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Dennis Miller at his best in black-and-white
Unquestionably Dennis Miller's best HBO comedy special special, 1990's Black & White, shot in Tempe Arizona, is an absolutely hilarious romp through the arcane and the (then) topical. Miller is at his rapid reference firing best here in Tempe, the strings of metaphors in Miller's routine could wrap around the world many times over but he does not lose a breath or skip a beat. Miller's trademark cutting cynicism, sharp common sense, deadly sarcasm, laid-back exaggeration, and unforgiving political commentary are abundant in this his second HBO special as he rants about everything from fanaticism to sexual tendencies and world events to the American legal system.
Few stand-up specials have any particular visual style to them. The comedian and his jokes are the event, why shoot it even in a semi-interesting way? Black-and-white films are in general almost a relic of the past, black-and-white comedy specials are even rarer nowadays; and only a comedic maverick with the guts and indifference of Dennis Miller could pull off a black-and-white comedy special. The black-and-white picture of Black & White does not makes the entire show great all by itself but it does compliment the entire show through its black-and-white picture not only because it looks cool but because it highlights the arcane nature of Miller's reference-dropping comedy (and, to anyone who knows anything about Dennis Miller, his love for classic films). Black & White simply looks as good as it is hilarious - and hilarious it surely is.
My favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation
There were reasons why David Carson was chosen to direct the first film featuring the characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Generations (1994), (outside of cost and schedule) and the rich style, cinematic atmosphere, and dramatic thrills of season three episode "Yesterday's Enterprise" is surely one of those reasons. Every line, every shot, every frame entertains as much as it is substance-filled in this episode - it is Trek features like this (counting TV episodes and feature films) that make us fall in love with Star Trek.
All is calm at first: the Enterprise-D is cruising through space before it has a run-in with a rift in time where the Enterprise-C emerges, a ship that has been missing in action for 22 years. Suddenly everything changes with the Enterprise-C's arrival: the once bright bridge with Worf stationed at tactical is instantly changed to a dark battle bridge with the long-gone Tasha Yar at her previous tactical post - and the Federation is knee-deep in a decades-long war with the Klingon Empire. Only Guinan remains unchanged by this twist in history and has the most unpleasant responsibility in being the catalyst for setting things right.
"Yesterday's Enterprise" holds all that makes for great Star Trek viewing: a great story, characters at the center, excellent performances, bold style, and thoughtful themes. David Carson's wonderful framing and deep coloring mingles with Denise Crosby's terrific guest- starring performance in a very moving storyline for her character (if she was this good in the first season, I might have been sorry to see her character go) and a slightly off-character crew living in a dangerous world. The performances are top-notch, the tension is in high gear and wonderfully crafted, and the action is some of the finest in the series' 7-year run - but none of these fine elements overshadows the excellent themes that address the importance of history on the present. If any whining kid (or adult for that matter) asks why he or she needs to learn history, a quick viewing of "Yesterday's Enterprise" should answer their ignorant question. The events of the past dictate the events of the future and this fine episode clearly illustrates that.
"Yesterday's Enterprise" is easily one of the best episodes to appear in any of the Star Trek franchise's 5 television shows and it is, hands down, my favorite episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series.
My favorite episode of the original Star Trek series
Due to temporal shockwaves from a planet, the Enterprise suffers a blow and helmsman Sulu is injured. Doctor McCoy is called to the bridge and injects Sulu with cordrazine; but after the Enterprise is hit with another shockwave, McCoy accidentally injects himself with the medication - making him stark raving mad. McCoy, delusional and paranoid from the cordrazine, beams himself down to the planet the Enterprise currently orbits. Kirk and Spock beam down after him and see him jump back through time via some sort of gateway through time. When trying to contact the Enterprise, they find that it is no longer there - McCoy had changed the past somehow, eliminating Starfleet, so Kirk and Spock go back through time to the 1930s to fix what McCoy had done. There, they find that a woman named Edith Keeler holds the key to how to restore their timeline.
"The City On The Edge Of Forever" is one of the most well written and well handled time- travel stories in Star Trek history - far better than the second season time-travel episode "Assignment: Earth" or even the Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home film. This episode offers up a lot to think about how history needs to be played out and includes an emotive B-story that involves Kirk falling in love.
The acting is really first-rate. Leonard Nimoy's wise and sensible turn as Spock gives the episode gravitas, DeForest Kelly starts out as a smoldering presence but ends up advancing the most human elements of the story in the end. With beauty and pure acting talent, Joan Collins makes an unforgettable guest starring appearance in this episode as Edith Keeler really the best guest starring performance in any Star Trek series. Finally, William Shatner is quite impressive in this episode performing at a level that I do not think he has duplicated. Shatner had the fortune of working with a great script that allowed him to take the cowboy out of Kirk and add a little bit of humanity and depth that was often lacking in the character in other episodes (and films).
"The City On The Edge Of Forever" is easily my favorite episode of the original Star Trek series and a great time-traveling Star Trek story. No other original series episode really compares to the heart and quality of "The City On The Edge Of Forever" and most of the original series films pale in comparison as well. Overall, "The City On The Edge Of Forever" is a very interesting and well-made Star Trek episode.
Star Trek: Space Seed (1967)
Enjoyable but not one of the great Trek episodes
While on patrol, The Enterprise spots a vessel marked the S.S. Botany Bay floating in space with about 60 to 70 faint life signs detected onboard. When examining the ship, the Enterprise finds the entire crew of the Botany Bay in hyperbolic sleep and accidentally triggers their awakening. The leader of the ship, Khan, is brought onboard the Enterprise where it is learned that he is actually from the past, the 1990s to be exact, where he was a blood thirsty tyrant during the deadly Eugenics War. Old habits die hard as Khan tries to take control of the Enterprise where he plans to take over the universe.
"Space Seed" is often hailed as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) episodes of the entire Star Trek TV series, no doubt because of the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. I certainly think that the episode was enjoyable but I would not rank it as one of the best Star Trek episodes ever. For one thing, the storyline involving Khan and the leggy Enterprise historian Marla McGivers is kind of lame. Plus, the entire back-story to Khan is a little hard to take seriously as someone who has lived through the 1990s where there was no trace of any sort of evidence that points to a threat of any kind of Eugenics War or the possibility of an Indian continental tyrant.
Though there are blemishes in this Trekisode, there are also plenty of positive points. Ricardo Montalban is certainly excellent in his portrayal of the evil superhuman Khan and it is definitely enjoyable to watch the entire Enterprise band together and try to defeat him. Khan is often touted as Kirk's greatest nemesis, but I find that odd because they hardly have any scenes together and "Space Seed" is not a Khan vs. Kirk showdown like the film Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. In fact, the best scene of the episode does not have Kirk in it at all: the best scene in the in the episode is the moment where, upon being threatened with a knife to the throat, McCoy stands his ground and even tells Khan where to cut him. Again, the emphasis on the Kirk vs. Khan aspect of Star Trek can be traced back to the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan a film of which is an infinitely better reel of film than this overrated, albeit good, Star Trek episode.
The Late Shift (1996)
TV movies generally do not receive as much recognition or credit as great films - and it is usually for good reason but the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift is easily one of the best TV movies ever. Based on Bill Carter's revealing book, The Late Shift is about NBC's handling of late night talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno when it came to filling the vacant Tonight Show seat once held by Johnny Carson. We see what happens in front of the camera - author Bill Carter, director Betty Thomas, and HBO show us what happened when the cameras were turned off.
Unfortunately we can never really know for sure what really happened when it came time for Johnny Carson to be replaced by either Letterman or Leno - but The Late Shift gives us an interesting possible reality. While simply being a very well made film, The Late Shift also does a really good job of portraying all the sides fairly equally - although you wonder if the film makes Letterman and Leno out to be too nice of guys; especially Leno, who seems a bit too saintly.
The performances are also very good. In a very deserving Golden Globe-winning performance, Kathy Bates plays Leno's extremely pushy manager Helen Kushnick who, according to Carter and the book/film was very problematic for the studio and Leno (the real Kushnick actually sued Bill Carter for libel over this portrayal!). John Michael Higgins breaks out of his usual gigs of getting small quirky comedy parts and gives an excellent performance as David Letterman - giving an excellent impression of Letterman but also creating a dimensional and relatable character. Daniel Roebuck gives a good performance as Leno but does not quite measure up to some of the other talent in the film - Roebuck probably did the best anyone could have done, it is just looks hammy whenever anyone tries to do an impression or portrayal of Leno. Bob Balaban (a squirrelly Warren Littlefield), Treat Williams (a magician-like Michael Ovitz), and Ed Begley Jr.(a pompous Rod Perth) also give memorable supporting performances.
The Late Shift certainly is one of the best made-for-TV movies I have ever seen. I suppose if one has not watched David Letterman or Jay Leno, The Late Shift might not be for them but it is an interesting film for those who get into the late night politics - something that has recently reared its ugly head yet again with the 2009-10 Conan/Leno/NBC debacle.
The Cat Piano (2009)
"Cat" is cool
The Cat Piano is a compelling Australian animated short film directed by Eddie White and Ari Gibson (at this moment you can find it on YouTube). In a deep black and blue style, The Cat Piano takes the viewer to a dark cat underworld of jazz, lounging, and pain where a loner cat poet (voiced by Australian musician Nick Cave) tells the disturbing story of a horrible incident that occurred in this cat town.
Over a period of time, cats all over town are suddenly disappearing - but not just any cats: singer cats are disappearing, cats that would perform on stage in the local jazz and lounge clubs. The poet cat explains, as the town spirals into paranoia and violence, his theory that the singer cats were taken to become part of a twisted "cat piano" and describes his attempt to find these missing cats, where he especially hopes to find a specific female feline singer that he has fallen for. The Cat Piano is one cool short with swathing narration, exquisite visuals, and a cool animation feline film noir feel - let's hope that the Academy is watching.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
A personal response:
Rarely do I hand out a "1/10" rating - I hold such a rating for films of which I hate every scene and that manage to make me angry while sitting through it. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a film that got this kind of reaction from me. I like Woody Allen's work overall even though I have not enjoyed every single one of his films that I have seen - but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is easily the Woody Allen film I have enjoyed the least.
The film is not a "1/10" on a technical level. The production values are high, the locations are lovely, the acting is good (although I would hardly give Penélope Cruz an Oscar for it), and the dialogue is not exactly bad either. The film affected me on a purely individual and subjective level and so much that I cannot ignore it.
Alright, so Vicky and Cristina go to Barcelona - Vicky for her studies and Cristina for fun - and get invited to go to Oviedo over the weekend with Juan Antonio, an artist and a man who wants to have a threesome with them. Cristina is all for it but Vicky is not because she is engaged. Way to go Vicky - you are engaged, do not take part in a weekend of sex with someone else. But wait - Vicky tags along anyway - and ends up sleeping with Juan Antonio! How freaking awful! What a horrible person. How anyone can be entertained by this kind of a story is beyond me.
But the story gets worse from there: it becomes nonexistent. Like the worst of Woody Allen's films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not about anything. Time passes and Cristina ends up being the one who enters into a relationship Juan Antonio anyway - and finds herself in a triangle love affair with him and his ex-wife Maria Elena. All this goes on as Vicky is still in love with Juan Antonio after ONE NIGHT even though she is now married. Should I care? Because I did not care at all, not one character in the film is likable in the least. I did not enjoy one single scene in Vicky Cristina Barcelona - not one - and I could have gone without the pointless narration and pretentious shot choices as well. But if one is a huge Woody Allen fan or somehow likes films about cheating and bizarre romantic relationships then Vicky Cristina Barcelona might not have the same effect that it did for me.
The Informant (1997)
Makes "made-for-TV" sound good
One of the better TV movies ever made, The Informant is a thrilling and moving film about the troublesome "Troubles" in Northern Ireland set in the early 1980s.
The IRA (Irish Republican Army) has certainly been trouble for Sean Pius "Gingy" McAnally (played by Anthony Brophy). Gingy thought he was out of the terrorist organization, having exiled himself away from his family and his home of Northern Ireland in a rural part of the Republic of Ireland, but having a certain skill makes some people track you down no matter how much effort it involves. Gingy's skill is firing an RPG and the IRA track him down for a job that requires a good RPG shooter. Unwilling to participate, but aware of the consequences if he does not play ball - consequences ranging from but not limited to violence against him and his family if he does not comply - he is lead slothfully across the boarder, where the lighthearted British Lt. David Ferris (Cary Elwes) waves him through with a smile.
The job that poor Gingy was coerced into performing goes according to plan in that the right people were killed but Gingy is captured when Lt. Ferris recognizes him in the getaway car. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Rennie (Timothy Dalton) who is hell bent on getting Gingy to either talk or hang. Now in custody, Gingy is faced with a choice: talk to save himself and his family or betray the Irish unification movement that he was raised to believe in and risk retribution from the IRA.
What drew me to the film was the cast - particularly Cary Elwes and Timothy Dalton - and I was not disappointed. Elwes is perfect as the respectable and good-natured Lt. Ferris, befriending poor Gingy and doing all he can to help him. Dalton steals every scene as Detective Rennie, a trademark of his throughout most films he is a part of. Explosive, subtle, anger provoking, and sympathetic - Dalton is the fixture of whatever scene he is in. I had never heard of or seen Anthony Brophy until I saw The Informant and he was a wonderful surprise as Gingy. Brophy has a great screen presence and, in the specific case of this film, he portrays a quirkiness and misery that just works for the character. Some workhorse character actors pop up that you may have seen here and there: John Kavanagh (Braveheart), Sean McGinley (Michael Collins), among others. The only cast member who was slightly disappointing was Maria Lennon, who plays Gingy's wife Roisin. She overacts into next week but some still manages to convey a relatable sense of distress and disappointment.... don't ask me how she worked that out but she did.
The Informant does a great job telling a thrilling and moving story of the conflict in Northern Ireland without pandering to one side or the other. All sides are fairly represented: the guys who kill people in the IRA, the non-violent Northern Irish who want unification throughout the Emerald Isle, the Northern Irish who want to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and the British soldiers fighting to keep the peace and to keep the six counties a part of the UK. All are monsters, all are angels - all are human. The muddy and gritty cinematography gives The Informant a stylish figure and the touching characterization makes the film's characters and message effective. The Informant gives the phrase "made-for-TV" a good name.
Thoughts on the American version:
I found Framed to be a pretty entertaining film overall - unfortunately, the only version of the film available to me here in the United States is the Americanized version of the film. As a British television miniseries, Framed clocks in at around four hours; the American version on the other hand was somehow edited down to a crispy two hour TV-feature. Strangely (and luckily) enough, that editing process did not make the American version of Framed disjointed, odd, or confusing. Whether or not it is better or worse than the original miniseries form, the U.S. cut of Framed is actually a pretty good film with fine performances from lead actors Timothy Dalton and David Morrissey.
Vacationing in Spain, British police Sgt. Larry Jackson (David Morrissey) thinks he is seeing a ghost: a convict-turned-informant named Eddie Myers (Timothy Dalton) who was supposed to have died after escaping custody. Further investigation by Jackson reveals that the man he is seeing really is Myers and Jackson orchestrates Myers' arrest. Myers now spends his days with Jackson in a police-run compound giving up his powerful one-time criminal accomplices - and messing with Jackson's mind and life....
The production value is what one might expect from an early-1990s TV production - which is to say, bland - but other elements make the film worthwhile: the film's story is engrossing and the acting is very good. David Morrissey is a very good lead as Sgt. Jackson; Timothy West gives an entertaining turn as Jimmy McKinnes, the high-ranking police official hell-bent on using Myers to his fullest; and (a dubbed) Penélope Cruz makes a nice showing. Timothy Dalton is the film's brightest star - as Myers, Dalton is fantastic as this intelligent and high-classed but dangerous and unpredictable criminal mind.
Although half of its original material has been cut out, the American version of Framed is an entertaining film; but boy would I have liked to have seen what the other two hours included.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving (1996)
The life of the Lovings
The 1996 Showtime film Mr. and Mrs. Loving is a good made-for-TV movie about Richard and Mildred "Bean" Loving's struggle as an interracial married couple in the 1960s. Drawing from the real life of Richard and Mildred Loving and the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, Mr. and Mrs. Loving doesn't get all the facts right but captures the racial tension of the era well and sends a message that all need to hear.
Richard is a white man. Mildred, or "Bean" as her friends call her, is a black woman. At home in Central Point, Virginia, where both white and black Americans get along very well, Richard and Mildred had been childhood friends for years until they grew up a little more and became much more than friends. When Mildred tells Richard the news that she's pregnant, they decide to marry; but unfortunately for them, it was illegal in the state of Virginia for them to do so. After getting married in Washington D.C. and returning home, hoping that the law wouldn't care or couldn't do anything about their marriage, they are arrested, thrown in jail, and convicted down the road for "miscegenation." Their sentence? One to three years in jail for being married to one another. However, the judge gives them a deal: he would suspend the sentence for 25 years if they left Virginia's Carolina County and never returned until that 25 suspension expired. So the Lovings move to Washington D.C., where they struggle with all sorts of new big city racial problems and their now famous court case.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving is not a historically accurate film in every detail of the Lovings' life, in fact the real Mildred Loving was quoted in The USA Today as saying that "not much of it was very true. The only part of it right was I had three children." Still, the film portrays the nation-wide friction between white and black Americans and the stupidity of racism quite well as Richard and Mildred feel the scorn of a discriminatory society in every corner of their life simply because of their love and marriage. But the film also does a good job showing that racism isn't just one sided and wide spread, it comes in all forms from many different individuals and doesn't even come from everybody.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving is also a good film on the technical side of the coin. The acting is very good all around: Timothy Hutton doesn't always say a whole lot as Richard, but his subtly is what makes the role work. Also, Lela Rochon really stands out in the film (why the blazes isn't she in more popular films?) giving an excellent performance as Mildred. Rochon is called upon to do some very soft and intense acting and assumes the responsibilities of her role perfectly in every scene. Delivering your more typical (but not bad) made-for-TV cinematography and sometimes getting a little over dramatic and sentimental with your typical (but not bad) Hollywood feel-goodness, the film never completely leaves Earth at any time and gets its message across without any problems. All in all, despite it's less-than perfect historical narrative, Mr. and Mrs. Loving is one of the better made-for-TV movies around.