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Boring, Incoherent, Faux Noize Sucking Reagan/Bush Nazi Propaganda - With One Intriguing Twist
Though I have no sympathy at all for the American Right Wing and their "Red Scare" BS that ruined countless people's lives during the Cold War, that's far from the worst thing about Donald Wrye's Stultifying Mash Note to Ronald Reagan's insane saber-rattling, AMERIKA. I'm perverse enough to recognize that a good adventure yarn is inherently Fascistic, and if I like watching heroes being heroic and saving the day, I'm going to have to accept some politics I don't approve of in the cold light of Progressive Reason. That's how, despite being to the Left of just about every "consumer reviewer" here, I can admit one of my favorite movies is John Milius's RED DAWN - a much better thought-out and enjoyable "Them Russkies Done Took Over America!" film, that feels genuinely epic in scope, earns its heroics and has a strong awareness of what it's asking its audience to accept in the name of "freedom".
AMERIKA is as incomprehensible as it is virulent (how would separating the USofA into separate countries "destroy America" as the conquering Soviets claim, again?), meandering as it is hateful (I vaguely remember US Rebels attacking a Soviet stronghold about twelve hours in, but that's about as action-packed as it got) - but has one redeeming feature in Sam Neill's slyly subversive performance as Col. Denisov, Soviet administrator for the American Central Administrative Area. Despite his Ensign Chekov-level Russian accent, Neill makes Denisov an oddly sympathetic character, who seems to encourage dissidence even as he publicly attempts to quell it. Had the show become a television series, I could see it developing his character more - nobody else was worth the time or trouble.
In the end, the original V was more believable - and that had lizard-faced aliens in human masks eating raw gerbils!
A Show I Want To Love - But Hutton's Acting All Over the Place Gets in My Way!
This is a show that I should, by rights, love - it's got a talented cast, witty capers, and above-average production values thanks partially to Executive Producer Dean Devlin (STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY). Gina Bellman as scam artist extraordinaire and inept stage/film actress Sophie Devereaux, Aldis Hodge as offbeat superhacker Alec Hardison, Christian Kane as hunky Hard Man Eliot Spencer and Beth Riesgarf as borderline-feral burglar Parker all splendidly inhabit their gimmicky roles and make them work as actual living, breathing people you're happy to spend an hour each week with.
Unfortunately, it *also* has that Frothy Comedy-Drama Kryptonite known as "The Oscar-Winning Lead Actor Who NEVER Lets You Forget It" in Timothy Hutton. Yes, he can *certainly* act - he proves it to you every chance he gets, and the movie or series he's in ends up getting thrown seriously off-kilter by all the opportunities the Producers or Director give him to remind us What a Great Academy-Award Winning Actor He Is. Here he's not *just* a crack ex-insurance investigator turned heroic criminal mastermind - oh, no, THAT wouldn't give him enough to do! He's *also* lost his son to his heartless former insurance company employers, shares a strong attraction with Sophie which neither of them have acted on past a kiss or two, is divorced though his ex-wife still loves him enough to be jealous of his never-consummated relationship with Sophie, has a highly-ambivalent relationship with his small-time Irish gangster father, and often gets to (over)play some highly showy character or another in their Scam O' the Week. Oh, and did I mention he's a drunk who has climbed on and fallen off the wagon more times than NYPD BLUE's Andy Sipowicz...?
The saddest part is, Hutton himself seems to recognize his acting issues at some level, and sometimes he can get past all the Chances to Act he gets and simply inhabit a character brilliantly. His Archie Goodwin in the NERO WOLFE pilot "The Golden Spiders" and in the two-part episode "Death of a Doxy" were as spot-on a portrayal of Rex Stout's affably wiseacre private eye as I've ever seen (which is what makes his overly manic, mannered Archie in most of the rest of the series *so* frustrating!). Here, his Nate Ford will occasionally simply switch off all the Grief and the Yearning and the Drinking and the Schticking and just be a *very* smart modern Robin Hood, leading his criminal Merry Men & Women to do slightly bad things for really good reasons - and having a blast doing it.
THAT is the show I hoped I'd get - and want to see more of. Hutton needs to pack away his Inner Oscar for keeps - because until he does he's a drag on every show and movie he's involved in.
Beautifully Shot But Unrealistic and Dull Account of The Man Who Would Be Genghis Khan
First off: MONGOL is not a horrible movie. It's beautifully shot, taking advantage of stunning natural locations in Mongolia and Kazakhstan (no jokes, BORAT fans!), and the action scenes when they finally arrive are exciting, if not especially believable.
However, for all the concentration of "realism" in the form of mud and blood, and the Russian filmmakers' desire to present Temudjin as a Great Man rather than the Monster of legend, this film falters in showing us *how* the son of a murdered Mongol Chieftain, a charity case if not a slave for most of his childhood and early adulthood, rose to become one of the most feared warlords in history. It seems for most of the movie that all young Temudjin does is run away from danger, get captured, get enslaved, and somehow miraculously escape - even his much- vaunted "strategy" isn't enough to ensure victory against his foes, so he either fails or relies on divine intervention to win. Most of what he *need* to see, how The Man Who Would Be Genghis Khan actually secures the loyalty of and instills military discipline into a fractious bunch of courageous but individualistic warriors, takes place between fade-outs and thus strains credulity.
From the evidence presented here, we might well assume he became Genghis Khan simply because he's such a Liberal Nice Guy. He's willing to share the wealth with his men, he adores his wife Borte despite the fact that she's either an enemy slave-wife or trader's concubine most of the time, he's firm but fair-minded in all his dealings and in his desire to bring the blessings of Law and Order to the rapacious, disorderly Mongol hordes. Honestly, I'm surprised the movie didn't end with him accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.
In place of army-building and planning strategy so it makes sense to the viewer (or his own men, for that matter), we're given a few scenes of Temudjin climbing some holy mountain or another to commune with the Mongol Sky-God Tengri's wolf avatar. It's there that he is freed from his yoke for the first of *three* times (another thing we're not actually shown happening!), and later comes to the realization that "Mongols Need Laws - They Will Be Simple Laws"...so I guess Alternate-Side-of-the-Street Parking Regulations are right out! (Yep, the movie's so dull that you end up making lame jokes like that to keep yourself awake.)
When we're finally shown the fruits of his strategic thinking, it's "Hollywood Strategy" - it *looks* "cool" on film, but is in fact the military equivalent of a Hail Mary Play. It's armored men charging into the enemy line with swords extended outward in either direction like Boadicea Spikes, or archers rising up in front of the enemy to loose a single arrow before being overrun - both excellent ways to get your elite troops killed off in a hurry! In the end, it's a thunderstorm that all Mongols cower in fear before but Temudjin proudly rides into that heartens his troops and breaks the enemy's will - not that we're ever shown that possibility as entering into his calculations, so we're just to accept it as A Sign of Divine Favor from Tengri, I guess?
For all its critical acclaim, in the end MONGOL is no more realistic than the laughable John Wayne as Genghis Khan movie THE CONQUEROR (which covers a similar period in Temudjin's life) - and at least The Duke as "Tem-U-Gen, Con-KRER!" is good for a few horse laughs....
Better Than Most Episodes of the Series - But the Lack of a Budget REALLY Shows
I've complained in the past that Hutton's Archie is often too broad and actorish (a problem Hutton often has), and that Chaykin's Wolfe is more peevish than princely (yes, Nero Wolfe can be peevish and petty - but he is also deeply principled and courageous in his own fashion, and courtly in many ways). In this two-parter, the leads get it right - maybe it's the stakes in the story, maybe it's that Director Timothy Hutton kept a tight leash on both himself and Maury Chaykin, but neither has been this good since THE GOLDEN SPIDERS.
If only the rest of the two-parter were up to their level, rather than rejoicing in a budget so low that Ed Wood would turn his nose up at it:
- An abandoned warehouse is obviously used for a number of sets, including the prison where Orrie is kept, the 10 Little Indians Nightclub, and even Avery Ballou's mansion! There is so little attempt at redressing this particular location that Archie is led by the Ballou's butler through an obvious loading bay to see Mrs. Ballou at one point.
- Though the book includes several scenes set in Wolfe's plant rooms, all we see is one scene in a tiny bedroom-style set with a table and stool where Wolfe is potting a plant as Archie talks to him. No attempt was made to recreate the splendor of Wolfe's orchid collection, or even to try faking it by shooting in a botanical garden.
- The same actress, Kari Matchett, plays both Archie's girlfriend Lily Rowan (in a Sixties-style red wig) and nightclub singer Julie Jaquette (with her own blonde hair), thus stretching the show's "rep company" conceit to absurd lengths. Not that Ms. Matchett isn't a good actress (she played Hutton's ex-wife on LEVERAGE, and is currently Piper Pierabo's CIA superior on COVERT AFFAIRS), but the characters are too much alike to be convincingly played by the same person under any circumstances.
Sometimes, you see a group of good actors doing something you love, and you think you would love the show if they did it reading scripts while sitting around a table. And you probably would - but you wouldn't enjoy watching them do it while struggling, and failing, to recreate Kennedy- Era New York City on a nonexistent budget in Toronto.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2000)
As a Fan of the Novels, I Wish I Liked This Show More
Based on Bill Duke's direction of the pilot THE GOLDEN SPIDERS, I had very high hopes for this series. Oscar winner Timothy Hutton promised to be a superb Archie Goodwin, and while Maury Chaykin's Nero Wolfe tended towards peevish rather than lordly the period detail and fidelity to Stout's novels more than made up for that. Then - the show went to series...and was a profound disappointment.
Hutton's Archie, so pitch-perfect in the pilot, became a broad cartoon when the show went to series - as did so much else. Maybe it was the tighter budget for the series, but Fifties New York seemed to shrink to a handful of tightly-photographed exteriors and a number of repeated interiors, the direction and music seemed to discourage any form of real stakes in the murder mysteries, and while the Repertory company casting may have been a great idea on paper it played Hell with suspension of disbelief. Chaykin's Wolfe never really grew on me as he continued to lack the *gravitas* and sense of both justice and manners the character needed to become more than a spoiled overweight misanthropic agoraphobe - though to be fair, nobody's really gotten Nero Wolfe right yet (Thayer David in the Seventies THE DOORBELL RANG came closest).
I keep hoping somebody will do Wolfe and Archie right - while this started out close to it, it ended up making a hash of the stories I've loved pretty much my whole life.
Love Story 2050 (2008)
Maybe It's B/c I'm an American, But I Enjoyed This Movie Quite a Bit
Personally, as an American with limited exposure to Bollywood I liked LOVE STORY 2050. I thought Harman Baweja and Priyanka Chopra were appealing leads, who acquitted themselves very well as a couple who had fallen so deeply in love they would battle time and space to be together. I also enjoyed the crazy genius scientist uncle, who seemed to be auditioning to be the next Doctor Who - his lab even resembled some of those rooms in the TARDIS you never get to see! Unusually, the two cute kids not only didn't send me into insulin shock, their presence actually gave the hero's pursuit of his possibly-reincarnated love added poignancy.
Sure it was *way* overlong, some story elements made no sense to me, and it was packed full of distracting sub-plots - but so has *every* Bollywood movie I've seen so far. I see there's a lot of negative reviews here from Indian film fans and people with more experience of and discerning taste in Indian cinema than I have - so maybe it's that everything "Bollywood" is so exotic to me that I find even weak examples exciting, in much the same way that casual viewers of American action movies wouldn't recognize that anything starring Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris were steaming piles of Right-Wing racist BS.
The special effects were surprisingly well-done, and I'm guessing much more expensive than is usual for Bollywood - even if the view of the year 2050 is laughably clichéd. Baweja's dancing skills aren't as good as I'm used to seeing in similar films, and his moves suggest a martial artist rather than a dancer. Sure, I could have done w/out the two "cute robots", or the dropped subplot of Karan's distant corporate boss father - I had kind of hoped the film would expand on that, actually, and suggest that Karan's initially reckless behavior was his way of coping with grief over his mother's death, while remaining aloof and focused on work was his father's.
Oh, and WTF was the villainous Dr. Hoshi there, other than to add some action scenes - and who *was* he, anyway? An alternate embittered version of Karan who never persuaded his uncle to go into the future, given over to the Dark Side? Karan's otherwise-absent father - which, since he sort of resembled a Darth Vader knockoff, might have actually been funny? The hate-filled ghost of Sana, who never forgave Karan for not going back in time and stopping her death? Or is he just another of those random-to-outsiders Bollywood story elements that make sense to regular viewers?
Anyway, I and my friends and family, none of us serious scholars of Bollywood or even long-time fans, liked this movie a lot. If you're like us, you might too.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Best Clancy Adaptation to Date
THE HUNT FOR RED October is a near-perfect old-fashioned adventure movie, with a complex multilingual plot handled with precision and crispness by a talented cast firing on all cylinders. That's not a big surprise coming from consistently-great actors like Sean Connery (who totally inhabits a Russian submarine captain, despite his pronounced Scots accent!), Alec Baldwin (filling in the blanks to Clancy's Jack Ryan, making him a believably modest Everyman engaging in extremely heroic acts) and Jeffrey Jones (turning a handful of exposition-heavy scenes into a fully lived-in character) - but when the normally wooden Scott Glenn gives a career-best performance as Captain Mancuso and Fred Dalton Thompson outshines his entire Presidential run in two scenes, you've got great entertainment.
I own it, my wife and I take it out and watch it a couple times a year - it's that good. This is the best Clancy adaptation so far - the only one that comes close, IMO, is Ben Affleck's young Jack Ryan in SUM OF ALL FEARS, which bears scant resemblance to Clancy's novel. Skip the Harrison Ford Ryans - he plays the character as tired, surly and plainly wishing he were someplace else.
Smart, if a Bit Flawed, Low-Budget Alternate History Satire
There's a lot of hate for this movie in some quarters - especially among the same people who, I suspect, think it's "HI-larious!" to show President Obama grinning in a watermelon patch or being in somebody's gunsights. It's admittedly difficult to watch, but both my wife and I considered it an ultimately rewarding, if painful, experience - and a strong reminder that no matter how bad things were following the Civil War, a Confederate victory would have made matters much, MUCH worse. It is a brilliant satire, a very good if flawed alternate history, and a disturbing reminder of just how close to the surface bigotry still lies in the US - especially given the blatantly racist tone of most Right-Wing antipathy for our country's first Black President!
CSA pretends to be a British television documentary on what happened during the Civil War when the Confederacy, gaining British and French aid, not only succeeded in capturing Washington, DC in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, but went on to conquer the entire United States. It takes us through a Ken Burns style history from that point on, showing a racist, Christianist and imperialist CSA extending slavery nationwide, enslaving Orientals in the Southwest, conquering all of Latin America and the Caribbean, making common cause with Hitler, attacking and ultimately conquering Japan, and creating a Cold War with abolitionist, pluralistic Canada and Europe. Interspersed with the First American Television Showing of this faux documentary are television ads showing products and services in a society where Blacks and Orientals are still slaves - and women, Jews and gays have no rights whatsoever (since the women's suffrage movement came out of the abolition movement - and religious equality for non-Christians and gay rights came from the women's movements!). There are also clever, if low-budget, recreations of popular Confederate motion pictures and television shows, all promoting the CSA's agenda.
One thing the movie does brilliantly is take you, step by step, through the legal and religious justifications white male slaveholders used to hang onto their traditional "rights", and how it affected and would continue to affect many issues besides the abolition of black servitude. In a disturbing coda, many of the blatantly racist products advertised (like Darkie Toothpaste, Sambo's or Uncle Coon's Chicken) are shown to have existed into the late Twentieth Century in our own universe.
To my mind, the movie has a few flaws which its detractors keep hammering on endlessly: The rushed and clumsy ending, which seems to mainly exist as a way to punish the politically-connected White Supremacist Fauntroy clan; the historical "break point" being the CSA's conquest of the USA as opposed to the strictly defensive war the South claimed it was fighting; and the sound motion picture footage of an aged Abraham Lincoln justifying the "War of Northern Aggression" from Canada in 1905. The first I won't disagree with - but as for the CSA never intending to conquer the North, don't forget Lee's Northward swing into Pennsylvania (which included enslaving free blacks!) was an offensive move with the aim of attacking Washington. It's not impossible that, given the aid of England and France that the movie postulates, the Confederacy's goals might have... expanded. The sound footage of Lincoln, though seemingly unlikely, IS possible given that early sound films were being shot and exhibited as early as 1900 - though problems with sync and the high cost of distribution made them impractical for wide release until the 1920s.
Overall, if you're looking to be challenged, I would recommend seeing this film. It's a useful corrective to the often overly nostalgic view of the Civil War as brave romantic Southerners courageously fighting rapacious Yankees, and the South's still-prevalent attempts to deny the at least in part was, after all, about Protestant White Males wanting to treat everybody else as property....
Synthetic as Velveeta - But Fun w/a Great Cast
If you're looking for a "realistic" policier like the LAW & ORDER franchise or THE SHIELD, then CASTLE is the wrong show for you. It is a comedy-romantic detective romp about a by-the-book but attractive woman cop, and the roguish bestselling hack mystery writer determined to irritate, ingratiate, and woo his way into her heart - among other places. ::wink:: A show like this rises or falls on the appeal of the leads, and the wit of the writing - and CASTLE, thankfully, has three highly-appealing leads and clever dialogue, as well as just enough personal drama under the surface to give it some crunch.
The title character is played by the engaging "bad boy" hero of FIREFLY, Nathan Fillion, with the perfect mix of self-deprecation, principle, nurturing and immature-jerk thoughtlessness. One of the brilliant moves of the series is to not simply present author Richard Castle in a vacuum, but to let us in what made him the character he is today: his vain actress mother, even more self-absorbed actress first ex-wife, Barracuda second ex-wife (and publisher), and wise but loving teenage daughter. It's in the family scenes that you realize that Rick Castle is much more than the "playboy writer" image he projects to the world.
As NYPD Detective Kate Beckett, Robert Rodriguez and 007 alum Stana Katic matches the better-known Fillion in every scene. She succeeds brilliantly as a dedicated and highly-intelligent police detective, with issues, despite the synthetic mystery plotting. We see her emotional scarring almost from the moment we meet her - and we see the warm, humorous and loving woman underneath. Despite her vocal irritation at Castle's insistence she is his latest "muse" (he bases a new series character on her), she quickly finds herself relying on his surprising perceptiveness, his ability to "think outside the box", and the pleasure of their banter. Though Beckett's back-story is only slowly being filled in, we see her loneliness, her sense of compassion buried under the hard-nosed dedication, and her own quirky sense of play that blossoms under his amused tweaking.
The third appealing lead is Castle's 15-year old daughter Alexis, played by 15-year old Molly Quinn. At first you're led to believe Alex is the "adult" in her relationship with her Big Friendly Dawg of a father and shallow Broadway Diva grandmother - and in some ways, she is incredibly mature for her age. But as the series progresses we see more of the teenage girl in Alex, and more of her deep love for and trust in her Dad. We've seen incredibly smart children countless times on television - what we don't see very often are those children AS children, secure in the love and care of their seemingly screwy but devoted parent(s).
The mysteries are - well, they're functional, and don't get in the way of the flirtatious insulting, Author's Worst Nightmare moments, eye-rolling hidden amusement, and World's Coolest Dad occasions. The show succeeds on the strength of Katic's and Quinn's considerable appeal - and the desire to see the three of them together solving mysteries as one happy screwy family.
Eleventh Hour (2008)
The UK Version Was Much Better in So Many Ways
Even when the US version is good in its own right, the foreign version is usually better - and sadly, this ELEVENTH HOUR is far from good:
- The UK's Dr. Ian Hood (Patrick Stewart) is a grumpy retired widower physicist and science adviser for the British Government. He's brilliant but hardly omniscient, opinionated, so irritating to all sides of the political spectrum and thoughtless about his own safety that he's assigned a Special Branch bodyguard, and lost outside the areas of his expertise - his bodyguard, for instance, has to show him how to log onto a hotel's wifi connection!
The US's Dr. Jacob Hood (Rufus Sewell) is a soulfully hunky widower professor of "Science" in his early Forties who is brilliant about everything the show requires him to be brilliant about, always right no matter what, and lacking in any discernible personality.
- The UK's Rachel Young (Ashley Jensen) is moderately good-looking and working-class tough, and serves as Dr. Hood's Special Branch bodyguard, driver and all-around keeper. She always goes into any room first and checks to make sure it's safe, scolds Hood when he does something risky, and keeps an eye out for problems. She's a combination of street-smart, warily respectful of his intelligence and loyal to his purpose, yet often exasperated at his personality quirks and clearly wishing her job was something other than babysitting a brilliant and energetic old grouch.
The US's Rachel Young is portrayed by the drop-dead gorgeous Marley Shelton, unconvincingly playing a tomboyish FBI Special Agent. I've liked Ms. Shelton in other parts, but her character makes no sense here since this Hood seems too self-sufficient to need her - she's reduced to mainly flashing her (fake-looking) FBI ID, occasionally shooting at or punching someone, and listening to Hood show off how brilliant he is. The US pilot (which I missed) apparently mentions Rachel is Hood's FBI-assigned security detail, but that's never followed up in subsequent episodes.
Ms. Shelton has the misfortune of looking far too porcelain-skinned and perfectly-coiffed to be believable as written - which is where the real problem lies, since Ms. Shelton has proved elsewhere she can be both a stunner and tough as nails. It would be easy for the writers to acknowledge and play off that dichotomy, as Robert Rodriguez did in the "Planet Terror" half of GRINDHOUSE - except that the US writers don't seem aware there's a problem. The US version also veers wildly back and forth regarding Rachel's relationship with Hood - one moment she needs to have the plot explained to her, the next she's the skeptical crack investigator, the next she's mildly irritated by Hood's barely-discernible eccentricities...and the next, the two of them are making goo-goo eyes at each other and flirting!
- The UK Hood's adviser with a roving brief to deal with abuses of cutting-edge science feels realistic enough to work in the context of the show, with believable office politics and bureaucracy for the characters to deal with. The writing, while not immune to the occasional "Huh?" moment, is generally good with decent plotting, interesting character development and witty dialogue. The science may be a bit "day after tomorrow", but its presented in such a way as to make you believe that if it's not actually being worked on, the steps leading up to it certainly are. Maybe I'm being suckered by Patrick Stewart's acting, but I found myself at least able to accept the four-part UK series as being within the outer realm of possibility.
The US version, by contrast, feels like several disjointed parts of a premise stuck together with duct tape and Superglue. Hood got his "FBI Science Adviser" gig where he never has to report in or justify his expenses, and gets Rachel as a permanent sidekick, b/c the current Director is an old college buddy of his? Hood and Rachel are often left completely on their own to solve the episode's science problems whatever facilities they can commandeer, and Rachel's All-Powerful fake-looking FBI ID and 9mm automatic, without being required to call on the vast resources of the DoJ or Homeland Security? (This has improved some in later episodes, with Rachel occasionally calling on Bureau resources.) Rachel never has to fill out any forms to justify the times she's fired her weapon or used physical force, or even fill out an expense report? The science in the US version, except in those episodes which are rewrites of the UK series, feels like Right-Wing error-riddled Voodoo pseudoscience. Even when the science might be plausible, it's treated in a ham-handed manner that feels fake - a fact not helped by dialogue and characterizations that tend towards the obvious and clichéd. I'm more inclined to believe the "off-the-map superscience" of J.J. Abrams' FRINGE than the cutting-edge but supposedly possible contemporary science here.
In recent episodes, the writers have introduced Omar Benson Miller as Agent Felix Lee - a large, overeager, ill-dressed, Comic Relief Black Guy. I don't expect every Black person on television to be Barack Obama or Denzel Washington - but please, don't make him a lumbering sweaty joke next to two well-dressed White people.
So the US version is a poorly-written show with bad science, lame dialogue and characterizations, without even any of the CSI razzle-dazzle to make it seem all "sciencey!" I wish that, instead of selling the rights to Jerry Bruckheimer, Grenada Television had simply asked him to co-produce more episodes of the British show - because I'd gladly watch more Patrick Stewart running around England being all purposeful and cranky, whereas the US version just makes me tired, and insults my intelligence.