Thursday, June 01, 2017

Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust (2017)

Sarah is a unique talent, edgy, and "out there." However, everything else I have seen from her is funnier than this particular outing (which is slightly less scatological than usual, except for the big "godless" finish). She's fun to listen to though, and I was most tickled by the bit on squirrels. 3 stars. (6-1-2017)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Day Kennedy Died (2013)

The Day Kennedy Died is a solid summary of the events, eyewitnesses, and emotional impact of JFK's assassination on November 23, 1963, and the day or two that followed. There is no chaff that I could see, just grit and gristle from the police officers, reporters, bystanders, and eyewitnesses to the shooting and ensuing events (using only contemporary film footage). I started watching this before Memorial Day weekend and just finished it now, because on Memorial Day I happened to catch CNN's excellent The Sixties treatment of JFK's assassination and the ensuing Warren Commission report. I give the CNN episode (1 hour) 4.5 stars and this documentary (1.5 hour) 4 stars. (5-31-2017)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Sentiment of the Flesh (2010)

While I did not find this French film to be exceptionally riveting, The Sentiment of the Flesh held my interest well and never let go, from start to finish. The actors who play the couple fill their roles with verve, if not panache; they deliver their scenes without getting in the way. In short, they tell their story. (As it unfolded, I found myself thinking: OK, this is a French film, so there will be nudity... Check. Sex... Check. Monkey sex... Check.) Aside from that, though, what a story! A medical illustrator in training meets a radiology doctor and discovers that they both have a fetish for anatomy--in particular, hers. They rationalize taking risky measures to "get inside" and "share the secrets" of her body so that they can achieve "total intimacy," despite the moral, ethical, safety, and professional dangers which he ultimately cannot ignore. They speak of love, yet are blind to their compulsions, and in the end, they go as far beyond the pale as the most stalwart viewer's stomach might be able to handle. This is a scene intended to make anyone feel intensely squeamish. While some viewers shy away from unpleasant subjects, or shrink from scenes that are uncomfortable (or even repellent), throughout this film I found myself reflecting on how strong, and even compulsive desire, can lead otherwise rational, professional adults away from reason and into folly and danger. Word to the wise. Enjoy (just do not eat a meal before viewing)! 3.5 stars. (5-30-2017)

Duckman: Seasons 1-2 (1994)

Duckman (starring Jason Alexander) is glib, cantankerous, and shot-from-guns. It is one of the best animated series for adults ever. Duckman is rougher but funnier than The Oblongs (starring Will Ferrell) and The Critic (starring Jon Lovitz), and about as edgy but funnier than the much more polished Archer (starring H. Jon Benjamin). Duckman's rants are literate, florid, and often topical: He lays into anyone and anything, seemingly at random, but often at great depth. His best rants go on for a minute or more, seemingly in the same breath. You have to listen very closely, though I would recommend multiple viewings of personally owned DVD set. Notflix took 8 years to restock this DVD set, which I have been waiting to see in its entirety since it aired in the mid-1990s. Frequent themes include Duckman being ignored and taken for granted by his family, Duckman shredding his ever-so-cute plush-bear office assistants Fluffy and Uranus, Duckman chasing or propositioning anything in a skirt, and more. I seem to remember an edgy scene involving a bunk bed creaking in the dark (that wasn't what you thought). Catch it while you can. Enjoy! 5 stars. (5-30-2017)

Norm MacDonald: Hitler's Dog, Gossip & Trickery (2017)

I remember Norm MacDonald as being funnier than this. Netflux no longer lists his other standup specials, except for Me Doing Standup, which I rate as 3 stars (average, or I like it). Certainly he is droll and witty as Death in Family Guy, which I rate as 5 stars (exceptional, or I love it). This standup special is titled Hitler's Dog, on the premise that at least Hitler's dog would have looked up to him. Big whoop. He ranges around on fairly common standup topics, and that would be the least I would expect. One detracting note, beyond the lack of belly laughs or healthy chuckles, is that he slurs and garbles his delivery now more than ever. As much as I love The Moody Blues, their voices do not have the pop and range they used to deliver, and neither does Norm. Growing older might mean losing one's edge. If Norm is making peace with himself, good for him. He can still make us laugh most of the time. Enjoy! 2.5 stars. (5-30-2017)

SCTV Network 90: Vol. 1 (1981)

Disc 1 explains that SCTV Network 90 is not the original SCTV series on Friday nights, it is a longer 90-minute spinoff, repurposing selected original sketches until enough new material could be created to fill the longer, more family-oriented timeslot on Sunday nights. Unless you are caught up in a haze of nostalgia and think every whiff of comedy here is stellar stuff, I think you have to agree that some of this material is cheesy, leaden, and tone-deaf. But that's OK, because I would rather see an entire series, warts with beauty marks, than a limited selection of sketches that somehow miss the best material that SCTV's loyal fans remember. I'll leave you to determine which parts you think are best, but I enjoyed every flash of genius shown by this comedy troupe. Rick Moranis is 28 years old (but looks 18) and Eugene Levy is around 38 (but looks 28). Andrea Martin is a hoot as Edith Prickley. The hosers on Great White North are pretty lame and can only get better. Enjoy! 2.5 stars. (5-30-2017)

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Jesus Strand: A Search for DNA (2017)

This History Channel offering (which aired on Easter Sunday evening, though I watched it next day via the app) respectably attempts to cover the bases of both faith and science. Unfortunately, however, and fatally, it tumbles into the usual History Channel pitfalls of logic and process, particularly those of selective evidence, circular arguments, and the classic speculation-turned-fact (usually in the space of a few sentences). While the geneticist and the pastor work well together, they ignore some glaring goofs. The Shroud of Turin is a deeply venerated object of faith for many, but even the Catholic Church takes no official position on its veracity; similarly, with every relic the duo sought to analyze, provenance was presumed, then relied on as proof. DNA tests of the supposed bones of John the Baptist were contaminated by a technician, but that error is never mentioned as a possibility with tests of other relics. The pastor asks custodians for their opinion on the relic samples in their care, and when they present statements of faith as factual or logical, the pastor pronounces that as proof (before any testing has begun). The duo's circular reasoning yields a controversial conclusion that contradicts all we know about Christ; that is a problem, if science and faith are to work together, as the duo suggests. My other chief complaints are over the Protestant fallacy that Jesus was the firstborn son in a large family of siblings (so he would have descendants), the gnostic fallacy that Christ did not ascend to heaven (so he personally engendered descendents), and the agnostic fallacy that the virgin birth is a myth. Throw out the entire New Testament so you can presume that a bone fragment inscribed with the most common name in Judea must be his mother's? Not in my book. 3.5 stars.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Absolutely Fabulous: White Box (2004)

Apparently, this title is one episode from the series (with extras) on DVD; however, all six seasons are currently available on streaming, just as a mixed bag. The streaming version of this title links to the White Box episode (final show of season 5) plus 3 more episodes (as a putative season 6), but the season tag for these four episodes is called Specials, while season 5 is curiously called Christmas Specials 2002: Gay. Such cockups in organization of TV seasons has become common on this service; perhaps it will get sorted out. The show itself is quite popular and a cultural touchstone in its own right. These two women are "interesting psychological phenomena": Horrible self-centered persons who think the sun revolves around them and their privileged party-party lifestyle. I love Bubble (Jane Horrocks), their wacky assistant, and the other bit players (including Nathan Lane) who have to put up with these two. Couture and slapstick are thoroughly British and slathered on like lemon curd. If you've seen Catherine Tate as "Am I bovvered?" then you must see AbFab, through and through if you can. Cheers! 4 stars. (4-13-2017)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Tower Heist (2011)

Tower Heist is a good, but not a stellar, effort. Ben Stiller has shown more personality as the star of many other movies, while the rest of the cast performs passably, but could easily have been better. The movie flows well enough, but feels formulaic and paint-by-the-numbers, rather than ingenious or exciting. (The only edge-of-the-seat moments for me involved the highly improbable cable dangling and car wrangling at the top of the tower, and then finagling the elevators, particularly after we find out that the car weighs far more than one ton. It is also highly improbable that a delivery truck could speed, for some distance, straight through the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, before the driver is arrested without prejudice, chuckles, and passes off the stunt with a lame excuse.) Alan Alda is the unctuous and well-connected Ponzi scam man brought that Stiller and key employees want to bring down. I am glad to have seen the movie, but once is enough. For comparison, I give The Maiden Heist 4.5 stars, but Tower Heist 3.5 stars. (3-11-2017)

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Fairly Legal: Seasons 1-2 (2011)

Fairly Legal is more than fairly fun (and nonfattening). It's a bit like Ally McBeal meets The Good Wife, but not too loopy (or serious). Sarah Shahi is superb as Kate Reed, the perky, mostly confident, and always capable attorney turned legal mediator. (Kate got burned out on her profession, esp. after her father passed away and his blonde trophy wife took over the law firm instead, so she chose to make a difference brokering win-win out-of-court settlements.) She is very good at what she does -- partly thanks to the scriptwriting, but mostly Shahi's acting. She carries the show and will simply win you over. The producers try to make her more human than whirling dervish by having her get flustered or clumsy now and then; she even makes that bit work. She plays well opposite her femme fatale boss/stepmother (until the final moments of Season 1, but that only lasts until the start of Season 2). My grade moved from 4 stars up by the end of Season 1 to 4.5 stars. Enjoy! (3-9-2017)

Wonderfalls: Season 1 (2004)

I heard good things about this show but now I can say that it won me over from the first minute of the first episode. Think of a quirky and beloved series such as Dead Like Me, but with a greater, Wes Andersonesque, cinematic eye as well as tourist-trap kitsch and a Gen-Y too-cool-to-care perspective. Inanimate animals (like the wall-mounted fish in her favorite bar) give Jaye cryptic commands, and they make life difficult if she does not comply; is she going nuts, or ultimately helping others through mysterious and circuitous paths? This series was cancelled before airing the impressive episode 4, where a runaway nun thinks she has lost her faith. Her poetic and theological reflection on the biochemistry of cheese and the cosmos is proof positive that the writing in this series is excellent. The entire ensemble cast also works extremely well together. I could binge-watch this series back-to-back indefinitely. Enjoy! 5 stars. (3-9-2017)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Waste of Shame (2005)

A Waste of Shame addresses the question of who might have been the inspiration for the Shakespearean sonnets. With its sincere, careful, historically faithful treatment (on a budget), this is no codswallop. It is also no Fast and Furious; understand that this is a studied examination of the world's greatest writer's relationship with a beautiful prostitute (whom he does not so much pine for from a distance but shag) and also a young earl who may be even more beautiful (whom Shakespeare does pine for but never gets to express or act on his feelings). A bisexual Shakespeare should not be a stretch for any literate person. In any event, there is a lot of sitting alone writing, or talking with others about writing, or talking with others about life, and the occasional shagging. So see this movie if you consider yourself literate or intelligent, but skip it if you have never read Shakespeare, or if you tend to see movies but never read the books (Tolkien, Rowling, and so on), or if the sight of sex makes you shrivel up like a prude, I mean, prune. 3 stars. (2-22-2017)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Hangover (2009)

The buzz on The Hangover said it was stupefyingly hilarious -- and I suspect it is for the 12- to 24-year-old male whose dream job would be to star on Jackass or Punk'd. However, mature adults of either gender (but esp. estrogen-Americans) will likely find it a hit-and-miss -- stupefyingly dumb or just thuddingly not funny for the most part, with the occasional zinger of a line or a scene. To be fair, the ensemble cast shows a reasonably good chemistry that supports the story convincingly from start to finish; it's just such an outlandish story -- over-the-top with some gross-out humor, but lacking the comic genius of There's Something About Mary, Sideways, The Whole Nine Yards, or other movies. Our story begins as Doug (Bradley Cooper) assembles his groomsmen and prepares for a tasteful, expensive wedding paid for by the bride's father (Jeffrey Tambor), who entrusts his son-in-law-to-be with the keys to his beloved ragtop convertible so the foursome can celebrate their bachelor party in "Napa Valley." Their actual plan, though, is to hightail it to Vegas and par-tay like wild men one last time. Zach Galfaniakis plays the bride's tubby schlub of a brother, who has a range of mental and emotional deficiencies; another groomsman is an irreverent high school teacher and semireluctant family man; and Ed Helms plays a pussywhipped dentist who plans to propose to his abusive shrew after the wedding. They set themselves up in a $4800-a-night suite and ... the next thing they know, it's the morning after, the place is a shambles, they remember nothing about what happened, Doug is missing, Ed is missing a tooth (and wearing a wedding ring), there's a chicken in the room, a baby in the closet, and a tiger in the bathroom! How do the three groomsmen backtrack their party-down timeline and locate Doug in time to get to the wedding -- and most importantly, keep everything that happened (once they find out) their not-so-little secret? The detective game is wild and crazy and involves men with baseball bats and guns, women on stripper poles, a lot of swearing, and too much Heather Graham (a little goes a long way, usually taking the movie south with no return). If you find humor in nut shots with Tasers (delivered by schoolchildren while egged on by police officers), this is your kind of movie. The characters are not that sympathetic so when they get smacked, it's hard to care (or laugh) -- but I liked Ed and Zach best and suspect you will too. 3.5 stars. (6-14-2010, posted 1-14-2017)

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman completely deserved Best Actress at the Oscars for her role as Nina in Black Swan. (Sorry, Annette Bening.) Nina endures physical sacrifice and psychological torture in the ramp-up to her prima-ballerina performance as the White Swan as well as the Black Swan (and Natalie had to take her chops to convincingly play the part). This movie gives us the story of Nina's psychological meltdown as she wrestles with an Olympian ballet dancing regimen interwoven with sexual harrassment (and possibly predation) from two fronts -- one is her boss and the other is her rival (who may also be sleeping with the boss). Things happen, blood appears and disappears numerous times, and soon we like Nina are uncertain of what is reality and what is only in the mind. This is a powerful and fraught film that is meant to set you on edge. Enjoy! 5 stars. (2-15-2011, posted 1-14-2017)

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

So that Britain can achieve economic dominance in the continent, a resolute British colonel and engineer John Patterson (Val Kilmer) is hand-picked by a real sour-ass major to complete the construction of a river bridge in Uganda within five months. Operations go smoothly for several weeks until workers start getting pulled down by man-eating lions, even in daytime. The cats move like ghosts, eluding detection and retribution, and the imagination (or panic) of many fear-stricken workers gets the best of them. Patterson is determined to "sort things out" with the lions, finish his bridge, and be reunited with his wife and an infant son he has yet to see. However, night after night goes by without success, and additional attacks on the camp. Eventually, a nonchalant but wily hunter (Michael Douglas) arrives with a Masai tribe to kill the powerfully built lions. The movie is lush with swelling African-themed music and a cinematic respect for its native peoples. The director now and then springs developments on the viewer that feel contrived, such as having a bird repeatedly attack Patterson in the night, knocking him to the ground just as the lion arrives to lunge; or having Patterson leave his sniper's perch to enter the thicket and have yet another close call. Even so, the grass, the wind, and the snarls of the African landscape are employed to good effect and much tension is to be had -- and some gore. Here is a taut tale of terror faced by determination, uncertainty faced with camaraderie, and snarling death faced by steely courage. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (2-28-2011, posted 1-14-2017)

Agnes of God (1985)

Agnes of God is a captivating and spiritual murder mystery about a simple-minded young nun (Meg Tilly in a tour-de-force performance) who is found screaming in her locked cloister with bloody sheets -- and a strangled newborn child. She denies any memory of what happened as well as any knowledge of how babies are born. (She had a most unusual childhood and came to join the convent as a "true innocent," explains her mother superior.) The convent is perpetually locked down and only the fiercely protective mother superior (Anne Bancroft) has the keys. How could the pregnancy have happened? Is it a miracle or a crime -- and if so, who committed it? A court-appointed psychologist (Jane Fonda) chain-smokes her way through the chain of evidence as she becomes increasingly obsessed and sympathetic with the young nun's plight, fighting pressure to "solve" what the political and ecclesiastical leadership insists is an open-and-shut case. Agnes of God is an intellectual thriller with the occasional verbal barrage between Fonda and Bancroft, or Fonda and Tilly, esp. as the inner motivations and hidden secrets of each woman are revealed through civil conversation or adversarial confrontation. I would like to own this movie since I expect to watch it again and again. (The dialog is often so soft-spoken that the streaming version cannot be easily heard at maximum volume on a laptop, even late at night with only the central air blowing.) Enjoy! 5 stars. (11-29-2010, posted 1-14-2017)

Cheri (2009)

Cheri is the masculine term of affection used by Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) for her young lover (Rupert Friend). (Because she appears on the movie art, you might think the term applies to her, but that would be the feminine form Cherie.) Think of Lea as a Victorian-era cougar. She is a courtesan, that is, a professional escort or consort (prostitute) catering to noblemen. Officially, society greatly frowned on the profession (even as noblemen sanctioned it), so courtesans and their children kept their own company and socialized together. They were, after all, highly intelligent and astute women who were financially independent and knew the richest and most powerful men in the world. Lea's closest friend, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), asks Lea to school her son in the ways of the world. A love develops between them that becomes deep and haunting for both, esp. since it was not what either one was expecting. This story is about the heartfelt paths of that romance and what it comes to mean for each of the lovers. It's a great story and one I liked better than Bright Star (2009) or even Elizabeth (1998). 4.5 stars. (8-20-2010, posted 1-14-2017)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Star Wars Rebels: Seasons 1-2 (2014)

Star Wars Rebels did little for me at the start of Season 1, when I gave it 3 stars, but it has slowly and slightly matured, so that by the end of Season 1, I give it 3.5 stars. The story line picks up after the Empire has killed "all" the Jedi, sending Inquisitors (and later, Darth Vader) to hunt down rebels and rumors of Jedi. (Kanan Jarrus survived Order 66, begins training the camp urchin Ezra Bridger, and in time allies his team with Ahsoka Tano.) The crew of the Ghost encounters Hondo, Captain Rex, and others seen in Star Wars: Clone Wars, so the episodes become less cartoonish and more like Clone Wars. I am looking forward to the first disc of Season 2, just in. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (12-30-2016)

Night Gallery: Seasons 1-3 (1970)

Night Gallery is a macabre trip down memory lane as I revisit the Season 1 episodes that I saw on TV back in the day. (What I'm champing at the bit to see again is the end of the second season's The Caterpillar. It may be the single most memorable episode of anything I ever viewed on the airwaves, pre-DVD.) Night Gallery's sound and graphics during the opening credits remain unsettling -- perhaps explaining why the patently more marketable Twilight Zone lasted many more seasons. Rod Serling pulled out the stops for this show to make his audience feel squeamish, starting with a literal gallery of macabre and grotesque artwork commissioned to introduce each segment. The pilot episode has 3 segments (Roddy McDowall kills his uncle and is terrorized by a painting of the family cemetery that keeps changing, Joan Crawford obtains an operation to restore her eyesight for 12 ill-timed hours, and ex-Nazi Richard Kiley faces consequences), though many episodes have 2 segments, and Season 1 includes 3 short bonus segments (more shaggy dog stories than anything). Season 1 has episodes with Larry Hagman, Burgess Meredith, Phyllis Diller, and William Windom, for old-school viewers. Enjoy! 4 stars. (12-30-2016)

Friday, December 23, 2016

People of Earth: Season 1 (2016)

I started out really liking People of Earth, giving it 4 stars out of 5, but the storyline lost some of its quirky steam during the last half of the season, so I dialed back slightly to 3.5 stars. The characters are not stellar, but they each have a chance to express their personalities and display their chemistry as an ensemble. They sometimes work at cross purposes to each other, but they also share a bedrock understanding that they are in each others' lives, no matter what, to help, or failing that, to push back until they can help. With Oscar Nunez from The Office playing a plainclothes priest and empathetic bystander who misses his jazz band from his party days, one might be tempted to refer to People of Earth as a faux-reality-style documentary like The Office, exploring the lives of a support group for those who believe they have been abducted by aliens, except for the three aliens that have been doing the abducting, as well as masquerading as humans. What is most interesting here are the real human castaways, interacting with each other, as well as with the aliens that are trying to feign humanity, which makes for the funniest stuff. All told, the humor is low-key -- Iceland, "now don't get weird" -- but the background story makes them gleam. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (12-23-2016)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I finally saw the classic The Magnificent Seven when Netflix restocked it and sent it to me the week before the release of the 2016 remake (which I doubt I will have 46 years to catch, so I had better get on the stick). The 1960 movie's musical score is more than a classic, of course; instantly recognizable, it practically defines the Western as well as the American spirit. It is great to see these Hollywood stars some 20 years earlier in their careers. The story is somewhere between High Noon and High Plains Drifter for gestalt: the hired guns must prove their mettle when even the townsfolk they are defending become turncoats. The difference is that we get more than Clint Eastwood's steely eyes and sparse wordplay; this Mexican farming settlement is a community. The Mexicans and the hired guns talk among themselves and between their two groups about what it means to be a man, to be strong, to take responsibility, and to stick together. We get a sense of their personal backstory and struggles; some of them show fear. Sure, it is more dramatic and iconic to be a lone wolf (like Clint), but it is multifacetedly human to be a husband, a father, and a community leader with roots in the land. I like Silverado at least as much as The Magnificent Seven (1960), and given its cast, The Magnificent Seven (2016) augurs good viewing, too. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (12-19-2016)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Company of Wolves (1984)

My 5-star rating system has implicit gradations beyond whether I love a movie (5 stars), really like a movie (4 stars), like a movie (3 stars), do not like a movie (2 stars), or hate a movie (1 star). The standard movie that comes to mind for the midpoint of 3 stars is Melinda & Melinda: acceptable but no lasting impression, I am not sorry I saw it, but I have no reason to watch it again. For me, The Company of Wolves gets 2.5 stars: I do not regret seeing it, but if I had seen a trailer, I probably would have skipped the movie. Its description as a "lush and complicated mystery" about "the first stirrings of womanhood" -- Red Riding Hood for grownups -- did not quite pan out. The special effects -- good for 1984 -- are as garishly gory, but not quite as well done, as in An American Werewolf in London or in The Thing. The story meanders and is disjointed throughout, and does not get interesting unless Angela Lansbury as the Grandmother is in the scene. I would think Amanda Seyfried is much more watchable. By comparison, I give 5 stars to Pan's Labyrinth. If you are a completist for fairy tale treatments or young women in red, enjoy! 2.5 stars. (12-13-2016)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Timeslip: The Complete Series (1970)

Holy hullabaloo, I dislike this British series! It is so incredibly slow-paced and boring. Timeslip (1970) is arguably more insipid than the original Doctor Who series (William Hartnell, 1963-1966). As in the first Doctor Who series, the acting in Timeslip is laughable, though sincere; they did their best, the poor dears. By comparison, the original Star Trek series (1966-1968) is light-years beyond in every measure. Enjoy (in spots, if you're a masochist or a completist like me)! 2 stars. (11-27-2016)

Supernatural: The Anime Series (2011)

While it cannot compare to the greatly popular Supernatural series, which ran for 11 seasons, this is a good anime series, though it takes up just 11 hours on 3 discs. Bobby seems like he is possibly from New Orleans rather than Bumthump, South Dakota, and I could care less if the original Dean only voices the last two episodes. I watched this series to gain an added perspective on the original series (which is fairly addicting). Enjoy! 3 stars. (11-27-2016)

Away From Her (2006)

Away From Her is a cogent study in the emotional dynamics of how one loving couple, married for decades and through thick and thin, grapples with the onset of Alzheimer's. The wife (Julie Christie as Fiona) comes down with the affliction, and as a result, her loving husband (Gordon Pinsent as Grant) has his own cross to bear. The normally effective script rings hollow at two primary points: Fiona is determined to enter a managed-care home (normally a last resort) far too early in her prognosis, forgoing simple in-home care options, and Fiona deteriorates during the home's required 30-day initial quarantine from all family contact (a ridiculous and counterproductive policy). Aside from those two major plot flaws, the relationship between the couple, and Grant's interaction with the head nurse and another Alzheimer's caregiver (Olympia Dukakis), feel authentic and personal (as Grant ranges from flummoxed to sorrowful to accepting). Away from Her is not as dramatic or poignant as The Notebook but it wears well the cobwebs of the aging couple's past sorrows and present struggles. Enjoy! 4 stars. (11-27-2016)

The Buffalo King (2013)

I ran across The Buffalo King on PBS and learned about James (Scotty) Philip, a Scots-American immigrant who witnessed the decimation of the North American bison (buffalo) and foresaw their extinction. He rounded up two dozen orphaned calves after one massive slaughter to preserve and increase the herd as a rancher, eventually becoming "the man who saved the buffalo." (He died one decade after the extinction of the dodo.) Like many others, I had never heard about Scotty and his role in preserving this part of the natural heritage of America. I look forward to learning more. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (11-27-2016)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Dog's Life (2013)

A Dog's Life is a well-done and largely fascinating documentary on the biological and psychological capabilities of dogs. How well do they really smell, considering that we have 5 million olfactory cells and they have 300 million? How good is their spatial memory and reasoning capacity, within existing experimental limits? Behavioral testing with canines is in its early stages, but so far it confirms that dogs are masters at intuiting what humans expect of them, much more than the tired assumption that, like wolves, they are pack animals with a dominant-submissive hierarchy. (A domesticated wolf will always prefer a wolf to a human for company, while a dog will always prefer a human to a dog for company.) As a dog person primarily, I was happy to view this documentary and learn a number of new things about current developments in our understanding of dogs, and what that means for humanity's close friendship, and partnership, with our canine companions. Enjoy! 4 stars. (11-27-2016)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Loving (2016)

I just saw Loving at the River Oaks arthouse theater in Houston as part of a virtual (concurrent) date with my fiancee in Austin. It is a good film but very understated. True, I would like to know more about the legal and historical context of the Loving case, which the ACLU brought before the U.S. Supreme Court to quash state bans on interracial marriage, so I will doubtless see the documentary, The Loving Story. This movie is less of a message film like Remember the Titans and more of a simple story like Tender Mercies. It is about the real-world marriage of a rural couple who did not even care to know anything about the legalities or significance of their historic case; they just wanted to live out their love as a married couple with their children. I think this movie is a testament to the fundamental strength of what a marriage ideally is and does, for the couple and for society. No melodrama or preaching, and you'll have to hunt down the moral of the story for yourself. Enjoy! 4 stars. (11-20-2016)

In the Land of Women (2006)

Three minutes into this movie, we learn that Adam Brody plays a "soft-core porn" scriptwriter whose "famous" foreign-accent actress girlfriend breaks up with him, so after an hour in L.A. traffic, he arrives at his mother's home, where he volunteers to fly to Michigan and stay with his ailing grandmother (Olympia Dukakis, how far have they made you fall from "Snap out of it!"). Almost immediately he is chatted up by the angsty teen daughter across the street (Kristen Stewart, who is not as bad as everyone says) and then daily by her mother (Meg Ryan), who has problems of her own (which she expresses and emotes over with a "children's book writer," as he describes his job, but not with her family). The acting is serviceable and I cannot dislike Meg Ryan, even when the script makes no sense. This is actually the second time I have seen this film, since I caught it on streaming sometime before it arrived on disc via the mail. Many scenes seemed familiar (that's how memorable the script is) but I watched it through to the end. For that alone, I would expect to give this film 3.5 stars, but the gimpy script tugs it down to 3 stars. I hope you enjoy it! (11-20-2016)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Andy Barker P.I.: The Complete Series (2007)

I really like Andy Barker P.I.! It starts at a slow pace but grows on you. Its subtle but steady quirkiness makes it gradually more endearing. The characters are interesting and everyone gets to gleam in their roles (even Ed Asner as the wicked Irish ex-P.I., who we meet in the sixth and final episode). This series was intentionally low-key and thus fated to be cut short. Sure, it lacks the staying power of Columbo or Monk or Rockford Files, but I would not have tired of it. The writing and acting was that good. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (11-19-2016)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Tru Calling: Seasons 1-2 (2003)

Tru Calling is a pretty good murder mystery with a supernatural twist. The acting ensemble (Eliza Dushku, Zach Galifianakis, Shawn Reaves, and Matt Bomer) has sufficient chemistry to carry the scriptwriting (which was far from perfect, in the opinions of ED and ZG). The show is nowhere near as good as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dark Angel, Dead Like Me, Quantum Leap, or White Collar, much less Columbo (all which I rate as 5 stars and will readily watch at any time), but it tells each episode's story without getting too smarmy. It seems clear to me that the producers wanted a female lead with bedroom eyes (like Sarah Michelle Gellar), but not appearing to be too smart (like Jessica Alba), who perpetually wears an insouciant moue of lip gloss. Tru (Dushku) struggles with understanding and fulfilling the supernatural calling that has been placed on her shoulders, as she works out who needs to be helped or saved, and how. She is strong, although the scriptwriters are her worst enemy. The best show in the first season is episode 11, The Longest Day, in which Tru cycles through one day at least three times in order to find the proper closure. In summary, Tru Calling is a show that I like and do not regret watching, even though I cannot say that I really like it (4 stars) much less love it (5 stars). Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (11-3-2016)

Friday, October 28, 2016

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Here is a movie I have wanted to see for some time because of its spiritual implications. Technically, the movie, as an arthouse film, does not disappoint. I'll take others' word that this is Bresson's best film, since this is my first from him. I did not have a problem with the minimalism or the abuse -- though it seems odd how some complain more about cruelty to animals than to fellow humans -- since these were elements employed to convey the story and its implied moral (your guess is as good as mine). I think I had a problem with the pacing and transitions. It became quite confusing to follow who had custody of Balthazar, and how. (At one point, I was lucky to surmise he may have wandered into the outskirts of a circus camp, because in the next scenes, he was suddenly performing chores and tricks for the circus wranglers.) Even Marie's father, who shrinks in his bed away from the priest, has his hands being folded in eternal repose 20 seconds later. In any case, Balthazar truly is a "saint" (baptized and incensed) whose beatific gaze sees beyond the present indignities and even terrors. Compare him with Marie, whose eyes and moral compass grow dulled as she becomes inured to abuse and maltreatment, and expects (or even invites) more of the same. Here is a film that raises more questions than it answers. Enjoy! Technical merit, 5 stars; personal emotional impact, 3.5 stars. (10-28-2016)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

K Street: The Complete Series (2003)

K Street is a documentary style, fictional series populated by real-life political figures in Washington DC, largely unscripted so filled with improvised dialog. Its story follows the fortunes of a bipartisan lobbying firm, headed by real-life bipartisan political operatives James Carville and Mary Matalin. (I have read the co-written story of their courtship and marriage.) Carville is a loud, cantankerous, Cajun country crazy man -- quite the loose cannon -- but Matalin knows how to contain him, so their verbal antics can be interesting, though your mileage may vary. Mary McCormack comes off as a placating professional who bobs her head to everything others say, while the two male staff members are inscrutably tight-lipped in how close they hold their cards to their vests. (John Slattery's wife discovers his new porn stash after marital counseling the previous year, and his weaseling denials say more than his words. Roger Smith is almost a complete cypher as to where he is from and what he is really up to, esp. in the face of an FBI investigation of the lobbying firm, so he may be the most watchable character. Elliott Gould appears as the reclusive agency owner who holds his secret leash.) The dialog is articulate, fast-paced, and dry as lobby lingo can be, so you need to be smart and politically savvy to appreciate this show, which ended suddenly (though with closure). I would have liked the series to continue. Enjoy! 4 stars. (9-14-2016)

Monday, September 05, 2016

A Perfect Murder (1998)

Some kvetch and kibbitz that A Perfect Murder does not show a perfect murder, whereas I see the title as ironic: Murder does not follow a neat plan, so Michael Douglas's financier character is scrambling to tie up loose ends (even as some of those loose ends are trying to tie him down). How much suspense could a clockwork murder bring, with airtight alibis and a successful escape? Instead, it is the unforeseen developments and twists of fate that make for edge-of-the-seat drama here. This movie is no Deathtrap or Fatal Attraction, but I thought it was very good and held together quite well, from the acting ensemble (Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, and David Suchet) to the staging, editing, and soundtrack. I am divided between giving it 4 or 4.5 stars. On reflection, I guess I will give it 4.5 stars. Enjoy! (9-4-2016)

Friday, September 02, 2016

After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

After Dark, My Sweet is a low-key con movie about a shady trio that goes in together on a plot to kidnap a wealthy family's young son. Former boxer Kid Collins (Jason Patric) is on the run from his past, speaks slowly but may not be as stupid or crazy as he seems, and unleashes his lightning fists when necessary. He tries to hustle Fay Anderson (Rachel Ward) in a roadside bar, but she draws him into the scheme masterminded (ha!) by "Uncle Bud" (Bruce Dern). Ultimately, none of these three trusts the other, and things gradually unravel, but the tension and verbal jousting, oh boy! Every one of these three characters is great in their extended tete-a-tete confrontations. Even the sexual tension between Kid and Fay took forever to boil over (four steamy times!). This movie is not as good as Fargo or U Turn, both which I give 5 stars, but it surprised me and held my interest better than expected. Roger Ebert called it a "great movie" and it scores 82 on the Rotten Tomatoes scale (that is, pretty good). Enjoy! 4 stars. (9-2-2016)

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993)

Running more than 3 hours, it took me a while to tackle this film, and to be honest it was interesting but often quite dry, so I nodded off a number of times over one late night and the next morning. However, watching it made me appreciate the exemplary career and technical skills of what some call the greatest woman film director ever (preceding and exceeding Orson Welles in techniques, logistics, and esthetics), even if she was at worst a Nazi sympathizer who agreed to produce three films for Hitler and the Nazi party, including Triumph of the Will, which won international awards before the war and is still considered the greatest propaganda film ever made. Leni is clearly a force of nature, as this documentary reveals through conversations and interviews filmed in all the locations significant to her career, interspersed with generous footage of her work, some of it never seen before in public. At age 90, she still speaks in great detail of every aspect of her film making, including the development of new camera and camera-mounting technologies for the 1936 Olympics that became standard for the profession. Most interesting, though, are her extensive responses to questions about how close she was to the Nazi agenda and leadership, and how she feels about her fall from grace over the intervening 50 years. The documentary lets us discern her psychology for ourselves, though giving her every benefit of the doubt, it seems inescapable to conclude that some denial as a defense mechanism is involved. This documentary is a must-see if you are interested in WWII (esp. German) history, cinematography, film directing, or exceptional women. Even at age 90, after fibbing at age 70 that she was 50 in order to get her certification, she is scuba diving to apply her techniques to filming underwater life. Certainly, this documentary could have been shorter, but given its peripatetic approach and this woman's 70-year career, I appreciated having the whole thing to watch. If you feel tepid about viewing the full length, the menu breaks her career into a series of chapters from which you may freely choose. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (9-2-2016)

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Affectionately Yours, Screwtape: The Devil and C.S. Lewis (2007)

Here is an old-school documentary on the context and message of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, a classic work of Christian literature that is easily understandable, relevant to readers of any level, and likely to remain a popular tome for centuries. The documentary is reputable and informative, however, it is relatively dry, since it seems intended for Sunday school or church-based audiences. (Another reviewer said it would put her grade-school students to sleep within 3 minutes.) In other words, a rolling narrative of talking heads, commentary, and dramatization is spread across a video stream of medieval and classical artwork depicting the origins and conceptions of the devil, describing the literary and biblical influences C.S. Lewis would have known and used. Three talking heads (Dr. Bruce L. Edwards of Bowling Green State U, Dr. Scott Calhoun of Cedarville U, and Fr. Joseph Goetz, a doctoral graduate of Cambridge U) know the subject well and ably present their message. The weakness of this film is its narration and dramatizations (from an actor standing in as C.S. Lewis who repeatedly gazes up in the air with furrowed brow, then nods his head and resumes writing, to the mildly sinister Wormwood, whose voice frequency is altered to also sound sinister). I would more highly recommend this production if it were presented as audio only, and all voice talent besides the talking heads were improved. 3.5 stars. (8-31-2016)

Scary Movie (2000)

Like the goofball film Crazy People, Scary Movie isn't one of those movies you review seriously. It is not as funny as Airplane! or as slapstick as Naked Gun, but it is passably well done and funny; kudos to the Wayans brothers. More than this, however, Scary Movie was noteworthy to a new generation, and so it launched a franchise (Scary Movie 2 through 5), not to mention the Not Another movies, much less Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th. So it's all good. I have yet to see Scary Movie 4 and 5 to finish the series, but my impression at this juncture is that Scary Movie 2 and 3 are the best of the first three (and the buzz says Scary Movie 5 is the worst of the set). The scene setups and outright spoofs in the first Scary Movie are good, but I seem to recall them being stronger in Scary Movie 2 and 3. In fact, I would have given this film 3.5 stars to match my rating for the second and third movies, but I do not appreciate amped-up adolescents binge drinking and pot smoking in my entertainment. Since it was there, blue smoke was used to passable comic effect -- it just could have been funnier, like many things. To sum up, the jokes in Scary Movie are not dead-on bulleye hits, but they land on or sometimes graze the torso, and the target demographic gives the ones doing the riffing a thumbs up for effort. Enjoy! 3 stars. (8-31-2016)

Friday, August 26, 2016

Angry Harvest (1985)

Angry Harvest is indeed a complex tale -- of a prosperous peasant, a brave coward, a grasping protector, a tragic samaritan, and a killer who claims innocence. Armin Mueller-Stahl is superb in any role, with his eyes twinkling like turquoise or glinting like flint. In this role, he finds a Jewish woman in the woods who escaped from a death camp train and takes her into hiding -- not fully through altruism, we learn, since he is lonely ... grope-y ... even rape-y. While not as explicit and ironic as Amadeus, Angry Harvest really gets toasty when we see the condition of this man's faith. Among other things, one of his arguments for her to love him is that she should convert to "the right religion." He also appeals to the pastor's sister to go in his stead on what he believes may be a suicide mission -- then later tells the pastor he is innocent in her death. Here is a movie that will stick to your ribs -- or pierce them a bit. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-26-2016)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Poochini: Coffee Dog (2002)

Netflix finally delivered this disc into my hands after more than 8 years. (It was a Save title until a year or two ago, then a Very Long Wait title until my queue juggling paid off.) Like Dorf on Golf, I had no good reason to see it beyond a guilty pleasure -- I just liked the idea of a dog named Poochini with a jonesing for java. The disc contains the title cartoon plus 3 "bonus" cartoons, each running 9.5 minutes for a total of 38 minutes. (They actually come from Episodes 1abc and 14b of Poochini's Yard, a 26-episode cartoon series.) The intro is a bit like The Nanny, if drawn by the Tex Avery studios -- intentionally dorky, occasionally grotesque. (Half of the son's nose is nostril holes, but I like the biker/ZZ-Topp neighbors, and the homeless guy seems to have a Yale accent.) Poochini going ape over coffee is the entire premise of the title 'toon. I enjoyed it -- but I have a weakness for physical comedy. In the other 'toons, Poochini's manic joi de vivre is toned down a bit when he goes jumping into leaf piles, when he is shoved down a giant mole tunnel to stop the destruction of the father's perfect lawn, and when he gets conked on the noggin and tries to remember what a "dog" is. Poochini's voice (Billy West) has a distinctly Latino accent, almost reminiscent of Fairly Odd Parents' Juandissimo (Carlos Alazraqui). If you are so inclined to such cartoon silliness, enjoy! 3 stars. (8-23-2016)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

High Hopes (1988)

High Hopes is a gem from Mike Leigh, the master of impromptu dialog, that I would watch again and again to witness human dynamics that are often shocking, though ultimately reassuring. Set in London, two thirtysomething couples that are polar opposites interact with each other, with the elderly mother of humble Cyril and unhinged Valerie, and with several others. Valerie is a real piece of work, with her manic laughter, self-centeredness, and toadying to the rich. She is likely a narcissist who is hollow inside. (She is quite aggravating, but we also see some of her pain, which humanizes her.) Cyril's 10-year partner Shirley is kindhearted, while Valerie's husband is a womanizer. The frail and elderly mother is the center of the story, however. She is treated so poorly by everyone but Cyril and Shirley that I can only imagine, behind her pained expression, that she is lamenting how she raised such a daughter and how difficult the rest of her life has now become -- but there is hope. High Hopes flows because of its long takes and an intimate chemistry between the actors; you may never doubt they are family members with a long history together. Even the rich neighbors are insufferable in their own smug narrative. You have to listen closely to catch all the dialog. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-11-2016)

Saturday, August 06, 2016

David Cross: Making America Great Again! (2016)

David Cross speaks slowly, making significantly long dramatic pauses (once up to 40 seconds), for the first 40% of this show before he hits his stride with Donald Trump, and then hits his usual touchstones (gun control, religious intolerance, masturbation). He is reasonably funny on Trump and gun control, and goes easy on (and even compliments) organized religion. I like his political and historical observations, which happen to be correct. (The Status of Liberty welcomes immigrants, not persecutes them.) Enjoy! 3 stars. (8-6-2016)

Friday, August 05, 2016

Lovely & Amazing (2002)

I enjoy Emily Mortimer, esp. here as a model with body issues, but Catherine Keener as the frazzled housewife and wannabe actress/artist holds her own even without Emily's assets. Brenda Blethyn is the queen mother whose insecurities were inherited by her two genetic daughters. Raven Goodwin plays her 8-year-old adopted black daughter, who can be a pistol when she wants attention too. Emily plays the "lovely and amazing" daughter who only seeks the clarity and grounding she needs to stand firm. Catherine, we conclude, may never take herself seriously or realistically. Misogynists tend to pan a movie as a "chick flick" when it deals with emotions or male/female relationships (which misogynists do not want to discuss), but this film is properly called a "chick flick" because it presents mostly women discussing women's issues. As such, it is not about events happening in the visible world so much as it is about inner emotional landscapes, skirmishes, and victories. It is in this world that Lovely & Amazing excels. Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (8-5-2016)

High Crimes (2002)

High Crimes is basically Basic meets Class Action in San Francisco. The acting is good across the board but no great shakes. The story arc is not so much predictable as rounding all the bases. For me, Morgan Freeman is generally in 5-star movies (like Shawshank Redemption) and Ashley Judd is in 4-star movies (like Kiss the Girls). I like The Bone Collector (3 stars) less than, but Along Came a Spider (4 stars) more than, High Crimes (3.5 stars). Enjoy! (8-5-2016)

Funny or Die Presents: Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)

Funny or Die is usually hilarious. Maybe a 50-minute movie format (with 5 minutes for intro and credits) is just harder to sustain. The script and actors seem especially suspect in this case. The best parts are Ron Howard's introduction on how he discovered this videotape (but not his epilogue at the end) and the scene showing the New York Zoning Commission. I did not know until the end that Johnny Depp played Trump, and he played it so straight that I could barely tell this is supposed to be a satire. Patton Oswalt as Merv Griffin had one line that made me smile. The German architect was a little funny. Christopher Lloyd's cameo was chuckleworthy. The rest of it was a long, slow slog about a guy who is all about himself -- too scary to be funny, much less president? It is not a political hatchet job though, strictly historical in the cheesy 1970s sense. 2.5 stars. (8-5-2016)