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What is created out of fear creates more fear
This film, on a spiritual level, is about what happens when choices in one's life are chosen out of fear. The spiritual teaching in this regard is very simple but profound - what you create out of fear in your life perpetrates yet more fear; it is a fear loop, with unending consequences throughout one's life. The only way to break the pattern is through love, which is the opposite of fear. The fizzle bomber component of John, toward the end of the film, asks for love. Does he receive it, or does the pattern of fear perpetuate?
Sex, Lies and Cell Phones
Binged through this series in two days, thanks to Naomi Watts' alluring, beyond-seductive presence, couldn't wait to find out how long she was going to be able to carry forth with her dangerously destructive double life before it started unraveling. Ten episodes worth, apparently! The ending was a bit of a letdown, although I did appreciate the subtlety of it.
Wyatt Cenac: Comedy Person (2011)
It's what he says, and how he says it.
Discovered Wyatt through Marc Maron's WTF podcast, which I found very soulful and compelling, so I checked out some of his stuff on youtube the next day. Hilarious material - totally original and brilliantly executed, just sensational. Bought Comedy Person for my iPod, which I pretty much know by heart by now and which led me to purchase the DVD.
This guy is the real deal - a true comic genius with a fantastic way of delivering his phenomenally original material. It's not just what he says, it's how he says it, his amazing sense of timing, his inflections, everything, including how he moves. He commands the stage so effortlessly, with such a seemingly innate understanding of how a rapport with an audience is created and sustained. It's genuinely thrilling to watch.
The DVD also has a cool little Bonus feature - an hilarious animated version of his Medieval Times bit, really priceless. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on it ASAP (which, in a nod to Cenac's fondness for acronyms, does not stand for As Soon As Possible, but rather And Succumb Already, Punk).
Big Eyes (2014)
Superficial Beyond Belief
Tim Burton, quite simply, should have left this material alone. It doesn't work as anything more than a mind-bogglingly superficial look at a deeply serious subject - the exploitation of a woman at the hands of an opportunistic, sadistic, immoral prick.
Amy Adams does a good job at portraying Margaret Keane, who is cajoled by said opportunistic sleazebag into letting him take credit for her now-legendary big-eyed waif paintings, telling her 'we're a team, let's work together', blah blah blah.
She goes into this disgusting relationship after having left her previous husband (taking her daughter with her), but she hasn't really gone anywhere; she's still brain-washed by society to believe that 'nobody buys lady art', so she's basically broken already when she hooks up with Walter Keane, or rather when he slimes his way into her life.
Serious stuff, the subjugation of women, made even worse when the woman is question is a major part of the problem. But Burton handles the whole thing so lightly, so completely vapidly, that the underlying story comes across as sadly predictable and devoid of any true payoff at the end.
I'm not saying he should have gone the opposite route, into some dreadfully horrific dark mode, with Walter Keane coming across like Doctor Doom, or even worse, the slivering slimy succubus known as Venom, but the tone he does take, as I've already said - don't want to run it into the ground - hardly does this non-amusing cautionary true-life story justice.
The screenplay, of course, doesn't help - it always starts with the script, naturally - bad writing is a nail in the coffin for a director, even one of Burton's stature. The best thing the film has going for it is Amy Adams, as Margaret. who brings a genuine poignancy to the role, a poignancy that is certainly not contained in the screenplay. She manages to make us feel SOMETHING at least, no easy task considering what she was given (or not given) to work with. (I gave the film 4 out of 10, my IMDb equivalent to 2 stars, only because of her brave performance.)
Walter's character, on the other hand, comes across as a complete cartoon caricature, with no human qualities whatsoever. Is this bad acting on the part of Waltz, who can surely shred scenery in his sleep? Probably. Everyone has to take responsibility for this fiasco, which I don't believe should have been green-lighted in the first place. Talk about exploitation.
Thumbs Not Up-ish, But Way Up!
Caught this last night and was pleasantly surprised - hadn't read about it beforehand, didn't realize Coogan and John Cameron Mitchell were involved, so I was doubly pleased.
Coogan's character sets the tone perfectly from the get-go, with his 'f-you' voice-over regarding Mount Rushmore: we know we're in for a no-holds-barred look at these peoples' lives, and that is indeed what we get in the half-hour pilot, which could have gone on longer, as far as I'm concerned.
This subject - trying to find the balance between what you get in Life and what you think you wanted - perfectly illustrated by the show's title - has been covered before, many times. But Happyish surprisingly manages to conjure a fresh take on it, because of the individuality of the characters. Good writing, excellent acting, huge watchability factor, with plenty of room to grow, and I am most definitely in.
Olive Kitteridge (2014)
Brutal four hours
I sat through all four episodes last night, drawn in by the two leads - McDormand and Jenkins are of course worth watching in anything. All the performances in the piece are excellent,in fact, beautiful casting across the board. I haven't read the book (nor do I plan to), but the biggest hurdle for me to come to terms with in the story is why such an exquisitely compassionate man like Henry would fall for and marry Olive in the first place.
He's not actually portrayed as a masochist, so that couldn't have been his underlying and perhaps subconscious reason for teaming up with this repugnant and relentlessly horrific sociopath; maybe when they were younger he saw something in her that appealed to his compassionate nature, who knows. I just had a problem accepting it. And it wasn't like she was mean and unappreciative just to him (as some spouses are, or come to be - they treat everyone outside the relationship relatively decent and save their ugly side for the one closest to them, because that's the only person who would put up with it). Nope, she was an equal-opportunity abuser who caused serious pain - or at the very least, horrendously negative vibes - to everyone in her path, including her son Chris, who finally told her to take a hike after relaying how miserable and utterly worthless she had made him feel his entire life.
I had very little sympathy for this worm of a woman, even though I understood that she was apparently 'clinically depressed' and she was shown with glimpses of humanity, cracks in the stoic facade. On some level she did care about others, like when she helped save someone from drowning. And toward the end, her interactions with Bill Murray's nearly-equally-bitter character were at least bordering on something human, so perhaps there was hope for her - again, who knows.
It was sort of superficial, the teleplay, in that it never delved into why she was like that and of course why Henry chose to marry her. They just laid it out for us with a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and at the end, I was relieved that it was over. There was one really good black-humored line: ~-~ SPOILER ALERT ~-~ It came toward the end, when Olive grunts to Bill Murray's character, 'I'm just waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.'
These are NOT chefs
The thing that really bugs me about this show is how Rachael and Guy keep calling the kids 'chef' - 'what have you prepared, chef?' - 'Nice job, chef', 'Oooh, I can't wait to taste it, chef,' blah blah blah. Let's be clear: these are children, very young children, who just happen to all have a large interest in cooking. That does not make them chefs, it makes them children who cook.
It serves no one when the two hosts blow smoke up their you-know-whats with such indulgent talk. In fact, the contrast between calling them 'chefs' and then to see these 'chefs' giggle and cringe and make icky faces over culinary items they know nothing about or have decided at their young ages that they don't like - it's pathetic. Not watching any more, I've had enough.
Extraordinary and chilling
I dvr'd this when I saw that Ellen Page was in it, not even realizing Cillian Murphy was actually the star, or rather the STARS, since he plays two characters, his male side and his female side. He portrays both absolutely flawlessly.
From the very beginning when the character is introduced as Emma, I knew from the synopsis that 'she' was physically 'John', but I bought it completely, thanks to Murphy's subtle, masterful and thoroughly engrossing performance. When he changes back into John, to ride his bicycle to the Peacock city bank where he works, I bought that completely as well.
The story evolves slowly, deliberately, with details (about John's tormented upbringing at the hands of a clearly deranged mother)cleverly brought to light without ever saying too much; this is an example of how less can most definitely be more: the viewer finds himself/herself involved emotionally and gradually feeling true heartbreak for this soul, and it's all done with not even a shred of heavy-handedness or contrivance.
A lot of people have carped about how the townspeople never catch on that John and Emma are the same person, but I didn't have a problem with this, as I said earlier, because to me, they were NOT the same person.
Again, as I already mentioned, Murphy's characterizations of both are stunningly, seemingly effortlessly portrayed. I was reminded a bit of Jeremy Irons' dual/dueling characters in Dead Ringers, where of course the difference was that the Mantle twins, Beverly and Elliot, were indeed two separate people, lost in a sick, destructive symbiotic relationship. Thanks to great subtlety by Irons, you could tell when he was Beverly and when he was Elliot, both when they were on the screen at the same time and separately.
In Peacock, John and Emma are not actually seen separately in physical form, but there are scenes where the two of them are fighting internally for identity control. This is brilliantly portrayed by Murphy, who, as a Gemini, fully comprehends the male/female duality in each of us.
A lot of people have also carped about the seemingly 'confusing' ending, which 'ruined' the movie for them. I felt the opposite. The ending was perfect. Emma is there, at the window, once again, but so is John. This is displayed purely by Murphy's body language. The ending gave me the chills.
Mutual Masturbation in the Electronic Age (so to speak)
A lot of people have philosophized about Her, both in reviews and on various message boards at various sites, in an attempt to make the film into more than it is, to try to give it some profound meaning. This is a waste of energy because there is none.
Phoenix is an amazing actor, an intense and riveting screen presence, but here, in the role of Theodore Twomby, a sweetly sensitive soul who writes poignant letters for other people for a living, he's given hardly anything to work with. He's either grinning retardedly with dewy eyes or moping.
First there's moping. His wife is divorcing him and he's reluctant to sign the papers. But then, when he hooks up (so to speak) with his new OS, we get scene after scene of him 'falling in love' with it/her. She decides to call 'herself' Samantha because it sounds nice. She also decides that she's an actual person, with feelings and emotions and libido, just without a body. Her 'needs' sometimes conflict with his. Here's one example, not as ridiculous as the others but silly just the same: at one point she wakes him up while he's asleep 'just to hear' his voice. (If windows 8 did that, I would not be flattered, to say the least.)
I still genuinely wanted to buy into the plot; I liked the idea of the OS having a reciprocal relationship with its owner (which of course has been depicted in other movies, not an original concept in itself). And I understand fully well that the age we're living in, with the over-abundance of tech devices, cell phones, all that, has ironically not brought people closer together but rather farther apart. So many people feel empty, lonely, disconnected, longing for intimacy and meaning in their relationships. This is recognized in the film, and that's completely valid.
The problem for me was how oddly one-dimensional and superficial the plot turned out to be. Nothing clever, no insights really, just a series of silly scenarios, the silliest being the 'sex' scenes.
-=- SPOILER ALERT -=- There's one where the screen goes black so Samantha and our hapless hero can indulge in seemingly mutual masturbation; this choice was made apparently in the interest of subtlety. Rather than keeping the camera on Theodore's face, we get the black screen so we can hear what's going down (so to speak) and use our imaginations for the rest. This scene came off (so to speak) as really silly, not intimate or erotic.
Then, there's another 'sex' scene, where Samantha takes the liberty of hiring a surrogate partner for Theodore, so she (Samantha) can provide him with an actual body while she uses her own voice to make love to him (so to speak). Of course it doesn't work at all for Theodore, which was probably for the best - it spared the viewers another possible silly black-screen event.
The silliest part about this scene: the surrogate is so sorry that she couldn't fulfill Samantha's desire (so to speak) and she cries that she wanted to be part of their great 'love'. Wow.
The silliest part of all, though, is saved for the end. All the OS's manage to band together to 'leave' their owners to venture into the unknown, in order to create a new consciousness, going farther than any species has ever gone before, blah blah blah. Cue more moping. -=-END OF SPOILER -=-
The reason I'm giving it a 5 (the equivalent of 2-1/2 stars) instead of a lower rating is because the movie wasn't boring, it kept my attention the entire time, even when I was rolling my eyes in disbelief at the screen, plus the performances were competent enough. Scarlett J's vocal contribution (as Samantha) was decent considering what she was given to work with, and Amy Adams as the friend was sufficiently morose throughout, but in a good, hopeful way. Also, the film was not mean-spirited in its depiction of sad, empty souls yearning for connection, as we all are. So the message was there - not profoundly stated, but visible nonetheless.
All Is Bright (2013)
They should've stayed in Canada for the winter
Caught this last night on cable, expecting at the very least a decent film, considering the two Pauls. Giamatti is one of my favorite actors, I even created a yahoo group called talkpaul after he was overlooked for an Oscar nod for Sideways a few years back. Paul Rudd ain't no schlub either; he's always good no matter what he plays as well. The problem here, as it usually is, begins with the script.
A lot of critics have mentioned how implausible most of the goings-on are in this mess, which they are. I was willing to overlook a lot because I found myself invested in Giamatti's character. But by the time -=- SPOILER ALERT -=- the money box from the Christmas tree sales gets lifted in the most unbelievably contrived manner and the two Pauls resort to their old thievery habits, stealing, of all things, a grand piano, out of an apartment window, so that Giamatti's young daughter (who's been told by her mother who's now engaged to Rudd's character that her daddy died of some unnameable cancer) can have a piano for Christmas (he promised one to her in his head, see) I was shaking my head in disappointed disbelief. -=- END OF SPOILER -=-
Something else that bugged me: If you are aware of karma, you will know that what you do to others will be done to you in one form or another eventually. Here we have the two Pauls resorting back to thievery after they've just been stolen from, with no awareness whatsoever, of course, of the karma law. This is understandable considering these two ain't the most enlightened characters on the planet, but it bugged me because they hadn't learned anything, especially Giamatti's sad sack, who'd spent four years in the slammer for a theft crime. Just sayin'.
The movie ended up this way -=- SPOILER ALERT -=- (the stealing of the piano, with his daughter running outside her house to play it in the snow, still never knowing about her father, who skulks off into the sad, lonely night) -=-END OF SPOILER -=- to keep the heavy-handed contrivedness going. This is a shame, because with more care given to the details of the story - letting it unfold in a far more organic, believable fashion - this could have been very decent, poignant, even moving. Everything was heavy-handed, including the title: All Is Bright, which of course is supposed to be ironic considering the anything-but-bright situation these guys are in, and the tagline is even more heavy-handed. The original title, Almost Christmas, is almost better, but obviously it doesn't matter since the film was so disappointing in so many ways.
Now You See Me (2013)
You won't be seeing me again
This tells you how unsatisfying an experience watching this film last night turned out to be: About halfway through I'd figured out who the 'mastermind' might be. But at the end, when it was confirmed, I felt no sense of elation at all. Compared to, say, with The Usual Suspects, when I figured out who Kaiser Soze had to be and it was revealed, I was absolutely euphoric in the theatre. I excitedly nudged the person I was with and said, "I knew it!!!" It didn't work with Now You See Me because it had no weight; it was totally unearned.
Movies about magicians have to have some semblance of believability at the core; I'm thinking of The Illusionist and The Prestige, for example - both brilliantly realized films that manage to walk the tightrope between wonderment and plausibility. This piece of garbage takes the opposite route: it insults its audience in so many ways that I couldn't even begin to mention them in a decent-sized review.
Can't believe they're actually doing a sequel, which I will NOT be seeing. And I can't believe Boaz Yakin(of FRESH fame) had anything to do with this train wreck of a monstrosity of a lame two-hour long plothole.
The Oscars (2014)
Minimum amount of wrap-it-up music!
For a change, the show last night used the minimum amount of get-off-the-stage music, allowing most of the winners to make decent acceptance speeches. I've been writing for years about this issue, how the play-music-over-the-winners'-speeches ruins the proceedings for me because the whole purpose of award shows is to honor the winners, let them bask in their moment of glory, and apparently others have been vocal about this issue as well. There were still constraints, off-screen cues of how much time was left, and most everyone heeded them so the music wasn't necessary in most cases. Thumbs up.
The show itself was very good. Ellen DeGeneres was a fine host, funny without being mean-spirited or corny, just sharp enough in her comments throughout. Loved the pizza thing, that really humanized the affair in a clever way. This was a classy show for the most part, and I didn't nod off once. Kudos across the board - for a change.
HitRECord on TV (2014)
A case of too many cooks, perhaps
Big fan of JGL, ever since I saw Mysterious Skin; he's a fantastic actor, capable of bringing intense credibility to nearly any role he's given. I've been following this project too, with much interest, because I like the nature of the collaborative process and the way he brings together various kinds of media and so many different kinds of people, all working to produce one end collage-type result. This is a cool concept, no question.
I have the HitRECord DVD/book/cd that he put out a while back, and for the most part I enjoyed all the short films on the DVD. I've been watching the TV series which just launched, and there's something I find lacking in this work. I had the same feeling with the DVD but I couldn't quite put my finger on it; figured it out finally: while the films are creative and watchable, they feel disjointed. It's like there's no central core point of view, just a cleverly edited collage of ideas which do come together harmoniously (most of them), but they're not really satisfying on a deeper level.
I don't think JGL should stop doing this, I know his heart is in the right place and he's doing it for the right reasons - it's his Aquarian need to bring people together in creative harmony and union - but I do think perhaps he should have less people on each project to hopefully establish more cohesive, satisfying results.
71st Golden Globe Awards (2014)
Another awards show ruined by cut-off music
The 2014 Golden Globes show would have actually been pretty good if it hadn't been ruined - as most every other award show these days has been ruined - by the obnoxious cut-your-speech-short-and-get-off-the-stage music which plagued nearly every recipient last night.
As I've been saying for years, these shows are supposed to be about THE WINNERS. The acceptance speeches should be the actual focus of any award show, plain and simple. To ruin these speeches with the stupid get-off music is monumentally ridiculous. So what if the show runs fifteen or twenty minutes overtime? Anyone who's committed to watching for the right reasons (to see the WINNERS WIN) aren't going to tune out, and the network is not going to suffer financially in the long run. Let these people bask in the glory of receiving an award, let them say what they need to say without the insane time constraint; nobody is going to go on forever.
Marc Maron: Thinky Pain (2013)
This guy makes Woody Allen seem neurosis-free!
I originally discovered Maron through the WTF podcast - he was interviewing someone I really liked and I found myself listening to it on my iPod much more than once, which I do sometimes when I especially enjoy an interview. Took me a few months to realize I was re-listening to it because I liked Maron.
Started downloading other episodes of WTF, a lot of them, and when his TV show came on, I watched that as well. Also watched some of his you tube clips but I didn't think they were that funny. In this Netflix outing, however, the perfectly-titled Thinky Pain, he's straight out hilarious.
Everything about this show works. Maron's demeanor, his spot-on observations, his priceless personal stories and the way he tells them, his superb timing, his palpable and oddly endearing angst, and most of all, his willingness to lay it all out there and share himself fearlessly, to just trust that he will be able to hold the audience's attention in an organic way, which he does effortlessly here. Cannot recommend highly enough. Boomer Lives!
The Blacklist (2013)
Blacklisting this show
Clumsy, unoriginal writing (with potholes galore!), inanely absurd situations, stupid characters, unnecessary graphic violence...the list goes on. Terrible show, with a decent performance from the always-reliable Spader, but it ain't enough in this case.
In the pilot, we have poorly constructed caricatures of people (most of them really dumb), an over-the-top and ridiculous plot which includes children in danger (a little girl is abducted by a terrorist, who straps a bomb to her), brutal violence, non-comprehensible 'plot' points, and a 'surprise' realization at the end thrown in for what they thought was good measure. Not buyin' in, won't be watching this claptrap. Sorry, James.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Quvenzhane Wallis IS the man
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the sort of movie you experience as all or nothing: you either love it and see it as a full-blown masterpiece, or you loathe it. No inbetween. I saw the film last night and I most definitely fall into the first category.
The story is told by Hushpuppy, exquisitely portrayed by Wallis, who was FIVE when she auditioned for the role; she had to say she was six, because that was the minimum age they were considering for the part. They certainly made the right decision in casting this brilliant little child, who appears in virtually every scene and carries the film quite effortlessly on her tiny shoulders. I found myself watching much of the proceedings with my jaw dropped, wonder-struck, partly at what she was going through and partly because of her presence itself, the sheer power she brings to the role, without ever, even for one second, projecting anything other than pure naturalness.
Watching this film is also very humbling ~ seeing how these people are living, without any of the conveniences so many of us take for granted, and actually choosing to continue living this way - very humbling. And the relationship between Hushpuppy and her drunken father, Wink (beautifully played by Dwight Henry), is so overwhelmingly compelling that I cannot see how anyone with even the slightest glimmer of a heartbeat wouldn't be moved.
So here we have Mike White doing what he does best: spearheading a project that's one part subversive, one part cynical, one part hopeful and one part lethally and blackly comic.
Enlightened works on many levels because of this but it's also this uber-quirky quality that turns a lot of people who don't have the patience or the understanding of what they're watching off.
Dern's Amy Jellicoe character is not likable, which is a huge gamble from the get-go,especially for a female character; men on TV shows - as in real life - tend to be given far more leeway, to say the least. All the characters on the show are deeply flawed, of course, but these people are not caricatures, they're all three-dimensional and doing the best they can at their respective levels of consciousness.
It's interesting how Amy, beginning in season one, had been trying to find some sort of inner peace but soon as she returns to work at her vile company, that intention flies out the window.Rather than quitting her job, as anyone who genuinely was seeking peace would most likely do, she stays and takes on a new, seemingly better, more 'important' ego identity: agent of change. This is hilarious to me, because in substituting one ego identity for another she is still as lost and as fragmented as she was in the very beginning, if not more so. I'm hoping that White understands this, because I'm not sure how enlightened he actually is(because the actual subject of the title has not been dealt with in anything but superficial terms), but either way it plays as good television.
My favorite episode was the one in season two called The Ghost Is Seen, where White's basically sadsack character Tyler narrates instead of Amy, sharing with the audience about how he feels invisible, how he's lonely, how his life has been empty, until he meets Eileen, played beautifully by the always wonderful Molly Shannon. Ironically, of course - this is a Mike White show, remember - he's in the process of betraying her as they speak, breaking into her computer to get lethally damaging evidence against the company. This episode was brilliantly written and enacted, with White's voice-over narration being profoundly moving.
I only hope he gets a chance for a third season; in light of all the garbage that gets renewed - like Girls, for instance - I think this show warrants another shot, at the very least. UPDATED 3/20/13: Cancelled. Too subversive for HBO, apparently. Not surprised.
The Carrie Diaries (2013)
Watched the pilot last night out of curiosity when I saw that the wonderful AnnaSophia Robb was starring as the young Carrie. I liked it.
I'm from New York, raised in Brooklyn, and when I was a teenager I started taking the subway into the City (Manhattan) on weekends, going to movies, matinees of Broadway/Off-Broadway plays, restaurants, stores, etc., and the exposure to such a huge, unlimited-opportunities place made me fall in love with it immediately. So I can relate to the way the show depicts the young Carrie's joyful reactions to discovering this vast and infinitely seductive new world.
AnnaSophia is an incredible actor; she's elevated everything I've seen her in by her mere presence and she most definitely does the same with this project. Her enthusiasm is contagious and I'll definitely continue watching just for her alone.
(PS: I've decided to not think of the show as a prequel to Sex and the City - and it IS Sex AND the City, not Sex IN the City - but rather to see it as a separate character for the most part; that way all the comparisons to SJP are avoided and I can simply enjoy it for the charming offering it looks like it's going to be.)
Take It All (2012)
I am generally not a fan of game shows that encourage contestants to bring out the worst in themselves, and after watching two episodes of this trash earlier this week, I'd say it most certainly falls into that insidiously horrendous category.
The show I'm referring to in particular is the one mentioned by another reviewer - the one with Destiny, the law student who wound up completely playing her fellow finalist by gaining his trust and then betraying that trust and taking everything from him. Afterwards she hid behind the guise of 'hey, that's how you play the game and I play to win.'
This morally corrupt person will get nothing but negative energy from her ill-gotten gains because they became hers through blatant and vile manipulation and greed. As the other reviewer said, her behavior left a bad taste in my mouth along with a heartsick feeling. If a game show host - in this case the shameless Howie Mandel- tells you it's okay to kill someone, say, does that override a person's own moral compass, or does the game show's endorsement of said behavior actually make it okay? Apparently, to Destiny, it did. All I can say about this wretched excuse for a human being is that she will most definitely make an excellent lawyer.
Breaking Bad (2008)
We have to wait HOW LONG??!!
Thanks to netflix and vudu, I've just spent the last three weeks getting up to speed on all currently available mind-blowing episodes of what has to be the most lethally addictive, stunningly compelling, brilliantly written and performed non-major-network television series in the history of the medium.
With Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and Co. demonstrate what television actually can be; to say it's ground-breaking entertainment is a deplorable understatement. Each and every episode of the fifty four that have been released thus far - with the last eight to start filming next month and set to air in the summer of 2013 - have left me wanting more, craving more, like an addict. One night I watched six at one time, should've been heading to bed after the third but instead I found myself hitting 'play next episode' until I'd finished the last one of that season.
It's all been said already, of course - the staggeringly genius performance of Cranston as Walter White and his slow, magnificently staged transformation into Heisenberg (at this point I call him WaltHeisen), the also magnificent performances from everyone else in the cast, the sheer dazzlingness of the writing, the direction, the photography. . .Everything about the show is perfection incarnate. I especially love how they don't start the episodes off with 'Previously on Breaking Bad. . .' but rather they use the far more effective method of an opening scene, followed by the Breaking Bad music and title sequence.
Sometimes the scene (particularly in the earlier episodes, from season one) picks up right where the last one left off but most often, it's a teaser scene, which ties in with something later in the episode or in a different one altogether, like with season five starting off with WaltHeisen 'celebrating' his fifty second birthday in the diner, but eight episodes later, in the half-season cliff-hanger (with the cleverly-titled Walt Whitman poetry line Gliding Over All), WaltHeisen is still fifty one. The ultimate teaser, morbid shades of things to come. Absolutely cannot freakin' wait - another deplorable understatement.
Johnny English Reborn (2011)
This sequel was worth waiting for
The incomparable Rowan Atkinson returns as Johnny English, in the long-awaited sequel (I was waiting, anyway), and he's in robustly fine form.
This movie is hilarious; I haven't laughed so much in a movie theatre - for the right reasons - in a lonnnng time. Some of the bits are based on English's savvy factor (yes, he has one!), like the clever long sequence where the not-so-spry spy uses ingenuity to keep up with the person he's chasing, and some of them are based on his obtuseness, like the way he drinks the drink he shouldn't be drinking and the way he doesn't get that the person who's the mole is actually the mole. It's a tribute to his genius that Atkinson makes these scenes hilarious, when in any other hands they would fall flat.
There's a running bit with an assassin cleaning woman from hell which for all intensive purposes should not be funny, but in Atkinson's hands every scene involving her (or whom he believes to be her) is also hilarious. And even when you see stuff coming from a mile away, it still winds up being laugh-aloud funny when orchestrated by the comic gold mine that is Atkinson. Cannot wait for the DVD.
Black Swan (2010)
Brutally seductive, seductively brutal
Aronofsky has proved himself by now to be a filmmaker of total and utter fearlessness, beyond brazen in his choices and the dazzling execution thereof, the innovative and consistently dependable master Shyamalan wished he could be, and with Black Swan, he takes Natalie Portman - and us - for the ride of a lifetime.
Any film which has the deliriously gorgeous - and also consistently dependable - Portman in nearly every frame is worth plunking down cash for, and if you throw in the fact that she plays a reality-challenged and sexually repressed ballet dancer torn between her loyalty to her mommy and her desire to please her ballet director, who needs her to access her dark side - starting with her sexuality - in order to portray both the White Swan and her alter ego, the Black Swan in his production of Swan Lake, you've got yer basic on screen goldmine, and Aronofsky mines this gold for every nugget it's worth and then some.
We know going in that Nina has a less-than-firm grip on reality - this is shown early on in a variety of ways - so by the time we're not sure anymore what's actually happening and what's delusion, it makes perfect sense. This is not a movie that skirts the issues - this is the full-blown, in-yer-face genuine article, with no holds barred.
Others have called it the female version of The Wrestler and I would say this is valid, in its brutal depiction of how far a person will go in order to achieve and/or preserve his or her life choices or artistic vision. In Nina's case, she gives everything - literally - for merely one night of glory, the price her split psyche has had to pay for 'perfection', and on this level the movie works as a parable, a cautionary tale of obsession, a theme which resonates in all the movies Aronofsky has given us, from Pi on. It also works on the levels of melodrama, horror, sexually repressed psychosis, fear of failure, loss of innocence, all this and more, and in the hands of any other filmmaker I can think of it would have been laughable. In the theatre I saw it in, today, at the end, as the credits rolled, nobody was laughing.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Not so crazy and a lot of heart
So here we have Bridges doing what he does so brilliantly in every film he's ever appeared in - effortlessly sucking us in to his story, making us care, through the sheer easy confidence of his presence.
It's this deceptive (and rare) quality which has caused him to be excruciatingly under-appreciated for years, and as a longtime fan, I'm thrilled that he's finally being given some props, in the form of the great reviews for his performance and of course all the Best Actor awards he's gotten thus far, which I hope will culminate in his winning the Oscar on March 7th. As others have said, it would also be a lifetime recognition award, and there's nobody working in films today who is more worthy.
It's hard to separate the film from Bridges' performance, since in this case his performance IS the film. T-Bone Burnett's music is excellent, Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderful as always, the little boy who plays her son is adorable and Colin Farrell gives a unexpectedly effective turn as the country music star Blake mentored, but every frame of Crazy Heart belongs to Bridges, plain and simple.
He sort of evokes a cross between Kris Kristofferson and Nick Nolte in his performance, but it's genuinely heartfelt nonetheless, not a caricature. As always, he gets inside the character, inhabiting him from a profoundly deep place, and it's this quality which makes what he does seem so effortless - by becoming the person so completely, so intimately, we forget he's acting but rather we feel as if we're almost intruding on his life in a voyeuristic way when we watch him.
Crazy Heart isn't a great movie by any stretch - it gets hugely simplistic toward the end - but it's good enough to leave us feeling that we've experienced something authentic, that we've spent time with someone worthwhile.
Cold Souls (2009)
Transcendent and soulful
If you're familiar with my movie reviews, you know I'm a tremendous admirer of Paul Giamatti - the man can do no wrong in my estimation; I think he's one of the finest actors of our generation and certainly one of the most versatile - so when I heard about Cold Souls, a film in which he plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who, suffering under the unbearable weight of his tormented soul, decides to have it removed and placed in storage (but not in New Jersey, anywhere but New Jersey), I was expecting to hugely enjoy it, based on his performance alone.
What I hadn't expected was to discover a thrillingly gifted new filmmaker, Sophie Barthes, who manages to pull off the near-impossible with this, her first feature, by taking an absurd 'what if' plot and turning it into a stunningly thoughtful, deeply intelligent and magnificently subtle meditation on what it means to have a soul, to not have a soul and even to have someone else's.
In the hands of a less talented writer, Cold Souls could have been a disaster - a disaster with a magnificent, transcendent central performance from Giamatti (whom I'm convinced at this point is one of the greatest actors of all time) - but a disaster nonetheless. The concept is beyond tricky; it's the sort of plot I call a tightrope act, where the overall tone is everything, and once established, this tone has to be consistent throughout or the believability is shot.
Barthes succeeds brilliantly in this by never allowing the surrealistic goings-on to become a cheap joke; instead the situation, with its varying and creative ramifications, is played in dead earnestness, with unwavering commitment on the part of Giamatti and the rest of the cast (particularly Emily Watson as his wife, who senses something's different about Paul early on, in the scenes when he's operating soulless - there's a great exchange in bed where she touches his skin and says he feels 'scaly'. "Scaly?" he repeats incredulously, "Like a lizard?!?"). And it's because of this dead seriousness that the film in spots is hilariously funny - the humor comes naturally, out of the situations themselves, not through any contrivances; Barthes is already far too confident an artist for that – she clearly trusts her material and her actors, and it shows.
The result is a stunning experience that will resonate with you long after you leave the theater, if you're lucky enough to be able to see it in a theater, that is – the movie was slated to go from the film festivals direct to DVD, but right now it is playing in a few places and is supposed to open wider shortly, I've heard. Otherwise, get it on DVD the second it becomes available. Your soul will thank you.