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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Man Down (2018)
Season 20, Episode 2
1/10
Jumps the Tracks 3/4 of the Way Through
6 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I'm Law and Order: SVU's biggest fan. So it pains me to see such sloppy writing drag down a lot of really great actors.

Imagine it's the day before payday and you have to pull together supper for the family with just what's in the refrigerator. Goodness knows what strange combination of foods you'll serve the family tonight.

That's what the writing in this episode is like. Unplanned pregnancy. Acting out because of the death of a sibling. Characters suddenly realizing that time is catching up with them. Adopted children who may turn into leftovers from THE OMEN. And these are the series' regular characters. The guest stars are more of a mess.

The thing is, for a while it works. A crime victim is manipulated by his awful parents- macho father, spineless mother- and won't cooperate with the PD in an awful crime that may or may not have been committed by his father. Unable to process what is happening, the boy finally breaks and takes a gun to school. At that point I was so involved in the story that I was almost in tears and my guts were tied in a knot.

Then they introduce a Negligent Homicide case against the father and manage to get a conviction based solely upon the fact that every SVU case ends with a conviction.

Yes, the environment the father created presented a toxic role model of masculinity for his boys to try to live up to. But this asks us that a jury of rational adults would actually return a guilty verdict with no motive on the father's part and no malice on his part toward the shooting victims, who he barely knew.

Yes, I can tolerate the authors getting in a sermonette in some episodes about Guns Bad, Second Amendment Even Worse. I see that online often enough that it's water off a ducks back.

Here's hoping my favorite scripted drama show manages to get its groove back, and soon.
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Keep Watching (2017)
1/10
Pity the Poor Actors
18 July 2018
Because I'm very kind by nature, I'm not going to mention any of the actors in this turkey by name. They suffered enough while making it: stumbling around in the dark, running, and speaking dialog that is unrelated to human speech.

Sony Pictures sat on this for right at three years before giving it a one night very limited release. That should tell you something.

If you want to watch a home invasion movie that has real suspense I'd suggest YOU'RE NEXT. The title of this epic tells us to keep watching, but I'll confess to using the fast forward button more than once. It should have been called WATCH SOMETHING ELSE.
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Night Fright (1967)
3/10
Not Much Night, Zero Fright
9 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
NIGHT FRIGHT is not really an accurate title. There is very little night. Instead, the cameraman and director chose to shoot "day for night" which involves filming in broad daylight using tinted lenses on the camera to make it look like night. Shooting in black and white, this can be an effective technique. In color, though, it makes colors look dim and faded. Worse yet, there is no continuity; scenes go from day to night and back again with no rhyme or reason. This might work if some of the scenes took place in Los Angeles and others were set in Eastern Europe. But the geographic area involved is a tiny town near Dallas. And there is not a single fright anywhere to be seen.

The plot has been done before and since. A experimental rocket is launched into space, then comes crashing back to Earth. One of the lab animals aboard survives the crash and mutates into a terrible beast that terrorizes the countryside.

To be more accurate, it terrorizes a small group of incredibly bad mannered college students, who richly deserve what happens to them, and along the way kills off a few character actors.

The town Sheriff tries to restore order. He's played by John Agar, whose brief marriage to Shirley Temple overshadowed his screen work. He's courting a pretty nurse who works at the local hospital. Neither his nor her character is developed enough to involve the viewer.

Much has been made of the "bad" acting in the film, and I feel compelled to defend the efforts of the cast. Having lived in Texas all of my life I'm used to the various dialects to be found in the state. Some people in North Texas have a flat pattern to their speech with very little inflection. Besides which, nobody here gets what one would call great dialog.

Agar does what he can with the material at hand. He says his lines clearly and stands at the right place at the right time. His career was an interesting one. He had many supporting roles in major studio productions, often in westerns starring John Wayne. IMDB shows him with ninety-six film and tv credits over a fifty-six year career. Had drinking (and arrests for drunk driving) not interfered, he could have had a major career. He figured out that if he were willing to work with Poverty Row studios he could get top billing, and would get paid for a project that would probably have a short shooting schedule.

At the end of the day, acting is a job. It's great to be directed by Allan Dwan in SANDS OF IWO JIMA, which received four Academy Award nomination. But a project like NIGHT FRIGHT, directed by James A. Sullivan, got him top billing and a paycheck and a job is a job. A carpenter would rather work on a mansion in Malibu than on a new convenience store on the freeway access road. But, a working man's got to eat and has to feed his family.

There are a couple of surprisingly good supporting actors. Bill Thurman, who would go on to play character parts in movies like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, plays Deputy Ben Whitfield, the Sheriff's right hand man who unfortunately forgets that he is carrying a gun at a critical point in the story.

But the real scene stealing comes from Roger Ready as Professor Alan Clayton. To start with, he appears to be a truly gifted actor: without much screen time he establishes himself as just a nice, regular guy. He seems perfectly at ease on screen. To establish the Professor's credentials as an intellectual, the director uses one of the oldest cliches in the history of drama: in a couple of scenes, we see him smoking a pipe. This lets Ready draw attention from the main actors in the scene because he is always poking, prodding, scraping, lighting or relighting his pipe. His hands are never still. And if he is speaking and makes a gesture, it is always in his downstage hand and he can use the stem as a pointer. These scenes aren't worth stealing, but it's the thought that counts.

It's a shame that the movie looks and sounds so dreary. It just looks cheaped out, with the North Texas locations providing no sense of place. There are too many scenes of trees, sometimes with wind blowing them, in a failed attempt to create suspense.

The monster's costume isn't really all that bad. But when we see it in broad daylight, which a lens filter attempts to convince us is moonlight, it just isn't all that good either.
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2/10
The Moral Is...Benson Is Never Wrong
25 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Let me start with saying that this is my favorite dramatic show on TV. The writing is usually excellent, the subject matter timely, and the actors at the top of their game.

That's why it's a shame that the season finale be such a complete misfire.

A bad performance by a young lady named Genesis Rodriguez is the main problem. She may be a capable actress, but nothing I saw tonight indicated that. The premise of the show is that she is at a club where she spots a man she knows from her past.. She recognizes him; he seems to have no idea who she is. She winds up kidnapping him at gunpoint and tying him up and torturing him.

The story is what I would describe as a casserole. A bunch of random ingredients- human trafficking, organized crime on both sides of the border, fear of deportation, another kidnapping, etc.- get run through a blender and half baked.

The worst thing is how predictable it is because Benson cannot be wrong. She believes the young woman and is willing to defend her in her actions, including killing a man she knocks unconscious and leaves untreated for a lengthy time, because her "Spidey sense" or whatever says that the young lady's hugely improbable story is true.

Better luck next season, Law and Order: SVU.
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Isle of Dogs (2018)
3/10
A Racist Movie That's Thirty Minutes Too Long
27 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
There's so much that's excellent about ISLE OF DOGS. The stop motion animation, the incredible voice actors, the great use of sound, and a wonderful musical score.

Unfortunately, the movie tells its very thin story at a snail's pace and then has to introduce an American teenager- an exchange student from Ohio- to set the naïve people of Japan on the right path. Maybe this is supposed to remind us of the Japanese horror movies of the 1960's where a desperate American actor like Nick Adams or Robert Horton could make a fast paycheck.

ISLE OF DOGS' greatest accomplishment is that Bill Murray no longer needs to be ashamed of GARFIELD as his worst work. He, and the other actors, certainly deserve better.
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6/10
A Conviction Based on............What?
11 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
As usual on this show the dialog, acting, direction, everything else was great. Unfortunately, there seems to be a rule that every case Olivia Benson handles must end with a conviction. It's the same formula that fifty years ago had Perry Mason never take on the case of a guilty person.

Spoiler: A man winds up convicted of an aggravated rape that happened twenty years ago based on the victim's testimony and a poem the victim wrote when she was in high school. No forensic evidence. Just words.

I realize that the scenario would be more appropriate for a sketch on Monty Python than for my favorite show on the air. Even the best of writers have off days, I guess.
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American Horror Story: Election Night (2017)
Season 7, Episode 1
3/10
Yawn
6 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
In the 1930's a reporter asked Samuel Goldwyn why MGM concentrated on musicals and romance when studios like Warner Bros. made films with social commentary about the Depression. Goldwyn said that messages were the job of Western Union; his business was entertainment.

There's very little entertainment to be had in this show. The first act was a group of self absorbed people screaming profanities to express their anguish that Trump was elected. The term Get over Yourself came to mind more than once.

The story centers on a little boy named Oz who (fashionably) has two mommies. One mommy seems to make a seven day a week job of being mentally unsound. The other works hard at a trendy restaurant the two women own.

A key point in the story is that in the 21st century two well educated upper middle class women hire a nanny without doing a background check or getting references. "I went to Vassar." Hired!

There are fine performers here working overtime to keep this leaky boat from sinking. But of all the characters introduced tonight, a homicidal clown was the only one that really caught my attention. And I consider it cheap imitation that a series that features a deadly clown just happens to crank up a couple of days before the movie IT opens.

Maybe two more episodes. Otherwise, I'd pull the plug.
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Pandemic (2016)
8/10
In the Long Run, Somewhat Amazing
19 April 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Let me start this review with two cautionary notes.

1. Most importantly, I watched this on my computer monitor (thanks, Netflix) and it has a lot of hand held camera work. If I had seen this on a full size TV or, more especially, a theater screen, I might not have liked it as much.

2. Always remember that the word processing software used to write screenplays for movies like this does not come bundled with optimism.

That said, PANDEMIC was a very pleasant surprise thanks to a very strong script and some solid performances from a group of gifted actors. As is today's fashion it doesn't have opening titles, so I had no idea who the actors were. When I looked it up on IMDb I found that I have seen many of these performers on a regular basis for years.

The story itself doesn't have many surprises. A global epidemic wipes out most of the population. Worse yet, the infected become monsters with a hunger for human flesh.

What was a surprise was how involved I was with these characters. Lauren, the main character, is a CDC doctor working with a team looking for survivors and, ultimately, a cure for the plague. She has crossed the country to Los Angeles from New York to try to find her husband and daughter at their home in Sherman Oaks. She's a complex character with a dark secret, and Rachel Nichols's performance reminds me of Jodie Foster in films like FLIGHTPLAN and PANIC ROOM.

I will admit that I fast forwarded in the early scenes, but once the characters arrive at a high school that turns out to be a deadly trap I didn't touch any buttons again.
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Silent House (2011)
1/10
As Bad as It Gets
13 March 2017
Warning: Spoilers
This was on cable tonight, so I didn't have to pay extra to see it or leave the house. But even under these conditions it was still such a crapfest that it was overlong at a tad under ninety minutes.

Elizabeth Olsen plays a young woman named Sarah. She's in an old dark house in the middle of nowhere. Her father and uncle, who seem to be real but may be the product of her imagination, are there with her and over the course of the evening Terrible Family Secrets will come to light. Well, into very dim light since there's no electricity and the windows are boarded up so as to create a creepy haunted house atmosphere. Strangers may or may not wander into the house. Sarah may or may not be insane. The events of the evening may or may not be taking place.

Although this movie was very successful financially, here we are six years later and neither the writer nor director has gotten another credit on IMDb. Having watched SILENT HOUSE, I'm not really surprised.
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Chain Letter (2009)
3/10
So Much Fail in Just One Movie
25 December 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I'm presuming that the people who run the Encore Suspense channel make sure that the prints of movies they get are complete and that the reels are shown in correct order. With this, it was hard to tell.

The main characters are high school students whose lives glide along without parents. At any hour of the day or night they are always in their huge homes all by themselves or, at best, with another teenager.

There are adults in the story, two police officers who do have the best of intentions. Sergeant Hamill at least tries to solve the murders that form the core of the plot, but her part is so underwritten that her character could have been eliminated. Detective Crenshaw is more interesting because he has absolutely no common sense. He'll follow up a lead at an isolated location all by himself, never calling for backup, never taking even the most minimal precautions.

The biggest item in the film's budget was probably the rain machines which make remind the viewer of how much more effective BLADE RUNNER was on every count. It rains at night. It rains during the day. Worst of all, it continues raining during a funeral scene where the rain is in sharp contrast to the bright sunlight we see everywhere.

The plot has to do with some anti-technology nuts who hate computers and cell phones, so they kill off teenagers who use these devices. It would have made more sense had they targeted, maybe, the CEO of Apple, but that would have been some work for the writers. The plot device is based on killing anyone who fails to forward a chain letter. Fortunately for the killers, none of these teenagers forwards the chain to anyone who lives outside of Sacramento. That was nice of the kids.

Don't try too hard to guess the killer's (or killers') identity, because that's a little detail the writers forgot to include. The movie does not end, it simply stops.

For what it's worth, though, the last ninety seconds actually did make me jump and that one moment is truly shocking. It comes out of nowhere, but it is effective.

There are a few good things about the film. There's nice camera work with some well done crane shots, and the musical score is pretty well textbook but appropriate. But the writing is terrible, although I'd suspect that there were many scenes that were written and may or may not have been filmed that would have tied the story together into a cohesive whole.
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3/10
Viciously Bad, But Very Well Visualized
23 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I'd heard a lot about this movie and finally got a chance to watch it tonight. It was, well, different.

The screenplay by five writers (that's a bad sign right there) picks up themes and drops them to go on to something else. It's as the creative team collectively had AD/HD. Oh, there's something shiny. Let's walk over and pick it up.

The action starts in Los Angeles with a well realized meeting of a campus revolutionary group. Because of the film's being forty-six years old, these scenes carry their own irony: I wondered how many of those committed rebels from 1970 would turn out to be Realtors and salespeople and advertising executives ten years later.

A self-absorbed man named Mark is marginally involved with the group. He's a dropout who had rewired the university's computer system to enroll all Engineering majors in Art classes. He's on the scene of a riot where a policeman is shot and he flees, eventually stealing an airplane and heading for the desert.

In the second act he meets up with Daria, a secretary who's an Anthropology major. They meet cute: he terrorizes her on the highway as she'd driving through the California desert. She's gone there to look for a friend who's working with emotionally disturbed children (at one point I thought I was watching CHILDREN OF THE CORN) but like too many other dramatic themes that got lost too.

In the desert they drop acid, which prompts an endless scene of people covered in sand having sex. This grinds the narrative to a halt, therefore giving audiences an opportunity to get popcorn and a drink without missing anything, they same way that Mexican horror movies often have gratuitous musical numbers in the second act.

Mark takes the stolen plane back to Los Angeles, with predictable results.

In the mercifully short third act Daria goes to her boss's house, then leaves and imagines first the house blowing up and then repeated shots of clothing, appliances, and a loaf of Wonder bread blowing up. I'm sure that those few audiences who saw the film in theaters were convulsed with laughter during this scene. Fortunately, her imagination is limited so she drives away at sunset.

Neither of the leads had acting experience, and it shows. There is no consistency to their performances. And, giving how poorly written the film is, I can't blame them. Neither had further careers in film, which surprised no one. Other characters are very uneven. Some perform naturally, others sound as if they had just that moment been handed the script and asked to read it aloud.

The director's native language is Italian. At the end of the scene if the actors didn't run into each other, fall down, or belch while facing the camera, it seems he would announce that this was a final take, "Cut and print!" What's puzzling is that the film cost $7 million in 1970 dollars, about $44 million in 2016 dollars. But it looks and sounds cheap. If you didn't see the opening titles to know it was from MGM and directed by Antonioni, a viewer would figure it was one of those low budget action/adventure movies that Roger Corman cranked out at New World Pictures.

There are the special effects at the end, of course. And performance rights to songs by the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Roy Orbison, and many other rock legends. But this wasn't adapted from a best seller, and there are no box office names except for Rod Taylor, who plays Daria's boss.

In defense of the film, though, it was cut and recut over and over by MGM and came very close to never being released. I suspect that somewhere in a vault at the studio is enough unused footage to assemble twenty different cuts of the film that are completely different from each other.

Antonioni's film that's known by the public is his masterpiece BLOW-UP, which had no explosions. Here he brings us Zabriskie Point, which has explosions but no point.
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Hot in Cleveland: Funeral Crashers (2011)
Season 3, Episode 3
10/10
Both Funny and Touching
29 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
In this episode the girls crash a funeral of a complete stranger because Melanie's favorite dress has been delivered to the home of the dead woman by mistake. Melanie says it's her magic dress, and they have to have it.

So, totally uninvited, not knowing a soul there, they go to the house expecting to sneak upstairs and find said dress. Then they view the open coffin and discover that the mourners have decided that dress is perfect for the corpse to wear.

Naturally they decide to find a way to steal the dress before the coffin is sealed.

Complicating matters is one mourner (played by the great Orson Bean) who has driven a great distance to say goodbye to the woman he jilted fifty years ago.

The situation could be played for slapstick, in the manner of WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S. But there is a sadness underlying the second act that provides insight into the lives of several characters.

This is a great series. We just started watching it in reruns on cable a couple of weeks ago. As much as I love smart comedy, it's amazing that I missed this one the first time around.

I just hope the following scripts can keep up the quality of writing and acting that this one displayed.
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Rosewood Lane (2011)
3/10
Falls Completely Apart at the End
22 May 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Up until the last few minutes, this was a very suspenseful film. Solid actors, a strong plot, and even though characters are required to do incredibly stupid things in order to advance the plot that just comes with the territory. You gotta dance with who brung you, after all.

But a major character disappears without a trace and that plot element is never truly resolved. Yes, we can figure out what probably happened. But closure would be nice.

Then comes the leading lady's final clash with the bad guy, and the whole enterprise goes off the tracks.

MAJOR SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

The triplet plot device is probably the lamest way to resolve the plot of a mystery that I've ever seen. This "paperboy" is played by a 28 year actor and it seems that this character only delivers papers to one street in the town.

There are hints that his character is something other than human, but that's not really developed. And there was a corpse up in that tree that gets a Christian burial and there's talk in the eulogy about his family, but we don't know who they are. What is their part in the plot? Do they not know that their sons are up to no good? Is their mother so stupid that she doesn't know she has two other sons? When the policeman sees the two young men (one with wounds from the confrontation, one unscathed) I fully expected the director to walk from behind the camera and speak into the camera and tell us, "Look, writing movies is hard work. I've torn my hair out trying to come up with an ending and this is the best I can do. If somebody out there has a better idea, come to California and write the sequel." The worst part about the film is seeing such good actors (especially Ray Wise) trapped in a harebrained script. About 90% of the way into the film I'd have given this an 8 or a 9, but inept writing sinks that ship.

As I said, the "demon paperboy" is very effectively played by an actor who was 28 years old at the time of the film's release. Does he terrorize other neighborhoods we don't know about, or go back into a jar with his brothers the rest of the time? By the way, if this story had been set in Texas it would have been about fifteen minutes long. Probably 2/3 of the houses in a typical neighborhood here have firearms so the lad's habit of running and jumping from roof to tree would have seen him brought down like a quail.
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Slasher (2016– )
5/10
Good Start; Falls Completely Apart at the End
15 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Tonight I watched, with much anticipation, the final episode of Slasher. If I'd written this review two hours ago, the show would have gotten eight or nine out of ten. Now, my initial feeling was to give it a three but there was some good stuff here.

First and foremost, bravo for the location scouts and the people involved in photographing the show. The town caused an "I want to go to there" response in me, even if the landscape was littered with corpses.

The actors were adequate. They may be capable of much better, but no actor can rise above bad writing. Unlike MTV's Scream, which was continually reinventing itself and kept us guessing to the end, this had the feeling of episodes of As the World Turns with gore effects and an occasional mild sex scene.

The last episode, though, was way too talky. A subplot about summer camp many years ago did nothing to raise the suspense level and a main character who survives (I'll name no names) does things in the last scenes that are completely out of character, lower that person to the level of the Executioner, and make you wonder how no criminal charges were filed on that character.

If there's going to be another season of this show I'll watch it. But hopefully they'll hire much better writers and repeat the achievement of Scream in hiring directors with solid bodies of work in horror and independent films.
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The Visit (I) (2015)
3/10
Good Actors Can't Save a Sinking Ship
20 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The reason this got a 3 instead of a 1 (my initial response) was that the four main performers worked really hard to drag this dead horse across the finish line. Unfortunately, the film is so poorly written that I never believed any of the characters or situations so it was hard to really get involved with what happens. When a director devotes extensive footage to a thirteen year old White boy from the suburbs attempting to rap, you know he's desperate to stretch his story out to feature length.

This is a textbook example of what would have been a tense and exciting thirty minute TV show and stretch it to feature length. The hand-held camera business was irritating enough that it in itself cost the project several points. There should be a special rating of S added to any film that tries to induce nausea in viewers by trying to induce motion sickness.

Now, I will admit that when the Big Plot Twist came along I was surprised. Sure, variations on that twist have been used before (DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT comes immediately to mind) but it was effective.

Better luck next time, Night. It's good to see that you're still in there trying (if I had directed THE VILLAGE I'd have gone into the Witness Protection Program because it was bad enough to be considered criminal) and you can't hit a ball you don't swing at.
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Wayward Pines (2015–2016)
10/10
A Show with a Beginning, Middle, and End!
25 July 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Tonight I watched Episode 10 and was completely blown away. They set a time frame of ten episodes, introduced characters, developed a story arc, and actually brought the story to an end. For one awful moment I thought that Ben was going to wake up and find that the whole thing was a dream, but that didn't happen.

For comparison, look at Under the Dome. I've been as faithful as an old hound dog to that show, but it's completely run off the track. King's book has been left so far behind, except for the dome itself and a few characters, that his name should be taken off the show. It's like someone playing a familiar song on the piano who decides to improvise and gets so far from the melody that he can't get back to it however hard he tries.

Bravo, Wayward Pines. Well done.
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The Whispers (2015)
4/10
Oops! Has It Already Jumped the Shark?
9 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Run CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and POLTERGEIST through a blender and you'll come up with the premise for The Whispers.

The first episode looked as if it had strong potential. Then in the second episode I started using the fast forward button. That's not a good sign.

Claire, the main character, has the dubious distinction of being the worst FBI agent in the history of films or TV. In the real world this lady would have been demoted to a part-time job as a meter maid. Her supposedly dead husband still seems to be alive, and he's involved in lots of creepy stuff. A composite drawing looks very much like him, so naturally she talks her partner into delaying the release of the drawing to the public.

The show's basic problem is that it's based on a short story that's ten pages long, and anyone familiar with the source material knows the story could potentially be a strong ninety minute feature film. Instead it's being stretched thin to run fourteen episodes, with more threatened if the show is successful.

The ratings on the second episode showed The Whispers losing 25% of its audience from the premiere. Will anyone be left to watch by episode fourteen?
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Aquarius (2015–2016)
4/10
Started Well, Then Quickly Began to Lose Stars
4 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
I soldiered my way through the pilot, and by the time it was finished knew it was time to say goodbye to this show.

At the beginning I would have rated it a 10. The music is fantastic. But that may have an underside: the licensing fees on these songs are high. Maybe that's why there was no money left for a good script or decent actors.

Worse yet, like so many shows it's very dark. Not dark in tone: that's perfectly fine. But other than the outdoor scenes, too often there's so little light on the scenes that it's more like radio than television. Here's another cinematographer who never met a 15 watt bulb he didn't like.

The story is set in the summer of 1967, the year I turned 21. When I saw a billboard for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in the scenes on the Sunset Strip I thought, hmmmm, wonder if this is going to turn up in later episodes.

The worst part is the presumption that the LAPD is going to spend two years investigating Charles Manson and despite David Duchovny's best efforts Manson (played with no charisma by a young man named Gethin Anthony) is going to do terrible things over the coming episodes.

Unless, of course, the show decides to completely abandon history and let Sharon Tate and her friends, and maybe even Bobby Kennedy, go forward into the 1970's unharmed. After all, the coveted viewers between the ages of 18 and 35 have only slight awareness of modern history.

Skip this. Watch the DVD of HELTER SKELTER instead.
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Camel Spiders (2011 TV Movie)
8/10
No Love in This House for CAMEL SPIDERS?
17 April 2015
Warning: Spoilers
What were people who watched this looking for? Oh, a low budget horror movie from Roger Corman? Do you think it might give me some new insight into religion and/or the meaning of life? Not.

While I watched CAMEL SPIDERS I munched on Peeps (leftover from Easter). For those unfamiliar with them, Peeps are candies made from marshmallows. No vitamins, no minerals, no health benefits, just empty calories from sugar. Just like this movie, and just as much harmless fun.

For absolutely no reason whatsoever a bunch of spiders from the Middle East that have wound up in the American Southwest grow to enormous size. They then begin to snack on the locals.

Let's see, what do we have here? Newlyweds. A couple on the brink of divorce and their daughter, who has no self preservation instincts. Soldiers. The nice guy local sheriff. The couple who runs the local diner. Two businessmen (they wear suits and ties throughout the entire film) who are looking to scam the people who own the diner; think Mr. Burns and Smithers without the sexual tension. Students on a field trip. Their professor who has no math skills (he insists that the spiders have six legs when anyone can see that they have eight) and when he sees a spider the size of a large collie decides that the best thing to do is walk over and get a closer look at it.

Admittedly, there a few beloved clichés that the authors could have brought in. Think how the school bus full of blind orphans enhanced the final act of CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIE TOWN. An elderly character, possibly in a wheelchair, could have raised the stakes. But you can do only so much with ninety minutes.

The special effects are decent but not spectacular, but points for the fact that most of the time the spiders cast shadows. The acting is competent for what they're given. The direction propels the action forward and keeps the actors from walking into each other.

Best yet, there are strange aspects of the story that can intrigue the viewer. Why does the hero hotwire a truck when the keys are clearly in the ignition? Why are two important secondary characters left stranded in the a car that won't start with no hint of their fate? And, better yet, why is a passage in the basement of an abandoned factory lined with brightly glowing lanterns that look to have very fresh batteries in them? Above all, where can we buy guns that almost never run out of ammunition? They can be set on automatic, firing round after round per second, and seemingly keep running for hours if necessary without overheating?

The ending sets up a sequel. Maybe someday these sweet mysteries of life will be revealed.
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Evil Dead (2013)
5/10
Another Tired Remake, Soon to Be Forgotten
22 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Let me admit up front that CABIN IN THE WOODS, one of my favorite movies ever, pretty well tainted the well for this project.

The original THE EVIL DEAD has been described as The Three Stooges Go to Hell. That's why I and so many others flat out love it.

The remake has the feel of a project written and directed by a junior high drama class that miraculously raised $17 million with a bake sale and hired some really talented performers to act in it.

Major themes are developed and then get lost in the gore and hardware. Mia (the main character) and her brother and three friends travel to an isolated cabin where she is going to try to get over her drug habit.

Mia and her brother, David, have issues. Mia was the one who stayed home to take care of their mother while David was away pursuing his own interests. Either of these is a perfectly valid dramatic theme. Neither is developed. Instead, these ideas are abandoned for a festival of blood, gore, recycled images from Japanese horror movies, a chainsaw, and other hardware.

The other characters are cruelly underwritten. Eric is there because someone needs to read the ancient curse out loud for the plot to kick into gear. Olivia is a nurse, there to take care of Mia's medical needs. Natalie is there because the plot calls for a fifth person to be present to fit the contours of the script.

There are lots of good things about the film. It's well photographed, and deserves special commendation because in the outdoor scenes where it's raining the light is appropriate to a rainy day. Even in the 21st century we still see films in which rain is pouring down out of a cloudless sky in brilliant daylight. The musical score is effective. And the actors seem to have a lot of natural talent that's going to waste.

But the project falters in comparison to the original. The actors plow their way through this with perfectly straight faces. Not a wink, a nod, an arched eyebrow, a tilt of the head. I can imagine them before each scene thinking, "This script is absolute crap, but Sony Picture is paying me to do this so I'll keep a straight face and soldier through."

If you do watch this, stay around for a brief clip at the very end of the closing credits that raised my rating from a 2 to a 5. When I saw it I thought, "That's what I'm talking about."
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The Heat (I) (2013)
Not Just Bad, But Forty Minutes Too Long
22 December 2013
Warning: Spoilers
When I see a movie where one joke gets stretched out to just three minutes short of two hours long, my sympathy for the unfortunate actors overwhelms my common sense which is telling me to get up and do something else. Anything else. Instead, I kept watching and waiting for it to get really funny.

Instead, it got steadily worse.

The one joke is that Melissa McCarthy plays a Boston police officer (how did she ever pass the physical exam?) who is rude, disrespectful, vulgar, and profane in her speech and behavior toward everyone she encounters.

Wow. A woman who uses four letter words. This would be hilarious and jaw dropping...if Eisenhower were still president.

In the entire film I laughed out loud maybe half a dozen times. Not a good return on investment.

Most amazingly, this is from the same writer and director who made BRIDESMAIDS, one of the most hilarious films I've ever seen.

But the ability to make a great film about the idiotic rituals associated with a wedding does not translate to being able to milk laughs from a cop buddy film.

Lost among the supporting cast is a short performance by Jane Curtin, given almost nothing to do as McCarthy's mother. In her few scenes she essentially stands in her background and blends in with the furniture. Smart actress.

One consolation: bad though THE HEAT may be, it is nowhere near as awful as HOPE FLOATS. That's one that Sandra Bullock will be living down the rest of her days.
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2/10
Was This Originally Intended to Be a Comedy?
27 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I recorded this last night on Encore Suspense, and it really looked promising. Great cast, great director, stylish opening titles (that's becoming a lost art), and an interesting premise.

Tonight I watched it. My jaw dropped, but for all the wrong reasons. In essence, Michael Keaton plays the Roadrunner, and Andy Garcia plays Wile E. Coyote. The big switch is that the coyote wants to catch the roadrunner because the coyote's son needs a bone marrow transplant and the roadrunner is a perfect match.

Garcia's character is a police officer who very improbably arranges for Keaton to be released from prison so that the transplant can be done in a San Francisco hospital. Of course, complications ensue. Unfortunately, so does hilarity.

It is admirable that Garcia's character, a widower, wants his child to survive. But after Keaton escapes he kills or injures dozens of police officers and hospital staff, but Garcia continually subverts attempts to capture or kill Keaton. As the Police Captain asks Garcia, "How many people are going to have to die here tonight so that kid of yours can live?"

At first the film is entertaining. Keaton rightly realizes that the script is an improbable dud, so he has fun with it. But when he makes his big escape and slides down a laundry chute with a shock paddle in each hand to slow his fall it's clear that we've left the Earth's gravitational pull far behind us.

It's good to see Keaton working. He's a fine actor who makes a lot of films, they just don't get released. But, good Lord, this was his next film after JACKIE BROWN. Is he that hard up for work?

The much discussed in these pages ending, which I will not reveal, is predictable and even more unbelievable than anything else in the film. It's a perfect example of OK, smooth move, but what are you going to do now? What does NOT happen in the ending was that Garcia's son coming out from under sedation and speaking to his Dad in Keaton's voice. That's where the second star came from.

Parents' note: Violence, profanity, gore, and an unforgivable scene in which a gun is aimed at a child's head.

Trivia note: Later on Keaton starred in JACK FROST as a musician who neglects his family, dies, and comes back as a snowman. No, really, that's what happens. It's bad enough to count as a crime against humanity. The little boy who plays Garcia's son in DESPERATE MEASURES plays Keatons' son in JACK FROST.
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Silent Night (I) (2012)
8/10
If Dario Argento Had Directed TWIN PEAKS, This Is What It Would Have Been Like
5 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
SILENT NIGHT starts out so wonderfully well that I knew it wouldn't be able to sustain the momentum, but it's very much worth watching.

Early in the first act we meet a girl of roughly junior high age whom we first see back-talking her mother and using language that would make a sailor blush. Of course, everybody knows that in slasher movies a cardinal rule is that harm cannot be done to children. Guess what? Moments later a masked Santa is at the door and he bloodily dispatches her on screen with extreme prejudice.

It's Christmas Eve in a backwater town in Wisconsin (the grass and trees are green as can be, but we're not supposed to notice this). Aubrey (Jamie King) is a young widow who's a deputy to Sheriff Cooper (the wonderful Malcolm McDowell, gleefully overacting and eating scenery faster than a bulldozer).

The town has been in the doldrums since the mill shut down, but has mustered an air of festivity for the holiday celebration and the Christmas Parade, the highlight of which is a competition for Best Santa Claus which has hundreds of contestants.

Aubrey and her parents (her dad is a retired police officer and her mother a pleasant cipher) are among the town's few sane, normal residents. Drugs, adultery, promiscuity, theft, the production of pornography, a totally creepy priest, you name it, it's going on here. As the sheriff wonders aloud, "How has this town gotten so perverted?" The closing of the mill is cited as a possible cause for the town's decline, but that subtext goes unexplored.

As the corpses begin to pile up, the sheriff should have called for outside assistance. Alas, he suffers from Delusions of Competence and is steadfast in his refusal to seek outside aid. So the killer in the Santa suit continues his rampage.

Jamie King is, as always, solid in her characterization. I'm not sure if Malcolm McDowell's performance is "good acting" as such, but he has such fun with it that I'm in no mood to argue. Best of all, Donal Logue is one of the Santas, a cynical man who is a strong suspect to be the killer. When he's arrested, he and Jamie King have a dynamic scene at the jail at the end of the second act in which he expresses how Christmas has been a series of disappointments to him over his failure ridden life. His anger and and frustration and Ms. King's wordless reaction to what she's hearing are riveting.

The cinematography in SILENT NIGHT is excellent. The use of color, especially red, is what reminded me of Dario Argento's films. And Kevin Riepl's atmospheric musical score keeps up the tension throughout the story.

There is plenty of gore here, but unlike, say, HOSTEL, it's used effectively in telling the story and never seems to be there for its own sake.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

At the end of the third act the sheriff is dead, the jail is burning, and Aubrey is squared off against the killer Santa. I'm sitting there trying to figure out just who it could be under that mask. The problem is, every suspect I could think of at that point was dead.

It turns out that the killer is not a character who's been part of the narrative. I know, it's not a law that the guilty party in a mystery has to be a character to whom we have been introduced. It's not in the Bible, it's not in the Code of Criminal Procedures. But it's a rule that Agatha Christie would have followed.

One of the prime suspects had been a man named Stein Karsson. He had told Aubrey a story about a man who had dressed in a Santa suit many years ago and gone on a killing spree with a flamethrower.

It turns out that this wasn't an urban legend. Several decades ago the man, Ronald Jones, had indeed done exactly what Karsson had said, and been gunned down by a young rookie police officer.

The young officer was Aubrey's father. And the flamethrower Santa's young son, Ronald Jones Junior, had seen everything that happened and had seen his father die. Here, many years later, he has come back for his revenge.

Five paragraphs ago we saw Aubrey and the killer Santa in mortal combat. Aubrey gains control of the flamethrower and the present day killer Santa is ablaze, just like his father many years ago. He falls to the floor, presumably dead.

Aubrey and Brenda, the presumably sinless dispatcher, stagger out the front door of the police station/jail, which is blazing like a proverbial Yule log. A large municipal building in the heart of town is afire but no crowd has gathered, no firetrucks have arrived but (like the green grass and leaves on the trees) we aren't supposed to notice that.

Ronald Junior somehow survives (sequel?) and gets out of the building. We see him in his truck driving out of town.

I should mention that this is a loose remake of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT which created a sensation in 1984 by daring to present a killer Santa. Protests by parents' groups caused Tri-Star to withdraw it from theatrical distribution. Publicity from the protests made it a runaway hit on videocassettes (younger readers will have to Google that) and inspired several direct-to-video sequels.

SILENT NIGHT is a very solid, effective thriller. However, I'll admit that the first two acts work better than the third. If I'd written it the story's climax would have been centered around the Santa Parade and, yes, the killer would have been introduced in the first act.

Of course, maybe that's why the producers didn't seek me out to write it.

Parents' note: Drug use, gore, nudity, profanity, and violence. Rated R for a reason.
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Carnage (2011)
3/10
Let's get out of here: these people are crazy!
5 October 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I'd wanted to see this when it came out in theaters, but it didn't get very wide release. So I finally saw it on Encore, and found it a major disappointment.

The script seems to have been written by high school students who have studied Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and Sartre's NO EXIT and decided to combine the two.

The basic premise of two couples meeting after their children have a fight is essentially resolved minutes into the film, and the visiting couple starts to leave.

In a better world, at that point Jodie Foster would break the fourth wall by pointing into the camera and telling her visitors, "You can't go yet. Those people sitting out there drove across town to see this, some of them hired baby sitters. And Mr. Polanski spent all this money on this lovely living room set. Please stay long enough that this turd will be at least somewhere near feature length!"

Alas, they foolishly listen to her. So they trudge back into the living room and talk. And talk. Foolishly, they consume alcohol. And talk some more.

Unfortunately, the more they talk the less we can identify with them. Characters in films don't have to be likable, goodness knows. But it helps if we can in some way identify with them. At about the midway point I was wondering if this was taking place in a coincidentally named "Brooklyn" that was actually in a different solar system.

I'm familiar with the author's work, having seen and hugely enjoyed ART on stage a few years ago. The three characters in it were so well developed, and based on that I'd looked forward to seeing CARNAGE.

The dramatic high point of the film comes when Kate Winslet's character vomits. Ooooh. Look at that! She projectile vomits, with much of the gunk landing on one of her hostess's books. As the reviewer in The New Yorker pointed out, not just A book but an ART book. Oooh.

The people who will be most disappointed in CARNAGE are teenagers who see the R rating and think they're going to see something. Nope. Just cursing.

Way back in 1972 comedian George Carlin had a monster hit with his routine Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. And that is the heart of the problem. If you want to use these words for dramatic impact, they're all pretty well worn out from overuse.

Maybe the next President will run on a campaign of promising America new profanity.
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8/10
After 49 years I Finally Got to See It!
19 September 2013
Warning: Spoilers
The first two acts of SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL set up and develop the basic situation. Helen(Natalie Wood) has written a best selling book called, well, you know that. She's being pursued by Rudy (Mel Ferrer), a fellow psychiatrist, but won't give him the time of day. Bob Weston (Tony Curtis) works for a tabloid and is obsessed with exposing Ms. Brown as a "23 year old virgin" and he does indeed used the previously forbidden word "virgin" more than once.

Frank (Henry Fonda) is Bob's neighbor. Frank is married to Sylvia (Lauren Bacall) and their numerous loud arguments keep Bob from getting to first base with Gretchen (Fran Jeffries), a singer with Count Basie's Orchestra.

Finally, in the long second act, Bob finds a way to get to know Helen up close and personal. He'll pretend to be Frank and go to her for therapy. This is complicated by the fact that as soon as these two incredibly good looking people are within physical proximity of each other they fall head over heels in love.

Of course, they have previously spoken with each other on the phone and shared a mutual loathing. I would point out how similar this is to the premise of PILLOW TALK five years earlier, but I've got better manners than that.

The lovely Leslie Parrish is a secretary casually involved with Bob. Edward Everett Horton is Bob's boss. Otto Kruger plays Helen's boss.

The plot thickens. Complications ensue.

Although this isn't billed as a musical, Ms. Jeffries sings three songs. Two of the three are fine material- "The Anniversary Song" and Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"- and a novelty title song. During "The Anniversary Song" Frank and Sylvia "dance" something resembling The Twist. Their dance moves are totally unrelated to the song itself, and I was unsure whether the songs were to extend the film to feature length or to provide three opportunities for audiences to run out for popcorn and Cokes.

The disappointing thing about the film is that, for much of its running time, it just isn't all that funny. The only laugh out loud moment in the first two acts was at the anniversary party for Frank and Sylvia: the cake is, in honor of their constant arguing, decorated with a boxing ring motif.

There are wonderful actors at work here. Richard Quine is a solid director. Joseph Heller was the primary writer credited. Edith Head did the costumes. Neal Hefti wrote the original score. Charles Lang photographed the film. But too much of the film just lies there limp and pale.

It's strange to see a film in wide screen and color (and thanks, Turner Classic Movies, for getting such a great print) where scene after scene involves people indoors talking. There's a brief scene where Bob and Frank go golfing, with some business with golf carts that foreshadows the third act, but it's mostly set up like a TV sitcom.

Then, in the third act, Quine and company throw caution to the wind and have all the primary characters racing to the airport so that at least one pair of lovers will go to the Fiji Islands.

This gets the characters literally in motion, adds three points to my score, and introduces new characters such as a cab driver (Stubby Kaye!), an increasingly frustrated motorcycle cop (Larry Storch), and an elderly couple (Burt Mustin and the wonderfully named Cheerio Meredith) out for a drive in their antique car.

At the end of the story Bob and Helen are together, Frank and Sylvia are lovebirds, and, Gretchen and Rudy find happiness.

The film pretends to be very daring in its sexual attitudes, but I was literally horrified when Bob proposes marriage to Helen, and one of her first reactions is "But I'll have to quit my job!" It was like watching a Friday the 13th movie, except instead of "Don't go upstairs!" I was shouting "Queen Victoria died at the beginning of the century!" As the son of a career woman (college professor) and grandson of a career woman (newspaper editor) I found the idea that a woman couldn't have a successful career and a great marriage repulsive. Of course, that line could have been thrown in to appease the censors for having suggested that Bob and Helen might possibly have had a honeymoon night before the wedding day.

Interestingly, Henry Fonda worked with far more sophisticated material relevant to sexual politics twenty some years before this film in Elliot Nugent's hilarious adaptation of Nugent's and James Thurber's THE MALE ANIMAL in which Fonda played a professor who fears losing his strong- willed and independent wife to his old friend who's an athlete.

Still, SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL was ultimately fun and gave me a chance to watch some of my favorite actors wear good clothes in nice settings. And Mom needn't have worried:

Parents' note: As racy as a Doris Day movie or an episode of The Love Boat. Hipsters will be distressed by the fact that a couple of characters are seen smoking.
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