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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Dead on arrival, 14 October 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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…"

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Entertaining bit of fluff, 29 September 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

Copycat (1995)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Increasingly preposterous wasted effort, 12 July 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

Perfect example of ghastly Southern fried nonsense, 24 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Season 1 is great; Season 2 a bit of a disaster, 19 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Black Swan's more pretentious self-impressed cousin, 18 June 2016

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Oscar voters and film elites adore movies that they think are about them or reflect their view of the industry, and if the legitimate stage can be woven in to give it a more literate cache, so much the better. Sometimes the results can be a true classic (see All About Eve). Other times, the result is Birdman, or as I like to call it, Black Swan's more pretentious, self-impressed cousin.

Riggan Thomson is an actor of certain age, whose most recognizable feat was playing a superhero on screen, before his career stagnated. He views the lead role in a stage melodrama on the Great White Way as being his avenue back to legitimacy, but finds hurdles at every turn, including but not limited to, his ex-wife Amy Ryan, dysfunctional daughter-cum-fetch-and-carry-assistant Emma Stone, pushy agent Zach Gallifianakis, unbalanced co-star Naomi Watts, temperamental co-star Edward Norton, and some fairly ludicrous appearances by Riggan's screen alter ago, Birdman, which clues us in fairly early that Riggan is a few bricks shy of a load. He pretty much crosses the edge when make-it-or-break-it stage critic Lindsay Duncan telegraphs her intention to pan the play and trash Riggan's career.

For all of the awards thrown at this film and all of the "serious" people it panders to that think it is the equivalent of inventing the wheel, one would naturally assume that the film is particularly insightful and enthralling. One would be incorrect. The film has all of the subtlety of a bulldozer and the depth of a nearly dry puddle. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who inconceivably was awarded two consecutive best directing Oscars for this mess and the underwhelming The Revenant) seems far too self-impressed with what he places on the screen leaving the viewer with the uncomfortable impression of a completely average person masturbating to themselves in the mirror and thinking it is a legendary moment. His grandiose and bombastic fantasy sequences are both sops thrown to the average film-goer who may have somehow nodded off during the endless dialog sequences and inside jokes to artsy-fartsy film fanatics who lambaste mainstream cinema as crass.

Watching the emotional and psychological disintegration of a main character is only fascinating if the film can draw us in to the character's plight from the start and works best when the character is initially fairly normal. As in Black Swan, Riggan is initially depicted as so tightly wound and hair-trigger unbalanced that he is off-putting immediately and then when he starts his descent, it has barely the same interest as passing a traffic accident.

Gallons of ink have been spilled about the irony of casting former Batman Michael Keaton as Riggan, with numerous citing Batman as his downfall and this film as his resurrection. Truthfully, Keaton turned in one fairly solid performance as Batman - the same year he gave a strong performance in Clean and Sober. He appeared beyond bored when returning for the sequel, Batman Returns, and then opting out of further sequels. He followed with a gaggle of fairly forgettable character turns and outright bad lead work before fading away for a long time. His career was far more impacted by bad choices/roles than his association with Batman, a situation fairly obvious when one views the kind of Oscar-caliber actors showing up in comic books films of late and being feted for their work both there and elsewhere at the same time. Keaton's work here is shamelessly unrestrained, hammy and unbelievable. I think he is far better in his restrained and underrated turn in the subsequent Spotlight.

Both Norton and Stone have some decent moments from the supporting cast, but part of the problem with this film is that there is literally no moment that seems natural. Every sequence is scripted and played like it is being put before an acting class to teach them how to hit every emotional note...and it feels like it. Never do we forget that we are watching a not especially good melodrama, featuring actors directed to pitch everything to the rafters doing BIG ACTING. Nothing in the film is especially credible, foremost the embarrassing confrontation scene between Riggan and the critic, whose near psychopathic hatred of Riggan has her planning to destroy him and the play before she has even seen it, ostensibly because this is what the writers imagine that high-falutin' critics do.

The ending (or endings since there are a few too many) is particularly hard to endure and foolish. Out of his mind with stress, Riggan takes to the stage with a real gun in an effort to kill himself. Despite holding the gun to the side of his head and pulling the trigger, the film goes on to a further scene wherein he only ostensibly blew off his nose. A feat which earns him a rave review from the critic and adulation from his inner circle, while no one seems to think he intended to commit suicide. This then allows him jump out the window to his death...or fly out the window to oblivion...or whatever. I doubt much of anyone cares at that point since the film wore out its shaky welcome at least a good hour beforehand. Ideally, this film can function as a cautionary tale of what kind of terrible waste of time cinema elites pretend to love to make them feel superior, that leaves everyone else cold and scratching their heads in embarrassment for their high-minded brethren.

4 out of 27 people found the following review useful:
Propaganda at its most pandering, 20 April 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While not a fan of Clint Eastwood's directing, it is undeniable that he reaches his full potential with American Sniper, a film based on the autobiographical novel by the late sniper, Chris Kyle, who boasts the most recorded kills of any sniper in U.S. history. That is if Eastwood's goal was to become America's answer to Leni Riefenstahl. As even her most dubious critics will admit, Riefenstahl captured some amazing images that are still remarked on to this day, but it was all done in the service of making Nazi Germany idealized. Similarly, Eastwood captures some fine technical achievements, but wants to fall back on a seriously laughable claim that his film is "not political".

I have actually read Kyle's book and for a film that is "not political" it works overtime to provide Kyle with introspection, personality, insights and philosophies that are no where to be found in his novel. Eastwood has the Kyle of the film raised with a nonsense philosophy of the world being comprised of sheep, wolves and shepherds (ostensibly Kyle) all imbued by his stern Christian Texas dad. This black and white mantra apparently allows him to rise to greatness as a sniper mowing down Iraqis. Kyle is depicted as being single-minded, yet regretful of having to pull the trigger. The Kyle of the novel was anything but regretful. There is no such philosophy provided by his father in the novel. Kyle, in his own words, was absolutely thrilled to be at war and gunning people down. There was no introspection or regret involved. He comes off badly as a clichéd white Texas, Christian gun fanatic, who was beside himself to find an outlet that allowed him to take out real people "legally". He informs us that had he not had a family that society expected him to return to, he would have been happy continuing on as a sniper. A long way from the outlook of the WW2 soldiers, who did their patriotic duty, but who looked forward only to returning home to their loved ones and peace at last.

Kyle also claims to have killed two men in Texas and murdered at least 30 U.S. citizens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina from atop a post on the Superdome. If true, then he is a violent psychotic who used a conflict to disguise and promote his true inner self. If false, he is a habitual liar whose word on anything should be considered dubious. The latter is certainly backed up by a court case with Jesse Ventura where a jury rules against Kyle and he was forced to pay up.

Even worse, Eastwood uses his film to blur history and try to gloss over the Bush administration's lawlessness in the Iraq debacle. Through clever images, he tries to link Iraq with 9/11, which is a long discredited lie. He never mentions the discredited reason for attacking Iraq, the weapons of mass destruction idiocy, because that would clash with the black and white viewpoint of the film and its main character. Instead of getting any kind of nuanced picture of Iraqis invaded and attacked in their own country for trumped up reasons, they are all depicted as crazed savages. All of Kyle's kills are, of course, justified despite split second reaction. The word "hero" is blindly bandied about so much until it ultimately has no meaning whatsoever. The only performance of note is Bradley Cooper's central one, which is solid if not spectacular. Although truthfully, many of the scenes of Cooper being "heroic" rather distressingly resemble the sequences in Inglorious Basterds where Daniel Bruehl's German "hero" sniper sits in a bell tower repeatedly gunning down Allied troops, while the German audience viewing his escapades deliriously applaud over every death.

The film also relies on American viewers being ignorant of the details of the Iraq conflict. Eastwood provides Kyle with an adversary of Bondian villainy - a sniper on the other side - with whom he gets to play a cat and mouse throughout the film. Incredibly, while this larger-than-life villain gets barely a mention in Kyle's book, he is elevated to gargantuan proportions in the film so that we can root for Kyle. The film also has this villain switch back and forth between Suni and Shia for convenience, which is something that would never happen. We are also shown another villain who drills holes in the heads of young boys, which would no doubt raise the outrage in anyone. Except such a sequence never happens in Kyle's book, and the screenwriters unwittingly give the background information on this character and give him a denomination that would have made him an ally to U.S. forces. But why should we care for piddly details when Eastwood and his writers don't.

So in conclusion, we get a huge piece of propaganda that glosses over the origins of the Iraq War, turns its people into violent savages, gives George W. Bush and those responsible a pass and we are supposed to overlook its goal and content because its technical aspects are well done. At its center is Kyle, who repeatedly boasted that he loved killing and was glad to do it. A man who made a number of discredited claims. Most telling, Kyle claimed that the majority of the proceeds of his book would go to veterans charities. However, apparently less than 3% of the millions raked in have gone to said charities while the late Kyle and family kept the bulk. Certainly it is their choice, but propping up a con of massive charity at the expense of other fighting men, reveals a certain lack of honor and character. Is this really the hero we want representing America to the world? If yes, then we have fallen farther than expected. Audie Murphy must be rolling in his grave.

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Barely improved film of a mediocre stage musical, 21 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Stephen Sondheim fans are to the theater what Martin Scorsese fans are to the screen. If Sondheim left a steaming pile on the stage, his rabid fan base would invent new words to describe its brilliance and defy anyone to disagree. Into the Woods debuted on Broadway in 1987 to much fanfare, but ended up losing the Tony for Best Musical to The Phantom of the Opera, which caused numerous Sondheim fan's heads to explode since they regard pretty much everyone, but especially Andrew Lloyd Webber, as an inferior songwriter. For better or worse, POTO has played ever since that day, while Into the Woods had a successful initial run and then a failed revival.

On paper, Into the Woods sounds great. Take some of the most famous fairy tale characters and throw them together and then in Act II have all hell break lose for some definitely fractured fairy tales. The problem is that Act I, which is supposed to adhere fairly closely to the fairy tales is surprisingly uneven and charmless, and Act II has moments that are too childish for adults and moments too adult for children, leaving the impression of a tonally uneven musical that should be sparkling but is amazingly drab.

Any changes director Rob Marshall could make to the source material would probably be improvements (and the few he does make actually are), but he makes the mistake of largely being too faithful to the source which results in a drab, tonally uneven film similar to the stage show. Some of the comic flourishes which are retained were never very funny to begin with (i.e., is it really that funny to see Jack repeatedly being beaten by his mother for stupidity?).

The cast all sing very well, but the performances are predictably across the charts. I am uncertain that re-casting Jack and Little Red Riding Hood from young adults to actual children was all that wise, but David Huddlestone and Lilla Crawford do their best - although Crawford is admittedly so obnoxious that you actually root for the Wolf to eat her. Emily Blunt and James Corden are the focal point of the story as the Baker and His Wife, who are forced to venture into the woods to find items to reverse a curse of barrenness placed on them by The Witch. Both have nice voices, but their characters are not particularly likable which puts restraint on how much we want them to succeed. Tracy Ullmann is thoroughly detestable as Jack's mother. Anna Kendrick is in lovely voice, but her Cinderella is often so bland, whiny and wishy-washy that you wonder what the Prince sees in her. At the other end of the spectrum, Johnny Depp makes a memorable cameo as a zoot-suited Wolf whose sexual overtones in his one song to Crawford come slithering through. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine both elevate previously forgettable roles to new heights. While Meryl Streep turns in the kind of scene-stealing performance one can always count on as The Witch. Unfortunately, it is a distinctly supporting role, but the film does switch into high gear whenever she is on screen.

As for the music, there are some good tunes and a lot of crummy ones. Streep gets the best numbers with "Stay With Me," "Children Will Listen," and really slams home her finale of "The Last Midnight." "No One is Alone" is also a touching number. By contrast, the title song, which introduces the characters, is near unendurable. Songs like "A Very Nice Prince" and "Your Fault" are at best forgettable. "Agony" only succeeds in the film because Pine and Magnussen throw themselves into it with such hammy delivery that it becomes a joy to behold disguising the fact that the song itself is nothing great. Similarly, "It Takes Two" is an underwhelming song, but unfortunately Blunt and Corden do not get to indulge in the overacting that may have put it over better. "I Know Things Now" is a complete time-waster because it is disturbingly unmelodic and Little Red Riding Hood is a character with whom no one wants to tarry. And both "Giants in the Sky" and "On the Steps of the Palace" are the kind of pointless, dreadful, boring piffle that would be massacred if anyone but Sondheim's name were attached. The former is a completely unpleasant wasted number for Jack and the latter is the faux-character exploration number for Cinderella that helps make her seem a royal pill. Yet one must admit that even the best number in the film will not inspire anyone to hum it on the way out or raise the pulse to toe-tapping levels.

Although the film has mercifully changed the fate of Rapunzel and Her Prince which is a major improvement (someone needed a happy ending after all), the screenplay itself still retains the nasty streak with deaths, infidelities, eye-gougings and mutilations enough to make parents of the very young think twice. Yet one thing I have never understood is why the show/movie is so ugly to look at? Shouldn't at least the first part be filled with eye-catching splendor? Why do both the show and the film make everything look so mundane, bleak and boring right from the start? By the end of both, I found myself rather happy to leave their fairy tale land and its inhabitants and not return, which I am pretty certain was not the goal. So while I can appreciate some of the cast, a couple of the songs and the clever idea behind the basic premise, I really find the final product - on both stage and screen - sorely lacking.

Boyhood (2014/I)
6 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Frustratingly pointless film experiment, 19 February 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While critics and film intellectuals are busy inventing new words to describe Boyhood, let us try a little experiment. Try to describe what the film is about without using the term "12 years". It is pretty much impossible - and therein lies the key to the overpraise and hype. There is no denying that director Richard Linklater and his cast/crew should be recognized for their efforts in shooting over a course of 12 years, but 12 years should also not be the defining factor on whether the end product is a success. I am sure Ed Wood was dedicated to bringing Plan 9 from Outer Space to the screen, but his ambition and dedication hardly make that a good film. So stripped of the "12 years" allure, the end result here is really little more than a failed film school experiment following around a not particularly interesting boy in his formative years.

Part of the frustration I have with Boyhood is that it does not really appear to be about anything. It seems to be trying to concoct its own genre - call it the fake documentary - where it ostensibly just follows a kid around and lets him act "normal" over a 12 year span and expects us to be gobsmacked by its "authenticity". But Boyhood is not a documentary, it is purportedly scripted. And as a scripted film, it is a failure. A good film needs a narrative, a story arc and some compelling characters to inhabit it. Boyhood has none of these. What it does have is a series of mundane anecdotes/scenes that it strings together. The majority of the scenes in question have no build-up, limited to no drama, and usually fail to connect with anything that came before or comes after. They are stand-alone moments, and none of them are of particular insight into either life in general or the central character. The film runs for a self-indulgent three hours and you start to feel every punishing moment of it early on.

A huge problem is that I have no idea why Linklater feels that young Mason, the focal character of this dreck, is someone who is worthy of a film being centered on him. There is nothing special, sympathetic or noble about Mason, he is not surrounded by fascinating events or interesting people, and he often comes off as a stand-in as we wait for the real lead to show up. Ellar Coltrane is distinctly underwhelming, especially in his older moments. I am uncertain whether the problem lies in his acting or the direction, but someone with amazing talent was really required to make something of the dull cipher of Mason and Coltrane is not it. And the purported wonder of seeing young Coltrane age naturally on screen as rabidly feted by critics becomes rather laughable when we realize that we watched the Harry Potter kids age naturally on screen in those series of films and no critics I know seemed to feel that was cause for an Oscar nomination.

Worse, even in the most mundane of lives, there are moments of tension, drama or surprise, even if we are only peripherally involved. Astoundingly, Linklater apparently cannot conspire any of those scenes for Mason's life, so we are left with a Cliff Notes view of a life, where the Cliff Notes has omitted anything of interest. The film seems to have no view on life, unless it is the embarrassing nonsense spewed by Mason's girlfriend about "the moment seizing you," which is a riff on the Seize the Day mantra.

The supporting cast has it slightly better, but not much. Lorelei Linklater may as well be a prop for all of the use she has here as Mason's non-entity sister. Patricia Arquette is given one dramatic character trait: she - wait for it - is a bad judge of men! This sets us up for not one, but two bad after school special style blurbs with the two abusive drunks she marries. Then near the end she has a big emotional moment peppered with dreadful dialog that probably cinched her Oscar, but in reality is unbelievable and comes off as 100% schmaltz. Ethan Hawke fares best as Mason's dad, but even his character is not entirely credible - perhaps because the moments that would make us understand him are missing from the film. He is a likable guy who is presented as an unapologetic liberal, pro-Obama, anti-Iraq War (in Texas!). We later see him married to a right-wing conservative Christian woman who is the anti-thesis of everything he believes and we get no indication of why or how this happened, or that this character was even open to such a relationship. This, of course, gives us the obnoxious moment at Mason's 16th birthday where his stepmom's conservative Christian parents think the appropriate gifts for him are a Bible and a gun. Could these people be any more one-dimensional?

In between these moments of tedium, we get endless sequences of kids walking around aimlessly, kids walking to school, someone bouncing a ball, kids staring at the sky, kids staring in the distance, kids going to a movie, kids playing yet more video games. Truthfully, it took me three tries on On Demand to get through this whole film because these moments of pure boredom allowed me to ponder such important aspects as: Why is Arquette's voice so irritatingly high-pitched? How gaunt does Hawke look in this film? Why is Coltrane so dead-eyed and charmless? Is that a dust bunny in the corner that the vacuum did not pick up? And the most important question of all: Why is anyone under the impression that a film with no story, no drama, no tension, no interesting focal character, no good dialog, and no bloody point forgiven all its sins and shortcomings simply because it took someone 12 years to craft it?

7 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Running neck and neck with Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas as the nadir in this genre, 12 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A young Christian college student takes on his atheist professor in an effort to prove the existence of God in this woebegone misfire that competes with Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas in being at the nadir of a genre already chock full of low points. It is unthinkable that this film would turn even the most wishy-washy skeptic to Christianity, but it could most certainly turn those grappling with their faith against it.

First, one would think that if you were making a film where you were demonizing specific demographics of society, primarily atheists, you would know what exactly it was you were demonizing. An atheist is someone who does not believe in a god - by definition an atheist cannot "hate" God because he/she simply does not believe such a being exists. Yet this film posits that atheists are really all angry believers who just have an ax to grind with God because they have emotional boo-boos. The thought that they legitimately do not believe in God (like Christians do not believe in Zeus or Odin) is an alien concept and sets the film up on a level of unparalleled biased ignorance from which it cannot claim any credibility.

The story itself is based on a widely disseminated internet meme which was subsequently discredited (except in Christian circles) and further betrays an ignorance of how colleges work. No professor valuing their job or their tenure would start off a class requesting that their students sign a paper stating "God is Dead" unless they wanted a whole lot of blowback. And the fact that no one in this class really carps except for the ridiculous hero so that we can get some kind of David and Goliath story is laughable in its own right. Even more preposterous is that the professor then allows said student to basically take over the class for the semester building up to a "debate" that really is no debate. No professor would give this kind of luxury to a first-year student and no fellow student(s) would stand for such foolishness dominating the bulk of their classroom studies. Obviously the film was conceived by people and marketed to people who have little idea how an actual place of higher learning works.

More obnoxious is that all of the "bad" characters are liberal stereotypes that are often the targets of conservative Christian ire (i.e., the professor, the journalist, the attorney). As ignorant as the depiction of atheists is, it is very nearly superseded by the film's depiction of Americanized Muslims - another faction of which the writers apparently know little. We are presented with a Muslim girl who secretly longs to convert to Christianity and who is disowned by her family when they learn of her blasphemy.

The acting is uniformly awful and the "name" leads are no exception. Kevin Sorbo, sporting a devilish goatee, hams it up manically as the professor. Sorbo, who spent years as barely serviceable beefcake eye candy on the TV series Hercules, can now be found in his later years giving shrill bigoted appearances on conservative news shows demonstrating that former beefcake is better seen and not heard. Co-lead Dean Cain is largely remembered as being the only Superman to ever be upstaged by Lois Lane in Lois and Clark - here he plays an angry lawyer and his acting has gotten worse while advancing years have made him appear disconcertingly bloated. The supporting cast is instantly forgettable.

There never really is any question that the "hero" will best the "villain" in one of the lamest debates in film history. The boy presents the flimsiest of arguments/supports for his cause, all of which flummox the educated man so badly that he fumbles the whole thing. Given that there are so many debates between prominent atheists and Christians available on Youtube - comparing those to this is almost surreal with how badly it is handled in this film. Then again, it would have to be badly handled because the real-life debates usually either end in a draw or with the atheists having the edge - depending on how good the debaters are.

Among the film's low points (and there are many), one must include: 1) any time members of Duck Dynasty show up to give the hero a pep talk, because nothing says inspirational quite like a group of homophobic, misogynistic bigots. 2) The fact that not one Christian offers shelter to the homeless Muslim girl - just useless pep talks. 3) Apparently it is not enough for the professor to have lost his girlfriend, the debate and had an epiphany - he must also be smashed to death by a truck to complete his comeuppance, which brings us to 4) after which, all of the Christians immediately gather at a feel-good concluding Christian rock concert, completely unconcerned about the pulverized guy they knew and rock out - including the penniless Muslim convert (who paid her way in how?) and an Asian boy, so blown away by our hero's arguments that he is compelled to enlighten his parents that "God is not dead".

This dreck is a prime example of something that should be shown only in church basements to the most devoted or easily deceived believers who need a fantasy pick-me-up to affirm their faith. How it managed to slime its way into multiplexes is a real mystery, but it certainly belies the fallacy of Christian persecution that something like this can get made and get a release, while some truly marvelous and intelligent films get lost.

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