Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TV Review - Reckless

Anna Wood and Cam Gigandet
in a scene from "Reckless"
This is a legal drama that is taking the time-slot of The Good Wife and is perhaps attempting to be like that show only sexier. The problem is that The Good Wife is incredibly sexy, but it can be so without anyone having to take their clothes off, so that when you finally see an incredibly attractive actor like Matt Czuchry naked or even shirtless, it's only a nice topping to what has always been a treat. This show seems to need its actors to take their clothes off on day one because it doesn't have the substance to be sexy without showing skin.

Anna Wood plays Jaime Sawyer, a defense attorney in Charleston, South Carolina. Yes, she's brassy and smart. Clearly, she's a good lawyer, but writer Dana Stevens does something, which didn't endear me to Jaime. She pulls a cheap trick in court where she replaces the pens that the jury uses with ones that have no ink, so that they can't take notes.

It's a cheap trick, which she didn't even need to do. Later, she proves that she's able to dismantle the prosecution's case, which is how I prefer to see it. I want to see Jaime make a good argument using facts she's found with her assistant and investigator Vi Briggs, played by Kim Wayans. I don't want to see her pulling cheap tricks.

Cam Gigandet plays Roy Rayder, the assistant district attorney, the prosecutor for Jaime's case. He opens the pilot episode by boating to work. Apparently, people around town, those of power and importance, like him. He's even offered a cushy government job. He's even given a high-paying position at a firm because he demands it. We've seen nothing so far that indicate why, beyond him having a penis and all of Charleston being a boy's club.

What moves the show past being an exposé on police or political corruption and into sheer gross misogyny is a video depicting essentially a group rape, implicating characters who are clearly twisted but also characters who we assume to be good.

Shawn Hatosy who plays Terry McCandless seemed to jump from playing a cop in one show to another cop in this one. Previously, he was in Southland where he had some nuance and layers. Here, he's just a misogynist, a horny bastard who is a veritable rapist.

Adam Rodriguez who plays Preston Cruz also seemed to jump from playing a cop in one show to playing another cop in this one. Previously, he was in CSI: Miami. He's the boyfriend of Jaime. He comes off as the perfect boyfriend, but because Roy has lustful feelings for Jaime, and because the show wants Jaime and Roy together, obviously Preston can't be perfect.

The show doesn't even give Hatosy or Rodriguez a chance to build anything. The series simply dispenses with them right off the bat. There's really not too far for them to go. The show has already decided what they are. The show should treat them better than that.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-LSV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Sundays at 9PM on CBS.

TV Review - Murder in the First

Tom Felton steals the show as a sexy, computer
genius and defendant in "Murder in the First"
It's like a Law & Order story stretched over a dozen or so episodes. Typically, a Law & Order hour is split in half. The first half-hour is about the cops finding the murder suspect and arresting him. The second half-hour is about the lawyers putting that suspect on trial. This series takes that first half-hour and spreads it over three episodes. The series then takes that second half-hour and spreads it over the rest of the seven episodes.

Taye Diggs (Ally McBeal and Private Practice) stars as Terry English, a homicide inspector for the San Francisco Police Department. He's recovering from the death of his wife who recently passed away due to pancreatic cancer. He's obviously dealing with grief and being on the rebound. He also has some anger issues, occasionally lashing out.

Kathleen Robertson (Beverly Hills, 90210 and Bates Motel) co-stars as Hildy Mulligan, a homicide inspector for San Francisco as well. She's actually English's partner. She's a single mom who shares custody with her ex-husband who is a former alcoholic and is in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The X-Files, the implication is that there is something romantic between English and Mulligan. Unlike the aforementioned shows, the romance here is acted upon. Dick Wolf and Chris Carter never had to go there because they had more stories to tell.

Creators Steven Bochco (L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Eric Lodal don't have any more stories to tell. Therefore, once the show switches its focus to the trial, it invariably leaves the two inspectors with not much to do. Bochco and Lodal decided to create and play out the romantic angle to keep the characters viable.

Tom Felton (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) co-stars as Erich Blunt, a combination of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, except he's blonde, more arrogant and more of a hothead. He certainly has a moment that's almost right out of The Social Network (2010) where another programmer accuses Blunt of stealing computer code. Blunt is aggressively sexual, which gets him into trouble.

Blunt is the young man on trial for murder. The end of the first episode has the death of a pregnant flight attendant named Cindy Strauss. Cindy worked for Blunt and they were having an affair. Along the way, evidence for and against Blunt being the killer piles up.

While Diggs and Robertson are great actors, Tom Felton really steals the show. Watching his character think he's untouchable at first and then go to being a humble and scared defendant who practically has to beg for the best lawyer is great. James Cromwell (Six Feet Under and 24) plays Warren Daniels, the pinnacle of criminal defense attorneys. The scenes that Felton has with Cromwell and the scenes that pivot around Cromwell's character prove how good Felton is.

I also enjoyed Felton's scenes with Robertson. It's doubtful anything sexual would occur between Blunt and Mulligan. They kissed, but it wasn't what one would think. Felton has such great chemistry and raw appeal that even though narrative-wise it's impossible or highly improbable, Felton's power makes you want it because his character wants it.

Felton and the trial suck all the oxygen out the room, but some of the machinations with Mulligan is fairly interesting. The random scene in Episode 3 that reveals Mulligan's boss Lt. Koto, played by Ian Anthony Dale (The Event and Hawaii Five-O), and District Attorney Perez, played by Nicole Ari Parker (Soul Food and Revolution), are hooking up went nowhere. Maybe later episodes will do more, but it just felt like too much.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Mondays at 10PM on TNT.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Movie Review - Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

This past month, on July 17, 2014, Elaine Stritch passed away at the age of 89 in Michigan. Earlier this year a documentary about the Broadway legend was released in theaters, which charted her last working year. It started with Stritch at age 86 and stayed with her until her 87th birthday and her final on-stage performance before she finally decided to retire, leave New York City and spend the rest of her days in Michigan, which is where she was born.

On the surface, the film by Chiemi Karasawa is similar to documentaries like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) and Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (2012). Same themes and issues do pop up. One in particular is the idea of aging. Being as old as she is, it's obvious that she's cognizant of her age and pending death. She's comfortable in it, even though she prefers saying she's getting "older" rather than getting "old."

The movie opens with a very spry Stritch walking the streets of Manhattan in her fur coat and big glasses. Plenty scenes follow Stritch as she goes place-to-place, performing from show-to-show. Karasawa's camera focuses a lot on Stritch's legs. Her legs were always in slick, black stockings, but the way she moved and their slender nature suggest she had very sexy legs and like Tina Turner proved to be her best quality.

At one point, the actress Cherry Jones is interviewed and Jones comments that Stritch was like an ostrich. Her surname and the name of the bird sounded similar, but Jones continues that both had their legs as a defining feature. Stritch was aware of this, as all of her performances involve her wearing not much more than a slightly unbuttoned, collared shirt and her stockings. In fact, she never wears pants.

We get only brief interviews from people like Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey who worked with Stritch on the NBC series 30 Rock. My favorite comments come from the late James Gandolfini who says he fell in love with her after she had yelled at him.

It's early established that Stritch is diabetic. We see her checking her insulin levels aside fellow diabetic Tracy Morgan. The rest of the movie honestly deals with her struggle with the disease as well as her struggle with alcoholism.

The movie is a great tribute to her. Her career was a great one. She worked with so many of the greats from Rock Hudson to Woody Allen. Karasawa allows her to memorialize her late husband who died early in her marriage to him. There is also a brief scene where some of Stritch's family visit her before one of her last shows. Yet, not much is made of her never having children.

Not much is made of her social life. She does mention that many friends have passed. We also see her having dinner with younger, fellow actors like John Turturro, but I feel like there are chunks of her life that was swept over. We get that she has simply been steadily working, but her relationship with Rob Bowman, her music director is a close one but there's still much about it that doesn't come through.

Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Movie Review - Hercules

Early in the year, a film called The Legend of Hercules hit theaters. It starred Kellan Lutz, the blonde beefcake from the Twilight films and Renny Harlin directed. I enjoyed that film on a purely superficial level. I can't help but line that movie up to this one starring Dwayne Johnson (Fast Five and The Game Plan) and directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour and Red Dragon).

Harlin's He-Man was in effect an atheist. The myth is that Hercules is the son of Zeus, the Greek god of lightning. Lutz's Hercules is never told this, so when the myth confronts him, he eschews it. He doesn't believe. This idea is undermined by the end through the demonstration of supernatural acts, one act in particular that is meant to make a believer out of Lutz's disbelief and re-affirm the existence of God.

Ratner's muscle-bound manly man is not an atheist per se, but he certainly doesn't believe in the son of Zeus myth, even though he and his entourage are the ones perpetuating said myth. In this version, written by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos, based on the comic book by Steve Moore, Hercules is not a hero. He's a hired gun, a mercenary who goes from place-to-place, eliminating threats for a handsome price. Reece Ritchie who plays Iolaus, the nephew of Hercules and dutiful member of his entourage generally precedes his arrival to spread rumors of his great exploits.

Hercules wasn't always a mercenary. He was at first a family man with a wife and children. In a flashback, we learn that they were killed, though we're not sure how or by whom. That flashback also proffers that the rumor and gossip of him being the son of Zeus was always circling him, but it's not clear how that got started, or why it was perpetrated.

Yet, it becomes clear that Hercules is a kind of con man. He makes people believe that he's this super-powered being in order to get what he wants. By the end, it's not about undermining that, as it is proving that there's nothing special about Hercules that isn't just as special as any one else. He's a human like any one else. Therefore, any one else can be just like him, a legend and accomplish legendary things.

This is a better note to end rather than the note on which Harlin's film ends. I suppose Harlin's film embraces the same religious message that a lot of faith-based movie-goers would prefer and have been getting in films like God's Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real. Ratner's film embraces a more secular point-of-view, but without ever denouncing or denying the people's belief in Hades or Olympus.

Putting that aside, Ratner succeeds where Harlin fails in his overall direction. Harlin's film was quite self-serious, whereas Ratner's tone is more comical and a sense of irony hangs in the air and within his characters. Rufus Sewell (Dark City and A Knight's Tale) who plays Autolycus, the right-hand-man of Hercules, is constantly cracking jokes and making wise-ass remarks. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal who plays Atalanta, the Athenian warrior, throws out one-liners too, so this movie certainly is funnier.

There's some great performances here as well from a great supporting cast, including Ian McShane, John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan and Aksel Hennie. What's also great is that there are two major hand-to-hand combat scenes here. It looks like hundreds of men fight, hundreds of actual men and no CGI was used. Maybe CGI was used, but I couldn't tell.

There were several moments during those hand-to-hand combats that felt like CGI and felt rather ridiculous. Johnson's Hercules did seem to possess a kind of mega-strength where one seemingly effortless punch sent men flying through the air. Everything else seemed rather grounded up until the end when Hercules ceased being a con man who claimed to have superpowers to actually having superpowers. There is some confusion there.

A scene from Ratner's film even mimics a scene from Harlin's when Hercules breaks free of his chains, reinforcing in both movies Hercules coming to terms with who he is for himself and not just in the terms that other people see him. Johnson is a much more magnetic and engaging screen presence than Lutz, but that kind of charisma was cultivated over time. I'm not sure if it's enough to carry this film.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for battle sequences, violence, suggestive comments, and partial nudity
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.

DVD Review - ErOddity(s)

Addison Graham in a scene from "ErOddity(s)"
Eroddity is not an actual word. Writer-director Steven Vasquez invented it. It's a combination of the words erotic and oddity, and that's exactly what this movie is. It's sexual, practically pornographic, and it's strange, if not downright macabre. It's constructed like those Boys Briefs movies. The second of which featured Danny Roberts hosting a collection of short, gay films. This movie has four, such films, and if you're unsure of how erotic or how much of an oddity these short, gay films get, the first short, which is only five minutes, titled "Forever Mine," sets the table with two of the most taboo sexual acts you'll see all year.

This movie is said to be inspired by The Twilight Zone. The second, short, gay film here titled "A Mind of Their Own," is in fact a 17-minute remake of The Twilight Zone episode, titled "A World of His Own." That 1960 episode is notable because it's the first episode in which writer-creator Rod Serling appeared on camera. This 17-minute remake lacks the clever writing of Serling nor the great performance from Serling's actors.

This 17-minute remake has instead Brandon Rife, a young male model who is new to acting in film, much like many of the young players here. This movie is the first credit for Rife, but it's not for Addison Graham who co-stars here and who also appeared in Triple Crossed, the feature that Vasquez produced and for which he was cinematographer. Graham is probably better known for his adult films and adult photography.

Adult photography or nude photography is integral in the third, short, gay film, titled "Unsolved Christmas." Its narrator riffs on Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas. The plot is a somewhat campy revenge tale against a teenage, peeping tom named Zack, played by Edward J. Gutierrez, but, as a title card boldly states in the middle of this 19-minute short, it's all about "gratuitous nudity," particularly the full-frontal, male naked body that's constantly on display.

This movie is also said to be inspired by Tales From the Crypt. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fourth and final, short, gay film, titled "The Way to a Man's Heart." It takes a well-known proverb and twists it into something dangerous or deadly. It's not incredibly crafted, but it better uses Addison Graham as an actor.

Obviously, Graham is a very sexy guy. That's no question, but if he's like Sean Paul Lockhart who was his co-star in Triple Crossed, and he wants to transition from pornography to more mainstream or even independent films, he could do it. Graham has an interesting look and way about him that could be the baseline for a great actor, if he were well-used. He's so far made the choice to always play the bad guy or villain. I'd be curious to see him try something different.

For Vasquez, if he's going to draw inspiration from The Twilight Zone, which is the gold standard in terms of film or TV storytelling, he shouldn't be surprised if he also draw comparisons. If Rod Serling's master work is gold, Steve Vasquez is barely bronze, more likely tin or aluminum here. When compared to Tales From the Crypt, it works better with even a weird nod to the Crypt Keeper. Yet, ErOddity(s) almost succeeds as a gay spoof of those horror anthology series.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains pornographic sex.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 10 mins.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movie Review - Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Tim Key (left) and Steve Coogan
in a scene in "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa"
Steve Coogan stars as Alan Partridge, a character he originated back in 1994. Several TV series have been done over the past two decades in the UK that have followed the career of Alan Partridge. A couple of years ago, Coogan took a character he did on British television and made a film out of it. That film was The Trip (2011). That film was such a success that it made sense for him to do it again, but this time with his longest-running, TV character.

Alan Partridge currently works as a disc jockey and radio host of a program called Mid Morning Matters. It broadcasts from Norfolk near the eastern coast of England. The radio station where it's done is brought by new corporate owners, and Alan learns that they plan on changing things and firing certain people.

He's able to get into a board meeting and a fellow radio host named Pat Farrell, played by Colm Meaney, asks Alan to make a case for him. In the first of what becomes scene after scene of one of the funniest movies of the year, Alan tries to make Pat's case but then changes his mind. He in fact throws Pat under the bus, but he covers it up.

Then, in a twist out of Airheads (1994), Alan and Pat become involved in a hostage situation at the radio station. Alan becomes the spokesperson between the hostage-taker and the police, and he is just the worst any one could have. At first, he's reluctant, but then he sees it as an opportunity to further his career. He becomes completely self-aggrandizing.

The entire cast is great. Tim Key as Side Kick Simon is great even though he's duct-taped and almost completely immobilized for the whole movie. Felicity Montagu as Lynn Benfield is great as Alan's assistant who's slightly dim-witted and revealed to have a secret love of glamour. There's even a great small role by Darren Boyd who plays Martin Finch, a cop who looks like Britain's version of Garret Dillahunt.

Written by Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham and Steve Coogan, there are wall-to-wall great gags. The two escape sequences are hilarious. From crashing through a wall to getting stuck in a window, I was literally laughing out loud from beginning to end.

There have been a lot of films to do dick jokes that are dumb and mostly just about showing the penis and expecting that to be enough. Seeing a penis in itself isn't funny unless you're ten because that alone is simply juvenile. Coogan instead does a dick joke that is different and smarter.

Jokes born on the screenplay like "banged up a broad" are great and could teach Michael Showalter and David Wain's recent They Came Together a lesson about how to use repetition to better comedic effect. Jokes like Michael, played by Simon Greenall, in hiding are performance-based, but director Declan Lowney, however, is able to use his filmmaking to keep the comedy up too. Lowney certainly maintains excellent pacing and films the final scenes with a beauty to them at which it's nice to look and laugh.

Coogan has had a great run for over a decade. I first noticed him in Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and continued noticing him in films like Happy Endings (2004), Tristram Shandy (2005), Hamlet 2 (2008), Our Idiot Brother (2011) and What Maisie Knew (2012). The latter of which was a more dramatic performance. Coogan recently received two Oscar nominations, Best Writing and Best Picture, for Philomena (2013). I think those nods were well-deserved and this movie is now another on his amazing filmography.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language, brief violence and nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.

Movie Review - Boys of Abu Ghraib

Luke Moran puts himself behind bars
in "Boys of Abu Ghraib"
In the spring of 2004, the news reported the scandal that prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were being tortured by U.S. soldiers in clear violations of Geneva Conventions. Pictures were printed and broadcast of what were seen as illegal tactics for what is known as "enhanced interrogation techniques." The questions that came were where did these tactics originate, who ordered or instituted them, who knew about them and how could the soldiers involved participate. This film, written, produced, directed and starring Luke Moran, attempts to answer the last question. Moran explores how an American soldier could participate in the torture of prisoners.

Documentaries like Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure (2008) have answered a lot of the questions by talking directly to the soldiers who were there. Moran's film weaves a narrative where we're put into the shoes of a prison guard working on what was called the Hard Site. The Hard Site is the part of the prison where the worst of the accused were held and where the scandal mostly took place.

Luke Moran plays Sgt. Jack Farmer, a 22-year-old soldier in the army who's deployed to Iraq in July 2003. He's part of a squad that is assigned to Abu Ghraib. He's in a motor pool that mainly patrols the exterior. It's during this stretch that the movie feels like Sam Mendes' Jarhead (2005). Moran shows weeks go by where Jack and his fellow soldiers do nothing and they don't have access to TV or Internet. Jack says the main thrust is that he doesn't fight terrorists. He fights boredom.

Jack volunteers to be a MP or a military police officer at the Hard Site. He has no idea of really what's involved. He's allowed to go, despite having no MP training. When he arrives, he meets Tanner, played by Sean Astin (The Goonies and The Lord of the Rings), who prepares him as best he can by telling Jack to have no compassion, be tough and aggressive, as well as not to talk to any of them.

Omid Abtahi as Ghazi, a tortured
prisoner in "Boys of Abu Ghraib"
Jack is at first resistant. He knows he has to be tough, but he holds onto his compassion where he doesn't want to treat the prisoners as just animals or evil terrorists who don't deserve mercy. Eventually, Jack's need to hold onto his humanity allows him to get to know one of the prisoners who begins talking to him. Omid Abtahi (Over There and Sleeper Cell) plays Ghazi Hammoud, the prisoner who befriends Jack because he speaks perfect English and is well educated. Jack starts to like Ghazi. They eat and laugh together, just as Jack does with the other American soldiers.

Members of Intelligence come and take Ghazi to interrogate him, but Moran never shows any of this interrogation or implied torture. Ghazi's slow deterioration is enough evidence, but because Jack is kept at a distance, he's not sure what to think, so he defaults to defending Ghazi, even to the other soldiers. Jack believes briefly that maybe Ghazi doesn't belong there and that maybe he's innocent.

Of course, in order for the scandal at Abu Ghraib to have occurred, soldiers like Jack needed to have the rug pulled out from under them, or be broken of the idea that the prisoners aren't anything other than animals like rapid dogs. For some prisoners, it's easy. Moran simply has them throw feces at him or try to kill him.

For someone like Ghazi, it's a bit bumpier road. Moran side-steps a lot of the bumps in a manner not too dissimilar to The Green Mile (1999), but he does eventually take the easy way out, never going so far that makes the audience aghast at Jack's actions or depicts him as anything more than a guy who played loud music and screamed at the prisoners occasionally. Moran is a bit reserved or conservative as a filmmaker in that respect. There's never a scene as bad as the torture scene in Zero Dark Thirty and nowhere near as bad as what actually occurred at Abu Ghraib like the various sexual violations.

Moran also avoids any politics. Moran has employed a great cast of young men, including Elijah Kelley (Lee Daniels' The Butler and Hairspray), Michael Welch (Twilight and The Twilight Saga: New Moon), John Robinson (Elephant and Lords of Dogtown) and Jermaine Williams (Stomp the Yard and The Great Debaters). Some of them comment, tangentially on the politics and policies, but no thoughtful discussion is ever really approached. It's not much to be expected from a bunch of young guys barely out of high school. Jack's self-reflection is mostly wordless and his reflections center more on a kind of horniness mixed with homesickness.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for torture and violence, language throughout and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.