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The King

Great Movie, awful history.....
This is a bit of a tough one. Part of me wishes to sing this movies' praises as a gripping tale, well told. It certainly is that. That said, the movie is completely a-historical. This just isn't, at all, how these events went down. It makes me wonder how we would judge a movie that simply, in a straightforward manner, portrayed WWI with Germans winning. That would be kind of weird... right?! As such I'm going to give it a compromise 7. As a more overt piece of historical fiction, I would give a 9 or 10. But given this drapes itself in a historical gloss, I'm subtracting points.

Now I get those reviewers who will reply that this movie does not bill itself as a documentary... but historical quibbles aren't the issue here. This movie just makes stuff wholesale. You might as well call the king Jason the V, or Fred the V... I could say more, but you have probably gathered my point by now, this movie really pushes the boundaries of narrative "liberties" in the service of relating a historical event a bit too far, I felt.

City of Lies

Deserved a better fate
I must admit, what intrigued me about this movie was less the subject matter (I'm neither a big fan of rap nor conspiracy theories) but rather the fact that it was shelved after production. It just isn't that common for a big budget movie featuring A-list actors to get completely shelved--particularly in this day when Netflix and Amazon are always a way for studios to recoup production costs on movies they don't think will earn a profit. One had to wonder whether the movie was just a complete train wreck in terms of quality, or whether the content was just too controversial for the studios involved.

So I was eager to see for myself. Having seen it, it was a little disappointing in that it is neither a train wreck furthering nails into the coffin of Johnny Depp's disappearing career, nor was it particularly explosive in terms of content. It was a little above just "OK" (5.5 is a little more accurate than the 6 stars I ended up giving it). In terms of quality, it is reminiscent of Zodiac, but lacked the pathos that Fincher was able to imbue to characters who similarly couldn't put an unsolved murder behind them. In terms of content, Lt. Poole's story has been out there for quite some time and this adds nothing new.

The first half of the movie involves Depp and Whitaker reminiscing about the facts of the Christopher 'Biggie' Smalls murder case, which are related in a series of flashback scenes to 16 years earlier. This part of the movie is successful and engrossing.

Unfortunately the 2nd half of the movie really stalls out, as one can't help but wonder what the two main characters have been doing over the past 15 years. Why are they still obsessed? What leads have they been trying to turn up? What compulsions are driving them?

Rather than explore this, the movie spends too long on a seemingly pointless side-plot about Poole's estrangement from his son and some minor troubles the reporter has with his boss and the police, some 16 years after the facts of the case.

The finale is as unsatisfying as the actual investigation in the murder.

Again, the movie is OK, with the first half being engrossing and educational. But much like the actual case, it faltered in follow-up and resolution. Ultimately viewing it gave me no insight on why it was shelved. Everything about this affair seems like it deserved a better fate than it has received.

Under the Silver Lake

Literate, but a bit empty
As a kind of metaphysically themed film noir, this movie isn't for everyone, but I can see it being a kind of cult hit with a certain over-educated crowd. I fully expect the 1 star reviews to outnumber the 10 star reviews by a 2-to-1 margin. Personally, I wanted to like it more than I actually did, given I often like things off the beaten path that this movie is determined to avoid. But, ultimately, the movie failed to pull me in on any level.

The plot owes a lot to Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of lot 49" (and a bit to Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"), as we follow a protagonist investigating a bunch of mysterious conspiracy threads that lead him down an increasingly perilous and bottomless rabbit hole. The style is something of a mashup of "John Dies in the End", "North by Northwest", and any David Lynch movie--hallucinatory, paranoid, and somewhat aimless.

Given the apparent literary and thematic ambitions, it is a shame it came off as sophomoric to me. It always felt like the writer/director was trying too hard to be clever and literary. It never felt like a movie in itself, but rather a collection of allusions to other movies and literary themes. Or to put it another way, it felt like one big "in joke", at the audiences' expense.

It might be that I simply found the cast's "A-listers" slumming in indie-ville entirely unconvincing (Andrew Garfield never felt like he was playing anything but himself, "the Dude"-he ain't). In this way, it reminded me of "Southland Tales". Self-serving, self-conscious cameos with a wink and nod; it distracts and detracts.

All that said, I enjoy the idea of this movie. Writer/Directors should be encouraged in "straying from the path". But they just need to keep in mind the effort to bring the viewer with them on that journey. This movie seemed to forget that part.

Strange Angel

Excellent sociological study of genius, 1930s California, with a dash of western mysticism
The is an excellent show that I desperately hope finds its audience. It is an excellent portrayal of late1930s/early 1940s California--as well as the seeds of the counter-culture movement and the ground-work for the evolutionary technological leaps made in California's aerospace industry (and ,later, silicon valley). It is told through an examination of Jack Parsons, a 'real-life' founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at Cal tech that would go on to become the center of the intellectual world for all things related space exploration.

Much like Kerouac's New York of the 1950s, California in the 30s was chafing against the "High Church" Protestant paradigm of what it meant to be 'American'. It was a hotbed of spiritualist movements, with reading groups and acolytes of Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, and a variety Rosicrucian/Kabalist/Hermeticist, teachings, popping up on every corner.

Into this mix, add the influx of serious intellect from Europe as it sought to escape Hitler's rise, and you have an extremely fertile ground for open-minded questioning of 'established truth' and important intellectual break-throughs. You also have the ingredients of what may become a ground-breaking tv show.

One thing that truly sets this series apart is that whenever this period of exploration into the Western mystical tradition is treated at all (in TV or Movies), it usually turns into a cheap excuse for regurgitating tired "Manson Family" tropes. Eastern Spiritual traditions = Good; Western Spiritual Traditions = satanic/bad. This show offers hope for avoiding this dichotomy as it explores the spiritual yearnings of occult seekers as essential to their creativity in the non-spiritual (real-world) realm.

I do worry a bit it will eventually play up the sensationalist, 'manson family/satanic panic', trope; If for nothing else, simply to attract more eyeballs. But at least the first handful of episodes are truly an excellent exploration of a unique cauldron of sociological, historical, and spiritual ingredients that work in California at the time.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

An unloved, but very good Guy Ritchie film
Even though this will end up as the 3rd highest grossing Guy Ritchie film, at nearly $150 million world wide box office, given it had a $175 million budget, it will be considered a commercial failure, and unduly judged by the fact, I fear. Regardless, I enjoyed it. And I think fans of his other movies will as well.

If you like Guy Ritchie films in general, such as "Lock, Stock, ....", "Snatch", "RocknRolla", and the Sherlock Holmes movies (I consider "the man from uncle"--something of an outlier) then this movie will have quite a lot for you to like. Gritty London crime world (of some vague yesteryear), badass villains, a somewhat ambivalent hero, and plenty of action.

However, this movie, unlike the Holmes movies, is not going to win Ritchie any converts. It is too far removed from what most non- Ritchie fans will be expecting. Sherlock Holmes gave Ritchie a historical-fiction setting that played into his strengths. The fantasy world presented here, much less so. Arthur as a streetwise 'Turkish' in tights, is going to break the suspension of disbelief for many non-Ritchie fans. I was engrossed, but I can see how others would choke on the story line given their expectations.

In short-I highly recommend this for fans of the director. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, my recommendation would be you need to check your expectations at the door.

**Outside of the context of a review, I did want to note one thing about some of the criticisms of this movie, and the legend of King Arthur in the modern mindset: Given the variety of TV shows and mini-series (Merlin, Young Arthur, Camelot, Merlin (again), Mists of Avalon, etc) as well as video games, novels, pop culture references, as well as the 2004 movie "King Arthur"--the notion that Ritchie's version is somehow taking undue liberties with the story of Arthur is, in my opinion, absurd. There is no canonical tale of Arthur, and never was.

The modern conception of King Arthur, frankly, has very little to do with Malory's once popular tale of the cuckold King, and the allegory embedded therein concerning the loss of Briton to the Anglo-Saxons. If you want something close to that tale, the 1981 "Excalibur" is probably the place to go. I loved it when I saw it as a kid. But that movie is unfortunately dated, with a very early 80s, kind of cheesy feel. And frankly I suspect modern audiences would react with just as much dread to a modern version of it, as some have to Ritchie's. In short, you might not like this movie, but don't pin that on any liberties Ritchie may have taken with the "legend".

There are nothing BUT liberties to be taken with the legend(s) surrounding the last king of the Britons, given the ancient references to him and his victory at the battle of Badon are too sparse and shrouded in the mists of time.


Enjoyable nonsense
I found this show enjoyable and it pulled me in. It has some good actors and some very well done scenes (I was particularly impressed by Eden Brolin- -it seems the Brolins may be getting better with each generation.) However, you must suspend disbelief almost entirely, as the show's plot really doesn't stand up to any sort of analysis.

Like many of the other early reviews here, I binge watched this series over the New Years holiday.

I went into 'Beyond' thinking it was likely campy, breezy, sci-fi with an eye toward a YA demographic (similar to Freeform's 'Shadowhunters', a guilty pleasure if you're in the right mood).

However, this show takes itself more seriously-the violence in the early episodes is much more realistic. As is the bickering that goes on in the lead character's family. Additionally, there are more serious background themes present here concerning the exploitation of grief by religion and commerce, as well as the common experience of PTSD by former soldiers. Heady stuff, for this kind of show. That this show takes itself more seriously, however, is not really a good reason to watch it. The early episode violence is gratuitous, to the point that it doesn't even make sense by the end of the series; and the background issues remain firmly in the background.

The central conceit of the show is that after recovering from a 12-year coma, the lead character Holden is plagued by mysterious visions, supernatural experiences, recruitment attempts by bizarre cultists, as well as the attention of a beautiful and mysterious woman who wants to help protect him from all of these other things.

With each episode, more memories from Holden's time in his coma are revealed. Whether these memories are dreams, near-death experiences, or actual memories of time spent in purely spiritual world slowly becomes clearer over the course of the episodes. The way in which Holden's memories are revealed, and their relation to the cult and his mysterious guardian are what pulls you into the story. Along the way, there are also some really well done bits concerning Holden's romance with another coma victim, as well the appearance of random characters, such as a movie obsessed pharmacist, that make the unfolding of Holden's story rather more enjoyable than it probably ought to be.

By the end, frankly, none of it makes a damn bit of sense, making a scene from Holden's middle episodes romance all the more foretelling. In that scene, after catching a fish with his paramour, he lets it go, much to her amazement-the moral being that it is about the effort/journey, not the result/destination. As long as you keep that in mind, and don't bother trying to make sense of the series as a whole, 'Beyond' is an enjoyable ride.

Falling Water

A slow, surprisingly deep, binge-worthy show
Falling Water is an unusual show for USA Network, or frankly any broadcast network, in that its 1st season is much more suitable for binge-watching than week-to-week serial viewing. If you follow it all the way through, this show is rewarding, but the journey isn't always easy.

The show is about a mother's search for her lost son, who may only exist in her dreams. However, this plot and the wide cast of characters it involves develops quite slowly and in a disjointed manner over the first five episodes.

There are three main characters (the possible mother, a cop, and a corporate security specialist) the show follows over these initial episodes and outside of an obsession with their dreams, initially these characters and their stories appear to have little to do with one another.

Things don't begin to come together to until the 6th episode and with a show like this if you are expecting an ultimate neat resolution of everything by season one's finale... well, you are dreaming.

However, even though the plot unfolds at a snails pace, and neat resolutions are never the kind of thing a show like this has on offer, by season one's finale I had been pulled into the show, its characters, and potential future evolutions of the plot.

Additionally, one thing that really stands out as unique about this show--it is frankly not just pseudo-deep enfolding one in its own mythology, it is actually deep. And by that I mean that the author(s) have clearly put in some time on their own spiritual evolution at some point in their life. There are all sorts of explicit and implicit references to things like the Kaballah, Taoism, Neo-platonism, the mystical poetry of Blake and William Butler Yeats, and many other things that I was really quite surprised to see reflected in a television script. It sometimes is a bit forced, but I still give the show a ton of credit for even trying.

War Dogs

Fails to pull you in
I found this movie severely disappointing. If fails to deliver much in the way of real drama (Nick Cage's Lord of War did a better job of dramatically pulling one into the seedy world of the arms dealing) and ultimately provides no insight into the primary character's ultimate motivations and personality.

The inflated IMDb rating for this movie has to be taken with the grain of salt that basically every IMDb movie gets a six and then gets mysteriously moved up or down by some formula they refuse to reveal.

Some reviewers on here have been willing to forgive the lack of dramatic appeal of this movie on the basis of its "truthiness", viewing it as a kind quasi-morality play. But for that angle to work, we need some sympathy/insight/reason to care about the central character played by Jonah Hill. This movie provides none. Jonah Hill and Miles Teller play their parts well enough, I suppose. However, if you are going to sacrifice drama for the "true story"/morality play line, you really need to give the audience some explanation of what it is that leads these character inevitably to their fate.

But this movie never even tries. You are left with nothing but questions about Efraim Diveroli and his motivations. He is left basically a cypher.

Which leads to the question-then what is the point of this dramatization of a "true life" story if lacks any drama and utlimately leaves us clueless about the central character. I'm afraid I can't answer that, and the makers never even seem to try.

The Trust

Ultimately unsuccessful take on modern Jim Thompson-style noir
Nick Cage, along with Ben Kingsley and Eric Roberts, has become known over the past decade as simply one of those actors who doesn't turn down roles. Many of his movies of late are definitely of the B- grade variety, but the guy still can act (see: "Bad Lieutenant 2", for example (the same can be said of Kingsley and Roberts)), so you never quite know what expect.

I had higher expectations for this movie than it probably deserved given it was billed as a heist movie, which is one of my favorite genres, and I like Elijah Wood (the TV show "Wilfred"is a personal favorite).

What's more, the movie has some things going for it; it is something of a modern take on a Jim Thompson style noir heist movie. But ultimately, I can't recommend it.

Maybe the Thompson style noir just doesn't work for the modern mindset, but without character development such that you give a crap about why these people are doing what they are doing, and who they really "are"as people, this movie just fails to draw one in, and it just doesn't pack the punch that it should. I think a lot of people who see it will just be frustrated with the movie as a whole, particularly the ending. There is an over-riding feeling of--wtf, is that it?--when it's all over.

But to be fair, Thompson's novels (of which there are legions of fans) often had the same feel to them. So in a sense, the movie seems true to its particular throw-back noir vision and deserves more consideration than most of the toss-off b-movies that one might associate with Cage these days. Even so, that vision just isn't enough any more. Downbeat endings just for the sake of a downbeat ending don't cut it. Rent "Matchstick Men" instead--similar in a few ways, and much more successful as a modern take on noir.

The Magicians

An unfortunate adaptation that provides little reason to watch.
I enjoyed the first book of Lev Grossman's "The Magicians", or at least the first 80% of it, quite a lot. But the second in the series was a quite a letdown.

This first book had real potential, I think, as a TV series-- as a portrayal of a more adult contemporary and realistic version of what a "Hogwarts U."-a college of Magic, might look like.

Unfortunatlely, I'm afraid this adaptation, while technically well done, will be short lived and fulfill none of that promise.

The central problem of the trilogy, and one the TV series has equally tripped up on (as the author has apparently been quite involved), is the character of "Julia" the hedge witch. She is the focus of the second book of the trilogy. Problematically, she is utterly unsympathetic. And her story is being given equal time and being oddly crammed into season one, where it doesn't belong.

It leaves what ought be the central story--Quentin, Alice, and their friends in the "physical magic" dorm, wildly underdeveloped. Viewers who haven't read the books are likely utterly confused about 'Fillory' and its role in story (as well as any number of other things).

6 episodes in, and the show still really just seems to be lacking a coherent plot. It's a jumble of scenes, some from the first two books, some new, that don't really hold together. It jumps around following Quentin half the time and Julia the rest; two characters that you are likely not invested in, and have little reason to like.

There was promise here, but I don't see any way to save it. Given the production value, it's a shame. But you have to give viewers some thing, or someone, to care about. This show doesn't.


Landmark Television-Pulp's finest hour
When this show appeared a couple of years ago, there were complaints by some of gratuitous sex and violence. At the time, I thought the complaints themselves were gratuitous. The show was what it was. In a word, "brutal". The complaints over content were as silly as they would have been about HBO's OZ. You didn't go into this expecting family entertainment... By the middle of season three, I have to admit the show has turned into a great deal more than I ever thought it could. It's simply one of the best on television at the moment. There is no show that grabs me, pulls me in, and puts me through the wringer like this one. It is gut wrenching on every level of the term, giving bizarre and rare insights in ways you wouldn't think 'pulp' was possible. I can't think of anything comparable I've ever seen on TV. It's a bit like a cross between "the Wire", "Oz" and Quentin Tarantino at his best. It will titillate, repulse, excite, and sadden every inch of you. I honestly can't think of any other show that can emotionally involve you like this one can. Severely underrated doesn't even begin to sum the show. If you can tolerate the emotional roller coaster, catch up on the previous seasons and hang on. But be forewarned, this isn't like anything else on TV. A more graphic, gut-wrenching, exciting, and perversely fun television show has not seen the airwaves. Like the "the Wire", this show will only grow in reputation with age. It's landmark television. Not for everyone. But part of me thinks it ought to be.

Into the Abyss

A look into the lives surrounding a Texas execution
Herzog's work may lend itself to interpretation more than most. And while it may just be a quibble of emphasis, I would not, as the other two reviewers here have, say this is essentially a documentary about 'capital punishment'. Just as I would not say "grizzly man" was really a documentary about bear attacks. Herzog lets it be known he doesn't approve of the death penalty, but mostly, like most Herzog documentaries, this just struck me as a portrait of (as another reviewer put it well) the "ill-fated".

Certainly, if you go into this thinking you're going to get Michael Moore style anti-death penalty agitprop, you're going to be disappointed. This is a series of interviews with a Texas death row inmate scheduled for imminent execution (an inmate Herzog has characterized in interviews as a "truly frightening" human being) and the lives of some of those either the case, or the Texas Death Penalty system generally, have touched upon. It is probably the least sensationalistic account of its sort put on film. And for that alone, Herzog deserves praise.

Having lived in Houston for many years and knowing this area just north of it pretty well, I can say Herzog is able convey a lot about the area and its people, through the lens of this horrific act, very well.

Well, once more, what is it about, if not capital punishment.... I think Herzog in a related context (his "On Death Row" documentary series) may have put it best when an attorney he was interviewing noted 'we all have a need to humanize' and rationalize these people who have done terrible things, and Herzog stopped them to say "I don't humanize them. I don't want to humanize. They simply are human beings". And that's kind of how I saw 'into the abyss'. It's not an attempt to rationalize or humanize a triple-murderer, nor is it an attempt rationalize, demonize, or humanize state sanctioned execution. It's just portrait of a piece of life as it is now lived.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

A letdown
This movie was the most disappointing movie I have seen in recent memory. Not because it was horrible, it wasn't. Rather because the first movie was one my favorite movies of the last decade. I loved the occult/mystery angle, Mark Strong's absolutely delicious turn as the arch-villain, Rachel McAdams turn as the decidedly sexy and ambivalent heroine/villainess, Robert Downey's descent in drug induced madness to catch the villain, the Holmes/Watson dysfunctional co-dependency, it all worked wonderfully and was incredibly fresh in my opinion. This movie had none of that. It was, rather, a steampunk version of a James Bond movie. Holmes' analytical violence was rendered silly as he is now endowed with such superhuman strength and speed as there really was no point to thinking about his opponents moves. Rachel McAdams makes only a cameo, and is replaced Noomi Rapace's character who seems to be their only to check off a box regarding a female demographic. The latent Holmes/Watson homoeroticism is cranked up to ten. There is no mystery angle, as Jared Harris' Moriarty is reduced to a SPECTRE conspiracy mastermind. I literally found myself nodding off around the 1:45 mark. If you're up for a steampunk James Bond movie, I guess this is OK. But know it has none of the originality that made the 1st movie so special.

The Nines

Well acted but silly.
A lot of sci/fi and anime fans like this one, but I found myself laughing out loud during the absurd third act.

The first two acts are insider portraits of Hollywood--first a self-absorbed actor's tale and then a gay screenwriter's. The first is kind of fun, but the second drags in my opinion. Ryan Reynold's plays the lead in both acts convincingly. The one thing I do give this movie is that it is reasonably well acted.

Without giving anything substantive away--the third act tries to connect the first two in an essential way, apparently drawing on L.A's affinity for New Agism and Scientology as inspiration. The third act is hurried, and somewhat random.

The hurriedness of the third act leaves room for the viewer's imagination to fill in ample blanks--thus some will see it as deep, where others will simply scratch their heads.

Honestly, though, it simply struck me as a desperate attempt of a writer to connect two largely unrelated "shorts" and call it a movie.

Smokin' Aces

An incoherent waste of some talented actors.
I'm somewhat mystified by the positive reviews here. If you like a coherent plot and prefer your movies to make some kind of sense, this movie is not for you. I wanted to like it. I'm a big fan of Jeremy Piven, and there were aspects of the movie reminiscent of 'Lock, Stock, and two smoking Barrels', a movie I loved. But Piven's part isn't large. All of the characters are terribly underdeveloped and not particularly likable. Many plot strands simply fizzle, never bothering to resolve themselves. The action scenes are OK, I guess. But Tarantino, this isn't. And the movie ends on a bizarre, silly, plot curve (it ain't exactly a 'twist', as it is heavily foreshadowed, but just because you know it's coming doesn't mean that it makes anymore sense when it finally comes.) A big waste of talent.

The Wire

I don't subscribe to HBO. A couple of weeks ago I heard an interview with a young actor from this series on NPR. It was described as a "gritty crime drama" with many Baltimore locals portraying variations on themselves. The interview made it sound interesting enough that I decided to check out the first season on DVD.

After the first few episodes I became seriously hooked and devoted 36 hours of the next ten days to the show.

Having now watched the first 3 seasons, I believe it to be the best television series I have seen.

I do not understand why this show hasn't generated the buzz or the awards of HBO's other series, such as the Sopranos or Deadwood. It is more gripping, faster paced, and more intelligent. The other shows can be a bit plodding, with plot lines that go nowhere, and a few characters I don't much care about. That wasn't the case here.

The show is a cross between the Sopranos and the old NBC show Homicide: Life on the Street. The crime/sopranos side and the law/Homicide side run in parallel. Individually, the parallel plot lines are compelling. In tandem, they are complimentary and brilliant.

There is no way to avoid having "the best show ever" tag sound like anything but silly hype--regardless, what makes this show substantially better than any other realistic and compelling crime or police drama is the fact it is... searching. It doesn't just delve into the individual psychologies motivating these people (ala the Sopranos) or the complex interactions amongst the members of a community (ala Deadwood) it asks "what the hell can be done for all of these people" and points out the problems with any and all of the answers.

It's truly brilliant. If you like intelligent television, I envy the enjoyment you will have watching this for the first time.

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