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Para (II) (2018)
Cautionary tale
30 April 2021
A young, attractive couple are shown on a night out, before, on the lady's insistence, taking the night in. A deeply sensual, well-edited sequence only encourages viewers to expect a night of passion...until she asks him to stop.

Instead of presenting the "both sides" format familiar to these types of tales, her point of view is never questioned. The most effective moments of the short are the shots of his face as he continues to thrust into her during her cries of resistance - they capture something completely inhuman.

While the unflinching tone is powerful. I tend to wonder if shortening the runtime would have added a more searing effect to the material. Not doing so means key moments linger for a little too long, adding a stagey feel which removes some of our emotional connection to the material.
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The Evil Touch: Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie (1973)
Season 1, Episode 5
Stop, or my aunt will shoot!
26 March 2021
While Julie Harris does not have anywhere near as fun a part in this episode as she did in her other The Evil Touch appearance, she has the benefit of a much tighter script. She adds dignity and grit to material that is a hybrid of Rear Window and Home Alone. Kevin Miles is equally good as the determined killer at the door - several scenes of him in anguished closeup (for any number of reasons) are peppered throughout the episode, and they work each time. The smaller roles are just as well-cast, from partygoers to Carrie's niece and nephew - if the latter had been cloying or stage-schoolish, then most of the tension would have dissipated.

If you're looking for unpredictable fare, look elsewhere, but if you want a tense, entertaining way to spend 25 minutes, this isn't a bad way to do so.
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"I did it for us."
20 March 2021
Warning: Spoilers
Playing a popular, newly widowed advice columnist, Carol Lynley is the core focus of this episode, appearing in nearly every scene (the one time she doesn't, she is the topic of conversation). Carol's ethereal beauty and eerie screen presence are put to good use (including the requisite beach stroll), but thin writing leaves viewers with little beyond said presence.

As the episode goes along, there is no real buildup to make us feel like we are a part of her troubled life, while plot developments tend to be hurled at the characters (and at viewers).

For the climax, a terrified Cora, who has received threatening letters and calls at her ocean-view getaway, confesses to her ex-lover that up to this point she had been the one sending herself threatening letters;. she also reveals that she had killed her husband so they could be together. This is certainly dramatic stuff, but as we do not know her or care about her, it's difficult to move beyond a shrug. I would blame the runtime, but many anthology shows (including this one) managed more complicated storytelling with a similar length. Even a few quick establishing shots of her with her lover or with her husband at the start of the episode would have gone a long way.

The most compelling part is the sequence with Cora reading potential letters for her advice column - to be honest, I would have been more interested in an episode on that subject than what we got here.
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Salvation from many sides
23 January 2021
This documentary serves not only as a record of history (a vital recording, as many involved are no longer with us - some, like Marion Williams, passing only a few years later), but also as a record of how important the measured, intelligent tone of the best of PBS matters in a media world that often feels so shallow. Bill Moyers is the perfect host for this type of project, which would feel much more jumbled without his steady, understated presence.

Three very different approaches are interwoven - a reading of John Newton's letters (very effective work by Jeremy Irons), interviews with various legendary singers about their experiences with the hymn, and a look at various choirs, churches, and family gatherings (like so much, segregated between black and white), as they talk about and perform their own interpretations of the song. I'm tempted to say this would have worked better in a two-part format, to allow more room to breathe, but the more compact form means less repetition and less empty pontificating.

The powerful rendition by Williams that closes out the documentary may be the best part, but my favorite is probably when Moyers talks with a black congregation in Alabama. A few of the women call a girl over, who sings her own version, with some new lyrics that fit her own view of her faith and what the song means to her. It's a subtle, moving way of showing us that Amazing Grace will continue on in many forms, and that it continues to be uniquely special to each person who listens to or perform it - just as Newton would have likely wanted it to be.
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Garfield's Thanksgiving (1989 TV Movie)
Decent Thanksgiving fare
26 November 2020
The first time I saw this special, my main takeaway was that I found the material to be thin compared to A Garfield Christmas (a very deft mix of pathos and comedy). A few years ago, I tried again, and was able to appreciate the end result more on its own merits.

The Thanksgiving special is closer in tone to the comic strip, especially Garfield's weight battles (the scale, the vet, etc.), with the only attempt at sentimentality coming during the dinner sequence (which, similar to one moment in the Christmas installment, has a maudlin song which feels like it was originally meant for some other project). In theory the decision to lean into less warm-and-fuzzy elements, and to double down on Jon's stupidity, could alienate a viewer, but the writing never goes so far as to seem mean-spirited. The late addition of Grandma (the always delightful Pat Carroll) gets the tone just right, and is a strong example of how to add in a character without getting in the way of the strip's familiar dynamics.

To reply to an earlier comment about the vet - I would say it's made very clear that she does not go along with Jon out of coercion; indeed, she happily ignores his tantrum and only after he has collapsed does she casually accept his invitation. She goes on to mostly keep the relationship, if one can call it that, casual, with the biggest sign of progress on Jon's part being that she agrees to another dinner a whole year away. If we want to read into the relationship that much, then I'd suggest the brief double take a viewer might do when they realize the same voice actress (Julie Payne) also played Jon's mother - a very Freudian element for a fun family experience.
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Scene: Ties (1982)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
Sister Act
7 November 2020
The main claim to fame of this teleplay may be that one of the two female leads is Gillian Taylforth, who would soon become a national figure through her longrunning work on EastEnders. The story itself - two sisters (Taylforth and Tammi Jacobs), one who is near marriage, one who has zero interest in marriage, and the questions they face about these stances while on an impromptu road trip to Brighton - is slight, but thinner stories have held up better than what we have here. The main issue is execution, as the plot feels padded out, especially the sections where Jacobs is menaced by two local toughs; the moments where she bonds with a fair worker leave you wanting more, and probably should have taken up a larger portion of the film. Still, you can enjoy some lovely scenery, and pause to remember the world as it once was.
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Everything old is new again
31 October 2020
One of the most prominent, and interminable, thinkpiece sagas of the last 4 years has been how comedy can cover or should cover a Trump Presidency, After various fumblings and much hand-wringing, many who needed some form of righteous laughter settled on Sarah Cooper and her lip sync videos - or enough of them did to get her a Netflix special, anyway.

While Cooper is a charismatic and compelling presence, even she clearly knew that 50 minutes of lip-syncing was not going to fly. As a compromise, we have her claim to fame alongside what amounts to a bog-standard SNL episode, written and produced by various SNL alum, and giving central supporting roles to two (Fred Armisen fares better than Maya Rudolph, as he is at least given a character to play rather than the meme-ready outbursts the very talented Rudolph seems to frequently settle for).

If you are not compelled by Cooper, or by the central gimmick, you can pick your way through a sea of cameos, ranging from Aubrey Plaza giving an incandescent performance, to Winona Ryder showing how she has kept her vibrancy even through 35 years of Hollywood hell, to Megan thee Stallion basically playing an overextended self-parody, to Helen Mirren's star power being mired in the most tryhard moment of the special, to Tommy Davidson making a welcome appearance in spite of brutally dated material, to Jon Hamm gamely grinning through middling sketchwork in the way only 50 SNL cameos can teach you how to do, to Jane Lynch being handed some of the worst writing of her career, to Marisa Tomei trying and failing to lift the slapdash last act - a nihilistic shrug of an outcome so clunky it made me go from apathetic to dissatisfied.

My strongest praise goes to Marcella Arguello and Eddie Pepitone, who give some layers and hard work in spite of having the hackiest roles (essentially, living, breathing Twitter 2020 jokes).

As a vehicle to introduce Cooper to a wider audience, she feels somewhat left behind, even though she is the main star. The one moment that attempts to define her - when she has to combat workplace accusations of being the "angry black woman" - is buried, but at least gives hints of what she might do if she gets another, and ideally, much better put together chance.
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Simple and classy
1 January 2019
Likely reflecting the era it was made in, this documentary has little to say about the struggles Jesse Owens faced when he returned to America. Instead we see focus on his incredible Olympic accomplishments, with his only mention of life post-Berlin being a kind gesture from a stranger during a parade. A particularly poignant moment comes when Owens meets with the son of Luz Long, a German athlete who helped Owens during the Games and kept in contact with him until his death during WWII. These moments are a world away from today's Olympic coverage - navel-gazing nonsense about the time this athlete stubbed their toe or that athlete got a cold. I'm glad that we have these moments from a time when the Olympics were treated with dignity, along with athletes like Owens who did us so proud.
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Richer and truer to Donna and to the spirit of ABBA
28 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The original Mamma Mia! was obviously going to be a hit, given the popularity of the stage show. The success was treated in a sneering manner by the press, picking over Pierce Brosnan's questionable vocal abilities and over the garishness of the film. Enjoying the film was treated as a reason to feel shame. You're one of THOSE people. While Meryl Streep won praise for her boisterous and committed performance, many failed to understand what Donna meant as a character to many viewers, especially female viewers who so rarely got to see a middle-aged woman finding love again, singing, dancing, living life on her own terms.

I imagine that love is one of the reasons the sequel got a negative reaction in some quarters. Considering that Meryl Streep doesn't do sequels, it would have been understandable if she had bowed out of another film entirely. It's to her credit, and presumably her love for the project and for Donna that she agreed to return for a few key moments. And I actually think her presence, as well as Donna's, were greatly enhanced by what the sequel did with this dilemma. Amanda Seyfried does a wonderful job in this film, stepping into more of the gap left by Streep's absence (I'd say it's one of her best performances), but the film is still Donna's through and through.

Streep was terrific as Donna, but she is also such a legend that it's impossible to escape the fact that you've been seeing her in many films for many years so you see the actress first, not the character.

While Lily James has also garnered her share of praise in the last few years, she is still new enough in her career to where she can more fully blend with the character. She gives an absolutely wonderful performance - one that would have gotten awards consideration if the usual suspects in the industry did not greet these types of projects with a jeer. Singing, dancing, acting, easy chemistry with her co-stars. As a result, while you may start out the film seeing Donna and her story as flashbacks to pad out a cash grab, as the minutes pass you genuinely start to feel, start to see her loves and friendships and her passion for life in a way that you may not have entirely in the original. And in her singing, she also understands the spirit of ABBA music, as the sequel as a whole does in a way I don't think the original quite did.

ABBA isn't just shouting ballads or throwing disco shapes. Their songs are often pure emotion, and many of them deeply melancholic. It hurts to "take a chance" on love. You may have joy, but also regret. You reflect on the good and bad and wonder what's next. You simply FEEL. And this movie really "gets" that - James' deeply vulnerable, almost a capella performance of "Andante Andante" being probably the best example. While I don't think the movie did enough to really establish Sam being the love of Donna's life, James does her best to express that here - you can see Donna's incredible vulnerability in singing for him, and how awed Sam is by what they share. Her work in the wordless sequence where Donna goes into labor also adds a great deal to the emotional poignancy of the last third of the film.

One of the criticisms of the film is that all the "good" ABBA songs were used up in the original, but really, you could make four of these things and there would still be plenty of tunes to dip into. ABBA made many, many wonderful songs, songs for every mood or moment. If the success of the film helps introduce more people to "Andante," "I've Been Waiting For You," "Angel Eyes," "My Love, My Life," "One of Us," etc. then I'm thrilled.

MLMY is used for the film's emotional high point, where we cut from Lily's Donna christening her baby daughter, with all the hopes and fears of a new life of a mother, to Meryl's Donna, a life complete, watching her daughter continue the cycle with the christening for her very own baby boy. When Sophie sees her mother, and they sing to each other, everything of the last two films reaches emotional catharsis. Your heart breaks, even as you feel love and hope. The essence of ABBA. Streep and Seyfried are superb - the control and the nuance in this number is, frankly, much more than I had expected from these two movies.

Donna closing the church doors, saying goodbye to her family and friends, and to us, could have been a fitting end to the film (and likely the franchise), but they were wise enough to know viewers wanted the "laugh" alongside the "cry" for these characters, and they end the film on a delightful, splashy production number. It's actually genius, and totally unexpected. Characters young and old unite, putting a big grin on your face. Streep's Donna gets the chance for one last blast of a performance, one last moment with Sam. A proper goodbye. If the christening was the ending the film needed, this performance is the ending the film - and viewers - deserved.

I probably would have rated a little lower due to a few issues (I think the film is overlong; the introduction of Donna's mother could have been handled more skillfully than basically just saying, "Look, it's Cher!"; choosing to delete some of the scenes building up the love between young Donna and Sam makes their relationship feel scant even though they were written as being soulmates; the complete lack of material for the wonderful Colin Firth feels like a real missed opportunity), but the spate of 0 and 1 star reviews made me up my review, as I don't feel they are deserved.

If you are into musicals or ABBA, then I'd say give the movie a chance. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, and it reminded me a lot of the old Hollywood musicals I love and miss. It's the rare sequel that I'd say betters and even enhances the original, and I'm glad I battled my initial reluctance to tune in.
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Sex House (2012– )
A must-watch
28 October 2018
Around 6-10 years ago, The Onion was making a wide variety of comedy material online and even for television (they had a show on, I believe, IFC). I did watch a great deal of this at the time, but still, I feel like I took it for granted now that the material has pretty much stopped (the only new Onion video material I see and enjoy are their film reviews).

Sex House was one of those shows - a 10-part web series looking at a group of people who...move into a house to have sex. You have the hot but dumb jock, the sweetheart, the raunchy "trysexual" lady, the virgin, the token middle-aged man, and another guy who manages to be the token black guy AND the token gay guy.

If you've watched any reality TV over the years, especially Big Brother, you're probably nodding your head as you look over the stereotypes.

It's easy to say oh, this is a parody of Big Brother, or the Real World (which one of the producers of Sex House actually worked on), or of reality TV, or of modern depraved culture.

Sex House probably IS a parody of those things and more, but it's also a wonderfully acted and written work. I don't even really want to go into too many details about it as to not spoil the experience for you. All I can say is try to catch the show while the videos are still up, as The Onion seems to be far past its best days.
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Daddyhunt: The Serial (2016–2018)
Slight but sweet
7 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Web series are a useful way to tackle subjects that may not get a lot of focus elsewhere (especially with gay-themed material, which often veers hard toward lurid melodrama or amateurish wackiness - or both - when put into features). I'd say this story benefits from the web series format, with a number of brief but well-made looks at the love story of "boy" (AKA Ben) and "daddy" (AKA Greg). The makers were even nice enough to include several deleted scenes.

This is a very nice, pleasant watch, with a very good performance from BJ Gruber (who reminds me a bit of Chris Pratt before Pratt became so big) as the younger man and Jim Newman as the older man. Ben's friend, Michael Snipe Jr, continues the tradition of the talk-to who tells our hero how to feel and what to do, while having enough of a varied life (he's HIV-positive, has threesomes, etc.) to remind us of the relative safeness - or ideal ways, depending on your point of view - of said hero. David M Farrington plays Greg's ex, who mostly has his own best interests at heart, trying to manipulate Greg and his romance with Ben (presumably so Greg will be with him again). Both men are decent enough, in thin roles.

The difference between the two supporting characters is one of the questions that Daddyhunt never answers, and possibly didn't even mean to ask - are we supposed to take anything out of the younger man having a pure-hearted friend, while the older man just has a selfish ex?

The other question I had while watching the series was the contrast between a sexualized title and sexualized terms of endearment (with their names taking much less prominence than "daddy" and "boy") when the characters themselves aren't all that sexual. There is obvious attraction, but the moment which comes closest to a sexual encounter instead becomes a debate about whether to use condoms or PrEP, before it ends badly. This actually is a very compelling subject for this type of movie to take on, but we only got a taste before we get back to the softer romantic separation and finally the big, sweet reunion more closer to Hollywood than West Hollywood.

I don't think all gay-themed films need big sexual content, and I don't think this one suffers greatly without it, but the tone of much of the scenes leading up to what we got made me feel like a moment of sex or just plain physical fun and playfulness at the end was missing.

Overall, this was a good, likeable effort with handsome, charismatic actors who have easy chemistry and give solid performances, and I certainly recommend watching it.
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Harry and Lena (1970 TV Movie)
Don't it make you wanna go home?
24 July 2018
An absolutely superb special that I had the privilege of seeing in full on Youtube recently (before that all which seems to have been available on there were a few scattered clips). Frankly, if more specials had been like this, I wonder if the genre might still be around.

Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte are a perfect combination for a variety format - he smooths her edges while she cuts through his gloss. The hour also cuts through much of the fat that hobbles variety formats from this time. There is no "psychedelic" editing style. There are minimal political or social statements, although there are powerful moments, like Lena and Harry briefly mentioning how their experiences with segregation have changed in recent years, and of course the perfunctory performance of "Abraham, Martin and John" (they also open the hour with a strong rendition of "Walk A Mile in My Shoes," the first of two Joe South compositions). The high point of the social comment is likely Harry's commercial against littering which closes out the hour. There is also, thankfully, none of what you would get in so much more of this decade of variety - a parade of special guests, or attempts to plug shows on the network, or puerile comedy with somebody getting a pie in the face or mugging in closeup. There is banter and teasing between Harry and Lena, and a great deal of playful energy in the uptempo numbers, but never anything juvenile. There is pure and simple class, and dignity. We never forget we're watching adults, mature and wise, even if they still have living to do. One touch I found especially strong in building atmosphere is that when Lena is singing, Harry isn't shuffled offcamera - he stands in the background, watching and admiring her talent. She does the same for him.

Beyond the above-mentioned Dion song and the usual Beatles tune ("In My Life") for this era, you get a mix of pop classics (like "Down on the Corner"), showtunes (a deliciously funky "I Want To Be Happy" from Lena), and lesser-known numbers from South, David Ackles, Oscar Brown, among others. Many of those numbers put the focus on childhood days, or children and the future - leading to poignant moments like a line in "You and Me" where they say maybe their son will be President someday if "the country loosens up," or another where Harry says he thought he had a happy childhood, with the aching, unspoken implication of what he now knows as a grown man.

The high points I would say are Lena's haunting cover of "Brown Baby," Harry's beautifully restrained yet emotional interpretation of "Subway to the Country," and their duet of "Don't It Want To Make You Go Home?" There are no low points - only goodness, and a window into a world of music we should all miss and appreciate.
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He She We (2010)
Good atmosphere and chemistry, but too much plot
27 October 2017
There's no particular need to spoil the plot of this short film (the pictures pretty much give it away as it is), other than the basics - a man is cheating on his girlfriend with another man, who has no idea that he has a girlfriend. He also plans on leaving her. Once the other man realizes his lover has an attractive girlfriend, he suddenly becomes much less interested in their relationship breaking up.

While I was a bit stumped on the casting for the main man who has both boyfriend and girlfriend (we keep hearing he's supposed to be much younger than his girlfriend and even the boyfriend, but...I can't say I saw it on screen), the roles are gifted with charming and likable enough performances, especially Bernard Forcher as the "other man". He does quite a bit with his eyes, and has real charisma. Outside of the acting, the dialogue and contrivances are clunky and somewhat arch, but the scene where the three come to an understanding, so to speak, is quite fun.

There are a few more scenes after this, as an epilogue of sorts, and while there's nothing wrong with them, they really weren't necessary. They mostly give the impression that this would have been planned as a longer film but was crammed into a much shorter time. Sometimes less is more, and this is probably one of those cases.
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Coming In (2016)
Identity crisis
11 October 2017
Coming In, a web series which I'd probably call comedy with some serious moments, is another example of Canadian media being willing to take more risks in regards to exploring sexuality (not just a male character trying to be straight and realizing he's gay, a female character being torn between men and women, etc.).

What the show doesn't do is delve into what makes Mitchell go from gay to straight - the closest they come to addressing this is when his father, pleased that he's now involved with women, says it wasn't as if he was born gay, to which Mitchell responds that actually he was, as that's "how it works." So if you want to see someone trying to change their sexuality, or to see another Bob & Rose "it's just you" type scenario, you won't get either of those here. It just is. They delve more into identity than sexuality, as Mitchell's relationships with his family and friends drastically change, and as he questions how he's supposed to act now that he's heterosexual. Is he supposed to hang out with the bros? Can he no longer wear lip gloss, sit the way he wants to sit, be who he defined himself as, now that he no longer feels for men? I wish they'd focused more on this element - it seemed to just be getting started when the series ended.

The cast do a lot to make the material work, especially when the breezy focus turns more somber. Dylan Archambault is very good as Mitchell, making him a mostly likable, relateable character who is also not averse to being snobbish, thoughtless, selfish. What impresses me most is that he doesn't try to go overboard in playing a stereotypical "straight" persona after and doesn't go overboard in playing a stereotypical "gay" persona before. This is a tough role but you'd never know it watching him. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Noah Danby as the fiancé Mitchell patronizes and mostly accepts because he's so good in bed (their frank conversation about this after Mitchell breaks up with him is one of the stronger points of the series), Brittany Bristow as the old friend he reunites with for his chaotic initiation into sex with a woman, and Debra McGrath has one especially hilarious scene as Mitchell's mother, walking in at...the wrong moment.

The supporting roles are much more prone to caricature (the bros Mitchell eventually bonds with, the "ex-gay" men Mitchell mistakenly goes to for support), and Mitchell's friend Margot also could have used more definition, but for the most part I enjoyed this series and found it more complex than I might have expected. I hope we see more.
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Likable effort
9 October 2017
Maureen Stapleton and Tom Toner play a homeless man and woman, shown gathering food and supplies for a meal. We then see them enjoying the meal, and the makeshift world they create for themselves, come rain or shine (with the dinner experiencing both). Toner and the always strong Stapleton underplay their roles with just the right amount of pathos and pluck. There's an innate (but never overdone) sweetness in the product, which probably seems alien in a world where the homeless are often treated with scorn. Here, people are happy to help buy a few groceries, seem pleased and positive when meeting Stapleton - no being chased off by police, no violence or abuse. There's a certain melancholy in the dinner party, but nothing overstated, no big moment to remind us how terrible everything truly is. In some ways the movie seems very out of date for 1974, but also seems timeless - a window into a world you can be glad to be a part of for a few moments.
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Mesmerizing performances, muddled script
25 August 2017
Boothe gives a tremendous performance, so much that during filming cast would come to him with their problems as if he were Jones. One especially powerful scene occurs after racism leads him to quit the church he's built up. His rage is righteous, all-consuming. It sets up just how many times Boothe can fill in the writing blanks through his charisma and force of will.

Other standouts include Cartwright (she does so much with her eyes, especially in the last years. When she ponders saying goodbye to her husband before killing herself - it's a masterpiece) Haynes (the first sexual outlet for Jones, pure and good and broken at the start, corrupt and dangerous and broken at the end, just like Jones); Cash (underwritten but vitally important, the one who fully accepts everything of him, the warm and firm hand of the "family," and a support system for Cartwright. Their small goodbye kiss is saddening and beautiful); Quaid and Foster (they never give in to Jones' vision but are helpless to stop him - taking you from quirky pet shop owner and luminous secretary to helpless husks).

The two main standouts are Dourif and Sinclair, who represent the strongest emotional scenes in the film and best show us what Jones represents to those outside his closest inner circle.

Dourif exquisitely underplays the role of the young heroin addict who unwittingly sets Jones onto his final path of complete sexual and psychological domination of those he deems worthy of his brand of salvation. He has nothing when Jones finds him, aside from a wife (well-played by Scarwid) who stands by helplessly as he claims ownership of her husband - mind, body and soul. The purity of the chemistry between Dourif and Boothe and a script which underplays the lurid factor of a sexual relationship between men means their scenes have a nuance which many other parts of the movie lack. Dourif to the end only sees the best and believes the best of Jones and his gifts, not because he is a fool or weak, but because he has been reborn and remade in "Father's" image. There's a sad scene near the end of the film where Scarwid attempts to reconnect with him, only for him to passionately, impotently repeat catchphrases about the good he does. The saddest part is he does help people, he does have a purpose for goodness, but it has been perverted into what will lead to mass murder. At the end, Dourif swallows his own poison and quietly stumbles off to die - one final reminder of how alone he truly is.

Sinclair has the difficult task of carrying the emotional burden of family material that seems very cookie cutter. What cuts through is, like Dourif, the purity of her belief in Jones. She's a strong, proud woman, so hearing her call Jones "Dad" and seeing her support him over her family has an extra anguish. She represents the love and compassion that Jones once had for black people. When Jones abuses her son, she walks away rather than face reality. Like Dourif, this doesn't make her weak - it simply shows how unable someone in a cult is to trust their own voice. Unlike Dourif, in the end, Sinclair does see the madness, begging Jones to try to get everyone to Russia rather than a mass suicide. In a change from the real life event, Sinclair is talked over not by a man, but by Cash, in a disturbing display of what happens when solidarity is destroyed. Unlike most of the others, Sinclair goes out literally kicking, trying to live life on her own terms in her final moments. It's a harrowing scene, and one which feels all too real.

Unfortunately, the script lacks the depth of the performances, starting with a childhood scene which feels more like an offshoot from Our Gang. Dewhurst, as a deeply religious neighbor, has a nice connection with him, but then the movie jumps forward about 20- 25 years. Dewhurst and his mother reappear once for his wedding, then are never mentioned again. This is an odd choice, but you can almost forget as the narrative is still engrossing. Only later do the script problems kick into high gear.

Burton gives a good performance, and it's also important that after material which mostly uses black people as props, we get material from their point of view. The problem is his material feels shoved into the narrative, and LeVar is such a familiar face so soon after Roots you don't see a character. The same goes for Brenda Vaccarro as a rich lady who succumbs after Jones promises to heal her dying mother. You are watching Brenda Vaccarro acting, rather than believing any of what you are seeing. Only one scene (where she learns her mother has died and lashes out before being sedated) works. Otherwise she comes across as a Fantasy Island episode gone horribly wrong.

The final act with Congressman Ryan going to Jonestown feels perfunctory. Only the small moments featuring Dourif, Sinclair, Cartwright, etc. have weight. Never is this more apparent than the gunning down at the airstrip, which you'd think would be what the entire movie has been leading to. Between the news cameraman desperately trying to get the pictures after everyone around him is being slaughtered, and Foster and Quaid appearing at the airstrip just so they could be killed off as Jones' loyal henchman shouts "Traitors!" - MST3K would be proud. Quietly realizing their son is gone would have been far more powerful, and truer to life. It pales in comparison to the much more genuinely disturbing genocide scenes unfolding simultaneously.

If you want to see some superlative acting that will stay with you a long time, then you may want to watch - just don't look too closely at the script.
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Lucky Star (1929)
Farrell's finest
22 February 2017
The story is indeed hackneyed, and the title cards ("it's gran", "Baa- Baa") are a minus, but this is a simple little romance back when sentiment and honest emotions were allowed to be expressed, instead of drowned in cynicism as they often are in today's films. Janet Gaynor was the bigger star, but Charles Farrell is the heart and soul of this film and he gives a moving performance. He never allows Tim to be an object of pity even when the script presents him as one. He expresses his emotions on such a pure level. There's a scene where Tim hugs Mary ("Baa Baa") and as she clings to him, we see expressed on his face the full, startling realization of how much he loves her. It is a gorgeous performance and one which, if you see the film, I don't think you will forget.
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Carrie (1976)
Horror in broad daylight
8 October 2016
Many horror films belong in the night, where murder and "punishment" roam free, films where daylight is just precious lost hours building up to what will soon unfold when the sun sets.

Carrie, until its momentous final scenes, is bathed in California sunshine, warm in temperature but not in temperament, as we are slowly shown the many different factors that will cause Carrie to break. The prom and the aftermath are night shots, eerie and deadly, but the last moments return to the sunlight, and to the false comfort of the day.

This is another Hollywood product where everyone looks just a bit too old to be a teenager, but it doesn't really matter - in a way the slight lack of believability just adds to the surreal nature, and the material still hits home.

For a film that is about bullying and the consequences of cruelty, De Palma remembers to include a number of moments of kindness and support, chiefly from Betty Buckley (whose performance tends to be one of the most underrated aspects of the film) as the fair-minded gym teacher who tries her best to help Carrie, and William Katt, the dreamboat, the top man at school who slowly goes from part of the taunting and humiliation of Carrie to falling in love with her. It's Buckley and Katt who unwittingly bring out what Carrie becomes, because they make her think life doesn't have to always be terrible. They upset the balance of her school and home life just as much as the nasty bullies do.

Carrie is often described as a revenge film, and I think one of the reasons the modern remakes have faded into oblivion is because they focus too much on the revenge aspect. In a post-Buffy world, there is more of a posturing about some type of BAMF getting payback amidst the angsty soundtrack and arch one-liners. The tragedy of Carrie is that she doesn't get revenge - she causes wholesale carnage. She doesn't spare good people, as she does in some other version of this material. She kills everyone because she is no longer able to differentiate between friend and enemy. She essentially "dies" when that bucket of pig's blood falls on her. It is a startling reminder of the cost of bullying, of what happens to people who are ground into the dust by day after day of unrelenting abuse. Only when she returns home does she briefly go back to what she was, just long enough for her chief abuser to kill her and end the cycle in the only way it could be ended.

One of the benefits of modern life having no set trends or styles is that it allows us all to reassess what it means to be "dated" and to question why something is passe just because of old clothes or hair. This film, much like Carrie herself and what made her who she was, will live on forever.
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Endgame (2001)
Uber-violent, ponderous, homophobic tract
7 October 2016
I could say the movie could have been more, but the basic idea was so rancid that no amount of tinkering would have made any real difference.

Tom (the pouty Daniel Newman) is a kept man (although they regularly emphasize to us that he is still too emotionally immature to be a man) who kills his gangster "daddy" to save himself from rape (the only time we see anything with two men in this film involves rape and violence). He then flees with a hapless American couple. He grows close to the American woman while corrupt cops and crooks are on his trail, complete with a grotesque scene at a gay bar where, if memory serves, they rape someone who works there. While the American man goes off about the car, Tom and the wife give into their attraction. This is juxtaposed with graphic torture and murder scenes involving the husband, a clumsy way to remind us of the horrors to come. And so they continue coming, finally leading up to another grisly, excessively violent set piece, with the conclusion being that Tom is back where he started, that without the love of a good woman, he has no hope. As the icing on the anti-gay cake, we also get a heavy implication of just what "caused" him to be gay.

There's a difference between showing the reality of a life of a rent boy, or even telling a story about how abuse and homosexuality sometimes intersect, and idealizing heterosexuality to such a strong degree - to the point where the woman in question is not even a character, but rather a thinly sketched out martyr and sexual savior.

Beyond the message itself, the mechanics of the film are crude and coarse. No amount of nice scenery or noir lighting are enough to compensate.

The one scene in the film that has a poignancy to it is the scene that the whole movie is about - Tom, essentially, finding healing and peace through his first sexual encounter with a woman. The shy vulnerability that defines him as he slowly strips (hesitating before he removes his underwear, as he knows he can't go back after that last step) contrasting to his pure joy and release as he kisses and tastes the upper body of the woman who is there to show him what his life is supposed to be, as he makes love to her, in the missionary position, as she exists as a missionary to what the film wants him to be.

They may have been better off just releasing this scene and ditching the rest.
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Unflinching story of shame and exploitation
6 October 2016
The MGM of the late '30s and early '40s was a well-oiled machine, cautious from top to bottom, and well-rewarded for that caution by moviegoers. This also applied to their short films, which could easily veer toward a canned message (as most of the Our Gang films in the MGM era show).

Women in Hiding is an unusually raw product underneath the gloss. We hear in unflinching terms about the injuries suffered by the babies treated as cattle by corrupt quacks. We see with our own eyes the physical and psychological toll that the mothers go through. And these mothers turn familiar tropes on their heads.

Mary Bovard (who seemed to go on to mostly small roles, sadly) is Mary, the toughest of the women, the one we may be primed by the narrative to feel the least sympathy for, compared to the everywoman lead Jane and sweet Bunny. Yet she is the one who first breaks our hearts as she has doubts over what she's gotten into, and pays the ultimate price for the cruel games of the baby sellers. The director does a wonderful job making us feel the horror and pain of what happens to her while only letting us see a brief glimpse. Less really is often more in these types of short cautionary tales.

Jane Drummond, who also seemed consigned to nonexistent roles after this short, plays sweet, lighthearted Bunny, too innocent for the world she's in. Her fate is no less heartbreaking, and equally subdued in just the right ways.

Marsha Hunt is Jane, our ingenue, our eyes. Hunt gives the character a believability that is perfect for the era and for the tone of the piece. We know that this is not a "happy" ending for Jane, and that she will likely never be the same again. Most impressive of all, Jane isn't saved by a man or waiting for a man to find her. She does everything she can to get out and manages to do it.

Many short subjects feel dated the minute they are released, much less 75 years later, but the basic message of this story - young, vulnerable women who lack support and are made to feel shame will be destroyed by the bottom feeders of society - is more important than ever.
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Summer Stock (1950)
If you feel like singing, sing
23 March 2016
Everyone who knows of Judy knows the story behind Summer Stock - no point in repeating it yet again. And of course everyone knows of "Get Happy," which has, with changing times and tastes, probably become her signature song even more than "Over the Rainbow."

What isn't as known is the movie itself, a putting-on-a-show feature that on the surface seems more than a little ramshackle, and out of date even for 1950, but is actually an interesting, touching, more than worthy showpiece in Judy's film canon, and in movie musicals in general. It is, along with In the Good Old Summertime, my favorite of her films.

The cast is of high quality - other than Phil Silvers (who seems out of place at times, although he has his moments) hamming a bit for my tastes, this is a really solid group. Both Silvers and Eddie Bracken add something different to the usual style of this genre. Bracken is both nerdy and oddly endearing, and in spite of only having a small number of scenes with Gloria DeHaven (pretty and polished in a very underwritten role), they have believable, sweet chemistry that makes you happy for them at the end, rather than just wanting to get them out of the way. Marjorie Main adds her usual impeccable comic timing and warmly rough touch. Ray Collins offers strong support and character work as Bracken's father - he has one of those so distinctive voices characters actors had back then.

Then we have our leads, who are both superb.

Judy looks a bit poorly made up at times, and is stuck in some unflattering getups that remind me of what she wore in her earliest MGM days, but she is in this film a perfect blend of neurosis and confidence. You aren't frightened for her, the way you often are in her later films. Yet she isn't as pulled together here as she sometimes was in her biggest '40s pictures. She's more open. She's a blend of everything that made her an enduring icon. And she, in spite of her legendary difficulties, throws herself into everything - singing, dancing, comedy, dramatic acting. Even if she may have only filmed a small amount of time a day, you wouldn't know it from watching her work. She makes this picture a worthy farewell to her time at MGM in a way that a glossier, "bigger" picture, the kind she'd regularly made before being burnt out, would not have been. This is Judy saying - take my flaws and love me for them. And we do.

Gene is simply fantastic in a role that could have easily been a throwaway, but becomes so much more thanks to his earnest portrayal. Even the name (Joe Ross) is generic, but you get caught up with this decent guy who just wants to put on a show and never expects to fall in love. One of my favorite moments is the pure ache as he listens to Judy plaintively singing "Friendly Star" - letting us see just how much he treasures her and how much her own obvious angst over their love for each other is weighing on him.

Indeed, it's the angst in this film that sets it apart from many of Judy's adult MGM musicals, where she and the leading men fell for each other in large part because that's what the script called for. Summer Stock is oddly modern in that it really lets us see the process and the pain of a love story. This works in large part because Judy and Gene Kelly have incredible, all-encompassing chemistry. This is a love story first, a musical second.

The numbers are, for the most part, pretty good. Some seem a bit cheap by Judy standards, although that can add to their charm ("Howdy, Neighbor!" for instance). The Portland Fancy dance sequence is a great deal of fun. And "Friendly Star" is in many ways the high point of the film, and one of Judy's most tender performances. "Get Happy" is, of course, a marvel, but one that has been shown so many times it's difficult to react today.

There are lots of small bits to enjoy as well, my favorite being the moment where Silvers and Bracken crash into each other and end up accidentally wearing the other's glasses.

Of all the Judy movies, this is the one I have the fondest memories of and want to rewatch (some parts more than others, admittedly) most often. As a final note on a brilliant legacy, and on a charming genre of film, a wonderful and ageless romantic pairing - it's perfectly imperfect.
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A Woman's Picture
21 March 2016
This film was a rarity for the time in that it focused exclusively on a woman's point of view - a woman who is attractive, but not a bombshell, a woman who is flawed while still being a decent person, a woman who has no idea how to raise her mixed-up son, but does her best, a woman who has the same harmless delusions we all have, a woman who has been so constrained by society's idea of happiness, but still can't resist wanting to find love and fulfillment with men.

The next year, Ellen Burstyn, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her work in the role, would go on television complaining about the nominees for Best Actress, stating that they were supporting roles in a lead category. Last year, Diane Ladd, so superb as Flo and in many other roles, criticized the Academy for putting lead actresses in supporting roles. Sadly, if anything never changes in Hollywood, it's poor material for women.

Scorsese made sure viewers knew ADLHA was not a "soap opera" (even though both Ellen Burstyn, via her old name, and Diane Ladd both cut their teeth in daytime drama before moving to Hollywood), but the core is not far off the best of what soaps used to be - an exploration of the life of a "normal" woman, her day-to-day struggles, her haunted psyche, and her search for a better life. As soaps no longer have any interest in this type of woman (yet another reason they have faded into irrelevance), it's up to movies like this to live on.

What to make of Alice herself? While the opening scene gets it a little wrong in its attempt to shock us (a fake-Hollywood, Wizard-of-Oz-esque backdrop with a little girl who curses to remind us this is no fairy tale), the next scenes strongly establish what makes Alice such a refreshing character, how she is the everyday woman, a Socorro housewife, who is torn between wanting more for herself and barely managing to even cope with what she has. The scene where, after Tommy goads her husband into yet another outburst, she flings the doors of her dining room open and shouts, "Socorro sucks!," is a real shock to the system, yet it makes you laugh, and feel relieved. You're reminded that even if this isn't real life, you know Alice, and you care about her. You see her tease Tommy, who is about to implode from a father he both loves and hates. You see her banter with her best friend (another reflection of soap operas), a woman who, in a poignant moment before the departure for Phoenix, she realizes she will likely never have contact with again. While Alice, in a sense, is stuck in hell, the movie doesn't completely demonize her husband, doesn't make him a faceless droid of the liberation movement - he tries, but he's utterly helpless to understand his wife. The moment where she casually says she'd be better off without and then learns of his death, crying out, "God forgive me," is one of the film's most harrowing.

ADLHA has a harder edge than the sitcom it spawned in many ways - Tommy is a real brat, and not a TV-cute brat (likely why he was replaced so quickly on the sitcom), and rather than characters like Vera being dizzy but heartwarming creatures Alice takes into her heart, she's a space cadet, one, in an unpleasant but realistic enough scene, is openly laughed at (along with her father) by our noble heroine. And Diane Ladd's Flo is just a bit less heartwarming, a bit coarser than her TV version (superbly played by Polly Holliday). You get a warm welcome from her, but you are also on guard, as Alice is. One of the film's best moments is when an overwhelmed Flo spews profanity at the diner patrons, and Alice, astonished, convulses into raucous laughter that Flo initially mistakes as sobbing. From then on, they're firm friends. Only Vic Tayback, basically playing a Mel who can say blue language, closely resembles his TV counterpart.

Ironically, the sitcom gets one thing right that, for me, always keeps this film from being what it could have been, in that it scraps the relationship between Alice and David, and focuses more on her relationships with the women at the diner. While everything about Alice and David makes "sense," and I respect Scorsese and Burstyn for not bowing to the idea that a woman must be alone to be strong (as Pauline Kael said about the ending of An Unmarried Woman, who could believe anyone wouldn't go away with Alan Bates???), David feels like he is from another movie, and I never can invest in the chemistry between Kristofferson and Burstyn.

Jodie Foster, on the verge of stardom, pops up as a friend for Tommy. She also feels like she's from another movie, and is an odd mix with Tommy, although the scene where (after his mother kicks him out of the car for being mouthy and hostile) he tracks her down and they get drunk is pretty good.

In terms of romantic attachments, Alice - and the film - peak during far her brief turn with Harvey Keitel, who plays a charmer she knows is not going to be good for her, but has no idea just how bad he will turn out to be. Indeed, this portion of the movie - when she and Tommy are at their most broken and desperate, fleeing the hotel with every possession they own - is viscerally good, and is the part of the film that always stays with me most.

So, while certain parts of the movie make it what it is for me, it's still a very good, very unique, very modern film throughout. Give it a try.
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Erotic Confessions (1994– )
Earliest is best
3 February 2016
As one of the reviews mentioned, the '90s was the peak era for softcore - these days before the terrible implants, the bizarre attempts at "comedy" that suggest they think viewers are idiots, the lack of genuine heat in sex scenes (scenes that often involve interchangeable rutting with one or two awkward poses and canned rutting) and the hardcore porn actors filling roles that used to go to actors that had never been seen in the genre before and were more of a surprise to you (and felt more "real"), it's just not worth watching most of the time.

Erotic Confessions, especially the first few seasons, had genuine sexuality and steam. I remember an episode early on with an Asian- American woman whose boyfriend didn't care about whether she enjoyed sex as long as he got off, and she went to the gym. Amidst some gauzy fantasies (like the whole gym [4-5 people] having an orgy), she met a sweet, Kennedy-looking type of guy. She accidentally walked in on him in the steam room. She - and we - saw him full frontal naked. I'd rarely seen anything like that on these types of softcore shows, which were often loath to show a man below the waist, and if you were lucky, had a few glimpses of his backside from another room. She was embarrassed, he told her it was fine, and then this led to the usual sex which felt a lot more normal, and as a result genuinely erotic. There were lots of moments like this early on - a maid brought in to clean a kitchen having sex with a frustrated husband, a woman seeing a man pleasure himself (we weren't shown this - even they couldn't go that far) over a phone sex line and joining him, couples being turned on after a strip poker game, on and on. They showcased the genuine embarrassment, giddiness, cringeiness, and joy of sex. People were able to laugh and actually have fun. People actually felt like people, rather than cardboard cutouts.

I wish the show were more readily available today. Then again, considering the crap on now, no wonder it's not.
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To apple trees and cheese
3 February 2016
I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Rita Moreno, which included some short moments of her film work. I kept wondering if they'd show anything of The Four Seasons, which, while not something she's hugely remembered for, offered her a meaty role late in her film career, and is one of the first times I had ever seen her, as I hadn't ever watched West Side Story or most of her TV work. There was no mention, and indeed, I rarely hear of the film at all these days. I did see a sneering review of the film on a blog that, among other things, seemed astonished that the movie had ever been made as it was so poor, and seemed to believe that Bess Armstrong only appears in the first third. It was that review which compelled me to write this one.

The Four Seasons is one of those films I never watch too often, as the characters and dialogue start to get on your nerves with how self- analytical and overly quippy they are, but this actually shows how ahead of its time the film was - if you add in some dramatic walking, or supernatural special effects, you have your average Aaron Sorkin or Joss Whedon script.

What works for the film is the chemistry of the cast. You genuinely believe the characters have been close for a long time, and you can understand why the women resent Ginny, Anne's "replacement" in the group, and in Nick's life. Yet because the movie is also honest about the flaws of the characters, you're also invited to see the women's resentment, and the patronizing attitude of the men, as unfair.

As time passes things start to feel a little too much (too much hectoring from Carol Burnett's Kate, a bit too much clowning from Jack Weston's Danny, a few too many measuring contests between Nick and Alan Alda's Jack), but it still ends on a satisfactory note, an ode to friendship along with a reminder of just how casually discarded friendship can be.

Even though I haven't seen this in years, many parts still stick in my mind - the classical music for the soundtrack, the gorgeous cinematography (the overhead shots of the sailboat in the summer sequence in particular), the cramped car ride and sharp turns, Nick's depressed daughter talking about how the women at her college urinate off the balconies, Carol Burnett's speech at the end about friendship and losing touch.

My favorite part of the film is Sandy Dennis' brief turn as Anne, Nick's first wife, the one discarded from his life, and then from people she saw as her friends. It's a touching performance, one that nicks at you long after she leaves the screen. Her final scene, running into her old friends, reminding them of their abandonment of her, and then moving on, is in many ways the natural conclusion of the film, and ends with such a classic line - "Maybe I'll get a goddam boa constrictor." You can't argue with that.
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Not worth your time
27 December 2015
Chaka Khan had one of the strongest and most nuanced voices of any R&B singer of her era, and she did translate that to some cool jazz-flavored songs like "A Night in Tunisia" and "Papillion (Hot Butterfly)," but she can't carry most of the material in this set. A number of songs like "Them There Eyes" and "My Funny Valentine" pale in comparison to many others. The sound and video quality are also poor, as this was recorded in a club. The only memorable part is when she makes a mild diss of Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Hotline (this was made in 1993), and her general onstage demeanor, which is self-effacing and fun. She also looks beautiful. Unfortunately I can't say I recommend this for singing.
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