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Please Like Me (2013)
Annoying, but Superb
So many successful sitcoms depend on likable buffoons as major characters that one's first impression of "Josh" is that he is just another self-deprecating target for stale jokes about his shortcomings. In this case, the eponymous actor/creator moves well beyond the predictable into a realm of hyper-originality rarely seen in a TV series. Nothing here is predictable. Each scene, each comedic line, each nuance bordering on serious personality issues comes across as going against the grain of laugh track one-liners.
I viewed the first two seasons in quick sequence to determine some thread justifying the title "Please Like Me." There is so much more than that at work here I came to the conclusion that "Josh" intends his imperative to apply to the entire narrative rather than just himself. None of the main characters is one-dimensional. Each one stands alone in all sorts of revealing personal aspects. Attraction of one to another is quickly reversed or brought down to earth before sentimental attachments rear up to spoil the moment.
Of course "Josh" is unerringly annoying. Surrounded by bipolar types and deliberately handsome but flawed lovers he has little choice.
This is a fascinating series, which I hope to be able to follow as it progresses.
This rather sluggish film more than makes up for its pretentious script by capturing the Luberon in all its summery glory. Every frame offers something pleasing to the eye, like a Bourdain travel piece without political commentary. Its sound is also technically sharp and appropriate, as in in one scene where characters play with watercolors as part of the plot.
Yes...the plot. More neurotic than erotic, if truth be told. It takes more than two-thirds of the film to get to the point, which is less cathartic than anticlimactic. It reminded me of a dozen or so short stories I have read over the years in which one or another love triangle drags along to its inevitable end, which can be either highly dramatic or cleverly understated. Boring.
These independent films always take too long, whether in single camera shots that linger on pointlessly or in spoken lines that the viewer can almost speak simultaneously as the character's lips move.
Pretty forgettable stuff, except for the landscape.
The Problem With Docudramas
Most crime stories on film exist solely as commercial exploitation of thinly disguised news reports of actual crimes. This is no exception. The documentary aspect of "Narcos" is a loosely narrated voice-over in English that provides historical perspective as filmed characters based on real persons speak largely in Spanish with English subtitles. The visual aspect on the other hand is criminal violence contrasted with everyday human values common to members of the average audience. Scenes of family life, a little comedy, a little irony are never far from moments of intense dramatic action.
The viewer must judge whether "Narcos" captures accurately its time, place, and facts while he/she simultaneously appreciates acting and production values based on the relative skill of the film's creators. This is no easy task, because history is often defined by one's prejudices and a multilingual script spoken by actors from several different countries complicates the whole thing. A quick read of reviews previously contributed prove the point.
"Narcos" at present (end of the first season) is just OK from my perspective...nothing great but far from boring. Living on the Mexican border as I do and knowing lots (yes, lots) of people on both sides of the law, I am compelled to be probably more critical of this production than I should be. But there are far worse examples of films out there dealing with drug smuggling both then and now.
Here is an example of self-conscious introspection going in too many directions at once. Bad enough for the viewer trying to cope with shaky frames from hand-held cameras, even worse when the narrative slows for long, heavy pauses in either words or actions. One wonders why so many low budget films share this phenomenon. It is tempting to call out to the screen, "Get on with it, already!"
Still, there is charm in the notion that two young friends can figuratively swim their way, as ocean sounds play in the distance, through casual interruptions in a simple assignment to locate and retrieve a family document of some importance as they visit a beach house in the cold of winter. It might even be possible to salvage this film by cutting out totally irrelevant scenes that serve only to provide background for their respective characters. A filmmaker's self-indulgence in attempting to recreate a familiar story from his or her past reminds me of how quickly I run away whenever someone says, "To make a long story short..." which in fact becomes a stream of consciousness without an end.
Indeed, there is no clear end to this film. It just goes on and on.
See Here, Private Hargrove (1944)
Viewing in 2015 a topical film from 1944 is like taking a ride in a time-worn Model A Ford...fun at first but soon annoying, unless you can remember how you felt about it in 1944. For many of us belonging to that older generation, the Model A was our first cheap used car, and we loved it. The Private Hargrove movies, unlike now classic dramas and comedies of that or any other time, probably ought to be forgotten except as artifacts of ages past. Only film history students and old folks can fully understand them. The corny jokes, the earnest patriotic comments, the primer on army life, the girls of the USO...all fall nowadays into the category of trivia.
Those of us who were approaching draft age at the time watched this film and other war films with genuine trepidation that we would soon be walking in a hail of bullets on a mined beachhead. A little humor took the edge off.
Here we have a beautifully filmed drama actually made in Virginia rather than Hungary about the War for Independence. Using Williamsburg as a stand-in for Philadelphia is a winner, even though Philadelphia at the time probably looked more like a small version of London. But I quibble. The main fault of this series is that it is precisely what a number of the negative reviewers have stated: actual history is distorted, serving only as a crutch for a mediocre soap opera. Professional actors tend to be melodramatic when their characters lie outside a contemporary setting. Thus for example George Washington's personal agony is presented not as a great man's victory over doubt and frequent indecision, but rather as a method actor's exercise in resistance and transference made possible by interaction with a slave whose fictional character seems to come straight out of the 21st century.
I concur as well with those who have pointed out flaws in the use of language and strangely unclear accents, many of which sound less like Yankee speech of the time and often, anachronistically, Irish. At one point a character uses the questionable "reoccurence." The British major pronounces "schedule" in the modern American way. And so on.
In short, I like the cinematography and sets but hate abuse of history and weaknesses in writing and a generally uneven cast.
Deutschland 83 (2015)
Refreshing to watch the beginning of this series on Sundance Channel, a foreign language entry that catches a moment in recent German history without the usual quintessential archetypes and funny accents of any random American production involving Germans. The tables are turned in fact because it is the American characters speaking German who seem a bit less than convincing. English subtitles are no major distraction, because the script is terse and direct.
As in most German cinema, nothing is left to the imagination. If a character is destined to be a hero or a saint (or something in between) that element is telegraphed in advance by the director's emphasis on a frown, an arched eyebrow, a look of confusion, or a surreptitious stage movement. We know where the series is going by the end of the first episode, yet we identify with the young man at the center of the story irrespective of his opening attitude. There is none of the ambivalence or inchoate suspense found in one of John Le Carré's filmed spy novels.
I am looking forward immensely to viewing the remainder of the series in spite of not believing, really, that many of the easy coincidences, arch villains, clandestine meetings in the woods, and other stereotypical story devices could have actually happened.
Texas Rising (2015)
Not entirely awful...
But close to it, a kind of history-by-the-numbers portrait of events and great men in the Texas Republic of 1836. What a shame so many true facts are bastardized and co-mingled with standard Hollywood stuff. In the final analysis, it's really no better than the entirely fanciful John Wayne version or the 2004 Dennis Quaid disaster (which I reviewed here at the time). Sam Houston, whose mother was a Paxton, bore little resemblance to his distant cousin's caricature of him in this offering from the History Channel, either in appearance or manner.
Add to all that the wrong location (Durango, Mexico), the portrayal of Santa Anna as simply a sociopath rather than a shrewd politician who survived to govern his country again and again, and a melange of 1950's-style Hollywood Indians, and you have something better suited to the likes of Karl May than history.
The artillery used in this make-believe war? call it the Taco Bell Cannon.
Fifteen Years Later
Nothing has changed as of 2015 in the so-called "War on Drugs" as it relates to the streets of Nogales, Sonora, where much of this tale was actually Filmed on the pretext it was Tijuana. There are still two main cartels that control production and distribution, two parts of a community divided by an ugly and ineffectual fence, and two faces on people directly involved in a farcical but deadly struggle to maintain sanity in the face of a community psychosis.
At the moment, for example, the current police comandantes and their hirelings are extorting every peso they can get their hands on before the next political machine is swept into power by a disgruntled electorate who know, sadly, that it will only result in a new batch of uniformed hoodlums. "Traffic" only scratched the surface of the ongoing problem in 2000, and we are left with no better filmed drama today.
The problem of this film, now and when it was produced, is that it is a series of vignettes rather than tightly constructed narrative. The viewer is left with no central notion of why it was made, and for what purpose. The main characters played by Del Toro and Cheadle grasp at thin air when it comes to defining themselves as other than (a) a guy who likes seeing happy kids at play in a safe environment and (b) a guy who wants to exact revenge for his friend's death. Neither carries a moral standard for the story (if there is one). The character played by Michael Douglas has even less on which to base his one-dimensional purpose: to save his daughter from drug addiction. Not exactly the stuff of high intellectual drama.
What a shame neither country has yet rid itself of a mental health malady that continues to shape life-or-death issues, preferring instead to seek political solutions backed up by brute force. A movie made today on these same streets employing the same kinds of people could make that point as this one has not.
The Mirror Crack'd (1980)
When at last I saw this old flop last weekend on itv3 in my London hotel room, I had difficulty identifying it as a vehicle for some of the biggest stars in the business until they popped up, one by one, in roles that were either cameos or tongue-in-cheek throwaways. It soon became apparent the acting as well as the direction was awful, but curiosity gained the better of me and I stayed on to the bitter end. I kept thinking at least one of the stars would do a memorable turn. Perhaps it was the wretched script or the bad lighting that prevented such a manifestation. The usual finesse of a Miss Marple film was nowhere in evidence. Unintentional comedy reigned, as in one poorly directed scene where a diminutive Edward Fox stood awkwardly side by side with looming Rock Hudson suggestive of a wedding between Batman and Robin. Elizabeth Taylor playing Elizabeth Taylor called out silently for the line, "Time for my close-up, Mr. DeMille!" A weak musical score was equally dismal.
One wonders how these usually fine actors carried on regardless when it must have occurred to them they were clinging to a thin straw.
They must have been very well paid.