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Disposable Time Filler
This made for TV mystery was dull and lifeless. There wasn't anything notable or well crafted about any aspect of it. The dialogue was flat. The cinematography was uninspired. Scenes are poorly staged with actors standing around awkwardly, and the pace in individual scenes frequently lagged. The acting was bland. The energy is low and the whole film lacks any real style or strong point of view. There are no interesting relationships here or memorable scenes.
The film features a dull mystery regarding the death of a priest. A nun he had been working with is charged with the crime. There's the usual collection of random, interchangeable suspects. Those used to smart and energetic legal dramas like "Law and Order" will be underwhelmed by the staid courtroom scenes. And the revelation of the killer falls flat, because really any of them could have done it. There's no real specificity or cleverness to the mystery's resolution.
Raymond Burr brings his trademark gravity to the Mason role, but the writers have not given him much to work with. Mason is a mostly expository character with little personality. He has no interests, quirks, passions or seemingly any personal life to speak of. He also doesn't seem to form even the slightest emotional bond with anyone else in the story. He's utterly disengaged. Follow his example and disengage from the film yourself.
Oddly Conceived Letdown
As a fan of Billy Wilder, old movies and this trio of stars, I was looking forward to this. But I feel it's a bit of a letdown.
Audrey Hepburn, as usual, is luminous (and she is, as usual, paired off with a suitor far too old for her). But part of the problem is what the story does with her character. She pines away for Holden, and then goes away to cooking school in Paris. Why does she go? Did she want to go? Unknown. While away, she writes her father a letter saying she is over Holden. But then, when she returns, she (in a rather absurd coincidence) runs into him at the train station. The two connect. So she wasn't over him after all? Or was she over him, but then fell back in love when she saw him? What was her plan if she hadn't coincidentally run into him? Who knows? Later, Bogart and Holden sort out which of them gets to "have" her, which is rather sexist and also robs her of her agency. (Surely a charming girl like that must have other options besides a buffoon and an old man.)
Holden hasn't been given much of a character to play. He's all charm and nothing else. The script never rounds him out with grace notes that might have helped us to understand why he lives such a vacuous life. As an actor, Holden has consistently shown an ability to locate the darkness buried inside his characters, but he never seems to tap into that quality here.
(It might have been interesting if Hepburn, during the course of dating Holden finally realized what a shallow loser he is and dumped him. And then maybe Holden, in turn is forced to reexamine his life. But the story never explores that darker, more interesting possibility. Instead, Hepburn is a pawn in the men's games.)
As for Bogart, he was, of course, one of our great stars and did amazing work in dramas and crime stories. But in a light romantic comedy like this, he's very much out of his element, like Holden is. (Bogart took the role after Cary Grant turned it down.) Bogart manages to capture the cold sourness of his character just fine, but he never locates the man's gradual transformation into a guy in love. He never seems interested in Hepburn at all, which is oddly something of an accomplishment, given how beautiful Hepburn is.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Bogart is too old, unattractive and emotionally cold for Hepburn to ever give him the time of day. When these two would-be lovers are reunited at the very end of the film, they hug rather than kiss. It's as if the filmmakers are acknowledging the absurdity of that these two might actually be right for each other. Or perhaps they know that there's something rather gross about the fifty-ish Bogart kissing the twenty-ish Hepburn.
A True Hollywood Oddity
So what happens in "Giant"? Or rather, what doesn't?
PLOT POINT: Handsome, successful, suit wearing Rock brings Liz back to his ranch, to live forever. Immediately upon her arrival, she meets James Dean, a troubled, boyishly handsome ranch hand closer to her age.
QUESTION: Will Liz find herself in a torrid love triangle, forced to choose between these two very different (but fascinating) men?
ANSWER: Nope. She has little, if any interest in Dean, and only shares a few minutes of screen time with him. He does appear to be interested in her. But whatever is going on psychologically inside the Dean character isn't well dramatized on screen. He's mostly a mystery, a withdrawn, silent character. He does little if anything to actually try to win Liz's heart. At the end of the film, he seems to suggest that his unrequited love for Liz drove all his actions and ruined his life. But given how little interest Liz took in him, Dean ultimately comes off more like an emotionally immature, lovesick teenager than some tragic figure. And the film doesn't even bother to give us a Liz/Dean scene at the end, to provide closure to this part of the story.
PLOT POINT: Upon her arrival, Liz also meets Rock's strong willed sister. She's been the queen of the ranch up until now.
QUESTION: Will Liz and the sister fight over who is in charge of the ranch, and Rock?
ANSWER: Nope. The sister dies shortly after Liz's arrival, in a completely arbitrary, random horse accident.
PLOT POINT: Dean inherits a small patch of land adjacent to Rock's ranch.
QUESTION: Will the two rivals, now living side by side wage war with each other in an epic battle for control?
ANSWER: Nope. They mostly get along with only minor problems. When Dean's wealth reaches new heights, Rock simply sells out.
PLOT POINT: Sal Mineo is introduced as a young man who is interested in ranch life, unlike Rock's own kids.
QUESTION: Will Mineo, in time, become Rock's surrogate son, and new ranch head?
ANSWER: Nope. Mineo is killed (off screen) during the war. The audience is subjected to a dull, unnecessary five minute funeral scene for his character. (While he was alive, all of Mineo's scenes combined represented about two minutes of screen time. The film inexplicably spends more time on his funeral than it did on him!)
PLOT POINT: Once grown, Rock's and Liz's kids want to do things with their lives that are different from what their parents want for them.
QUESTION: Will these disagreements create conflict in the family?
ANSWER: Nope. Rock lets the kids follow their hearts.
PLOT POINT: Rock's Latino daughter in law is refused service in the salon in Dean's huge hotel. Rock takes this as a very personal insult to his family by Dean. The two men fight.
QUESTION: Does this represent a satisfying climax to the film?
ANSWER: Nope. Technically, Rock is right. As the owner of the hotel/salon, Dean is ultimately responsible for what goes on there. But Dean doesn't seem like a racist. He's never said or done anything racist during the film. Also, Dean seems like an indifferent businessman, more lucky than smart. It's unlikely that he was even aware that these racist policies were even in place. Dean's culpability here is weak at best, and it seems like a tenuous foundation to build the climax of a three hour film on.
PLOT POINT: At the end of the film, Rock and his family visit a diner. While there, they notice that the owner refuses service to a Latino family, one that Rock has never met and has no connection to whatsoever.
QUESTION: Rock fights the manager, to express his outrage at the manager's racism, and to convince him to change this policy. The music score swells. Does Rock win? Does the final scene offer any kind of satisfactory conclusion to this would-be epic story?
ANSWER: Nope. Rock loses and the diner will continue its racist policy. The film attempts to end on a happy note, showing that Rock now cares about people of color. But Rock never expressed any racist views in any prior scene, so this doesn't represent substantive character growth. (His affection for Sal Mineo seemed to suggest a man with no race or class prejudices.) Even if Rock had won, it's just a conflict between two men at a diner. For a three hour film called "Giant," it feels like an oddly inconsequential ending.
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940)
What were the most memorable parts of the film?
1. The title, which could probably benefit from a "the."
2. The goofy scene where the judge gives a small child to a strange man, who will keep the boy for the day and have fun with him. OK...
3. The fact that when the Hardys visit New York City, there's a story about it in the local newspaper. And it's the lead story on the front page. (Man, that must be a small town, if people going away constitutes news.) I hope nobody broke into their house while they were away.
4. The final image of the film, which seems to hint at Mickey Rooney's future marital life. (He was married a lot.)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
BOLDLY GOING backwards, not forwards.
It was understandable that the first film of the new "Trek" franchise would evoke, to some degree, the originals. That film was a transitional film, a bridge from old to new. And having accomplished that, I was hoping that "Star Trek Into Darkness" would carve out its own ideas, stake its own claim and justify itself as a fresh take on the "Trek" conventions (no, not those conventions).
Instead, if anything, this film is even more reliant on past story ideas than the first film was. And in the final analysis, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" can best be characterized as a remake of the classic 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." And why do that? For over thirty years, that film has been available to anyone who wanted it. "Star Trek 2" is the best Trek film ever. It has a wonderful blend of action, character and original science fiction ideas. It also has enormous heart and interesting themes about aging, death and the costs of maturity. This film evokes the basic outline but none of what made that film great.
In interviews, the filmmakers refused to say the identity of the character played (very well) by Benedict Cumberbach, but said it was a famous Trek villain. It's a short list: Harry Mudd (who gets a shout out here), Q and Khan. At first, I thought it might be Q. Cumberbach more closely evokes John DeLancie than Ricardo Montalban. And that would be a neat surprise, since everyone in the audience would be assuming Khan. (And the fact that Q is not part of the Kirk "Trek" universe would be a neat surprise too.) It couldn't be Khan, I thought to myself. That was just be too obvious. Surely, the filmmakers have something far more interesting up their sleeve.
Alas, just as smoke is indicative of fire, the revelation that the villain is Khan falls entirely flat. It's about a surprising as the revelation in "Indy 4" of who Mutt's father was.
Cumberbatch is fun in his way, but I wished the writers had given him more to do, other than arch his eyebrows and speak the usual bad guy rantings in his melodious British voice. Montalban's Khan was a Shakespearian figure. He was angry, funny, sexy, soulful and, in the end, totally crazy and sadly tragic. (Nicholas Meyer, the film's director and co-writer was a Shakespearian scholar.) Cumberbatch is a cool actor but his villain is too one note, in the end, to register much.
As the film goes on, the references to "Star Trek II" pile on and on, until it becomes clear that this film is pretty much a straight up remake. There are some vague attempts to inject some fresh variations. (It's Kirk, not Spock who risks his life, etc.) But disappointment sets in as time goes on and the film fails to evoke any fresh ideas. The pile up of references and shout outs made me feel like I was watching a "Simpsons" Halloween episode parody. Spock's pained "Khaaaan!!" lament was the jump the shark moment, and it drew huge laughs at the screening I attended.
I enjoyed the film's action sequences, but I'm hoping that future "Trek" films will dial down the homage to the originals, and dial up the new and original ideas. The time has come to stop recycling and start creating. For a franchise that boldly boasts of "new frontiers," this chapter is sadly derivative.
Món petit (2012)
Moving and insightful
"Little World" is all about Albert, and audiences will naturally take to him. His friendly, easygoing confidence and likability make him good company. It's not surprising that people are drawn to him, and invite him to stay in their home for free as their guest. (Some invite him to stay forever, but the road beacons him.) Albert longs for four things in life: Happiness, freedom, love and good luck. He has all of these in abundance, and when he gets his "happiness tattoo" at the end of the film, it makes for a satisfying coda.
Albert is like a real-life Elwood P. Dowd, forever optimistic in the face of life's adversities. At one point, we watch this disabled boy merrily crawling, one by one, up the many (!) steps of the Great Wall of China. His joy at reaching the top is sweetly moving without being mawkish.
Even when lying in a hospital bed, having narrowly avoided death, his unrelenting optimism and joie de vivre are undiminished. (One can't help but wonder if Albert's persistent good cheer might actually represent some sort of mild autism or mental illness.)
Like Dowd, Albert seems to enjoy an almost otherworldly insulation from disaster. His plan to travel around the world on no money seems like a disaster waiting to happen, but things move along with apparent expediency. Albert and Anna bring no money on their journey. They get along by hitchhiking, and by the generosity of others. These negotiations are generally not depicted on camera. The impression one gets is that people are drawn to Albert and take pleasure in helping him. (Albert does use deceit to gain passage on a ship, but this appears to be a rare and forgivable exception.) Albert is so likable and friendly that it's unlikely audiences will see his behavior in a negative light.
Albert and Anna's journey, as depicted in the documentary is almost absurdly easy. Their approach is adventurous and spontaneous but also thoroughly inefficient. One suspects that their trip likely had moments of downtime, boredom, delays and obstacles, none of which are generally depicted in the film. Albert's loving relationship with his girlfriend Anna helps anchor the film, although one wishes we knew more about what motivates her. (We're also curious about Albert's decision to continue travelling alone during her illness. Didn't he want to be by her side?)
The film poses compelling questions about who is truly "handicapped" and what makes for a meaningful existence. Albert's life is very unusual, but he ably defends his choices, explaining that this is the life he wants. For him, staying home or working in an office would be death.
The conclusion of the film, where Albert and Anna arrive in New Zealand is very moving. It's here, at the "beginning of the world" that the film explores the cosmic, philosophical questions posed by Albert's journey. It's a fitting and satisfying end, and the fact that the final exchanges take place in English will only add to American audience's enjoyment of these moments.
Hollywood films have their clichés, but so do Sundance indies as well. We've all sat through underwritten sensitive stories about loners where so much of what is going on is "left unsaid." It's a fine line between poetically subtle and just plain underwritten, and this film falls in the latter category. Who is Terri? Why is he the way he is? Who are any of these people? And none of the relationships here are at all interesting. Nor is there any attempt to provide any kind of psychological insight. Several times characters are confronted about their behavior (Terri in gym class, the girl regarding a sexual encounter, the principal in his office), only to shrug and fail to offer any insight. There's no "there" here. It's an empty bag, a "Sundance favorite" that has nothing to offer. This is something anyone could have written over a weekend. It's been 6 decades since Holden Caufield, and yet people still try to do the sensitive teen thing. Rent Rushmore instead.
The Big Gay Musical (2009)
Weak, well intentioned effort
Although ultimately well intentioned, the film depicts a rather depressing image of what it means to be gay. If the film is to be believed, being gay means a life filled with religious-based bigotry, disease, a de-humanizing dating scene, low self-esteem, rejection from family and obsession with the body.
As a gay man living in a big city and working in the theatre, I can tell you that there's more to gay life than that. There are gay people in happy long-term monogamous relationships. Most gay people I know are involved with community activism and have rich, rewarding lives.
I belong to a gay Christian church, and I know that God loves everyone and that anti-gay bigotry is not consistent with Christ's ministry.
As a film, "The Big Gay Musical" is passable entertainment. The acting, writing, directing and music are average.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Godot with toys
Anyone wondering what Schindler's List might have looked like if performed by toys need look no further than "Toy Story 3." An ugly, dark, joyless movie, "Toy Story 3" will frighten children and send adults into therapy.
The first "Toy Story" was a delight, capped off with a fun and exciting chase sequence, in which Buzz and Woody attempted to catch up to the moving van that held all of their friends. Sure, if they hadn't made it, it would have been sad. But the chase and the movie as a whole was a lot of fun, capped off by some fun Randy Newman songs.
"Toy Story 2" was an even better movie, because it added an interesting ingredient to the soup: An acknowledgment of death. The sequence where Jessie laments how her life lost its meaning when her owner grew up is truly heart breaking. And the final spoken lines of dialogue, referencing Buzz's catch phrase "To infinity and beyond," but placing the phrase in the context of death itself was a masterstroke. Adding these dark elements in select moments elevated the movie into something special.
"Toy Story 3" makes the mistake of taking those select moments and turning them into the WHOLE MOVIE. The stink of death, loss and alienation is as prevalent here as a Beckett play. The story of Lotso's grim rejection by his owner and his subsequent change to a dark, Nazi-like dictator poisons the fun. (What, no up tempo Randy Newman song about that?) And the depiction of Ken as a gay stereotype was offensive, and future generations will squirm at those moments, like they do today over the racist depiction of Asians in "Breakfast at Tiffanies." (The Pixar films would never take a black or Jewish toy and make them act in a stereotypical fashion, but I guess gays are fair game.) As with most sequels, character growth is mostly zero. The characters have done all their growing in the earlier segments, and so they spend the movie mostly running around, learning nothing, never growing. Woody comes off as absurdly delusional in his belief that the best thing for him and the others is to sit in a plastic bag in an attic for decades until such time as maybe Andy wants his children to play with them.
But life at the daycare center is another form of hell. The film strives to depict the toy's plight as a parody of a prison film, but ends up evoking the holocaust and Nazi concentration camps. The tyranny, torture (yes, torture) and betrayals the toys face in the day care center are dark and awful, but still pale in comparison to the act three climax. Here, we have the pleasure of watching our heroes in a trash compactor, facing an almost certain death in an oven, to be burned alive. Again, one can't help but think of the holocaust and how the victims there were burned in ovens.
But it all ends happily. The characters are saved and live happily ever after.
Or do they? For a film that shows such craft in its writing and such subtlety in its characterizations, the final fifteen minutes of the film are mind boggling inconsistent with what has come before. It begins with the claw, that rescues its characters, God-like, from their peril. Up until now, God-like interventions had been non-existent. These characters always had the ingenuity to get themselves out of jams, but suddenly not here.
In the scenes that follow, Andy suddenly loves his toys. And life at the daycare is a toy utopia. (Remember that the only change is that Lotso is gone. I guess he took all the evil with him when he left.) The final image of the film is the sky, with a series of similar looking clouds. Seem familiar? It's the same clouds as the wallpaper in Andy's room. The characters have found themselves, post-fire, in a happy but manufactured world. Conclusion: They died in the fire and this is heaven. I'm happy for them, because sitting through this movie, I felt like I was in hell.
Bart Got a Room (2008)
Much ado about nothing
When the people behind "Bart Got A Room" call it a film about a guy looking for a date for the prom, they mean just that. There's no emotional subtext whatsoever to this search. Why is it so important to him, and why should we care? Danny is such a blank slate, and the writing doesn't offer many insights into who he is as a person. Compare Danny in your mind with more interesting movie teenagers, like Max from "Rushmore" or Harold from "Harold and Maude," and you'll see what I mean. And the actor playing Danny does little to illuminate that he has any kind of inner life at all.
Danny's parents are equally bland and uninteresting. The only truly insightful moment occurs when one of Danny's friends discussing going to the zoo with his mother. (The mother, a divorced woman, hates going to the zoo but is desperately trying to please her new boyfriend.) What is the film even about? Is it about the close friendship between Danny and Camille? But even after the hot girl turns him down, he decides to keep shopping around, rather than turn to Camille, which she herself acknowledges. The film doesn't provide any real scenes to establish the bond they share. (Sorry. Showing old photos of them as children and having narration isn't enough.) I thought the film might be about a boy choosing not to cross over the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Children like to have fun, play with their friends and bond with their parents. Young adults want to carve our their own identities, be independent, distance themselves from their parents and explore their sexuality. So which side does Danny ultimately fall down on – youth or maturity? The film (SPOILERS!) explains at the end that he chose to spend his prom night not with his peers but with his parents and his platonic friend. It further explains that the hotel room, that presumed symbol of sexual maturity, was used instead to play Boggle, a children's game, with his parents and platonic childhood friend.
But then, that youth vs. maturity interpretation doesn't really work either. So many different directions the film could have gone in, and yet, in the end, the filmmakers never really chose a path.
As someone with a deep affection for "Freaks and Geeks," I was looking forward to seeing this show on DVD. Although perhaps unfair to compare the two, I do feel that comparing and contrasting (in true college essay question style) highlights the shortcomings of "Undeclared."
CHARACTER SPECIFICITY. The freaks and geeks of "Freaks and Geeks" had sharply defined personalities. By contrast, these people are very general types. The main character is a standard issue nerd. Seth Rogen seems to wander into scenes without a character to play.
CHARACTER SYMPATHY. The kids on F&G formed little family units, and bonded and took care of each other. The "Undeclared" kids are basically all strangers to each other, and are as likely to compete or argue as to connect.
EMOTIONAL PULL. F&G took place during high school, and the emotional vulnerability of the characters and their growing pains gave the show a warm emotional poignancy. Think of the episode where one boy discovered that his father was cheating on his mother, and how this, in turn, caused Sam to worry about his own family's stability. The college kids in "Undeclared" are a selfish, immature bunch interested in sex and beer, and they're far more difficult to connect with as a viewer.
COMPLEX STORIES. Because it was a half hour longer, F&G had far richer stories and ideas. But even accounting for this, "Undeclared" still comes off pretty anemic in the story department. A typical "Undeclared" episode takes a small idea and does very little with it.
HUMOR. F&G was hilarious. The episode where Sam wore the disco suit to school is a classic. Nothing in "Undeclared" can rival that level of humor.
Some thoughts on Phantom Menace.
1. The main thing missing from all the prequels was a sense of emotional connections between the characters. Take Obi Wan. He spends the three prequels performing his various duties as a jedi. What are his hopes? Dreams? Fears? Loves? He has no emotional agenda and no real emotional connection to the other characters. It's true of all the prequel characters, who seem to exist in their own solitary worlds, disconnected from others.
Remember the original Star Wars? Remember Luke and Han, bickering like brothers but helping each other when in need? Remember Luke's father/son like connection to Obi Wan, and the sense of loss he felt when Obi Wan died? Remember the droids, arguing but never less than loyal to each other? That was how Lucas wrote then. Today, I always imagine George sitting in some big mansion, like Charles Foster Kane, rich and very much alone. His movies are emotionally cold and the characters are all estranged from each other.
2. I'll never understand why Lucas chose trade routes and tariffs as central aspects of his adventure movie plot. Was he sitting in his office one day, arranging for a shipment of Star Wars toys to China, and was upset about tariffs and thought "Here's an underutilized idea for an adventure movie." Or maybe he didn't realize that business trade negotiations, although perhaps relateable to him, weren't relateable to a large segment of his audience.
3. Making the force a chemical in your blood rather than a mystical ephemeral power robs the force of a lot of its mystery and fascination. It makes the force mundane. Another thought: Since the prequels take place "before" the originals, how come nobody in the Star Wars/Empire/Jedi films seems aware of this blood thing? 4. It's interesting to have Luke be Vader's son and Leia's brother, but having C3PO be Vader's pet robot as a child seems a little too coincidental.
5. Annikan is a dull kid and his force powers are never really demonstrated. Remember in the first Spider-Man, when Peter Parker was trying out his new powers? He was fascinated and curious and horrified all at once. Annikan should have had a scene like that.
6. Why didn't they bring Annikan's mother along with them? He's a boy and presumably will need a nanny, right? Why can't she be that? It might have been interesting to kill her off. That would give Annakin an early trauma, one that would inform his later dark side conversion. It would also form an interesting corollary with the first Star Wars film, where the death of Luke's aunt and uncle caused him to leave his farm life for a world of adventure.
7. Science fiction writer David Brin wrote a piece for Salon magazine years ago that articulated a lot of basic flaws of "Phantom Menace." Be sure to check it out for an intelligent, thoughtful analysis (some of which I've reiterated here.)
One Soldier (1999)
This film is now available on DVD. It's included in one of Steven Wright's recent stand up comedy DVD's. Anyone looking to see it or own it can find it there.
Check it out. I love the contrast of the staid, serious style with Steven Wright's hilarious modern-style surreality. It reminded me of Woody Allen's great comedy "Love and Death."
It was laugh out loud funny. And the black and white photography was beautiful.
Favorite moment: When Wright shared with Becky all that he had learned about life.
Law & Order (1990)
I miss Jerry
I love this show and I always will, but my interest of late has really flagged. It was at its best in the second half of the 1990's, when Orbach and Waterson were both doing their thing at their best.
I miss Orbach so much. He really made this show. (He looked a little tired in his last two years, but we forgive him.) Since he left I find myself utterly disinterested in who's on the show anymore. It's a revolving door and I've long since stopped investing emotionally in who's around now.
Moving Waterson into the DA slot was a good move, but the new DA is not that interesting, and it remains to be seen if Lupo brings anything to the picture.
The Big Bang Theory (2007)
Imagine "Mash" but with Frank Burns elevated from supporting character/villain to co-lead, but with all his nastiness and irritating qualities intact. That's what we have with Big Bang Theory. Sheldon is such a grating, irritating person, and that would be fine if he were, like Burns, a minor player. But Sheldon is a lead, and his negativity brings down the whole show, and not in a fun way. In one episode, he said if he could afford to live alone, he'd kick his friend out. "I value our friendship too," Leonard said sarcastically, although the comment was interesting in that it drew attention to an obvious flaw in the show. Why are these two guys friends at all? Also the show must work hard to invent reasons to pair up the guys with the cute girl across the hall. There's no reason for interaction, so the show must do some narrative gymnastics to bring them together, and it strains credibility.
Star Trek: Voyager: Endgame (2001)
SPOILERS. Like other posters, I felt that the ending was a bit abrupt. I would have liked to have seen the crew adjusting to life back on earth after their return. I suppose the writers anticipated this problem by "front loading" some Voyager on earth sequences at the beginning of the episode. (Of course, that time line has been eradicated, so it's all moot.) I did like how Admiral Janeway died for the Voyager crew. As fans, we get to have our cake and eat it to, by having Janeway both make the ultimate sacrifice and live on. I admit that the scenes of Janeway and her older self having conversations was bizarre and so easily could have crossed the line into camp. Fortunately, Mulgrew(s) pulled it off.
The Happiest Day of His Life (2007)
A cute and thought provoking short
This is a cute short that takes us through the process of creating a wedding, only the traditional gender roles are reversed. Jared Hillman makes an appealing presence as the groom, excited about his upcoming big day. Real life couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker are a treat to watch as his parents. The production values are very strong for a short film.
The whole story tests our notions of gender identity in a clever and thought provoking manner.
(The film can be seen for free on Logo's web site, and no registration or log in is required, so check it out.)
Ghost Busters (1984)
Not so crazy about it
To be honest, I wasn't crazy about this movie. Bill Murray's character comes off like a liar and a manipulator with little interest in science or anything else except scoring with Sigourney Weaver. The film seems to want to position him as the underdog, but in scenes in which others criticize him, I found myself nodding my head and thinking "You're right, he is a loser." Murray's annoying qualities could be forgiven if he was a sympathetic character who grows into a better person, like Dustin Hoffmans' character in the far superior "Tootsie" (A film that Ghostbusters eclipsed as the highest grossing comedy.) But he remains a jerk throughout. The kiss he shares with Sigourney at the end seems like a tacked on happy ending that is entirely unearned. Murray seems disinterested in what is happening in the film, cracking lame jokes but hardly ever involved in the action in any meaningful way. He's the least capable ghostbuster, and the others have to explain things to him. I know this was popular but I'll never understand why.
A Thanksgiving Tale (1983)
A kid's story for adults too.
"A Thanksgiving Tale" is a work of brilliance. This children's special was first aired on Showtime in 1983. It was performed with puppets by some of the same people who went on to do "Alf." (You can hear the voice of Alf in one of the rat characters.) I've seen it at least twenty times. Like a great "Simpsons" episode, "A Thanksgiving Tale" appeals to both children and adults.
It is the story of Tom, a nerdy turkey with dreams of show biz success on the legitimate stage. He gets off his bus at the wrong stop, and ends up in New Jersey. (When the bus driver said "Newark," Tom mistook this for "New York.") Tom hooks up with a group of cats, who offer him a bed for the night. Tom doesn't realize their real intention: To eat him the next day as their Thanksgiving dinner! A group of dogs living in the same alley come to Tom's rescue. The story of the conflict between the cats and dogs eventually mirrors the traditional (perhaps, not so PC or historically accurate) portrayal of cooperation and sharing between Native Americans and the early American settlers during the first Thanksgiving.
This synopsis might suggest a cloying, overly sentimental kid's story. But in a move that was way ahead of its time, this show avoided making their characters cute and sugary. The cats and dogs bicker like a dysfunctional family. They are selfish and self involved. Even in the end, during their Thanksgiving pageant, they retain their recalcitrant personalities. "I don't know how I got talked into this!" one irritable dog yells out from backstage, unhappy at having to wear a dorky Indian outfit in the pageant. "I hope my mother isn't watching."
Tom is a hilarious and sweet creation of self delusion, stupidity and show biz egomania. Although he's the character with the least understanding of what is happening, and with the least amount of power to affect the action, he eventually emerges as the voice of both reason and kindness. He is the heart of the story. (I'm just sorry we didn't get to hear him do his Elvis impersonation.)
Each cat and dog is vested with their own unique personality. Costume and production design are top notch. The clubhouse the cats live in is very "real," with dirty windows and clutter. One character wore a necklace made out of paperclips. Tom's bag has a copy of "Variety" stuffed into it. These details enhance the story.
As with "The Simpsons," there are many subtle references to pop culture. Watch closely for allusions to Tennessee Williams, Cary Grant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" TV game show, and Bob Dylan's unique singing style. If you get a chance to see "A Thanksgiving Tale," don't miss it.
The Steven Banks Show (1994)
A great program
This is a terrific comedy sitcom that played on PBS in the summer of 1994. It was funny and clever and very creative. People who complain that today's TV programs all look the same and none take chances or show much originality should check out The Steven Banks show. I enjoyed how only three actors played all the different roles in the show. It was very creative, like a great off- Broadway play. If you ever have a chance to see it, go for it.
Traveling to Olympia (2001)
Well intentioned, but...
This film is well intentioned but very amateur. It's hard to imagine a film this technically poor (it's shot on video) getting a home video release. I guess it can be marketed to the gay home video market, since it has cute naked guys in their twenties. The script is weak and unfocused. Actors mumble their lines like they can't remember them. There are several moments when the story takes a sudden left turn into soft-core sex scenes. (Less than a porn video but more than you see on one of those Showtime `for adults' films.) One such scene includes characters who are not involved in the regular story, which makes for a confusing moment. (And what the young hottie sees in the old senator is a mystery t me.)
For some reason, characters have absurd amounts of money, which solves any problem they might encounter. While the film is commendable for its belief that gay teenage boys (especially cute ones. No ugly guys here.) should be free from prejudice, it's just too poor in its creative and technical sides to recommend.
Voodoo Academy (2000)
A non-gay gay film
In reviews and user comments I've read online about these films,
the writers will say things like `It's almost as if it's gay.' and `It
seems sort of gay.' The equivocal reactions are understandable.
Allow me to be more bluntly clear: This is a horror film which,
unlike Hollywood films, is more intent on pleasing a gay male
audience than a straight one (though technically none of the
characters are gay.)
In `Voodoo Academy,' along with his film `The Brotherhood,'
director DeCoteau has created what might be called `the non-gay
gay film.' These are films which are clearly designed to appeal to
a gay audience, yet nevertheless stop short of being overtly gay.
On the surface, they seem intended for a straight audience. The
characters are not gay and they don't engage in any romantic
activities together. (And certainly the marketing makes no
indication of a gay angle.)
Yet at the same time, it's clear that something is going on here.
There are lots of gratuitous shots of young men in designer
underwear. There's no straight romantic subplots and hardly any
women. Unlike Hollywood films, which bend over backwards to
please a straight audience (and avoid any possible hint of gay
subtext), these films are clearly more interested in pleasing a gay
male audience than straight ones.
As for the film itself, it's not very good. A bland young man enrolls
in a small (6 students) college, where something strange is going
on. Long stretches of the film are given to providing expository
information which ultimately proves irrelevant. Scenes lack
tension. And the overall story is fairly dumb and ends abruptly.
The technical stuff is good, but the acting is wooden and the
scenes just drag.
Visions of Sugarplums (2001)
Don't let the fancy packaging fool you. This is an amateurish home movie masquerading as a film. Don't rent it. This `film' is so bad even Mystery Science Theatre 3000 wouldn't touch it. (The DVD does not include any special features, not even a chapter select.) The film runs barely over an hour.
It's a badly written, badly acted story filmed on digital cameras on a zero budget. The sound is awful, but perhaps that is a blessing, since then you won't have to hear them speak the dialogue. The scenes are awkwardly staged, like a police lineup.
The story apparently concerns a conservative couple who don't realize their son is gay. This is despite the fact that he is very effeminate, lives in the village and has arrived at his late twenties having never had a girlfriend. We haven't seen a father this unaware of his son's homosexuality since `Swamp Castle' Prince Herbert and his dad in Python's `Holy Grail.'
This is the worst film ever to get a video release. You've been warned.
American Beauty (1999)
Grow up, Lester!
Dear Lester Burnam:
I was sorry to hear of your death, mainly because I was very curious to see how your experiment would have ended. You blackmailed your employer for a year's salary. Had you not suddenly died, what were you planning to do? Maybe someone will one day write a 'sequel' to your story, one set in a parallel universe where you didn't die, and after the money ran out, you had to decide what to do next.
It's not surprising you've come to the conclusion that old=bad, teen=good. All the grown ups around you are fools. All the teens are wise and kind. The only real problems the kids have are their loser parents.
Lester, the critics talked about how you chose to purge your life of what is 'bad' and get in touch with what really mattered. They were wrong. You criticize your wife for loving a couch, but a moment earlier, you told her you 'ruled' because you bought a classic car.
I couldn't help but notice that what was 'bad' was invariably grown up, while what was 'good' was invariably youthful. You drift away from your wife and focus on a teenage girl. You give up your mature, responsible job to work at a fast food place. You buy the car you wanted to have as a kid. Lester, the critics have it all wrong. You're not 'improving' your life, you're infantalizing it. You're turning your back on grown up life and trying to act like a kid.
Lester, you are not alone in your youth obsession. Years ago, teenagers went to movies and watched with fascination as grown ups like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly fell in love. Today, people in their forties watch 'Dawson's Creek' and 'Titanic.' It's a new world, one where being a kid is cool and sexy, and being old (my God, forties!) means being dead.
Personally, I'm having none of it. I was miserable as a teenager and I'm looking forward to the rewards of maturity. Rent 'Welcome To The Dollhouse' or 'Lord Of The Flies,' and I guarantee they will cure you of your teenage fascination. Grown up life has a lot of pluses. Raising a daughter is one. A marriage where the years spent together have created a unique bond that no one night stand can come close to is another.
Your failure to make your grown up life work, and your desire to regress to teenhood is not something to feel proud of, Lester. You can't turn yourself into a teen, no matter how hard you try. And even if you could, you shouldn't. The solution to your problems would have been to fix your life. Don't like your job? Quit and find a better one, and not at a fast food place. Don't like your marriage? Don't obsess over teen girls. Get some counseling. And pay attention to that teenage daughter of yours. Grow up, Lester. It's not so bad. I
I Married a Strange Person! (1997)
Plympton is a genius and his film has more imagination than a hundred Hollywood film combined. Nevertheless, this film is a hard one to stick with. Even at an hour and 13 minutes, it feels long.
My objections are not the ones you might expect. I was totally open to Plympton's original and surreal take on life. I wasn't offended at all by the gross or sexual stuff. For the first fifteen minutes or so, Plympton's "anything goes" style of animation is both hilarious and thrilling. Inanimate objects come to life. Bizarre "what if" notions are suddenly played out for us in vivid color. We've entered a new universe.
The first half is very promising. I loved the scene of the main character having a tension filled dinner with his wife and her parents. (The in-law's house includes a framed photo of the young couple, with the son-in-law's image cut out!) These scenes show great promise of a man wrestling with the anxieties most new husband wrestle with (sex, in-laws, life in the 'burbs, balancing a demanding job with a wife who wants attention.) Sadly, the wife and these other elements are almost immediately swept aside so that we can have a series of belabored battles between our hero and the military-entertainment complex. These battles take up the entire second half of the story, and always end in a stalemate.
Plympton's universe, where the laws of physics don't apply and anything can and will happen, is ultimately a mixed blessing. At first, the freedom is funny and liberating. You don't know what's going to happen next. But after half an hour or so, it becomes repetitive and dull. If anything can happen, and no actions have any consequence, then why do we care? Nothing really matters here. Nothing is at stake. No one seems to want anything or care about anything. It's so unreal it ceases to be relevant. Our interest wanes. As cool as Plympton is (and he is cool), at some point the novelty wears off, and when it does, there's nothing to come in and fill the gap (The experience is kind of like that of watching an adult film.)
In the end, IMASP is about nothing but its own cleverness. I hope that for his next project, Plympton will put his considerable talents to work in a good story with strong characters. good story with stron