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The Almighty Johnsons (2011)
I, like many here, stumbled upon this show without knowing anything about it. I am intensely grateful for that bit of luck, as I have ended up loving it. It really doesn't matter to me that sets are reused, etc. as some have mentioned in their reviews, because the writing is so clever and the cast is obviously committed.
For much of the first episode, I found the characters unlikable and felt like I just didn't connect with them. Something magical happened by the end of that episode though and I began to understand that I was in the hands of some VERY capable writers. I am now so hooked on this show that am in the third series after binge watching. The characters (and their messy family dynamic) have been masterfully developed. The tone is a wonderful mix of jaunty fun and pathos. I love that the production just doesn't take itself too seriously. These guys are not afraid to breath fresh air into plot lines or to smash typical expectations (and the show is all the better for it). There are so many "throw away" jokes that make me chuckle. The plot is full of unexpected moments and twists and turns, something that is difficult to find in today's corporate TV land. It is rare to discover a series where, as a viewer, I can just sit back and enjoy the journey. The makers of this show have taken me on a fun and unexpected ride and I'll stick with them through as many episodes as they care to make.
Any Port in a Storm
For me, Puppy rated somewhere in the middle of most of these reviews -- good and bad.
The good? Potential, potential, potential...The script is pretty original and this makes for interesting viewing, since the scenarios between Liz and Aiden smack with the potential of unexpected twists. There are several great scenes that allow Townsend and Curry to shine.
The bad? This potential is not always reached, particularly in regards to REAL depth of emotion and pacing of the film. The characters here often behave in unrealistic ways, even for those who are presented as such damaged goods. As to the pacing -- based purely on plot, this movie should have been really edgy, quick and darkly witty; unfortunately, the actors seem to be emoting in molasses and lots of potential for twisted fun is never realized.
It just seems that the film maker wimped out a bit by not having his actors go head to head more often and by not escalating the violence to the point where the audience sees the couple as being as thoroughly desperate as the movie's ending seems to imply. Are they "sick puppies," are they "kicked puppies?" or are they a bit of both? The movie seems to be saying that we are all dealing with imperfect lives and just need to make the best of it, finding harbor wherever we may.
If we are supposed to believe that Liz manipulates the end of their love story as much as suggested, we need more than an, "Oh no, she's pregnant out of wedlock" motivation. Someone who is not truly damaged goods would simply not do the things she does; if she is so desperate, where is that in the story (attempted suicide over cruddy life notwithstanding)?
Anyway -- overall, I liked Puppy, but I won't feel a strong desire to revisit these characters and I really wish it hadn't been unreeled in such a listless fashion.
Scummy Man (2006)
The Cesspool is Leaking
Let's start out by giving a "hats off" salute to Stephen Graham as the titular "Scummy Man." He reminded me of Bob Hoskins at his best. His is a disturbing, dark and thoroughly engrossing performance by an actor fearless enough to bring this disgusting character to life. The bits of set-up in the beginning and his attempts to satisfy his burning lust through any means necessary have a dark humor that then tips dangerously into true darkness. He obviously isn't afraid to dip his toes into the cesspool of man's baser desires, creating a man so gross he has no real understanding of how to relate to those less scummy than himself. He fits so perfectly with that title; "When the Sun Goes Down" scum such as George comes out to rule the streets.
This short stuck with me after I watched it, but it felt very incomplete. It is by turns pretty moving and engaging and unsatisfying and depressing. It's a weird combo of gritty reality film-making and improbable moments that never really meld comfortably together into a unified tone. Most acting is pretty good, with the exception of the magician character, who never seems quite real. I'm not sure if this is the actor's fault or if the script just left him at sea. The film also asks us to buy a few strained plot devices.
It easily could have been developed into a full film, which probably would have been more illuminating. These few issues aside, I was glad I watched "Scummy Man" (especially once I'd taken a few cleansing showers).
Black Books (2000)
I just rented the Black Books series on DVD, knowing nothing at all about it. By the third episode, I had to rewind because I was laughing so hard I actually missed the rest of the scene. Tonight, I will tie my room mate to a chair and force her to become a fan as well. I would say the show is more for people who enjoyed Absolutely Fabulous and The Young Ones than fans of shows like Are You Being Served? It has a great deal of energy and runs off in many directions at once.
Black Books is a bizarre mix of comedic styles, but the whole thing somehow manages to work together. All three main characters have great chemistry and that is probably the real secret. From the commentary and outtakes on the DVDs, they seem to really have fun being silly together.
Black Books is a great deal of fun and well-worth renting. Here's hoping that this comedic team keeps on creating work of this caliber.
Preaching to the Perverted (1997)
I Submit ... A Review
*** Very Mild Spoilers*** Preaching to the Perverted is a fun little movie that had the potential to be more. Its production values are pretty high for such a "non-commercial" film and visually it is very attractive. It does a good job of satirizing both the fetishist and conservative communities, but its arguments don't really break any new ground. It represents a caricature of both worlds, rather than finding any deep truths. Watch it just for silly fun, and you will be satisfied.
Guine Turner and Christien Anholt, although not the world's greatest actors, are both appealing enough to easily gain the viewer's empathy. Supporting actors do a great job and there's lots of eye candy to behold.
Although I really enjoyed the humor of the film, a few things were dissatisfying. We never really get to know The Mistress (Turner) or Peter (Anholt) and so the dynamics of their relationship are figured out only through guesswork on the part of the viewer. That they change is obvious through the PLOT of the film, but never through their interactions. For this reason, the film fails to show us anything of significance about either Peter's sexual inhibitions and desires or The Mistress' "darkest fantasy." Without this, it's just a movie to be forgotten in a few days.
One other whine is that the MP conservatives are simply shown as hypocrites, which is just too easy. I would have loved to see this movie actually engage the idea that ultra-conservatives might believe the crap they spew forth. Peter, after all, begins as one of them ... so how does he end up where he does by the ending of the film? On the other hand, what has made The Mistress so dissatisfied with her own world? Exploring the faults of both sides would have made for a VERY interesting and significant flick!
Again, these are just "could haves." Overall, I really loved the movie and found it to be laugh-out-loud funny in some parts. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the fetishist community, you will see many jokes at the expense of types within the scene.
Butch Camp (1996)
Butch Camp is as fun as a Popsicle on a summer day. Sure it's messy, but it is a lot of fun to eat. Lighten up your expectations and love it for all its campy glory. It's as good in its own way as Repo Man, Preaching to the Peverted, Heathers or some similar cult classic.
Is the acting less than great? Sure! Does it exploit every gay AND straight stereotype in the book? Sure! Is it a trite romantic comedy? Sure! Does it matter? Not at all!!!
For some reason, this little flick is just darn satisfying. Every time I see it, I laugh at the stupid jokes and feel satisfied when the happy ending comes around. So what, feed me to the "hetero _ _ores," I just can't help myself!!!
Brutal and Sensuous
While not his strongest film, Sebastiane is classic Derek Jarman. The movie captures the potential for violence and lust in a small group of exiled young soldiers. As with all Jarman, the visuals here are more important than any dialog, and they wash over the viewer in waves of longing and fear-inducing power. The film meditates on intersections of longing, desire, faith and obsession, especially as they play out between Severus and Sebastiane.
Sebastiane's "obsessive" Christian faith rivals the lustful obsession of Serverus for this unattainable man. The movie doesn't flinch from showing how brutal desire can be; it is a hard master for both Serverus and Sabastiane. What I came away from the film with is the powerful question: What horrors and debasements will we all put ourselves through for the object of our lust?
Wild Blade (1991)
Not Fassbinder, Not At All!!!
Lordy, lordy, this movie was billed on the cover as "reminiscent of early Fassbinder," but has nothing of that quality to recommend it. Bad script, bad acting, bad, just bad! I must admit to a moment or two of sick admiration for its badness, but I'm fairly certain this was unintentional on the part of its creator, David Geffner. I'm not sure what this fella was up to, but Wild Blade isn't even good in an "experimental" kind of way. It's chock-full of moody jazz music that is apparently supposed to substitute for plot and angsty shots of people pouting for extended periods of time. Thom Crouch, playing the ruthless pimp, is fascinating in the same way that watching a car crash is fascinating; you just can't take your eyes off the disaster. Don't waste an hour of your life watching this thing. Really.
Harry + Max (2004)
Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing
****SLIGHT SPOILERS**** Harry and Max lacks all of the subtle interplay between characters that has so far been a hallmark of Christopher Munch's films. The premise sounded interesting and challenging, but the film was a let down for me.
None of the characters here, even Harry and Max themselves, are fully formed. Unfortunately, this means that the salacious premise (the repercussions of two teen pop idol brothers' incest) never overcomes its own silliness. I thought the nearly non-stop chatter between the two main characters would eventually be banished as merely a cover up for their deeper thoughts, but no, apparently this silly dialog was meant to be thought provoking in some way.
Why are these guys pop stars? Oh yeah, because who wants to see a movie about incest unless the stars are attractive? It should be central to their characters, but it seems only to be an excuse for Harry to have some sort of A Star is Born angst and for the audience to see pretty faces.
Max is infatuated with Harry, then Harry is infatuated with Max, both sleep with the other's past loves, vague hints are given about their messed up family and absolutely NOTHING of significance about love, human nature, lust, relationships, or anything else is ever revealed.
Not helping matters is the cursery development of all other characters. Josiah, Roxanne and Jordan are all treated like pieces of the set to be moved around at the need of the director. None has any depth, motivations or interesting qualities beyond their usefulness as background for Harry and Max. Even the boys' mother is reduced to two minutes of muddled screen time bitchiness. Nikki, for me, was the only interesting character here, but the reasons for her choices are never explored and in the end she winds up as flat as all the others.
Writers need to make choices and here none have been made. Either focus only on Harry and Max, or focus on their world, but please do one or the other with some degree of success! To my mind, this is Christopher Munch's worst film to date, not because of its scandalous subject matter, but because of its inability to reveal anything of interest about it!
Venus in Furs (1994)
The beautiful filming in Venus In Furs reminds me of why it was called "glorious black and white." Claire Mijnals smolders nicely and has a presence similar to Jean Harlow. Shadows abound and cool framing shows that the director may have found inspiration in German cinema or Derek Jarman films of old. It is a very faithful and beautifully made adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel, which means it is both wonderful and lacking in the same ways as the book.
Venus in Furs is definitely not a film for everyone and even for "arthouse" lovers, it feels a bit incomplete and emotionally distant. It is basically an exploration of masochism, sadism, love, control and lack of control. A central question seems to be whether a lover should deliver satisfaction to her/his partner even when it is not satisfying to her/him. Where is the bond built? Where does trust, love, etc. begin and what does it require? These questions have been asked before and probably in more emotionally resonant movies, but Venus in Furs is worth a look for those who are drawn to their local black and white "arthouse" flick.
Blue River (1995)
Stahl Beats O'Connell By a Hair
Blue River has many things going for it and a few that detract from its potency. On the plus side, it features a literate script, decent direction and some fine acting. On the down side, it has some horrible hair and prosthetic make up and Jerry O'Connell.
Let's start with the worst -- Jerry O'Connell's performance... or maybe his hair piece...no, the acting wins out by a ... oh, I'm not going to say it.. Having only seen O'Connell in Stand By Me, where his character is rather endearing, his hammy overacting here came as quite a jarring surprise. One can almost hear O'Connell thinking, "I am an Actor!" every time he is on screen. He telegraphs every thought, every move, of his character, Lawrence, turning each into a "special moment." It doesn't help that his character is supposed to be mercurial and edgy, giving him an excuse to over emote. Check him out as he swills a beer and dramatically dashes the plastic cup to the ground. It is difficult not to laugh.
On the up side here is Nick Stahl's performance. Seeing these actors as a foil for each other only serves to highlight Stahl's talent all the more. Where O'Connell's artificiality is irritating, Stahl's naturalness is inspiring. He manages to take a much less meaty character than O'Connell's and imbue him with a depth and emotional reality that leaves a lasting impression. In the intense confrontations between the two brothers, Stahl's acting is the emotional center. As his character begins to see the cracks in his brother's lies, he allows the anger and dismay to naturally shine through.
Overall, the supporting actors here do a fine job. The scenes between Stahl's character and that played by Patrick Renna are great. Renna builds a complex and compelling youth whose own destructive nature mirrors that of Lawrence. Susan Dey looks great here in her fragile kookiness, but one gets the feeling that some of her scenes may have been cut out, leaving her character a bit underdeveloped. This is even more true for Sam Elliott, playing the flawed Henry Howland well, yet ultimately remaining flat. As the younger sister, Jean Marie Barnwell was impressive in her few scenes and left me thinking I will keep my eyes open for her in the future.
Blue River is well worth seeing despite its flaws. One can't help wishing that this project had been financed as a film rather than a TV movie, since it has such a fine script and might have done well. See it for the decent performances and story .... or to giggle at O'Connell's very bad hair day.
No Vacancy (1999)
Trying Too Hard To Be Quirky
This is a mostly flat movie that, I'm sure, read much better as a screenplay. It is trying so hard to be quirkily absurd that it does itself injury, and the collection of silly characters are mostly just going through the motions. Mediocre performances in most roles lend a sense of Acting 101 homework to the whole proceedings, events unfold without any build-up and even normally decent actors have lowed their game here. One plot line is so stereotypically racist as to be offensive, even with a slightly redeeming plot twist that might have been funny.
Timothy Olyphant is the only standout here, organically building a character that actually interested me. He impressed me enough that now I will look for him in other projects. Christina Ricci, always watchable, is given little in the script to support her nutty character. Still, without these two, No Vacancy would be pretty unwatchable.
The involvement of Johnathan Rhys-Meyers and Madeline Stowe made me interested in seeing Pulse/Octane. For the first part of the movie I was rewarded with cool photography, a nightmarish tone and the increasingly complex portrayal of a messed up mother-daughter dynamic. I began to get excited about what was to come as I was reminded of great classics like The Hunger, Aliens or Near Dark. Unfortunately, this potential never came to fruition.
What begins as an examination of a mother's will to protect her petulant daughter from herself soon decays into just another "B" horror movie full of clichés and buffoonish action. Shifting the perspective from Stow's character to the daughter's (Micha Barton) removes all weight and tension from the story since Barton's character is as fluffy and foolish as any MTV V-Jay. Why should we root for the mother when the heroin-chic daughter would so obviously be more happy partying with Bijou Phillips' vacuous hitchhiker?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers uses his trademark sensuality to good effect here, but his character, "The Father," is given such short-shrift that he never becomes more than a caricature. Still, if he is some kind of symbol for wanton lasciviousness, it looks so good on him one roots for Barton to accept his advances and ditch her mother's increasingly silly attempts to save her.
Movies like this are really irritating because of what they could have been with a bit more vision on the part of the writer and director. I'm sure Stowe and Rhys-Meyers saw the potential in the script and were then disappointed. For me, Pulse/Octane is one that got away...
Earthly Possessions (1999)
There are real sparks here between Sarandon and Dorff and their performances give Earthly Possessions some real emotional weight. I've never been much impressed with Dorff in the past, but playing against Sarandon seems to lift him to a new level as an actor. His physicality serves him well in this role and Jake's hotheaded moments are both funny and slightly threatening (a hard line to walk). Sarandon builds her character so effortlessly that all of Charlotte's personality just magically appears before the viewer. Is there anything she can't do as an actress? The screenplay shows some big changes from Anne Tyler's book, but it does do a good job of capturing the novel's quirky mix of drama and comedy. Many people mention dissatisfaction with the movie's ending and I felt it too. In the novel the ending feels natural and right, but it's as if this screenplay didn't quite take into account the sexual sparks that would be generated between the two leads. Because Sarandon and Dorff have this chemistry together and do such a great job showing the characters challenging each other to be better people, the inclusion of the girlfriend and the "earthly" resolution feel like intruders in a great romantic drama. It left me wishing that instead of an adaptation of Tyler's book (which deals with taking responsibility for choices), the movie was just a continuation of Charlotte and Jake's journey together. In the movie, you just KNOW that their being together is right, even if this isn't the message in the screenplay; that difference leaves the viewer dissatisfied. In a way though, it is more satisfying that the movie doesn't have a pat ending and Charlotte and Jake's relationship is more complicated than it has to be. Movies that challenge our expectations are rare enough these days.
Eye of God (1997)
Better Than Expected ... Disturbing
I rented this one just as a Nick Stahl fan but was really amazed by how good it was. The disturbing tone and plot line stuck with me for days after viewing it. Stahl was wonderful as a traumatized boy who is just barely surviving his pain. Stahl's work in this film just hints at the depths of talent we may yet see from him. I don't think that Martha Plimpton has EVER been better in her role as a young woman searching for love and redemption. Hal Holbrook, his face a mixture of world-weariness, sadness and kindness, is the real center of the film and he does an amazing job.
One of the most moving things about this film was the idea that deep tragedy can strike at the most seemingly mundane of moments. Coupled with this is the concept that one can never really know what is in another's heart or mind. Because of the narrative form, one knows tragedy will strike, but the director purposefully seems to suggest that tragedy could enter into any setting, at any moment, with no warning. The bookend examination of the story of Abraham and Isaac is ultimately successful because Isaac (like the characters and viewer) was asked to have faith without any proof that seemingly negative events may have a positive reason. The director doesn't offer any pat answers to this dilemma, but he does show that tragedy can overwhelm a person.