Tag Archives: Drama

MOVIE REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire – Can 20,000,000 Rupees Buy Happiness?

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire tells a pretty basic rags-to-riches tale that has oddly charming and wrenchingly violent sidetracks. It begins when Jamal Malik’s [Dev Patel] hot streak on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire culminates in a ten million rupee total before he is taken away by police on charges of fraud/cheating. They use all kinds of methods of torture but he insists he knew the answers.

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As the Police Inspector [Irrfan Khan] and Jamal watch a tape of his performance on the show, Jamal tells the Inspector how his childhood experiences taught him the answers to questions ranging from an individual cricketer’s record to knowing the name of the star of a certain film. As Jamal tells his story, we watch as he, his brother Salim, and a girl named Latika come out of the slums of Mumbai. While Jamal has always been a good kid, Salim [Madhur Mittal] has chosen another, easier path – and he loses touch with both of them.

Slumdog Millionaire’s cinematography crackles with energy and lays out the slums of Mumbai without apology – the poverty, the race violence, the criminal activity. It is a place with a veneer charm that isn’t quite enough to cover its grimy underbelly. Jamal’s path to the famous quiz show is fraught with all kinds of perils, spiritually as well as physically – and when he does well on the show, the immediate question has to be, how can a call centre assistant – “a chai wallah” – possibly possess all this specific knowledge? But Jamal isn’t putting his hard won street education to work for the money – he’s hoping that Latika [Freida Pinto] will see him and find her way to him. Love, he hopes, will conquer all.

This may be Danny Boyle’s finest film. The characters are engaging – even while they’re conning their way along – and smart [as Taj Mahal tour guides, for example, they improvise all kinds of material to give their tourists the “real” story]. Somehow, though, as the boys grow up, Salim becomes a professional criminal while Jamal, well, he gets tea for the people in the call centre. Latika, however, comes through even more dire circumstances as a prostitute and then the mistress of Salim’s boss.

Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies that energize its audience. It’s all about hope and staying true to oneself, no matter what trials one must overcome. Like Beat Takeshi’s The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi, Boyle gives us a bonus burst of energy over the closing credits as the crowd in the train station breaks into a Bollywood song and dance number that encapsulates the joy of the film.

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: The Day The Earth Stood Still: Well Mounted But Empty

The Robert Wise film, The Day The Earth Stood Still, was a metaphor for a cold war that was threatening to go hot. The remake is an ecological horror tale – if we can’t take care of the earth, we – and everything we’ve created – will be removed.

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It seems that we are at the edge of a great precipice – not unlike the civilizations that grew on a handful of other planets out there in the universe. Klaatu [Keanu Reeves] has been sent to carry out the removal of the one major blight on the planet – us. Where the precipice comes in is when a beautiful scientist, Dr. Helen Benson [Jennifer Connelly], asks him if the other civilizations Out There had come to such a precipice and what happened.

So, despite the governments and people of Earth behaving like paranoid imbeciles – and even Helen’s stepson, Jacob [Jaden Christopher Smith] says we should kill Klaatu – even though all that violence and paranoid is only offset by a bit of Bach and the love Helen has for Jacob, Klaatu has had the answer he needed all along. It just takes one beautiful lady scientist to ask the question that shakes the answer loose. That’s drama, folks!

For the third time in three weeks, I’ve seen a film that held a certain amount of promise and discovered that promise is wonderful for trailers, but films need a bit more than that. The Day The Earth Stood Still is well made. It moves at an appropriate pace; most of the effects are quite effective; most of the cast give solid performances [Reeves is his usual Tabula Rasa self – you see what you want to see in his transparent performance… or not…], and there’s even a moral to the story.

Too bad that that the whole thing just so damned silly.

Final Grade: D

TELEVISION: CSI Cliffhanger Makes the Most of Petersen & Fishburne

This season, CSI [CBS, Thursdays, 9/8C] has been a real rollercoaster ride. It started with the death of Warrick [Gary Dourdan] – followed by a murderer who used dead people to create some very warped art; an unsolved case involving an engaged couple; a killer hypnotist and even the return of Lady Heather [Melinda Clarke]. Along the way, Gil Grissom [William Petersen] has been looking less like the clue sniffer we’ve come to know and more like a man who has just about run out gas.

CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION

When he reveals to his team that he’s leaving, at the beginning this week’s episode, 19 Down…, it may come as a surprise to his team, but even without all the publicity about the new cast member, we’d have known before they did – and actually, Catherine Willows [Marg Hellgenberger] surprises him by not being surprised.

When what starts off as just another day in Vegas turns into something greatly different – a murder ties into a long imprisoned serial killer – and Grissom gets that intrigued look again. The tie-in is to Nathan Haskell [Bill Irwin – think Jack Coleman’s HRG gone stone bugfrak crazy], who killed at least eight couples before he was caught. Turns out that Haskell is doing a series of closed circuit Q&A sessions with a university class taught by one Dr. Raymond Langston [Laurence Fishburne].

19 Down… is the fall cliffhanger for CSI, so they’ve really shot the works. The pacing is [if you can believe it] even crisper than usual and the way it ties into the season’s prior unsolved mystery is not just clever, it’s very close to genius. Co-Executive Producers Naren Shankar and Carol Mendelsohn have created a terrific puzzle for Grissom and his team and every member of the core cast gets a meaty moment to shine – as when Hodges responds to the news of Grissom’s leaving [for just one example]. Director Kenneth Fink keeps things tight and suspenseful.

Not many weekly series can maintain a high level of quality through nine seasons, and CSI’s ninth season isn’t over yet, but between the announcement of Grissom’s leaving and the introduction of Langston, it would seem likely that the show is going to maintain that high level. It also seems likely that the transition of the series from Grissom’s era into Willows’ era will be a reasonably smooth one. For now, at least, I have to say that this is my favorite fall cliffhanger, so far.

Final Grade: A

TELEVISION: Caprica Is a Go!

After months of dithering, the Sci Fi Channel has finally determined that Caprica will be added to their schedule in 2010. The announcement, made today, is that the series has a twenty episode order – including the two-hour pilot. The series, which a prequel to Sci Fi’s signature series, Battlestar Galactica, stars Eric Stoltz [Milk, Pulp Fiction], Esai Morales [Jericho, NYPD Blue], Paula Malcomson [Deadwood, ER] and Polly walker [Rome].

Adam & Greystone sm

The series is set fifty years prior to Galactica and is centered around two rival families, the Adamas and the Greystones. In a society seemingly close to our own [except with space travel between the Twelve Colonies], these families will play significant roles as artificial intelligence is first created, then combined with metal bodies. Caprica will have a broader scope than Galactica, as all the best subjects of classic soap opera [passion, intrigue, political backbiting and family conflict] will be mixed with the show’s science fictional elements [Dallas with Cylons instead of oil?]. Jeffrey Reiner directed the pilot and the series goes into production in summer ’09, in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, for its 2010 debut.

As the series begins, a startling development is about to occur – the creation of the first cybernetic life-form node or “Cylon” – the ability to marry artificial intelligence with mechanical bodies. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales, pictured above]), father of future Battlestar commander William Adama (Sina Najafi) and a renowned civil liberties lawyer, becomes an opponent of the experiments undertaken by the Graystones, led by Daniel Greystone (Eric Stoltz, pictured above]), owners of a large computer corporation that is spearheading the development of these living robots: the Cylons.

Caprica is produced by Universal Cable Productions and executive produced by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick (Battlestar Galactica) and Remi Aubuchon (24). It is co-written by Aubuchon and Moore and directed by Jeffrey Reiner (Friday Night Lights).

DVD REVIEW: Studio One Anthology: Amazing Programming From the Dawn of the Television Age

Beginning in 1948 and boasting a nine year run – and over four hundred and fifty episodes – Studio One was the premiere anthology series in a time when live television drama was brand new. Every week, brought a new story – and the multitude of other anthology series that followed were equally productive. To stay the best, a network had to have an imaginative writing and production staff producing its shows – and they had to let them work with an absolute minimum of interference. The series accumulated eighteen Emmy Award nominations and five wins during its run.

Studio One Box Art

The Studio One Anthology DVD set features seventeen of the series best and most influential episodes – beginning with an opera called The Medium and an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. In between are works by writers like Gore Vidal and Rod Serling, and performances by stars like Art Carney, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon and Sal Mineo.

The Medium is the tale of a phoney medium who comes unravelled when a real spirit appears at one of her séances – a spirit that we actually see, as well. Although I’ve never enjoyed the opera, this one is pretty involving.

Several episodes included here went on to becomes award-winning movies: 12 Angry Men [here starring Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone], Julius Caesar [here starring Theodore Bikel as the ill-fated emperor], and Dino [starring Sal Mineo as the title character]. Each of these productions stand out as quality entertainment, especially when you consider that each had a mere two weeks of prep time – and that included writing the scripts! The four episodes mentioned are among my personal favorites, along with: The Death and Life of Larry Benson [a soldier seemingly returns home to his family and featuring one of Lee Remick’s earliest appearances]; June Moon [an adaptation of the Ring Lardner satire, starring Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint], and Wuthering Heights [starring Charlton Heston and Lloyd Bochner].

Because these dramas were broadcast live, with no chance of a rerun, they were filmed from an actual TV screen to be broadcast to the west later the same day. This produced what are called kinescopes, and it is from those kinescopes that this anthology was produced. Needless to say, the quality isn’t as high as it could be. The episodes are still among the best and most memorable work ever produced for television.

Features include: Paley Center Panel Discussion [1987]; Studio One Historical Overview; Paul Nickell Interview Excerpts, Voices from the Archive: Studio One, and a fifty-two page booklet with production details, casts and synopses.

Grade: Studio One: Anthology – A

Grade: Features – B-

Final Grade: A-

MOVIE REVIEW: Bolt in 3D: Disney Closes The Gap On PIXAR – But Only a Little

Walt Disney’s Bolt is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of fluff with just the right amount of darkness and danger to give kids [and their parents] a bit of a scare before everything works out. In terms of animation, it’s almost to the level of PIXAR, though the storytelling isn’t as fluid. The 3D, however, works really well, and the film has more of a feeling of solidity than I expected – and the number of showy 3D sequences is much lower than I would have expected [and none that don’t actually serve the story].

Bolt, Mittens & Rhino

The movie’s conceit is that Bolt [agreeably voiced by John Travolta], a German Shepherd pup who was rescued from an animal shelter, and became the lead in a hit TV show – but since he’s never been off the set, he thinks his TV superpowers are real. When he accidentally gets mailed across the country, he has to get home to save Penny [Miley Cyrus], whom he believes to have been kidnapped by the show’s villain, The Green-Eyed Man [Malcolm McDowell]. He is aided by a streetwise cat called Mittens [Susie Essman] and a hilariously overeager hamster in an exercise ball, named Rhino [Mark Walton].

The second film from the Disney Animation Studios since Disney bought PIXAR, Bolt also went through a creative disembowelment at the hands of John Lasseter and seems to be the better for it. It’s much better than Meet The Robinsons on every level. The animation is first-rate [Dreamworks quality, if not yet PIXAR level]; the script is genial and genuinely amusing, and the voice cast works like a dream. If Bolt feels like a weird hybrid of Inspector Gadget, Super Friends and Homeward Bound, that isn’t really a bad thing.

Something to note: some of the scarier moments might be too much for really young kids. There were a few outbursts of tears and crying at the screening I attended. In a way, that’s a reinforcement of Bolt’s effectiveness as an entertainment – it does secure the emotional reactions it seeks. There are also more than a few laugh out loud moments [a few more than the scary darker moments] and, overall, the film does provide a number of giggles, chuckles and grins. Bolt is light entertainment, but it’s good light entertainment.

Final Grade: B+

TELEVISION: Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season – Experience One of the Most Influential Treks in Television History!

When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC, he described it as “Wagon Train in space.” Without Wagon Train, there might well have been no Star Trek – or any of its sequel [and prequel] series. But Wagon Train influenced Star Trek in more ways than simply trekking through space. The series, which had a nine-year run – of which, only the eighth was filmed in color – was, along with Half Gun, Will Travel and a handful of other westerns a series that featured high quality writing and productions values. Combined with a talented cast, the series often featured stories that delved deeply into its characters – both regular and, especially, guest cast. This DVD set includes all thirty-two ninety-minute episodes from season eight and sixteen classic eps from the series’ black white sixty-minute format. I’ll use two specific episodes that have similar basic situations, but totally different points, to illustrate.

Wagon Train

From the eighth season, I choose the season’s second episode, The Fort Pierce Story, and from the black and white classic eps, I’ll choose The Clara Beauchamps Story – in both of which an officer’s wife has a drinking problem.

In The Fort Pierce Story, Captain Paul Winter’s [Ronald Reagan] wife, Nancy [Ann Blyth], drinks because she’s the only woman in the fort and can’t cope with the thought that her husband might not come back from patrol one day. The situation is compounded by the arrival of Chris Hale’s [John McIntire] wagon train – and orders from Washington that the garrison is to maintain a purely defensive presence that means the army won’t be able to give the wagon train an escort through Indian territory. Only the cleverness [and hidden compassion] of the garrison’s commander, Col. Wayne Lathrop [John Doucette], manages to work things out for everyone.

In The Clara Beauchamps Story, from the show’s first season, Clara [Nina Foch] drinks because of frustrated ambition. All of her friends’ husbands have been promoted while her husband, Col. Beauchamps [Shepperd Strudwick] commands a fort in the middle of nowhere. Their situation is complicated both by the death of an Indian by arriving reinforcements and the arrival of Major Seth Adams’ [Ward Bond] wagon train. Clara’s actions nearly unravel a delicate balance the colonel has maintained with the Indians, and the episode ends in both tragedy and triumph.

Wagon Train was always about people, though each episode had to have a certain amount of adventure to keep people interested. Like the Trek series it influenced, though, these stories were about character and issues, however outwardly camouflaged. Another classic first season episode, A Man Called Horse, is more about a man’s search for identity – an identity that might be found when he is captured by the Crow Indians. The idea here is that sometimes a man can literally make a name for himself, and in so doing, find a home.

While the series always looked good – and drew top flight guest stars – the color season showed its location work to great effect. Some of the panoramic vistas wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford film. In any event, the DVD release of Wagon Train: The Full Color Season is cause for celebration. After decades of knowing, anecdotally, that the show influenced so many others [and especially Gene Roddenberry], there are now forty-eight episodes of the classic series available.

Because of the age of the series, and the varying condition of the archived episodes, there are some episodes that aren’t in pristine condition, but the quality of the series shines through.

The only features are half-hour interviews with two of the series’ most memorable stars – Robert Fuller [scout Cooper Smith] and Denny Scott Miller [Duke Shannon].

Grade: Wagon Train – The Complete Color Season – A

Grade: Features – C

Final Grade: A-

TELEVISION: Ghost Whisperer: The Rumors Were True, So, Now What?

In last week’s episode of Ghost Whisperer [CBS, Fridays, 8/7C], the unthinkable happened: Jim Clancy [David Conrad] was killed, accidentally, when a police detective shot him thinking he was someone else. The episode concluded with Jim’s ghost appearing to his widow in his hospital room.

Ghost Whisperer - Threshold

Tonight’s episode, Threshold, finds Melinda [Jennifer Love Hewitt] unable to see Jim’s ghost because her grief is so strong that it’s interfering with her ability. When the ghost of a teenage girl begins to haunt her – breaking and throwing things – she thinks it’s Jim. Only Jim knows that it isn’t, so he approaches Eli [Jamie Kennedy] to help him figure out why the girl is haunting his widow. Things are complicated by Jim’s brother, who has been waiting for him so that the two of them can crossover together and rejoin their father.

Written and directed by John Gray, Threshold walks a fine line between genuine sentiment and being maudlin. For the most part – and largely due to the cast’s performances – it succeeds. Especially good is Conrad’s work as the increasingly frustrated Jim, though Hewitt gives one of her best performances here. I also have to give full marks to Camryn Manheim, whose work on Whisperer hasn’t really worked for me. Delia finally works as Melinda’s supportive friend and employee.

Naturally, with the complications that arise in Threshold, there are loose ends that will be left for next week’s ep, Heart & Soul – in which Melinda has to deal with a step-in, a man with amnesia and a very angry ghost who seems connected to her life in a genuinely unexpected way. I can’t say anything more than that – except to say that this ep concludes a storyline for Melinda and Jim even as it signals the beginning of an intriguing new direction for her.

Heart & Soul has a bit more trouble avoiding being maudlin, but long time fans of the series will find it to be both and unsettling [in a good way] and satisfying conclusion to the three-episode arc.

Final Grade: B

TELEVISION: Sanctuary Renewed; Series Keeps Getting Better!

With the announcement that Sanctuary [Sci-Fi, Fridays, 10/9C] has been renewed for a second season, perhaps those who those who don’t like to commit to a new series for fear it’ll be cancelled will now give TV’s first green screen series a chance. Two upcoming episodes are good examples of the kind of quirky quality that series is developing.

Sanctuary

Quick refresher courser: Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping], a one hundred fifty-seven-year old scientist has established Sanctuary – a home for “abnormals” [creatures benign and otherwise that are not of the perceived normalcy – mermaids, a missing link, children with unusual fear reflexes]. She provides homes – or cages if necessary – for these beings. She is aided by her daughter, Ashley [Emilie Ullerup], forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Will Zimmerman [Robin Dunne] and tech wizard, Henry Foss [Ryan Robins] .

In this week’s ep, The Five, Magnus’ lecture to an underground group in Rome, on abnormals, leads to a meeting with Nikola Tesla [Jonathon Young] who warns her of an impending assassination attempt. Tesla has a few secrets, himself – the only one I can telegraph is that he sleeps during the day.

The episode is fast paced and smart, but has its moments of emotional truth that support the action. We get to see Magnus’ ability to improvise – and the rest of her team show initiative in the way they aid her from their home base. The CG sets and effects are improving and now have much more weight than early on. Even Tapping’s wobbly English accent is much more consistent.

On December 5th, Drs. Magnus and Zimmerman take a mini-sub to investigate the slaughter of a clan of mer-people and find an abnormal unlike any they’ve ever seen. Requiem is a bottle show – a one-set episode – and as such, relies on tour de force acting by Tapping and Zimmerman. Both actors are called on to run through a gamut of emotions in a situation where an unseen menace seems to be influencing their behavior.

Based on these two episodes, Sanctuary is deserving of its renewal and an even larger audience.

Final Grade: B+

DVD REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda/Secrets of the Furious Five

The story of how Po [Jack Black] becomes the Dragon Warrior – despite the skepticism of the Furious Five Masters, Crane [David Cross], Mantis [Seth Rogen], Monkey [Jackie Chan], Tigress [Angelina Jolie] and Viper [Lucy Liu] – is one of the year’s surprise hits, critically as well as at the box office.

KungFuPanda

The film’s DVD release is full of bonus features and, in a special two DVD package, includes The Secrets of the Furious Five. This twenty-five minute tale finds Po facing his greatest challenge – teaching a class of easily distracted young bunnies the art of king fu [Master Shifu, still voiced by Dustin Hoffman, seems particularly tickled by the situation]. To get the class’ attention, Po relates stories of how each of the Five – Crane [David Cross], Monkey [Jaycee Chan], Mantis [Max Koch], Tigress [Tara Strong], and Viper [Jessica Di Ciccio] – had to overcome such flaws as impatience [Mantis], Compassion [Monkey], control [Tigress], and so forth. Even Master Oogway [Randall Duk Kim] puts in an appearance.

Most of Secrets is filmed in the beautiful 2D style seen in the prologue to Kung Fu Panda, with CG used for scenes that feature Po and his class – and the clever cover art from the two DVDs is designed to be one larger picture when placed side by side.

There is a wealth of features on each DVD.

Kung Fu Panda: Audio Commentary by Co-Directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne; Meet the Cast; Pushing the Boundaries [improvements in CGI]; Sound Design; Kung fu Fighting Music Video by Cee-Lo; Mr. Ping’s Noodle House [watch a master make noodles from a simple ball of dough]; How to Use Chopsticks [this time for sure!]; Conservation International: Help Save Wild Panda; Dragon Warrior Training Academy; Printables and Weblinks [DVD-ROM], and Dreamworks Animation Jukebox.

Secrets of the Furious Five: Po’s Power Play: Learn to Draw [Character animators show how to draw their respective characters]; Dumpling Shuffle [which bowl is the dumpling under]; Pandamonium Activity Kit [DVD-ROM]; The Land of Panda: Learn the Panda Dance; Do You Kung Fu [demonstrations of basic kung fu forms]; Inside the Chinese Zodiac; Animals of Kung Fu Panda [and how they relate to their namesake forms of kung fu], and What Fighting Style Are You?

Grade: Kung Fu Panda – A

Grade: Secrets of the Furious Five – B+

Grade: Features: Kung Fu Panda – A+

Grade: Features: Secrets of the Furious Five – B+

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Synecdoche, New York – What Does It All Mean?

It’s been several hours since I walked out of the theater and I’m still wondering whutinthehighholyhellwuzzat?!? If you’ve seen any of the films that Kaufman wrote previously [Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind], then you know that is the usual state of mind that follows a screening his work. It’s just that Synecdoche, New York takes things to a whole other level.

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Kaufman lulls us into a state of false comprehension by opening with the family of small time theatre director Caden Cotard [Philip Seymour Hoffman] as they go about a depressing day – a day that seems to last forever and ends with his artist wife, Adele Lack [Catherine Keener] and daughter, Olive [Sadie Goldstein] leaving for a show in Berlin. The two-week separation becomes seventeen years.

In the meantime, Caden, following on the heels of a Broadway success with Death of a salesman, wins a genius grant of quite possibly billions and mounts a play that he hopes will bold and true and a bunch of other artistic stuff. What he winds up with is a scale version of New York – peopled by actors playing all the people in his life [however slightly or parenthetically]. But that’s all window dressing.

Besides being a pun on Schenectady [the Cotards’ hometown], synecdoche is a word that can mean “a part that represents the whole.” In terms of Kaufman’s film, this can mean any number of things – Kaufman himself says that it means what you take out of it. For me, the film is about Life. It grows and shifts in variations on a theme even as members of Caden’s cast quit and are replaced – even though the new actors are doing the same things as their predecessors, they are different because they are different people, much as we are different people at various stages of our lives.

Life, and Death, are both bigger than we are, and smaller. We can be replaced, though never exactly. We can be reproduced, though never exactly, in any number of media. In an odd way, Kaufman seems – to me at least – to be saying that life, the universe and everything is what it is. That can be both a comforting thought and a harrowing one.

Final Grade: A+