Tuesday, November 22, 2011

REVENGE is, how shall I put it, Sweet!

This fall's network and cable line-ups are surprisingly entertaining. Now that THE PLAYBOY CLUB, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, and several other duds are history, we have good range of dramatic stories to choose from. REVENGE(ABC), a sudsy melodrama that recalls camp classics like DYNASTY and FALCON CREST and is loosely based on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, takes place in the posh environs of the Hamptons. Madeleine Stowe plays Victoria Grayson, "Queen of the Hamptons," who rules her world with an iron and sometimes dangerous hand. Ready to wreck that world is Emily Thorne, who has a secret past and plans to wreak vengeance on all those who helped frame her father as a terrorist, the Graysons being on the top of the list. The plots are often ingenious, the dialogue amusingly baroque, and the acting of the major characters so seriously dramatic that it bristles with humor. REVENGE is one of those guilty pleasures that pulls you back each week.

PRIME SUSPECT(NBC), based very loosely on the famed Helen Mirren BBC series, is a detective procedural set in New York. The expected tension between a smart and off-putting female cop working with a bunch of macho guys who sit around the office drinking scotch. So each episode she proves herself not only their equal but often their superior, which only increases the problem. Maria Bello, an actress who has lifted many a lesser movie and was especially strong in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, gives Detective Jane Tennison a gritty and believable personality.

On CBS' new crime drama PERSON OF INTEREST Michael Emerson (that weird guy on LOST) plays a brilliant billionaire scientist who has rigged a system that keeps everyone under his surveilance. But this time he's an agent for good. Once he spots a person who is in danger, he lets his enforcer (Jim Caviezel) prevent murder. It helps that Caviezel is an ex-combat soldier who knows every fighting move there is. Although this show runs the risk of being repetitive, so far it has ingeniously delivered some of the action and magic we used to love in the MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE tv series.

A totally different concept inspires ABC's ONCE UPON A TIME. This show takes place in two very different worlds: the land of fairy tales and a modern town called Storyville. Unbenowst to its residents, the town is under a curse from the Queen in the Snow White tale. And it gets more complicated and entertaining with each episode as we try to figure out which world will dominate in this witty battle between good and evil.

But the most dramatically engrossing drama is on cable's SHOWTIME. Claire Danes stars as a brilliant but unstable CIA agent who is determine to out former Iraq prisoner of being a terrorist turncoat. This cat and mouse game involves the man's family's problems after seven years of separation and Danes' intense mood swings. The writing is sharp but the actors are even sharper, and the show is full of suspense and surprises. But be warned: this is Showtime, so there's plenty of sex and violence, some of it actually pertinent to the plot.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE, a film for those who love film

Terrence Malick, the famously secretive director of DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE THIN RED LINE, and THE NEW WORLD, has produced and directed his masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE. Malick is primarily a sensualist and images and music are what interest him most. So it is no wonder that when this film premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it did so to lavish praise and boos of derision. Those who like a straight, linear story told at a fast pace will not "get" Malick's treatise on the two major human drives. One is grace; the other is nature.

To illustrate this tension, Malick sets his intimate story in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's, where the nurturing Mrs. O'Brien embodies grace. She is played with luminous warmth by Jessica Chastain, who also shone in THE HELP this year. Nature, both creative and destructive, is seen in Mr. O'Brien, played by Brad Pitt, who manages the difficult role of a strict disciplinarian who believes that his sons should be tough and ready for the world that has disappointed him. This small and commonplace story is couched in a spectacular series of images that include pre-history, the destruction of the world, the creation (compared to the birth of the O'Brien's first child), and magnificent views of the natural world, both grand and intimate.

As an adult, Jack, the eldest son, is a successful architect, who has never accepted the death of his younger brother at the age of 19. Jack is played by Sean Penn. Most of the reactions to the young man's death are heard in whispery voice-overs from Jack and his parents. What is Malick trying to tell us about life and death that hasn't been said in other films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (an obvious influence) or Disney's creation sequence in FANTASIA? Nothing and everything. Malick's gift is to remind us that there is more to believe than what Mr. O'Brien says about learning to be mean in a mean world. He seems to favor grace over nature with images of Mrs. O'Brien bathed in light, even seeming to float above the earth.

THE TREE OF LIFE is now on DVD, though it would be preferable to see it on the big screen. Still, with HD and/or Blu-Ray, this a remarkable film that you will discuss at length when you watch it with those you love.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


As we look at the myriad choices cable tv offers us, we should be thrilled with our bounty. But on closer inspection, we realize we just have more trash, not choice. The disintegration of American taste is heading towards its nadir. The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and the History Channel, to mention a few, have fallen on hard times, as evidenced by their cheap appeals to the underbelly of the middle class. Discovery gives us thought-destroying junk like AMERICAN CHOPPERS, DIRTY JOBS, and AMERICAN GUNS. TLC challenges us with KATE PLUS 8 (Yes, she will never go away!), 19 KIDS AND COUNTING, and shows about dwarfs, obseity, hoarding, you name it. And the HITLER, OOPS, HISTORY CHANNEL gives us PAWN STARS and HAIRY BIKERS.
Thank heavens for my DVR.

But perhaps the most depressing downgrade is the "classic" mode presented by the premium channels (for which you pay a premium price). HBO and SHOWTIME seem to be the biggest offenders. Though they do offer some excellent documentaries, their historical dramas are often absurd. Take Showtime's THE TUDORS, if you can. There's not much history here or even solid drama, especially when you remember PBS masterpieces such as THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII or ELIZABETH with the unsurpassed Glenda Jackson in the title role. These were elaborate, beautifully written, superbly acted series. The recent THE TUDORS offered lots of glamour, sex, violence, and little else. The historical inacuracies are blatantly laughable. The casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a slight but talented actor who had starred as Elvis Presley, worked in the opening season. But most of us know that Henry may have once been a handsome bloke. That's not the Henry we see in Holbein's famous portrait. As he desperately ran through his six wives, his size bloated due to excesses, wounds, and gout. Little of this shows in the Showtime fun and games show.

The most recent hysterical history is Showtime's THE BORGIAS, which at least mirrors some of the excesses of the Papacy under that infamous family. Yet even here the emphasis is not on dirty politics as much as it is on Borgia bedding, whether its the Pope and his mistress, his sons and their mistresses, cardinals and their doxies, all in lascivious detail. Really, both THE TUDORS and THE BORGIAS are little more than dressy soft porn.

On a slightly better level, HBO's ROME presented strong drama and spectacle but perhaps again overdid it in the sex and violence areas.

But perhaps the biggest recent historical blunder is SPARTACUS, STARZ' stab at making something sleazier than THE BORGIAS and THE TUDORS. They achieve their goal with wretched acting (Xena the warrior princess is on hand), cheap looking sets and costumes, and lots of flesh, both female and male. Also in the mix is abundant sadism, torture, and bloodshed. What's wrong with this? Nothing, if that's all you want. Think back to the historical Spartacus, the subject of drama and ballet and especially Stanley Kubrick's epic film from 1960. Kubrick presented an intelligent drama with superb performances from the likes of Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Laurence Olivier (all in one incredible scene). Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons are also excellent.

There should be a warning label on this "historical" series: NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE CLASSIC VERSIONS!