Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chris Rock: Tambourine (2018)

Perhaps 98% of the 530 "reviews" on this service blast Chris Rock's new show as "all," "completely," or "nothing but" "white-bashing trash" and "ultra liberal garbage" (from Trump deplorables, I am guessing). Chris Rock has always been this way with his humor, but nowadays "whitey" won't sit still to be held accountable for its double standard in law enforcement (claiming "racism" from a "racist" who is pointing out their racism). Besides, white comedians have made the same jokes against cops killing black youth without getting raked over the coals like Chris has been here. Furthermore, he is sympathetic to the demanding jobs that cops have; he says they should be paid more -- but "bad apples" should not be excused (sort of like airline pilots). Sure, Chris has been away for a decade -- raising his children, for which he should be commended -- so cut him some slack if he chooses to take on topics more relevant to people his age instead of 20 years younger. Do people say Patton Oswalt is no longer funny after losing his wife and learning the life lesson to "Be kinder"? Chris showed extraordinary candor, even about his own failings. Chris Rock is back! 3.5 stars. (2-20-2018)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Helix: Seasons 1-2 (2015)

Helix is quite good for a SyFy Original series, but I was not ready to say that until seeing the second season. Two-thirds of the first season is filmed in dark corridors and bunkers, and a key Japanese character has the annoying habit of speaking in mystical whispers. The second season moves from a secret corporate lab in Antarctica to a secret island society led by a narcissist with a messiah complex. Basically, the premise is CSI (in the form of a dedicated CDC team) uncovers and combats a global conspiracy for genocide. Every member of the CDC team is a strong individual who is personally invested in the common goal but also faces individual dangers of their own. The society itself faces a series of existential threats. The storyline covers 530 years. The final scene is a clincher. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (1-24-2018)

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes (2017)

In his Thank God for Jokes comedy show, Mike Birbiglia continues his laid-back, mild-mannered delivery style, which he attributes to his mother and nine years of Catholic schooling. In fact, he was funniest telling stories of his performance in a Christian school gymnasium (it did not go well) and on stage with the Muppets (it really did not go well). He also reflects on the tenuous nature of comedy, how it intrinsically is going to offend someone (because it has to be about something), and how humor can bring us together. Enjoy! 4 stars. (1-24-2018)

Chlorox, Ammonia and Coffee (2005)

As a Minnesotan for my first 40 years, I love Scandinavian and dark comedy. This Norwegian film, however, is billed as a comedy and a "wickedly funny melodrama" (terms I would apply to Kitchen Stories or Waking Ned Devine). I am glad I finally got to see it, since it was a Save title on this service for a decade before becoming an Add title, but it was nothing as described or expected. Normally I am fine with that too, since each film is what it is and should be enjoyed on that basis. However, this film tried to be Crash or Babel or Amelie without the cinematography, casting, scriptwriting, editing, and acting. I found nothing to like in any character save the blandly agreeable grocer. Many of the coincidental connections stretch credulity, culminating in the weirdest scene where the grandmother is suspended in midair, pondering the justification of her existence, after she has been hit by a car driven by her coke-addled son. Scene transitions are abrupt and often cryptic. I assume the trampoline moments are meant to be funny. The ending is unsatisfactory. I hope you can enjoy it more! 2 stars. (1-24-2018)

Todd Glass: Act Happy (2018)

Todd Glass: Act Happy receives the lowest rating I have ever given a comedian -- and I am a very copacetic reviewer. That said, I think Todd has the stage presence and chops to carry off a winning performance -- and he may well have done so previously, since I knew nothing about him before watching this special -- even if he has ADHD, as some suggest, because I see how he could make that work for him. But no, his failings were in being gimmicky, tedious, and tendentiously obnoxious (schmaltzy, to use an old-school Yiddish term). His band was great -- I could listen to them playing real music all night -- but he used them to schvitz "public domain" bits like wah-wah-wah, rim shot, and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." They were also shills, pretending to throw their voices from the audience -- while admitting to it, as he tried to joke about it. Worst of all were the "improv" songs from him and the band, with lyrics literally as bad as "blah-blah-blah" -- with intentionally bad meter and vocals -- admittedly added in case he didn't have enough material to fill the show. Painful! Lamentably, his act also included 5 minutes talking about his drug use, 5 minutes of light talk about his "coming out" and how gays and straights are "the same" (he can say what he wants, but why can't others?), and 5 minutes of clunker joke ideas (again, just to fill time, though justified by claiming he was out of time). In fact, there was only one line where I nearly chuckled -- but I forget what it was. I want to like the guy, so I will stop at 1.5 stars. (1-24-2018)

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mike Birbiglia: What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales From My Secret Public Journal (2008)

Mike Birbiglia is almost too low-key; he riffs on his life's awkward moments and basically says "So, yeah..." and the magic happens when his audience laughs. He makes it work; I had a gentle chuckle going at least half the time, esp. while talking for a few minutes about his parents ("They are basically older, boring versions of me, and that's not cool") and George W. Bush ("nonsense like 'You can't shoot the shooter, heh-heh-heh'"). I saw the streaming version of this show, however, the DVD version has additional material, if you are interested. 3 stars. (1-22-2018)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Chewin' the Fat (1999)

With three shows under its collective belt, this comedy team has put Scottish comedy on the map. This one-season show was my first introduction, so I had to listen closely to "get the swing of the lingo" by episode 4, before I started over again to enjoy the whole season in one swell foop! These sketches (esp. the recurring ones like the randy retirement home biddy) are inspired genius and mostly based on real-life examples (for example, Big Man). My only quibble is the camera-mugging prankster in the lighthouse sketches. I'd watch this show again at the drop of a shot glass. Enjoy! 4 stars. (12-15-2017)

Darkest Hour (2017)

I saw Darkest Hour previewed in Houston three days before it opened, and greatly enjoyed it. In a surprising benefit to the preview, the great-grandson of Winston Churchill was present to introduce the film and to ably answer questions afterwards. (He "married a Texan" and speaks eloquently of his forefather's legacy -- historic, world-saving, and then cast aside after the war.) Gary Oldman deserves an Oscar for his performance. Touches of humor are smart and wry. The film only covers the span from shortly before Churchill's elevation to British Prime Minister to his historic "never surrender" speech, and left me wanting more. I felt like I was there with Churchill, experiencing the man through his words and actions, on which the US and the UK soon after founded their "special relationship." I will see this movie again with a British friend. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (12-15-2017)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

DeRay Davis: How to Act Black (2017)

It took me a bit to warm up to DeRay's comedy style, but he is funnier and even "blacker" than Dave Chappelle, and simply kinetic -- once he gets going, he does not stop! Every vocal inflection, gesture, back gesture, step, dub step, and punch line is interwoven and intuitively dead-on. Yes, vulgar words zing and ricochet -- but every second of his standup feels true, with not one missed beat. Here is a comic to watch! Enjoy! 4 stars. (11-23-2017)

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)

I could not attend the Houston screening of this film, but was happy to find it promptly streaming via this service. Mission Control is a must-see, if you appreciate the space program as a hallmark for humanity. Not only does this documentary showcase a half-dozen key personnel (esp. the indefatigable Gene Kranz) and astronauts who discuss their roles in the Apollo program's failure and success, but we see plenty of film footage from that era (where the engineers were all men, all smoking, all the time). The focus and professional rigor that NASA established at Mission Control (esp. after the loss of Apollo 1) set the stage for decades of human exploration in space (and the saving of Apollo 13), which I doubt can be matched by private commercial enterprise. This film has to be more than historic nostalgia; it needs to remind us of how high (literally) humanity can fly when we work together with drive and dedication. The world owes an incredible debt to the NASA family of astronauts, engineers, and everyone involved in Mission Control (as well as their families), for their sacrifice, and their service with distinction. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (11-23-2017)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Brian Regan: Nunchucks and Flamethrowers (2017)

It took 10 minutes to get into the swing of Brian Regan's comic stylings. (First he seemed bland but goofy, like a Mormon comic, then he reminded me too much of Will Ferrell -- the unfunny parts.) He is clean, but focused, and once you catch on with his flow, he can be quite funny (even about a silly thing like underwear elastic bands). I enjoyed the rest of my sojourn with him during this show, and he often brought me to a rolling boil of belly chuckles. Good stuff! The closing credits even include an extended blooper that he played around with for the audience. Enjoy! 3 stars. (11-22-2017)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Jack Whitehall: At Large (2017)

I read others' reviews after watching this Netflix comedy special -- so this is why our subscription rates are going up? -- even the nonreviews where people gave up after watching 8 minutes of this dreck. I think I can assure everyone that it is not British comedians who are unfunny, it is not you or me who lacks a funnybone -- it is this guy who is not funny. (Your mileage may vary.) First, he giggles and burbles and cackles constantly in the most juvenile fashion. (What was he on?) Second, he commits the sin of laughing at his own jokes -- while telling them. (I think the few viewers who liked him were just caught up in his fake mirth contagion.) Third, he tells the most lame, overused jokes -- which others do much better -- including the tired "Oh no, I accidentally told you their name!" patter. The only funny part was at the end, where he plays off his single-line role in Frozen (cut from the theatrical release) while wearing a large "troll" outfit (and remaining off-camera half the time). Here is one overblown puff of hot air I do not look forward to watching again -- though you may enjoy! 2.5 stars. (10-30-2017)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

XIII: The Series

XIII (pronounced Thirteen) starts out all Bourne-like: XIII is a lethal covert operative whose memory has been wiped -- how is this possible? -- so he spends several years (two seasons) trying to discover who he is, and uncover then defeat a plot to destroy civilization as we know it. He is alternately commissioned and condemned by the US President, whose GQ-styled heads of Homeland Security and the CIA seem to be running their own treasonous conspiracies. XIII's only support is his conflicted former partner, who is quite kick-ass herself (Aisha Tyler, voice of Archer's Lana Kane). While all the characters in this show have been around, they were unknown to me -- this is a show from Canada -- but with a few provisos, they did quite well in every role (esp. the lead, who ably carried the show via three roles). My chief gripe in season 1 is the sound engineering: The plot is passable, but chase scenes jack up the volume and percussion, scene transitions use multiple flash and swish effects, and nearly everyone speaks in a low murmur (so my volume was constantly going from 14 to 24 and back). Season 2 simply went off the rails: There is no simple way to touch on the mishmash of plot points, plot holes, and incredulity that pass for its 13 episodes. Short of multiple viewings, it may be impossible to determine what layer of the story, or whose virtual-reality construct we are in, much less which character XIII really is. The president goes off the deep end -- yet no one reacts to his clear rantings and hallucinations -- and then doubles down, while a smarmy scheming female governor from Alaska (with a southern accent) storms the White House bunker. Then there are the real villains and their nefarious scheme! It was a slog to finish, but the lead character is likable, as is his cohorts -- you root for them. Canada makes some great shows, and while this one is uneven, it is more complex (and sometimes silly) than Jack Bauer in 24. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (10-28-2017)

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Joe Rogan: Triggered (2016)

As a natural comic, Joe Rogan is a force of nature. Now sporting a clean-shaven pate, he resembles an ebullient coach bellowing commentary to the team. Unfortunately, he starts with pot, then warns his audience that insanity might rule if the election gives us President Trump. (He doesn't think anyone is qualified for the job, and doubts it should even exist, since it was created "back when people wrote with feathers"). Rogan is nothing if not full-throated and confident in his intuitive take on things. He carries you with him, and had me laughing quite a bit (esp. with his positive insights about cults and Mormons). He even occasionally says intelligent things (then admits to ignorance, like an average joe). His language is naturally blue, but when it gets purple, it is for a good and funny reason. His final segment is about raising daughters with his wife, and how that affects him as a man. The closing scene is genius, depicting the demon and Bruce Jenner. I would have given him 4.5 stars, but he advocates for getting stoned, even while parenting. He is a master though. Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-21-2017)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation (2017)

Patton Oswalt running on all cylinders would be 4.5 stars or better every time, I imagine. Yet these are not normal times: Both Marc Maron and he start out their specials marveling at the beyond-stupid stuff that fills their Twitter feeds now, so much that not only is it too much to make comedy from, but their material would soon by outmatched by even more crass occurrences only days later. (No names though, it is mild and last less than 5 minutes out of the whole show.) Patton talks again about the recent loss of his wife, and being a single parent, and manages to wring some comedy even from those struggles. Summary: "Be kind." This guy is genuine! Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-19-2017)

Marc Maron: Too Real (2017)

I gave Marc Maron's Thinky Pain 3.5 stars and I have his series in my queue to watch. I give Too Real 4 stars because he is pretty good. True, he is low-key and a "whiner" -- but would you expect anything different from a guy who looks and talks like him? It's his thing; who are you to criticize? Ding him or not, he does fine by most of the people in his audience. He starts out with very mild references to the current president (whose own White House staff is thinking the same stuff, so shut up, teabaggers). He goes on with "I'm 53. So I don't know how much time I have left." I belly chuckled through most of the show, except his Rolling Stones story; it was well told, just not relevant to me. He is definitely gearing toward the 50+ age demographic. Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-19-2017)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Come Fly With Me: Season 1 (2010)

Come Fly With Me is the BBC's mockumentary version of A&E's Airline, complete with a perky soundtrack and a cast of characters from all parts of the FlyLo airline team. What's key to remember is that most roles are filled by two men; their makeup is impeccable as they play catty female ticket-counter attendants, giddy Japanese schoolgirls, a husband-wife pilot team, and all manner of loopy airline customers. Of course everyone is deluded or incompetent (or both); the dry British humor is sublime. It remains a Save title but is available on streaming. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (viewed 4-13-2013, reviewed 10-16-2017)

My Family: Seasons 1-7 (2000)

I finally got my hands on the first disc of BBC's My Family. (I will update this review as always, however, Season 2 Disc 1 is currently a Save title.) My Family is funnier, with sharper ripostes and repartee, than Fawlty Towers and A Fine Romance. Its closest analog on US TV is probably Married ... With Children (which I have not yet seen) or any similar show. Every character is brilliant in his or her role, esp. the put-upon dad (who is a dentist, of all things, poor sod) and the bad-cook mom (though in everything else, she is well organized, to say the least). The kids are excellent too, esp. the oldest son (a slacker, though the daughter also often asks for money); each child seems to slip into their role as if it is a comfortable shoe. Honesty gets a real workover in this series. Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-16-2017)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Son of the Beach: Seasons 1-2 (2000)

I love parodies as a rule, even cheesy ones like Howard Stern's Son of the Beach. (Season 1 recently turned from Save to Add status.) In this clearly intended spoof of Baywatch, everyone's name is a sex or toiletry reference, dialog is deliberately loaded line-by-line with double entendres, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger doppelganger makes many subconsciously en-Kampf-ortable exclamations. The show could have been cheesier and more ribald, even offensive, however; so at least they pulled out to shun that concept. (Rimshot. I mean, sorry.) Son of the Beach is a silly way for anyone 12-14 and above to pass the time, so long as the gaggle of women in thongs or negligees they stuff into one minute of every episode doesn't sprain anyone's eyeballs (or eyebrows). Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (10-15-2017)

Gabriel Iglesias: I'm Sorry for What I Said When I Was Hungry (2016)

Gabriel Iglesias ("I'm Not Fat, I'm Fluffy") is authentically funny, earthy, and has this huge chemistry with his audience. (He has been coming to Chicago for 15 years, so filled a massive venue, and has his own theme "Fluffy" theme song. The crowd loves this guy!) I laughed (to myself) a good deal throughout this show. He is the real deal, authentic, grounded. I liked this special better than the two others I have seen so far. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (10-15-2017)

Buddy Thunderstruck: Season 1 (2017)

Buddy Thunderstruck looks to be Robot Chicken for the NASCAR/Dukes of Hazzard demographic. Buddy and his best friend whip his semitrailer cab (with a flip-up nitrous afterburner jet) through its paces to win the trophy cup at every race near their home town of Greasepit (state unspecified). This stopmotion show is both antic and hilarious -- that is, there is a lot of kinetic energy and precision tire-squealing showmanship in each episode, in addition to threatened as well as actual altercations with various town inhabitants (a weight-lifting hothead, for instance). Every town denizen is some type of animal (the pawn shop owner and his repo-man son are warthogs, for example), not always easily identified. Buddy is a natural winner and much-respected small-town hero with a golden heart, although he may sometimes be tricked into doing bad things, until he realizes what's up. As two parents have written so far, the show is cute and clean but the airborne and colliding trucks might not be best for children under age 6. The creators of Robot Chicken are on the producers list of this show, as are two key voice talents from Jimmy Neutron. I love this show, and I am age 60. Enjoy! 5 stars. (10-15-2017)

Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile (2017)

I just ran across Buddy Thunderstruck, a hilarious new stopmotion series with a NASCAR/Dukes of Hazzard theme. The Maybe Pile is Season 2: Episode 1, where the racing duo speeds around, on and off road, picking two slips out of their paper sack full of dumb ideas; you choose which crazy stunt they perform by tapping or clicking (on a TV or phone/pad screen). I enjoy wacky, joyous tomfoolery as much as the next fool, and Buddy Thunderstruck delivers it by the truckload (with nitrous afterburner). Enjoy! 5 stars. (10-15-2017)

Miss Sloane (2016)

Jessica Chastain played the young CIA analyst who single-handedly determined "Where in the world is Osama Bin Laden" in Zero Dark Thirty. Now she is a laser-focused, balls-to-the-walls lobbyist in Miss Sloane. At first, she is a "hired gun" for the gun lobby, but after confronting a professional challenge, she finds herself jumping in to work just as assiduously for the opposite camp. This movie is not about guns, pro or con; that is just the largest Washington lobby. This movie is clearly about the facile ways that lobbying tactics and strategems can be flipped and applied to either side of an issue; right or wrong, truth or lies, one side or another are less important than the lobbyist's proficiency in manipulating the theater of engagement and the messaging. Here is a fascinating and fast-paced study in corporate deviousness, on both sides; things get quite intense (some say overblown), but few women actors do intensity better than Chastain. Enjoy! 5 stars. (viewed 5-20-2017, reviewed 10-15-2017)

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Reluctant Saint (1962)

The Reluctant Saint (1962), not to be confused with Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi (2003), is an acceptably produced Catholic movie from "back in the day" when Catholic movies were made. Traditional Catholics will find nothing to kvetch about morally; however, the film does not exactly break new ground in scriptwriting and acting. Still, it has its moments. At age 32, Maximilian Schell stars as Giuseppe Desa (later St. Joseph of Cupertino), who lived perhaps the simplest life of all in a small Italian community in the 1600s. He is sympathetically painted as virtually the village idiot: able to perform only simple chores, until heckling children or adults cause him to have an accident, which the authorities blame on his clumsiness. At age 42, Ricardo Montalban plays the abbot who opposes those who arrange for Giuseppe to enter the monastery, where in time he becomes a priest of such devotion that he is witnessed levitating during prayer. The authorities debate and investigate this phenomenon until the skeptics are persuaded with their own eyes. The best moments in this movie are when Giuseppe's mother, or the archbishop, are in the scene. The mother has such a strong will that two priests murmur "If she were a man, she would be a bishop." "No, she would be the Pope." She alternately bosses and persuades her son and the church authorities with skill. The archbishop has a nightlong conversation with Giuseppe and "gets" him spiritually, becoming the chief advocate of a humble, simple-minded man who would rather muck the stables and sleep in the hay than anything else. Bonus points: All the Latin prayers are correctly done. This disc is now available after many years as a Save and then a Very Long Wait title. Enjoy! 3 stars. (10-13-2017)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Dave Chappelle (2017)

I am so glad to see Dave Chappelle back doing standup after a 10-year hiatus. He is a comic genius, and The Chappelle Show was inspired. I put Dave on the same stage as Gary Shandling, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, and one or two others. He is edgy and raunchy (esp. this time with an extended bit on a synonym for "meow juice"), and his pop culture knowledge goes well beyond my own, but everything he says hits home. Many white comedians joke about racism but Dave skewers it with his jokes every time. Dave performed in Los Angeles for the first of the two acts in this "collection" (so he relates the four times in his life he met OJ Simpson) and then in Austin (my favorite of the two shows). Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-11-2017)

Ralphie May: Unruly (2015)

Ralphie May is a southern boy who graduated from Houston's class-act performing arts high school. He opened his second (and final) comedy special for this streaming service by proclaiming his pride in the South ("or, as I like to call it, America") and got applause for his redneck-y remarks, esp. accusing CNN of inventing news. He spent the rest of the first 25% of this special describing his drug use and advocating for stonerism. So he was steadily approaching a 1-star review from me. However, I found the next 40% of his standup legitimately funny, as he talked frankly and comfortably about sex, racism, gays, and marriage. Then the final 35% or so of this show got utterly explicit about oral and digital sex, including his teen experiences esp. trying to bed at least two churchgoing girls (apparently, one in her home and one at church). He framed it as a "life lesson" to the young men in the audience, so they could know all the specific tricks and techniques that were practiced by the previous generation. To be fair, by the end of the show, he had the audience eating out of his hand (while he was telling them where it had been). Enjoy as much as you can! 2.5 stars. (10-11-2017)

City in the Sky: Season 1 (2016)

As I would expect from PBS, City in the Sky is a very well-produced, up-to-date, and informative documentary about air flight and the worldwide infrastructure that supports it. This show is full of facts and statistics about the people, baggage, produce, and fuel that jet planes transport every day or year (to put things in perspective), but it is impressive to witness in action the massive facilities all over the world (from Atlanta to Dubai to Hong Kong to the UK) that test and build and service (and store or demolish retired) airplanes, store and route baggage, deliver food and weather and medical services, perform air traffic control, and monitor jet engine performance in real-time. The focus is on Boeing and Airbus jets with (I think it is) polycarbonate construction, which is 10 times stronger than aluminum and offers 20% greater fuel efficiency. (To the amateur reviewer who noted how one flight expends as much fuel as one year of driving the family car, divide that fuel by the 365 passengers in that flight and it is no more expensive than driving your car for one day.) City in the Sky introduces this 3-episode series with the metaphor of its title, because all the people in air transit at any given time could populate a large city. It is a stretched metaphor, and they push it consistently, but I do not begrudge them the effort, because they do a good job of framing the airline industry between global and personal contexts. The series introduces us to the actual personnel in charge of various operations all over the world, and while the tone is overwhelmingly "pro" industry, they candidly describe the risks and negatives as well as the preventive engineering. Watch the pilot (one of 26 so qualified) who navigates his jet manually through the tortuous terrain near Mount Everest to land on a runway 25% shorter than the standard minimum length. You will learn something new with this show, and may appreciate the boon of air travel even more. Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-11-2017)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Christina P: Mother Inferior (2017)

Christina is original, imaginative in her edginess, relevant, and funny. She first discusses childbirth before launching into the generational differences in raising a child. I might have given her 5 stars but her last 5 minutes were an even darker second attempt to be "less negative" about death. She is nothing if not imaginative though, so plaudits to Christina P. (She probably uses an initial because her parents came from Hungaria and she recently married.) Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (10-10-2017)

The Saint (2017)

This direct-to-DVD reboot of the story of Simon Templar (The Saint) held my interest well. (In fact, I tried multitasking, which I rarely do while streaming a film, but found I had to focus on watching the movie straight through to catch everything and enjoy it fully.) The photography is quite good, the chase scenes and martial arts are impressive, but my favorite is the irrepressibly polite and versatile Simon Templar. (While escaping after an intense confrontation with one baddie, he is asked if he can "muster" the strength for the next phase, and says "Of course I can muster. I'm British. We invented muster.") This is no James Bond movie, or The Saint with Val Kilmer; it is clearly made-for-TV fare (esp. when a hail of bullets make no impact sounds on the other side of the room, or when Simon's "associate" talks him through a building infiltration by describing the next step, which he has already been doing for 20 seconds). Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-10-17)

Monday, October 09, 2017

Ryan Hamilton: Happy Face (2017)

This was my first exposure to Ryan Hamilton, who is quite a good comedian, esp. (or maybe because) he keeps it clean. (Happy Face refers to his simply huge grin, and Wikipedia confirmed my impression that he is a Mormon.) He was tepid for the first half of this show, so I was on a slow simmer (if bubbles are chuckles), but I hit a rolling boil (of laughter) once he started on his experiences with online dating, balloon riding, and skydiving. (Women date online to "explore their options," while men date online after they have "exhausted their options.") His material is original, fresh, polished, and relevant. He is edgiest when discussing a guy smoking crack on the commuter train, and how a self-described "balloonist" couple took offense at his bit on ballooning, but he takes friendly digs at all manner of people and all ages. If the first half of this show were as inspired as the second half, I would have given it 4 stars. If Ryan keeps this up, he has the potential to be even more funny (and mordant), and join the ranks of my five favorite comedians. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (10-9-2017)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Alien Arrival (2017)

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead) is based on the director's short film, which had a budget of $600. A crowdfunding campaign for the feature film failed, but garnered industry attention and a budget of $180k; the director said he spent the wad on production, leaving just $1k for post-production. (If that includes editing, it shows.) In the movie's defense, it is not "absolutely awful" or "totally terrible" as the amateur reviewers claim; nor is it "the worst movie" they have "ever seen" (a charge many level against dozens of films). The production values are actually quite good, esp. considering the budget; the scenery is gorgeous. The acting, I must say, is a bit wooden; the two male leads are gung-ho macho types (reminiscent of Jesse Ventura in Predator: "I ain't got time to bleed") and the female barely speaks. The most interesting character is the ship's artificial intelligence, with its aggravating user interface and an amiable Aussie drawl. ("I have information! Would you like to explore? Please log in.") So now we come to the central problem: I found the storyline impossible to follow. I won't try to explain how confusing it is to discern how once scene is connected to the next; I couldn't even grasp the central premise until the computer spelled it out 80% of the way through the movie. (The computer also spills another key plot point to the male lead, merely explaining "You didn't ask.") A big part of the problem is the atmospheric movie score and sound effects; they would be more chilling if not so often overblown, but I just could not tell whether a ratcheting or chitinous or growling sound was meant to be a jump scare or an actual sound in the scene. I don't regret seeing it but I would certainly much rather rewatch Red Planet, Predator, or even Starship Troopers. Enjoy! 2.5 stars. (10-8-2017)

Kathleen Madigan: Bothering Jesus (2016)

I like Kathleen Madigan, even though she might slap me when I say she has gotten more cherubic (and not in a waifish way); still, it works for her because part of her standup is talking about middle-America Missouri and eating unhealthy stuff. She also clearly is enjoying herself on the stage, and I think her breeziness adds to the laughter of her audience. She certainly had my gut chuckle on a low steady boil. This special gets its title by comparing Christian evangelicals' "direct, personal relationship with Jesus" to growing up Catholic, where you are given a whole list of heavenly intermediaries when praying about personal matters before you go "bothering Jesus." Kathleen is a champ. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (10-8-2017)

Dark Matter: Seasons 1-3 (2015)

I love Star Trek: Next Generation and Firefly (5 stars), but I really like Dark Matter (a solid 4 stars), and that is a hard mark for a scifi series to hit with me (esp. from Syfy). Canada has once again delivered a great show. Casting is superb, and every character does a fine job in his or her role; the leading characters are almost as memorable as in Firefly. (My favorites are Two for her leadership and badassery, Three for his weapons prowess and devil-may-care attitude, Four for his Japanese complexity, and I just love Android, in all her shadings and upgrades. Five and Six are great too.) Martial arts and sword or gun fights in this series are impressive. Four, plus a half-dozen kickass female warriors (Two/Portia, Android, Nyx, Tash, and Misaki), are simply intense. The scriptwriting gives unstinting humor and personal nuance to each character, the technology is intelligent and imaginative, and the acting never misses a beat. Yet all that is icing on the cake of Dark Matters' storyline, which may be the most complex I have yet seen in a scifi series. We start with the crew's memory having been wiped, leading to questions such as "Who are we, really?" and at least one stolen identity. Personal secrets and galactic conspiracies swirl, memories are gradually uncovered or revealed, a doppelganger crew appears and complicates things over two seasons, crew members leave or die (or do they?), and let's not get started on instantaneous space (and time) travel. (In my favorite episode, Three experiences a recurring time loop as in Ground Hog's Day, and it is hilarious.) Social and emotional questions are also discussed often, and with great sensitivity (esp. as Three becomes reunited with his wife). Amidst the corporate factions that are waging galactic war, an impending android revolt and an alien invasion are two themes that build towards the season 3 cliffhanger (which, unfortunately, is where Syfy forced the show to leave us after its cancellation). Enjoy! 4 stars. (10-7-2017)

Monday, October 02, 2017

Jerry Before Seinfeld (2017)

Jerry returns to the stage that launched his career, telling jokes as comfortable as slippers while discussing his family origins and comedic sensibilities. We hear stories and see home movies, but also Jerry crouched over a sidewalk, paved for a solid block, with handscrawled legal-pad pages containing every comedic routine (or "bit") he has ever written. Here is a man who is the king of comedy, eminently likable, and still going strong. Watch this and enjoy! 4 stars. (10-2-2017)

The Confession Tapes (2017)

I got a slow start with this series, and almost gave up on it, since I began watching it late at night, and much of the footage is scrappy surveillance camera videotape from decades ago. The first story, told over two episodes, covers two teen males accused (and eventually convicted) of the murder of one of their families (even though they had alibis and any evidence was circumstantial). This series becomes interesting once you grasp the premise of each story: In every case, defendants confessed to and were convicted of crimes they (in retrospect) did not commit. In most cases, coercive police interrogations, as well as the lack of legal representation, led to defendants signing fictional confessions, simply because the police could not be bothered to pursue more obvious leads or evidence. (They followed their gut and manufactured a confession rather than follow correct police procedures.) This series is a good object lesson in how the court system can fail innocent people, esp. if they are minors, less educated, or lack representation by an attorney. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (10-2-2017)

Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (2012)

I finally binged on this show, watching both seasons in two days. It is hilarious, brilliantly written, and superbly acted! Chloe is evil -- she will scam, con, or outright lie and steal anything she wants, whether to have it for herself (for however briefly), to make a point, or just to mess with someone. She exudes sex, confidence, and unmitigated gall, as these are her stocks in trade. She takes in June, a fresh-faced Indiana transplant to New York City, as yet another one of her scams, but over time they strike an uneasy alliance, as a bit of June's midwestern authenticity rubs off on Chloe, and more than a bit of Chloe's chutzpah rubs off on June. James Van der Beek plays himself as their D-list best friend, and Dean Cain plays himself as his occasional foil. Every character in this ensemble cast rocks their role -- especially the girls' stalkerish neighbors on either side, and JVDB's effusive personal assistant. I only give 5 stars to TV shows I positively love and could watch over and over; Don't Trust the B---- is one of them! It is wilder and funnier than Better Off Ted. It should have been renewed, at the expense of 2 Broke Girls. Enjoy! 5 stars. (10-2-2017)

Steve Trevino: Relatable (2014)

Steve Trevino shows us what's good and bad about Texas. (Please note that what's "bad about Texas" is actually "good about Texas" in the minds of his audience, since this special was filmed in beautiful and patriotic Corpus Christi.) He paints us a picture of the ugly redneck (good Texan) with rapid strokes in the first 5 minutes of his show by comparing his native Texas values to the Los Angeles mindset of his new neighbors as he tries to kill an opossum in his back yard. His neighbor lisps, "Don't kill it! Did you call Animal Control?" He responds, "I'm from Texas. I am Animal Control!" (The neighbor calls the authorities, who converge on his address and fine him $650 for the dead possum he was going to toss into the street.) He grouses for maybe two-thirds of the show about women, and how the rules they impose on men do not apply to themselves. I found myself sympathizing with his comments more than I soon concluded was healthy. To his credit, he does admit once or twice "I love my wife -- I do," but he snarls and growls many times, "I hate my wife! I want to kill her!" When Lewis Black rants against anything, it's funny, because he is from New York; when Steve Trevino rants against women, it's disturbing (to me at least), because he presents himself as a white-bread, all-American patriot. The show opens with a rollicking country music number and closes with a peppy Tejano/conjunto number and dancing onstage, because that's how south Texas "does it right." Enjoy, y'all! 3 stars. (10-2-2017)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

I saw Victoria & Abdul at a preview the day before it opened and found it to be captivating. I try to catch anything from Stephen Frears -- most recently seeing The Queen, The Deal, and Philomena -- but this film resembles a crown jewel in the career of Dame Judi Dench, particularly in the scene where she (again as Victoria, though now much older) mourns losing the love of her life (though I have not yet seen her in Mrs. Brown). Indeed, Victoria & Abdul opens with a Victoria so aged and corpulent that a phalanx of servants must literally hoist her from bed, ply her with clothes, and trundle her to the dining hall -- where food, her one remaining pleasure, gradually reveals the droll comedic moments that festoon this historical drama. Abdul, a civil servant in British-ruled India, is selected to travel two months by ship to present a token gift to Victoria on her 50th anniversary as queen; he is of common birth, but intelligent, self-taught, and compassionate. He and the Queen establish a rapport outside of the boundaries of protocol and politics; they become all but inseparable; he is even alone with her at her death bed. This is a movie about finding a close relationship of trust where none was expected; setting aside strictures and rules for growth and opportunities; and standing for one's beliefs, even when outnumbered, even as the Queen. The historic events in this film occurred around 1900, but Abdul's papers (and hence his part in history) were not discovered until 2010. Enjoy! 5 stars. (9-26-2017)

Carrie Pilby (2017)

I loved this movie when it came to streaming in June and I love it even more after watching it a second time. The lead actress "carries" the entire movie impressively well; she is beautiful and brilliant, adult yet childlike, an idealist who is learning how to cope better in the real world (mostly with the help of her kindly therapist, played by Nathan Lane). Carrie Pilby seems to me a bit like Allie McBeal meets Sex in the City (but no sex) with a schmear of The Big Bang Theory. Carrie skipped three grades in London before going to Harvard at age 14, whence she graduated at 18. One year later, she has made a home in New York City, which is almost a character in the film (as it so often is). She prefers the company of books and her own thoughts, even as her therapist encourages her to dip a toe into the wading pool of interacting with others. She meets two quirky co-workers, two potential suitors, and reconciles with her father after a great scene involving his defense of her most treasured book. There are not many movies where a highly intelligent young woman is appreciated for her knowledge, wit, and moral standards; even her quirks are cool. More than Carrie herself, though, the movie "carries" a sense of community, that we are all meant to help each other, even if at times we have hurt each other. The scriptwriting for this film is simply stellar. Enjoy! 5 stars. (9-26-2017)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Are You Being Served? The Movie (1977)

I have seen all of the original series (1972), but if this is the best they can do 5 years later, I dread seeing the follow-up series Are You Being Served? Again (1992). I enjoyed the original series well enough (3 stars); even though it was campy and used hackneyed double-entendres about the poof's "drawers" and Mrs. Slocum's "pussy," the entire ensemble of actors knew it and really milked their roles. It is classic run-of-the-mill British comedy -- dry and silly. We see flashes of that campy genius in this movie, but instead it is the silliness of the script that ends up milking the actors of their comedy. This company vacation story devolves into a flurry of misdelivered sex notes, musical tents, and a subversive shootout led by a commando who colluded with the hotel manager to rape one or more of the employees. Your only reason (just barely) to see this is out of nostalgia for the original series. Enjoy! 2.5 stars. (9-11-2017)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Love, American Style (1969)

From the Cowsills' peppy theme song to the quirky skits sandwiched between each episode's trio of sketches, Love American Style feels like Twilight Zone meets Laugh-In, with music from Up With People. The cast is a mix of nobodies and B-list stars: Stuart Margolin (Angel in Rockford Files) may be here because a relative is a producer, but Adam West is a mild-mannered hoot in a sketch about a visit from a "big Hollywood star." One of my favorite sketches is "Love and the Many Married Couple," where Steve Allen interviews Jack Cassidy and Jayne Meadows on the red carpet as they portray a goo-goo-eyed Hollywood couple that is constantly confused about who each was married to, and when. Netflix only carries two out of five seasons of this show, but if it played as big a part in your life as it did in mine (home babysitting on Saturday nights), you should love catching all of these old chestnuts again. Enjoy! 4 stars. (8-31-2017)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Terra Nova: Season 1 (2011)

Terra Nova is a pleasure to watch. The computer graphics are pretty good (except for ballistic perspective), and the family dynamics are a bit 1950s (everyone laughs on cue), but the story held my attention from episode 1 to 13. (Stupidly, Fox yet again cancelled a series that viewers loved after one season.) Our story begins in 2149, after humanity has destroyed the planet, but discovered time travel so it can colonize a planned settlement of humans in the Cretaceous period. Stephen Lang (Avatar) plays Commander Nathaniel Taylor, an almost avuncular Charlton Heston who leads the colony with an iron fist and a sense of compassion. (He carries it off.) All is not idyllic in paradise, however: dinosaurs as well as insects can be quite lethal, and loyalties are sometimes conflicted as we learn of a splinter group and several nefarious individuals. Terra Nova is much better done than the often corny and badly acted Dinotopia. With a largely unknown cast, here is a show that can be proud of itself. Enjoy! 4 stars. (8-30-2017)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Masterpiece: Worricker: Salting the Battlefield (2014)

This third part in a trio of Johnny Worricker episodes is the best, with its spycraft and suspense building to a satisfying climax and denouement. Bill Nighy expertly plays the cagey British master spy because, like Clint Eastwood in the Wild West, he seems born to play this kind of role. Worricker is trying to cinch together the final threads on the corruption case against the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes), even as the "homeland security" apparatus is closing in on Worricker and his network of collaborators. Before his final confrontation with the prime minister, we see Worricker virtually unhinged, even as the situation is more out of his control than he knows. More than his ever-present kindness and civility, we see his humanity and his vulnerability. Another good thing about this being a British series is that it doesn't wrap up in a tidy bow over happily-ever-after frosting. Here is a real story! Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-25-2017)

Masterpiece: Worricker: Turks & Caicos (2014)

Bill Nighy returns as the London spy version of Clint Eastwood in this second installment of the Johnny Worricker series from Masterpiece Contemporary. Worricker is always pensive, taciturn, and civilized. Christopher Walken is a CIA agent who tries to pull Worricker into a scheme that is the antithesis of the corruption case he is pursuing against the British prime minister while on the run. Helena Bonham Carter is an ex-spy and his former love who aids and abets Worricker before she joins him on the run. I enjoyed the performers in some of the smallest acting roles here. See this second episode by all means if you have seen the first Worricker episode (Page Eight); if you have not seen the first, I recommend that you do; and then refer again to the first part of this sentence. Enjoy! 4 stars. (8-25-2017)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution (2005)

This BBC miniseries of 6 episodes (also available on DVD as Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State) is intelligently produced, using historical photographs as well as dramatic re-enactments with dialog based on primary source documents (the notes and transcripts of those present). The story of how the Nazis conceived, built, and engineered their vast network of camps and ovens over more than 5 years to efficiently exterminate many millions of immigrant children, women, and men is chilling for more than how business-as-usual the process proved to be. We naturally learn about the inhumane temperament and actions of the SS soldiers and their superiors, but we also hear a few stories of those who risked their lives and saved many Jews. This is a well-done and memorable series that I will not soon forget. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-24-2017)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Lynne Koplitz: Hormonal Beast (2017)

I gave up on this show a quarter of the way in because of the tired hormonal jokes, but later decided to finish watching to see if she got better. (I don't like to do something halfway, plus admittedly it must be hard to have enough good material for your first hour-long comedy special.) I doubt most men are fans of a female comedian squalling for half an hour about her genitalia and their monthly cycles. (Gee, I wonder if women feel the same way about male comedians verbally sparring for a full hour about their pecker?) She could be raunchy, in a tasteful sort of way (don't ask me to explain), but she came out with a "solution to the problem" that created perspective and parity in the male-female relationship. (I didn't say men would always like it, but she's putting it out there.) My favorite were her last ten minutes, describing New Yorkers' candor when it comes to cussing and childlessness, and her "dark" bucket list. Enjoy! 3 stars. (8-23-2017)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Illusionist (2006)

I finally saw The Illusionist and enjoyed it very much. The art direction is excellent; the historicity looks quite good. (I'd say with a smirk that they used up all the sepia-tone film stock on the market at the time, but of course digital sepia-tone filters are as infinite as electrons and the Cloud.) Edward Norton is extremely measured and atmospheric as his character. As an illusionist, he conjures visions that are exceptional for turn-of-the-century Vienna; as a dramatist, his plan to escape prison and death, and get the girl, is not only a success, but it delights Paul Giamatti as his former adversary's surrogate. The story is low-key because the digital effects are recreating smoke-and-mirrors after all, and the conflict is less outright physical and more mind-against-mind, with medium to low probability of actually being shot or stabbed. Shot on location and what a wardrobe! Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-22-2017)

Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight (2011)

Masterpiece Contemporary: Page Eight should be called Masterpiece: Worricker: Page Eight so that it can be searched or linked to the second and third episodes of this BBC/PBS miniseries (Masterpiece: Worricker: Turks & Caicos and Masterpiece: Worricker: Salting the Battlefield). I received the third disc first, learned it was the last disc in a trio, and bumped up the other two discs for prompt arrival. Some might seek this series to see Rachel Weisz, and I would not fault them. (I got it also to see Judy Davis and Alice Krige.) However, the overwhelming star of this series is Bill Nighy, who seems to me to be England's version of Clint Eastwood: taciturn, known to squint (or sniff disparagingly), strategic, and tight-lipped. The Worricker series is not like anything Clint Eastwood has done (except possibly Unforgiven); it is not about action, but it is about a man who holds his cards close to his vest. Nighy is Johnny Worricker, a veteran British spy whose lifelong best friend and boss releases the dossier on an earthshaking political scandal just before he dies, trusting that Johnny will see the investigation through to the end (despite making him chief enemy of the devious British prime minister, played by Ralph Fiennes, and top "homeland security" officials). Worricker begins to set the stage and make a strategic retreat, leading to the second episode, Salting the Battlefield. If you like cerebral (and civil) machinations -- enjoy! 3.5 stars. (8-22-2017)

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Travelers: Season 1 (2016)

Travelers is a smart, captivating series, but it is also edgy (warning to those who consider FBI agents cornering killers to be too stressful, and those who consider from one to three F-words in an episode to be unwatchable). (A word is not a bomb. Colin Firth's outburst in The King's Speech is a depth charge: "F! F! F! F! F!") Most significantly, the opening of the pilot episode establishes that time travelers arrive from the future into the 21st century by violently transporting into the minds of persons who have been historically documented as about to die in less than one minute. The newly occupied mind does not die and begins his or her assigned mission, sometimes as part of a team (but also having to adopt a semblance of the prior person's life, while hiding their new personality and all activities tied to their mission). Time travel stories are a bear to write, and to get right, yet this series does an excellent job at not just telling a gripping yarn, but ramping up the tension with complications on complications. Every character is good in his or role, esp. "Grace" in the final episodes. The missions of the team secretly led by Eric McCormack's FBI agent character are at risk as layers of opposition mount (right up to the final scene). A core theme of the show is: Who is planning each mission -- and the subsequent orders that follow? How do the travelers change the lives of their previous tenants? And how is it that humans aspire to loyalty, morality, compassion, and faith, even (and esp.) when do-or-die plans go awry? I have watched this series twice back to back, and I can't wait for the second season. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-21-2017)

Limitless: Season 1 (2015)

Limitless has become one of my top 10 favorite TV shows. It combines the brilliance and panache of Lie to Me and The Blacklist with the personality and charm of Chuck and White Collar. The male lead is a raffish slacker who stumbles on a top-secret pill that gives him full access to every neuron in his brain. As a result, he can suddenly perform feats of memory and analysis that make him highly valuable to the FBI team that wants to control the designer drug. Jake McDorman totally carries this series as the indefatigable and cheerful Brian, leader (in his mind) of "The Bruntouchables," working out of his playfully decorated "Headquarters!" He establishes a rapport with his button-down FBI team, especially his handler Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter, who is as good in this role as she was as Deb in Dexter) and team leader Nas (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Brian is also conflicted, since a shadowy figure holds a big carrot and stick over him, and the investigation becomes even more complex as it reveals a cabal of those who are taking the drug, building a black market for it, and plotting to take over governments all over the world. A love interest appears, and disappears, and so on and so forth. Limitless is a captivating and capable series, with a lot happening to make you care about every character during the one season this show was given. Enjoy! 5 stars. (8-19-2017)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Puccini for Beginners (2006)

Here is another chatty, angsty independent film about highly improbable relationship issues and the coincidences that exacerbate them. Frankly, I read the Wikipedia summary after seeing this movie because following the threads almost made my eyebrows hurt, and I just do not care for the characters that much. (I have never seen the male lead before but he is a dead ringer for another wooden actor in independent films, so he starts with a severe handicap.) The lead character, Allegra (not to be confused with the allergy medication), sabotages her relationships, which she begins at the drop of a hat. She claims to be a lesbian but just as readily becomes intimate with a man as a woman. (She is either bisexual but does not know it, or the scriptwriter is ignorant and unimaginative. You decide.) Still, it is the coincidences that really stretch credulity: In the space of 24 hours, and then a week, how does a dumped lesbian meet and then start a relationship with both a man and a woman -- who are involved with each other? How does a woman serve at a reception she does not know is for her ex and her fiancee? How does the dumped lesbian get back with her ex, after her ex has dumped her fiancee? The women in this film carry their roles quite well -- esp. the tall, coldly analytical lesbian -- so the scriptwriter has done fairly well with creating characters. It is just the plot that is weak. Enjoy! 3 stars. (8-16-2017)