Monthly Archive for May, 2015

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (5/31/15) HBO (2015 ***1/2) Written and directed by Brett Morgen, featuring footage of and/or interviews with Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Krist Novoselic and others. The tragically short life of Nirvana’s lead singer and guitarist is presented using Cobain’s own journals and videos. This documentary was extremely visual, with lots of animated segments. My wife described it aptly as “like watching a graphic novel.” I should confess that while I was vaguely aware of Cobain and Nirvana during their meteoric rise to fame in the early 1990s, it was happening during a time when my primary focus was on my professional career. When Cobain committed suicide on April 5, 1994, it had little impact on me. The fact that his death was as memorable to those in Generation X as John Lennon’s death in 1980 was to me was eye-opening. My wife, being six years younger than me, was far more affected, and of course she still remembers vividly what she was doing the day Cobain died. I appreciated the access the filmmakers were given to Kurt Cobain’s writing and visual materials, and they did a good job of painting a portrait of a troubled musical genius. The animations, particularly those of his journal pages were exciting, but there were — in my estimation — about 25% too many of them.

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (5/30/15) HBO (2014 ***) Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden and Simon McBurney. Set in Southern France in the 1930s, a famous stage magician is asked by a friend to help de-bunk a young woman with apparent mystical powers. As a long-time fan of Woody Allen, I’ve watched nearly all of his films at one time or another. When this was released last year I was vaguely aware of it and knew I would make a point of watching it someday. As his films go, this was clearly one of his lesser ones, but still charming. Stanley, the main character, is painted initially as thoroughly unlikable, but of course that gave him plenty of room for his character to “arc” over the course of 80-some minutes. I enjoyed the first two-thirds or so of the film more that its remainder. There came a point when Woody Allen’s typewriter seemed to go on autopilot, and scenes became less artful and more perfunctory, almost as if Allen has lost interest in the script and wanted to move onto something else. In addition to “perfunctory,” another word that comes to mind is “pedantic:” The film’s theme (whether or not magic in the universe truly exists) wasn’t exactly hidden, and toward the end of the film two characters get into a philosophical debate on the topic that seemed absolutely interminable.

This Time For Keeps

This Time For Keeps (5/30/15) TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Esther Williams, Lauritz Melchior, Jimmy Durante and Johnny Johnston. The son of a famous opera singer would rather chase after a gorgeous swimmer than follow in his father’s footsteps. If that storyline sounds familiar, please refer to my review of Fiesta (1947). Our Esther Williams DVR film festival comes to an end with this somewhat clunky film. I honestly had some difficulty understanding the main character’s motivations and why he kept his identity a secret from the woman he was falling in love with. It seemed the only purpose it served was to create a third act misunderstanding that could be cleared up in time for a happy ending.


Fiesta (5/28/15) TCM (1947 **1/2) Directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Esther Williams, Akim Tamiroff, Ricardo Montalban, Mary Astor and Cyd Charisse. Set in Mexico, the son of a famous matador would rather pursue a career in music than follow in his father’s footsteps. First off, this film requires its audience to suspend their disbelief enough to believe that A) Esther Williams was Mexican, B) she and Ricardo Mantalban were twins and C) that she would ever be mistaken for him, even from a distance. As you might expect, given the premise, Williams didn’t spend much time swimming, and I believe only one scene featured her in a bathing suit. Not nearly enough, in my opinion.

Thrill of a Romance

Thrill of a Romance (5/28/15) TCM (1945 ***) Directed by Richard Thorpe, starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Frances Gifford and Lauritz Melchior. A newlywed gets abandoned by her jerk husband on their honeymoon and in his absence she falls in love with a G.I. First off, to really enjoy this film, it helps if you love opera, because Thrill of a Romance features lots of operatic singing. If that’s not your thing, never fear: It also features quite a few scenes with Ms. Williams swimming, very nearly becoming a swimsuit fashion show. The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but then you wouldn’t really expect one from light fare like this. That Williams would wind up with her five times co-star Van Johnson was a foregone conclusion, but since her character was technically married… well, there remained the question of how it would happen without crossing 1940s codes of morality and infidelity. Since Williams’ husband exited for business dealings before their first night together as a married couple, I wondered if the film would somehow address the unconsummated state of their marriage and use that for grounds of annulment. Instead, the writers took another, not-nearly-as-satisfying solution.

The Blacklist, Season 2

The Blacklist, Season 2 (5/27/15) NBC? (2014-15 **1/2) Series created by Jon Bokenkamp, starring James Spader, Megan Boone, Ryan Eggold and Harry Lennix. 22 episodes, originally aired 9/22/14 – 5/14/15. An F.B.I. agent slowly peels back layers of secrets that link her with a criminal mastermind. My wife and I loved this show in its first season, and for awhile it had both my respect and was one of the shows I most looked forward. But that was in Season 1. Season 2 seemed to disintegrate into a muddled mess over the course of 20-some episodes. By the time the season finale aired, I didn’t really give a shit about any of the characters. There were still occasional high points, what my math friends would call “local maxima,” but they were all short-lived scenes in which Spader’s Raymond Reddington was given permission to be weird and chew the scenery.

21 Years: Richard Linklater

21 Years: Richard Linklater (5/27/15) SHO (2014 ***1/2) Written and directed by Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood, featuring footage of and/or interviews with Richard Linklater, Jack Black, Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy and many others. From Slacker (1991) to Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater has established himself as a singular talent who’s able to helm both independent and commercial films with equal skill. This love-letter-in-documentary form had a fascinating structure: Instead of covering Linklater’s films chronologically, his films were broken up into (mostly) logical thematic groups. At first it seemed odd, like the documentary jumped around, but after awhile it made sense, allowing for the “Before” trilogy to be discussed as a set. While I haven’t seen all of Linklater’s films, I’ve seen almost all of them, consider myself a fan and have the utmost respect for him and his ability to make films while still remaining true to himself. The interviews in this documentary were shot before the release of Boyhood, so the subjects referred to it as the “12 year project.” It remains my humble opinion (shared by many others, including Jon Stewart) that Boyhood deserved to beat Birdman for 2014’s Best Picture.

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (5/27/15) FXM (2008 ***1/2) Directed by Louis Leterrier, starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth and William Hurt. General “Thunderbolt” Ross will stop at nothing to capture fugitive scientist (and potential military weapon) Dr. Bruce Banner. The weekend that Avengers: The Age of Ultron was released, I noticed that several channels were airing other Marvel Universe films. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t included and I really wanted to watch it. I had fairly positive memories of it, being the second film in the Marvel super-franchise that began with Iron Man earlier the same year. One of the scenes I enjoyed the most then and did so in this re-watching, was a fight (if you want to call it that) between The Hulk and Tim Roth after being jacked up on Super-Soldier serum. The fanboy in me loved that it was a semi-veiled reference to Steve Rogers (who wouldn’t get his own movie until three years later), but also a virtual showdown (at least powers-wise) between “The Green Goliath” and Captain America. And let’s just say it was a little lopsided. Anyhow, enough about that. Having also recently watched Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), I appreciated the 2008 film’s deliberate incorporation of elements of the CBS Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno TV series that ran from 1978-1982, not counting the subsequent made-for-TV movie specials. It’s also worth noting that while I love what Mark Ruffalo has brought to the role in the Avengers films, Edward Norton played a pretty kick-ass Bruce Banner, and it’s interesting to consider what it would have been like if he’d continued in that role.

Saturday Night Live, Season 40

Saturday Night Live, Season 40 (5/21/15) NBC (2014-15 ***) Series created by Lorne Michaels, starring cast members Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, Keinan Thompson and others. 21 episodes, originally aired 9/27/14 – 5/16/15. This 40th season kicked off with Chri Pratt and ended with Louis C.K., and hosts in-between included James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Michael Keaton and Scarlett Johansson. Having watched SNL nearly continuously since its very first episode, I have to say this wasn’t a particularly memorable chapter, and it really felt like a transition season, with no real stand-outs, unless you count the 40th Anniversary Special (2/15/15), which I reviewed separately. There were a lot of hits and misses, but then that’s just part of the nature of SNL. It’s perhaps worth noting that my 3-star rating for this season is the same as it’s been going back to Season 36, when I began reviewing it regularly.

Modern Family, Season 6

Modern Family, Season 6 (5/20/15) ABC (2014-15 ***) Series created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, starring Ed O’Neill, Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell and others. 24 episodes, originally aired 9/24/14 – 5/20/15. The Los Angeles-set adventures of an extended 3-household family continue unabated. The sixth season began with Cameron and Mitchell’s honeymoon and ended with Alex’s high school graduation. In-between, the Dunphy’s learned that even the best neighborhood can be ruined by neighbors, Haley developed feelings for Andy (Jay and Gloria’s nanny), Haley celebrated her 21st birthday, and Phil and Claire role-played the fuck out of Valentine’s Day. This season also included a concept episode called “Connection Lost,” which took place entirely in the cyberspace of the extended family’s iPhones and iPads. Beyond that, I don’t recall any particular highlights of the season, but that’s not unusual for a sit-com that’s been on the air six years. Considering how strongly the series began, it’s only natural that there should come a point where it begins to run on auto-pilot, and I think this was that season for Modern Family.