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Magic City (2012)
This Did Get Ugly
MAGIC CITY is the world's longest cigarette commercial, written by people on cough syrup and acted by people on horse tranquilizers.
All the ingredients are here, yet nothing . . . ever . . . happens. The sex isn't sexy. The violence isn't menacing. The humor isn't funny. These are characters whose every emotion, action, and motivation are spelled out in blatant, obvious detail before they even open their mouths. You can figure out in every single episode within five minutes what will happen at the end.
One thing that could have saved this series would have been a shark attack. A real, live great white shark could have come ashore at the Miramar and started eating all of Isaac Evan's loved ones. I don't mean like in JAWS, I mean like the shark grows legs and just walks up onto the beach and starts chomping the cast members. First he chomps down on the bratty little girl having her Bas Mitzvah. CHOMP! Then he chomps the long-legged Russian trophy wife. CHOMP! Then he chomps the sleazy son and the goody two shoes son, CHOMP CHOMP!
Then he pats Isaac Evans on the back and walks back into the gulf.
Another way they could have saved MAGIC CITY is to have used the plot from H.P. Lovecraft's SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH. What if Isaac Evan's partner was not boring cliché gangster Ben Diamond but a race of "old ones" or "deep ones" who live far beneath the gulf waters? What if Ike finds out that they demand sacrifice, and that only his impossibly luscious young wife with the long dancer's legs is suitable? What if Ike just panics and starts babbling to his sons, "can't be like that Kanaky isle! Yog sothoth! Ia!" What if the Miramar Play is putting on a big Gary Moore or Frank Sinatra spectacular when suddenly a grotesque impossible pageant of fish like things from below the deep forces its way into the lobby?
This did get ugly,
Early South Park Classic -- Raw Satire And Dagger Of The Mind
This episode is the best example of "raw" early SOUTH PARK. They start with a classic STAR TREK episode, "Dagger Of The Mind," and basically act out the entire plot, including legendary Star Trek bits like the "Vulcan Mind Meld." Stan and Kyle actually quote the episode word for word at the end, complete with Shatner diction. "Stan, can you imagine -- a mind -- drained by that thing." And Officer Barbrady, for no particular reason, is hypnotized into believing he is Elvis Presley, complete with the worst Elvis imitation ever. "Okay, man, okay. I'm the King! I'm the King!" Why this episode works so well is that it feels very homegrown and not at all put on -- just a bunch of guys goofing on a STAR TREK classic that every television watcher in America knows by heart.
If SOUTH PARK was the Beatles, this episode would be "Love Me Do."
And The Children Shall Groove
Reviewer's Note: The following is a parody of the classic Star Trek episode, AND THE CHILDREN SHALL LEAD. Judge for yourself if it truly captures the manic intensity and unintentional humor of the original.
"Why, you little punk!" Kirk looked down at his gold uniform shirt, and then glared at the tall red-haired boy. "I just had that shirt dry- cleaned. The next time you throw ice cream at me I'm gonna beat you like a Dimorphian Drumfish!"
"Jim, he's just a boy." Dr. McCoy gave the children a reassuring look. "Don't mind our captain, he's most likely been affected by the anxiety- causing atmosphere on that strange planet you just came from. Maybe that's what happened to your parents too."
"Parents? What parents?" Tommy the tall red-head glared at Captain Kirk. "We don't remember any parents. We don't have to tell you about no stinking parents!"
"Bones, let me handle this," Kirk said smoothly. "Unless I hear the truth about what happened to your parents there will be no more ice cream cones!"
"Ah, I got your cone right here." Tommy grabbed his crotch and squeezed. "Try it with nuts."
"That does it!" Kirk lunged for Tommy and caught him in a headlock. Then a call came from the bridge.
"Captain, Spock here. Strange phenomenon on the bridge screen. Please come at once."
Up on the bridge, Spock indicated a sexy young man sprawled out shirtless on the view screen.
Kirk couldn't place the alien. "Abraham Lincoln?" He asked. "The Greek God Apollo?"
"My name's Jim," said the god-like figure in black leather pants. "You wanna beam me up? Let's break on through to the other side."
"Fascinating," Spock peered into his glowing monitor. "Evidently a twentieth-century earth poet, Captain. Decadent and cruel, but devastatingly attractive to the young of both sexes. Known to his followers as the Lizard King."
Kirk was glad that he'd brought the other Jim up to the Enterprise. At first. It was awesome to hear "Crystal Ship" and "Soul Kitchen" coming through the ship's speakers late at night, instead of all that horrible warbling by Uhura. But soon the Lizard King was encouraging the kids to misbehave. They lurked in the corridors, pumping their fists and making stuff go wrong. And now they had a leader.
"You're all a bunch of slaves!" Jim shouted, stirring up the Red Shirts in the crew lounge. "I don't know about you, but I plan on getting my kicks before the whole s---house explodes!"
"That's enough, mister!"
"What you gonna do, man?" Morrison mocked. "Gonna use the ship's phasers on a bunch of kids?"
"Listen to me!" Kirk shouted. "Do you think he's one of you? Do you think he's a glamorous, youthful god?"
"He's the Lizard King," Tommy stated boastfully. "He can do anything."
"Lizard King! Lizard King!" chanted the little kids, in unison.
"These kids are my friends," Morrison crooned, drunkenly. "Soon, we will go to your Star Base, and make even more friends. And the children shall groove. All those who dig our trip will be our friends. Those who do not will be destroyed. They got the guns, but we got the numbers. We want the world and we want it now!"
"We want the world and we want it now!"
"Look at him!" Kirk shouted. "Is he a kid like you? Look how drunk he is! He's not only a grown up, he's the worst kind of grown up. How long before he has a big beer gut? How long before he's floating face down in someone's bathtub?"
"That's a lie!" Tommy shouted. But Jim Morrison was starting to change. His belly was getting fat. His beard was getting longer and longer. And his voice sounded raspy and worn out.
"Kill the father," he moaned. "Fthe mother. Kill the father. Kill the father. F---the mother."
"That's what destroyed your parents!" Kirk cried, pointing the finger like a prosecuting attorney. The kids started to cry.
"Take it as it comes," Morrison shrugged. His face was bloated, pasty. He tried to unbutton his leather pants and expose himself, but his belly got in the way. He collapsed on the floor and writhed around like a Crawling King Snake. Then vanished into thin air.
"They're all crying now, Jim," Bones McCoy said quietly. "I guess you knew what you were doing all along. Now the healing can begin."
"Captain, I never will understand earth men," Spock said, a few days later. The ship had been cleaned up after Morrison threw up all over everything, and the children were undergoing intensive counseling combined with medication. "You knew all along that Morrison was the source of the children's bratty attitude, yet you insisted on beaming him aboard."
Kirk shrugged, back in his favorite chair on the bridge. "I always wanted to see the Doors do their thing live, Mr. Spock. Say what you want about Jim Morrison, he was a rock and roll legend. Four centuries haven't changed that."
Spock lifted a thoughtful Vulcan eyebrow. "Perhaps in the end, only the truly dark emotions make rock and roll possible. All the great rock legends seem to have been exceptionally bad men. Elvis, Morrison, Cobain, Chang-twang Lee . . . the only exception might be Bono. But on Vulcan, he's regarded as something of a pussy."
Dr. Leonard McCoy flared up at once. "Spock, you obviously have no appreciation for the achievements of Bono. Or Bruce Springsteen. Or James Taylor, or Elton John . . ."
"Warp Three, Mr. Sulu," Jim Kirk called out. "Rock and roll will never die!"
The Black Dahlia (2006)
Stupendously Awful -- And Very, Very Funny
I first read THE BLACK DAHLIA by James Ellroy when I was a Marine stationed in Hawaii in 1988. I was familiar with the case, but this was the first really dark crime novel I'd ever read. I was amazed not only by Ellroy's encyclopedic knowledge of LAPD procedures, ranks, and culture, but by the feverish intensity of his writing and his corrosive, cynical understanding of America itself.
Now, when LA CONFIDENTIAL came to the screen, I thought it would be horrible, but it was really very good. Not great, but very good. It was sanitized and an upbeat ending was tacked on, but the story still made sense and the performances were wonderful. And the dialog ("the evidence had his throat slit") was completely true to Ellroy's spirit.
THE BLACK DAHLIA was the stupendously awful film that I expected LA CONFIDENTIAL to be.
What really jumps out at you in this BLACK DAHLIA movie is the obvious discomfort of the actors. Josh Hartnett puts a hat on his head like he's never seen one before. Scarlett Johanson poses casually with a cigarette holder in her hand but looks as if she's awkward, embarrassed and ill at ease with every single facet of her character. And she's not acting!
Then there are the line readings -- the way each actor says the words. Scarlett is so wooden it's like she's never been in a movie before. Or like she doesn't speak English. "Here's to my super cops!" Said like a six year old girl when she's supposed to be cynical and sexy. Or how about "Back slaps and paperwork, I know those boys." Supposed to mean she knows how cops act, but sounds like she's mumbling an ancient spell in a language she doesn't know. The girl is both confused and comatose!
When Josh Hartnett was just a boy he played a teen psychopath in O, and he was brilliant. Here he's totally callow and silly as a tough boxer cop. Never once does he come off as tough, street smart, or obsessed. Oh, and speaking of obsessed. When Aaron Eckhart plays Lee Blanchard as a loudmouthed bully, he's pretty convincing. But when Big Lee becomes "obsessed" with the Dahlia it turns into a Saturday Night Live sketch. Not just a good one, either. A classic. "Bring me something about our girl!" The late, great John Belushi himself couldn't have made that line any funnier. Just check out the "intense" look on Aaron's face!
Oh, I do want to say that there are one or two good performances in this movie. Mia Kirshner in the flashback scenes really captures the sweetness and desperation of the real Betty Short. And Hillary Swank, somehow, someway, resurrects the true spirit of Ellroy's writing for her portrayal of Madeline. In a movie where everything else is all wrong, and laughably unconvincing, this Madeline is devastatingly authentic. Sultry, sensual, sophisticated, she steals every scene she's in, as alluring and authentic as her costars are wooden and false.
This movie is stupendously awful -- and very, very funny.
Do Not Miss Ilythia's Decadent Daydreams About Spartacus!
This is a very sexy, well-paced exciting episode that introduces several major new characters while catching us up with some old friends.
As Season Two begins, Glaber the sneering, sadistic Roman officer is still desperate to get his hands on Spartacus, the heroic gladiator who has escaped from slavery and is gathering an army of slaves to challenge Roman might. The problem is, Glaber is a coward, and a fool. Nobody really likes him, not even his beautiful wife Ilythia. Luscious blonde Ilythia is still stuck on Spartacus, and the scene where she finds herself daydreaming about him in her bathing pool is literally one of the hottest moments of the series!
A Field in England (2013)
It's Really An Allegory Of The English Civil War Itself
A FIELD IN ENGLAND is an incredibly brilliant and haunting film. While it may look like a psychedelic horror movie, like WITCH FINDER GENERAL, in reality it is a very straightforward film based very directly on the English Civil War itself.
O'Neill, the Irish alchemist who tries to enslave Whitehead and his friends, is clearly based on the English monarch Charles I. Like Charles, O'Neill is an arrogant man who claims not only total earthly power, but the right to pass judgment on men and to interfere with the cosmos itself. Just as Charles I saw himself as chosen by God (not the people) to rule as an absolute monarch, so O'Neill sees himself as a god on earth.
Whitehead, the timid religious scholar who attempts to bring O'Neill to justice, represents the Puritan conscience of England. His evolution in the film from a meek, submissive cowardly man to a military hero parallels the way the Puritans themselves evolved from a hunted, despised minority to a powerful army of spiritual and political authority, able to recreate England in their own image.
What the movie does is not just to imitate history but to reflect on its deeper meaning. Notice how the earthy, ignorant common soldiers switch their allegiance in the course of the nightmarish conflict in the field. At first they feel great contempt for Whitehead, the Puritan. They ridicule his "soft hands" and laugh when he is degraded and tortured and forced to run on a leash like a dog. In the same way, the English of Shakespeare's time (like Shakespeare himself) tended to regard the Puritans as a joke. But over time, as O'Neill proves more and more arrogant and unstable, the soldiers (like the English common people) begin to respond to Whitehead's efforts to awaken their sense of justice and their own moral dignity. By the end of the film, even the lowliest and most ignorant of the soldiers is willing to sacrifice his own life in Whitehead's cause, and Whitehead himself has changed from a pitiful outsider to the leader of the tiny band of "rebels." The fall of O'Neil parallels the fall of Charles I, just as the rise of Whitehead mirrors the success of the Puritan revolution.
End of the Century (2003)
Inspiring Look At The World's Most Primitive Rock and Roll Band
I was never much of a punk rock fan, even though I was a teenager in the Seventies. I was more into the nostalgic sounds of the Fifties and Sixties. The darkness and the violence of Punk sometimes scared me.
But somehow the Ramones were different. They were funny instead of threatening, even when they were singing about destroying their brains with glue and DDT. When I heard "I Wanna Be Sedated" for the first time it sounded just as innocent and exhilarating as "Summertime Blues" by Eddie Cochrane. And yet underneath was the same volatile mixture of boredom, frustration and rage.
When I saw this DVD at the library, I didn't expect much from it, just some good performance clips and songs. But I was amazed at how detailed and informative it was. The interviews -- especially with Johnny and Tommy Ramone -- were incredibly insightful. And the sections on Joey and Dee Dee were really poignant. In the end this band and the men behind the music were much more complicated than I realized.
And more inspiring!
South Park: Up the Down Steroid (2004)
Scorching Satire, Painful Truths -- Even More Powerful Today Than It Was Ten Years Ago!!!
When I heard about the shooting of beautiful South African supermodel Reeva Steenkamp by amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius, the first thing that went through my mind was "SOUTH PARK predicted this tragedy years ago."
Even though there's a great deal of humor in this episode -- watching wordless Timmy try to narc on Jimmy -- watching Eric Cartman con his mother about his need to learn compassion for the handicapped ("help me change. Please?") -- and best of all, watching Cartman prepare himself to go "undercover" as a mentally challenged kid by watching Kid Rock clown around in one of his lame rap videos -- the most unforgettable scene is where Jimmy, hopped up on steroids, flies into a psychotic rage and brutally beats his helpless girlfriend, to the accompaniment of tragic violins. SOUTH PARK made the moment melodramatic and funny, in a dark and twisted way, but today it seems only too perceptive and prophetic.
SOUTH PARK is a show that has truly proved to be ahead of its time.
Adorable Romantic Comedy With A Very English Feel!
This is such an adorable movie that it's hard to understand at first why it wasn't a huge hit. An underdog English tennis star (Paul Bettany) falls for a strong-willed rising woman's champ (Kirsten Dunst.) The funny thing is, I think cultural differences between England and America really stifled this movie's appeal. The hero is such a nice guy, but I think his willingness to be sort of pushed around and second best comes across as weakness to American audiences. Perhaps not so much in England where it's more acceptable to know one's place and settle for whatever society deems appropriate. And then there's the moment where he considers taking work as a country club tennis pro, and a little group of very attractive society ladies (of mature years) make it very clear they're looking forward to having him as a stud for hire. And the movie sort of bungles the moment, since what comes across is not how attractive he is but how he's too timid to say no to anyone!
At the same time, it's interesting that Kirsten Dunst plays a very strong-willed and determined young woman and that in itself seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable, perhaps more in England than America. And it's hard to tell whether it's modern women or Americans of both sexes who are being stereotyped as selfish and crude.
Then again, there are some minor touches that are slightly creepy. Sam Neill, dark and sinister and aging very badly, is quite off-putting as the American girl's manipulative "stage father." You keep getting the impression he doesn't know this is a comedy! Maybe they told him it was OMEN V: ANTICHRIST AT WIMBLEDON. Or maybe he's just royally ticked off that his face has dropped five inches in the last twenty years, giving him the look of a mountainside after a mud slide. Whatever the cause, Sam Neill is glowering and snarling in every . . . single . . . scene . . . and coming across more like late period Bela Lugosi than anyone you'd meet at Wimbledon . . . or anywhere else outside the crypt.
King Lear (2008)
Ian McKellen's Hard Hitting Tolstoyan Lear Features A Sizzling Young Cast!
This is the best televised KING LEAR I've seen since Laurence Olivier's spectacular all-star version in the mid-Eighties.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Ian McKellen shines as King Lear, both tearful and noble, and Romola Garai is radiant and tender as Cordelia. Frances Barber and Monica Dolan are both deliciously desirable and genuinely menacing as the scheming sisters, Regan and Goneril. Sylvester McCoy is a touching and witty fool, and Philip Winchester is a dangerously seductive Edmund.
Another reviewer raised an interesting question: in what era does this KING LEAR take place? Laurence Olivier's classic version was set in ancient England, with Stonehenge like backdrops and characters resplendent in heavy Celtic ornaments of gold and silver.
This story, however, is clearly meant to be set in Czarist Russia. Lear's hundred knights are re-imagined as singing, dancing, somersaulting Cossacks. His daughters wear delectable ball gowns. And Lear himself is clearly patterned on real-life Russian author Leo Tolstoy. The intriguing question is why Trevor Nunn went this route.
The answer lies in a classic literary essay, "Lear, Tolstoy and The Fool" by George Orwell. Orwell recounts how, in his last years, the one-time womanizer and literary lion Tolstoy became savagely puritanical, renouncing not only sex and alcohol but the literary classics of his youth. He even wrote a religious pamphlet denouncing Shakespeare as a depraved and immoral writer of the decadent past! Orwell does not mock Tolstoy for his opinions, but he does engage in some fascinating speculation about Tolstoy's hatred of Shakespeare. He points out that the last years of Tolstoy's life actually parallel the story of King Lear in uncanny detail. Just like Lear, Tolstoy attempted to renounce his privileges and power as a member of the Russian nobility. His children turned against him when he attempted to give away the family fortune to the poor. He fled from his own lands and died in poverty, accompanied by one faithful daughter.
All this makes for fascinating viewing, but in the final analysis it's the acting and directing that make this production a classic. The intimate use of the camera allows the viewer to go in depth with characters who are usually played as one dimensional monsters. Watch the way Monica Dolan's Regan reaches for her wine cup whenever she's challenged or threatened. Watch how Goneril's henchman Oswald turns his back when Goneril is making out with handsome Edmund. Notice how the King of France is exasperated when Cordelia looks to Burgundy instead of him after Lear denounces her as an outcast. All of these characters grow in this sensitive film presentation of Shakespeare's greatest play.