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Young Sheldon (2017)
So far - Unexpectedly Brilliant!
Anyone expecting 'more Big Bang' will be sorely disappointed by Young Sheldon. This is a very different kind of show - and a far, far better show than we had any right to expect. Young Sheldon could have been a quick cash-in on the huge popularity of Big Bang Theory. But it turns out to be a whole new thing, only loosely connected to the previous show.
True, Young Sheldon does pick up the backstory established for the Sheldon of Big Bang. But the writing takes off in a whole new direction. Gone are the zippy one-liners, the exaggerated characters, the zaniness, What we get instead is something no one could have predicted: heart.
It's a huge mistake to think of Young Sheldon as a prequel to Big Bang. Think of it, instead, as a 21st Century reboot of Leave It to Beaver. This is a slice-of-life story of growing up in Texas. Instead of being set-bound like Big Bang, Young Sheldon is shot largely on locations. Instead of being stylized, it's realistic. Instead of being glib, it's thoughtful. There's plenty of humor, but it's gentler and more complex.
The third episode, for example, deals with a child coming to grip with the possible death of a parent, and with the role of faith in his very logical universe. The script doesn't judge, and it doesn't forget to be, at times, hilariously funny. (The last line had us in stitches.)
The acting is uniformly superb. Sheldon's mom perfectly evokes Laurie Metcalf's older version from Big Bang. Annie Potts playing Sheldon's 'Meemaw' is as brilliant as she's ever been (and that's saying quite a lot.) And then there's Iaian Armitage in the title role. He doesn't mimic the older Sheldon, but he does ring absolutely true as a precocious yet naive kid, totally out of step with his surroundings. After watching him for a half-hour, I no longer cared whether he was supposed to be a younger version of some other character. He's a totally memorable character in his own right.
Chuck Lorre has taken a huge risk, defying audience expectations with Young Sheldon. Let's hope he and Steven Molaro (who've co-written the early episodes) can keep the series going as powerfully as it has begun. And hope also that audiences can shake off their addiction to Big Bang Theory long enough to appreciate something that's as fresh and ground-breaking today as Big Bang was eleven years ago.
Star Trek: Discovery (2017)
To Trek or Not to Trek
Most of the negative reviews for 'STD' (didn't anyone notice that acronym when choosing the title??) are of the form: "This isn't Star Trek!!" That may be true, but I'm not sure it's a valid reason for hating the show.
Like any long-time Trek fan, I'm not happy seeing a Trek series primarily about war, as opposed to... well, you know: *discovery.* But on the other hand, given that this is a prequel to The Original Series, maybe it's not completely unreasonable to tell the story of how mankind managed to abandon warfare and grow up.
Meanwhile, there are several things I do like about STD, so far. The characters are strong and vivid. The setup for Michael Burnham is clever, and gives some real edge to the character. Sonequa Martin-Green is effective and likable in the part. I equally like Captain Lorca. This guy really takes the make-your-own-rules clichés of the other Trek captains and pushes them to the limit. I even like the supporting characters, especially Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly. And I enjoyed the reboot of Harry Mudd as a truly evil collaborator.
These characters share a trait notably missing from other Trek incarnations: they're all deeply flawed. That makes them inherently more interesting than the straight-arrow super-humans that manned previous Trek missions.
As drama, as entertainment, Star Trek Discovery is doing pretty well. It's not abysmally stupid, like the JJ Abrams films. It sticks to its own logic. It has characters that ring true. It has a story that keeps moving, and offers interesting twists and turns.
Is it truly 'Trek'? I think it's too soon to tell. The voyage has only just begun, and the destination is not yet clearly visible. I may be a purist, but I'm not a fanatic: I *expect* a new Trek property to re-invent, re-interpret, bring a new sensibility. The question is, does it succeed on its own terms? Based on what I've seen so far, I'll offer a cautious up-vote - and reserve the right to revise either upward or downward as the series evolves.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Above average, but no more
And that's only because the average has gotten so dreadfully low. Wonder Woman is a largely by-the-numbers film. In fact, it's almost entirely a remake of the 2009 animated film of the same name (which also was 'above average' - for a children's cartoon).
* Gal Gadot is not a great actress (so far), but she is physically perfect for the part, and, aided by competent direction, she becomes a very satisfying Wonder Woman.
* The World War I setting is novel, and allows a grittier texture than we're seeing in most superhero films. (It's the chief element that's been added, compared to the animated version.)
* Wonder Woman's action scenes are beautifully filmed, perfectly capturing that iconic quality that every superhero needs.
* The story is rather thin, and largely a rehash of the (much better) first Captain America film, albeit set 30 years earlier.
* (SPOILER) I guessed the big villain reveal the instant his 'secret identity' character came on-screen. Note to writers: trying to surprise the audience by means of a tired cliché is kind of futile. Much smarter would have been to let us in on the twist right from the start, so we could follow the Machiavellian politics. There's a huge untapped irony in having the chief proponent of peace actually be the strongest supporter of endless war. (END SPOILER)
* The biggest disappointment, and the biggest missed opportunity, is the presentation of World War I. Arriving on Themiscyra, Trevor introduces the Germans as "the bad guys," setting the trivial tone. It may be fair enough to demonize Hitler and his Nazis, but it's not so easy to muster blind hatred for Kaiser Wilhelm II, a rather typical monarchist leader who most of us know nothing about. Later in the film the point is made that 'all sides are at fault for making war.' But it is never acknowledged that The Great War was the perfect illustration of that truth. This was an opportunity for the film to put down real emotional and philosophical roots. Instead, by shying away from the historical reality, it deliberately remains superficial and uninvolving.
In summary: the scenes of Wonder Woman in action are great - but they're offset by a lack of depth in the characters, a lack of depth in the historical setting, and a typically over-long DC climactic battle with the villain.
The people creating these comic book films need to realize that the rules of drama apply to them too. The most exciting action, the most colorful heroes, all fall flat without a strong dramatic foundation. Either make the film a bit longer, or make the big battle a bit shorter - and put that time towards building some real empathy for the *people*, some real depth to their setting.
Wonder Woman is certainly the best of the recent DC films, but only because it shares their failings to a lesser degree. I grew up loving comics, especially superhero comics. I've seen the good, the bad and the unbelievably lame - originally for 10 cents. With hundred-million dollar budgets at its disposal, Hollywood can and should be doing a lot better.
Careful: this 'comedy' has some very sharp edges!
It's not surprising to see some bad scores for this challenging little film. If you know nothing about it, be warned: this is one of the blackest 'comedies' you're ever going to encounter. But it's also one of Neil Simon's best works, cutting much deeper and sharper than simple little farces like The Odd Couple.
Prisoner of Second Avenue tells the tale of a man coming totally unglued under the pressures of the modern world. Jack Lemmon plays a modern Job, suffering every trial a sadistic - but very up-to-date - God could imagine. Neil Simon brilliantly weaves in a gleam of underlying humor, which Lemmon brings out with his usual skill. But it's never more than a gleam; you have to be sensitive to it, or this film will seem like a dreary ordeal.
In fact, far from being dreary, this is a remarkably joyous, uplifting film. It shows us that hope is always just inches away, if we can only see it. Our crushing problems are largely internal: what matters is how we meet them. Seeing that lesson, of course, is the challenge. Like the song says, when you've been down so long, it starts to look like up to you.
Aside from its clever writing and fine performances, Prisoner of Second Avenue features some great New York ambiance, and a real feel for its time. This is a more personal, less-theatrical, less-contrived film than most of Simon's works.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue is not just entertaining; it's therapeutic. Open yourself to the slightly masochistic pleasure of wallowing in it, and feel your own aches and neuroses burn away!
Consider the Source
I tuned in to Travelers with low expectations. Time travel has rarely made for compelling television. Often, it's just an excuse for moving to a new historical setting each week. (Even Doctor Who stopped doing pure time travel after the first few years and started emphasizing the "relative dimension in space.") Travelers sounded particularly dreary: people from the future taking over humans in the present. Oh, great, a time travel story that lets us glimpse the wonders of... the present.
And yet, Travelers defied all these expectations and turned out to be one of the freshest bits of SF on TV.
It's not a special-effects-heavy show. Instead, it focuses on squeezing every drop of juice out of the slightly off-kilter premise. For a start, "taking over" present-day human hosts kills them. So there's a massive built-in moral dilemma. And it's worked out with painstaking logic. Time travelers try to pick people who were about to die anyway - but this too presents problems. The time travelers need to remain undiscovered, which means seamlessly picking up the threads of their hosts' lives. Time travelers may have motivations of their own, which need to be dealt with in the present. It all meshes beautifully.
I won't give away much more, other than to say each episode expands and twists the basic premise in a new and clever way. The acting is uniformly solid, and the characters are likable in spite of their sometimes glaring faults. The mix of characters has the feel of a really great ensemble, a group you'd really like to follow for a while.
What I didn't realize at first was that Travelers was created by some of the key members of the former Stargate TV team. Of course, two of that show's best writers, Mallozzi and Mullie, are masterminding the entertaining space opera Dark Matter. Meanwhile, Travelers is being put together by former Stargate writer and producer Brad Wright, with directing work by Stargate alumni Martin Wood and Andy Mikita. While Dark Matter is more light-hearted, Travelers carries on the harder-edged side of the Stargate tradition, without losing that show's uncanny addictiveness and entertainment value.
Even if you're not a Stargate fan, you should definitely give Travelers a chance. It's a show that really knows what it's doing. It knows how to tell stories that are morally deep, intellectually clever and emotionally satisfying, all at the same time. We've seen some really good SF on TV lately, but Travelers is the one show that I'm most excited to see more of. A LOT more, hopefully.
Run of the Arrow (1957)
A Neglected Classic
Run of the Arrow is a slightly flawed but generally brilliant western, that deserves to be more widely seen. It's got a powerful story, epic battle scenes and some unique perspective on human nature and American history.
The story rarely goes exactly where you expect it to. Along the way, it provides insight into Southern anger at the end of the War Between the States. And it dramatically shows the kind of duplicity that was routinely applied in treatment of Native Americans.
Rod Steiger, never my favorite actor, is well-cast as a Southerner angry with the world. Ralph Meeker depicts extreme villainy deftly enough to somehow remain disconcertingly likable. Brian Keith has a pivotal but rather thankless role, which he handles with his usual aplomb. The biggest surprise is Charles Bronson, remarkably convincing as a Lakota chief.
Despite the casting of Caucasians, Sam Fuller presents an unusually nuanced view of Native American culture, spanning both brutality and honor. And despite an obviously limited budget, Fuller directs brilliantly. The opening scenes are reminiscent of Peckinpah (especially Major Dundee), and the later Indian attacks rival the grandeur of John Ford. Run of the Arrow is a visually-arresting film that deserves high-def restoration.
The flaws are minor. Someone has pointed out Steiger's weird accent. It is explained in the film, and is perhaps intended to establish the character as even more of an outsider. I didn't find it at all distracting. Some of the dialog is a bit awkward, but it always achieves its intended purpose - and actually gives the film more of a unique flavor. Worst of all is the preposterous casting of Jay C. Flippen as an Indian; you just have to accept him and move on.
Run of the Arrow reminds me of other Western 'hidden gems,' such as Only the Valiant, or the films of Bud Boetticher. It's cleverly written and tautly directed, and leaves you with a lot to think about. See it if you get a chance.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Doesn't Deserve the Hate
I took a chance on Suicide Squad despite the non-stop barrage of hate from both fans and critics. And I was pleasantly surprised. No, this isn't a great film, but it is quite an enjoyable one. It lacks the self-importance and obsessive fan service of the more mainstream comics-based movies, which allows it to succeed as a simple bit of entertainment.
The extended 'Dirty Dozen' setup works well, and the interplay between the seriously off-key characters pumps a bit of desperately needed fresh air into the superhero genre. The absence of major comic-book stars is a huge bonus, making the plot slightly less predictable.
Don't view this as belonging to the "DC Universe," or the "Batman canon," or any other tired, anal-retentive fan framework. It's a simple, standalone movie, with cool characters and fast action. It's actually FUN, which is something you can't say about most comics-inspired films any more.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Lame and Empty
I really wanted to like this movie. I expected to like it. I actually did like a lot of things about it. But overall, I found it unimaginative, lifeless and boring. "Non-stop action" is simply not very exciting without a proper dramatic underpinning.
The framework is great. The mysterious criminal organization, the neutral zones where no combat is allowed, the gold coins that magically buy just about anything, the marker that forces Wick out of retirement (again), the Italian suit with a Kevlar lining... and, of course, Wick himself, the stone-faced, unkillable James Bond of the underworld.
And there are a few great scenes: the terse conversations between Wick and Ian McShane (who is always a pleasure to watch); the sepulchral confrontation between Wick and the lady mobster; Laurence Fishburn chewing up the scenery and clearly having a ball...
So much for about 15 minutes of the movie. The rest is incredibly tedious action, action, action. Action with no point, very little style and absolutely zero creativity.
The settings do vary, to be sure: a rock concert in an Italian ruin; dusty catacombs; a subway station and subway train; a highly improbable house-of-mirrors museum exhibit... But the action itself is both mindless and unforgivably repetitive. I started ticking off a handful of standard moves: Wick dropping to the floor; Wick grabbing an attacker's arm and using it to shoot another attacker; Wick somersaulting through a hail of bullets and then unerringly pegging an entire wave of attackers...
It IS possible to do a pure action-ballet type of movie - in the Hong Kong, John Woo mode - but the action has to be really, really GOOD. In Wick 2, the action is well-staged, but appallingly choreographed. It's also not rooted in any actual drama, so after a while it's very hard to care about yet another butchered bad guy.
Even the film's opening sequence is all wrong - about ten minutes of pure action with absolutely no dramatic justification. Classic car chases are rooted in characterization: The French Connection, Bullit, The Seven-Ups... What's the point of watching vehicles crash into each other before we even know who's driving them, or why?
Keanu Reaves and the supporting cast are all good. The camera work is fine. But there's no actual movie here. Recommendation: find something else to do with your two hours.
Another Great Paul WS Anderson Thrill-ride
Anyone who has stuck around through the previous films will know, we're not talking subtlety and depth here. The Resident Evil series is a ludicrous brew of non-stop action, terse dialog, fierce martial arts and exaggerated horror tropes. In the course of the Final Chapter, Alice (Milla Jovovich) will:
* do battle with human, canine and airborne zombies
* engage in road chases in both 2- and 4-wheeled vehicles
* fight a siege against an army of human zombies
* jump off a cliff
* fight arch-villain Iain Glen multiple times
* solve the ultimate mysteries of her own existence
* and a lot more
It's almost too much for one movie. Each sequence is a hoot, but the best moments, for me, came as Alice nostalgically recapped some of the very first film, again threading the ridiculously complicated security systems in the Hive. Also, the ending was entirely satisfying, a perfect finale for the series.
A lot of reviews complain about the fast editing. I found it exhilarating. This isn't a Fred Astaire film, where the camera stands still so you can appreciate the actor's moves. (Bear in mind that Milla Jovovich is now in her 40s.) Rather, it's a seamless visual whole - CG effects, pyrotechnics, stunts and editing all blended together. I wouldn't want every movie to be done this way, but I think there's room for a few. Especially when they're done this well. It's a style of movie unique to our times.
And nobody does it better than Paul WS Anderson. I put him in the same pantheon with Luc Besson, Roland Emmerich, Sam Raimi, Jaume Collet-Serra and the granddaddy of them all, Roger Corman - writer/directors who compulsively crank out films (and scripts) at a pace reminiscent of the old Hollywood studio system days. Their work is slick, stylish, entertaining, and never insultingly dumb. They don't force your brain to switch off - they just put it in Neutral, like the cars on any roller-coaster.
The Resident Evil series isn't for all tastes. But it works well, in its own terms. And this Final Chapter is a good one.
Shallow, Tedious and Disappointing
The high ratings for this film are based entirely on its sombre tone. That's a great novelty in a 'superhero' movie, to be sure. But it merely masks the film's emptiness - its painful lack of ideas, lack of character development, and total absence of plot.
Jackman's performance? As someone once quipped, his emotional range runs the full gamut... from A to B. He looks grumpy and depressed in every scene. In every shot. Patrick Stewart is somewhat more nuanced, though he too is hamstrung by a script that gives his character the emotional depth of a cartoon. Dafne Keen does a great job as Laura, but her character has only attitude - which incompetent screen writers often mistake for character.
Visually, the film is bland. I hear there's a black-and-white version. It's always a bad sign when a film's creators can't make up their minds on such a key issue. A film is either shot for B&W, or it isn't. (In the case of Logan, the photography lacks the dramatic contrasts and strong composition that might favor a noir-ish B&W presentation.)
Logic holes abound:
* After being raised in a cage, Laura turns out to be a competent driver. What's more, she has no trouble reaching the pedals, presumably on account of some stretching power that's not mentioned elsewhere in the film.
* Laura is mute for half the film, for no apparent reason. Then she can only speak Spanish. Then fluent English. No explanation.
* Laura is often feral, as you'd expect of someone raised in a cage by sadistic scientists. Yet she acts like a normal child most of the time. Ditto for her friends. This quality does not 'develop' as a result of events in the film - it simply materializes when needed.
* Laura drives at random, ends up at a completely out-of-the-way building. And meets all her friends. When was this arranged? How did she learn navigation while locked in a cage?
* Logan and Laura have a cozy evening with a nice family - knowing full well that they're setting them up for slaughter, when their pursuers come along. The audience knows this instantly, characters in the film don't quite get it.
* Logan is dying, we're never told why. Professor X has a brain-cloud, or some such dread condition, also not explained.
Missed opportunities are equally plentiful:
* Laura's feral attacks are mentioned in conversation, but never really discussed. Logan dismisses them with a couple of heavy one-liners, when they could have (and should have) led to an extended rumination on violence. The film doesn't miss a beat when Laura's friends brutally murder the guy with the mechanical hand. This lynch-mob logic should, again, have been a starting point for reflections that never happen in this shallow, trivial film.
* Logan never has a character arc. Wolverine actually has far less emotional range in this film than in the first X-Men movie. His relationship with Laura is essentially the same as the far more developed relationship with Rogue.
* Characters are neither built up, nor revealed. To do that, you have to show them in a range of different circumstances, dealing with emotionally or morally challenging dilemmas. In Logan, the only dilemma is how to keep eluding inexorable pursuit so as to stretch the film out past the two-hour mark. Hence the only character trait that can be revealed is dogged perseverance. We get that in the first scene. After that, nothing.
* Ultimately, the filmmakers resort to having Logan shaved back to his familiar Wolverine muttonchops. You know you're in trouble when you're counting on facial hair to create characterization. (Or fan service.)
* Plot is nonexistent. The film is one long chase. Weak screenwriters often mistake this for plot, but it's a poor substitute: totally linear, predictable, boring. Yes, there have been great 'chase' films (Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway comes to mind.) They take care to incorporate twists and turns, and strong moments of characterization. Logan doesn't. It's just a bunch of stuff that happens.
On top of everything else, I had the creeping suspicion that this film was calculated less as a standalone work, than as a stepping-stone for the X-Men 'franchise.' It disposes of two performers who've stated their intent to depart the roles they created. And it seems to pave the way for the endlessly-discussed New Mutants franchise. Ugh. Replacing the people won't make up for a lack of ideas, and Logan shows very clearly how bereft of creative thinking the X-Men cinematic franchise has become.
I didn't hate Logan as I was watching it. But when it ended I was overcome by a feeling of emptiness and disappointment. This film lacks both entertainment value and deep ideas. The Marvel cinematic universe badly needs a shot of new blood, but sadly, this wasn't it.
The Great Wall (2016)
What were people expecting? The Great Wall IS a movie about medieval Chinese soldiers fighting hordes of lizard-like alien creatures. And guess what? It's a pretty good one. I can only assume people are criticizing it either because they don't like the genre itself, or for some misguided political reason.
A few things worth pointing out:
* The set-up, with Matt Damon as a sort of Marco Polo knock-off, is just historically credible enough, and reminiscent of many classic adventure films.
* The top-of-the-wall tactics used by the Chinese - including a primitive bungee jump - are highly inventive, and great fun to watch.
* The CGI lizards are very well presented. They feel real, uniquely Chinese, and very dangerous. Matt Damon's fights with them are fluid and exciting.
* The art design is stupendous, up to some of Yimou Zhang's more obviously 'art' films. The colored armor of the Chinese troops is quite dazzling. The balloon sequence is a hoot, evocative of Jules Verne.
* All the roles are well played. Matt Damon is his usual likable self, and Tian Jing is particularly charismatic as the somewhat conflicted Chinese officer. Dastardly Willem Dafoe (clearly having a ball on his Chinese holiday) adds a nice counterpoint.
* The storyline is just about what you'd expect - which is NOT a bad thing in a genre film. Not when it's handled this expertly, and when it manages to dodge any number of obvious clichés. (For example, possible romantic entanglements do not play out according to the usual formula.)
No, this is certainly not a ground-breaking film in any cinematic sense. But it is a competent one, and a very entertaining one. It stands up well against other films in the 'monster' or 'zombie' genres, which too often suffer from creaky dialog and low-budget staging. And it's vastly better in every way than self-conscious action films like The Expendables - yet currently shows a lower score (6.1 vs 6.5). That's unfair, and misleading to the many fantasy fans who'd really enjoy this film if they gave it a proper chance.
That really is the point: if you enjoy this TYPE of film, you should enjoy The Great Wall. Do not go in expecting an exquisite, meditative classic like Raise the Red Lantern. This is Yimou having some fun, flexing his pure-entertainment muscles, and helping to move the burgeoning Chinese film industry into more direct competition with mainstream Hollywood. Get yourself a big bowl of popcorn (or the Chinese equivalent), and enjoy the ride.
Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983)
Here's to Powers Boothe - The Only True Marlowe
I've meant to post a review of this ground-breaking series for some time. The untimely passing of Powers Boothe this week has goaded me into action...
To sum up: this series is not just the best adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, it's the *only* adaptation that really manages to to remain true to the letter and the spirit of the books. Amazing, but true.
Humphrey Bogart was charming as Marlowe, of course... but his Big Sleep (especially the best-known edit) is 99% Howard Hawks, and should have a 'may contain traces of Chandler' warning on the label. What's more, Bogey couldn't have been much less like the character described by Chandler. In fact, Chandler's own ideal Marlowe is said to have been Cary Grant, which gives you some idea of just how far off-track Bogart, the geriatric Mitchum, and others have been. (Let us not even speak of Dick Powell.) Robert Montgomery could have been good, but he loused it up with that stupid first-person camera business, which has never worked and never will. Astoundingly, the best Marlowe prior to Boothe was Elliott Gould, in Altman's modernized, revisionist yet nonetheless evocative Long Goodbye. (EDIT: forgot to mention James Garner, who was very good, though a bit more Rockford than Marlowe.)
But Powers Boothe was an even more appropriate choice. He had just the right age, just the right gravitas - the world-weary toughness of a Bogart or Mitchum, but also the class, the energy and the good looks described by Chandler. He also had the advantage of being less familiar. When you looked at Boothe you didn't see a movie star - you saw Marlowe, a hard-working gumshoe, and nobody else.
The Boothe series also marked a rare attempt to include the *most* significant character from Chandler's stories: the city of Los Angeles. (The best previous attempt was, again, Altman's Long Goodbye.) Hawks' Big Sleep is set-bound, and could be taking place in New York as easily as LA. Mitchum's Marlowe was set in England - a travesty! The Powers Boothe series at least attempted to capture some of the gaudy, steamy, crazy city that Chandler created in his writing. Ironically, the series was not filmed in Hollywooed, but in Toronto, which gives you some idea of what can be done with a bit of creative camera work and a few judiciously-chosen locations.
Another very cool thing about this series is that instead of adapting The Big Sleep - YET AGAIN - it adapts some of Chandler's excellent short stories. We get that flavorful dialog, those evocative descriptions, and the dark noir-ish plots - all of them fresh and barely familiar to even the most devoted Marlowe fans.
Obviously, it's hard to beat Bogey and Hawks for sheer entertainment value. Or Altman for quirky, innovative filmmaking. But when it comes to all-out fidelity to the cherished Chandler stories, Powers Boothe in Philip Marlowe Private Eye has no rival.
Black Sails (2014)
It's impossible to over-rate this series. Black Sails is pirates done right, at last, putting to shame all other video renditions (especially the over-the-top Disney fantasies).
A few comparisons are in order. For example, Black Sails is highly reminiscent of the series Deadwood: both are dark, violent and based loosely on real people and real events. (In both series, some of the most unbelievable events are the true ones.) There are also similarities to the series Rome, as far as the strong characters, ongoing rivalries, and evocative period detail. But Black Sails out-does these predecessors in several ways.
First, the characters are, without exception, brilliant. Captain Flint, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, John Silver, Charles Vane - these personalities are truly memorable. Larger than life, yet always credible, always consistent. You probably won't recognize the actors, but they *will* make you forget Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp.
Second, the dialog is amazingly literate, almost Shakespearean. Without seeming artificial. Characters constantly engage in deep, intense discussions that are often more engrossing than the ship-board action.
Third, the intertwining tensions and plot-lines are maintained with absolute logic throughout all four seasons. We see winners, losers and casualties, all utterly believable within the bounds of the show. Power ebbs and flows among the various factions, and the conflicts always feel real.
Fourth, the ending is one of the most satisfying I've seen for any multi-season dramatic series. Everything comes together, as if you'd been watching a single, very long movie. What's more, despite the deaths, the violence, the many defeats that end this story, the series wraps up on an upbeat note and leaves the audience with a big grin.
As a bonus, the historical underpinnings are used cleverly. The show isn't constrained by the facts - it expands on them in a way that's both plausible and enthralling. Black Sails seamlessly blends history and myth, and even finds time to comment on the way they interact.
The staging is impressive, by any standard. The naval battles are believable, and depicted on a grand scale. The inevitable computer graphics look real enough to keep viewers immersed. The hot Caribbean sun permeates every frame of the series.
In short, Black Sails is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable dramatic series ever. It's great adventure, great drama, and by far the best screen representation of the great days of nautical piracy. This is one series you don't want to miss.
The Discovery (2017)
Flawed, but Worthwhile
The Discovery is an unusual sort of film. It mostly succeeds, but not always at what it initially sets out to accomplish.
The premise is simple enough: a scientist has demonstrated the existence of some kind of afterlife. This leads to a wave of suicides, as people eagerly move on to what they now surmise will be greener pastures. The scientist's son blames his father's revelation for this result. Heated debate ensues.
Despite the obviously morbid subject matter, the film is remarkably likable. The stars are charming, and the love story develops in a beguiling way. The look of the film is suitably ethereal. There's not much plot, but lots of intelligent discussions about the meaning of life.
On the downside, some of the logic is a bit loose. Redford has proved the existence of some other plane of existence after death, but provided no indication of whether it's a nice place to be. It's hard to see how this limited revelation would make suicide all that much more attractive than before. Later, when Redford starts to peer into the minds of dead people, there's some confusion as to whether he's actually seeing stored memories. This is disproved by looking at detail in the videos - ignoring the well-known fact that detail in memories is completely unreliable.
Also, in the final sequence, there's some convenient confusion between memory, dream and afterlife. This sleight-of-hand allows the ending to be tidily explained, but isn't really supported by what's previously been revealed about the after-death experience. It's emotionally satisfying, but would have benefited from having better groundwork laid earlier.
Despite these minor flaws, The Discovery is quite an interesting film: quiet, sentimental and reasonably thought-provoking. Definitely worth a look, when you're in the mood for a slightly downbeat fantasy.
(By the way, a bit of trivia: it struck me as I watched the film, how much of it echoes concepts from the works of Robert Heinlein. The life-after-death machine, and the need for its destruction, are highly reminiscent of the when-will-you-die machine in Lifeline, with Redford a good stand-in for Hugo Pinero. The idea of shifting among multiple realities parallels the story Elsewhen. The desire to peer 'past' death and prove the existence of an afterlife is central to Beyond This Horizon. Coincidence? Homage? Great minds thinking alike? Who knows...)
(This is a review of Season One. I'll update it when I've seen Season Two.)
Fortitude is a compelling yet somewhat frustrating show. It's got elements of brilliance - terrific characters, a fabulous setting, engrossing plot twists - along with some flawed writing that keeps it all from adding up to a perfect whole.
On the positive side, Fortitude nails the feeling of cold and isolation. I'm a huge fan of mysteries set in constrained environments, especially the Arctic or Antarctic, and Fortitude uses that environment to the fullest. Full marks also for the quirky yet believable cast of characters. The Governor (barely recognizable as the star of the superb mystery series Forbrydelsen); the Sheriff with a dark secret, and especially the American Detective, charmingly underplayed by Stanley Tucci.
The premise is a tougher call. The ultimate explanation for the killings is scientifically plausible, but enough of a stretch to take Fortitude out of the realm of pure whodunit. It's set up carefully enough, so you don't feel cheated at any point. Just don't expect a typical police-procedural kind of mystery.
All this stuff works well enough. The main problem is with the logic of the plot, especially in the last few episodes. I won't give away specifics, but people stop reacting in an entirely credible way. Actions that would seem obvious are not taken. Far-fetched actions succeed better than they ought to. Characters react with anger one minute, calmly the next. Horrific actions are allowed to pass almost without comment. Too many significant plot points depend on pure happenstance. Important characters exit abruptly, without a proper pay-off.
None of this is glaring, but it's disappointing exactly because of the great precision with which the characters and situation are set up in the early episodes. These are complex people, vividly believable, and likable in spite of their darker sides. We really want to see how they'll respond under pressure. But when they do, it's in a logically-contorted manner that doesn't properly pay off on their well-crafted psychology. Many viewers won't notice, but devoted fans of mystery fiction will find themselves rolling their eyes too many times.
Despite this failing, Fortitude is a highly entertaining show, if not quite as satisfying as I'd initially expected. I do recommend it, but with two warnings: 1) don't set your expectations too high, based on the superb beginning; and 2) beware of extremely gruesome scenes, which may leave even hardened horror fans feeling a bit queasy.
(By the way, to see a similar premise handled considerably better, try the Icelandic series Trapped. It's a similarly tense far-Northern mystery, in which characters behave with absolute consistency from start to finish, and not even the smallest action ever seems forced or arbitrary.)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Exactly What You'd Expect - Unfortunately
Doctor Strange is THE quintessentially generic Marvel comic-book film. It executes the established formula with mechanical precision. The origin. The early training. The villain. The gratuitous quips. The evolution of The Costume. The Earth-shattering finale. It's all there.
This makes for a fun film, but not a great one. What Doctor Strange really lacks is *strangeness.* The truly original vision that Steve Ditko brought to comics in the 1960s (and which numerous other creators have built on, over the years). The early plots were hokey, maybe, but they were original. The look and feel and concept of the comics was unusual, bizarre, like nothing that had gone before. It was that unique sense of style that set Doctor Strange comics apart.
Doctor Strange, the film, is devoid of any style of its own. As the trailers correctly intimated, the visuals are largely swiped from Inception, and do absolutely nothing to capture the Ditko world of demented alternate dimensions. The look of the film is glossy and modern, where it should be bizarre and scary.
The often-annoying Cumberbatch is actually not bad as Stephen Strange - but he's also not particularly good. He's really the same guy as Robert Downey's Tony Stark. Both of whom could easily be older Peter Parkers. He's yet another Generic Action Guy, laughing nervously in the face of cosmic dangers. Even though Doctor Strange was the one Marvel hero who was truly devoid of humor. His was a grim world of sorcery, not of levity, but of endless study and utter devotion to forbidden arts. There's none of that in this film.
Doctor Strange is certainly worth seeing as two hours of light diversion. It's well-made and satisfying in its own terms. But coming after a decade of Marvel adaptations, it's also utterly forgettable. And a cosmic let-down to anyone who had any love for the original material. It's probably just about what Steve Ditko would have feared Hollywood would do to his work.
Better than Expected, in Unexpected Ways
After seeing many lukewarm or negative reviews, I watched Passengers with low expectations. Having seen it, I'm aware of its logical shortcomings. But overall, I liked it a lot - for reasons I really never expected.
At its core, this is not an adventure - it's a very unusual love story. It's about a love born of disaster, desperation and even heinous selfishness. And yet, it's a love that we come to appreciate as the story slowly unfolds. This film works remarkably well on a dramatic level. The two stars are extremely likable, and do a fine job of presenting a wide range of emotions, despite the limited scope of the story. (There are also a few smaller parts that work very well - notably the mechanized bartender.)
Even more surprisingly, Passengers succeeds in evoking that bona fide SF 'sense of wonder,' as we contemplate the lives of two people living alone on a huge starship, while 5,000 others remain inaccessible in hibernation. It's a fascinating vision, depicted quite powerfully.
On a purely mechanical level, the results are somewhat more mixed. The film does look terrific. The starship is elegant and believable. But the film's respect for real-world physics, on the other hand, hits both highs and lows.
On the up side, there are several maneuvers in zero gravity that are really quite clever, handled infinitely better than we've seen in such critically-acclaimed dreck as Gravity (which also lacked the powerful emotional side of Passengers). On the down side, we have a ship that loses centrifugal gravity by suddenly ceasing to spin. Not only is there no reason for it to stop spinning, we don't see the horrible carnage that inertia would create inside the ship after a sudden stop. There's also a scene with fusion plasma that's needlessly implausible, not so much because of poor physics, as because of lazy writing.
On balance, however, the scientific underpinnings are more than adequate to carry the film's genuinely compelling drama. Ignore the few inevitable quibbles, and Passnegers works really well as both SF and romance. It leaves you with some novel insights into human nature, and a genuinely haunting central image.
I have to deduct a point or two on the technical side, but even so I give the film a very strong recommendation. It's entertaining, likable and thought-provoking, and I will definitely watch it again.
Good Film, but Wastes the Original Material
After 1400-odd reviews, I'm sure this has been said before, but I have to add my voice to the chorus. Arrival is a nice little SF thriller, well-filmed, nicely acted and brimming with atmosphere. But as an adaptation of the original short story upon which it was based, Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life," it's an utter travesty.
(I won't reveal much about either the film or the story, but there are some generalities that are worth stating.)
Villeneuve is a director whose work I've enjoyed and admired. And I can appreciate that there must have been enormous pressure to create a marketable film. Profit figures indicate that Villeneuve succeeded, by crafting a moody, modernized take on "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It's all a bit over-familiar, but well executed, and enlivened by beautiful digital imagery.
Unfortunately, financial success was achieved by throwing away absolutely everything that's truly worthwhile about the original story. I won't give away much, other than to point out that the change in titles tells it all. The short story is subjective, and it's not about the effect that alien Arrival has on Earth's politics or culture. It's about the aliens' effect, and particularly the effect of their language, on one person. And it's told very much from the point of view of that one person.
I enjoyed Arrival, but I was also massively disappointed that Villeneuve failed to deliver the movingly existential gem I was expecting, and which as a director he was amply capable of creating. If you haven't seen the film, I strongly recommend you read the story first. It's by far the greater of the two works, and deserves to be experienced without preconceptions.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Alas, this film marks the point at which the Marvel film franchise slipped from the realm of powerful drama with larger-than-life characters, into pure Biff! Pow! fan service, with colorful super-manikins pitted needlessly and inappropriately against each other.
This slide is doubly sad, because the film starts so well. The question of vigilante justice has never been properly addressed in the superhero genre. Civil War starts by asking: what if the UN got involved? Should the Avengers yield their autonomy - their might-makes-right power, based purely on the accident of their own super-abilities? And furthermore, can even the UN or any other body be trusted to administer that kind of power?
(Mild spoilers ahead.) That last question never gets properly asked, let alone answered. Instead, Civil War lapses into a succession of impressive but meaningless action sequences. Culminating in a completely unnecessary battle between every superhero in the Avengers side of the Marvel cinema franchise - and the total devastation of a major airport. Ironically, this is exactly the sort of billion-dollar collateral damage that the film starts out questioning. Now it goes by without any comment.
Spider-Man is the most glaring insertion. He's completely superfluous to any plot line within the film. His presence is basically just an ad for the upcoming second reboot of his own franchise.
Finally, there's the question of the 'civil war' itself. It's basically ludicrous. In the end, Iron Man learns something irrelevant, that causes him to totally lose his mind and nearly murder one of his closest friends. This goes far beyond even 'comic book logic,' into the realm of purely arbitrary plot twists. Director to script writer: "It sez here that Cap and Shellhead pound on each other for 10 minutes - gimme a thin excuse, will ya?"
Too bad. Civil War looks great, has stupendous CG action sequences (especially the earlier, more human-scale ones), and fine performances by a number of good actors. But it marks a sad turn toward measuring worth not by solid dramatic or cinematic standards, but by the number of punches landed and the number of superheroes that can be crammed onto the screen at any one time.
We can hope this is an aberration, but it's a thin hope at best. This is how comics franchises traditionally die: strong ideas and deep characterization give way to mindless action and limp soap opera.
The Paper (1994)
Practically perfect film
I'm entirely mystified by the low ratings for what is perhaps Ron Howard's best film. Apollo 13 is more spectacular, true enough. But The Paper is a greater rarity, a 'small' story, spectacularly well done.
I've seen this film numerous times - but to do so, I had to buy it on DVD from the UK, because no proper North American edition existed. Even as I write this (September 2016), there's STILL only a cropped full-screen DVD at Amazon.com, and no Blu-ray. Incredible, considering that Ron Howard is (I think rather undeservedly) considered one of Hollywood's top directors.
The Paper starts with a brilliant script, by veteran writers David and Stephen Koepp. They absolutely nail all the plot points along several beautifully intertwining story arcs: Michael Keaton trying to land a big story, his wife having a baby, his editor trying to reconcile with an alienated daughter, and a cocky columnist feuding with the city's parking commissioner. Amazingly, these threads all tie up.
Ron Howard, not usually the most flamboyant director, does a terrific job of pacing the film. He also uses a subtle but superb approach to filming the newsroom scenes, keeping the camera floating around the cubicles, creating a sense of the perpetual state of urgency imposed by a daily deadline.
All the performances are terrific. Michael Keaton is funny, angry, emotionally conflicted. Marisa Tomei is charming and spunky as usual. Duvall is perfect as the grizzled editor. Glenn Close is suitably vile as the villain. And Randy Quaid delivers yet another unheralded mini-masterpiece, as an outspoken columnist... with a gun.
If this film had been made in the 1940s, it would have starred Clark Gable and Jean Arthur and would have been directed by Howard Hawks. And today it would be regarded as a classic. For some reason, instead, The Paper has been nearly forgotten by everyone.
The Paper is flatly one of the best films about the newspaper business, and quite simply an almost perfect film in every sense. It doesn't tackle big philosophical issues (much) - but what it does, it does as well as any film has ever done. It's funny, exciting, emotionally intense and utterly satisfying. I enjoy and appreciate its unexpected depths more with each viewing.
See this film any way you can - short of purchasing the abominable pan-and-scan DVD.
Under the Skin (2013)
Some points of interest, but not worth the effort
Further proof (as if we needed it) that an artist can put a frame around a blank canvas, and a predictable proportion of the audience will read into it some unfathomable work of genius that only they are clever enough to perceive.
Under the Skin is essentially just an interminable succession of near-random images. Nicely shot, but ultimately chaotic and uninteresting. It looks like footage someone shot driving around at random, then later attempted to edit into the vaguest suggestion of a 'story.' That makes it a B+ film school project, at best - not a work that any audience should be exposed to.
Scarlett Johansson is utterly wasted - her role calls for all the emotional range of a wax dummy. Of course, without her star power, I'm sure this film wouldn't have over 600 reviews. And would surely have only a vanishingly small number of gushingly positive ones.
Personally, I'm a fan of slow, artistic films. I loved Revanche, and quite enjoyed Liquid Sky. I was impressed by the dazzling artistry of Stalker. But there's a lower threshold at which 'slow and subtle' becomes 'empty and meaningless.' Under the Skin falls far, far below that threshold. And Glazer is definitely not Tarkovsky.
After you've seen all the really *great* 'slow' films... you should probably still not bother with this one.
Simply Irresistible (1999)
Odd, but Excellent
Simply Irresistible is one of those films that probably suffers in the reviews mainly by virtue of not belonging to any obvious category. It's a film you'll either love or hate. You can't pick it apart; the components are too tightly woven.
It's certainly not "a Sarah Michelle Gellar" movie, and will probably not appeal to anyone looking for 'just a bit more Buffy.' It's too whimsical to pass as a standard romantic comedy, and way too romantic (in every sense) for our cynical times. It's reminiscent of the 'romantic fantasy' films that Hollywood used to produce quite regularly in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, it's nearest kin are European films, such as Enchanted April, Chocolat or Amelie, which are happy to blend humor, fantasy and unabashed romanticism.
Gellar's performance isn't entirely polished - she's obviously exploring a different, more innocent persona than in Buffy. But, for me, her slightly self-conscious performance works perfectly with the material.
I've always been a huge fan of the sadly under-rated Sean Patrick Flanery, and here he hits exactly the right level of bewilderment. (Funny that both leads have triple-barreled names.) The supporting cast is excellent as well, especially Lawrence Gilliard Jr., who will be familiar to fans of The Wire, and Patricia Clarkson, who is at her most charming.
This is one of my favorite films, period, but I freely admit that it's not flawless. It does feel just a tiny bit awkward in one or two places. (For instance, the paper airplanes are perhaps one contrivance too many.) But considering the difficulty of what it's attempting, Simply Irresistible succeeds quite brilliantly. Give it a chance, accept its weird style, and you'll be amply rewarded.
And remember, dessert is the whole point of the meal.
The Flash (2014)
Going nowhere - very fast
The Flash was always one of my favorite DC superheroes. So I had high hopes for this series. Early episodes were a bit silly, but entertaining. Gustin is an unconventional choice to play the lead, but he's doing a good job. I'd have liked to see more of the original Carmine Infantino style, but the show has a pretty reasonable look and feel to it.
But after two seasons, all the early promise has been stamped out. The big story arcs are endless, boring and ridiculous. After the second or third time the Flash surrendered the instant a villain took one of his friends hostage, I knew the writers were all out of ideas. The various family sub-plots are going nowhere, and all we've got left is a mess of artificial angst. (Not quite as bad as Arrow, but getting there.)
The Flash has that comic-book look and feel, but it's paper-thin. It's amazing how a show can try so hard to kindle some real emotion, and fail so miserably. Unless you can be vastly entertained by the mere sight of a guy running around in tight-fitting red leather, I'd say forget this Flash.
DC is still floundering for an identity, on both the small and big screens. So far, its only unqualified success - Gotham - is probably the most overlooked.
UPDATE: The recent musical cross-over with Supergirl forced me to watch one episode of The Flash. It was almost unbearable. The series has descended to even lower depths of awkward cliché and implausible characterization. Avoid at all costs.
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Great visuals, sloppy writing
After hearing so much about Battlestar Galactica, I decided I really ought to watch the whole series. I'm not going to make it. The show has interesting characters, solid acting, fabulous special effects and a fascinating premise (in fact, several of them). But it's so relentlessly incoherent that I find a lot more anger than enjoyment in it.
Take just one episode, the first one of Season Two:
- Military tactics make no sense at all. The group stranded on Kobol, instead of setting up a base camp, putting out sentries and scouts, just kind of mills around. Three people sent back for an (inexplicably) missing medkit stroll merrily through the woods, talking loudly. They come under fire (inexplicably, given that it's a deserted planet). Then suddenly the shooting stops, and the two survivors get up and walk calmly away - again, with not the slightest attempt at stealth. One of the things that always impressed me about Stargate SG-1 was the credibility of its military procedures. If BSG had a military adviser, he should have been court-marshaled.
- Computer science 101 - failed. Computer systems don't have multiple 'software firewalls,' and hacks don't show up in red on a diagram. More importantly, the only reason you might not want to network computers together would be if you suspect one might be infected. But in this case, all the computers are on board the Galactica. There's no reason to suspect one more than another. In fact, unless someone has left an open Wi-Fi connection, there's really no way for the Cylons to hack in.
- Back on Caprica (WAY back, many FTL jumps away), Starbuck and Helo argue about whether or not to trust Boomer, a known Cylon. Meanwhile, Boomer walks off and takes their ship. It's like a scene from The Hangover, but it's not played for laughs.
- On Kobol, Baltar is apparently having an offspring with his purely imaginary female Cylon companion. Impressive. (After a dozen episodes, neither the purpose nor mechanism behind this lady's annoying presence has been explained.)
- As in almost every episode, 7 human space fighters dogfight 3000 Cylon fighters, and suffer no losses.
- A particularly mysterious Cylon attack ship crashes inside the Galactica, and no one comes to see what it might be unloading.
- As usual, the humans beat up their Cylon captive, instead of asking her (it?) a few obvious questions - like "What do you want?" or "Why do you care that 50,000 humans have escaped into the vastness of interstellar space, when you've already killed off all the rest?"
That's all just in one episode, and far from the dumbest one I've watched.
Even if there were explanations for some of the bigger questions - like why would Cylons bother to make Helo jump through hoops all over Caprica - you can't delay the answers this long. Going into the second season, we really know nothing more than we did at the start. That's really bad writing, bad plotting.
It's a shame. I *wanted* to like this show. I went back to Babylon 5, thinking maybe I'd dismissed it too quickly 20 years earlier - and was thrilled and amazed to discover how good it was. With Battlestar Galactica, the amazement was more about how such feeble dreck managed to run so many seasons, and gather so many 10-star reviews.
Superb Mystery from an Unlikely Source
Like a lot of people, I started watching Trapped because of the novelty of seeing a show made in Iceland. But when I finished the series, I had to admit: it's as good as the very best cop/mystery shows out of the UK, or anywhere else.
Trapped has several things going for it:
* The location, and the (icy-cold) atmosphere. What a great concept: a horrible murder, and all the suspects snowed-in in a tiny Icelandic town. (It reminded me of the excellent horror-adventure, 30 Days of Night.)
* The characters. The creators of this show must have used every top actor in Iceland, and even then they had to borrow some. But every role is beautifully played, and intelligently written. Every person depicted in this series has a believable personality, and even the villains remain believable and sympathetic.
* The plot. Unlike so many mysteries, Trapped is resolved in a totally plausible way. There are no lapses in logic, no improbable contrivances. Just human greed and stupidity, playing out in the way you'd expect. This is what really wins that 10/10 rating from me. Very few TV mysteries manage to come up with a really credible plot.
Trapped works perfectly on every level: as adventure, drama and mystery. Bear up with the subtitles (or brush up your Icelandic), and see this show as soon as possible. And join me in hoping that its creators have a lot more like it in store.