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Ray Donovan (2013)
Sad little show
I'll give it four stars because I actually made it to the end of the first season, so I have to give it some props for that. I don't mind a bit of the old ultra-violence every now and then as long as it's in context, but I'm not into a steady diet of sadistic violence and this show has that aplenty. It just strains credulity to believe that the members of one family can perpetrate so much mayhem and never get caught or held accountable. It also strains credulity that these miscreants can smoke, drink, do drugs, all to major excess, yet still be able to perform feats of superhuman strength and endurance without any kind of indication of what they do to stay in shape. By the time the last episode of Season 1 rolled around, I knew I had made the right decision to ditch the show. The scene on the docks where Micky turns his gun on Sully was telegraphed from a mile away. Just another example of the kind of cheap, clichéd writing that otherwise marred a promising initial run of episodes. Too bad, considering the talent involved, especially Elliot Gould who should consider his involvement in this exercise in pandering to an audience's basest instincts as a major "shonda."
Not a convincing scene or character in the entire movie
I must admit, I didn't make it all the way through. Caricatures rather than characters, lame dialog, predictable plot lines. It was just more than I could bear. These are all accomplished actors, which made it even more excruciating to watch. I'm appalled that it was so positively reviewed by so many fine film critics. Was it a case of mass-hysteria, or were they just being kind to beloved entertainer and first-time director, Dustin Hoffman? Even more frightening is the possibility that the critical community sees this as fitting entertainment for a generation of aging boomers. I absolutely resent being "talked-down to". I am not some doddering old gent that needs the equivalent of artistic pablum to be entertained. This movie was cloying, saccharin, patronizing, and worst of all, insulting.
Mildred Pierce (2011)
Turkey and waffles
A misfire in so many respects. None of the actors seemed comfortable in their roles, including the estimable Winslow. Too bad. This is an interesting story about an aberrant relationship between grass-widow Mildred, the enabler mother, and her daughter Veda, a young woman who is the archetypal snake in the grass.
Great period details and relaxed pacing give an authentic feel to this potboiler, which hews a bit closer to its source material than the original flick with Joan Crawford. As absurd and trashy as the original may have been, it was at least entertaining. Moreover, Crawfie need not worry about whose was the defining interpretation. Hers remains the benchmark.
Featuring some truly cringe-worthy dialog, including one of the worst closing lines ever written. It's hard to imagine someone actually vetted that closer--it's as if they completely ran out of ideas. Three stars for the production values, and I'm being generous.
The Social Network (2010)
Lullaby of nerdland
I wasn't all that impressed with "The Social Network." I didn't buy the whip-smart dialog and the rapid-fire conversations. I thought the script was way too showy, and too clever by half. I've heard Mark Zuckerberg speak. He's not that articulate and he is definitely not that spontaneous. I also tend to believe that his characterization, while unflattering, was very likely not unflattering enough.
More incredulously, the movie portrayed him and those around him as cool geniuses, untouchable by us mere mortals. Indeed, it presented the high-tech milieu as if it was an endless array of wild parties and ecstasy-fueled dance raves. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think you would get a more accurate depiction of Silicon Valley life from watching "The Revenge of the Nerds," for what it's worth.
Some high marks for the score and the cinematography are in order, and the pacing and direction are competent enough. It will be interesting to see what happens to this movie, once the level of interest in Facebook subsides, and the next big thing in cyberspace comes along. My sense is that it will be seen as nothing more than a dated artifact whose once great significance will seem quite mysterious to future audiences.
Cold Case (2003)
Quite possibly the best TV show I have ever seen.
This is quite possibly the best TV show I have ever seen, and that includes some of the modern TV dramas like "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "Thirty Something," and "My So-Called Life." I'll add to that some of the classics from back in the day, including "The Twilight Zone," "Route 66," and "The Fugitive." I used to watch a lot of TV as a kid, not so much in my adult years. In fact, I only recently started watching "Cold Case," mostly through the miracle that is DVR. Imagine my surprise when I found out the show is already in its seventh season! There are too many things about this show that I enjoy to completely list here, so I'll just go for the ones that come to mind first:
Overall concept: This show overturns the collective frustration people feel when dealing with the idea that "justice delayed is justice denied." "Cold Case" offers its audience the extremely satisfying feeling that comes from seeing justice accomplished, however long that justice comes after the original incident occurred.
Use of music: The choice of music is uncannily apt for the story being told and the time frame in which it is told. What has really gotten to me though, is the use of music from long ago that I haven't heard in ages. One episode for example, used the song "I Believe (For Every Drop Of Rain That Falls)," a song that I used to hear a lot when I was very young. When I heard it used here, I immediately got zapped back to that time, so long ago. It was a song that I had heard over and over again when I was a child, and it had been lost in my memory. Just an amazing feeling to have it recovered by watching this program.
Great ensemble acting: Every one of the characters here is interesting, likable, and identifiable in some way. What really stands out is that all of the characters are used equitably in each episode. The show is ostensibly focused on Lily Rush's character, but it always provides equal opportunities for each member of the cast to shine.
Intriguing, compelling stories: Adult, literate, and provocative are the first adjectives to come to mind when describing the scripts for this show. It dares to tackle subjects that are controversial and based on real-life issues. The writing is proof-positive that intelligent TV is possible, and I wish the producers of other TV series would take note.
A-list directors, writers, and actors: I've noticed on a number of occasions that the show uses top-notch directors, writers, and actors. Very often these are people who have made an impact in the motion picture industry. For example, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that one episode had been directed by Agnieszka Holland, an accomplished director who had helmed the movie "Europa Europa," a favorite film of mine that I've watched on multiple occasions.
I could go on and on. Watching this show has actually had a profound impact on my life. I remember episodes that I've watched, long after I've watched them. I've even had dreams based on ideas from the show that have resonated with me and struck a chord within my unconscious mind. That is truly an amazing consequence resulting from a TV show. For all of that and more, I am quite grateful to everyone involved in its development and presentation.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Let my people go
Another juvenile revenge fantasy brought to you by the master of the genre. Mr. Tarantino knows his demographic well, and he plays to it expertly here. Just as Ronald Reagan was directly responsible for the "dumbing down" of American political discourse, so too has QT taken on the responsibility for the dumbing down of American cinema.
Brad Pitt provides some unintentional laughs in the lead role of Lt. Aldo Raine. His hill-country accent is never believable. A descendant of American Indians, Raine is of course, the right man for the job. Especially the part about taking Nazi scalps. Ah, QT. You are certainly an equal opportunity offender.
Which brings to mind how uneasy I am about Mr. Tarantino taking on the mantle of filmmaker as fantasy avenger for the Jewish people. The holocaust and Nazi atrocities are not exactly the most apt sources for a farce such as this. I'm reminded of Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," another misguided attempt at mining humor from a situation that was an abject nightmare for any and all of its unfortunate participants.
There are one or two set pieces that demonstrate Mr. Tarantino's skill at developing a well-realized scene. But overall, the effect is mind-numbingly sensational, and then, quickly forgettable. The movie is like a bad dream, whose bits and pieces you're unable to reconstruct into a cohesive whole. My greatest fear is that this piece of revisionist history will be remembered by its legion of youthful Tarantino enthusiasts as the way things actually went down. Thanks for nothing, QT.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
The hurl locker
I saw "Hurt Locker" the other night and thought it was a major disappointment. I'm not sure what the hype is all about. The movie tells the story of a war lover. It's a story that's been told a thousand times before, but in much more effective ways.
In addition, I would call this the worst kind of war porn. Much of the action made no sense, and more importantly, was militarily inaccurate. And I say this strictly from a civilian's perspective. I could tell when I was watching it that the action didn't ring true. It was only afterwards, when I sat down to read some of the reviews written by combat veterans that I had my suspicions confirmed. This movie is FUBAR.
I can't help but feel that most of the hype generated about this movie stems from the fact that this was an action flick directed by a woman. Sorry Ms. Bigelow, you won't get that kind of pass from me. You're confined to quarters.
The "king of the world" has no clothes
I'm going to predict, and I don't think I'm going out on a limb here, that "Avatar" will win in most of the categories for which it has been nominated.
The supreme irony is that this film is, at its core, an exercise in gross hypocrisy. Anti-military, it revels in its depiction of violence as a means of resolving conflict; anti-corporate, its director is as venal and egotistical as any of the worst of the Wall St. CEOs; and anti-technology, it relies on its technological achievements to the detriment of essential film aesthetics like clever dialog, compelling plotting, and three-dimensional character development.
I wasn't even all that impressed with the technical aspects. (I saw it in IMAX 3-D.) The visuals weren't all that different, or that much of an improvement, from some of the great PC and console games I've played in the past.
Juvenile and derivative, this movie may arguably be a great leap forward in film technology, but it's a huge step backward for the concept of "film as art." Morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the film moves from one predictable plot point to the next, presenting elaborate and overblown set pieces that are unintentionally risible. When the movie reached its climax, depicting its alien race chanting and dancing in front of a sacred tree, I couldn't help but recall a similar masterpiece, "Queen of Outer Space." At least that movie had the benefit of a high-camp performance by Zsa Zsa Gabor. The only camp this movie can lay claim to is "sleep-away."
Craptacular to the extreme.
The Hangover (2009)
Evoked more anger than laughs
Probably the worst picture of the year for me in terms of disappointed expectations. I didn't laugh once during the entire length of this so-called comedy. Witless, charmless, without one likable character in its ensemble cast, I was especially dumbfounded by the hype accorded to Zach Galifianakis, whose lack of talent somehow manages to make Adam Sandler look like a comic genius.
"The Hangover" is obviously targeted to an audience who likes their humor broad and sophomoric. To make matters worse, it relies heavily on obnoxious stereotypes that are patently offensive.
This piece of dreck utterly pales in comparison to a similar buddy flick, the eminently watchable "I Love You, Man." "The Hangover" was an utter waste of time and money. Caveat emptor.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
I waited 35 years for this?
I've been hearing about this movie for a long time. Since the birth of the counter-culture. Like Brian Wilson's lost masterpiece, this movie has garnered mythic status over the years. Withdrawn from circulation because it uses the Door's "Moonlight Drive"--and you know how picky the Lizard King could be about commercial rights. Just ask his former band mates. His estate has taken Jim's last wishes to the letter. Only recently have they consented to allow the releasing of the film on DVD.
They would have been doing us all a great favor if they had declined consent. Although I was hoping for the best, I had a feeling this would turn out to be a turkey. But I never expected it to be quite such a Butterball.
I think if I were teaching a class on how to make a pretentious movie I would no doubt point to this film. There's something pathetic in its attempt at the mythic, including the names of its characters such as "The Driver," "The Mechanic," and "The Girl." At one point, "The Driver" refers to "The Girl" by her name, "Higgins," and one can't help but wonder how he learned her name, and why, if she had a name, it wasn't used throughout the script. It was another case of being jarred loose from the film, but by that time I had been jarred so many times I was beginning to feel like last season's apricots.
This is not a good example of a road movie. See "Easy Rider," "Vanishing Point," Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Anything but this.
One star for location shooting in Santa Fe, which hasn't changed much since the early seventies. Another star for using "Moonlight Drive," a personal favorite of mine. And a third and final star for some nice cinematography of the open road.
Beware the myth.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Are you all out of your minds?
This movie is overlong by at least a half hour. I am so tired of films that have about six or seven endings. It's become a bit of a cliché. Just when you thought it was safe to get up from your seat and start filing out of the theater, another epilogue begins and you're forced to sit through at least another ten minutes of ridiculous, overblown, pretentious blather that's been well-covered in the previous four or five epilogues. Some writer/directors just don't know when to say when, and that's usually a sign that they don't have confidence in their material, nor their approach to it. This movie is a prime example of that kind of narrative drawback.
But that's just the beginning of my complaints about "The Dark Knight." Loud, obnoxious, puerile, without one whit of wit, this movie also represents the extreme destructiveness of a relentless hype machine that's intent on whittling down our collective sense and sensibilities. The acting, which ranges from wooden to hyperbolic, seems as if it's being carried out by inter-planetary aliens who have no idea what it's like to be human. The script sounds as if it was written by someone who barely made it out of bone-head, freshman composition. I've never heard or seen so many clichés strung together in a misguided attempt at profundity and universality. As each new, cliché-ridden set piece followed another, I began to feel beaten down, as if my defenses against such obvious manipulation were being fed upon by my own desire to enjoy what everyone else seemed to be accepting so readily. Fortunately, my will to survive such cultural mediocrity is strong, and I was able to withstand this latest onslaught with my dignity intact.
Please understand, I enjoyed "Batman Begins," a story that was told in a simple, straightforward manner, with some minor attempts at profundity that were in line with the childish, comic book subject matter. To try and make something so "de profundis" about a superhero running around in a bat costume chasing down some uber-villain in grease paint and fright wig, is truly akin to putting lipstick on a pig. After it's done, you can't help but wonder: "are they really expecting people to take this crapola so seriously?" I'd rather see Adam West and Cesar Romero go at it, then have to sit through this load of pretentious, horse manure. At least I was able to get a laugh out of the original TV series, which was undeniably a camp classic in its original incarnation.
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Would a film of that candor have a chance of being made today?
I watched "Judgment at Nuremburg" on PBS the other night. I had never seen it before. I expected an empty-headed, Hollywood-style, quasi-melodrama, but I was pleasantly surprised. Even Spencer Tracy, that universally beloved actor whose appeal has always escaped me, gave an honest and heartfelt portrayal of a "simple man" who was also a deeply conflicted judge.
What I liked most about this movie was that it didn't pull any punches, in the manner of other "controversial" films of its time. The defense attorney, superbly played by Maximilian Schell, weaves a simple, but undeniable web of logic:
- Sterilization of "undesirables," one of the charges against the Nazi war criminals, was at one time condoned by the U.S. courts, and encouraged by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes. - Numerous leading industrialists in the U.S. contributed to the development of the Nazi war machine. - Encouragement was given to Hitler's expansionism by both Russia and England. - Churchill is quoted as having admired Hitler. - The Vatican actively collaborated with the Nazis.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it must have taken major cojones to present that kind of message to American filmgoers in 1961. Would a film of that candor have a chance of being made today?
I tend to doubt it.
One further note. The film describes how the Nazis went about stripping the German judiciary of judges who were known for their objectivity, and replacing them with judges who were appointed based solely on their party loyalties.
The mind boggles at the implications and yes, the prescience of this well-written, well-played masterpiece.
Sea of Love (1989)
Excellent commentary on the vicissitudes of excessive drunkeness
The movie does a nice job of contrasting Pacino as an insightful, sensitive, and articulate dude when sober, against someone who inevitably says and does really stupid things when he's blotto. I like the fact that the movie doesn't beat you over the head with this message.
Pacino gives another outstanding performance, and he is beginning to look like the ultimate winner of the Pacino/DeNiro sweepstakes, based on lifetime achievement (although neither career is far from over).
This makes a good double-bill with "The Big Easy." They both feature Ellen Barkin at a time in her career when sizzling sex scenes seemed to be written into her contract.
Sin City (2005)
The Mainstreaming of Gratuitous, Sadistic Violence
"Sin City" is a flawless on screen realization of a graphic novel. If you allow yourself to be immersed, you could swear you're watching a comic book come to life on the silver screen. Characters are either monstrously hideous or impossibly gifted. The women in particular, accurately represent the febrile fantasies of adolescent and post-adolescent males. Buxom, statuesque, gun-totin' ass-kickers, they'd just as soon snap some slob's neck as wrap their legs around it.
I have to admit, I was immersed in this movie from beginning to end. I can recognize something new when I've seen it, and this movie is definitely not like anything I've seen before. A movie will score points with me just on that basis alone. However, not being a big fan of graphic novels, I doubt I'd be interested in seeing another film like it. As with most graphic novels, the dialogue in the film, recreated faithfully, tends toward tough guy/gal patter, which, with its inherent limitations, can get old fairly quickly. Most of the plots in these novels tend to be based on revenge fantasies (certainly the prime motivator in "Sin City"), and I tend to think (wish?) that the well-adjusted of us typically grow out of the need for that kind of bloody retribution when we exit our teens.
On a side note, there are those who have taken exception to the way in which women are presented in this movie. They probably have every right. However, bear in mind that this movie represents the mainstreaming of a sadistically violent mindset traditionally limited to a coterie of readers of graphic novels. That mindset allows for a graphical realization of all manner of horrific transgressions that probably make the transgression of misogyny seem relatively tame in comparison. Perhaps a more relevant issue raised by this movie would be to ask why we are seeing the mainstreaming of this type of sadistic and retributive mindset at this point in our history.
Finally, as a counter to the feminist outcry this movie has engendered, there has been some ameliorative talk as to how the hookers, exotic dancers, and waitresses in "Sin City" are all "empowered" women, as if this could somehow offset the fact that almost all of the women portrayed in the film are hookers, exotic dancers, and waitresses, with nary a PhD in Marine Biology among them. Feminists should not go to this movie unless their idea of feminism is getting him before he gets you.
Somehow, this film feels post-apocalyptic. If you can get into that mindset, enjoy the ride.
If you can put aside the hype, there's much to like about this film. Just don't set your expectations too high.
I finally got the chance to watch Sideways the other night. Man, was I singularly unimpressed! I'm having a hard time wondering why this movie received so many accolades. Universally loved by the critics, it appeared on numerous top-ten lists and garnered some top nominations and prizes. Most mysterious of all was its scooping up the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. I thought the screenplay wasn't nearly as witty as everyone seemed to describe it. Most of the clever dialogue pertained to wine, so it was a bit of a one-note for me.
I found the characterizations and the situations to be just not very credible--especially the main relationship, which was the focus of the movie. The two leads may have been buddies in college, but how they remained friends beyond that is difficult to fathom. They were as unalike as two people could possibly be. I can accept the notion of opposites attracting to a certain degree, but putting these two together for any length of time would surely generate enough friction to set off a mild explosion.
Outside of Virginia Madsen's performance as Maya, the acting provided few surprises as well. Paul Giamatti may be a competent actor, but I fear he is to be stereotyped by his physical appearance. Once again, he is playing a slightly altered shading of the downtrodden, schlubby nebbish: weak of chin, unfairly persecuted, petulant, with his unfocused anger always lurking beneath the surface. Sounds a bit like Harvey Pekar, no? And where'd they dig up Thomas Haden Church? This fellow just doesn't travel well to the big screen. Has he done something of merit recently of which I am unaware? The last I remember him, he was a minor character in a mediocre TV sitcom. What good fortune elevated him to the cachet of independent film star? I found his portrayal to be inconsistent, as if he never fully got a handle on his character's motivations. I guess he played it as a caricature, which to his credit was the way it was written. A character with few or no redeeming qualities, an inveterate womanizer, liar, and a parasite, his revelation of weakness made toward the end of the movie seemed to come not just from left field, but from an entirely different character.
In fact, the whole ending seemed tacked on in a woefully transparent attempt to turn the complete exercise into an uplifting and oh, so artful and soulful creation. I was ready to hurl when Harvey, excuse me, Miles, looked up so endearingly at his best friend standing at the altar with his bride whom he had recently cuckolded with two different women in as many days. And I was baffled beyond belief when Miles received a telephone call from Maya hinting at a possible reconciliation. What this extraordinary woman saw in this maladjusted twerp was just too much for me to attempt to process. The final scene of him knocking on her door was the ultimate, agonizing jaw-dropper.
Les invasions barbares (2003)
Woe to be French-Canadian. Truly neither here nor there. Not really French, not really American, one can only hope to gain cultural gravitas by emigrating elsewhere. How else to explain this latest dismal offering from Denys Arcand, persistent Quebecois that he is.
Where have we seen this film before? Where have we seen a dying man (garrulous, passionate, raunchy), surrounded by family (straight-laced son, estranged wife), mistresses (blonde, brunette, redhead), seafaring daughter (performing a heart-rending soliloquy on the high-seas). Well, maybe not that last one.
And the friends are there too. In fact, I understand these are the same people who appeared in Arcand's "The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization." After seeing "The Barbarian Invasions" I can safely say I have no desire to see these people in the earlier film.
What incredibly banal dialogue puffed up to appear universal and profound! What warmed-over existentialism, leaden wit and second-rate acting!
Cliché upon cliché is heaped on the screen, whether it's the circumstances of the plot, the characterizations, the dialogue, or the treacly resolve where son and father are reconciled. This movie has it all: the humanity of Renoir, the fatality of Sartre, and the credibility of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Wow. I was jacked to watch this movie with my grandkids. I thought it might be another Shrek, which we have all watched together numerous times. Shrek is clever and densely packed with humorous details such as the parking lot sign that states, "You are parked in Sir Lancelot." This movie however, is so un-clever, so artless, and so derivative, that it is offensive to me purely on an aesthetic basis. But my dislike of this movie doesn't simply stop there.
Admittedly, I am no big fan of Billy Crystal, whose character is supposed to supply the film with most of its comic moments. Unfortunately, the character has no identity other than Billy Crystal doing his shtick.
John Goodman's character fares no better. Imagine, taking a butt-ugly, terrifying monster and emasculating it in order to provide some touchy-feely revelation about the importance of positive reinforcement, and you get a grasp of just how low this movie will stoop to pander to its audience.
Perhaps the worst offense of all is that this is a comedy without laughs. Secondary characters are mindless oafs, drawn in such lazy, broad strokes that it is almost offensive to be asked to laugh at them. Most of the comic scenes fall flat, primarily because they are so derivative, you know what to expect before the punch line arrives.
What a let-down from Pixar, the studio that produced the great Toy Story movies. I'd like to think the blame for this mess can be fixed on the gross and retrograde hand of Pixar's parent studio, Disney. Pray that Pixar throws free the shackles on its next animated production.