Sunday, November 29, 2015

TV Review - Agent X

Writer William Blake Herron comes up with an absolutely ridiculous premise in order to proffer what is tantamount to an American James Bond, a classier Ethan Hunt or any, super-masculine spy or generic action-figure whose only function is to run around brandishing a gun, shooting anyone who gets in his path or utilizing fisticuffs when need be. It's nothing but dumb adrenaline that doesn't even aim for anything higher like CBS' Person of Interest.

Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct and Casino) stars as Natalie Maccabee, the first, female Vice President. Except, she doesn't star in this series. Her screen time is minimal as almost to have her top billing be laughable. She's at best a guest star, meant to add gravitas to a series where it's seriously lacking.

After her inauguration as Vice President, Natalie learns of a secret chamber underneath where she works and lives as the Vice President. The secret chamber supposedly holds the original version of the U.S. Constitution. What differentiates it from what most think is the original version in the National Archives is an extra section in Article 2.

Gerald McRaney (House of Cards and Major Dad) co-stars as Malcolm Millar, the Chief Steward to the Vice President who informs of this original version not in the National Archives. He tells Natalie this version has five sections to Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution whereas the Constitution that most know only has four sections. This hidden, Section 5, specifically assigns a secret agent to the Vice President who is supposed to perform missions that can't be linked to the Executive Branch otherwise.

This Section 5 premise is absolutely ridiculous. It is the stupidest thing ever. What's even more ridiculous and stupid is the fact that Natalie accepts all of this without question. Yes, James Earl Jones guest stars as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who verifies this story, but because we have no idea of either of their politics, whether they're Democrat or Republican, we have no clue why they would go along with this.

First off, just because something is in the original Constitution doesn't make it gospel. That's why the Constitution has amendments, but how does anyone know, especially Natalie, that this secret version of the Constitution is authentic? The National Archives can verify its version. Who verified this secret document? The fact she doesn't question it is stupid.

Jeff Hephner (Chicago Fire and Boss) co-stars as John Case. He's the titular character. He's the one tasked to be the agent identified in the secret Section 5. How he was chosen or why he was chosen isn't explored in the first three episodes here. Why Natalie isn't the one who handpicks the guy is never explained. Why she doesn't have the option seems weird too and possibly a little anti-feminist.

What also doesn't help the show is Stone's character could have been like Téa Leoni's character in Madam Secretary on CBS, but she's not. Stone's character of Natalie is not as strong a female character as Leoni's character of Elizabeth McCord. She's not as central and the show always handles her superficially. We're invited into Elizabeth's home and family and we're given a fuller sense of her work and life. Here, we get practically nothing about Natalie.

Despite being more of a presence than Stone, Hephner's character of John is so much of a nothing character too. John is just a lot of posing, macho bravado. He's there just to hold a gun, run from here to there, and exude unneeded testosterone.

Herron and his writers fail in even justifying John's existence. What is it about this guy that can't be accomplished with U.S. Army Special Forces, or SEAL teams, or even just CIA or FBI. The series never lays down why this guy is so unique or vital to the problems that arise, or even the rescue missions.

The series also doesn't make great use of the amazing Mike Colter in the first few episodes. He was better used in the Marvel Comics series in which he plays Luke Cage. Ironically, there is a Marvel character called Agent X, but this isn't it. Maybe Coulter is better used in the later episodes, but unfortunately, I won't be watching.

One Star out of Five.
Rated TV-14-DLV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Sundays at 9PM on TNT.

TV Review - Wicked City

After three episodes, ABC cancelled this series. I'm not sure it was as bad as most critics said it was, but it certainly was not good. For starters, the show has come too late. A couple of years ago, there was an abundance of TV shows that followed serial killers. They included Dexter, The Following and Hannibal. All those shows have been cancelled. Maybe the makers of this show thought they were filling a void, but maybe rightfully those shows ended because the culture has had enough of them.

Ed Westwick stars as Kent Galloway, the serial killer whose modus operandi is seducing young girls from a club or bar, luring them into his car, driving them to a secluded location and then stabbing them to death while they're giving him oral sex. When he's not doing that, it's not clear what else he does in terms of work or sustaining himself financially. It's not shown but maybe he spends his free time cleaning because all the violent murders he commits in his car, one would think it would leave a lot of blood stains all over.

Erika Christensen co-stars as Betty Beaumontaine, a nurse or something who is a single mother of two children. She apparently has a secret, sadistic streak. She kills a spider after telling her kids to do no harm. She meets Kent and is almost one of his victims, but he spares her possibly because she has children.

Yet, there's no logic as to why he spares her for that reason. Is it empathy? Or, is it something else? Kent decides to mold her instead into a companion for his murders. He makes her an accomplice, but why and what makes him think it'll work? The writers don't allow us into Kent's head and help us to understand his thought process. He simply does whatever the plot dictates.

The series takes place in the 1980's or some time in the past, which makes it difficult for the police to catch him. Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under and Suburgatory) also co-stars as Jack Roth, the police detective trying to find and arrest the serial killer, but he's given the run around. Taissa Farmiga plays a weak-stomach reporter and Evan Ross plays a stronger-stomach photographer who stupidly gets pulled into the plot.

The intended, 10-episode anthology was cut short and could have been an interesting look on how sadism can be transferred or inspired in others who aren't straight out crazy as was the case in The Following. The series, as it began, didn't lay down good groundwork. It wanted to revel more in the luridness than present anything logical.

There have been some stories about dual criminals, male and female, who team to commit murders. Those are better than this. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands (1973), Kalifornia (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994) are some examples.

One Star out of Five.
Rated TV-14-VLSD.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on ABC, cancelled.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Movie Review - The Good Dinosaur

The premise is a reversal of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Flintstones. Instead of people having dinosaurs as pets, dinosaurs or specifically one dinosaur has a person as a pet. The premise is also a version of the ABC series Dinosaurs (1991), except the protagonists don't live in a modern-era environment. They live in an agrarian age. As with the ABC series, the focus is on a family of five, a mom, a dad and three children. The children are comprised of two sons and a daughter. The story focuses on the youngest of the three, the very timid Arlo, voiced by 14-year-old, Raymond Ochoa.

Arlo and his family have a farm that grows corn and chicken. The parents push the children to work hard so they can raise enough food to squirrel away for the winter. It's not indicated how old Arlo is, but he looks like a green Brontosaurus and from his size it could be argued that he's about 10 to 14 years old. That being said, the upcoming winter is probably not his first. This is to say that the worry and concern about saving food is not understandable.

It seems likely that they've been okay for several years now, but there is this extra cause for concern and later an urgency that never seemed justified. It seems like a missed beat, which is one of several problems with director Peter Sohn and writer Meg LeFauve's entry into the Pixar oeuvre. There are a lot of missed beats here. A few dots that don't get connected or gaps that don't get filled.

It starts with a shaky foundation. The crux of the film is Arlo getting separated from his family and then having to find his way back home, so it has a Toy Story and Finding Nemo adventure aspect to it, but the movie throws up a proposition and then never follows through with it. That proposition is that this is a world where dinosaurs co-exist with humans. Dinosaurs never went extinct and in fact have evolved to speak and be farmers, while humans are primitive animals who behave like dogs.

Arlo meets one such human whom he names Spot. Spot is of course a common dog name, but Spot could have easily been named Tarzan or Mowgli. Spot is the same as them, but he just happens to live in a real-life Jurassic World. Yet, he does act more like a wild creature than even Tarzan, the Edgar Rice Burroughs character, or Mowgli, the character from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Despite that or perhaps because of that, Sohn's film seeks to disagree with Michael Crichton's proposition that dinosaurs and humans can't live together on the same land or possibly same continent.

At one point, Spot starts to steal food from Arlo's family and Arlo's father, Poppa, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, doesn't hesitate with wanting to kill Spot. If he had the opportunity, it's more than likely that Poppa would have killed Spot without blinking. Dinosaurs are supposedly civilized in this world, but beyond what Arlo does, we never see any other interactions between dinosaurs and humans that would suggest an opposition to Crichton's depiction of interactions between dinosaurs and humans, which mainly were deadly ones.

Arlo acts like a wild dog at times, but at other times he seems extremely smart. It's a wonder if Sohn's proposition includes the possibility that humans will evolve into what they are now, but that's an idea that this movie doesn't seem to want to address. Sohn and his writers instead want to address the fact that as much as they're pulling from prior Pixar films, they're also pulling from one of the greatest animated films ever made, The Lion King (1994).

There are so many echoes or straight rip-offs from The Lion King that it was either distracting because this movie wasn't measuring up to that Oscar-winning film or else it was boring me. For starters, Poppa is no Mufasa. Yet, Sohn tries to invoke that classic character. Sohn gives Poppa two, very distinctive Mufasa-like moments here. Neither work. Not to spoil much, but a stampeding herd of wildebeests are replaced with a huge flood and a vision in the clouds is replaced with a lack of vision in terms of muddy footprints, and again neither have the same impact.

The water in this film is surprisingly well-animated. The opening shot is of water and it's very photo-realistic. It looks absolutely like actual water taken with a camera and not generated in a computer. Yet, what isn't well-animated ultimately is the relationship between Arlo and Poppa. Even though we get about as much time with them as we do with Simba and Mufasa, it just doesn't feel as powerful or as strong. Yes, there is a somewhat glorious scene in a field of lightning bugs but again it's just not as glorious as anything in The Lion King.

It also might not be saying much but this movie could also be the most violent movie to come from Disney or Pixar in a long while if not ever. Arlo witnesses death and on several occasions nearly dies. Sohn and his writers put Arlo through the ringer. At one point, I even thought the film and Arlo might go the route of 127 Hours. Spot rips an animal's head off with only his teeth. Attacks from rustlers, or redneck dinosaurs, as well as Pterodactyls are pretty intense and a Tyrannosaurus named Butch, voiced by Sam Elliott, tells a pretty gory story.

Unfortunately, this film just didn't connect. It felt too derivative rather than paying homage. Pixar's previous film Inside Out did such a fantastic job of connecting and having such literal emotional resonance but doing so in such different ways. This one felt way too formulaic and it relied too much on conventions and archetypes that it just became too lame.

One Star out of Five.
Rated PG for peril, action and thematic elements.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 40 mins.

Sanjay's Super Team is the short film that ran before this one. It nicely compares the Hindu myths with comic book myths. Like with the recent Master of None, it puts to the forefront the conflict of Indian-Americans in this country. It's well-drawn and while I appreciate that there's a brown-skinned boy and his brown-skinned father as the protagonists, it didn't connect with me emotionally either unlike recent Disney or Pixar shorts like Feast (2014), The Blue Umbrella (2013), Day & Night (2010) or Partly Cloudy (2009).

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Movie Review - Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan was nominated for an Academy Award at the age of 14 for her role in Atonement (2007). She proved that she's a great, young actress, but, with the exception of The Way Back (2011) in which she had a small role, I haven't liked anything she's done since Atonement, and this film unfortunately is no different. It's a poignant, immigrant story. It's not necessarily the immigrant story we need but it's mostly sweet.

Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl who's living in Ireland but her sister Rose gets the local priest to arrange for Eilis to go to the United States for a job there, more money and possibly a better life. She leaves and it's a bit of a bumpy path to get there and settle into it, but she's incredibly fortunate. She lives in a boarding house. She has a job and eventually she meets a nice boy. She's good, but a tragedy brings her back to Ireland. The final third of the film becomes if she'll make the choice to stay in Ireland or go back to America, and it's here that the film falls apart.

Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines and Four) co-stars as Tony, the aforementioned nice boy who was most likely born and raised in New York and who is of Italian descent. He works as a plumber, because that's an easy Italian stereotype, and is a staunch fan of the Dodgers baseball team, obviously before the team moved to Los Angeles, which sets the time period in the 1950's.

Eilis meets Tony at a dance, specifically organized for the Irish people living in Brooklyn, New York. Tony proclaims that he's there because he specifically likes Irish girls, as opposed to Italian girls or any other type. This is red flag number one because what does that mean? What is it about Irish girls that makes him so attracted, or that's even all that distinctive from other girls who are for argument's sake not black or brown-skinned? It can't be anything all that superficial and if so, should someone with that kind of thinking be what we want as our romantic lead?

It's good that Eilis wants to pursue schooling and get an education. She takes classes, which teaches her bookkeeping and paralegal work. She becomes really good at it, even smarter or more adept at it than even some of her male classmates. However, from the moment she arrives to the United States, she's a bit homesick and a bit more depressed. She's only lifted out of it when she meets Tony.

Yes, I understand it's the 50's but is this movie, directed by John Crowley and written by Nick Hornby, really saying that the only way this girl or any girl can be happy anywhere is with a boy? Yes, I get that this film is trying to be a love story, as if there aren't enough white, hetero-normative, love stories in the world, but, in a crucial scene when Tony tells Eilis he loves her and she doesn't respond by saying it back, I thought the film might veer from the obvious, hetero-normative path.

In the follow-up scene, Eilis questions one of the girls in the boardinghouse about marriage, almost as if she's looking for guidance out of it. Yet, this isn't the case. The very next scene, Eilis is skipping almost happily down that obvious path. She in fact marries Tony in a quick ceremony at the Justice of the Peace without friends or family, but not before having premarital sex with him, slapping down the idea that she's some good, Irish-Catholic girl. Beyond that, there are of course a lot of issues with their quickie marriage that the movie mentions but doesn't really address. This is red flag number two.

Eilis then goes back to Ireland. Red flag number three is the fact that Eilis keeps her marriage to Tony a secret from her mother and all her friends across the sea. No reason for this is given. It makes absolutely no sense. Hornby adapted this film from a book by Colm Tóibín and Tóibín's book makes more sense of it. Hornby leaves out the fact that before Eilis left Ireland, she had an infatuation and possible, secret love for Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson (About Time and Unbroken).

These feelings that Eilis had for Jim before leaving are completely cut out of the film, so when she returns and starts to behave in the manner she does, it makes no sense at all. It makes Eilis look like an idiot or weirdly capricious. She's basically lying to everyone and hanging Tony out to dry. Yet, a false moment rings when Eilis gets angry that someone calls her out on it, but the moment is meant to put us on the side of Eilis. No! It felt wrong.

What also felt wrong is when Eilis proclaims that she wants to be with Tony, while in Ireland, but she's demonstrated in no way that that could even remotely be true. She spends the whole time lying and leading on another guy, the aforementioned Jim, so Hornby undermines his love story. That, and he undermines things even further with a line of dialogue from Eilis toward the end. When asked what America is like, she says, "It's just like home." If that's the case, then why is she leaving?

It can't be for love because Hornby undermined that. However, we're supposed to buy that it is for love, but I don't think anyone here even knows what love truly is.

One Star out of Five.
Rated PG - 13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Movie Review - Spotlight

A lot of people will compare this film to the Oscar-winning All the President's Men (1976). For starters, this movie opens with a scene that takes place in the year 1976. It similarly focuses on dogged reporters trying to uncover what ends up being a national scandal. It also features characters who are related by blood. Jason Robards won the Oscar for his role in All the President's Men playing Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the newspaper in that movie. In this film, Bradlee's son, Ben Jr. is featured. Emmy-nominee John Slattery plays Ben Jr., the Assistant Managing Editor of The Boston Globe, the newspaper in question here.

In 2002, The Boston Globe ran a story, which exposed child sexual abuse cases covered up by the Catholic Church. That story led to widespread media coverage and the eventual resignation of Bernard Francis Law, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts. However, some have criticized that not enough has been done despite the huge amount of coverage. This movie details the process that the reporters for The Boston Globe undertook to do that story.

Michael Keaton (Birdman and Batman) stars as Walter V. Robinson aka Robby, an editor-at-large for the newspaper. He runs a 4-person, investigative unit called "Spotlight Team." When a new leading editor joins the paper, Robby explains that the Spotlight Team finds a story and digs into it for months and months, which is unlike most reporters or even teams of reporters that normally have to provide new content daily or weekly. Robby's team instead has the luxury of time and Robby indulges in patience.

Liev Schreiber (Defiance and Salt) co-stars as Martin Baron aka Marty, the new editor who is overseeing a lot of the newspaper's content. He pushes Robby's team to delve into the Catholic priest, sexual abuse cases. At first, he's concerned about having to make cuts and lay-offs at the paper, but he sees the sexual abuse cases as an opportunity to do something that would connect with the readers. He doesn't seem to be all that social, but he is certainly a dedicated journalist.

Like an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the film, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, plays out like a police procedural. It starts with Marty insisting that the paper file a lawsuit to get court records from a sexual abuse case, connected to a specific lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci. Everyone calls it as the newspaper suing the church. This starts to draw a line in the sand, and the plot involves trying to get people to cross that line and join the reporters to bring the truth to light.

There's of course interviewing Garabedian and those involved with his case, or rather cases. To this effect, Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher and The Avengers), is like a dog with a bone. Mike is indeed a true news hound. Mike is separated from his wife, so he has a lot of time to devote to his work, and he is devoted. He like most of the reporters is from Boston, East Boston in fact, of Portuguese descent, and feels personal about it once it becomes apparent that this problem in Boston is bigger than they thought.

A lot of the process is going through records and other documents. There's a lot of paperwork at play and McCarthy manages to keep the audience from getting lost in that paperwork. Actually, a big part of the story is the lack of paperwork in certain instances. As with most crimes, what ends up being worse is the cover-up. Robby's team learns of the cover-up through missing paperwork in certain places, which reveals a system of not only corruption but collusion with the law and other officials.

Yet, it's not just officials. What this movie also exposes is a culture that is probably not specific to Boston but centered on Boston in this example. It's a culture that either looks the other way or for some reason accepts these abuses without fighting against it. It boils down to a great quote from Mitchell, delivered perfectly by Tucci, when he says, "It takes a village to raise a child... It takes a village to abuse a child."

The movie only briefly goes into the lurid details of the actual crimes. The real aim is at the culture and making Boston and the people of it a character in various ways. This is also a great example of the kind of journalism many wish was more prevalent, a kind of journalism that values patience, perseverance and perspicacity. It's a kind of journalism that doesn't go along with power but instead challenges it. The film is very idealistic in that regard.

While it's idealistic, it seems like the film could also be labeled sanctimonious. A film like this year's Truth starring Cate Blanchett might be preferred. Yes, the case at the center of this film is more substantial than the one at the center of Truth, but here the case is extremely more black-and-white. By the end, the boundaries are clear and there is very little to learn or explore or even question.

I suppose there could be some question when it comes to the value of patience. A scene which will probably be used for award consideration involves Ruffalo's character going after Keaton's character on the issue of patience. The instinct for journalists is to get the scoop or publish a story first before anyone else, especially in a sanctimonious argument. That instinct is questioned here and it makes the movie all the better.

As a person who works in the field of journalism, not newspapers but television, there's nothing new to ponder here on that level. Truth provides food for thought. Spotlight merely provides illumination for darkness.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some language including sexual references.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Movie Review - Best of Enemies

During the 1968 political party conventions and the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, ABC News hired William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal to do ten, nightly debates on television. Buckley who ran for mayor of New York City would argue the right-wing or conservative point-of-view and Vidal who ran for Congress representing New York state would argue the left-wing or liberal point-of-view. This documentary, produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, analyzes those debates, the environment that prompted and perpetuated them, as well as the men involved and what was driving the two.

Both Buckley, the founder and editor of the National Review magazine, and Vidal, the novelist and screenwriter, are deceased. Buckley died in 2008 and Vidal died in 2012. Therefore, Neville and Gordon replay moments from all ten encounters, but they incorporate writings from Buckley and Vidal in which they comment on the debates. Those writings are read as if narration by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal. Neville and Gordon also interview close friends and family members of Buckley and Vidal to give us a sense of the two, as well as biographers and analysts to comment on the men and the era to give a comprehensive view of it all.

Neville and Gordon come to a conclusion that's pretty plain. They directly state that conclusion at the end, but it's a conclusion that most people interested in this movie would or could reach half-way through it. Having that conclusion be stated is like hitting those people over the head. It's drumming a beat that's unnecessary. Seeing the clips from the Buckley-Vidal debates and cross-cutting or juxtaposing those '68 debates with clips from CNN's Crossfire or FOX News in prime-time is all the summation that the movie needed.

If anything, it's astounding to see how the Buckley-Vidal debates set the precedent for the cable or 24-hour news channels. It's also pretty astounding how the issues debated in '68 are similar if not the same to the issues debated today. One such issue surrounded the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which echoed recent protests this past year following incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland.

The movie does as good a job as it can within its frame-work to delve into the personalities and private lives of the two men. Particular attention is paid to Vidal's homosexuality. We get a brief rundown of both their upbringing, but not much more. Whether one wants more of their life stories is questionable. More is certainly wanted regarding the debates themselves, but seemingly Neville and Gordon picked out the very best moments.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some sexual content/nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.

Movie Review - Cop Car

Director and co-writer Jon Watts doesn't provide any context or back story to this situation. He drops the audience into the middle of this scenario and only takes a minor step back. He doesn't take us far enough in reverse to understand or ultimately to care about any of these characters. Presumably, because the protagonists are children, we're supposed to care instinctively, but that's not enough. The film follows two, prepubescent boys, and it's only at the end do we get some semblance of who they are. Yet, it's too little, too late. The film also follows an adult who is the antagonist but we get little semblance of who he is as well. With a vague conclusion, this makes for a weak narrative.

James Freedson-Jackson stars as Travis, the blonde, short-haired boy. Hays Wellford co-stars as Harrison, the more pale-skin brunette with longer, dark hair. Both are either 11 or 12. At the top, they're seen walking together through a desert-like landscape. They're possibly in the southwest someplace, California, Nevada or maybe Texas. All of a sudden, they come across a seemingly abandoned, police cruiser. The cruiser is unlocked and has its keys inside. The two boys, not knowing how to drive, manage to drive the cruiser away.

Kevin Bacon (Mystic River and X-Men: First Class) also co-stars as Sheriff Kretzer. He's the owner of the police cruiser. What he did and what he was doing which made him leave the cruiser are revealed, but the ultimate reason or motive behind him aren't. The movie then becomes about Kretzer trying to find where the cruiser is and get it back. He's desperate and relentless.

Camryn Manheim (The Practice) and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) have small roles as unnamed characters who help to ramp up the tension and increase the unease, but the centerpiece is the two children and Kretzer. Yet, Watts and his co-writer Christopher Ford never want to delve into those three. Watts and Ford craft a couple of good, suspenseful moments, but it culminates in a vague conclusion.

Kretzer's fate is decided, but the fate of the two children is literally left up in the air. Literally, Watts points the camera into the night sky and ends it there. This might be fine, if at the time one child's life weren't hanging in the balance, so as credits roll who knows if the child dies or not. If Watts doesn't care if the child lives or dies, why should I?

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, violence and brief drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 27 mins.