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My thoughts about movies and TV shows I've been watching

See also my blog on books: Elliot's Reading

Friday, October 20, 2017

A series that lets us in on the ambiguity of crime investigations - cases aren't always solved in 60 minutes or less

We're about halfway through the new Netflix series Mindhunters, and after a slow start the series does build in intensity and hold our attention. At first, the series seemed terribly meandering: focused on a 29-year-old FBI agent, Holden, who gets transferred out of his first assignment - hostage negotiating - and assigned to training of agents and police officers. Partly because of a young woman, a sociology grad student, whom he meets and begins dating, he becomes increasingly interested in learning about the psychology of pathological criminals, esp serial killers (those who attack women in particular). What's troubling about the first several episodes is that Holden has no real antagonist: there are passing efforts to make it seem that the FBI was resistant to pursing this new line of research, that there would be conflicts between H and various traditional forensic agents who focus on physical evidence, not mental states of being. But these antagonisms seem to vanish in thin air, and by episode 4 or so Holden and his somewhat crusty, older partner, Bill, seem to have the go-ahead to pursue their research (they are soon joined by a BU criminology professor, a woman, who seems at first a potential love interest but has her own back story). By this point, we're in for the ride and what this troika take on a few cases: interviewing a confessed serial killer to learn his story and his pathology, getting involved in a couple of local investigations of brutal murders. Although it's hard to accept that, even in the setting of this series (1977) the idea of looking at a killer's mental make-up was such a radical idea, what's good about the series is its ambiguity: In most such shows, and there are thousands, the cops/agents/specialists step in and solve the case (in 60 minutes or less). Here, the resolutions of the case are not always so clear, and may even end in failure or in a truculent DA refusing to recognize the "psychological" evidence and working out a plea deal w/ the wrong guy. So there's a lot of potential here, as we watch the 3 investigators in the inchoate stages of their work and watch them get better over time.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Japanese film about real people and their struggles, a little wordy but totally believable

The 2017 Japanese film After the Storm may not be a great film - perhaps a little too long, a little too talky, a little too much at times like a stage drama - but it has a lot of strengths and is worth a look. The story in brief concerns an elderly Japanese woman living in a low-rent housing project in an unnamed, small city, and her difficult relationship with her adult son, Ryoko, who as we gradually learn has a serious gambling problem. Ryoko, oddly enough, is a successful crime writer - had at least 1 novel published to some acclaim - now struggling w/ the followup, and who has taken a job as a private detective - he says it's to get material for his book, but obviously he needs the money, and in fact he engages in some really underhanded practices, blackmailing his own clients for example. In other words, he's a sleazy and disreputable guy - but w/ some winning qualities to be sure. He keeps trying to make good - hoping against hope to restore money he's lifted from his mother, promising to keep up on his child-support payments - and he truly wants to be involved in the life of his 10-year-old son, but he's on a downward course (with the ominous note that the son seems fascinated by lottery tickets - picking up on the malady of his dad and, as we also learn, his grandfather). All told, he's a truly believable character, and by the way one of the very few writers depicted in film in a realistic and credible manner: One look at his apartment and his desk and you know he's a real writer (unlike the typical romanticized view of the suffering writer who composes in flashes of brilliant insight or suffers through "writer's block" in ecstasy - see the Pitt-Jolie ridiculous movie on this them, or rather, don't). In fact, that's the great strength of this film: all of the characters seem real, true-to-life, struggling with life's problems as we all do; there's not a moment of melodrama or cinematic gaucherie, with one exception: the odd scene in which mom, dad, and son go out onto a playground in the midst of a typhoon, and, worse, the son "loses" some lottery tickets and they go into a park and find them one by one - they would have been blown to Seattle by that time!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Two quick hits, or not, from Netflix

Two quick hits or, rather, nonhits, as we started Our Souls at Night, starring Redford and Fonda, as a 60-something couple, both widowed, small town in midwest, she's somewhat of a misfit, cultured, drinks wine, he's a fit, taciturn, drinks Coors from a can. They apparently know each other in passing. She rings his doorbell one night and says she wants to ask him something; awkwardly, he invites her in. She says: Would you like to sleep w/ me? Well, this is ridiculous on so many levels but start w/ the fact that no normal, sane person would try to start a relationship thus. But this movie is not a comic romp among eccentrics. They're both totally centric. Nothing about the first 30 minutes seemed in any way believable or interesting to either of us. After abandoning the movie I read the NYer review, which found the "would you like to sleep w/ me" scene the best in the movie, so I can only imagine what came next. NYer said Redford teaches Fonda's troubled grandson to give up his iPhone and learn to enjoy fishing - so if that's where this movie was headed, I'm glad I bailed. We moved on to Suburro, a new Italian miniseries about the mafia, the Vatican, the gypsy population, drug dealers, crooked developers, et al. in present-day Rome. Great street photography, and a snappy though very complex first episodes w/ many characters and plot strands introduced, and cleverly brought together in a surprising twist at the end of the episode. All that said this falls into the category of miniseries I kind of like, M doesn't like (too much graphic violence and heavy-handed score), and I won't be motivated to watch the next 10 or so episodes on my own. Arivaderci.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Despite initial resistance, captivated by the Burns-Novic Vietnam series

At first I didn't want to watch the Burns-Novick series, The Vietnam War, having lived through that era - it was too painful to re-create and revisit, and I was pretty sure I knew all the ground this documentary series would cover. But as the first few episodes played on the TV in the adjacent room, couldn't help it - they drew me in and I was captivated. Yes, it was painful to watch - to see the suffering not only of US soldiers but also the Vietnamese soldiers (and civilians), to see the hypocrisy and dissembling of US leaders, notably Nixon and Kissinger, to see once again how pointless this war was, what a waste of lives and fortunes, for nothing, in the end, but ego and macho. Though I was pretty familiar w/ the history of the war and of the war resistance in the US and elsewhere, it was still powerful and moving to see these many news clips, war photography, plus contemporary interviews with those involved in many facets of the war, including several North Vietnamese veterans. I had no idea so much on-the-ground footage existed. Burns has outdone himself; there is nothing in this series of the saccharine tone in his famous Civil War series - this is much more dynamic, nuanced, and provocative, worth anyone's time - everyone's.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Season 4 of Transparent picks up in 2nd half, but will this be the end?

Transparent Season 4 does pickup in the 2nd half, as the plot lines focus more on the central character, Maura - which is completely appropriate. She's the one driving this narrative, and the various plot threads about the sexual transgressions and repressions and expressions of everyone else in her family are only of interest, at least to me, insofar as we can see the connection to the unusual but completely credible and sympathetic family dynamic: a father successful in career and by all other external measures but torn apart since youth because he has identified himself as a woman. So among the things we learn in the 2nd half of season 2: there is a history of gender transition in his family (and this plays a role in youngest child Aly's beginning to question her own gender), she has a burgeoning and mature relationship with a man of her age (Donald), she meets her father, whom she thought had died when she was a young child, and has an awkward conversation with him about his desertion of the family and about her sexuality. We get some excellent flashbacks o Maura in the early stages of her marriage, in therapy, trying without success to articulate a distinction between homosexuality and gender identity - the psychoanalytic practice of the day didn't really have the vocabulary for this kind of discussion. To me, this season could successfully call itself the conclusion to the series, as we see pretty much all the lead characters on the verge of breakthrough or change; I suspect, though, that it will continue until it totally runs out of gas. I could do w/ less of the story line on Sarah's (oldest child's) sex addiction and with Josh's torment over his relationship in youth w/ the family babysitter. The visit to Israel, to me, seemed a little stagey - let's all take a trip! - kind of like the cruise that concluded season 3., though I did like the image of Aly alone in the now-deserted West Bank commune farm, her dreams of peace and camaraderie shattered. All told, though, season 4 doesn't measure of to the series at its very best, it's worth watching to stay up to date on these characters and this important topic.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A feel-good rom com that touches on some important themes of prefudice and bias: The Big Sick

The romcom 2017 movie The Big Sick is a (mostly) feel-good movie w/ a strong comic line that recalls and brings into the 20-teens a movie like When Harry Met Sally (cute meet, seemingly mis-matched couple, gradually learning to love and commit to each other) with a touch of Love Story no less (gravely ill daughter brings disparate family elements together), along w/ a few contemporary touches of its own, including a reasonably realistic view of the life of a standup comedian (doubling as an Uber driver, which leads to one of the best gags in the movie) and, more important, a smart and sensitive look at the struggle of a young Pakistani immigrant who faces down a lot of prejudice and bias and as he tries to remain close to his traditional Pakistani family, which believes in arranged marriages. Kumail Nanjiani basically plays himself in the lead, and he's a winning presence as a comedian and altogether good guy; Ray Romano does a fine comic turn as well as the oafish father of KN's girlfriend (Zoe Kazan, very winning even though for half the movie she's in a coma).  I have to quibble and say that the movie feels stretched - 2 hours is 30 minutes too long for a romantic comedy like this - and that Nanjiani and co-writer (Emily V. Gordon) tie some of the plot strands to quickly and too neatly (e.g., Holly Hunter's sudden turnaround from KN's adversary to his champion), but that said I give them props for leaving a few threads untied at the end (which I won't divulge). Apparently this film is loosely autobiographical; in any event, it's worth a look.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Why Season 4 of Transparent may be losing its mojo

The bar has been set pretty high, but I'm afraid that Season 4 of Jill Solloway's fine series, Transparent, is losing some of its mojo. The problem is that the essence of the show is Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and the issues she faces in her transition of gender. The other characters, notably Maura's ex wife (Shelley/Judith Light) and 3 children, are useful counterweights, and it's important to see how this transition affects a wide range of family members and friends (and former friends), but I for one am much less interested in the pathways of their lives and their struggles with sexuality. Unfortunately, over the course of the first 4 episodes there's relatively little about Maura - w/ 2 exceptions: a terrific scene of her undergoing a TSA search at LAX (in episode 3) and the opening up of a new channel in her family history as she reconnects, in Israel, w/ her father (he would have to be in his 90s) long presumed dead. I hope the season continues on that theme and brings Maura back to the center. It's good to watch Shelley seeming to find herself through her association w/ an Improv theater group; less good to see the continued struggles w/ sexual identity of children Sarah and Josh. Ally is the mystery: she accompanies her "mapa" to Israel and spends a large part of episode 3 w/ a group of young, activist Palestinians - but so far she's just a listener and a sidekick. There's opportunity to move her more to the foreground. Will it happen?