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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Thursday, September 29, 2011

HAPPY ENDINGS SEASON ONE: IT’S GREAT TO LAUGH

It seems that most of what I’m writing about these days ends up being TV series. The thing is that there are more good TV series coming out these days than I’ve seen in some time. Which is odd since most people complain about how bad TV is these days. Those people need to watch a little more and DVD gives them the chance to do so. Take the new series HAPPY ENDINGS for example.

The series opens with the set up, a wedding for characters Dave (Zachary Knighton) and Alex (Elisha Cuthbert). As their vows are being exchanged, a rollerblading guy rolls in and tells Alex she can’t go through with it, to come with him. She agrees and off they roll. What follows is a group of people that are friends of both individuals who must learn how to deal with staying friends with them while not alienating either.

So that’s the set up. The thing is as each episode unfolds we get to see how their attempts fail and how Alex and Dave develop into friends as opposed to man and wife. All the while there’s an undercurrent that perhaps these two are destined to be together and that maybe one day they’ll realize that. Until then everyone walks on eggshells trying not to take one side or the other.

There are two things that make this show stick out from so many other comedies on these days. The first is the writing. The stories offer ways to move the idea of the friends dealing with issues that are brought into focus by the couples parting ways, by their friendship and eventually in how they deal with one another. The wordplay is witty and fast paced so much so that on occasion you need to back up to catch a line because you were laughing so hard. In jokes are also on hand, like referencing Cuthbert’s role as Jack Bauer’s daughter on the series “24” when one character says she acts like her.

The second thing that makes this series work is the character and the casting. Each actor portrays their role to perfection. Knighton as Dave seems like the loveable guy who was left at the alter only to move on to find his dream. Cuthbert is great as the runaway bride who followed an impulse only to realize later how it affected everyone else.

Rounding out the friends are interracial couple Jane and Brad Williams (Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans, Jr.). Brad is an executive while Jane is Alex’s sister, a competitive woman with a touch of OCD. Casey Williams stars as Penny Hart, the 30 year old single woman still searching for Mr. Right and nearly ready to accept anyone. Rounding out the group is Adam Pally as Max Blum, the not so obviously gay man who Dave ends up sharing an apartment with after the break up.

One of the greatest things about these characters is that while each could become an issue to press be it race or sexual preference, they instead are just all good friends. They support one another, they help one another and they seem like everyday folks rather than a rallying cry for some cause or another. When treated like just characters rather than symbols it becomes much easier to accept them as they should be accepted.

Episodes deal with so many issues that develop from the main set up as well as the characters. Everything including coming out to your parents, sleepwalking, opening up to your parent that you love them and my favorite who of two characters would survive in a zombie apocalypse. Yes indeed, Jane and Max compete with one another to decide who would be the one to carry on. Remember I said this was a comedy?

While watching this series I had to stop it occasionally until I could stop laughing. It was one of those DVDs that you begin watching and find yourself not wanting to turn off, instead looking at the clock and saying well I can sleep tomorrow night, I’ll just watch one more episode. It’s amazing how fast those half hour episodes fly by.

By the end of this collection you’ll find yourself wanting more and you’ll realize that this is a show you can watch the old ones of and still find yourself laughing. Yes, as with most comedies these days, there are the occasional risqu√© jokes, but nothing that was too blatant. All in all, while perhaps not a family comedy, this is one series that will make you laugh and be worth adding to your collection.

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SONS OF ANARCHY SEASON 3: SONS ABROAD


I didn’t get turned on to this series until season two and was sorry I didn’t jump on immediately. Taking the whole outlaw anti-hero story and tacking it on to a biker gang is something original. When you insert the story of one of the main members seeking revenge against member involved that may have killed his father, it takes it to a whole new level.

At the end of season two we watched as Gemma Morrow (Katey Sagal) was framed for murder by conniving federal agent Stahl (Ally Walker) and the kidnapping of Abel, the son of the club’s VP Jax (Charlie Hunnam). This season opens with everyone trying to find the child and to keep Gemma safe.

As the series progresses we have an escape by Gemma, a meeting with her father and her subsequent return to custody as she tries to save not only her son but the club as well. Each step of the way agent Stahl just seems more and more dirty until she commits an act that shows her for what she truly is.

The club continues to try and find clues as to who kidnapped Abel while continuing to do business selling guns. Through various contacts they discover that the child has been taken to Ireland, where the guns have been coming from via the IRA. It is also a location that Jax father was fond of and where a chapter of the Sons has been going since his time there.

The plot lines twist and turn within each other as the Sons go global by popping across the ocean and heading to Ireland. But once there they discover things are not what they appear to be with both the IRA and the chapter of the Sons. Not only that but we’re also introduced to a woman that Jax father had an affair with as well as a child.

The story deepens, solutions are found and the club returns to their home base only to find more problems with their Russian connections. In the end a completely unexpected twists comes about that results in a set up for the current season.

This series plays out more like a movie than something you’d find on TV. I’m not just talking about the language or occasional nudity but the whole way it tells a story. And each episode never feels like it’s been padded down to make it longer or to draw the story out. Each piece of the puzzle fits snuggly into the next not just making the story a much more epic one but working bits and pieces of the past into the bigger picture that began with Jax search for the truth.

There are several other sub plots involved in this season but the above is the main focus. Through it all the Sons of Anarchy are confronted on all sides be it law enforcement, rival clubs, traitors in their midst, the IRA, the Russians or more. But they survive. And even though what they’re doing is illegal, even though these are violent men, you still find yourself rooting for them.

It’s difficult to keep a drama going from year to year or even week to week and still hold a viewer’s interest. But SONS OF ANARCHY does it and does it well. If you haven’t seen it, make a point of doing so. It might be too raw for some, but it’s a well made series that deserves to be seen.

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CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP: GREAT BEHIND THE SCENES DOCUMENTARY

By now everyone is well aware of the blunder NBC made when they decided to change things around with The Tonight Show. At first Jay Leno was going to leave to be replaced by the popular Conan O’Brien. Leno’s ratings had drifted and they felt it was time for a change. The problem came when Leno’s new show, on weeknights at 10, failed to draw and audience and he wanted his old show back.

The idea was to move Leno’s show to 11:30 and move O’Brien back to 12:30 where he had been. It would retain the name The Tonight Show, but never happened. Unhappy with the move and the treatment he received, O’Brien turned them down and all parties involved considered going to court. Instead a settlement was reached and O’Brien was forbidden to appear on TV, radio or the internet, for several months. During this downtime, he formulated the idea of going on the road with a live show. This film was the result of that decision.

The film shows a behind the scenes look at O’Brien and how driven he is. The title refers to what the director noticed as he traveled and filmed, that while he might tire and grow restless, O’Brien just couldn’t slow down. Repeated views of him meeting and greeting fans and family members of his cast and crew on the road show him always “on”, willing to be there for people even though it gets to him. When accused by one fan of ignoring him he is stunned as he never walks away from giving an autograph and rarely turns down the request for a picture.

The movie begins with O’Brien suggesting that they do a road show, that since he can’t appear in the media why not go live? It seems as if the whole idea begins as a joke but snowballs into a success story. Unable to appear on the internet, O’Brien tweets that tickets will go on sale online. The next thing you know tickets are selling out within hours of the announcement, second shows are being added and the whole idea blooms into reality. Now he just has to have a show to take on the road.

Rehearsals, meetings with his writers, band selection, all are parts of putting the whole together. And you can see as he does so that Conan is actually having the time of his life. The first show arrives and he genuinely has fun while on stage and in a subtle way you’re able to see that he is taken off guard by the number of fans who come out to enjoy the show and support him.

Guests stop by here and there including Jim Carrey and a double hit of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. But with each stop on the road, Conan is inundated by the fans, all wanting just to have a part of him, to touch and be photographed with him. This would be one thing but in the middle of telling his road manager that they need to leave him some down time in walks a cast member with her family. But Conan is too nice to complain or toss them out, so he gets into “on” mode and smiles for pictures, never ignoring a single person in the room.

The touring and the fans do eventually take their toll on O’Brien. He is a born entertainer, loving his time in the spotlight. But he wants to have time to himself and his family as well. We get glimpses of them in the film but my feeling was that he wanted to make them a part but not put them under the scrutiny of the public eye at the same time. Good move.

Watching pieces of his performances will make you laugh. Watching behind the scenes pranks and jokes will make you laugh. And seeing the man who walks out from behind the curtain now for who and how he really is will give you a new understanding of what drives him, how entertaining he truly is and a respect for him that few celebrities are deserving of. Conan O’Brien is the real deal and this film proves that.

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THE RIVER MURDERS: PARTNERS IN CRIME

A murderer is stalking the streets of a town in the Pacific Northwest. The women he’s been killing have a distinct pattern to them and the clues he leaves behind don’t let the police know who he is, but they do realize he is a twisted individual. Each victim has their wedding ring or a piece of jewelry inserted into their vaginal area.

Ray Liotta stars as Jack Vernon one of the detectives called in on the first case. Jack immediately removes himself from the start when he recognizes the first victim. It was a woman he dated some years back and the location of the body is where they had sex the first time. This moves him to the top of the suspect list.

Told to stay off the case he of course ignores those instructions and begins looking for clues. When a second body turns up, another woman from his past that Jack slept with, the FBI arrives in the form of agent Vuckovich (Christian Slater), a smart mouthed agent who rubs Jack the wrong way and is constantly being told to back off by Jack’s boss Capt. Langley (Ving Rhames). Vuckovich demands that Jack give him a list of all the women he’s slept with. The list of 100 names stuns him, but then Jack was free and single for years until he got married.

Jack’s marriage is doing great. His wife Ana (Gisele Fraga) is a chef who adores her husband. And while a list of 100 women may stun some, she doesn’t hold it against him realizing that this was before they were married. But something or someone seems to be missing.

As information comes in Jack is cleared of any involvement and instead of suspect officially begins investigating the culprit. Each murder involves one more of Jack’s past conquests, each one leaves something else that should be a clue and each one offers a Bible passage that is intended to aid Jack in catching the killer.

The clock is ticking and more women are at risk. With each passing day another could fall victim to this killer and several do. Until Jack can face his past and discover how these clues come together the killer will carry on.

This movie, made on a small budget, does offer an interesting tale. An allegory for STDs? Perhaps but I doubt it. Instead we have a tale of a man who feels regret, who feels shame and who feels guilt about having people in his past hurt by someone in the present.

Liotta does a great job here as one would expect. In recent years, he’s been tossed aside into the direct for DVD market, but that only works to help movies in that genre. Slater has also been relegated to that market and done fine as well. In this movie though he’s pretty much wasted in a part that should have been bigger.

By the end of the film you’ll discover who the killer is, be able to piece together the parts of the puzzle that led to him and find a conclusion that will surprise you. Who he is and how he got to be who he’s become is interesting and better thought out than most made for DVD mysteries.  It may not be the greatest mystery ever filmed but it will offer an entertaining evening for fans of the genre.

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51: SO SO SCI FI FROM SYFY

Once again the Syfy network has decided to offer an original film via the After Dark franchise. The difference is that this time around they’ve got a fairly decent flick. It’s not Oscar material but it never pretends to be either.

Due to the public outcry over secrets being held at what has been called Area 51, the military and top level politicians have decided to allow a couple of journalists in to see that they have nothing to hide. Of course we know they do have something to hide and as we watch base commander Col. Martin (Bruce Boxleitner) explain to his men, the only things these journalists will see is what they want them to.

The two journalists are Sam Whitaker (John Shea), a top network news anchor, respected for his in depth investigative pieces and Claire (Vanessa Branch), an online journalists who’s blog is the most read news site looking into cover ups. Along with them are their camera people. These four and the Col. head down to the first level where he will allow them to see that there is nothing to hide except a few military secrets.

What they don’t know is that there is a deeper level to area 51, one that does indeed house not just one but several aliens. For whatever reason these aliens, completely different from one another, are about to break free and seek freedom. Talk about bad timing.

The base goes on lockdown and the tour group takes cover where they can. Unfortunately one alien, the big bulky scaly one with claws, seems to enjoy popping heads off soldiers and making blood squirt everywhere. Yes, the costume is pretty bad but it harkens back to the good old man in suit monster movies. It doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s a good thing.

The other alien is a little more difficult to deal with. It has the ability to change form into anyone it touches. Like the film THE THING, we suddenly have an alien who could be any one in the group. So of course they split up every now and then.

Topside we have two soldiers with back stories that just don’t seem to matter with the exception that both were heralded for bravery or cowardice and now have a chance to redeem themselves (which you know they will before the film ends). The question is can they do so before the entire base is blown sky high and can they stop the aliens from escaping at the same time?

As I said earlier, this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. Instead, it’s like a classic B movie with plenty of action, enough story to get by and an alien that is rather cheaply made. There’s also a twist included near the end but who am I to reveal what little secrets this film has? All in all it’s in good fun and for those looking for a short distraction it will do the trick.

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HESHER: TOUGH LOVE?

Whenever I hear about a group of critics giving high praise to a movie I immediately am fearful that the movie will be terrible. Most critics tend to look at the “artistic” merit of a film and toss out the entire idea that it should be entertaining. Some go so far as to feel that if a movie entertains it has failed in its mission to articulate some big idea. These same critics fail to realize that most people plopping down anywhere from $5 to $10 to see a movie or even $1 to rent it want something for their money and most want to be entertained. So it was I was concerned when I read high praise for the movie HESHER. Still, I wanted to see it for myself.

I’ll start by saying there were things I liked about HESHER and there were things I hated about it. Did it entertain? In some ways, yes but for the most part it just seemed determined to either offend or show those who would be offended just how uncool they really are. Call me square I guess.

Devin Brochu stars as young T.J., a boy dealing with the loss of his mother. We don’t discover this for sure until later in the film but in having him race his bike chasing a crashed car being towed away you kind of figure it out early on. T.J. isn’t the only one having trouble dealing with the loss. His father Paul (Rainn Wilson) tends to sit around the house, deep into anti-depressants and doing very little. Only T.J.’s grandmother (Piper Laurie) seems to have any life left in her and she’s much older than she acts.

T.J. seems to find himself in trouble most of the time, especially at school. It’s there he runs afoul of the school bully, a youngster who works at the junkyard where T.J.’s crashed family car was taken. Avoiding this bully, T.J. ends up at a housing project and in an act of anger tosses a rock through a window of a house being built. Before he can toss another, out walks a straggly looking vagrant who we learn later is named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  When security shows, Hesher tosses a grenade their way after informing T.J. that T.J. screwed him over.

Later T.J. sees the same black van Hesher was driving following him, eventually stopping in front of his house. Turning from the window, T.J. finds Hesher in his living room, apparently squatting there now since his last “home” was taken away. The oddest thing is that no one seems to tell Hesher he has to leave except T.J. who is threatened.

Life goes on this way with Hesher witness to all sorts of violent acts against T.J. He never steps in as they occur, but he does later doing things like setting the school bully’s car on fire. It’s Hesher’s way of forcing T.J. to stand up for himself but at the same time shows nothing less than total anarchy. But that’s Hesher’s character, one who lives for the moment and for the most part thinks only of himself. But not always.

T.J. eventually befriends a young woman named Nicole (Natalie Portman) who works as a clerk at the local grocery store. For some reason he connects with her, using her as a substitute for his deceased mother. Their friendship grows but seems just as odd as his strange friendship with Hesher. A later betrayal in T.J.’s eyes leads the two to part ways with the hope of it ending better before the final reel.

The movie crawls along at a steady yet slow seeming pace with little to find attractive in it. Everything has a murky brown, cluttered feel to it. And while you feel an amount of sympathy for the lead characters, you eventually just want to yell get on with it. Hesher, the anti-hero we should be thrilled to root for just seems like a malcontent who helps people only when it benefits himself.

I read someone say that this felt like an update of SHANE. I disagree. In that film we had a lawbreaker who lived with his gun that came along and helped a family find themselves. In this one we have a lawbreaker more inclined to fit the Jack Palance character in SHANE, the evil gunslinger who lived only for himself.

There is one thing to like in this film and that’s the acting. Brochu turns in a fine performance for a young actor, but it would have been nice to see him do more than scream. They even reference that in the gag reel included in the special section. I think Rainn Wilson is a terrific actor, but he’s wasted here doing little more than look pained and depressed from start to finish. Levitt is the one to watch here. Remembering him when he was a child star and seeing him develop into an actor worth watching is remarkable.

So if the acting was the best thing what was the worst? The script. To me it’s becoming clich√© to portray the world as one big cesspool, an ugly place where nothing but ugly things happen. The script also uses what I consider to be the laziest thing possible, using vulgar language for shock value. To hear Hesher talk to T.J. about using various appendages and inserting them into various orifices isn’t funny, amusing or helps develop the character though I’m sure many will think it does. To me it just gets in the way of the story and when used as often as it is here it distracts rather than helps. I’ve been known to toss out an expletive a time or two, but here it wasn’t needed.

The other bad item is Natalie Portman being completely wasted here. Her part seems like more of a cameo than an honest role. One scene becomes crucial to the development of T.J.’s life, but other than that her part could have been phoned in.

So on the whole while I enjoyed the performances of some of the cast, I felt that this movie lacked in far too many areas. The rebel without a clue idea has been done better and has been overused. The ideas of what makes a character the cool one here has nothing to do with values and everything to do with self satisfaction. And in the end this film commits the worst mistake of not being entertaining.

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SETUP: SET BACK

I’ve watched a few movies starring rap star Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson in the past few years. Some have been good, some mediocre. But his new direct to DVD film SETUP is one that you should look at the cover of and then rent something else. Forget that Bruce Willis and Ryan Phillipe are on the front, just pass it by.

Along with another friend, Jackson and Phillipe hold up a limo carrying a diamond merchant in broad daylight in the middle of a busy street. Everyone scatters and no one calls the police. Not only that there are no police in sight which seemed odd to me this being Detroit. Then again maybe Detroit is so bad off since there seem to be no police. Anyway, they rob the merchant and then drive off in a logo covered white van to the docks.

At the docks they are finally met by the money man there to get the goods. Except that this is when Phillipe pulls out his gun and shoots both his friends. Of course Jackson isn’t dead though. If he were this would be one short movie. Instead he gets away, finds help and sets out to find his traitorous friend.

Unfortunately the diamonds they heisted were owned by people not to be messed with. A hit man begins tracking down the thieves to get the merchandise back. At the same time they pulled off the heist without the approval of the local mob boss (Willis) who isn’t happy either. He meets with Jackson and orders him to help steal money from the Russians in order to clear his debt. He orders his man Petey (Randy Coutre) to go along.

Afterwards the man he sends with Jackson suggests they celebrate with some cocaine. They go to Jackson’s dealer friend who also has a slew of guns on display, one of which Petey twirls around and accidentally blows his brains out with. Rather than explain what happened, they toss the body in the trunk and Jackson starts to use some of the money to track down Phillipe.

Sound complicated? It gets worse. We also get to meet another character, Phillipe’s father (James Remar) who’s in jail. It turns out ***spoiler*** that Phillipe stole the money to pay off the warden to insure that his father never got killed while in jail. But that’s just not enough. A woman is involved in this whole thing as well and…well I won’t say who she ends up being other than to say the whole thing doesn’t hold up.

Willis does fine with the small role he has (10-20 minutes tops), Phillipe does fine except that in making films like this his chances of stardom slip away one movie at a time and Jackson proves that he’s much more suited for supporting roles than leading ones. His acting skills are limited at best and it seems that every movie has similar plots or situations.

The worst part of this film is the script. It jumps around from here to their, has enough plot holes to sink an ocean liner and features so many characters that you just don’t care about that you simply wish it would end soon. Why would Willis do a movie like this? My guess would be he either owed someone a favor or they just offered too much money for him to turn down. Let’s just hope he doesn’t offer this as a shining moment on his resume. 

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