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King Jack (2015)
Nothing to redeem it
I went into this expecting something really good from the high Netflix rating. What a disappointment. This might be a realistic-looking slice of life, but we don't experience much that is truly original or valuable. It's kid-on-kid violence (emotional and physical) and not much more.
Life can be brutal but I don't particularly want to watch it, unless, of course, it's great art. The Japanese masterpiece The Human Condition (Ningen el Joken) is a trilogy of films that depicts the worst aspects of human brutality, but you can take it because you are also aware that you're experiencing something profound. With King Jack I watched a kid get bullied and then finally learn to "take it like a man." It's trite and frankly a little disgusting.
The film wants to impart a message of some kind. I think the scene at the very end is supposed to be seen as a happy ending. We're to believe Jack has evolved emotionally and overcome--or started to overcome--unbelievable obstacles in his life. It feels flimsy and tacked on and I didn't buy it.
I understand why many people liked this film. It has a seductive quality, the actors are good, and the action looks real. And it's pitched as an art movie. But it isn't a good one. If you were sucker punched into liking this movie, I can only suggest you expand your cinematic horizons to find out how much you've been missing.
Sleeping with Other People (2015)
Smart Rom Com, two things that don't often go together
I'm a little surprised at all the negative reviews here. It's hard to imagine what the reviewers found missing. Romance? Comedy? Or both? Because I found plenty of each. I will say that I can see how you need to be able to relate to the lifestyles depicted to appreciate the film. Because if you can't, this might as well be about life on Mars.
This is a smart movie. And the concept is pretty original, considering the difficulty of deviating from the restrictions of the genre. The leads are immensely likable and each able to toss off complex comedic riffs with ease. And I very much enjoyed seeing Adam Scott play the heavy. Not easy to portray a dull-as-donuts bad guy, but he pulled it off.
Despite the "truthiness" of the dialog, the movie does share one thing with all romantic comedies: it's a wet dream for the love hungry. Especially for those folks who juggle and struggle with the reality of modern relationships. The lead characters wear a veneer of cynical sophistication that many of us use as protective shields. But, as is expected from a rom-com, the veneer cracks. And we're glad when it does.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but be warned: it is a movie for grown ups.
Difficult People (2015)
Not for the slow-witted or pop culturally illiterate
This is a show for a very narrow demographic. The range of pop culture put downs is vast. It's hard to imagine anyone but gay, full-time couch potatoes understanding all of it. I come close to that category, but I'm old. Younger versions of me will probably get more of it. And, you've got to be quick to even take it all in. The show may be just a so-so framework for a barrage of rat-a-tat-tat jokes, but oh, what jokes!
The lines are tossed off so fast and are so all-over-the-place topically they barely register. If you waste time laughing, you'll miss the next joke. Not many shows can work in a line like "If I've learned anything, it's that there are limits to even what Viola Davis can make plausible." Now, for me, that's funny. And it's funny because it's true. But I can easily understand that a lot of people would be baffled. Not only do you have to know who Viola Davis is, you have to have seen enough of her work to know that she's been in some real turkeys.
I especially like some of the side players, truly original characters we haven't seen before. E.g., the transgender server who's a 911 conspiracy theory nut. When she says to a co-worker, "I wish you'd been on Flight 93," that's stunning. I'm not sure what my reaction was. Did I laugh because it was funny, or was I just astonished by the anything-is-fair-game attitude? I don't know, and frankly, I don't care. I was entertained, and in the broadest sense of the word.
You may hate the characters, and you may not like their constantly snarky attitude. But you have to admire how they can simultaneously celebrate and fearlessly skewer the values American pop culture has engendered in us all.
Better than expected.
It's a two-character gay road trip movie. Couple that with a "coming of age" story and a character who videotapes all the time and you've got a recipe for a big bag of clichés.
Amazingly, this film managed to hold my interest, despite my lowered expectations, and despite very prosaic material. I can't tell you how many times I thought, okay, I've seen enough. But I stuck with it until the end. I think the movie works in spite of itself. While the boys do not take peyote, they are certainly tripping.
One interesting factoid in the dialog reveals that a prominent figure in the Mexican revolution was gay. The boy who tells this also says, this is not something that got into the history books. And he would be right, so far as I know. I was all over the internet trying to confirm; I couldn't. But I found out a lot of very interesting stuff about this man that I would never have known about otherwise. I'm not Mexican, but I went to university in Mexico, so this was fascinating to me.
Can I recommend this movie? Not really. Unless you want to see how this director overcame some of the limitations that come with a two-character, low budget, road trip movie. I think Spanish-speakers may have a better appreciation for the film. As is often the case, the subtitles don't do justice to the actual dialog.
Holding the Man (2015)
Not easily done...
...showing the story of two teenagers through to their early 30s. Both the book and movie were unknown to me, so I came at this without expectations. This movie succeeds with material that is very familiar--if not overly familiar--to gay men like myself. That in itself is quite an accomplishment.
What starts out as a simplistic story of high school romance becomes an epic tale spun out for 127 minutes. I was surprised by the honesty of the story, and surprised that the two lead actors could seamlessly--and convincingly--go from teenagers to adults. It is not easy to take everyday events and stitch them up into an epic. This movie does that, and it does it well.
If I had known the plot in advance, I probably wouldn't have gone near this film with a 10-foot pole. I'm glad I didn't know because I would have missed a really good movie.
If you're young and gay and want to get an accurate look at what life was like for us in the '70s and '80s, this is the movie to see. For Americans, that it's set in Australia is irrelevant; the story was the same.
Uneven but Watchable
I think the younger you are (if you're gay) the more this will resonate with you. The writing is uneven, but the starting premise is interesting. It's infidelity but not just simple infidelity. And the production values and photography are both fine.
Overall, the gay characters are better written than the straight characters. The gay characters are more underwritten, e.g., the actors communicated with their faces/bodies a lot, which is a good thing; it wasn't so dialog driven. The straight characters on the other hand seemed overwritten and, frankly, unconvincing.
As the episodes progress, some of the coincidences are a bit much. And the way people relate to each other doesn't always seem real. A lot of the time it does, but a lot of the time it doesn't.
For those of you with a lot more life experience this will be harder to take. For example, the art gallery/art world shown is like somebody's idea of what that world is like, rather than what it's really like. That's true for a lot of things, including some relationships. However, most of the gay hook ups/relationships were plausible to me because, well, been there done that.
Still, I found this very watchable, even though I knew the quality was just above average. But like I say, the younger you are, the more likely you will be to enjoy it.
Beautiful and Soulful
This is a series of connected stories, the tail end of one becoming the beginning of the next. The series is in Hindi with occasional English words and phrases.
The stories seem to take place in the 1950s, that is the look and feeling conveyed. Many of the stories have extended flashbacks to earlier times. The photography is beautiful and the locales fascinating.
But it is the soulful stories that will grip you. They're deeply reflective of the culture. The complexities of arranged marriages and familial situations feel authentic and original to this Westerner's eye. Music is an integral part of many of the stories, and it's wonderfully done. Characters sing to one another, with lyrics that obliquely refer to the person they're singing to. This is especially effective when the two people are in love but are for one reason or another unable to be together.
How Americans will take to this is not easy to predict. This is not a Merchant Ivory film, that is, one targeted to American and European audiences. But the production values are just as good and if you allow yourself to go with the flow, you may find this as charming as I do.
Doctor Thorne (2016)
Visiting Barsetshire with Anthony Fellowes
Anthony Trollope's novels have been mined for TV productions for decades, so we shouldn't be surprised that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes decided to take a crack at one. And he does rather well. Here's hoping he'll serialize Trollope's remaining Barsetshire books.
For readers of Trollope's novels (as with Jane Austen's) it can be a bit of a shock to see them somewhat sensationalized and in a necessarily condensed format. But the needs of present day audiences require it. Consequently, though, the result is often a sort of high-brow soap opera and Fellowes' Dr. Thorne is no exception.
However, the production is pretty, and the characterization right on point, if a bit over the top. Though for me, Ian McShane breathed life and depth into Trollope's somewhat one-dimensional Mr. Scatcherd. Alison Brie does the same for another Victorian cliché: the American heiress in search of a titled husband. With an ever-present smile, she makes Miss Dunstable's gently spoken directness seem downright raunchy. It's a delight to watch.
Why bother saying more. If you like the Downton Abbey genre, you are going to see this and you are going to like it. End of story.
All the Way (2016)
What's valuable about this
...is that it shines a light on LBJ's very significant accomplishments (civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid) which were largely wiped from my generation's collective consciousness. This film ends with Johnson's sweeping election victory in 1964, but by 1968 he became one of the most despised presidents in history for his escalation of the war in Vietnam.
For those of us who lived through this era, this sort of biopic is a hard sell. We remember all too vividly the reality of Johnson, Humphrey, King, and all the rest. It's petty to remark that Dr. King didn't have the movie star looks of Anthony Mackie. Or that Hubert Humphrey was a lot plumper than Bradley Whitford, and his high pitched staccato speaking voice beyond Whitford's reach. Other characters are done either spot on or way off. I suppose no one could capture the essence of Sen. Dirksen without coming dangerously close to Foghorn Leghorn. But Bob McNamara looks right, and the always reliable Stephen Root brings the right manic intensity to his J. Edgar Hoover.
Ultimately it's Bryan Cranston who makes the sell. He's utterly convincing. We feel we're seeing LBJ on screen. Only occasionally does the facade crack to show the actor underneath. But for the most part it's uncanny--if not a little eerie--how accurately he portrays Johnson.
The script is about what you expect for a biopic. The kind of exposition necessary to explain who is who and what is what. It's tiresome for those of us who lived through it, but a necessary evil I suppose for anyone under age fifty. And for those under thirty who seem to have got a college degree without knowing much about anything, this will be a useful primer on the early 60s.
Pee-wee's Big Holiday (2016)
If you're looking for logic or PC, go elsewhere. This is funny. End of story.
Go ahead, critics, compare it to his other movies, better, worse, equal to etc. He's aged, he hasn't aged. Who cares? This is a movie unto itself. None of what the oldsters are talking about is at all relevant to a kid seeing or hearing PeeWee for the first time. This movie can stand alone.
I don't laugh out loud much at movies. Nothing is really that funny for me. This--I laughed out loud over and over. Sitting here all by myself. Laughing. You can't help it. It's so wonderfully absurd and silly.
The casting, the performances, and the art direction are near flawless. There's nary a false note anywhere, down to the smallest detail. And it's really, really funny.
I defy anybody not to laugh when PeeWee mangles his movie star friend's last name. Or meets the farmer's daughters. Or ends up in a mobile hair salon. I'm sorry. If you don't laugh at this stuff, you're dead inside.