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)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Chaos on the Bridge (2014)

Chaos on the Bridge is savvy storytelling about the genesis and season-to-season production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, navigating the angst of original Star Trek series fans, the all-important vision of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (despite his deteriorating health), and the actors, directors, production crew, executives, and even outliers like Roddenberry's meddling lawyer (who poked around in people's desks and computers, and submitted script changes made in his own hand as Gene's). The candor of those involved in selecting Patrick Stewart as the new captain of the Enterprise, including Patrick's frank commentary, is refreshing throughout this documentary, which is well-narrated and hosted by William Shatner. I like the graphic elements added in to lighten up some of the all-too-human real-world conflict encountered in this show about a future where humanity has moved beyond petty pursuits and squabbles. Gene Roddenberry was an exceptional visionary, which did not mean he was always easy to work with; Chaos on the Bridge tells the story of how Star Trek: The Next Generation cemented his legacy in the firmament, even at times against his own protests. The show outlasted Gene for a full seven seasons and four feature films, and engendered three more TV series, and now a "reboot" series of films. I really like Chaos on the Bridge and have watched it twice so far. Enjoy! 4 stars. (8-13-2017)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Final Inquiry (2006)

Though some may wish it were otherwise, FoxFaith Films has given us The Final Inquiry (2006), an Italian remake of the Italian film The Inquiry (1987), starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. This redo adds Max von Sydow as Tiberius Caesar, Monica Cruz as Tabitha, and also actors in the roles of Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Caligula. Like other recent attempts at faith films (like UA's Saved!, where a Christian clubs another girl with her Bible--what?!), believers will have quibbles with story elements thrown in for dramatic effect or to attract (or at least not repel) nonbelievers. Actually, like most bad scriptwriting, I suspect it is not so much intentional (too many cooks) as accidental (due to ignorance or laziness). So what we have here is a passable script with flashes of cogency but many more weak spots. It ends up repelling nonbelievers anyway (as: Meh!) and failing to please believers (as: Doh!). I will not harp on other reviewers' chief gripes, such as the low-budget acting, fight scenes, and film stock. I would prefer to point out the Biblical inaccuracies (but it would be to little effect). More obvious are the historical flaws; for example, a mere two years after Christ was crucified, Jerusalem has apparently turned into a red-light district, with a skeevy bar, and Jewish prostitutes openly soliciting foreign men in the streets. (Please note that this is a theocracy, where women are not allowed to speak to a man in public, much less touch hands, start kissing, and profess undying love--but it must be OK for the Christian woman whose mother was stoned for prostitution, before conversing for a total of 10 minutes with the Roman emperor's emissary.) The most jarring scene for believers will be where Mary Magdalene tells Stephen to deny Christ, because "the Lord taught us to love life, not throw it away!" (Um, that's the exact opposite of what Christ taught his disciples.) So the first martyr gets snuffed unceremoniously (not a spoiler if it is historical) and we completely miss his beatific vision and preaching, which later led to Paul's conversion (but we never see him again anyway). I won't even start on the flaws involving geography. Listen, I really like the acting of all five major characters (and maybe even Stephen), otherwise I might have rated this film lower than 3 stars. Enjoy! (8-12-2107)

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

John Wick (2014)

I have never been a huge fan of Keanu Reaves -- at first, for the obvious reason (Encino Man), and later, for two related reasons (he only has two expressions: blank-faced or morose). While this "certain set of skills" served him well as the cyperpunk hero Neo (who was either conflicted or just perpetually puzzled, you decide) in The Matrix trilogy, it does little more for him as John Wick, the "retired" Russian mob enforcer. The story setup works to humanize him well enough, but the ensuing many dozens of slaughtered enemies will do little to hold the attention of the female demographic. (Not a good "date movie," fellas. Also, because animal lovers may be traumatized if they are not forewarned, his puppy is killed off-camera, which in large part lights Wick's fuse to rampage.) My youngest son wanted to see this movie because his YouTube-sourced opinions convinced him it had the best martial arts scenes ever. Another reviewer here claims Wick has better scenes than anything with Neeson, Damon, or Statham. I disagree: Anything with Jackie Chan or Jason Statham or Liam Neeson or Matt Damon is kilometers ahead of John Wick, which incidentally further offends me by masking its murky martial arts moves amid dark cellars and compounds. Virtually 99% of this movie is shot at night and in the dark, 99% of its minions are dressed in black, and 99% of the people die -- and perfunctorily at that. To me, the most interesting three minutes in the movie are three scenes where he dialogs with three women, because each in her way nimbly transcends the inescapable Russian macho ethic of "I shoot you before you shoot me": Wick's dying wife, a female assassin, and a bartender ("I've never seen you like this before -- vulnerable"). I'm glad I've seen John Wick, and I may keep thinking about the key characters for a while, but I will always be happy to watch the Transporter, Bourne, and Taken movies, again and again. Enjoy! 3.5 stars. (8-8-2017)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Wanted (2008)

Wanted feels a bit like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Assassin's Creed in modern-day Chicago. Call it a poor man's analog Matrix. It held my interest well enough, though with weak spots in establishing the would-be hero's character and also the kinetic impossibilities that are common to over-the-top martial arts movies. (At least it is not as over-the-top as Kung Fury -- which you should see.) James Macavoy moves from bleary-eyed nebbish (cuckolded by his best friend, Chris Pratt) to a man on a mission with the aid of Angelina Jolie, Terence Stamp, Morgan Freeman, and other members of a thousand-year-old weavers guild that operates as a secret society of assassins. The driving, shooting, and acrobatic stunts defy the laws of physics, but then that is the point when it comes to training the son of the greatest superassassin on a very tight schedule. A couple of twists at the end, not to mention the curved trajectory bullets, leave a muddle (literally) at the end, with room for a sequel. Enjoy! 4 stars. (8-3-2017)

Friday, July 28, 2017

Southcliffe (2013)

I have become a fan of well-written contemporary British police procedurals, esp. River, Broadchurch, Vexed, and now Southcliffe (listed in order of how gripping and memorable they are). Southcliffe is very good but the nonlinear editing, meant to draw you into the mystery, only distances me from the characters. The journalist, and later, two others, have their individual regrets and meltdowns, which I intellectually know are connected to the reverberations of the tragedy, although I do not empathize with them as closely as in, say, Broadchurch. Aside from the journalist's tirade gone viral, the best line in the show may be "We are just looking for closure." "Come on, we are not Yanks!" Enjoy! 4.5 stars. (7-28-2017)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Therese (2004)

Therese (2004) is slightly more cinematic than the average "orthodox Catholic saint's biography" film, edging into the same upper-class aisle as The Letters (2015). It is solidly Catholic though still somewhat formulaic, since you can all but set your watch by some hagiographic films: the saint-to-be professes a personal call to holiness, which in the next scene is thwarted by authorities, yet in the next scene a letter of permission arrives, and so on (check check check down the list of life events). This film also falls into the classic faux pas of "She was constantly coughing and occasionally collapsing for 3 months, maybe it should have occurred to someone to call for a doctor sooner than the 'incurably advanced case of tuberculosis' stage." Some predictability aside, this film may move you for its humanity, humility, and hope. Enjoy! 4 stars. (7-27-2017)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Chris D'Elia: Man on Fire (2017)

Chris D'Elia is handsome, articulate, energetic, and inspired. He goes on a tear of fast-paced riffs on a range of topics, mingled with a perfect mimicry of poses, postures, gestures, and voices. He seems remarkably self-aware as a comedian, freely acknowledging his flaws (as a divorced man in his 30s who no longer wants to pretend, just do what he wants) while telling his audience that none of them are stars in their own show either. His language is peppered with vulgarity and references to male genitalia and man-on-man sex (whether gay or not), even while telling his closing story about his "former" best friend's four-year-old daughter, a little princess who (in his mind's eye in the story) he struggles to not be changed by her sweetness and innocence. This guy delivers more antic, intelligent comedy in 5 minutes than some comics do in an hourlong show. Enjoy! I'd rate this show 4.5 stars but for the language, so 4 stars. Enjoy! (7-13-2017)

The Standups (2017)

The Standups is a mixed salad. Two out of six comedians got me chuckling pretty good, two were passably funny, and two I did not like. Nate Bargatze is deadpan (that's his thing) but passable. Fortune Feimster is a large lesbian (and makes a big deal about it) who is passable at best. Deon Cole was the funniest, in my humble opinion; I'd give him 4 stars. (His best line: "Is anyone here over 30 years old?" [Audience whoops.] "Remember when you were the hope of the future? When people actually cared about what you did?") Nikki Glaser was appallingly scatological (in the female sense); at least Amy Schumer goes on for 20 words, not 20 minutes, about how skanky she is "down there." Beth Stelling is entirely deadpan but, I thought, the second-funniest comedian. Dan Soder is a 33-year-old stoner who went steadily downhill until the last few minutes, which were redemptive and funny. Enjoy! 3 stars. (7-13-2017)

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Heaven Must Wait (2001)

Heaven Must Wait (original title Diggity: A Home At Last, also known as Diggity's Treasure) comes off as a Hallmark made-for-TV movie. It probably got into my queue because it is loosely related to Christmas, since an annual village fete (show) nearly gets cancelled. The plot in this movie bangs around like loose game pieces in a box, trying to be a number of things and not always connecting. Still, it does often get its message through, sometimes clumsily and sometimes deftly, and this will be enough for viewers who prefer family values and even an understated Christian message. I was not bothered by Andrew McCarthy's accent; sure, it was a pastiche of Boss Hogg, J.R., and Forrest Gump, but the show must go on. I paid much more attention to all the movie's quizzical circumstances. (In the first scene, Andrew's character, Raymond, is apparently an incompetent yutz who loses his apartment and livelihood. In the third scene, seemingly within the hour, he learns he has inherited property in England, and accepts a passport and a one-way air ticket. Supposedly the "long-lost" and "sole surviving" heir to a deed that goes back 500 years, he bumbles into the English country town and promptly strikes a gentleman's agreement with their version of Jimmy Stewart's scheming Mr. Potter. However, as he develops instantaneous bonds with the townsfolk, esp. the kindhearted Gypsy family that lives on his property, he considers kinder alternatives that keep them guessing.) Most interesting is Max Dolbey as Diggity, an "orphan boy" who lives in the church but talks to an angel named Felicia about becoming an angel himself. From the first moment, he has to point out the obvious attraction between Raymond and his bed-and-breakfast hostess, Rachel, to the pair. (This movie is very circumspect about attraction: The couple never kisses, embraces, or even proposes in so many words before Rachel says Yes, and then all happiness breaks loose.) Aside from the movie's climactic scenes, some tense moments occur as a bully repeatedly threatens two boys (and a guinea pig), but no animals (or boys) are harmed. Mild comic moments occur throughout the film, redeeming the cookie-cutter story with originality. I liked it, and even got emotional during the climax, but then I am a parent. Enjoy! 3 stars. (7-9-2017)

Friday, July 07, 2017

101 Reykjavik (2000)

First off, let me be clear: Churchgoers and family values folks should keep moving; there is nothing you will (or your kids should) want to see here. A chief draw for most viewers will be the film's setting in Iceland, in and around its capital city -- assuming you can appreciate the appeal of bleak frozen mountain and urban landscapes where there is little more to do than shiver, or stay indoors drinking, partying, and "hooking up" (having lots of that sex you hear they have in Europe). For the prurient at heart, the film has about four total minutes of nude and sex scenes, including two extended scenes of heterosexual rutting and one extended scene of lesbian writhing. The film stars Hilmir as Hlynur, a 30-year-old man who smokes a lot, watches porn on his computer, and does "nothing" else but collect his unemployment check for "disability." He lives with his mother in a small apartment: the couch is a hideaway bathtub right next to the kitchen table. He may have an Electra complex, though he has a girlfriend he treats like dirt. You could assume he is a slacker or a welfare-state mooch, which is a thing in Iceland, but I assumed his "disability" was medically documented, and probably Asperger's (high-functioning autism), esp. given the obnoxious way he banters and argues, and is clueless about social cues like expressing thanks for a Christmas gift (which he never conceived of reciprocating). His mother takes in Lola, a passionate Spanish flamenco teacher, for the holidays, and soon afterwards, she announces two momentous decisions (and his girlfriend announces a third). Some say this film is boring and moves too slowly; I felt it moved too fast, skipping weeks and months without notice. The best scene is when he tries to commit suicide by glacier (sort of). The last minute is a bit upbeat but the rest of the movie is basically living out the threat in Princess Bride: "Do you want to go back to where you were -- unemployed, in Greenland?" You will want English subtitles; my Icelandic is not good but the translation seemed fine from what I could tell. Enjoy! Rounding up to 3 stars. (7-7-2017)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Children of Men (2006)

I finally watched Children of Men on DVD last night. I would like to own this movie because of its chilling apocalyptic vision and frisson of hope gliding through the thready vestiges of humanity. I was rapt in attention throughout and gripping my cushions during the final scenes. Partly it was the realism-on-steroids setting of "Ramallah meets District 13 in Great Britain" but also the ingeniousness of Michael Caine's character (and Julianne Moore's character, esp. her backstory). Clive Owens carries the film from start to finish, rising to the challenge as it becomes fully revealed. He must take his pilgrims through a war zone, with the salvation of humanity in the balance. I suspect this film is even more suspenseful now, another 10 years since Beirut but with Syria still under siege. The soundtrack was excellent and also worth owning, in my mind. Despite the intense grittiness of the setting, Children of Men felt like a spiritual movie to me, centered on an epiphany and its effect on all those who become involved. Enjoy! 5 stars. (6-27-2017)

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)