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As The Final Season Picks Up Steam, The Romans Steal The Show!
SPARTACUS is a great show, and I am proud to say I own all four epic seasons on DVD. Yet the final season never quite caught fire the way I would have hoped.
There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is that everyone knows that the story will not end well for our heroes. But the other problem is that we already know Spartacus, Crixus, Gannicus and their friends. There's not that much more to tell us.
So the show writers have to introduce a flock of new characters, and they're all Romans, and frankly they steal the show. Todd Lasance as the young Julius Caesar, and Anna Hutchison as the Roman lady Laeta, really steal every scene they're in.
This episode is a case in point. While Caesar looks incredibly cool in every scene, punching his way into the slave city, almost winning a fake sword fight with Gannicus, easily tricking dim-witted Nemetes into letting him in on things, the old reliable gladiators just look dumb and silly. Spartacus does his usual boy-scout thing ("don't kill the Romans! They're just confused!") Crixus lets Naevia walk all over him, again, and Gannicus just wants to get wasted. Caesar is so fearless and resourceful you actually start wanting him to win, which kind of defeats the purpose of the whole show.
Meanwhile, Anna Hutchison as Laeta is so mind-meltingly beautiful and desirable that you can't believe Spartacus doesn't marry her at once. Though she looks quite vulnerable, with her impossibly luscious figure, round, sensual features and masses of auburn hair, she's actually quite strong-willed, willing to risk death, rape, or torture at any time just to protect the helpless Romans now in Spartacus' hands. It doesn't help matters that the other women in this episode (especially Naevia) are getting to be more and more shrill, annoying and bloodthirsty . . . like men, only meaner. Laeta ends up looking a lot more noble and a lot more lovable than the "noble" slaves she's trying to escape from.
None of this is to say that this is a bad season, or that "Decimation" is a bad episode. Just that the Romans really steal the show!
South Park: Towelie (2001)
The Golden Age of South Park
I think of the first three seasons of SOUTH PARK as the "early years." This is when many of the episodes relied on either crude parodies of classic Star Trek or other TV favorites, ("Roger Ebert Should Lay Off The Fatty Foods") or on over-the-top ridicule of real-world celebrities (The Boys vs. "Mecha-Streisand.")The fourth season was a transitional stage with some great original episodes ("Tooth Fairy 2000") and a last magnificent STAR TREK parody episode ("Wacky Molestation Adventure.")
To me, Season Five is the beginning of the Golden Age. "Towelie" is an episode that is more original than anything they'd done before. Not only do they introduce an all-new character, (a talking towel who likes to get high and warn kids about towel safety) but the episode itself is a classic parody not of any one show but of the whole sci-fi genre.
When Towelie goes missing from a top secret government installation, the boys end up having to rescue him in order to reclaim their Okama Gamesphere. The pace of the episode is incredibly fast, like a real science-fiction thriller. This in spite of the fact that all of the humor revolves around the fact that the boys really don't care what the government is up to! Indeed, Stan's jaded demeanor and his chanting of the words, "don't care, don't care, don't care" become a rallying cry of defiance. From here on in, the boys of SOUTH PARK are in open rebellion against all political correctness and all moralizing from the government, the entertainment world, and the far-out fringes of the Left and Right. The very plotting of the episode reinforces this as the government and Tyna Corp. are revealed to be equally inept, manipulative and deceitful.
While Towelie himself cheerfully admits that he is "the worst character ever" the plotting of the show has never been sharper. The suspense never flags, the boys are always in action, and there's a new sense of teamwork and cooperation between them. Watch them work together to drive a truck ("Break angrily, Kenny!") and you see they've gone beyond the old schoolyard name-calling. Watch Kenny and Stan brainstorm ("Towelie always appeared when we said something about water") and you see the Kirk-Spock chemistry is in full force, while Cartman's down-home "Towel Call" is an unexpected tribute to his redneck roots. Like the Beatles, these four boys started as four strong-willed individuals and they merge before our eyes into one unstoppable force! With all that going on, there's still room for plenty of one-shot humor in this episode, from Mr. Garrison's magnificent statement of gay pride in the showers ("Go on, have your way with me! Fulfill your sick pleasures!") to Kyle's restatement of team loyalty. ("Stan has . . . uh, date-rape psychosis . . . and I've got to be here for him!")
"Towelie" is a Season Five classic, and Season Five itself is the beginning of the Golden Age of South Park.
Stalingrad Has My Vote As Action Epic And Human Drama!
I don't often review a film in a defensive manner, but in this case I was truly shocked by how negative the reviews have been.
STALINGRAD is not an epic history of the battle itself. The actual battle took over six months and involved over a million men. Did anyone really expect to see every single soldier engaged rush past the camera? STALINGRAD is not Russian, let alone Communist propaganda. It's a story of human survival and human values such as loyalty, compassion and love. If anything, the movie is overly cautious in that not one Red Army soldier ever refers to commissars, or the Party Line, let alone the danger of being liquidated by the NKVD. But that's part of the point. There are no idealists and no dissidents either. Only men and women fighting to stay alive.
The fight for a single house symbolizes the epic battle of Stalingrad. There is no reason to reject this strategy. Anyone who's watched the movie GETTYSBURG (surely the American equivalent of Stalingrad on many levels) will notice that at least half the film's running time is devoted to the valor of a single Union Army Regiment (the 20th Maine) defending a single small hill (Little Round Top.) This movie presents a similar struggle, except a single house is the Red Army's Little Round Top. And the brave, tender, loving woman who lives there is the flesh and blood symbol of all they hope to preserve.
STALINGRAD is not only a great war movie, with explosive combat scenes and hand to hand combat, but a very intimate movie too. The fact that a narrator is used to provide back story for the five Red Army soldiers (and their adored Katya) in no way lessens the dramatic impact of their sacrifice. This is a unique look at war because here there is no separation from the Home Front and the Front Lines. The idolized "girl next door" in most war movies is literally next door, and her survival is more vital to these fighting men than their own.
Does STALINGRAD have flaws? Perhaps a few minor ones. Thomas Kretschmann is an extraordinary actor, but his character, Captain Kahn, is the "doomed yet defiantly chivalrous German officer" we've all admired ever since Marlon Brando in THE YOUNG LIONS. His love affair with the submissive, lush-lipped traitor Masha is scorching hot at first, particularly one indelible image when he returns to her after a firefight and literally tears the clothes from her all-too-willing body. Yet by the end his heroics have become unintentionally funny, as he commandeers a go-cart and zooms through the crowds like Bart Simpson on a rampage, seeking his golden-haired Slavic siren. When the stern Colonel reprimands him, you almost expect Kahn to chirp, "Don't have a cow, man!" But again, the point here is not to glorify war, or even Russian fortitude. It's to glorify the common humanity of Germans and Russians alike. STALINGRAD is a fine film and time will confirm my judgment!
Slow Episode By Sopranos Standards -- But Check Out Young Nick Tarabay as Matush!
I love THE SOPRANOS and I think Seasons 3/4 are the culmination of what made the show great. But this episode is nothing but filler, as the series gears up for the final episodes.
Tony is crazy about Gloria, and he takes her to the zoo. They have some really hot sex but it's more soft core porn than anything SOPRANOS oriented.
AJ and his spoiled, bratty school friends trash the swimming pool at night. The fact is, AJ is THE most underwritten character, all of his behavior is always unmotivated and random. One minute he's doing "great" on the freshman football squad, and the next he's ruining the school pool? Why?
In a slightly better story line, Jackie Jr. is pathetically trying to become a mobster and romancing Tony's daughter Meadow at the same time. The one unexpected benefit of this story line (at least in this episode) is a surprise cameo by Nick Tarabay (Asher of SPARTACUS fame) as the hapless drug dealer Matush. Looking back, you can really see the eye the SOPRANOS casting people had for sensational talent!
Now if only Asher the Syrian could have become a SOPRANOS regular . . .
Friday Night Lights (2004)
Best Football Movie Ever Made -- Two Hours of Pure Adrenaline!
I was so impressed by the intensity and passion of LONE SURVIVOR that I immediately went out of my way to find a copy of Peter Berg's earlier film, Friday NIGHT LIGHTS. Naturally I expected a good film, but I was figuring basically this would just be another REMEMBER THE TITANS -- a family-friendly film about young men learning sportsmanship and life lessons while playing a rough but basically harmless game.
I was totally wrong about what I saw. It turned out to be intense, gut-wrenching adult drama, with darkness and small-town cruelty and despair so intense that it rivaled THE LAST PICTURE SHOW or even a surrealistic nightmare picture like BLUE VELVET.
Most good movies, even classics like LONE SURVIVOR, tend to start slow and spend fifteen or twenty minutes introducing the characters before the action begins. The thing that makes Friday NIGHT LIGHTS so exhilarating and terrifying is that you plunge right into the season along with the athletes. There's no time to figure out who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, what dangers are lurking up ahead. The pace never flags, and you feel blindsided every time something horrible or freakish happens to one of these young men, on or off the field. There are none of the scenes movies usually use to "explain" the coach or the adults in town. You just have to figure it out as you go along.
The football in this movie is more powerful and realistic than I have ever seen in any other film. There's no way to predict who the heroes will be, or which player will suddenly find himself thrust into the limelight. And the same with devastating injuries, failures, and humiliation. There simply is no let up, all season long. Moreover, not one of the young actors seems to be "acting." They all behave as if they're here to play football, not to emote for the camera.
Now, I give this movie ten stars. Peter Berg is a genius at the mechanics of film making and then some. But I was aware of some disturbing elements or at least some themes that might be misinterpreted. Other critics mention the large number of sports clichés, but for me the issue was a matter of persistent (if possibly unconscious) stereotyping of the black and white athletes. With some notable and important exceptions, the following trends seemed to prevail: Black athletes are stereotyped as having incredible physical speed and strength, yet they tend to be self-centered childish, boastful, and unable to grasp concepts like self-discipline and hard work. They don't study the game, don't work at learning, and don't practice to improve. When they meet setbacks, they collapse.
White athletes are stereotyped as being smaller and slower, yet gifted with phenomenal strength of character and humility. They never give in no matter how many hits they take, on or off the field. They play on pure heart, and as a matter of principle are always willing to push themselves that much harder precisely because they lack the massive strength and speed of the "other" guys.
You'll also notice that the white athletes are always being portrayed as fighting for some noble, abstract goal -- respect from the town, love from a distant father, recognition for moral worth. The black athletes just seem to run and jump for the fun of it, or because they're just born that way, or because having money and being famous is all they know of being valued or important.
I don't believe for one moment that any of this was intentional, but there is a sense that these attitudes were present if not prevalent in the minds of the filmmakers as they made Friday NIGHT LIGHTS. Ultimately, however, in the final game, the true message comes across, and it is one of brotherhood and moral growth shared by all.
American Sniper (2014)
The Flaws Are In Clint's Vision, Not Chris Kyle's Life
Most of the positive reviews of this film boil down to "I love America . . . so I love this movie!" Most of the negative ones come down to "America is evil and stupid. Just like this movie!" As a Desert Storm era Marine veteran who considers himself a liberal, I would like to evaluate this movie in a different way, comparing its strengths and weaknesses to a very similar picture, LONE SURVIVOR, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg.
SNIPER is an effective war movie. It has panoramic scope, epic action sequences, moments of true tension and white-knuckle suspense, and it successfully packs Chris Kyle's four tours in Iraq into one coherent and compelling narrative.
The problem is, SNIPER is a Clint Eastwood movie, and the depiction of Chris Kyle is limited by Clint's narrow world view. For Clint Eastwood, being a hero (in fact simply being a man,) is always a matter of going it alone. Every movie he makes is a restatement of this theme, and SNIPER is basically HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER goes to Iraq. There's a town full of no-goods, and a lone stranger rides in to deal with them. Then he leaves. That's not all there is to the movie, of course, but that's the only part Clint Eastwood really likes or understands. Whenever Chris Kyle is bonding with his buddies, or trying to deal with his wife and children, the movie goes flat. Not because the real Chris Kyle didn't care about those things, but because Clint Eastwood doesn't.
The vision of lone-wolf courage in SNIPER is very different from the vision of brotherhood and sacrifice in LONE SURVIVOR. Clint Eastwood celebrates "aggression," as if that's all courage comes down to. But you don't have to be a liberal to see how shallow that is. After all, Sonny Corleone in THE GODFATHER had plenty of aggression.
The Navy SEALS in LONE SURVIVOR have aggression, but they also have discipline and teamwork. And they have each other. Clint Eastwood totally does not get that. The sidekicks he gives Chris Kyle are mere cardboard cutouts. (Like his wife and their rubber baby.) They're only there for Chris Kyle to save. But the SEALS in LONE SURVIOVR are true equals, a band of brothers. When they're joking around they come across more like the Beatles in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT than like lone wolves filled with aggression. What they are called upon to endure is truly the ultimate "hard day's night." The story's tragedy is that they can't save each other from death. But the everlasting triumph of the story is that they do something more important. They save each other from making the wrong choices, from being dehumanized by war.
When you watch LONE SURVIVOR, the enduring image of courage is Lieutenant Mike Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch) climbing to the top of the hill to call for help for his wounded men. He's willing to die because he loves them more than himself. Notice that he's not fighting at this moment. He's not even armed. He's making a sacrifice. That's what courage is, not "aggression." You don't need weapons to be a hero. All you need is love.
Again, let me be clear. I know that the real Chris Kyle would understand this, and would have behaved the same under the same circumstances. But that's not the story Clint Eastwood wants to tell. He doesn't want a band of brothers, a team of men who laugh and cry and are ready to die *for each other*. He wants Dirty Harry. He wants a lone wolf who feels nothing but contempt for the "sheep" he protects.
There were some liberals who chose to hate on LONE SURVIVOR, but on the whole I think it was a movie that was easier for us to respect and understand. Because the themes of love and brotherhood and sacrifice far outweigh the killing. American SNIPER paints the opposite picture. For Clint the guns and the violence are glorious in themselves. And he doesn't see how self-destructive that really is, not even when Chris Kyle is going to the gun range for the final time.
Clint Eastwood thinks he's glorifying Chris Kyle by making guns the center of his life. He doesn't understand that he's actually oversimplifying the character, and retelling a story the Beatles already told. It's not a story of brotherhood, like LONE SURVIVOR or A HARD DAY'S NIGHT. It's the story of Rocky Raccoon!
Planet of the Apes: The Legacy (1974)
The Destruction of Our World Is Imminent!
I really loved this show as an 11 year old boy back in 1974. So when I bought the whole series on DVD for less than $20 I was really happy!
Well, memories are funny things. I remembered this episode mostly for the high spots, the eerie recording of the long-dead scientist ("the destruction of our world is imminent") and the thoughtful dialog between Dr. Zaius and General Urko about the dangers of human knowledge at the end of the episode. ("Burn it all!") What I didn't remember is that most of the episode actually turns on the big blonde astronaut's maudlin attack of homesickness and his highly questionable attempt to "adopt" a human family starving in the rubble.
Note to blonde astronaut: rat-faced lying little boys who snitch are poor candidates for adoption. You can bribe them with food, or you can bribe them with hand-made model airplanes, but the minute your back is turned they rat you out all over again!
Loved the father-son moments, too.
"Families love each other! Families respect each other!"
Uh, sure. But more to the point might have been something like, "Families never rat on each other, no matter what. You know what rats get, don't you Zaik? This is what rats get!"
An episode like this really makes you wish the swinging bachelor astronaut had taken his buddy aside and told him, "Alan, the kid looks like a rat. I mean, just look at that skinny face, and those beady little eyes. We're talking major rat action here. The blonde on the other hand . . . maybe she'd like to be the meat in an astronaut sandwich!"
I Loved Almost Every Minute of SELMA, But . . .
I loved so many things about SELMA. I loved the gentleness and patience of Martin Luther King Jr. I loved the youthful energy and optimism of the amazing volunteers such as John Lewis. I loved the glamorous tributes to real life heroes from the entertainment world who made a difference, such a Harry Belafonte. (Best musical moment: The whole cast singing "Daylight come and we want to go home.") I loved the inspiring images of Americans both black and white gathering together at the bridge in the name of freedom. I even loved the way English actor Tim Roth (a hero of mine since RESERVOIR DOGS) played racist Alabama governor George Wallace as the ultimate Snidely Whiplash villain, relishing his extravagantly exaggerated Southern accent and his genuinely chilling lack of human feeling in every scene.
I loved all of it, but . . .
I wish that someday we could have a movie that goes beyond the early, innocent days of the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King to the end of his life was haunted by the way non-violence failed as a strategy in big northern cities like Chicago and Boston. Why did the movement fall apart? What went wrong in the cities? Why did white immigrants in the north (Poles, Italians, the Irish) resist integration with even more savage fury than poor whites in the south? Why did young blacks turn to violence instead of peaceful protest? Oh, let's not think about that . . . let's make another movie about Birmingham and Selma! I understand that Dr. King's adultery was shameful and inexcusable, but I wish that the outraged-wife scene (complete with Coretta's stony silence and lavishly recorded male moans) could have been less prim and judgmental. The movie gives too much weight to King's extra-marital affairs, in a way calculated to gratify the female audience. When a protester being beaten to death gets six seconds of screen time, while the wronged wife gets ten minutes to sulk and pout, it's hard not to feel that someone's been watching to much OPRAH.
Who produced this movie, anyway? Oh, wait. Oprah!
Lone Survivor (2013)
Modest Yet Unbending, Epic Yet Tragic, Authentic Yet Larger Than Life
When young Shane Patton (Alexander Ludwig) is being initiated as a SEAL, he has to recite a long monologue full of bluster and doggerel basically saying he is the ultimate fighting man. Instead of shouting the speech, however, he recites the lines thoughtfully, as if he's examining his own conscience as much as trying to find a place in the pecking order.
Bear in mind that this is a minor character, and that most of this speech is background for basic visuals of the heroes preparing for combat. But the tone is set for a modern American epic that is as timeless as the Iliad and as relevant as today's headlines, a motion picture that is extraordinary, complex, and moving.
I've been a fan of Mark Wahlberg ever since THE BASKETBALL DIARIES. There's no one else as authentic or intense as he is. Whether he's playing the very worst of human beings (a teenage junkie killer) or the very best of American heroes (Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell) he is always uncompromising and gives one hundred percent as an actor. Which is not to say that he can't be funny, playful, or charming, sometimes most unexpectedly so. But he is always authentic in every role he plays.
This movie explores a classic military scenario, as old as Thermopylae or the Alamo. What happens when the greatest and most professional warriors of their age are hopelessly outnumbered and face certain death? This is not when they fade away. This is when they become who they are.
It's impossible to say too much in praise of Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Mark Wahlberg, not to mention newcomers like Alexander Ludwig and the ever-reliable Eric Bana. Not one of them fails the task. They became the heroes they portrayed in this movie. What makes the movie shocking is not how real the violence is, but how real the bond between these men is even in the most casual and amusing moments, and how they remain loyal comrades even when death is only moments away. Every single performance is powerful and authentic, and the effect is not merely inspiring or patriotic but poignant and meaningful.
Top Five (2014)
Chris Rock Is Not Even Trying!
This movie is like watching your favorite team lose the World Series and then finding out that they were paid by gamblers to lose on purpose! Chris Rock has been my hero ever since I saw him in the 1991 drug movie NEW JACK CITY. He was hardly more than a teenager at the time, with no acting training at all, and he played the most devastatingly real crack addict ever put on film. He did more acting in that one role, in that one film, than his "Breakfast Club" costar Judd Nelson did in his whole shabby career.
But of course, there are reasons why Chris Rock could never have the mainstream appeal that a scintillating talent like Judd Nelson had.
Now I had heard that this movie was Chris Rock's masterpiece. I heard it was incisive, outspoken, that he revealed all the entertainment industry's buried secrets and its shameful double standards.
Actually, no. In this movie, Chris Rock is not even trying. He walks around Manhattan with a pretty girl on his arm, making vaguely amusing remarks on random unimportant topics. And I kept watching and thinking, is this it? Is this all? "Did you know that Charlie Chaplin was a genius?" Yes, thank you. I already knew that.
Say it ain't so, Chris. Say it ain't so!