UncleTantra

IMDb member since September 2005
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Reviews

Adman
(2019)

Why can't full-length movies be this good?
An entire love story, told brilliantly in 30-second commercials. Compared to the full-length films I've seen lately, this one made me laugh more, cringe more (the first half of the Point Anchor commercial), and cry more than any I've seen lately. I will be first in line to see anything that Ben Callner creates in the future.

Years and Years
(2019)

Bloody brilliant
"Years and Years" is "near future" SciFi, set in Britain in the years 2019-2032. And what makes it so effective (and affecting) is that it's *scathing* political and social commentary, masquerading as a traditional British family drama/comedy.

It's what happens to a normal, pretty everyday British family as the world around them crumbles, with events such as Donald Trump dropping a nuclear weapon on an artificial Chinese island a couple of days before he leaves office, followed by *not* leaving office, and sticking around to continue running things, with Pence as his puppet.

And that's just what happens in the first episode, and not the scariest part. Back in England, a mouthy, know-nothing politician (played by Emma Thompson) is appealing to the same people who created Brexit and is on her way to becoming Prime Minister, and she's scarier than Trump is.

This is a high-quality production, with the kind of top-flight actors a collaboration between BBC and HBO can buy. And as I said in my title, I think it's bloody brilliant, one of the best things I've seen on TV this year. In the UK, critics are already talking about BAFTAs, their counterpart of Emmys.

What it's NOT is "light viewing." You *feel* the struggles of this family as they try to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense. They're a lot like your family. That's what makes the events these people are trying to live through horrific -- you're trying to live through them, too.

Two thumbs up, and I'd give it more if I had more hands.

Mindhunter
(2017)

Complete waste of time
The biggest mystery to be resolved about this series is how anyone could have taken a subject as potentially fascinating and tension-provoking as tracking serial killers and turned it into this dull, plodding mess. Bad acting, bad writing, and above all bad direction, which one would not normally associate with the name David Fincher. I kept waiting for something -- ANYTHING -- to happen, but it never did.

The Circle
(2017)

Dumber than a bucket of hammers
Good science fiction allows us to extrapolate from today's trends and hopefully prevent some of the negative consequences of them. This is NOT good science fiction. It's not good on any level. The big names involved with it -- Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega -- should have known better, just from reading the script. The fact that they didn't reflects badly on them.

Orange Is the New Black
(2013)

The best episode of TV in decades is 13 hours long
The "rules" of creating a TV series are pretty clear, given television's "track record." For example, if you've had a *remarkably* successful four-season run, and chalked up some of the best reviews in history, well, based on history, what most series do at this point is "jump the shark" completely and create a season SO bad that hardly anyone cares or notices when they announce that it was the last one ever, and claim "We intended it that way...yeah, that's the ticket!" Jenji Kohan didn't do that with "Orange Is The New Black." Yes, she and her incredible team of writers ended season 4 with a bit of a cliff-hanger -- an ill-conceived riot breaks out in the minimum-security women's prison in which the series is set, and the season ends just as one of the prisoners picks up the gun that a dim-witted guard had snuck in and then dropped -- in spite of regulations saying no guard should ever bring a gun into the prison -- and holds it on him. Fade to red, and the season ends.

So, again based on TV history, we all know what to expect next. The writers will clear up all the questions left hanging in the air by the cliff-hanger in the first half of the first episode of season 5, and then they'll move back to Business As Usual and the same old same old and hope for the best.

Jenji Kohan and company didn't do that. They let the riot go on for three days and made the *entire season* about what happens during those three days.

With a lesser cast and a lesser team of writers, this would have been a disaster. Suffice it to say that instead they created 13 of the best hours of television I've ever seen in my life. We've had four years to get to know many of these characters, but in season 5 we get to know them and see them as fellow human beings in ways we didn't think were possible. OITNB, season 5 is a veritable maelstrom of emotions -- everything from humor to tragedy to pathos and back to humor again, and with more than a few dashes of social commentary thrown in. And what is arguably the best cast on television pulled it off perfectly.

I can't pretend to know what the creators of this fine series were *thinking* as they took a chance this big, but it might have had something to do with the following bit of dialogue in the finale: -- "So was it worth it? The riot?" -- "We can't know that yet. Maybe they'll still meet some of our demands. And maybe some Grandma in Kansas will read an article about this, and she'll see us as people instead of criminals. And then maybe she'll tell all her Grandma friends, and then they'll tell their kids, and then they'll tell their grandkids. I mean, isn't that how change really happens? Through Midwestern Grandmas having epiphanies? Maybe that will have made all of this worth it." I can't help but think that this speech is coming directly from the writers, explaining their motivation for making this series.

I have said for years that if one were to select the 25 best performances by actresses on television in a given year, for the last four years 5 of them would be from Tatiana Maslany in "Orphan Black," and at least 15 of the rest would be from the cast of "Orange Is The New Black." This year there may not be room for five other contenders from other shows.

Iron Fist
(2017)

Loathsome -- if you watch this you'll lose 50 IQ points
This is beyond question the worst-written, most ill-conceived series I've ever been forced (because I agreed to review it for another publication) to watch. There are SO many things wrong with it I hardly know where to start, but because people who watched Netflix's "Daredevil" may be tempted to watch this just hoping for a little martial arts eye-candy, don't be deceived. "Get Smart" or the original "The Man From UNCLE" had better martial arts choreography. This is arguably the *worst* martial arts movie ever made.

Which is appropriate in a way, because the dumb action is accompanied by even dumber dialogue. It is difficult for me to even *conceive* of who it was who was stupid enough to write this trash. The only people I can conceive of being dumber than the writers and producers of "Iron Fist" are the IMDb users who gave this piece of trash good reviews -- they must have the lowest standards on the planet.

Big Little Lies
(2017)

If no one else is going to say it, I will...
I feel as if I have to take a shower after forcing myself to watch the first episode of this dreadful piece of crap. SO many horrible, loathsome characters, SO much entitlement, SO little self-awareness. I look at some of the reviews here, and it seems to me they must be written by people with similar characteristics. It's the only thing that explains the high ratings. I think I get it -- the producers of this dumpster fire actually think that we'll be so dazzled by the pretty scenery and the "big stars" that we'll keep watching until after a few episodes they finally reveal who got killed and maybe in the last episode they reveal whodunnit. But WHO CARES how pretty the scenery is -- it's filmed in one of the richest, most entitled communities in America ferchrissakes -- of course it's pretty. WHO CARES if they're "big stars" when they're portraying people this shallow and this despicable? There is simply no possibility that I can tolerate these people that long. I leave the solving of this particular mystery to those who can stomach the characters.

Too Late
(2015)

Remarkiably effective effort from Someone To Watch (Dennis Hauck)
I freely admit to having watched this film primarily because of Dichen Lachmann and Natalie Zea (who I'll see in anything), but it had a great deal more to offer than I was expecting.

Yes, Hauck steals freely from Quentin Tarantino when it comes to mixed-up timelines, and steals even more from the genre of L.A. Noir, but it has its own charms. It also has some really ballsy experiments, such as shooting each of the five acts in one single take (on 35mm film, which must have been a real bitch to pull off given the changing lighting conditions).

Good performances from a wide range of actors clearly pitching in and having a good time with a small Indie film in between better-paying gigs. Plus, there are some genuinely touching moments, the kind that make you (or at least made me) go back and re-watch a couple of early scenes at the end to see them at the end, after the context of them has been to some extent explained.

I like that the song "Down With Mary" has been short-listed for the Original Song Oscar this year. That shows that this film got more attention than might be expected for a supposed low-budget Indie flick. I look forward to Hauck's next effort.

Passengers
(2016)

People who 'didn't like the ending' weren't paying attention
"Passengers" is not intellectual scifi. As some have described it, thinking they were being insulting, it's "just a love story in space." But if you suspend disbelief and just go with it, it's actually a pretty good love story in space. It reminds me of some of the great classic scifi of the 1950s and 1960s, many of which, if you'll remember, were also "just" love stories in space.

The visuals were excellent, verging on stunningly beautiful. I read on the Trivia page that there was a time when Keanu Reeves was attached to this film to play the lead. He had to drop out, for some unspecified reason. Good. He would have ruined it. Chris Pratt, on the other hand, brought a truly human touch to being a human stranded in space. And although I am not always a fan (I *loathed* "Joy"), I thought Jennifer Lawrence was tremendous as well.

As for the ending, well in my opinion it was perfect. Each of them got what they set out looking for.

Roadies: Friends and Family
(2016)
Episode 5, Season 1

OK, I'll say it...the first episode that's a masterpiece
What is NOT to like about this episode of "Roadies?" It just *nails* the title, "Friends and Family," and how that manifests in the road crew of a rock 'n roll band.

I have to admit to loving so many moments from this episode. Bill invoking the holy essence of Led Zep while giving his morning circle jerk sermon. The Mike Finger character, who if you can't identify with him, you've clearly never "gotten" a rock 'n roll band. The setup to present Janine's back story, which sends Bill off on an odyssey to find Gram Parsons' old Nudie jacket, which in turn results in him having a cool "making amends" moment with his ex. Reg trying to figure out who Mike Finger is at the airport. Reg meeting Janine in front of the auditorium.

Especially the last moment. The character of Janine just ate the screen, from moment one. I could not take my eyes off of her. This love-at-first-sight reaction caused me to look her up on the IMDb and discover that the person who played her was Joy Williams, one half of a Grammy-winning duo called The Civil Wars, whose music I happen to love. I Googled further, and discovered interviews in which Joy talks about first meeting Cameron Crowe on Twitter, and then, when she met him in real life, having him tell her that she should be an actress. Joy laughed that off, but Cameron obviously didn't, and as far as we can tell, wrote the character of Janine FOR Joy Williams. Brilliant. A star is born.

Joy
(2015)

Terrible, terrible, terrible film
Sorry to rain on the JLaw parade that seems to be going on out there among her fans, but this movie strikes me as if the director realized that all he'd have to do to create a film that would make a bunch of cash at the box office is point a camera at Jennifer Lawrence. He wouldn't need a script, he wouldn't need believable characters, and he certainly wouldn't need to do very much in terms of direction. Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the approach he took to making the movie.

I found the first third of the film almost unwatchable. As a filmmaker, you know you're in trouble (or you *should* know, anyway) that when the intentionally-horrible soap opera characters in your intentionally-horrible soap-opera-within-the-soap-opera are more interesting and more sympathetic than your main characters that you're in deep trouble. The second third of the movie wasn't much better -- more soap opera family drama queenery. *Nothing* of any interest happened for me until about the 1 hour 37 minute mark. Sorry, but in a 1 hour and 53 minute movie, that's just WAY too long to wait to see if it's actually going to turn into a movie. BIG "thumbs down."

Minority Report
(2015)

Soulless and not likely to last
Set 10 years after the events of the movie, the Precrime division has been abolished and the three precogs have been set free, but hidden away from society. Arthur, Agatha, and Dash still sense crimes before they are committed, but are not permitted to do anything about it. So Dash goes vigilante and tries to do it on his own.

Without Tom Cruise and the other big stars of the original film, this series looks like a one-season wonder, if that. It's wooden and devoid of interesting characters, which in a way is good because the actors they've chosen wouldn't be capable of portraying interesting characters. The series seems aimed at adolescent gamers who see a bunch of future-computer special effects and go Wow! and never ask for anything more. Like good writing or characterization.

Thumbs down.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
(2015)

Clearly, comic books really DO lower people's intelligence
Please bear in mind that the person writing this is a BIG fan of Joss Whedon's earlier work in TV and movies. It's the fact that I really AM such a fan that made going to see "Avengers: Age of Ultron" so upsetting.

I managed to sit through the whole film, but just barely. Instead of the "Wow! Look at that!" I was supposed to feel, all I felt was sadness that one of the best storytellers of our age had sunk so low. "Ultron" was 141 minutes of Biff! Zap! Pow! Boom! Zoom! CGI madness, punctuated with a few lines that clearly were intended to be funny but only could have been considered so by pimply-faced 14-year-olds whose standards for comic one-liners had been set by Beavis and Butthead.

In other words, I hated it. I wish Joss would wake up from his comic book-induced stupor and remember how to write characters and plots again. "Buffy" used to cost $1.1 million per episode. "Firefly" used to cost $2 million per episode. And they were great.

"Ultron" cost over $2 million PER MINUTE of running time, and it's crap.

There is a lesson here. When Joss is working with his own ideas, it doesn't take huge amounts of money to create wonderful entertainment. When he is working with other people's comic book ideas, it doesn't matter how much money the producers throw at it -- it's comic book-mentality crap.

Stop making crap, Joss. Tell the guys at Marvel to keep their money and keep their mediocre plots and characters. Come back to making entertainment based on your own ideas.

House of Cards
(2013)

Season 3 is hideously disappointing
The show degenerated into a soap opera, and one with characters who are so consistently icky and so consistently...uh...consistent that I found myself not only uninterested in them, but unable to care what they were doing or what happened to them.

The whole thing just made me sad that in a few months I have to watch this whole scenario play itself out in real life, with characters just as icky. The American political scene is so corrupt and so beyond redemption that making a soap opera like this one out of it reveals only how boring it's all become.

Save your money and watch the original British series. The characters aren't any less icky, but ant least they're more interesting.

Calvary
(2014)

The underrated virtue
It is somehow appropriate that one of the best films I have seen since Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" is by his brother, John Michael McDonagh. John showed promise with his film "The Guard," but with this film he takes his place in the pantheon of immortal Irish black humorist-philosophers alongside his brother.

What if you were a Catholic priest, and one of your flock told you during confession that he was going to kill you in a week? Not because you were a bad priest, but because you were a good one. He means it, and you know he means it. He gives you the week to get your affairs in order.

And what if the priest were played by the same Irish national treasure who played the lead in both of the two other aforementioned films, Brendan Gleeson. What if his efforts were supported by the likes of Kelly Reilly, Chris O'Dowd, Aidan Gillen, M. Emmet Walsh and a host of great Irish/English actors? And what if the results were really, really, really good, verging on magnificent? Then you'd have "Calvary."

Hannibal: Kaiseki
(2014)
Episode 1, Season 2

In Media Res
Note that there are spoilers here, but you'll see all of them in the first ten minutes anyway, so caveat emptor.

We find ourselves in an upscale, beautifully-appointed kitchen, where an elegant dinner is being prepared by an impeccably-dressed host. We see the host's knife slicing the raw main dish, and then arranging it into a presentation that can legitimately be called art. He walks across the room and serves it to his guest, who is seated at the dining table, and they exchange words.

Host: This course is called ryukozuki -- seasonal sashimi, sea urchin, water clam, and squid. Guest: What a beautiful presentation, Doctor. Host: Kaiseki - a Japanese artform that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat. Guest: Well, I almost feel guilty about eating it. Host: I never feel guilty eating anything. Guest: Hmmmm...I can't quite place the fish...

This would have been a cool "season opener" in itself, and a very funny one, given that the host in this scene is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and you can't always tell what he'll be serving with the Chianti. :-)

But what makes this scene more powerful is that it wasn't the first scene. It was the second. The first was a type of flashforward known as In Media Res, a technique that dates at least back to Homer, and was discussed by Aristotle. In the real first scene, we're in the same kitchen, and a similarly elegant dinner is being prepared for the same guest by the same host. The host uses the same precision with his knife as he slices the main course, but doesn't get to the presentation stage because then his guest enters the room, they exchange glances, each of them seemingly realizing the same thing at the same time, and all hell breaks loose. (Details deleted) The screen goes black, and a title appears, saying "Twelve weeks earlier." Then we see the scene I describe above.

Very effective technique. It worked for Homer, in "The Iliad," it worked for "Breaking Bad," and it works for the season opener of "Hannibal." Something is going to happen during that twelve weeks (coincidentally enough the length of the season) that explains to us how the dinner scene we see second morphs into the one we saw first.

The third and forth scenes take an opposite -- or perhaps the same -- structure. In scene three we see Will Graham during on of his rare off-work moments. He's standing in a river in his waders, fly-fishing. He looks up, and on the bank of the river he sees a magnificent deer. We see the awe and reverence on his face as Will gazes at the deer. Cut to scene four, and the same face, staring at us from behind bars. Will is now in jail, charged with being the very serial killer he is chasing. So is scene three a flashback to the past, or a flashforward to the future? Guess we'll have to watch twelve weeks of television to find out. Since this was one of the best 40 minutes of television I've seen in a long time, I have no problem with that...

Lust for Love
(2014)

A Whedonesque Romance
While we wait for Joss Whedon's own scifi/romance movie "In Your Eyes," those of us who have become enamored of the many talented actors he has worked with and whose careers he has cultivated over the years have something to watch. "Lust For Love" is a Kickstarter-funded, Web-based (so far) project that reunites several of the cast members of Whedon's short-lived but brilliant TV series "Dollhouse" -- Fran Kranz, Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj, Miracle Laurie, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Felicia Day. They obviously became close during their "Dollhouse" experience, and that closeness just as obviously carries over into this delightful rom-com.

I'll be honest and state that I'm probably too old to appreciate this movie. It seems aimed at an audience 20-somethings, and as such I would say that it succeeds admirably. Kranz is tremendous as the nebbishy Astor, hoping beyond hope to get back together with the narcissistic girl of his dreams Mila (played by non-Whedon-alum Beau Garrett). Towards this end he secures the services of Mila's ex-best friend Cali (played superbly by Dichen Lachman, who also co-produced this film). Much embarrassment and dating horror ensue, almost all of it portrayed with heart, and a fairly light heart at that. This is not one of those cynical movies about dating and romance.

It was great to see many of the "Dollhouse" actors together again, and those who loved them will probably be the first audience for this film. But I thought that the film (written and directed by first-timer Anton King) has merits of its own, and I hope it reaches a wider audience. I suspect that it could stand on its own among the classics of young-people romance films, up there with "Say Anything."

Sound of My Voice
(2011)

Finally!
"We started out wanting to make a documentary on cults. And now we're in one." There have been terrible films made about the cult experience, and there have been even more terrible films made about the cult experience. In my experience, both as a former cultist and as a religious sociology freak who is also a film freak, there has never been a film that landed outside those boundaries. Until now.

"Sound Of My Voice" is not easy, and it does not offer easy answers. Nor do cults, except in the moment. That may be what makes them alluring, the temptation to live completely in the moment, and never think about what "living" has become.

Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij (and who also produced and wrote an interesting previous and thought-provoking film called "Another Earth"), stars as Maggie. Maggie's not from here. Or rather, not not from now. She's from the future. Or that's what she says, anyway. And when you listen to the sound of her voice, you kinda want to believe it.

You want to believe it even if you're a husband and wife who have infiltrated her ultra-secretive cult to make a documentary about it.

I really can't say anything more about this fascinating film without spoiling it. I think it managed what no other film about the cult phenomenon -- or even the spiritual phenomenon -- has accomplished as well before: walking that razor's edge between what simply cannot be and what might actually be.

I think the open-minded will enjoy it.

The Newsroom: The Greater Fool
(2012)
Episode 10, Season 1

"The Newsroom" comes full circle
Aaron Sorkin's new show started by being attacked mercilessly before it even aired. I took a stand when it finally *was* aired, and I got to see the first episode. I've just watched the tenth, and final, episode of the year. I stand by my original stand.

It's good writing, it's good entertainment, it's good acting and direction, and it's got a pair of balls the size of Mars.

And I'm still betting on it sweeping the Emmy awards, and sending an enormous F**K YOU to all of the people who ranked on it because...well...because they have balls the size of peas, and brains to match.

It's difficult to make entertainment while conveying a useful and needed message. It's even more difficult when the very people who should be cheering that message on are so petty and green with envy that they play shoot the messenger, too.

This was the rap rattled off by Jeff Daniels' Will McAvoy during the wrap-up of his last news broadcast of the season, over a bottom-of-the-screen banner that said Republican In Name Only:

* Ideological purity * Compromise as weakness * A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism * Denying science * Unmoved by facts * Undeterred by new information * A hostile fear of progress * A demonization of education * A need to control women's bodies * Severe xenophobia * Tribal mentality * Intolerance of dissent * Pathological hatred of the US government

"They can call themselves the Tea Party, they can call themselves conservatives, and they can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans probably shouldn't. But we should call them what they are, the American Taliban."

This is the message that real news stations in America should have been airing as real news last night as the Republican Convention opened. Instead, it had to be aired on HBO, on a show that even Democrats and liberals tried to kill. This is one of those days that forces me to think about America and remember the lines to a great Bob Dylan song:

"And you ask why I don't live there Honey, how come you even have to ask me that?"

Twixt
(2011)

Coppola has lost not only his touch, but his marbles
This film is an embarrassment for all concerned. If the rumors are correct, and Coppola's inspiration for the screenplay was a night spent indulging in alcohol-fueled dreams, might I suggest that this turned out a great deal worse for him than it did for Val Kilmer's character in the film. Have you ever had a dream that seemed vivid and fraught with "meaning" and symbolic "importance" to you, and then tried to describe that dream to others? Remember how their eyes glazed over after a few moments, and they stopped paying attention to you? Well, that's what is going to happen to you if you see this film.

Shockingly, Val Kilmer is the best part of the film. Fans who have watched *his* career circle the drain, consider that statement. He has at least a couple of great scenes. The first shows him, as a failed writer struggling with writer's block, trying to come up with the first lines of his new novel. The result is hilarious. The second is him sitting down over a bottle of Irish whiskey in the dream plane with Edgar Allen Poe and getting a lesson in writing technique from the master. If Coppola had such a dream-lesson himself, he should have listened more carefully.

Plus, Coppola uses a bunch of visual techniques that make him look like a first-year film student, not the director of the first two "Godfather" movies. He pretty much flushes his career down the toilet with this film, and I'm inclined to give the handle a second push to make sure there are no "floaters" left around. I suspect that the only person who will like this film is David Lynch, because finally there is a film that is less coherent than one of his. :-)

Fringe: Letters of Transit
(2012)
Episode 19, Season 4

When your series is in trouble, steal from another series
So what do you do when you are J.J. Abrams and the network your current show is on starts using the "C" word? No, not "cancer," the even worse "C" word, "cancellation." Simple. Shamelessly steal a page from Joss Whedon's playbook.

Back towards the end of the first season of "Dollhouse," when FOX was throwing around the "C" word, Joss hit one over the fences with an episode called "Epitaph." Without either warning or explanation, that episode leapt out of the normal storyline and timeline of the series several years into the future, giving viewers a glimpse of where "Dollhouse" *wanted to go*, if only the network dweebs would allow it to by extending the series. And the amazing thing is that it WORKED. Joss got a second season of "Dollhouse," just enough to finish it up well, and to not leave things hanging. It was the stuff of TV history, and saved "Dollhouse" from the cut-off-in-mid-sentence fate of "Firefly." Now even-heavier-hitter J.J. Abrams, faced with hard times and low ratings, is fighting for a fifth season of "Fringe." So what does he do? He rips off Joss' idea and creates an out-of-the-blue glimpse of the Fringe Division's future. Without either warning or explanation, the episode opens not in 2012 but in 2036, with the descendents of the original Fringe Division living in a dystopia, still fighting the Bad Guys. It's *not* that it wasn't an interesting episode, but the word "r-r-r-r-ripoff" kept echoing through my head the whole time I was watching it.

It really *wasn't* bad, and in fact was better than most episodes. Whether this "Hail Joss" play will work is another question, but I kinda praise Mr. Abrams for not being afraid to steal from his betters. This ploy may become a staple of the industry in the future -- if they start talking about cancelling your show, give them a glimpse of the show's future, to hopefully demonstrate to them that you haven't jumped the shark and that you still *can* come up with new ideas.

Even if you have to steal those ideas from another series. :-)

The Grey
(2011)

The Grey Menace
I was drawn to this movie by Liam Neeson, who is often a commanding presence in movies. And, as survival/adventure tales go, it's pretty standard. An ordinary guy, whose Day Job it is to shoot dragons to keep them from wreaking havoc among the tasty human workers in Alaska's oil fields, is depressed to the point of suicide. But something intervenes in his suicide attempt, and he gets on a plane with a bunch of other guys the next day as planned.

Unfortunately, the plane crashes, leaving only seven of the guys still alive. For now. Trouble is, they are surrounded by a herd of big grey dragons, who start picking the guys off one by one as they wander away from the plane to take a pee. So Liam Neeson -- obviously leader material because he gets top billing in the movie -- convinces them to head for the woods, where the dragons might be less able to get at them. Adventure ensues, with our hero now fighting for his life the day after wanting to end it.

What's that you say? Dragons? OK, "The Grey" isn't really about dragons. Insert "wolves" above wherever I mentioned dragons.

The thing is, it just as well *could* have been dragons. There have been almost as many documented attacks of humans by dragons in North America as there have been attacks of humans by wolves. You can count the number of documented wolf attacks on a couple of fingers. Maybe one or two less for dragon attacks.

Although "The Grey" is a passable fictional adventure story, I'm kinda offended because it's *total* fiction. In Asia, there are cases of wolves attacking humans. In North America, one or two at the most. It just doesn't happen.

But the filmmakers decided that the public *believes* it happens (after all, if Sarah Palin shoots wolves from a helicopter, they've *got* to be dangerous, right?), so they thought, "Let's make a movie about guys fighting for their lives against a pack of hungry wolves." They should've chosen dragons. It would have been more realistic, and it might have been a better movie.

Anonymous
(2011)

Anonymous -- Hacking history
These days, the term "Anonymous" conjures up visions of unknown activists trying to influence history from the wings. They write things, and that writing changes society. In his film of the same name, director Roland Emmerich seems to be suggesting that this idea is not exactly new, and that the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare were essentially motivated by the same desire. He takes the age-old mystery of "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" and turns it into a political thriller.

If it's difficult for you to imagine a historical costume drama done by the director of "Universal Soldier," "Stargate," "Independence Day," "Godzilla," "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012," you are not alone. :-) I suspected that the screenplay (by John Orloff) came first, and that Emmerich discovered it and became enamored of it, and a quick trip to the IMDb verifies that this intuition was correct. It also informs me that Emmerich, taking advantage of the money he made on the previous films, paid for this whole movie out of his own pocket, so that he could have full control of the film, without interference from any studio. It shows.

It's not a bad movie at all. And this is something I never thought I'd find myself saying about a Roland Emmerich movie. The cast is simply to die for: Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth the elder; her daughter Joely Richardson as Elizabeth the younger; Rafe Spall as Shakespeare (a talentless clod of an actor); Sebastian Arnesto as Ben Johnson (a talented playwright, but not even in the same galaxy of greatness as the author of Shakespeare's plays); David Thewlis as William Cecil; Edward Hogg as Robert Cecil; Derek Jacobi doing the prologue; Jaime Campbell Bower (from "Camelot") as the younger Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; and Rhys Ifans as the older Edward de Vere, and the real author of Shakespeare's work.

As presented, the plot is not at all a scholarly argument for the Earl of Oxford's authorship of these plays. It is instead a clever reimagining of historical events (some treated as loosely as Shakespeare himself treated actual history) to turn the answer to the mystery that scholars argue about into a taut political thriller. In Orloff's/Emmerich's vision, Edward de Vere wrote the plays and published them under someone else's name for no less a reason that to foment revolution, change the course of history, and determine the next king of England.

And damnit, that reimagining kinda worked for me. The sets and costumes are pitch perfect, the performances are good, and the potential is there for a good time to be had by all. Like anything related to Shakespeare, the more you know about him and his work, the better this film will be for you. There are so many asides and in-jokes that I cannot begin to go into them. Orloff really did his research. Except for the part about Edward de Vere having died before at least 10 of Shakespeare's plays were written, that is. But that's just a nitpick, and should not stand in the way of writing a good drama. Those kinds of historical nitpicks did not deter Shakespeare, and they don't deter Orloff and Emmerich. All of them understand that "The play's the thing," and that history doesn't mean diddleysquat compared to that.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(2011)

Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, Spies
I don't see how I can review this film without also reviewing the 1979 BBC version of the story. Especially because I prefer the new version.

And that is nigh unto heresy, if you know the original. That version starred Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and his performance in it is often referred to (and rightly) as one of the pinnacles of his illustrious career. So my preference for this new version should in no way be construed to mean that I prefer Gary Oldman's performance to Alec Guinness' in the same role. That's not the issue. It's that the STORYTELLING of the new version of the film is better than the storytelling of the older version. It's simply a better movie, on almost all counts.

The reason for this IMO is that they hired Tomas Alfredson (the Swedish director of "Let The Right One In") to helm the making of this movie version, and hired two talented writers (one of whom died during the production) to pen it. And the three of them done good. Real good. With only 127 minutes in which to tell their story, they did a better job than the best BBC directors and writers of their era were able to do with the same story in seven hours.

The plot is as classic an example of Cold War Spy Storytelling now as it was when John Le Carré penned it. "Control" (head of the British Secret Service, played in this film by John Hurt) learns to his dismay that there may be a mole in the top echelons of the "Circus." He sends an operative to Budapest to find out who it is, but that operation turns disastrously and publicly sour, and Control is forced to resign, taking his top aide George Smiley with him. Fast forward a couple of years, and the notion that there is a mole resurfaces. Control has died and the four people he suspected are now in charge of the Circus, so Smiley is brought out of retirement to find out who the mole might be. The twists and turns are exquisite, Smiley personifying a master spy more akin to Bobby Fischer than James Bond. It's been many years since I last read the book, so I can't say for sure, but there is a possibility that this latest retelling of the story may be better than le Carré's original novel.

It should be mentioned that Gary Oldman's performance in this film is as understated as many of his past performances have been overstated, and that's a good thing. But the bottom line for me yet again -- a growing trend in TV and television -- is that if you want a classic British story told well, hire a Swede to tell it. Tomas Alfredson even looks like George Smiley.

Change for a Dollar
(2010)

This is an extraordinary film. Deep bow.
Sharon Wright is a name to watch. As I discern from the IMDb, she is an actress who is segueing into the worlds of writing, producing, and directing. If this is the case, I for one wish her godspeed.

This is one of the best short films I have ever seen. The storytelling -- using a total of six spoken words -- is sublime, the acting low-key and perfect, and the cinematography rode on the wings of the same angel who inspired the story. Every moment of this ten-minute film is lovely, a celebration of the power of intent, and the change that each of us could effect on the world around us every day, if only we were a bit more aware.

Rock on, whoever and wherever you are, Sharon. You done good with this one.

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