climax, we are again led to believe that Hopkins may break free of these now self-imposed bonds of behavior and social class mores, when American Christopher Reeve buys the manor and encourages him to take his first ever vacation. Hopkins does so only grudgingly and seeks out Thompson, ostensibly to convey his unrequited feelings, but yet again fails to do so. In fairness, Hopkins plays the role to the hilt, but nothing can disguise that he is playing a dull man. This character changes nary a jot throughout the film; he is the same rigid, hopeless creation at the end as he is at the start. With no emotional investment or character arc, the most we can summon is some minor pity. Although truthfully one may well also wonder why so much time (and this film does seem glacially long) should be wasted on such an intractable and uninteresting man.
Just in case we have not gotten the "message" of the film (such as it is), it concludes with a laughably heavy-handed segment where Hopkins stares frozen and slack-jawed at a pigeon that has gotten into the manor and seems trapped there. Get it! The pigeon is like him! Trapped in the manor and unable to free itself! This is for all the slow learners that did not get what was hammered home for the lengthy running time preceding this moment. Critics and Oscar voters, of course, love pretentious twaddle like this and could not resist raining down kudos, but it does little more than serve as proof that film elites really like boring British dramas set in tastefully decorated manor houses.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Some good scenes and performances, but overall a misfire
A film by the Coen Brothers is always worth checking out, but contrary to their reputation they can either achieve cinematic brilliance (Fargo, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men) or excruciating lows (Intolerable Cruelty, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou), and a number of in-betweens. Hail, Caesar is definitely not one of their crowning achievements.
The story is set in the heyday of the big Hollywood film studios and centers on studio "fixer" wheeler-dealer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) detailing the various fires he must put out in order to keep production rolling on some the studios future hits. Aside from the usual, Mannix must contend with the ostensible kidnapping of the studio's most popular leading man (George Clooney) from the set of a Ben-Hur style biblical epic by a cabal of Communists and ward off the machinations of twin sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton) on the trail of big scandals.
The film should be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it missteps entirely too often and has huge dead spots. The obvious problems with the film hit the viewer pretty quickly. Eddie Mannix was actually a real figure, but the sanitized do-gooder that we see here bears no resemblance to the real thing. Brolin is an amazingly talented actor, but here he is forced to play everything straight as the film's purported anchor, which ends up making Eddie more than a bit of a drag in the central role. In fact, Brolin/Eddie is so stiff here as to be painful.
Worse, the only time the film comes to glorious life and gives us an idea of what a success it could have been, is when it recreates in cheeky fashion some of the set pieces from yesteryear Hollywood. Alas, these moments are too few and far between, as the film gets bogged down in the tedious and criminally unfunny kidnapping plot, which takes up too much screen time and is never as amusing or subversive as the filmmakers believe. Every time we detour to Clooney and his kidnappers, you can almost hear the sigh of frustration from the audience.
An amazing cast has been compiled for the film, but a number of them are wasted. Blink and you may well miss Frances McDormand as a daffy editor or Jonah Hill as a professional patsy. Scarlett Johansson gets a nice homage to Esther Williams spectacles and shines briefly as a tough-talking actress, but is underused. Ditto, Channing Tatum, who dazzles with a Gene Kelly-esque sailor dance routine before being utterly wasted. Clooney hams it up nicely, but he is saddled with the film's worst subplot which pretty much hogties his performance. If there is a standout, it is newcomer Alden Ehrenreich as a Gene Autry-type singing cowboy. Ehrenreich seems to be one of the few acting like he is in a comedy and is perfectly believable as the nice guy rube. Some of the film's few highlights are courtesy of him being forced to step in as a last minute replacement as lead in a British comedy of manners. His miscasting is hilarious and sets off director Ralph Fiennes into spasms of apoplexy.
Alas, the misses far outnumber the hits. The tiresome kidnapping plot that dominates the screen time is ultimately pointless. Between the respectable recreations of old-style Hollywood splendor set pieces, most viewers will be checking their watch. The film is episodic and haphazard - it also needs a decent editor to remove what bits simply do not work. The whole thing culminates into a disappointing viewing experience.
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996)
Everybody Loves Raymond...not really
I am really not a fan of the modern sitcom - especially the "family" sitcom. A genre of which Everybody Loves Raymond is a prime example. The formula seems to go somewhere along the lines of find a comedic actor/actress, plop them down in suburbia, give them a few (usually three) interchangeable charmless children, and surround them with colorful family members/friends whose wackiness drives to distraction and viola! instant success.
Everybody Loves Raymond centers on Droopy Dawg-faced Ray Romano as Ray Barone, an Italian-American sadsack semi-happily married to Patricia Heaton and stuck living on the same street as his overbearing family, including dad Peter Boyle, mom Doris Roberts and brother Brad Garrett.
The show does have things going for it. Scratch that - the show has one thing going for it. The trio of supporting performances from Boyle, Roberts and Garrett. These three seem to be the only ones to be aware that they are in a "comedy", are expected to be funny, and rise above the limitations of the mediocre scripts to attempt something better. Garrett looks like he could conceivably be Romano's brother and gives the kind of performance that Romano should be contributing in the lead role. Boyle and Roberts are fun together and playing off the others as well. Roberts, particularly, is good in scenes as the mother-in-law from hell to Heaton's colorless daughter-in-law.
The actors playing the children are instantly forgettable - in fact, the kids are used so sparingly and without thought that they could vanish from the show and no one would notice (or care).
Unfortunately, the show is cursed with leads that are challenged. Romano literally seems to have one facial expression and a voice that could put caffeine into a coma. Listening to his chronic affectless delivery is downright disconcerting enough, but someone should have pulled him aside early on and explained that there is a huge difference between deadpan and deadly dull. Literally, Raymond is almost completely devoid of charisma or personality. The show is truly centered around a lackluster droning sadsack.
Yet oddly, Romano still manages to come off better than his on screen wife. Given that this is a modern comedy, it seems to be the new thing that actresses playing wives/mothers in sitcoms are simply not expected to be or allowed to be funny. The days of Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, Audrey Meadows in The Honeymooners and Mary Tyler Moore in The Dick Van Dyke Show, where comedic actresses were allowed to be as equally funny as their male counterparts are apparently dead. Heaton gets to play the now all-too-common role of the wife/mother, who is not allowed to be funny because she is too busy acting responsible and being the professional scold. Her entire role is to react to those around her. Ostensibly she is the straight man - if being a straight man required you to be criminally unfunny and annoying. Alas for Heaton, there are too many examples of great straight men/women who manage to be funny in their own right to function as an excuse for what she is doing here. Think Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers epics or, more recently, Jane Curtin in Third Rock from the Sun. Heaton's delivery sounds chronically forced and delivered in that mock-acting tone/volume that all too often characterizes bad TV comedies. She is almost diabolically unfunny and actually manages to drain the life from some of her better cast members when sharing a scene. She is such an irritant that we can easily fathom why Ray is such a sadsack and why his family seems to have ambivalent feelings about her below the surface. Failing as both a comedic actress and even a functional straight woman, Heaton manages to be a black hole at the center of this show, often throwing the dull leading man off, and hobbling it from attaining any heights of amusement. Purportedly Heaton did not get along with her co-stars and, if true, it certainly shows on screen. However, that can certainly not be the sole excuse for the kind of crummy acting exhibited by her here, since she has been equally lousy in her subsequent mercifully short-lived comedic pairing with Kelsey Grammar in a show whose title I cannot even remember and in the somehow still-currently-running The Middle.
So I must say that while there are times that I may love Peter Boyle, Brad Garrett and especially Doris Roberts on this show, I most definitely do not love Ray Romano and I think the dreadful Heaton makes Larry the Cable Guy resemble great comic art.
Last Man Standing (2011)
Dead on arrival
There are certain must-see shows on TV that all your friends and everyone at work seem to watch and want to discuss. Last Man Standing is the antithesis of those shows. Rather Last Man Standing is one of those TV shows that precious few people outside of the anonymity of the internet acknowledge watching (much less liking) and a mention of it will get a dumbstruck look followed by the phrase "Is that even still on?!" Premiering in 2011, the sit-com was built around the dubious talents of comedian Tim Allen, who was allowed to coast at ABC for far too long in the overrated Home Improvement, a show which has not weathered the test of time well at all. Reviews were scathing, ratings were/are middling and one is hard-pressed to understand how far better shows have bitten the dust so quickly while this dead-on-arrival comedic corpse staggers onward, unless ABC has some kind of sentimental attachment to Allen (or he is blackmailing someone in charge).
The premise is the tired nutshell, which finds Allen cast as a harder-edged, conservative, and more irritating version of his Home Improvement character. Allen is a "manly man" who works at a sporting goods store and strives for the days of John Wayne and is consistently confounded by wife Nancy Travis, who has successfully returned to the work force (the nerve!), and his three daughters (teenaged to early 20s), who he apparently regards as aliens from another planet trying to rob him of masculinity.
The "comedy" stems solely from Allen's inability to relate to any of the women in his life and his increasingly tiresome whining about how emasculated he and every other guy on the planet is, with some unfunny jabs at liberals and Democrats thrown in for good measure. Even as someone not a Democrat, I would be remiss in saying that the comedic barbs are woefully unfunny. We get jabs at Obamacare, jabs at Hillary Clinton and jabs at Benghazi punctuated by a laugh track so overused and over-caffeinated that it nearly deafens the viewer.
Allen, looking tired and used up, as if realizing (perhaps correctly) that this desperate show may be the end of the line for his sagging career, snarls, grunts, scratches himself and weakly falls on every haphazard attempt at humor. His incessant diatribes and laborious whining of how hard "real men" like him have it make him seem more of a baby than an adult. Note to Allen and the writers, I know a good number of men who play sports, watch sports, throwback beers, and even head out to stripper clubs for a wild stag night, but still manage to have close relationships with their wives and daughters, understand their issues and are perfectly happy to have them working or living nearby, and don't treat them like unknown creatures that need to be tamed. Those are "real men". I would say Allen is supposed to be an updated version of Archie Bunker, but if so, he and the writers are not in on the joke and I would be afraid to start Carroll O'Connor rolling in his grave.
Of the supporting cast, the only notable members are Nancy Travis, as the wife, and Hector Elizondo, as a work colleague who naturally shares Allen's outlook. Elizondo has been quite good elsewhere. Conversely, Travis shares literally no chemistry with Allen. It isn't just that they are incompatible, it is that these people do not even exist in the same galaxy. Travis also gets stuck playing the straight woman, because to allow her to have something funny to do or say, or to hold her own with Allen (a la Audrey Meadows on The Honeymooners) would apparently be sacrilege.
I could only last a few episodes and quickly was exhausted by listening the Allen's whole dopey "The problem with the world today is
" blather. A bit of insight to Allen and the writers of this debacle, the biggest problem with the world today are blowhards who start sentences "the problem with the world today is
Entertaining bit of fluff
Based on one of John D. MacDonald's rare lighter (and semi sci-fi themed) novels, The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything premiered as a TV film on syndicated channels back in 1980 and was actually something of a ratings hit. Oddly, the film was repeated rarely, if at all, and has kind of vanished but for some fond memories from viewers of the time.
The plot centers on 30-ish nebbish Kirby Winters (Robert Hays), who inherits a gold watch from a deceased rich uncle and suddenly becomes the target of some shady characters after the secret of his uncle's fortune. The secret is, of course, that the watch slows down time allowing its owner to use it for hopefully benign purposes. Kirby is initially charmed and then menaced by a scheming couple (Ed Nelson and Jill Ireland), who will use all means necessary to find out the secret to great riches. Hays goes on the run and gets thrown together with sexy Bonnie Lee Beaumont (Pam Dawber).
The film is a nice balance of action and comedy. It is nicely cast down the line. As the central character, Hays walks the fine line between being dorky and appealing, managing both the comical and more action oriented aspects well. Dawber has never been better as the sexy Southern gal with the racy sense of humor and sex drive that pairs up with him. A marked departure from her more famed role in Mork & Mindy, she demonstrates some great acting chops here and it is a shame she did not get more opportunities to shine in other projects. The supporting cast is aces, with special shout-outs to Maurice Evans and the hilarious Zohra Lampert, as the spinster secretary who gets pulled into the action. Nelson and, particularly Ireland, make able villains.
I only have a couple of carps. Given that this was made for syndication, there is a certain cheapness evident in the production. The cast and solid direction carry the film past that, but it is there nonetheless.
Also, one is a bit disappointed that this was not either a cable or theatrical feature, given that (much like Dawber's character) the film seems ready to break out with racy humor that the TV channel reigns in. For instance, when Dawber first tries out the watch at the beach, her first inclination is to play pranks like untying the top of a volleyball player and switching the clothes on a couple jogging. Later, rather than exact violence on Ireland for attempting to murder them, Hays instead leaves her stranded naked with a bunch of sailors - all offscreen (which culminates in one of the film's funnier reversals when Ireland has a moral change of heart). Conversely, Hays' attractive nerd spends a number of scenes early in the film either being undressed or losing his clothes - most memorably when Ireland has her bodyguards strip him naked and he escapes in a towel. This would actually play better with some degree of PG-13 or R-rated nudity, but the TV origins keep it fairly staid. A shame since this cast could not be more physically appealing.
The success of the show resulted in a sequel. Unfortunately, neither Hays or Dawber were available to return, and said sequel came no where near the success of the original and remains largely forgotten.
Increasingly preposterous wasted effort
Back in the 1990s, it seemed that not a month went by when cinemas were not welcoming yet a new entry into the serial killer genre. After a while, the repetitiveness and predictability siphoned off the thrills, so there were attempts to add flourishes. None more so than Copycat, which was one of the few (perhaps the only?) film of the time to feature two leading ladies at the head of the action.
Copycat opens with an attack on OCD-afflicted psychologist Sigourney Weaver by serial killer Harry Connick, Jr. While she escapes, it is not unscathed. Now afflicted by severe agoraphobia, Weaver never leaves her apartment and relies solely on computers and her gay assistant to aid her in day to day life. When a separate serial killer (William McNamera) begins a killing spree emulating serial killers of the past, Weaver realizes the similarities and tries to alert the police anonymously, only to be pulled back into the fold by cops Holly Hunter and Dermot Mulroney.
Where to begin. I could lament the utter tastelessness of utilizing real-life serial killings as a basis for the murders in this film, but why bother? I will argue about the misleading trailers, which seemed to indicate that Connick was the main protagonist, when in fact he has little more than a glorified cameo here. This is a point of contention because Connick is actually creepy and menacing in his time on screen, while McNamera barely registers, which is a problem when your villain fades into the background.
While I commend producers/writers for giving us two actresses in the leads, it sounds better on paper than in practice here. Weaver, an actress I normally love, is uncharacteristically hammy here. Her psychologist heroine feels less like a real person than a grocery store list of tics and neuroses. The scene where she thinks her apartment has been invaded, but her agoraphobia forbids her from leaving is too laughably over the top. By contrast, Hunter is almost disastrously miscast. With her annoyingly lilting Texas twang and designer cop duds, Hunter feels less like professional police officer at the top of her game and more like a little girl playing dress up in mommy's work clothes. She does not convince you for one moment. Even worse, she has no camaraderie or chemistry with either Weaver or Mulroney, her romantic interest/partner in the film.
Plus the film's predictability is off the charts. Given this is set in the notoriously less PC 1990s, we know pretty much by rote the moment Weaver's effeminate gay assistant is introduced that he is dead meat and the film has little sympathy for him. Truthfully, the film has little sympathy for any of the victims. Even more repellent is the entire subplot surrounding Mulroney that the film telegraphs way too early. We open with Hunter's character wounding a suspect and her providing rather persuasive reasoning as to why she disarms rather than kills suspects. Mulroney is introduced as her partner/lover (because in TV and films obviously no man and woman could conceivably ever be partners without being lovers, unless one of them is gay, old or ugly), but the relationship seems like an afterthought and the film holds it like its a contrivance. In a completely unrelated moment later, Mulroney is taken hostage at the police station and Hunter wounds/disarms the suspect, only to have said suspect a moment later grab a firearm and blow Mulroney away in front of her. This sets up a bunch of contrived soul-searching as to why she did not just kill the culprit when she had the chance leading to some badly thought out unbelievable psycho-babble dialog between Weaver and Hunter; when truthfully we know this is just setting up for that pivotal climactic moment when Weaver is taken hostage and Hunter will know just how to handle his hash.
If any of this sounds exciting, then it must be my wording because the film is nearly devoid of suspense after its opening moments. Director Amiel seems more at home in dramas than thrillers, and it shows here in spades. If you are in to these types of films, there are worse, but there are also far better. You would do well to seek the betters ones out.
Miss Firecracker (1989)
Perfect example of ghastly Southern fried nonsense
Hollywood has a morbid obsession with taking acclaimed stage plays centering on Southern eccentrics and shepherding them to the screen with great fanfare. Sometimes the gamble works in spades (Driving Miss Daisy and Steel Magnolias), but most of the time it is a pure disaster.
Miss Firecracker is a dramedy centering on the woeful Carnelle, a Mississippi sad sack played by Holly Hunter, whose unrealistic dream is to enter and win the Miss Firecracker contest. Because her flighty cousin (Mary Steenburgen) won many years ago and subsequently married well, Carnelle has rationalized that winning will prove to be her ticket out of the sticks, away from her dead end job and onward to glory. With her cousin returning to town to give a speech at the current contest, Carnelle hopes to don her cousin's lucky red dress and cinch the prize. Events are complicated by Carnelle's flirtation with local guy Scott Glenn and the arrival of unbalanced cousin Tim Robbins, who starts a relationship with the timid seamstress Alfre Woodard helping Carnelle.
I am uncertain what Miss Firecracker played like on the stage, but Miss Firecracker the film is an uneven, tiresome, and charmless mess. Beth Henley (who penned this along with other misfires like Crimes of the Heart) is a taste that I have not acquired. Uncomfortably unfunny when it takes a stab at comedy and woefully lacking when straining for deep insight, Miss Firecracker is the typical, clichéd cornpone idiocy that one expects from depictions of zany Southern characters. God help us all if these depictions are anywhere close to the truth. This is the type of film where the token black character gets saddled with the name Popeye like we are still in the age of the minstrel show - perhaps they still are in Mississippi where this foolishness is set. I couldn't say.
A huge problem comes from the fact that the central character of Carnelle is pathetic and often strains the nerves. When her big strategy of winning is dying her hair a garish shade of red and garbing herself in her cousin's lucky dress, it is difficult to believe that a talentless boob like Carnelle could qualify for the contest much less potentially win it. Credibility is further thrown to the wind when her idea of a home run is to play a scene as Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind while chomping a carrot - a sequence which makes Carnelle resemble an unholy cross between a drag queen and Bugs Bunny. You have major problems when you not only do not root for your main character to achieve her dreams, but actively dislike her and feel associating with her is killing your brain.
It surely does not help that Hunter plays Carnelle at a shrill level that registers a 10 on the Richter scale. Hunter, with her godawful Texas twang set to ear-shattering decibels, veers wildly between aggravating and psychosis. If one of her co-stars pushed her out a window to stop the noise, it would have been justifiable homicide. By contrast, Glenn is so laconic that he seems comatose. Steenburgen struts and vamps with such campy abandon, that the discovery of a late act betrayal seems less shocking than it is a foregone conclusion. Robbins and Woodard actually manage some touching and nuanced moments, although the inclusion of the former means we must endure a series of thoroughly tasteless early moments of him shoveling up the rotting carcasses of dogs run down in the road as part of his dead end job.
There is not an abundance of suspense as to whether Carnelle wins the contest. Henley is well known for her faux bittersweet baloney, so an unsatisfactory conclusion is a given. Truthfully, not only does Carnelle not deserve a win anyway, she should be driven out of town. Then again, most of the people we meet in this Southern fried cesspit should be driven out of town. This is the kind of film where if you have an intent of discouraging anyone from visiting the American South, you should show them this film and advise it is an accurate description of the people you will meet there. Trust me, they will never set foot below the Mason Dixon Line.
Hunting Season (2012)
Season 1 is great; Season 2 a bit of a disaster
I chose a six rating to try to balance out the success of Season 1 with the pitfall of Season 2.
Hunting Season (Season 1) is a very fun and irreverent gay Sex in the City (mercifully without Sarah Jessica Parker's whining). It celebrates the gay lifestyle and is completely unapologetic in its depiction of sex, partying and relationships. The central character Alex is played by Ben Bauer and it depicts his relationships with his inner circle of friends, his views on sex as posted on an anonymous blog, and his confusion generated by the budding relationship between a sweet guy Walker Hare and hot happy-go-lucky model Tyler French. It succeeds because it never takes itself too seriously, although we can still relate to the issues faced by the characters. It also celebrates sex and nudity (often full frontal) of its male cast without the associated shaming, self-loathing and guilt that seems to infiltrate everything in gay-oriented entertainment. Bauer is surprisingly appealing in the central role, and I quite enjoyed the romantic triangle between the adorable Hare and hunky French. When the season ended I wanted to see more and find out where they moved on from there.
When Season 2 opened, the answer was no where. Hare is unceremoniously removed from the show for no good reason. French is reduced to a couple of cameos. The shows are longer in length but fewer. The drama is deeper, the sense of fun is gone, and some of the actors that missed nudity in the first season (Marc Sinoway and Pressly Coker) show butt to compensate for the fact that the nudity is now either absent or fairly tame. A decision that seems like a cop out since the unabashed full nudity was one of the show's claims to fame and helped generate interest from fans to kick-start finance a Season 2.
Too much time is dedicated to Jake Manabat as one of Bauer's friends and his desire to become the gay Vera Wang. Truthfully, Manabat's acting and his excruciating character were a problem in Season 1, but was kept in check. Here, he seems front and center too often. The endless supporting cast that flit in and out of show as flirtations or one-night-stands are not developed, fun or especially interesting. Bauer is given no one of importance with whom to generate any chemistry and the presence of Lenny from Season 1 is direly missed.
The cast as a whole seems fairly underwhelming this time with the exception of lead Bauer, who somehow manages to be sympathetic, even when stuck playing a now wet blanket. Seriously, whose idea was it to have Alex slut-shamed by puritanical gay associates in every episode, requiring Bauer to have emotional melt-downs every five minutes. Gone completely is the sense of joy, fun and ribald camaraderie that characterized Season 1. No one says you cannot explore deeper themes, but your Season 2 should not be tonally opposite from a successful Season 1 and omit the majority of what made it watchable to begin with. At this stage, one hopes a Season 3 is not in the works, because it might involve Alex attending the funerals of everyone he knows, just so he can bawl through every episode.