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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, July 20, 2018

An emotionally wrenching, sometimes hilarious drama: A Very English Scandal

The Amazon Prime three-part series A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant in the lead, is a terrific drama in the mode that we have come to expect from the best of British TV, with terrific writing, acting, and production values (not only the period settings, in Parliament and Old Bailey in the 1970s) but also in some surprisingly effective against-the-grain decisions, such as the use of a jaunty, upbeat score that at times is so jarringly at odds with the emotional subtext of this series that it brings the project into sharp relief. This series is based closely on actual historical events: the arrest and trial of a British MP,  Liberal Party head Jeremy Thorpe, charged with initiating a plot to kill his former homosexual lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) whom Thorpe believes is blackmailing him. The director (Stephen Frears) does a fantastic job balancing and juxtaposing the range of modes and moods in this drama: One the one hand, the smarmy Thorpe is an evil guy, exploiting his social status and position of authority to exorcise and eventually to eliminate his former lover, all to protect his social standing and his family honor. On the other hand, there may well be an element of blackmail, as Scott willing accepts regular hush-money payments from Thorpe (of course via an intermediary) but keeps popping up and asking for more. But by and large we are sympathetic to Scott, who becomes, against his will, a spokesman for the rights of homosexuals and a champion of the underdog. We see plenty of horrible, prejudiced behavior - from the police, from the judge who presides over Thorpe's trial - yet the writers and directors never let us lose sight of Thorpe's humanity, either. So in the end, this series is about the horrible choices and decisions people were forced to make in that era, when coming out as a homosexual would have immediately ended a career and a marriage - the tragedy is neither Thorpe's nor Scott's alone, but of their whole generation(s) or men (and women) leading secret or repressed (or both) lives. This series is thought-provoking and moving (the sorrow of both Scott and Thorpe, and the anguish of Thorpe's best friend who served as the intermediary and confidante) are painful, beautifully written, conveyed to perfection, and it's also, at times, surprisingly funny, particularly regarding the gang of misfits engaged to murder Scott and Scott's hilarious testimony as a prosecution witness. A postscript brings us up to date on all of the personages.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Shandling biopic could have been a great 2-hour movie; instead it's 4.5 hours LONG

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow's HBO documentary about the life and career of the comedian, would have made a great 2-hour movie, but sadly Apatow, showing neither respect for his viewers nor faith in his ability to select from copious raw material, stretches this bio-worship-pic into an astonishing 4 1/2 hours. I literally could not make it to this finish, which is a shame because there's so much good, original material here - especially material on GS's early career as he gradually moved from a spec-script writer to a stand-up to a comic actor. Apatow, a close friend of Shandling's (who is not shy about grabbing his own screentime in this pic), had access to a vast amount of material, including stuff from the HBO vaults, from GS's own collections, and lots of backstage stuff from GS's two cable shows, plus extensive interviews w/ almost everyone who ever worked w/ GS. If he could only have edited this material - kept the best stuff, avoided the pointless repetitions - and maybe build some supplements and extras for those who really want to know more, as in a Criterion disc. In any event, the essence of the story is that GS was wounded for life by the death of his older brother, which his parents refused to discuss, and the consequent smothering attention from his mother. He left home for LA where he started writing spec scripts, gradually made the rounds of clubs, became a terrific stand-up (the doc shows among many other great clips his first appearance the Tonight Show), which of course led to opportunities such as sub-hosing on Tonight and elsewhere. But this wasn't enough for GS, who was always pushing the envelope, and himself - he wanted to improve as an actor, eventually developing two cable shows. The doc is a little short on these shows, not quite making the case that he was so groundbreaking and influential, and inevitably the narrative runs out of gas as Shandling's career (and health) wanes - made very painful when we see his extremely awkward and unfunny appearance on Conan, who tries (and fails) to save the day. To the end, Shandling's greatest success is as a writer, as we see from his late-life hosing of the Emmys - hysterical! - and by his furious and eccentric note-taking before every appearance, including an all-star night with Chris Rock and Seinfeld. Wish I could say this film is worth seeing; maybe just watch part one and fill in the blanks.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Staircase was great but the remake is a dud

The Sundance documentary The Staircase from about 15 years ago I think was well ahead of its time, a terrific series that took us through a sensation murder trial in N.C. that had amazing twists and turns and revelations - surprises to everyone in the courtroom - along the way. The filmmakers had access to both prosecution and defense, with the goal of showing exactly how the two sides prepare for and proceed with the investigation and the trial (the prosecutors pulled out of the deal before the trial started, so it really becomes a documentary about the defense, by the end). The filmmakers had the idea of covering a "typical" homicide trial, with the focus being mainly on forensic evidence - but the trial became anything but typical, much more than they'd anticipated. Many years before the unstoppable craze for the TV miniseries in general and the murder case studies in particular, this series set the bar, and was tight and tense with 6 episodes of 30 minutes each. Now Netflix has the idea of expanding the series in 2 ways: building the first 30-minute episodes into 9 hour-long episodes by adding in outtakes from the original shoot (and perhaps some video shot following the initial trial) and adding 5 more episode of follow-up. Terrible idea! (Possible spoiler alerts) We watched the first episode and the first "new" episode last night. The first episode now feels bloated, tedious, and repetitious, providing no new elements of interest and just dragging the episode along to hit the60-minut mark. We thought - having seen all the original episode through the verdict - we'd just jump ahead to the first new, post-verdict episode, which seemed to have about 15 minutes worth of material and 45 minutes of waste - covering points that had clearly been made already, spending way too much time w/ the sibling and children and others friends of the perp. - we're clearly on the side of the defense now and doing the bidding of the defense team (helping see the man, Michael Peterson?, as a beloved victim of a miscarriage of justice). Maybe he is a victim, but we're getting no insight, no depth, nothing new. Did I really have to see his daughter's 30th bd party?, as well as her visits to court and to the jailhouse, plus various interviews, all to show how much she loves her dad? This series is a dud. Watch the 6 original episodes and and save yourself five hours by reading about the fate of the appeal on line.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Couldn't finish watching Department Q

Let's just say I couldn't wait to get to the end of the Danish film Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith, and in fact couldn't even watch the end of the fil as the entire premise was so over the top and ridiculous - a man associated w/ a church of devout, fanatical Christians over many years has kidnapped children of church members, held them for ransom, and then tortured and killed them, all of this unknown to the Danish police, but finally a literal message in a bottle is handed over to the trio of investigators in DQ (focused on unsolved cases) and in a matter of moments they put together some key clues and they're on the chase. To me a thriller such as this means nothing of the perp is a complete homicidal sadist as it's so far beyond the bounds of most cases and has no shadings or ambiguity - unlike say the series Mindhunter or The Fall, which are full of nuance and intelligent investigation, not unadulturated evil and cases alling into place through chance and coincidence and noncridble inferences. The one strength of this film - and I admit that I did not see the first two films in this trilogy, and they may well have been better and the team just ran out of gas by film #3 - is the relationship between the two male detectives, Morck (pron Merk), a laconic, socially awkward, skeptical savant, and Assad, a Syria-born Dane who maintains his Muslim faith, to the consternation of many inside and outside the force. The third member of the team, the woman (Rakel, had to look it up) has little role in this movie except to find amazingly complex info from the Internet via a few keystrokes. Would that it were so. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A good but flawed series on 9/11

The Hulu 10-part series The Looming Tower will hold everyone's interest because of our unending fascination with the horror of the attacks of 9/11. This series focuses on the back story from the POV of American intelligence, beginning w/ the attack on the embassy in Nairobi, then onto the attack on the Cole in Yemen, finally to the 9/11 attacks. The film avoids the gruesome, to its credit - this is a story about the malfunction of government at the apex. The premise - based on a nonfiction book by Lawrence Wright - is that the CIA had a lot of intelligence that could possibly have stopped the 9/11 attacks but the agency kept the information secret, in particular from the FBI, which was working the same materials. The assumption is that if the 2 agencies had worked together instead of becoming snarled in personal rivalries and ego trips, they could have found the terrorists in th US before the attacks. That's all possibly true, but the series is told entirely from the FBI perspective - presumably, because the feds were willing to speak at length w/ Wright and the spooks were not. If the lack of cooperation is the theme, nobody will miss it: The writers hammer home these points repeatedly. They also make John O'Neill, head of the FBI counter-terrorism unit, a hero (if not a saint - he is deeply flawed) - the only one who's right, all the time. The writers/producers try to build in a human element to the story as we follow the love lives of O'neill and of his top field agent, a Lebanese-American fluent in Arabic. The writing in these back stories is so bad that at one point M and I looked at each other thinking: Who writes this shit? So, yes, this series is good, despite some really lame dialog (hint: repeated use of the variants on the word "fucking" does not make for good tough-guy dialog), but it could have been better at 5 or 6 episodes with less back story and with more faith in viewers: The CIA isn't cooperating. They're bad guys. We get it. Let's move on.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A completely strange film that's worth watching - once

To put it mildly, Sergei Parajanov's 1969 film, The Color of Pomegranate, ostensibly a cinematic protrayal of the life of the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (I'd never heard of him, either) is an acquired taste and is not a film for all viewers. That said, there is no other film like it before or since, so for viewers interested in the extremes of cinema this is worth a look at least. Parajanov, a Soviet director, says at the outset that this is not a conventional biopic about the events in the life of a poet; rather, it's an attempt to examine the mind and the emotions of the writer in a completely unconventional manner. Every shot in the film is a like a small tableaux staged in front of a stable camera; the camera, in fact, never moves during any shot and most of the scenes consist of a single shot with a duration of about 30 seconds to a minute. The characters posed in each shot move slowly and ritualistically, as in Noh theater or Balinese dance, and there's often a musical accompaniment of monkish chanting and the tuning of ancient instruments. Loosely, we follow the life of the poet, who ages over the course of the film, from childhood interest in the beautiful colors of dyed fabrics (hence the title), to fascination w/ books, to falling in love, the some kind of religious immersion in a monastery, to bringing his work and ideas to the world, to tiredness and death. Each of the many tableaux scenes in the film is visually interesting; more are entirely weird - somewhat in the tradition of Dada and the Surreal: the poet digging a grave inside the nave of a church as the church gradually fills with a massive herd of sheep; a woman dancing holding a live chicken on an outstretched arm; a row of hooded monks in silhouette bowing before a black horse and rider; the slaughter of three lambs; and so on. Clearly this film is a gift to graduate students and scholars, who can debate and dissect forever the system of imagery that drives the film. I'm not sure I'd ever watch it again, but the amazing thing is that it was made at all, especially in the USSR: There is nothing that I can see in this film that would remotely support the Soviet ideologies, nothing about workers or the working classes, and it's about as far from realism as cinema can get - and about as far from comprehensible as well.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Fauda Season 2 maintains its exciting pace right through to the conclusion

Right up to the last moments of the last (12th) episode in Season 2, the Israeli Netflix series Fauda maintains its tension, excitement, and complexity, holding us from start to finish. This series has been criticized by all sides and Israel-Arab conflict, which probably means it's doing something right: Many Israelis apparently see it as too sympathetic to the Palestinian families, showing their family life and making them modern and human (imagine that!), while Palestinians see it as a glorification of the Israeli special forces, always depicting the Israelis as on the side of peace and justice while the Palestinian are radical, fanatic killers. Well, yes, it is an Israeli production after all - and we do see terrorism at its worst - beheading a civilian and thinking nothing of putting children in mortal danger. Yet you also have to give the series props for depicting Israeli interrogations as nauseatingly brutal, for showing schisms within the Palestinian cause (much of Season 2 is about rivalry between Hamas and the far more radical ISIS), and for giving some sense of the daily family life on both sides of the divide. The Palestinian characters, however, are rarely if ever sympathetic: Compar w/ the Sopranos and The Wire, both of which made the traditional "bad guys" into Attractive, likable, sympathetic lead characters, without turning a blind eye to their violence, corruption, and contempt for the law. Fauda is headed for Season 3, which reports say will be more for an international audience (good idea, as this series could be more popular were it more accessible - some of the internecine warfare of the first two seasons can be a challenge to keep straight), and I hope it continues w/ the great production values: Few series have been so successful in depicting chases, arrests, interrogations, ambushes, and small-scale military action.