Tribeca Film Review: ‘Blow the Man Down’

There’s a certain tingle that sets in when you realize that a thriller is naturalistic enough not to rely on thriller tricks. It means that you may be denied some of the knee-jerk pleasures audiences have come to expect — the jump scares and violent climaxes. The tradeoff is that it’s a lot easier to […]



Album Review: Sara Bareilles’ ‘Amidst the Chaos’

“She used to be mine” — that’s how a lot of Sara Bareilles fans probably felt, losing her to the legit stage, at least as a recording and touring artist, for the better part of five years. With “Amidst the Chaos,” her first album of non-“Waitress” songs since 2013, she’s back, but not exactly as […]



Fitbit Versa Lite review: A smartwatch for the budget-conscious

Fitbit Versa Lite review: A smartwatch for the budget-consciousThe Fitbit Versa Lite is a capable, low-cost smartwatch that's worth checking out.

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Film Review: ‘Finding Steve McQueen’

“Finding Steve McQueen” is a ramshackle indie heist drama that has a little bit (but not much) to do with Steve McQueen. The film’s central figure, a green-behind-the-ears thief named Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel), idolizes the squinty star of “Bullitt,” for all the reasons one might have back in 1972, when most of the movie […]



Fashion Review: The United Nation of Gucci, and Liberation by Dior

From the theater to the dance, the Paris shows opened with a pair of different manifestos on the language of style.
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�De viva voz!: An Intermediate Conversation and Grammar Review Course (Student Edition + Listening Comprehension Audio CD)

�De viva voz!: An Intermediate Conversation and Grammar Review Course (Student Edition + Listening Comprehension Audio CD)

�De viva voz! is an exciting new Spanish conversation text that focuses on the development of oral communication while providing a review of key grammatical structures in a very approachable and “non-threatening” manner. Intermediate students have generally had the equivalent of a first-year overview of the language and in many cases are in transition to third-year culture/literature courses. They have a lot of information “in their heads,” but they often still have the need for conversational practice that actively uses structures and vocabulary they have already studied. Through creative exercises, brief summaries of grammar, and a carefully sequenced chapter structure, �De viva voz! helps instructors realize their principal goal in a conversation course: to see their students engaged in conversation in Spanish and improving their level of oral proficiency on a daily basis.
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Review: Beoplay A1

Review: Beoplay A1

The Danish company Bang & Olufsen has released a new Bluetooth speaker, the Beoplay A1, which comes pre-accessorized with a quaint little leather strap. The post Review: Beoplay A1 appeared first on WIRED.


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Review: Jenny Diski’s ‘In Gratitude,’ an Uphill Life on and Off Cancer Road

The essayist and novelist, who died last week at 68, has written a different kind of cancer memoir, and an almost entirely platitude-free one.
NYT > Books


Review: Libratone Zipp

Review: Libratone Zipp

Libratone’s newest speaker does both AirPlay and Bluetooth, and lets you link multiple speakers together. The post Review: Libratone Zipp appeared first on WIRED.


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Books of The Times: Review: Richard Russo Returns Upstate in ‘Everybody’s Fool’

Mr. Russo’s delightful sequel to “Nobody’s Fool” features the further adventures of Sully and other familiar residents of North Bath, N.Y.
NYT > Books


Review: Roku Streaming Stick (2016)

Review: Roku Streaming Stick (2016)

The new Roku Streaming Stick is basically a $ 100 Roku 3 box for $ 50. How can you lose? The post Review: Roku Streaming Stick (2016) appeared first on WIRED.


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Books of The Times: Review: Julian Barnes’s ‘The Noise of Time,’ the Inner Shostakovich

Mr. Barnes’s newest novel imagines the internal emotional battle of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich after Stalin turned against him.
NYT > Books


Review: Apple MacBook

Review: Apple MacBook

It might not be the laptop the world is ready for, but it’s the laptop the world needs. And you can get it in pink now. The post Review: Apple MacBook appeared first on WIRED.


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Review: T-Fal OptiGrill Plus

Review: T-Fal OptiGrill Plus

This countertop grill uses food type and thickness to steer you toward the doneness you desire. The post Review: T-Fal OptiGrill Plus appeared first on WIRED.


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Review: Apple iPhone SE

Review: Apple iPhone SE

It’s not the size of the phone in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the phone. The post Review: Apple iPhone SE appeared first on WIRED.


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12 Monkeys: Season 2 Premiere Review

Note: Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

12 Monkeys is back, and yes, it’s as trippy and twisty as ever. Am I crazy to even try to parse out meaning in the opening, when the narrator (Madeleine Stowe!) says “This is A story about how the world ends” instead of “This is THE story about how the world ends”? Three words in to Season 2, and I’m already overthinking. Actually, I loved the simplicity of the recap: 12 Monkeys as a children’s bedtime story, focusing not on the questions about the Red Forest and the whys and hows of time travel and who did what when, but on the emotional core of the series. Cole and Cassie, and how she awakened his humanity.

“The Year of the Monkey” picks up pretty much where we left off last year. After sending a wounded Cassie to Dr. Jones in 2043, he’s somehow altered history by saving Ramse instead of leaving him to die. At least, according to the Witness, who told Olivia and the rest of the Army that Ramse is supposed to have died already. But could it be possible that The Witness lied about that for… time reasons? Whatever the case is, we still don’t know what, if any, impact Ramse’s still being alive has had on the timeline, but Olivia is so over it. Ramse’s “cycle is over” and she wants him dead. Getting spoilers from the Witness makes it hard to watch life unfold in real time, I guess.

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Review: 12 Ways the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Is Different

Review: 12 Ways the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Is Different

Considering upgrading to a new iPad Pro so you can use it as your only computer and kiss your laptop goodbye? Here’s what you really need to know. The post Review: 12 Ways the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Is Different appeared first on WIRED.


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Review: Breville PolyScience Control Freak

Review: Breville PolyScience Control Freak

This is a badass (and expensive!) induction burner that will change the way you approach hot food preparation. Seriously, it’s excellent. The post Review: Breville PolyScience Control Freak appeared first on WIRED.


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Review: Audeze Sine

Review: Audeze Sine

These new on-ear headphones are something we’ve never seen before: A compact, affordable, and handsome headphone with planar magnetic drivers. The post Review: Audeze Sine appeared first on WIRED.


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Better Call Saul: Season 2 Finale Review

Full spoilers for Better Call Saul: Season 2 continue below.

F–k. Chuck.

Of all the despicable characters in Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad universe, Chuck McGill has got to be the worst. Move over, Skyler haters. Marie was never this bad. The lengths that Chuck will go to in order to destroy his brother get more calculating and hateful with each season, and now he’s truly out for blood.

As Better Call Saul has evolved and figured out what it’s going to be about, it’s the Jimmy vs. Chuck story that’s proven to be its heart. Their pattern is always the same. Jimmy, for all that he’s a crook and scummy lawyer, is all earnestness when it comes to trying to win his brother’s affection. For Chuck, that’s never going to happen, and he’s developed an insurmountable wall separating himself from his brother that will never be broken down.

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Review: FujiFilm X70

Review: FujiFilm X70

Amazing image quality coupled with a small and lightweight design make the X70 an excellent travel and street-photography camera. The post Review: FujiFilm X70 appeared first on WIRED.


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Supergirl: Season Finale Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the Supergirl: Season 1 finale follow.

While last week’s Supergirl wasn’t the strongest, it did set up a good cliffhanger for tonight’s finale. Unfortunately, the first 10 minutes of “Better Angels” wrapped up the Myriad storyline with little more than a “Well, that’s that!” Apparently, snapping National City out of its zombie daze was as simple as offering a few words of encouragement. Not only did this abruptly end the anticipated skirmish between Alex and Supergirl, but it gave the creators a thinly veiled excuse to trudge out a mini-clip show of everyone remembering their favorite moments with Kara.

In the end, Myriad really was pretty pointless, and it didn’t help that Non was so easily convinced to throw his idea of saving Earth out the window and chose to kill everyone instead. As well as that being a silly idea in itself, this only solidified how weak Non is as a character and how unclear his motives truly are. I mean, did he really care about saving Earth or not? Because basically destroying it would have been the exact opposite of what Astra wanted, which… wasn’t that the whole point of Myriad, to finish Astra’s plan?

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Books of The Times: Review: ‘Black Hole Blues’ Recounts the Quest to Find the Cosmic Kazoo

The astrophysicist Janna Levin investigates the politics and personal dynamics of the physicists involved in the journey to detect gravitational waves.
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Review: A Dizzying and Dense ‘Portrait’ From Nora Chipaumire

Her dance-theater work, “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” had its premiere as part of Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
NYT > Arts

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Review: Samsung’s Notebook 9 is the MacBook Pro alternative you’re looking for

Apple’s MacBook Pro is the best 15-inch laptop you can buy. It’s well-built, attractive, and packs a ton of power. It’s also heavy and, at $ 2,000, really expensive.

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Tribeca Film Review: ‘Elvis & Nixon’

The King of Rock and Roll requests an audience with the President of the United States in “Elvis & Nixon,” and the resulting interaction could hardly be weirder.



Books of The Times: Review: David Means’s ‘Hystopia,’ Not Your Average War Novel

David Means’s first novel is not just a meditation on war but also a portrait of a troubled America in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
NYT > Books


Art Review: Atop the Met, a Haunting House

Cornelia Parker’s installation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art roof garden evokes the spooky mansion in “Psycho,” as well as an earlier America.
NYT > Arts

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The Expanse: “CQB” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.


“CQB” rounds out the mystery of who or what destroyed the Canterbury and introduces a new mystery group that seems to want everyone to believe that Mars was behind it. Most of the episode takes place on the Martian warship Donnager and events pick up right where they left off last week with Jim Holden on the bridge.

I have to say the design work on the Martian ship is exceptionally well done. The bridge layout is sparse and functional. It’s a rather small bridge when you consider the size of the ship and there are no exterior windows but when you consider it they really don’t need a large size or windows since all of their navigation and weapons are done on computer terminals. There is one large curved display that they are using that I wouldn’t mind having for my entertainment setup.

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Review: Moore ‘invades’ Europe to teach us all some lessons

This image provided by Dog Eat Dog Films shows director Michael Moore in a scene from his documentary, "Where to Invade Next." The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Feb. 12, 2016. (Dog Eat Dog Films via AP)Of course Michael Moore exaggerates. Of course he engages in cheerful, unabashed cherry-picking. Of course he sees black and white where most of us see shades of gray.

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Review: Mi In-Ear Headphones

Review: Mi In-Ear Headphones

This November, Xiaomi released a new set of Mi in-ear headphones.

The post Review: Mi In-Ear Headphones appeared first on WIRED.

WIRED » Reviews


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Review: 5 ‘Smart’ Baby Gadgets That Claim to Make You a Better Parent

The author and his test baby (Photo: JR Raphael).

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Inside The New York Times Book Review Podcast: The Year in Poetry

Parul Sehgal and Gregory Cowles discuss the year in poetry, and George Saunders talks about children’s books.

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Books of The Times: Review: Ian Doescher’s ‘William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge’

In the sixth work in Mr. Doescher’s series of best-selling “Star Wars” and Shakespeare mash-ups, even R2-D2’s digital chatter scans in iambic pentameter.

NYT > Books


Life is Strange Review

Life is Strange - Review - YT Thumb

Now that all 5 chapters have been released, we capture a final score of Life is Strange for posterity. Does time heal all wounds? Videos Hub

Wiley CPAexcel Exam Review 2014 Test Bank

Wiley CPAexcel Exam Review 2014 Test Bank

All the information you need to pass the CPA exam on your ownUpdated annually with the latest AICPA content guidelines, this comprehensive practice software for the Uniform CPA Examination replicates the real exam experience to arm users with the test-taking practice they need to succeed at the testing center on exam day. With over 1,164 multiple choice and 40 simulation questions, Wiley CPAexcel Exam Review 2014 Test Bank provides users with the practice they need to pass this section of the CPA exam. Over 1,164 multiple choice and 40 simulations availableIncludes progress charts by topic that clearly show the areas where users need the most help as well as hints and detailed explanations for each questionIncludes a PIN code providing one year of access and syncing to the Online Test BankAllows users the ability to sync practice sessions and access them from any Internet-connected PC or Mac computerOther titles by Whittington: Audit Sampling: An Introduction, Fifth EditionWiley CPAexcel Exam Review 2014 Test Bank arms test-takers with detailed outlines, study guidelines, and skill-building problems to help candidates identify, focus on, and master the specific topics that need the most work. CD-ROM/DVD and other supplementary materials are not included as part of the e-book file, but are available for download after purchase.

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New Artists Review: no:carrier


The West Coast of the United States has always emanated a romantic vision of rainbow sherbet sunsets, velvety golden hills, healthy living, and progressive thinking. The psychedelic Renaissance of the 1960s played a large role in this imagery as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters roamed around the country, sharing their California sensibilities (and LSD) with those who were willing to be “turned on.” Though California is undoubtedly one of the most geologically diverse and beautiful places to live, like everything bright, it also has a dark side.

Hailing from Germany but transplanted to San Francisco, songwriter and producer Chris Wirsig of the electro-noir-pop duo no:carrier, depicts a more obscure vision of California. The other half of the duo, Cynthia Wechselberger who is the singer, still remains in Germany which does not impede on their musical partnership. Released in May of this year, their four track EP Ghosts Of The West Coast, is a haunting collection of cover songs that they describe as “the American dream gone wrong.”

The album begins with a rendition of Don Henley’s “The Boys Of Summer” which tells the story of a lurking ex-boyfriend who is woefully looking for his lost love at the end of summer. Next comes Belinda Carlisle’s tragic track, “California,” which warns the listener of the perils of fame and show business, referencing the late River Phoenix as a victim of this peril. Following “California” is Tony Carey’s “Room With a View,” an unfolding tale of broken dreams and misfortune which eventually lead to homelessness and anguish. The final track, “She Moved Through The Fair,” is a traditional Irish song about lost love and a strange choice to put on an EP titled Ghosts Of The West Coast as it breaks the thematic cohesiveness of the album.

Each track is sung by a different singer which creates a unique feel to each song. The only track performed by Wechselberger is “She Moved Through The Fair”; Melissa Harding sings “California,” Kalib Duarte sings “The Boys of Summer,” and Lauralee Brown sings “Room With a View.” Though the entire EP is cover songs, the haunting and somber vibe of Ghosts Of The West Coast possesses an inimitable sound that reinvents old tunes.

“We can’t be compared easily. We have our very own sound that includes elements from several styles – from dark wave to synthpop, from acoustic to electro,” says Wirsig. “We’re not going on the trodden paths, we stay true to our ideals and write and record exactly the songs we want.” Founded in 1995 in Germany, no:carrier was unafraid of sound experimentation and emotive tracks.

After releasing their critically acclaimed third album Wisdom & Failure in 2014, no:carrier has been experiencing a momentous pinnacle in their career in 2015. Later this year, the duo plans to release a remix collection of new original material that promises the same melancholic and bittersweet tones that they have spent the last few years building and establishing.


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Ex Machina Again?: Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of The Machine

2015-08-23-1440362178-3165223-The_Machine_410.jpgThe Machine, Dan? The Machine? Surely you must mean Ex Machina, the dark, sensual drama about a young programmer falling into the thrall of an eerily human-like android, the film that grabbed so much attention earlier this year. That’s the film you’re talking about, right?”

No, no I’m actually talking about The Machine, another film entirely. But in an curious way, I’m talking about Ex Machina as well, because it turns out there are some interesting parallels between the two films, in sufficient quantity that I think it’s well-worth discussion. Click on the player to hear my review, or right-click the link to download.

Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of The Machine

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Zaki’s Review: American Ultra

American Ultra posits a mildly amusing premise — what if a stoned-out slacker found out he was Jason Bourne? — and turns it into ninety or so minutes of filmmaking that are probably a lot more engaging than they have any right to be. Directed by Project X‘s Nima Nourizadeh and starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in a post-Adventureland reunion), it’s a little too slapdash narratively and stylistically to be truly revolutionary, but it does offer its share of chuckles, and benefits both from the talented cast and a sprightly script by Max Landis (Chronicle).

Eisenberg plays the “Ultra” of the title, a grungy loser named Mike Howell who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a shack in the woods. When the two aren’t toking up, Mike is manning the register at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, dreaming up new adventures for the cartoon ape he created. This life of drug-addled contentment comes to an abrupt halt when government agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) shows up at his store, utters a mysterious phrase, and disappears.

Suddenly, Mike finds his physical and mental abilities augmented to a superhuman degree — which couldn’t have happened at a better time, as he’s soon beset by hordes of black-clad assassins intent on ending him. You see, Mike is actually a highly trained government operative who had his mind erased, and now weaselly CIA bureaucrat Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) is ready to cross him out (Why? Who knows.). With no idea who to turn to for help and/or controlled substances, Mike must rely on his particular set of skills to keep him alive through the night.

Something American Ultra does that’s smart is simply to play it straight. I mean, not too straight, mind you, as the the entire thing is kind of goofy if you give it more than five seconds of continuous thought. But for the creatives to hang a lampshade on that goofiness would only have made that carefully constructed veneer fall in on itself, so instead, Nourizadeh and Landis borrow a page from the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg playbook, where the humor in Shaun of the Dead or The World’s End doesn’t take anything away from the relative terror of their respective scenarios.

In case you have any doubts about how deeply this is homaging the Bourne series, it’s set in a town called Liman (as in “Doug Liman,” director of 2002’s The Bourne Identity), and it features as one of its baddies the toothsome (or in this case toothless) Walton Goggins, who played an anonymous keyboard jockey in that first film. But while it would have been very easy to just be a straight-ahead parody a la any number of ’90s Leslie Nielsen vehicles, it attempts the harder task of extricating its humor from the characters’ reactions to the situation they find themselves in.

The single biggest asset to making it all work reasonably well is Eisenberg, still a few months away from getting his Lex Luthor on, whose practiced ability to underplay dialogue helps steer him clear from overselling the jokes. Stewart is also quite good here — though the action movie contortions of the third act do a disservice to the strong character she embodies during the early goings. Britton and Grace are both fun as dueling operatives, and we get fun appearances from Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale and a very grim Bill Pullman as a mysterious CIA honcho.

Arriving very near the tail end of summer movie season, American Ultra probably ends up benefiting more than it should from the inevitable lowered expectations that come from its particular positioning on the release calendar. As these kind of stoner comedies go, it ends up being kind of a welcome chaser to this summer’s spate of cinematic spycraft. As these things go, it’s makes for a breezy enough diversion (albeit, an insanely violent diversion) that does some clever things with its core conceit. Not necessarily “ultra,” but okay. B-

For more on American Ultra, as well as discussion on Straight Outta Compton, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Fantastic Four, check out the latest episode of The MovieFilm Podcast, either at this link or via the embed below:

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Zaki’s Review: Straight Outta Compton

The first time I heard of N.W.A. was in summer of 1989. I was watching a news story with folks breathlessly bemoaning a new kind of music that used salty language and exhorted listeners to commit violence against police. I didn’t think much of that moment at the time, partly because I didn’t listen to rap, and partly because I was ten. But as I watched Straight Outta Compton, the engrossing biopic from director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) depicting N.W.A.’s rapid rise, sudden fall, and eventual redemption, I couldn’t help but imagine ten-year old Zaki sitting in front of that broadcast somewhere in the world of the movie, little knowing the history he was watching unfold.

Straight Outta Compton follows the usual tropes of similar music group bios (the “Be Sharps” template, as I call it), but it manages to be singularly immersive thanks to its potent mix of propulsive music, potent social commentary, and powerful performances by an engaging casts of newcomers. The story’s narrative begins in 1986 as we’re first introduced to the trio of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), and O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (played by his own son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.). All three are born and raised in the poverty-stricken streets of Compton, CA, but nurture dreams of making their mark through music.

Calling themselves N.W.A. (for “N****s With Attitude”), with Jackson writing, Young mixing, and Wright on vocals, they put out “Straight Outta Compton,” an album of “real rap” reflecting their own hardscrabble upbringing. After garnering the interest of promoter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), the group, which includes MC Ren (played by Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), takes the country by storm, with their signature hit “F*** Tha Police” generating headlines, acclaim, and controversy in equal measure. As the ’80s turn into the ’90s, it isn’t long before trouble rears its head, with Heller’s control of the group’s money driving a wedge between Wright and his colleagues.

What follows — anger, heartbreak, and loss — plays out against the backdrop of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots, and is made all the more gripping by the knowledge that it’s real. N.W.A.’s original run was surprisingly brief, with the group parting ways in 1991, but what they accomplished during that time still resonates nearly a quarter-century after their split, and probably the best feature of Straight Outta Compton is how its palette reflects the size and scale the social changes they laid the groundwork for. Not only in terms of hastening a conversation about the merits of rap (the film intercuts archival footage of Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings subtly tsk-tsk’ing the rising popularity of the genre), but also a broader discussion about racial resentment, and the platform rap offered to express it.

The ultimate measure of N.W.A.’s lasting impact is in how accepted the changes they ushered in have become. Eazy-E was lionized as a trailblazer upon his death in 1995. Today Dr. Dre is one of the most respected elder statesmen of hip-hop. And Ice Cube is probably more known to a sizable chunk of this movie’s audience for for playing the police than flipping them the middle finger. As has happened countless times throughout history, the revolutionaries of yesterday have become the establishmentarians of today. And while the film does depict this transition (we see Cube writing his seminal hit movie Friday), it does largely hopscotch over the misogyny that’s just as much a hallmark of gangsta rap (songs like “A Bitch is a Bitch” and “One Less Bitch”).

Given that Dre and Cube both served as producers (along with Eazy-E’s widow), I suppose it’s understandable that both skate through the proceedings with their reputations relatively unscathed (no mention, for example, of a 1991 incident where Young was accused of beating a female journalist). Instead, the lion’s share of blame for the group’s dissolution falls on Eazy and Heller. That said, I do have to give credit to how the script (by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) doesn’t settle for making Heller the heavy. Thanks to the always-dependable Giamatti, he’s given shades of complexity, portrayed as someone who not only believes in the group, but also stands up for them and supports them in the face of record company rejection and police intimidation.

Of the core trio of actors, all three deliver. While’s Jackson relative newness to acting is evident at times, he has an undeniable screen presence that, coupled with his uncanny resemblance to his pop, manages to do a lot of the lifting. I fully expect we’ll be hearing a lot from him, Hawkins, and Mitchell in the years to come. Just like “Straight Outta Compton” the album, Straight Outta Compton the film arrives at a nexus moment of social unrest and racial violence, and when viewed through that prism, it becomes more than just your standard music biopic. Rather, it’s a beacon marking the birth of a social movement, and in its own way it’s just as powerful a statement as Ava Duvernay’s Selma was last year. A

For more on Straight Outta Compton as well as all the latest out of Hollywood, check out the latest episode of The MovieFilm Podcast via this link or at the embed below:

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Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Broken tentpole


Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a day late and a dollar short — actually, make that several seasons late, for anyone who watches the outrageously funny animated series, Archer.

Watching Henry Cavill deadpan his way through this film as CIA agent Napoleon Solo (the name says it all, doesn’t it?), I kept waiting for him to drop one of those random one-liners that punctuate the Archer episodes like bubbles of laughing gas. Cavill looks the part and could easily play the human version of this cartoon character.

Unfortunately, Ritchie and his cowriter Lionel Wigram didn’t have a roomful of comedy writers to punch up their soft script. The result is a heavy-footed film that barely gets by on one actor’s charm, animated by some patently bogus-looking special effects.

For those of us ancient enough to have been impressionable TV viewers when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired on NBC beginning in 1964, the memories hold not the slightest whiff of a spoof. The show was TV’s answer to the growing popularity of the James Bond films and the belief that the audience was intrigued with intrigue and spies (indeed, Bond creator Ian Fleming was one of the show’s originators).

While there was humor in the give-and-take between Solo (Robert Vaughn), colleague Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) and boss Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), this show was meant to be semi-serious and exciting, along the lines of the original Mission: Impossible (which went on air two years later). If you wanted parody, you tuned in to Get Smart (which debuted the season after The Man from U.N.C.L.E.).

Now all three of these series have graduated to the big screen — and you can tell from the final scenes of U.N.C.L.E. that it’s meant to be a tentpole franchise. It worked for Mission: Impossible,” though that series is showing its age 20 years and five films into the process.

Ritchie is a pioneering cinematic stylist whose early films broke ground by infusing the most eye-catching visual effects from TV commercials into the British gangster film. Unfortunately, he has never been particularly strong on story. Nor is he a comedy writer: He’s a director with a kinetic and playful visual style, who seems to completely lose the thread when he takes the reins of a big-budget studio franchise (i.e., the cynically cash-grabbing Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr.).

So it is with The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which has a repetitive plot and tropes.

This review continues on my website.

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Film Review: The Impossible Is, Well, Not Quite Yet Possible


Polaroid has always been a bit of a legend and a bit of a mystery to me. I grew up in the 80s, so Polaroid was pop culture, although less and less so as I came of age. By the time I became a “photographer” Polaroids were no longer really in use, even though the Polaroid Corporation continued to make various films into the late 2000s. Finally, by 2008 or so, it had completely vanished.

Enter the Impossible Project, a Dutch company that bought the old Polaroid factory along with their patents etc. Soon Polaroid film – and therefore Polaroid cameras – would be up and working again. However, not all would be the same.

Given my lifelong curiosity with Polaroid cameras, I recently decided to dive in. I contacted the good people at The Impossible Project and we hashed out a deal for them to sponsor a project. Soon after they sent me a really nice refurbished SX-70 along with a hefty supply of film. Thanks be to The Impossible Project and their wonderful employees!

I really wanted to like their film. I really wanted to fall in love with the SX-70, one of the most romantic cameras of all time. I imagined myself roaming the streets of New York, SX-70 slung over my shoulder, making some of my greatest photographs to date. Alas, none of this would come to pass.

Here’s the short version of the story: Impossible film is just not stable enough (yet!) to be really useful. I hate to say it, but that seems to be the truth of the matter.

I tried the SX-70 indoors with ample light, but to no avail. Here’s Matthew in a failed attempt at a brightly lit portrait.


Next, I tried the B&W film outdoors. Better success. Here’s Granamyr’s claw. But things were still difficult. Sunlight and heat would be major obstacles to overcome in New York in July. The film doesn’t like weather that is too hot, or too cold. It also doesn’t like too much light in those first few seconds after exposure.


I installed the frog tongue, after a lot of frustration (poor directions, no visuals), and things again improved some. Here are a few more attempts at outdoor photography with color and black and white film.




In this next shot, the brick wall was a vibrant yellow. As you can see the film did not pick up the color well at all. In the following shot, a red and white wall is similarly washed out, although the photo is my favorite of all of them. It’s artsy and abstract and fun! This is perhaps were the gem lies in Impossible film – in the experimentation and fun.



This next image shows the lack of detail in the image, despite having the focus sharp at the time of capture.


The Impossible Project has been around for some time now. I think it is safe to say the “novelty” of it all has worn away. People still using this film are likely genuinely interested in instant film and not merely the “idea” of it. Having said this, this is where we are now with getting the Polaroid image back into pop culture. We kinda, sorta, more or less have it, but not quite. The images are just not we used to know as a “Polaroid photograph”. In their defense, the team at Impossible tells me that Holland (where their factory is located) has restricted the use of many chemicals on environmental grounds. This is great for the environment, but poor for the film quality. Yet, at least they are trying to get things going again and still remain environmentally friendly. Fujifilm Instax film on the other hand is likely using much more harmful chemicals to achieve their superior results. This is all worth noting, as is the general observation that analog film, in general terms, is not all that congruent with environmental movements.

In the end, I have to say there is indeed something magical about using a Polaroid camera, about the SX-70 especially. The decisive clunk of the shutter button, the whirl of the gears and the spitting out of a real piece of photographic history. It’s all very exciting. The disappointment comes in terms of the quality of the image. The film just doesn’t resolve enough detail to really be useful for serious photography and, at just over $ 3 a shot, it’s an expensive hobby. Despite this, The Impossible Project says they sold over 1 million packs of film last year and things are on the rise. They also tell me that there is a new generation of film being beta tested as I write this post. That’s exciting because I would really like to see the Impossible become, well, more possible. The very real and wonderful people behind this project are trying to do a good thing for photography, but they may have a steep hill yet to climb. Regardless, I’m not giving up on the SX-70 or The Impossible Project just yet.


Bottom Line: I can wholeheartedly recommend Impossible film for personal fun and/or experimental use, but cannot recommend it (at this time) for anything serious or professional. It’s a mixed bag verdict.

Michael Ernest Sweet is a New York City-based Canadian writer and photographer. He is the author of two photography books, The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, both from Brooklyn Arts Press. Follow Michael through Facebook or his website.

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Tembo the Badass Elephant Review

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Children’s Literature Review: Reviews, Criticism, and Commentary on Books for Children and Young People

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Batman: Arkham Knight Review

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Movie Review: Inside Out…Convoluted

After repressing several urges to walk out during the screening of Inside Out, I stayed until the conclusion. Alas, this is an overrated film directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen that is confusing. It is also childish and, yet, too complex for children. For adults, it is a drag. Yes, it is a clever thought, but it is not executed with a matching expertise. We all know we have a range of emotions and they are at war each other daily. But the animation of these emotions is subpar for Pixar. Up created by Pixar had a spectacular story line and the animation of the characters was stellar. The animation of the parents of Inside Out’s Riley, our star, is up to snuff, but the emotions of Joy, (Amy Poehler) Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) are not clever to look at. They are not up to Pixar’s ability to create inventive animated characters.

The story line is that these emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind. The play on words as in “head” “quarters” is as silly as is this film. Throughout the day these emotions speak to Riley and interact. Riley is at a crisis in her young life as her father has uprooted her from her Midwest life to live in San Francisco where he has a new job. As Riley struggles to adjust to her new life, chaos ensues in Headquarters. Alas chaos ensues in the plot which becomes chaotic without much reason. Chaos is not plot as my former mentor Norman Mailer would preach, but Pixar seems to have created a movie that should be called Chaos, instead of Inside Out. Oh, it is charming how Riley faces the new activities at school, the trials of moving into a home before the furniture arrives, and trying to fit in with her new classmates. But the story line was not enough for me. And as I struggled inside my being with should I or shouldn’t I leave the theatre, I identified with the turmoil Riley was experiencing in her head, her headquarters. And while Sadness ends up being the emotional star of this movie, I did experience this emotion because I stayed until the end of this film and sadly left the theatre.

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Mosby’s Comprehensive Review of Nursing for NCLEX-RN

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‘Where Hope Grows’: A Review

As the parent of a child with Down syndrome, when you hear about a movie where one of the main characters is a young man with Down syndrome, you get excited to watch that movie. Where Hope Grows tells the story of two men: one afraid to embrace his lot in life and do something with himself, while the other has a dream and is working hard to chase it.


Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha) is a former Major League Baseball player who is struggling with alcoholism and low self-worth while raising a rebellious teenage daughter. While in the grocery store to restock his liquor supply, Calvin meets “Produce” (David DeSanctis), a young man with Down syndrome and an infectiously positive attitude. An unexpected friendship takes root in the produce section.

Both men see something in each other that they need: Hope. When a tragedy strikes, their lives are forever bound together.


The International Down Syndrome Coalition staff had the privilege of a private screening of Where Hope Grows. Staff members were impressed and moved by the film.

IDSC Executive Director Michelle Slape said, “This movie tugged at the heartstrings and I was rooting for ‘Produce’ the whole time.”

IDSC Secretary Leslie Sieleni said the movie covers, “Real, hard subjects brought to the forefront like alcoholism and bullying. Tough to watch, but even harder to live.”

Several on the IDSC staff noted their expectations going into the movie were little more than hoping to watch a sweet movie starring an individual with Down syndrome — but were unprepared for the strong message, excellent acting and moving moments.

“If you go into this movie expecting little more than a quaint movie that gives a part to someone with Down syndrome, you will have greatly underestimated this movie,” noted IDSC Chairman Beth Sullivan. “The movie runs much deeper. It’s about love, forgiveness… and making your life count.”

This inspiring movie shatters stereotypes of those with Down syndrome and illustrates the power of friendship, love… and hope.

A story that is real and honest with an ending that you didn’t see coming, Where Hope Grows is a movie you will want to see. Be sure to find it at your local movie theater when it opens on May 15!

The Where Hope Grows official trailer can be seen here:

Find showing locations and times here

Stephanie Sumulong is on the IDSC Board of Directors and blogs at Beth Sullivan is Chairman of the IDSC.

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Review of Racing Video Game Soundtrack, AG Drive


Music has developed a close relationship with technology. The birth of the electronic era has changed how music is heard and experienced. From orchestra to band to DJ, the technological age has made it possible for one person to create powerful music that once required a team. Now, though an unlikely pairing, even video games are joining the music world.

The AG Drive iOS game opened in 73 countries and is currently the number 1 racing game in the US, number 6 action game and number 28 game in the US overall. This compilation soundtrack of AG Drive includes a full buffet of EDM flavors. With electronica, house, acid house, trance, alternative dance, 8 bit and video game scores, the AG Drive Soundtrack is truly an innovative approach to electronic music.

Another shining facet that makes this soundtrack unique is that the entire album is comprised of Finnish artists. Every musician on this record has a strong background in the Finnish EDM demoscene and uses wholly original revenue models. Ari Pulkkinen who produced the tracks “Drive,” “Electric Mayhem,” and “Ride Me Love Me,” is known for composing the theme song for the popular game Angry Birds. Fun fact! He has also composed music for award-winning games such as Resogun, Trine series, Dead Nation and Super Stardust HD. Now Ari has started his own AriTunes Records, a premium game music label with goals to create hit music through games. Ari Pulkkinen says music is “the biggest emotional aspect of any game.” A perfect conduit for the high-octane and pulsating genre of EDM. The AG Drive Soundtrack is being released on the up and coming AriTunes Records.


The other artists featured on the album include Burt Kane, Jonne Valtonen, Domestic Machine Movement, Little Bitchard, Tommy Baynen, City Cat, and Tommi Salomaa. All of the Finnish producers on this soundtrack either have a background in video game music production, electronic music production, DJing, or all of the above. Some, like Jonne Valtonen, are even classically trained musicians. Valtonen has written orchestral pieces, electronic music, game scores, and even theater music. A well rounded musician indeed.

Combining the video game and music industry is a unique way to reach new listeners. Since the inception of video games, their iconic soundtracks have become ingrained in the memory of popular culture. Games like Super Mario Bros, Zelda and Tetris have scores that became legendary and have even been covered by bands and remixed by producers. Even the Grand Theft Auto franchise is utilizing modern music, featuring underground artists such as Flying Lotus. Creating a record label that boasts music through video games is the natural next step.

The AG Drive Soundtrack is paving the way for a new style of music. Just like EDM changed how music is heard, so now does the world of video games. Permeating the minds of gamers who are not only listening to the music but living the music is an ingenious way to be heard. Together, these Finnish musicians are joining their minds as pieces of a puzzle to a bigger picture. The exciting and pulsating soundtrack of AG Drive is sure to garner much deserved attention.


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The Paris Review Hosts Spring Revel

MAKE MINE EXTRA DRY, PLEASE: Blame on the pre-and-post dinner open bars, or the crowd’s thirst for a George Plimpton-worthy good time, but The Paris Review’s Spring Revel lived up to its billing once again Tuesday night.
As the literary pub’s editors Lorin Stein, Louis Begley, Mona Simpson, Richard Ford, Katie Roiphe, Gary Shteyngart, Kurt Anderson, Tao Lin, Emma Cline and other scribes worked the room, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld recalled shooting the breeze decades ago with Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson during the magazine’s 62 White Street days. “George and I shared an affinity for three-cushion billiards,” he said with a laugh. “Hunter admired my style because he thought I was more of a dissolute than I really was.
“When I was 17, I worked in Paris near the Place Vendôme. We all lived in Paris and lived and died for that,” he said somewhat wistfully.
Then fellow Harvard Hasty Pudding performer Sharon Hoge buzzed by for a quick hello and to remind him of his collegiate cross-dressing days singing, “Career girls are independent” on stage. Weld explained, “So my preparation for my career in politics was prancing around on stage wearing women’s clothes and high heels.”
“And a huge brassiere,” she

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“Of Men and War” Film Review


The above photo was taken on August 22nd 2010 at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, California. I was celebrating my 44th birthday with some champagne, a lovely meal of local fresh vegetables and cheese, the New York Times, and pleasant conversation with my girlfriend.

Unbeknownst to me, at the same time less than half of a mile away Laurent Bécue-Renard was at the Pathway Home shooting his staggeringly brilliant documentary “Of Men and War.” Once you see this harrowing film you will understand what a stark juxtaposition our lives are from the live of soldiers who have served in combat. The freedoms we enjoy such as drinking champagne, eating lovely meals, reading the New York Times, and freely conversing with loved ones are often taken for granted.

I was perturbed by the article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine section a few weeks ago “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service” because I am one of those idiots who often thanks young men and women in uniform when they sit near me on airplanes or when I see them in public. Whether I believe in the reasons for these wars or not – or whether I believe that war is ever necessary or not – does not detract from the fact that these people are risking their lives every day so that we can benefit from the freedoms that we enjoy in America.

Watching “Of Men and War” and listening to these men recount the horrors that they have witnessed – sometimes at their own hands – is heartbreaking. As Elaine Scarry discusses in “The Body in Pain,” language cannot convey the atrocities that these men have survived and thus they feel marginalized and alienated.

The symptoms of their PTSD range from uncontrollable anger to self-loathing to alcoholism and almost none of these men can imagine reintegrating into society after experiencing the horrors of war. On the other hand, it is heartwarming to know that these men have a place to go and commune with other soldiers who also suffer from PTSD so that they do not blow their brains out like so many veterans do – according to CNN and many new sources 22 veterans commit suicide every day in America.

“Of Men and War” premiered in the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival and I commend François Truffart for programming this unsettling documentary as part of the COLCOA Film Festival at the DGA in Los Angeles on Friday April 24th. “Of Men and War” is a provocative film. It is a brave film. It is an honest film. And it is a film that every American should see.
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Instant Trailer Review: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Official Trailer #1 (2015) – Movie H

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When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to The Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

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SXSW Video – Movie Review: The Boy (2015) – Film Festival Video HD

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Zaki’s Review: Chappie

Director Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium was one of my favorite films of 2013. “This is the good stuff,” I said of the director’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated District 9, and I meant it. Well, while the year is young, it’s looking like his follow-up film, Chappie, may earn itself the opposite honor and end up on my “worst of 2015” list. Yep, it’s that bad. The sci-fi fable, about a robot that gains sentience, has an intriguing premise at its core, but it’s rare to see a talented filmmaker with so many tools and so much talent at his disposal squander a compelling idea so thoroughly.

It’s South Africa, 2020, and to combat the rampant crime, the Johannesburg PD has enlisted a high-end weapons manufacturer (think OCP from RoboCop, with Sigourney Weaver as “the Old Man”) to provide them an army of robotic police drones to augment the extant human police force. When the drones’ designer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), who’s experimenting with artifical intelligence, is kidnapped by gang members (Ninja & Yolandi Visser) who want to repurpose a ‘bot for their own ends, the result is Chappie, a drone that acts human and sounds like Sharlto Copley.

As Deon attempts (in secret) to teach Chappie what it means to “be,” giving the robot children’s books, paint sets, etc., his fellow engineer Vincent Moore, a mulleted former soldier played by Hugh Jackman, is quietly seething that the widespread acceptance of Wilson’s designs has essentially squeezed out his own model police robot, the armed-to-the-teeth Moose (think ED-209 from RoboCop). What follows then is several plot lines zigzagging and overlapping over each other, culminating in an explode-y climax that dials up the decibels and dials down the smarts.

You’ll note, I brought up RoboCop twice in the above two paragraphs, and the reason is that the influence of that seminal 1987 flick (maybe not so much the 2014 remake) is all over this thing. But weirdly, it’s like Blomkamp (who wrote the script with wife Teri Tatchell) took the exact wrong lessons from it. Per Chappie, Wilson computer-driven police robots are good, and we’re supposed to boo-hiss Moore’s model, which relies on a human operator to function. Now, maybe it’s just me, but given the option, I’d sure prefer to have a human being making life or death decisions rather than a computer.

Of course, even when the deck is so obviously and clumsily stacked against Moore (He’s religious! He’s carrying a pistol on his hip! And did you see that mullet?), Hugh Jackman can still spin it into gold, so his inclusion in the cast at least makes sense. More confusing is Blomkamp’s inclusion of Ninja and Visser, members of the South African rap group Die Antwoord, to play fictionalized versions of themselves as Chappie’s surrogate parents. Given their painfully obvious lack of acting experience, it’s a head-scratcher why he’d assign so much valuable screen time to them.

You’ll note that I’ve gone six paragraphs without talking about the titular character, which just underscores how much the movie gets wrong, rendering what little it gets right almost an afterthought. Still, make no mistake about it, the character of Chappie (he’s given that handle, by the way, after Yolandi calls him a “happy chappie”) is truly a marvel of moviemaking, thanks to the motion capture and voice work by Blomkamp regular Copley. What a shame that the film wasn’t content to focus on his journey instead of a ridiculous third act twist that practically begs you to throw your hands in the air and say “C’maaahn.”

The special effects work and action sequences are unquestionably impressive, but I think what makes Chappie such a severe disappointment is that it seems like the man who burst on the scene six years ago with District 9 seems content to tread water with another variation of the same story (“a corrupt system undone from within by a fortuitous hybrid,” as a friend glibly described it). Who knows, maybe his upcoming Alien sequel will allow him to put something new on offer, but for now, three movies into his oeuvre, it’s sure starting to look like we’ve hit the boundaries of Neill Blomkamp’s particular wheelhouse. D
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Movie Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – Checking out


No one wants to be deemed second-best, yet there it is, right in the title of the film:

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Not the intention, I’m sure – but the result, nonetheless, when you succumb to sequel-itis: Let’s take this delightful little surprise hit and try to duplicate its success without doing anything original. 

It’s like a printer running low on toner, making fainter and fainter copies. (I was going to say “carbon paper” but realized what an antiquated reference that is.) You can still see the outline of what they’re going for, but the details are a lot fuzzier. 

The original 2011 film was about a rundown residence hotel in Jaipur, India, that markets itself as the sunny, inexpensive retirement alternative to British pensioners. A group of retired strangers meet there, bond and gain a new lease on life, thanks to a fish-out-of-water experience in an exotic clime. 

Having lost the element of surprise, writer Ol Parker falls back on the trope of adorably dotty seniors having an adventure.

This review continues on my website.
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Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review

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Capcom not only delivers the definitive portable Monster Hunter, but the best entry in the series. Videos Hub

CD Review: Reviver by The Torn Images

2015-01-27-reviver.jpgAlbum: Reviver
Arist: The Torn Images
Style: Alternative Rock, Indie Rock
Released: November 19, 2014
Reviewed by: Christopher Zoukis and Randy Radic

The Torn Images recently released their first full-length album, Reviver, and is the follow-up to two previous extended play offerings. Formed circa 2012 in Fountain Valley, California, the band comprises Briand Arabaca, who performs lead vocals and guitar, Tyler De Young on drums, and session musicians Andy Hernandez and Jonathan O’Brien, taking on guitar and bass, respectively.

The band’s primary influences appear to be Coldplay, Blur, and Nirvana, with an occasional shot of the Pixies. Like Nirvana, The Torn Images are dependent upon driving, fuzz-busting guitars. For example, the opening track “The Drifting” begins with thrumming guitars that presage a real rock-out. Unfortunately, the guitars just keep thrumming, along with the addition of drums and bass. There are very few chord changes and no discernible chorus. The effect is a dark onslaught on the listener’s senses, pummelling the ears into submission without the respite of melodious interludes; it simply doesn’t work.

Another track on the album, “Blind Fascination,” resembles “The Drifting.” Replete with the same driving guitars, pounding drums, and juvenile lyrics that might appeal to gum-snapping teenagers who equate loud, potent guitars with retro-vibe. But for anyone who remembers Nirvana, it is little more than contrived mimicry.

Luckily, there are two tracks on the album that save the day from complete and total aural disaster: “Life on a Standstill” and “World of Meaning.” These songs demonstrate that the band is capable of composing and arranging music with a chorus and tempo changes. Ostensibly, embodying the influence of the 1980’s New Romanticism. The lyrics are a cloying indication of the music’s intended audience: teeny-bopping Valley Girls, but nevertheless, the music advances in a bouncy, happy manner, which indicates latent aptitude.

Briand Arabaca’s vocals remain nearly unnoticeable throughout the album, and convey minimal emotion when perceptible. His range is severely limited and bereft of distinctiveness, reminding listeners of the Laocoon and His Sons, with the good priest contorted against the coils of common sense (and likewise the more erstwhile of listeners attempting to disengage themselves from him). Only in this case, it’s a voice and not sea serpents from which extrication is sought.

Reviver lacks the ability to impress or captivate its audience. The album is besieged by insipid lyrics and poor arrangements. More than likely, the musicians have talent, but they need to refocus and re-direct.
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Podcast Review: The Bugle #263: #JeSuisCharlie

In the light of last week’s tragic massacre in the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I wanted to see how a news-oriented comedy podcast would handle the event. My go-to in such circumstances is The Bugle, with John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman.

Both are British comedians and longtime friends but, with Oliver’s stint on The Daily Show, followed by his celebrated kickoff season as host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, they’ve teamed up long distance across the Atlantic for years to keep The Bugle alive.

They lead off this episode with the attack as their top story.

Zaltzman comments on the element that news outlets expressed “their defiance of the terrorists” by NOT showing any of Hendo’s controversial cartoons while displaying video footage of the terrorists killing a policeman and shots of the blood-stained crime scene. Oliver is as outraged as his podcast partner, putting a wry but angry spin on his commentary.

They also take delight in pointing out one unintended consequence: Charlie Hebdo’s print run for the next issue is jumping to 1,000,000 from a normal figure of about 30,000.

The back half of the show deals with the dropping price of oil, traffic laws in Russia, the 2016 elections in the U.S., and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.

While the news is often unpleasant, I can count on The Bugle to at least lighten the burden of it all.

Also listening to: The GameOverGreggy Show with guest Kevin Smith; and The X-Files Files with guest Matt Gourley

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on
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Instant Trailer Review: Ant-Man Official Teaser Trailer #1 (2015) – Paul Rudd Movie HD

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Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.

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Straight Guys Review Hot Celebrity Dads For Buzzfeed (VIDEO)

Ever wonder what straight men think of hot celebrity dads like David Beckham, Will Smith and Channing Tatum?

Buzzfeed sought to answer this question in a new video, “Straight Guys Review Hot Dads.”

The clip continues in the vein of recent Buzzfeed videos, including “Guy Friends See Each Other Naked For The First Time” and “Guys Are Transformed Into Drag Queens For The First Time.”

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Drop the Hobbit, Go with the Selkie: Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armiesand& Song of the Sea

2014-12-26-Hobbit_HBT3066511r_410.jpgThere’s a bit of OCD that goes along with genre film fandom — once you’ve signed on to a franchise, you’re kind-of obligated to follow it wherever it will take you, for good or ill. Thus the sullen air hanging over screenings of Revenge of the Sith or any of the Wolverine spin-offs — it really does sap the energy out of an auditorium when attendance is more dutiful than enthusiastic.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the final installment of Peter Jackson’s latest J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, and to say it’s long-awaited is to say that fans of fantasy have been eager to get this bloated, unnecessary epic over with and move on to better things. I give my thoughts on how Jackson wraps up this prequel tale in my review for Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf, and also give my verdict on the much more engaging, Irish animated fantasy, Song of the Sea. Click on the player to hear the segment, or right-click the link to download.

Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


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Annie Review

On the surface, there is absolutely no reason to update the classic Broadway show Annie, which was already adapted for the screen in 1982. But this multicultural cast redux adds a hip swag to the classic kid’s story. This Annie is urban, emotional and fun. But far from perfect.

Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis co-star in the family musical Annie (photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).

Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild), a foster child, lives with some other girls in a modern-day tenement apartment in Harlem. The kids are watched over by a cruel and constantly inebriated Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). Hannigan, when she is not screaming her lungs bloody and can catch her breath, reminds them why they live with her: $ 157 a head from the Social Services department. Every Friday night Annie goes to a restaurant in Greenwich Village and waits for a couple to arrive. It’s the couple who abandoned her there as an infant. Friday nights for Annie are a mix of hope and disappointment.

On the other side of town, the rich side, Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), an ambitious, billionaire cellphone honcho, lives in a luxury building. Stacks is running for mayor but not getting much traction. His campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) and advisor (Rose Byrne) coach him the best they can, but Stacks’ knack for charming the press and possible constituents is nonexistent. Then, as if by fate, he saves Annie from being run over by a car. In this day of iPhones and YouTube, his one act of heroism is recorded, uploaded and on the Web in seconds. And thus begins the journey of two lost souls who try to make sense of their disparate lives — together.

Screenwriters Will Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna set their story against a slow economic recovery that feels like the ghost of the 1920s Great Depression, the setting for the original Annie. The plotting, with the new algorithm, heads down that same city sidewalks as the original, with Annie and her new, rich surrogate dad learning life lessons from each other. There are mishaps, misunderstandings, photo ops and finally a day of reckoning. The cheeky dialogue is surprisingly funny. When asked how big Stacks’ penthouse apartment’s living room was, Annie replies, “I think it was Connecticut.” There are also sexual innuendos that adults will understand and kids won’t, kind of like the dialogue in Shrek, when children couldn’t figure out why their parents where howling with laughter.

Gluck’s direction is pretty kinetic. Scenes move along at a quick pace, and he seems to have a visual gimmick for each sequence. That said, there is nothing spectacular about his guidance; he lacks style, and the footage looks more fitting for the Family Channel and not what you’d expect from a major theatrical release.

Wallis is solid, but we know from her Oscar-caliber performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild that she is a gifted young actress. Foxx is smooth and is a lot better at crafting his stuffy, wealthy, 40-something character in this comedy than he is at building credible interpretations in dramatic films. His smirk is worth a thousand lines of dialogue. Cameron Diaz’s performance is over the top, and she has to play to the cheap seats because she portrays such an unlikable character and is given the worst lines. Cannavale and Byrne are decent but not great. Stephanie Kurtzuba, as a social-services clerk/counselor with a thick Russian accent and a roving eye, steals their thunder easily.

Tech credits — sets, editing, costumes, art direction — are OK, but nothing particularly stands out.

Old songs like “Tomorrow” are joined by new tunes like “Who Am I?”, which is the best-performed song in the movie. And while we’re talking about music, I have to ask: Why cast a musical with people who can’t sing? Wallis’ soft vocals are forgettable. Acting dynamo? Yes. Singer? No. Diaz is near tone-deaf, and her meek vocals are embarrassing. Only Foxx and Kurtzuba can belt it out, and their voices alone can’t carry the entire film. And to top it off, all they are doing is lip-synching. It’s not like they’re singing live, like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.

Even with all these imperfections, as Annie careens towards the final moments, your eyes may get a bit misty. She’s just a kid. Life has been brutal. She’s looking for love. How can you hate a protagonist like that? How can you hate the movie she’s in?

You may grimace at some points, but kids might like it anyway.

Visit NNPA Syndication film critic Dwight Brown at
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The Talos Principle Review

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Croteam’s puzzler hits a chord with thought-provoking puzzles and a cryptic veiled narrative in The Talos Principle. Videos Hub

The Megalomaniac Next Door: Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of LFO

2014-11-09-LFO3_410.jpgNot all megalomaniacs are preening, medal-bedecked-uniform-wearing, sociopathic assholes. Sometimes they’re mousy, tatty, middle-class husbands with a basement full of electronic equipment and a murderous secret to hide. In LFO, Patrick Karlson plays an amateur scientist who discovers a sonic thrum that renders people susceptible to whatever suggestions cross his warped little mind. Bad news for the couple who have just moved in next door and who become the prime subjects of his experiments, worse news maybe for the world when the guy’s ambitions grow beyond enchanting the beautiful young wife into his bed. Click on the player below to hear my review for Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf, or right-click the title to download.

Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of LFO


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Women With Ph.Ds Review Amazon’s ‘Sexy Ph.D’ Costume

Halloween is over, but this “sexy Ph.D costume” will keep your fear alive.

The “Delicious Women’s Ph.D Darling Sexy Costume,” available on Amazon, features a “micro mini graduation robe” and cap, but you’ll have to provide your own high heels.

sexy phd

Only $ 50.00 on Amazon!

Women who actually hold Ph.Ds have started reviewing the costume, and their responses are nothing short of incredible. Here are eight of the best responses:

1. This costume doesn’t live up to its name. — Alyssa Picard

Sleeves are too short & have no stripes. Costume does not feature a hood. This is a “sexy BA” at best.

2. This product definitely helps women with Ph.Ds feel sexier. — Dawn Rouse

Like all lady Ph.Ds, I frequently ask myself: “How could I be sexier?”

Delicious costumes has come to my rescue! I can now lecture in my 5 inch gold spiked heels and “barely there” regalia while giving nary a thought to the male gaze and its implications on the prevalence of rape culture in our society.

I fully expect my chili pepper rating on RMP to go through the roof once I begin to greet my students in this costume. Hopefully I can keep my “post structural hegemonies” from engaging in some wardrobe malfunctions. Then again, who cares?

I’m sexy! Forget about the 7 years I spent sweating out a dissertation and engaging in innovative research!


3. The perfect outfit for showing off one’s accomplishments. — Mary from MN

When I left my nursing job for graduate school, I was so distressed. I mean what was I going to wear? There were plenty of sexy nurse costumes that I could wear to honor my accomplishments in that profession, but after I attained my PhD there was something missing. I was better educated, but not sexy. Until now. Thank you, Delicious Costumes, for filling the void. You’ve given women like me who have worked our asses off earning our degrees a way to show our asses off, too. Keep it classy, Amazon.

4. Why wasn’t this available in the ’90s? — Elizabeth P. Mackenzie

I got my Ph.D. in 1997. If only I had known about this costume. I would have worn it to liven up my doctoral defense. Instead of my committee focusing on the boring experiment they made me do over the course of several years and giving me a three hour long exam, I could have worn this, popped out of a cake, batted my eye lids asked adorably, “Puwease let me have a Ph.D.? I’ve been so good.”

Also, math is hard.

5. Perfect for all graduate student activities! — Tracy L. Brock

Wow! Super-slinky yet surprisingly comfortable for those long nights lounging around grading poorly organized undergrad essays. Thanks to my five-year diet of ramen noodles and caffeine pills, the xs/s size fits me like a glove. I’ve never felt sexier–or smarter!

6. This outfit failed to get me tenure. Would not recommend. — PassionPhD

I spent 6 years working hard to get my PhD, which was extra hard because I am a lady, and it hurt my ovaries to think so much. After obtaining this advanced degree, the only position I could secure, like the majority in my field, was an adjunct position teaching for less than $ 2000 a course. Then I got this LadyPhD regalia and my life immediately changed! My department, full of esteemed and very prestigious senior male tenured faculty, saw me walking in the hall, invited me into the department meeting, and right there on the spot, immediately voted to make me a TENURED FULL PROFESSOR.

Sadly, the next morning, I found out it was NOT a faculty meeting that I had wandered into, just professors having an office cocktail party and I was not tenured after all. I WANT MY MONEY BACK. I have student loans to pay off!!!

7. Not pink, won’t be buying. — Debjani Chakravarty

As a lady PhD who has researched other lady PhDs I am appalled that this is not in pink, a color all ladies like irrespective of degrees held. You’ve neglected to make this in the appropriate lady color.This is also not short enough for me to show off my real delicious assets to which my PhD is just garnish- “darling adornment” -if you will. Make this in fulsome Pepto-Bismol, or darling-newborn-baby pink and you’ll have me hooked.

8. Total validation of my life choices. — Barbara Quimby

As a PhD student, I’m so glad to see my goals come to life this way. I tried for so long to become a sexualized being appreciated for my breasts and hollow smile, and finally I will be realizing that dream when I receive my doctorate and don this socially acceptable outfit. Thank you for confirming that my training and education will help me to be appreciated for what I can really give back to society- great legs and tight buns!

H/T Salon
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ReThink Review: Dear White People – Lessons for Republicans and the “Post-Racial” Generation

A lot of people interested in race issues (including myself) have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Dear White People, a film about a group of black students at a mostly white university that was funded through Indiegogo and eventually made it to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival where its writer/director Justin Simien won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. With Dear White People currently earning a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and spreading to theaters nationwide this week, the film has palpable momentum as issues like white privilege, cultural appropriation, and the systemic racism and discrimination illuminated by Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri are getting more attention than ever. But even with its seemingly perfect cultural timing, is Dear White People as relevant and hypeworthy as it seems? Watch the trailer for Dear White People below.

The film takes place at the fictional Winchester University, an Ivy-League-type school whose small population of black students has been roiled by new housing rules that have effectively eliminated the school’s only traditionally black residence hall, Armstrong Parker House. That issue gets a jolt when Samantha White, a black film student (Tessa Thompson), unexpectedly becomes head of Armstrong Parker, deposing golden boy Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) who also happens to be the son of Winchester’s dean of students (Dennis Haysbert). Sam, an artist at heart with a rebel soul, shares her outspoken views on racism and cultural identity on her radio show “Dear White People”, informing the white student body why racism is flourishing and why many of the ways white people attempt to prove their lack of racism fall flat.

Sam is secretly dating a white teacher’s assistant in her film class (Justin Dobies), but she used to date Troy, who’s having his own problems with his white girlfriend (Brittany Curran) who happens to be the daughter of Winchester’s president (Peter Syverston) who’s jerk of a son (Kyle Gallner) runs the school’s National Lampoon-like comedy magazine Pastiche, which Troy would love to join. Also vying for a place on Pastiche is Colondrea “Coco” Connors, a black student (Teyonah Paris) who believes the best way for her to move up in the world is by assimilating, though she’s willing to be more controversial if it earns her more YouTube subscribers and a role on a reality show casting on the campus. Meanwhile, the more militant Reggie (Marque Richardson) has a crush on Sam and seems to be a more socially and culturally acceptable match for her. Bearing witness to all of this is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a gay nerd (though he hates the categorizations) who doesn’t feel comfortable in any of Winchester’s social groups, though he seems to find a home with the school newspaper, whose editors feel that Lionel’s blackness will give him extra insight, access, and permission to write about the race issues brought out by Sam’s election.

If that seems like an awful lot of characters and subplots, it should, and my main problem with Dear White People is that it tries to do way too much with too many characters, like Simien felt that this may be his only chance to make a feature film so he had to jam everything he’d ever wanted to say about racism and racial campus politics into this one film. This leads to a movie that’s constantly jumping from issue to issue, character to character, and subplot to subplot, providing a lot of breadth without much depth. The acting is mostly good with dialogue that’s a little too earnest and on-the-nose. And as someone who’s done some stand up comedy, I was personally offended by the fact that all of the people involved in or aspiring to join Pastiche are the film’s most humorless characters, though the film is consistently seasoned with clever humor.

Dear White People may suffer for its many ambitions, but I’m certainly glad it has them and am even more glad that this film exists at all. That’s because Dear White People is the first film to really address race in the post-Obama era head on, where even influential black people like Pharrell, Raven Simone, and Donald Glover (in what’s called the “New Black” movement) have declared that racism against blacks is no longer relevant, seemingly agreeing with white republicans who go further to claim that even invoking the subject of racism amounts to race-baiting unless it’s talking about how straight white people are the only REAL victims of discrimination in America today. And I understand how a lot of young people may honestly feel that racism is a relic of the past that America just needs to get over, especially since so many of their pop culture heroes, and even the nation’s first family, are black.

But that idealistic, or perhaps ignorant, mindset doesn’t seem to have an answer to things like Ferguson, republicans’ blatant efforts to disenfranchise black voters, how black people are discriminated against in the workplace, or the large, small, and inadvertent indignations that so many black people continue to face every day just because they’re black. And Dear White People is quick to point out that sometimes these indignations come from within the black community itself, as characters sometimes struggle with their own blackness, worrying if they’re seen as too black, not black enough, or can be comfortable carving out their own spaces somewhere in between.

Dear White People is sure to become both a cult hit and a staple on college campuses across the country, and I’m glad for it since the movie ultimately ends with more questions than answers. And with an issue as multi-faceted as racism, that is as it should be — if there really were easy answers, we’d all agree on them and quietly and unanimously abolish racism forever. But there aren’t, especially as a large percentage of Americans refuse to even acknowledge that racism and its role in America’s history have any effect on how Americans live today. But one thing Dear White People is crystal clear on is that racism exists, and that we’re nowhere near the post-racial America so many wish us to be.

As my girlfriend and I were leaving the screening of Dear White People, an older black woman who was reviewing the film stopped us to ask what we thought of it. Because what struck her most about Dear White People is how most of the issues that were brought up in the film are the same ones she faced as she fought for black people’s civil rights over 50 years ago. And that’s a message that republicans and the so-called post-racial generation need to get through their heads. Just because you don’t see racism or don’t want to see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Bergen Evans said, and quoted in the movie Magnolia, “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” Or perhaps more appropriately regarding racism in America, we can look to William Faulkner who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Podcast Review: Chewin’ It with Kevin & Steve

Do you ever find yourself thinking “I wonder what those Broken Lizard guys with the funny movies like Super Troopers and Beerfest are doing?”

Ponder no longer.

2014-10-19-kevsteve.jpgBecause at least two of them are podcasting (and have been for the past couple of years.) Kevin Heffernan and Steve Lemme pop up weekly on the Nerdist network with their show Chewin’ It with Kevin and Steve. These guys will take any subject and run with it, as witnessed in this week’s show when Lemme recounts having to take his infant son to the E.R. the night before. Heart-wrenching as it must have been at the time (the junior Lemme is doing fine), Heffernan assures his podcast partner that he and his future teenaged son will be laughing over the hospital hijinks in years to come.

The two then begin recalling the many and varied reasons for them each having had to visit hospital emergency rooms throughout their lives: A failed leap from a nightspot’s bar. A severed Achilles tendon from kicking through a frat house glass door. A crime-does-not-pay-story involving stolen porn and a nasty spill on a sewer grate.

Clearly, when these guys aren’t making movies, they’re getting into way too much trouble. And then sharing those exploits with us, so that makes it all right.

Also listening to: Plumbing The Death Star: Why Does Superman Find Lois Lane Attractive?; The Carson Podcast: Ed Ames.

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on Marc Hershon is host and executive producer of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast.
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ACSM’s Certification Review

ACSM’s Certification Review

‘ACSM’s Certification Review’ is a review manual for candidates wanting an ACSM credential including ACSM Certified Health Fitness Specialist (HFS), the ACSM Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES), and the ACSM Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) certifications. The content is based on the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs) found in ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription.

Price: $
Sold by Rakuten

The Making of Them: TV Documentary Review (belated)

I revisited my childhood yesterday. I have been reading Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, a recent book by Nick Duffel, (I’ll have more to say about the book in a later post) and came across a reference to a video made in 1994 for the BBC, The Making of Them. I had an exchange of correspondence with Nick Duffell some fifteen years ago, at the time of the publication of my own memoir, While I Am Not Afraid: Secrets of a Man’s Heart. I’m no longer sure how it came about, but I heard about the organization he had founded, Boarding School Survivors, and the title immediately struck a chord. I am, myself, a “survivor” of the British boarding school system, and was pleased to learn that someone was seriously addressing the issues I had been struggling with for my entire adult life.

“The Making of Them” is about the earliest stage of the private boarding school system, the “prep” school. Boys–and girls, but I was obviously at an all-boys school; my sister has a similar story–are sent there by their parents at the age of seven or eight, and spend their early education there until about age twelve, when they move on to “public”. i.e. private boarding school. What I remember most from that time in my life is the intense loneliness, the homesickness, the sense of alienation and difference from all the other boys. In retrospect, much later, I learned to acknowledge that I was suffering, but would have been unable to formulate such a recognition at the time. As an act of self-preservation, if nothing else, it was necessary to conceal it. Vulnerability was not an option. I created for myself a fine, extremely effective coat of armor–and wore it for another four decades. I still find myself, today, shielding myself from the unkind world out there! I am still uncomfortable with my body. I still “hold myself in.”

The BBC documentary brought these memories and feelings back with force. At several points, I found myself holding back (see?!) the tears. Granted, things had changed much between 1994 and when I first went to boarding school, in 1943. I was seven years old. Funny, I often hear myself saying I was six, but I must have been seven by then. These days, to judge from the documentary, the teachers and staff make a far greater effort to be kind and compassionate. I watched with interest, for example, how a small group of the boys themselves gathered protectively around a little lad who was suffering from homesickness. In my day, that kind of vulnerability would have been met with jeers and teasing. Even the school environment seemed friendlier, more open to individuality and expressive freedom. The periods of separation from the parents seemed much shorter: three weeks was mentioned. My own terms lasted an three interminable months, three times a year. With luck, your parents might come down at mid-term to take you out to lunch.

I watched those parents in the video, thinking of my own. How they felt, said, persuaded themselves that this was “the best thing” for their children. But their facial expressions and body language betrayed quite different feelings than their words. I noticed how a mother, picking her son up to bring him home, asked the leading question, “Was it wonderful?” To which the boy could only answer, yes. The discordance between words and body language on the part of both the parents and their sons is, at times, painful to watch. Like these young boys, I was unable to be truthful with my parents: at huge sacrifice, they were buying me the best education they could think of; it was my job to be grateful, not to whine. But at what cost, to live so great a lie?

So it’s a slightly more enlightened time, I think. At one moment, I watched with envy how a mother hugged her little boy in a genuine effusion of affection, and told him–in parting!–that she loved him. How, he must have been thinking, if she loved him, could she drive off and leave him? My own mother could never have hugged me in that way at Victoria Station, where they left me off. My father would shake my hand to say goodbye. So, yes, things have changed in many ways for the better. But still… the impact of the documentary is unmistakable: the institution of the boarding school is no substitute for what young children need most at this time in their lives, the love of their parents and the security of home. (I’m tempted to add that it’s not only boarding schools that cause the childhood wounds which, unless we work to heal them, we carry around with us for life. But that’s another story…)

I note with curiosity that there are two ways of hearing that title phrase. Until I watched this documentary I had heard only one of them–“The Making of Them”–the one with the emphasis on the last word: Them. The boarding school system is geared to creating a specific class of people, them, a peculiarly British elite, the ones who go on to Oxford or Cambridge and who generally end up running the country. O lucky me! I am one of them, and I have traveled many miles on my nice educated English accent, my charm, my finely educated mind. I “should be grateful,” and in so many ways I am. I account myself one of Them.

But then I heard one of the mothers say the words in a quite different way: “It’s the making of them,” she said. I registered the difference with a shock. It was like one of those optical illusions, where you can’t see one aspect of the image until you blink your eyes, and then can’t see the other. Of course. I had never heard it, in my mind, with this particular emphasis. This way, it gets to be the justification, a positive rather than a negative. This way, the mother could allow herself to believe that the experience was a fine way for her son to build the character he’d need to be successful in his future life.

In this context, I’ll confess to a part of myself that listened to the grown men in this powerful and moving documentary, products of the boarding school system, with the knee-jerk response: they’re “wet,” to resort to the boys’ school terminology; they’re “pathetic.” These extraordinarily privileged men actually feel sorry for themselves. Such was my conditioned reaction; and in this way was my conditioning so powerful, it triggered that judgment over decades of sometimes deep inner work and reflection. Because I recognized myself in them, these men who had come to understand the depth of the wound they had sustained, and the lasting effects it can have on a man’s life–including, but not limited to the ability to form trusting relationships and engage in simple expressions of love. Like the hugs my wife reminds me again this morning, as I write, I am too reticent to share…

Please note: you don’t have to be a “boarding school survivor” to find deep resonance in this documentary. You just need to have survived your childhood. Which, likely, if you are reading this, you have done.
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Amazon Review For A Coat Rack Is About Anything But A Coat Rack

If you’ve ever tried to get over a rough breakup, you know that half the struggle is letting go of all the bitterness. You must release your anger toward your ex, so go ahead and rant — even if you have to do so in an review of a coat rack:

coat rack
(See a larger version here)

You’re the worst, Steve.

The review was posted to Reddit on Monday — but as funny as it is, it’s probably a work of fiction. By the looks of it, the Amazon user in question — one K. Murr Jr. — spent the whole of January 28, 2014 posting equally amazing (and equally off-topic) reviews of assorted furniture, Paul McCartney concert DVDs, and other things. Like this three-piece table set:

table review
(Larger view)

Or this “Doctor Who” toy:

(Larger view)

Or this other table (the guy clearly has a thing for tables):

(Larger view)

As far as we’re concerned, “I hate Steve” will always be K. Murr Jr.’s masterwork.

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Movie review: Pride proudly crosses lines


Pride is the kind of movie that is best seen without knowing its storyline going in. Because it delivers something quite different than you expect, based on the kind of movie it seems to be.

Even if you do know the plot (which deals with the coal-miners strike that tore Great Britain apart in the mid-1980s and much more), you still have to see it to believe it. Director Matthew Warchus (primarily known for theater work such as God of Carnage and Art) tells a multi-character story based on actual events that manages to be funny, touching, enraging and otherwise demanding a viewer’s emotional response.

It starts with those strikes in Great Britain in 1984, in protest of Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to close coal mines and lay off miners. Even as the miners are striking, members of the London gay community decide, after that year’s gay pride parade, that they will support the miners and start raising money for their strike fund. When their efforts to donate the money to the union itself are ignored (because of who the donation is coming from), the group’s leader, Mark (Ben Schnetzer), rallies his troops and picks one mining village in Wales to whom they’ll take their support in person.

The miners at first are nonplussed at the idea of being in the same room as actual gay people: “I’ve never met anyone who was gay,” one local says, to which Mark replies, “That you know of.”

This review continues on my website.
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Podcast Review: Greg Proops Film Club

Most podcast listeners, if they know Greg Proops, know him as the host of The Smartest Man In The World. (Many also likely know him as a long time cast member of TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway.)

2014-09-19-GPFC.jpgSince the beginning of this year, though, he’s been pulling double duty. The Greg Proops Film Club is a monthly show, a sort of film companion if you will, featuring Proops in front of a live audience that has gathered to watch one of his favorite movies. The latest edition bookends a showing of The Man Who Would Be King, featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine from 1975.

This is no dry dissertation however but, instead, finds the host reeling off anecdotes about the production (Rumor had it, for instance, that Humprey Bogart was slated to star in the movie a decade or more earlier but passed and the project lay dormant for years), memories about watching it for the first time as a teenager at a drive-in theater, and expounding on precisely why the movie holds so much cinematic goodness for him.

In much the same style as Smartest Man, Proops brings his engaging, rapid-fire intellect to the party, keeping the audience in stitches as he prepares them for a delectable silver screen experience. The show fades off as the movie begins and then fades back in as the film ends, leaving Proops to wrap up with a few more pithy remarks before sending the crowd, as he puts it, “off into this good night.”

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on Marc Hershon is host and executive producer of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast.
Comedy – The Huffington Post
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Podcast Review: Modern Day Philosophers with Danny Lobell w/guest Shecky Greene

2014-09-06-Modern_Day_Philosophers.jpgComedian Danny Lobell moves into his second year of hosting Modern Day Philosophers, wherein he interviews a comedian guest and “pairs” them with a philosopher to then examine and discuss. Podcasting has become a place to get to hear some of the great comedians from the comedy wave two booms back – the 50’s and 60’s – and Lobell presents us with Shecky Greene, a classic funnyman if ever there was one.

The philosopher this time out? Blaise Pascal, the 17th century polymath who was a mathematician, inventor, physicist and writer. He built one of the first mechanical calculators, a fact that Greene and Lobell marvel over. “Kind words do not cost much,” said Pascal, “But they accomplish much.”

And Greene proves to be a very gracious guest. He sings. He speaks in dialects. He regales Lobell with stories of standup gigs of old. They dip into subjects such as Greene’s gambling problem, developed at a young age when his father schooled him in horse race betting and continuing through his time headlining clubs and lounges in Las Vegas. He’s quite forthcoming, revealing elements of his depression, his failed marriage, and his views on some of his contemporaries. (“Don’t ask me about Lenny Bruce. I’ll tell you sometime. Today I don’t feel like talking about Lenny.”)

We’ve lost some of our great comic minds lately – this is a wonderful opportunity to hear about the life and times of a comedy icon who is still quite lucid in his 80s, before it’s too late.

Also listening to: The Trev & Ben Show #63; Psychobabble with Tyler Oakley, #1: The Bestie

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on Marc Hershon is host and executive producer of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast.
Comedy – The Huffington Post
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Zaki’s Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

You can pinpoint the exact moment in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that actor Chris Pratt, best known until now as an affable supporting player in films such as Delivery Man, Moneyball, and TV’s Parks and Recreation, morphs into a genuine movie star. It’s about five minutes in. We see Pratt’s character, Peter Jason Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, a legendary (in his own mind, at least) outlaw who’s landed on the derelict planet Moraga to avail himself of its hidden treasures. Making his way through an ancient Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque temple, Quill pulls on earphones from a 1980s-era Walkman and dances his way across the ruins to the tune of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”

And just like that, the Marvel factory — which previously worked its mojo on Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans — has sprinkled fairy dust on top of its latest leading man.

Of course, it’s not just Pratt’s presence as Quill, a dashing rogue in the proud Han Solo tradition, that makes the James Gunn-directed Guardians worth watching. Rather, it’s the entire machine-works Marvel has constructed around him. At this stage, I’ve simply run out of superlatives for the practiced precision with which they bring each of their opuses to the screen. That “flipping pages” logo up-top has become an immediate signifier of quality, and for this, their tenth release, they’ve channeled all the goodwill built up over six years of Iron Mans and Thors and Captain Americas into an original property with a potentially unwieldy premise and a potentially laughable title, and turned it into the most confident bit of sci-fi world-building I’ve seen since the original Star Wars.

If the superhero jam pic The Avengers two summers ago was the culmination of a long-held fanboy fever dream, Guardians of the Galaxy surpasses that in some ways by delving into corners of the Marvel Comics universe so arcane it’d never even have occurred to me I’d one day see them realized on-screen. In addition to Pratt as Quill/Star-Lord, the cast includes Zoe Saldana (done up in green bodypaint, as opposed to her blue-skinned Na’vi configuration in Avatar) as assassin Gamora, WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as strongman Drax the Destroyer, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as, respectively, Rocket (a gun-toting, ass-kicking raccoon) and Groot (a sentient tree). Read the last part of that last sentence again and let it sink in. A raccoon. And a tree.

That right there perfectly sums up for me everything that makes Guardians such a late summer feast: how unapologetically it brandishes its comic book bona fides. As deftly helmed by Gunn (from a script by himself and Nicole Perlman), the film bounces between moments of heft and moments of hilarity, all without a hint of reflexive embarrassment over its four-color origins. Bear in mind, we’re talking about a genre where “Bruce Banner” became “David Banner” on TV’s The Incredible Hulk because alliterative names were deemed “too comic booky.” Heck, the makers of 1990’s execrable Punisher flick were too terrified to even have star Dolph Lundgren wear a skull t-shirt lest they alienate mainstream auds (because there was nothing wrong with that movie otherwise).

In a testament to how far away those days now seem, Guardians puts its most outlandish elements front-and-center and dares the audiences not to take them seriously — doubly interesting given that mere months ago Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave us the studio’s most grounded effort yet. Note also that I haven’t even gotten into the nitty-gritty plot details, and a big part of that is because there isn’t anything particularly original here. Ne’er-do-well misfits find common cause to save the universe from pending annihilation (said annihilation being threatened by blue baddie Ronan the Accuser, played by Lee Pace). That’s pretty much all you need to know before forking over the ticket price, but the difference is all in the execution.

Guardians of the Galaxy definitely exists within the elastic confines of the reality that producer Kevin Feige and Co. have spent six years and nine prior films (plus a TV series or two) filling in, but its marching orders are less about tilling the same old Earth than they are about staking out an entirely new field for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to plant seeds in. While cosmic space opera has been a mainstay of the modern comics since practically their inception in the ’60s, the movies have largely kept such conceits at arm’s length until now. But with what Star-Lord and crew accomplish here — as well as what they tantalizingly point us towards — it’s fair to say that not even the sky is the limit anymore for what to expect from Marvel. A
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Podcast Review: Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files

Deconstructing episodes of TV’s The X-Files, cancelled over a decade ago, just got very meta with Episode 9 of Kumail Nanjiani’s The X-Files Files new series, because he brought in the first series alumnus.

2014-08-02-xfiles.jpgFellow comedian and actor Dean Haglund, most famous for playing long-haired, bespectacled Langley, a member of The X-Files conspiracy theorist trio The Lone Gunmen, sat in with Nanjiani for this episode. The reason being that they discussing/dissecting E.B.E., the first season episode featuring the debut of the Gunmen.

Nanjiani’s fanboy excitement is palpable at times as Haglund spins out tales from behind the scenes of the episode. And there are a few Easter eggs revealed that fans of the show never knew to look for before. Such as the style of Langley’s black hornrimmed glasses varied in the first few episodes because the prop master pulled them at random out of a bag of eyeglasses each time. And that the band The Ramones were such big fans of the show that they would time their appearances on stage during nights the show was on so they would be done in time to catch every episode.

This podcast is so focused on the subject matter of The X-Files that the two guys don’t even mention the fact that Haglund has been co-hosting his own podcast, the Chillpak Hollywood Hour, for over seven years. Maybe Dean should have Kumail on his show sometime to deconstruct HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Other podcasts I’m listening to: Improv Nerd, Strange Times

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on Marc Hershon is host and executive producer of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast.
Comedy – The Huffington Post
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Invisibles: Book Review

There’s a formulation I use when I ask myself why I write — or why I continue to write well past my realistic “shelf-life” as a writer: it’s because this is what I am given to do. That I continue to ask the question is an indication of a level of uncertainty about the way in which I have chosen to define who I am, to myself as well as to others. And writing is really an odd thing to do. I make no money at it. My “name” is known only to those very few people who read my reviews of art and books, or who read my blog. I receive little in the way of the response to what I write, and have at best a tiny readership — though it’s nice to know that there is a handful of people throughout the world who read The Buddha Diaries. So why do it? Because that is what I am given to do. It’s that simple.

And yet… I hate that other formulation, “I do it for myself.” No. I’d be a fool and a narcissist if I did it for myself. Writing is by definition a means of communication. Words are a way of reaching out into the world and saying something to my fellow human beings that I judge to be of value. The other side of the creative equation is the reader, without whom my words are no more than an empty echo. So I struggle with this conundrum. How far do I need to go in order to be heard — in order for these words I go to so much trouble to write to have meaning? I see it to be a part of the responsibility I incur, as the writer of those words, to see to it that they are heard, by someone.

These thoughts recurred as I read David Zweig’s Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion. I say recurred, because I have struggled with them for many years. On the one hand, I preach the values of invisibility, as does Zweig. I admire those who toil in anonymity — who seek nothing but the reward of appreciating the excellence of their work. Zweig’s criteria for the “invisibles” he writes about are threefold: ambivalence toward recognition, meticulousness, and the savoring of responsibility. The people he writes about — and they are a fascinating and varied bunch — are those who measure success not by celebrity or financial return, but by the quality of the work they do. And it’s a persuasive argument that they are happier, more fulfilled human beings as a result. Fame, as Zweig demonstrates, is a hollow, fickle thing, and money is much overrated as a source of happiness.

For me, this is personal. In the world of art and letters, I’m always delighted to discover the unknown, the solitary painter who might labor for a lifetime without recognition, and yet make work that is worthy of any museum’s walls. I sing the praises of those who devote more time to the studio than to Facebook or LinkedIn. I published, myself, a collection of essays under the title Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce. The oldest of these essays, written more than three decades ago, was titled “A Word for the Amateur,” and it was written as a protest against the teaching of “professionalism” in art schools. So, yes, I have been thinking about matters related to “invisibility” for much of my working life.

And, to be honest, agonizing too. Like Zweig, I find the whole notion of “branding” to be anathema. The “relentless self-promotion” about which he writes has had a baleful influence on our common culture. And yet, for the artist, for the writer, there is a responsibility to the work itself, and we neglect it at our cost. Zweig’s ideas are important; he writes about them with great persuasiveness and passion, and his book is an important reminder of some of the less appetizing aspects of our culture, as well as a celebration of some extraordinary individuals. It calls for the kind of promotion that will ensure the promulgation of its ideas — though there is a healthy distinction, to be sure, between promoting the work and promoting oneself. His thesis notwithstanding, I wish the author every success in getting the word out.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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Podcast Review: The New Phil Hendrie Show

2014-07-11-phil_hendrie.jpgWhat’s so new about The New Phil Hendrie Show, especially if it’s already up to Episode 157 as of Monday this past week? The fact is that Hendrie is now a podcaster as opposed to being a broadcaster, which he was since 1973 when he got his first terrestrial radio gig outside Orlando, Florida.

For the past couple of years, he’s been slicing and dicing the archives of his famed broadcast into podcast-sized pieces but, as of March, he’s washed his hands of the flagging radio biz.

Now he does a morning podcast Monday through Friday, joined by the cast of crazy characters that used to interact with live callers on the air. Folks like Margaret Gray, General Shaw, David G. Hall, and Jay Santos now spend most of their time getting in Phil’s way, it seems, as he tries his best to get through news stories of the day.

In this edition, Hendrie sounded off about last week’s firing of Anthony Santos from the Opie & Anthony Show on Sirius XM, offering some suggestions how Opie could survive by going it alone.

Santos, of the Citizen’s Auxiliary Police, called in to comment on a recent TSA ruling about confiscating cell phones and laptops with dead batteries — but an odd speech impediment kept him from delving too deeply into the subject.

And Don Burman from Channel 19 News called in from Disneyland but was being hassled by people in the park for being a 40-year-old man standing alone and wearing Mickey Mouse ears.

While I miss the fun of Phil bamboozling unsuspecting callers with his amazing ability to be many people at once, the formula works well in this new format, too.

This review originally posted as part of This Week In Comedy Podcasts on Marc Hershon is host and executive producer of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast.
Comedy – The Huffington Post
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ReThink Review: Life Itself — On Roger Ebert and Why I Review Movies

For most movie critics living today, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert is their patron saint. While I rarely read his reviews, I know that he’s influenced me more than I even know, starting from when I was a little kid watching At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, which I still think is the perfect format for a movie review show and probably contributed to me wanting to be a critic in the first place. The new documentary Life Itself traces Ebert’s life and extraordinary career while also chronicling the final four months of his life before he died after a long battle with cancer which took his ability to speak but supercharged his compulsion to write. Watch the trailer for Life Itself below.

Based on Ebert’s book of the same name, Life Itself traces Ebert’s career as a born writer who eventually became a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times where, at the age of 25, he was made their full-time movie critic (then an unglamorous job) when the previous critic quit. But Ebert’s talent and intelligence quickly elevated the reviews, eventually earning him a Pulitzer, to the point that someone got the then-novel idea of starting a movie review TV show pairing Ebert with Chicago Tribune critic and rival Gene Siskel.

It’s this part of the film, detailing the evolution of the show and Ebert and Siskel’s relationship, that I found the most fascinating and fun since footage and interviews (including the first-ever interview with Siskel’s widow Marlene) reveal that the enmity and differences between Siskel and Ebert went even deeper than they appeared on a show famous for their testy exchanges. The two were an odd couple in every way, but their dynamic led to them becoming the most famous and powerful film critics in history and eventually the closest of friends — a journey that could make a great film on its own. And filmmakers, several of whom are interviewed, recognized Ebert not as a scourge or scold, but a lover of film who only wanted them to do their best work.

Throughout, Life Itself returns to 2013 as Ebert continues his work and convalesces from an injury, only to learn that his cancer has spread, giving him only months to live. As the end approaches, we’re given an intimate look at his relationships with Ebert’s beloved wife Chaz, her family, and the meaning they brought to his life.

Life Itself is directed by Hoop Dreams director Steve James, who attributes the success of his film to Siskel and Ebert’s early and repeated support. But Life Itself — at nearly two hours — is not a puff piece, examining both the celebrated and unflattering aspects of Ebert’s personality, from his intelligence and writing skills which were obvious at an early age to his reputation for being an arrogant, sometimes mean attention hog. It’s a terrific film about the man, loving movies, cancer, and the role of honest criticism that you don’t need to be a critic to enjoy, though it inevitably leads this critic to think about why I do what I do.

I don’t think of myself as a disciple of Ebert, but his influence on me is undeniable. When I was still a little kid, Ebert (I preferred him to Siskel) showed me that movies should be enjoyed in context for what they are, not in comparison to an alleged golden age or an idea of what movies are supposed to be, and that movies could not only be art, but art that could be enjoyed and understood by everyone — provided it was done well. He was intellectual yet not condescending, part of the populist streak that ran through all his work — something that I relate to and probably unconsciously emulate.

I see my reviews as not being about me knowing more about movies than you or telling you how to think, but simply as an attempt to explain clearly why I feel the way I do about a movie while being honest about my biases and shortcomings, which is why I never apologize for movies I haven’t seen. After all, I’m not a movie expert or someone trying to be what I think a critic is supposed to be, but simply a guy who loves movies and loves writing about them.

But above all else, I share a belief that Ebert states early in Life Itself: that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Movies are the most powerful and accessible storytelling device that humans have created, possessing a unique power to educate and enlighten, whether it’s through presenting information, letting you into the lives of people different from you, or by putting a character you relate to in a situation you’ve shared or maybe never experienced. By doing this, movies can challenge your beliefs and preconceptions, make you feel less alone, or at least provide viewers with a shared experience that can spark a conversation based on each individual’s unique interpretation of it. And it’s only through empathy and discussion that we’ll be able to put aside our differences, emphasize what connects us, and make the world a better place.

These might be lofty ideas for a guy who runs his mouth about movies. But Roger Ebert showed that talking about movies can be a pretty wonderful thing. And if you don’t believe me, Life Itself will almost definitely change your mind.
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Nathaniel Rich has a fine sense of the apocalyptic absurd–its comical as well as its dark side. Odds Against Tomorrow sets us in the not-so-distant future, in a world where the threat of global climate change has become all too real. His hero, Mitchell Zukor, is a professional worrier, a paranoid obsessive whose mathematical genius multiplies every possible gloomy scenario to its extreme. His counterpoint is his idealized love interest, one Elsa Brunner, a young woman with a heart condition that threatens to take her life at any moment, but who dares to challenge this danger by founding a remote commune far from the reach of medical attention. The risk she takes is, for Mitchell, at once exemplary and incomprehensible…

From college, our fear-driven hero drifts with all the innocence of a Candide–I thought a lot about Voltaire’s celebrated literary joust with philosophical optimism as I read this book–into the field of corporate risk management, where he soon discovers that vast profits are to be made from the exploitation of fear, and where he is valued precisely for his skill in making dire projections of disasters to come–including the one that broods over the first part of the story and comes to fruition in the second. I won’t spoil it for others who read the book, but suffice it to say that Rich’s descriptions of the cataclysmic results of the neglected signs of climate change are more powerfully persuasive than most of the disaster movies with which we entertain ourselves each summer. I can’t help but mention that the conclusion to all this mayhem reminds me, once again, of Voltaire’s final injunction in Candide: il faut cultiver son jardin–we must cultivate our garden; or, more broadly, we need to take care of our own affairs.

In this gripping, post-Hurricane Sandy parable for our times, Rich confronts us with the truly frightening prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change. And yet his touch is light, essentially comedic. His nightmare scenario makes a mockery our gullibility, our ovine submission to the profit-motivated will of powerful corporate interests, our abject refusal to move beyond denial into action. At the same time, his Mitchell is an Everyman–an Every American, perhaps–a quasi-innocent duped by the dual forces of his own greed and fear into actions that inevitably plunge his world into the disaster that awaits it.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” is an excellent, entertaining romp through much that ails our present-day America.
Arts – The Huffington Post
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The Literally Eternal Warrior: Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of Edge of Tomorrow

2014-06-12-Edge_of_Tomorrow_AYNIKD05210584r_410.jpgWell, this is a ticklish situation. I went into Edge of Tomorrow a little nervous, knowing this much about it: that Tom Cruise played a soldier who, by some trick of the time-space continuum, was reliving over and over his death during a disastrous attack on an alien invasion force. Sounded intriguing, no question. But it also smacked, in general conception if not plot specifics, uncomfortably of last year’s Oblivion, where Tom Cruise played a survivor of an alien invasion who was also confronted with the mystery behind his own existence. What was doubly dismaying was that I could conceive of a possible explanation for Edge‘s protagonist that would parallel a major revelation in Oblivion. If that was the case, it’d be game over for me. I liked Oblivion just fine, but there was no need to revisit it.

A lot of people may have been thinking the same way — not too long before Edge‘s release, the good folks over at Warner Bros. altered their ad campaign, filling in a bit more about what Cruise’s character was going through. That put me more at ease, but I was still concerned that, like Cruise’s soldier, we’d be reliving the same day over again.

Here’s the good news: Edge of Tomorrow is not Oblivion redux. But here’s the conundrum: As a result, the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. I explore the problem in my latest review for Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf. Click on the player to hear the review, or right-click the title to download.

Hour of the Wolf Movie Review of Edge of Tomorrow


Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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‘Mad Men’ Finale Review: Dance Fever, Burgers And Space Travel

Do not read on unless you have seen the seventh episode of “Mad Men’s” final season, “Waterloo,” which also serves as the show’s 2014 finale (it returns with seven episodes in 2015).

We all know that when a “Mad Men” episode is heavy on business intrigue and office politics, it’s usually a winner, but even by that standard, “Waterloo” may have been entirely too much fun. Jim Cutler pulled his big moves, and you know what? The late Bert Cooper was not Napoleon in this episode, Cutler was. The man with the big glasses overplayed his hand and he ended up with very little to show for it. Speaking of Bert Cooper, what just happened?! Did he just do a song-and-dance number with a group of prancing secretaries? I do believe that actually did happen. All righty then! “Mad Men,” never stop surprising me!

I’ll write more about what Don’s vision of Bert meant in a moment (spoiler alert: He wants Don to be free), but first, a question: Why does the moon orbit the Earth?

Now, you may think that I’ve been watching a lot of “Cosmos” lately (and you are correct). Of course, we know the answer to that question, but for thousands of years, people didn’t know. They came up with conjectures, ideas and myths — they crafted various kinds of stories. Some of those stories are great, some are a little loony, but, obviously, the truth is that gravity binds these two bodies together. We can’t see gravity, we can’t taste it or touch it, but, among other amazing things it can do, it can make enormous objects that are otherwise separated by vast stretch of icy space influence each other in multiple ways. The Earth and the moon are bound by invisible bonds — they are cosmically connected, forever.

As are Don and Peggy.

There were twin sources of driving tension in this episode: Would the astronauts make it back from the moon, and would SC&P land the Burger Chef account? Both of these things mattered greatly, and yet, they also didn’t matter.

Of course, everyone wanted the astronauts to come home safely (and kudos to “Mad Men” for threading that storyline with genuine suspense and excitement, even though we knew the outcome of the astronauts’ return). The thing is, whether or not their re-entry went perfectly, the astronauts had still accomplished something historic, something truly awe-inspiring. The astronauts (and the NASA teams behind them) had put human beings on the moon — an important symbolic step for the maturation of our species.

That accomplishment would always stand, regardless of what happened afterward. The same is true of another enormous but more personal landmark — the maturation of Don Draper.

Think about all the things that happened to Don before that pitch meeting with Burger Chef. His wife decided that their marriage was over. It had been over in all but name for some time, but just before leaving for Indiana, he got the final death notice from Megan. For Don Draper, here was another failed attempt at intimacy and commitment.

On the work front, Bert Cooper died. He and Don weren’t close, but he’d had Don’s back enough times for it to matter, and Don felt bad for Roger and everyone else who cared about the old coot. And of course, Cooper’s death altered the balance of power inside the agency, something that Cutler didn’t even wait 30 seconds to point out (this week in Lou is the worst: Lou is not actually the worst — that honor this week goes to the odious Cutler). When he got that call from a distraught Roger, Don had every reason to believe that all that he had worked to regain was now gone. He’d have to start over again, with no wife, no allies like Roger and Peggy in the background, no real friends to rally around him. He was as isolated as we’ve ever seen him.

So what did Don do at this very low point? How’s this for momentous: He didn’t pull a Don Draper. He didn’t hobo out to the Coast or make some other self-destructive decision. In a miraculous development, he didn’t think much about himself at all. He made a strategic and personal decision — in the wee, small hours, he decided on a course of action that makes sense from several different perspective. He saw that mission to its completion in a selfless and focused way. He helped Peggy deal with her nerves, he made her believe in herself and he made damn sure the pitch meeting went as well as humanly possible.

This is connection. For Don, this is landing on the moon.

What is true connection but an ability to see someone else’s point of view? What is connection but a desire to put someone else’s needs or a larger goal first? Don didn’t need to let Peggy land the account. He could have gone out on top and garnered the Burger Chef account as a final “screw you” to everyone on Team Cutler. But he didn’t do that. In one of his darkest hours, he didn’t fall down a rabbit hole of self-absorption and pain. He didn’t crawl into a bottle and drown in narcissistic angst. On his way out the door — which is where he thought he was headed — he tried to help his protégée attain a meaningful achievement. He got nothing from that, aside from a powerful rush of pride.

To me, the center of the episode was the look that passed between Don and Peggy when she stood up at the end of her pitch. Don knew she had nailed it, and she knew it too. Don may not be much of a husband or father, let’s face it, but he knows how to do the thing that Peggy just did, and sharing that moment with her — a moment of real and well-earned triumph — was sweet indeed. A collective effort at NASA got men on the moon, and a team effort at SC&P had brought them all to this point, but Don and Peggy were the ones who set foot on that spectacular terrain.

Don and Peggy have orbited each other forever, exerting strong influences on each other; she started out as the satellite and then he took that role, but none of that really matters now. As we saw last week and saw again this week, that connection is more tangible and real than ever. Don didn’t give Peggy talent — she always had it — but he helped her hone it, he pushed her, he toughened her and he made sure that when the moment came, she nailed the pitch. And she taught him too — about friendship, loyalty and persistence. They love each other in all the ways that matter. Like gravity, you can’t see that love, but it’s undeniably there. Don Draper, Dick Whitman — it doesn’t matter. He’s no longer an asteroid, floating through the cold darkness of space on his own, and he knows it. They both do.

Don also knows that there will always be office machinations — it’s just unavoidable during these tumultuous times. But does the end result have to be selling out to McCann? Unlikely. The moon, Bert crooned to Don, belongs to everyone. Why can’t a new firm — one begun by SC&P refugees — belong to everyone he cares about? “The best things in life are free,” apparently, and Don really wants to be free, once and for all.

Coming on top of a generally wonderful episode, Bert’s shoeless dance number was icing on one tasty cake, but it also set up the final run of episodes quite efficiently. Don could accept the large sum of money on the table and sell out to corporate overlords, or he could take off in a rocket to the moon — a risky journey, of course, but he’d have Peggy, Roger and possibly even Pete by his side. Let’s face it, Cutler’s technocratic beliefs and even Roger’s practical/desperate machinations don’t truly constitute vision. Don and Peggy have that — can they also be leaders? We’ll see.

I wouldn’t be against those two. But we will have to wait until 2015 for the answer to all these questions, and that makes me sad. As many have observed — even creator Matthew Weiner made this point — the show generally pulls off a big series of moves at about the mid-point of a typical 13-episode season.

In this 14-episode final season, the show stayed true to form by doing just that kind of thing in the seventh episode, but it’s likely that nearly a year will elapse before we see the end to this series of personal and professional machinations. AMC has done “Mad Men” no favors by stretching out the exit of a show that thrives on ambiguity and atmosphere. “Mad Men” typically marinates in certain themes and ideas before turning on the heat in the home stretch, and that wait between half-seasons will drain a lot of the momentum out of the show’s final run. But it is what it is, and we’ll have to deal with it.

As it happened, there was a lot to savor in this lovely yet energetic episode: We got a vintage Don Draper pitch (he was very smart in the way he reeled in Ted Chaough, who sure seems clinically depressed at the moment); we got a couple of subtle and evocative reminders that Peggy is indeed a mother; and I just loved the series of family tableaux that constituted the lyrical middle section of the episode. It was a brilliant visual representation of the Burger Chef “family supper” pitch: Roger, Mona, their son in law and grandson were an odd kind of family, and yet they shared the wonder of the day together. Betty’s family and her friend’s brood represented a range of viewpoints and ages, but in the end, Sally didn’t kiss the cynical athlete, she kissed the nerdy boy who made her feel a bond with something beautiful. Ted, Roger, Julio, Sally and of course, Don — they were all looking for connections, for bonds that weren’t just practical but emotional.

Numbers, data, surgical accuracy: That’s what Cutler advocated, and that’s the kind of cold, precise science that NASA workers had to use to make the moon shot work. But the journey to the moon wasn’t just about trajectories, angles and engineering calculations: It was a story people told themselves (with help from Neil Armstrong’s memorable pitch: “That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”).

“Mad Men’s” particular kind of humanism — one that loves individuals and outliers and emotional connections more than insiders, blowhards and data mavens — was all over “Waterloo.” And the moon landing was a brilliant vehicle for that kind of collective resonance and personal accomplishment. What this episode was after was a sense of wonder, and who wouldn’t feel that after seeing Don Draper act like a normal, compassionate, responsible human being. For once, Houston, we did not have a problem.

Cutler’s the only one who couldn’t see that there’s only so much you can do with number crunching and data. People want to be moved, and they were moved by the moon landing — in part, as Peggy noted, because everyone who watched it shared the same range of emotions.

Of course people enjoyed that story of progress and wonder– they’d been starving for it.

A final hail of bullets and favorite lines:

  • First things first: Ryan McGee and I will be recording a podcast with a very special guest on Monday. Around midday Monday, check the Talking TV page or on iTunes (Once it’s ready, I’ll also add the podcast to the bottom of this post).
  • Not only did Bobby break out his telescope, Megan had a telescope on her patio in California. What does this mean? Did Sharon Tate own a telescope??! #telescopetruthers
  • It looked to me as though Bert Cooper owned a Pollock. Cooper, you magnificent bastard, you!
  • “We don’t owe you anything. You’re a hired hand! Get back to work.”
  • In an episode stuffed with memorable moments, Meredith’s awkward attempt to seduce Don was hiii-larious. That moment was also a subtle reminder of Don’s change of status: These days, he’s just another guy at the office without a huge amount of mystique; women aren’t throwing themselves at him on a regular basis, not during work hours anyway. Only the dumbest human that SC&P employs would try to “comfort” Don in that particular way, and he’s way too smart (and/or not desperate enough) for that.
  • “What if it’s quicksand?”
  • “Should I reschedule?” “Get OUT!”
  • Excellent work in the final phone-call breakup between Don and Megan. Jessica Pare infused one simple word — “Don.” — will many layers of meaning, and few people do sad/hurt face better than Jon Hamm. Did you also notice that he was tearing up a little after Bert’s dance routine? He’s going to miss that shoeless elf.
  • “Take off your shoes.” “I don’t feel like it!”
  • “Marriage is a racket!”
  • I’m going to side with “Mad Men”/”Mad Style” bloggers Tom and Lorenzo regarding the development of Joan of late. I don’t think the show has done a good enough job of showing two things: Why she is so anti-Don, and why she is so mercenary these days. Both those things appear to be linked and they’ve practically been the only notes she’s gotten to play, though as we saw last week, she still very much believes in love and genuine relationships. For many seasons, she and Don got along fine, and though I know she’s eager to hang on to the status and partnership she now enjoys, her hostility to Don this season has never been properly explained, in my view. It’s kind of sad, because I think she’s an interesting character, but, on the work front anyway, there hasn’t been enough about her of late to offset the view of her as ruthless toward her once-respected co-worker.
  • Sally stands, stares and smokes just like Don.
  • Roger taking the nameplate from Bert’s office was just the right touch — sad, subtle and, in a way, momentous as well. Note the real emotion in his voice when he said, “Now I’m going to lose you too!” to Don. Roger’s the eternally irresponsible jester, but it’s nice to get these reminders that he feels things deeply.
  • “We have no liquor!”
  • The pitch scene did a great job of getting us inside Peggy’s head; she was so preoccupied and afraid that everything was just reverberating noise to her. Side note: She looked terrific in that scene. Her crisp blue and green dress and her bold red lipstick were just perfect.
  • I loved the shot of the SC&P team in the motel, rapt by the moon landing. There was such genuine interest and sincere delight on their faces. “Mad Men” can get grim and dark, but when it lets itself be optimistic, few other shows can touch it.
  • “Cooper still dead?”
  • “Cutler’s not going to stop until the firm is just Harry and the computer.”
  • The running gag of Harry not really being a partner has never gotten old.
  • “Really.” “It’s a lot of money!”
  • In a season that hasn’t been as .gif intensive as I would like, I hope many different images of Bert dancing around Sterling Cooper are up before morning. I’d bet half the reason that Weiner did the song-and-dance scene is because actor Robert Morse is a Broadway veteran, and Weiner just couldn’t let him leave the show without taking advantage of a few of those skills. And why not?
  • Thanks to everyone who has read these weekly “Mad Men” reviews — I am truly appreciative of the fact that you stopped by, and I hope we can all reconvene here next year.

Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Zaki’s Review: Godzilla (2014)

Legendary Pictures’ big budget reboot Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards and released by Warner Bros., arrives amidst a barrage of pre-release buzz that can’t help but call to mind the previous attempt by a Hollywood studio to translate this quintessentially Japanese of celluloid icons to the American cinematic vernacular. That film, from Sony-Tristar and Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, arrived exactly sixteen years ago next week as the summer season’s preordained champion. I was there opening night, popcorn in hand, brain thoroughly washed by the mountainous onslaught of hype leading up to opening night, fully expecting the greatest blockbuster of all time.

It wasn’t. In fact, my clearest memory from that day isn’t of the film itself, but of feeling so non-plussed afterwards that I went into the theater parking lot and took my first (and only) drag from a cigarette, ever. That’s right, I needed to ingest a carcinogen just to make the bad feeling go away. In the decade-and-a-half since then, Sony’s misfire has become so synonymous with Hollywood’s propensity for empty calorie excess that it’s a wonder the whole brand wasn’t rendered as radioactive as the title character. I actually re-watched it a few days ago for the first time since that nicotine-tinged night, and time has truly done nothing to salve that wound.

Given all that, it’s kind of a miracle that we’re even talking about another American take on Godzilla while the many-pronged failure of the Sony model is still fresh in so many of our memories. But hey, in this age of the insta-reboot, sixteen years is practically an eternity, and studios have rarely been ones to let a perfectly presentable IP die on the vine. And so as soon as the rights reverted back to their originators at Toho Inc., they were snaked up by Legendary Pictures for a new try that spares no expense bringing a more faithful telling to the screen. And while Edwards (making his blockbuster debut after earning his indie stripes on 2010’s Monsters) improves on Emmerich by every objective measure, his adaptation is still hobbled by a different set of stylistic and storytelling choices that keep it just short of greatness.

Starting out with a fifteen-years-ago prologue, we’re introduced to Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody, an American who is managing a nuclear reactor in Tokyo, where a mysterious meltdown occurs, leaving Brody’s wife (Juliette Binoche) dead and the surrounding areas uninhabitable. From there, we jump to the present, with Brody’s son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) returning to his family in San Francisco after a tour doing the Hurt Locker thing with the military. Brody the younger is soon summoned to Japan to retrieve his father, who’s been arrested due to his sneaking into the supposedly irradiated area around the former nuclear facility, and once father and son are reunited, they find themselves drawn into a global conspiracy that encompasses several countries and several monsters of varying dispositions.

To its credit, the film does its level best to fix some of the Sony version’s most egregious flaws. For one, there’s no try at reinventing the wheel with how this most iconic of movie monsters looks. This is unmistakably the same Godzilla that several generations of viewers have come of age with over the past sixty (!!) years. Also, unlike the Sony misfire, this film wisely sets up our title monster as an anti-hero, earning our sympathies by pitting him against two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) with EMP powers, who pose an even greater threat to our continued existence than a giant, radiation-breathing dinosaur. Also, the effects are truly spectacular. Again, unlike the Sony version, you’re never lifted right out of the experience thanks to dodgy computer graphics.

Okay, so that’s the good. Let’s talk about where things fall apart a bit. By definition, Godzilla is a force of nature. He shows up, he wreaks havoc, he leaves. That’s his m.o. whether you’re talking about movies, cartoon shows, or comic books. He can’t really have an “arc,” per se, anymore than we’d expect internal conflict for the tornado in Twister. As such, much of our rooting interest in any story of this kind has to come at least partly from our connection to the (relatively) little people milling around in the general vicinity of the monster-on-monster carnage. Thus, if we aren’t given living, breathing characters to share stakes with, we don’t feel an investment in the larger struggle. You think they’re on the right track via Cranston as the elder Brody.

In a way, Cranston’s presence here feels a lot like Raymond Burr’s appearance in the 1956 Americanized version of the original 1954 Gojira (its title transmogrified to Godzilla, King of the Monsters by the time it crossed the Pacific). Even inserted after the fact, with his character by necessity not really having any direct impact on the action, Burr’s mere presence seemed to promise audiences a degree of gravitas. It’s sort of the same thing here. However, to the film’s detriment, Brody’s desperate quest to prove what actually happened at the plant, and the father-son redemption story that goes with it, are ditched entirely once the MUTOs make their big appearance about forty minutes in, leaving the Cranston character behind and Johnston as our ostensible lead.

While I have no problem with Johnson as an actor, and he’s fine here, it just seems like a rather sizable misstep on the filmmakers’ part not to get more use out of the considerable weightiness Cranston’s mere presence offers. Beyond that, we also have Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, Ford’s long-suffering wife, whose role is mainly to look at TV screens with varied looks of concern on her face. Further uppibg the gravitas-factor in the cast are David Straithairn as Admiral Stenz and Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa, both of whose job is primarily to ladle out heaping spoonfuls of backstory and exposition, which is where they started to lose me. After an absolutely crackerjack opening act, the middle section gets bogged down in anticipation of the plot finally getting moving.

A further frustration is Edwards’ tendency to cut around the action. More than once, we get the build-up to the long-in-coming Godzilla-on-MUTO action, and then we cut away to said brawl playing out on the television in the background of a separate scene. Once, it’s cute. More than that, maddening. By the time we finally get to the IMAX-sized monster mashing we paid for (with my current home in the San Francisco Bay Area taking quite the pasting), we’ve had little to no time to form any rooting interest in Godzilla himself beyond the fact that he’s who we paid our admission to see. As such, we’re following characters we don’t really care about as they move in and around situations we don’t really see, leading up to a somewhat abrupt ending they don’t really have involvement in.

So much of the primal appeal of Godzilla (the character) comes from how the concept first emerged as a meditation on and reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, less than a decade old at the time of the original movie’s release. That unavoidable real world context imbued the proceedings with a seriousness that helps it overcome, even today, the cheesy guy-in-rubber-suit schlock factor. I can’t speak to the multitudinous sequels, most of which I haven’t seen, but certainly that’s what makes the original “importan” still. Edwards pays lipservice to that lineage via an exchange between Watanabe and Straithairn that invokes Hiroshima, but it feels curiously detached from the story around it, like they don’t quite know how to pay it off.

Another thought that occurred to me as I watched was that, for a project that’s openly intended to launch a new series, I wonder if there’s enough here to lure new audiences back into theaters for round two. I mean, we basically get the blueprint here: Bad monster(s) show up. Good monster shows up. Fighting ensues. City goes down. Bad monster goes down. Good monster recedes into the ocean. Wash, rinse, repeat. I’m not sure how much they can really vary from that, and given the franchise hopes Legendary has pinned to this pic, I’m wondering if there’s anywhere to go from here (and yes, I say that fully cognizant of the fact that there are twenty-nine flicks before this one).

For what it’s worth, I didn’t leave the theater after the 2014 Godzilla desperately needing a cigarette. Also, the more time that passes from my initial screening, the less I focus on the pacing and logic issues, and the more my mind lingers on certain powerful images and set pieces, which certainly speaks to Edwards’ accomplishment. Heck, the giant wave that signals Godzilla’s landfall in Hawaii is practically worth the ticket price alone, and it’s great to see a CGI Godzilla who actually looks and acts like Godzilla, radiation breath and all. Even so, despite the obvious affection and attention to detail that Edwards lavishes on his subject matter, it feels like we’re still just short of a truly great Godzilla. Maybe next time. B
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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‘Mad Men’ Review: Everyone’s Out Of Place In ‘The Runaways’

Don’t read on unless you have seen “The Runaways,” the fifth episode of “Mad Men’s” final season.

“This is the best place to be right now.” — Megan

Wrong. Almost everyone in “The Runaways” was out of place or out of their element, and quite conscious of that fact. And I’ll say more about that in a minute, but first, well, wow. You can’t make the claim that “Mad Men” denies the viewer a full range of experiences.

First, we had the AMC After Dark scene of Don having a three-way with Megan and her friend Amy. And then we had something completely different: Michael Ginsberg proudly presenting his sliced-off nipple to Peggy. Excuse me for a minute while I go drink the entire contents of my liquor cabinet.

Yeeeeow. I feel scarred from having written the above sentence about Ginsberg’s body part; seeing what was in that box was worse. There’s a mental image I’ll never be able to remove from my brain — Scout’s honor.

As wildly different as those two moments were, this is “Mad Men,” so the moments shared a thematic link, as did much of what occurred elsewhere in “The Runaways.” As I noted above, almost every character stood on unfamiliar terrain or felt deeply alienated from what was going on around them.

Even though Don may have succumbed to the charms of Megan and her friend, there was reluctance in everything he did when he was out in California. He felt left out at her party, he tried to ignore her dancing with another man and he sensed that there was something odd about Stephanie’s quick exit from Megan’s pad. Don was so uncomfortable that Harry Crane, of all people, turned out to be a sight for sore eyes. Don couldn’t wait to get away from all those pot-smokin’ hippies and go drink manly alcohol in a dimly lit bar. There’s only so much extramarital flirtation and banjo a man can be expected to endure.

Ginsberg’s unease, at least in his own mind, had an explanation: It was all the computer’s fault. He was so rattled by that humming monolith that he actually went to Peggy’s house, a weird place for him to end up on a Saturday night. There, Ginsberg found one of the episode’s many odd pairings: Peggy and little Julio from upstairs. In an episode full of characters experiencing discomfort and disconnected states, it’s wildly ironic and very sad that Ginsberg actually found relief from his distress. Unfortunately, his “relief” was a symptom of profound mental illness.

On the other coast, Betty had a party that was about as different from Megan’s bash as it could be. Another irony: Despite her stable and moneyed environment, Bettty was every bit as disconnected from her husband as Megan was. There were a lot of people who couldn’t be trusted in this hour: Henry couldn’t trust Betty to keep her mouth shut about her political opinions and discuss only safe, non-controversial topics. Megan (speaking for herself, rather than Don) didn’t trust Stephanie to deal with her situation in the ideal way — whatever that meant — so she sent her packing. The subtext was, of course, that Megan felt threatened by Stephanie’s easy emotional intimacy with Don, something that Megan always had to fight for (and despite her efforts, her bond with Don was clearly slipping away).

Betty, not surprisingly, didn’t trust Sally to take care of herself and her precious nose (and if I were Henry, I wouldn’t trust Betty around any of those kids, given that Betty’s only response to any setback is petulant rage. Gene and Bobby, start packing for boarding school now).

It was bittersweet to see Bobby finally have someone to talk to (though even he felt out of place in Sally’s little-used bedroom). Sally was yet another character who was away from her usual spot. She was not at her school, but stuck in Betty’s orbit, the absolute last place Sally wanted to be. Despite the episode’s title, Sally didn’t run away — Henry took Sally to the doctor in the morning — but almost everyone in this hour was in flight from someone or to a new place.

Even Harry wasn’t where he was suppose to be — he ended up in Megan’s house, with a woman who was most certainly not his wife. Spotting Don, Harry gladly fled that uncomfortable situation.

Ah, finally we come to the one person who was in his element in this hour. That’s not to say that Don was comfortable in much of this hour: For one thing, he was very annoyed that he didn’t get to swoop and take care of the pregnant Stephanie. That situation tailor-made for Don: She was a beautiful, exotic, intelligent woman who was dependent on Don for her day-to-day existence. But Don wasn’t allowed to save the day, because a put-out Megan basically sent Stephanie packing.

But all the L.A. annoyance was just the prelude to Don’s discovery about the cigarette account. Toward the end of the episode we got, of all things, a vintage Don Draper pitch, just when I’d stopped expecting those to happen anymore. Classic Draper: He took a situation in which he was not wanted and which was, in fact, part of a scheme to get rid of him — and he turned the tables on his enemies and ended up making himself essential to the client. Just look at the smug look he wore as he hailed a taxi at the curb. Draper is back, baby.

It really was Don’s ideal kind of situation: He loves being the underdog, the guy who, to all intents and appearances, has no cards left to play. The joke’s on you, Cutler and Lou: Don may not be able to connect in person with Stephanie or connect emotionally with his wife, but put his back against the wall in a business situation and there’s a good chance he’ll do something nobody will soon forget. This time, he made an impression in a good way — this was not the Don of the legendarily disastrous Hershey’s pitch. This was a guy who’s played office politics for a long time and could, if he wanted to, run circles around a vindictive mediocrity like Lou Avery.

This time, Don wanted to do just that, and he nailed it. (That said, this is not the Don of Season 1. That little scene just before Don entered the breakfast meeting with the cigarette guys was sheer perfection. Doubt washed over his face, and Don quickly mastered it, but we knew he was much more nervous than he let on.)

Without an elegant segue, I’d like to turn to the problem of Megan. I don’t quite get why she appeared to be fighting so hard for her marriage. Last time we saw her, she appeared to be on the road to accepting that her relationship with Don was winding down. Los Angeles appears to be the place for her — she certainly felt more at home at her Laurel Canyon party than she ever did as host of Don’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” blowout. She’s got her own circle of friends and her own life. Don’s made it clear that New York is his home. It didn’t make sense to me to see her go to such lengths to keep her relationship with Don going.

The problem of Megan pre-dates this season, of course. Megan is largely a blank slate — she’s defined by her relationship with Don, and I don’t have a great sense of who she is or what she wants outside of that. I can imagine the internal emotional and intellectual life of Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger or Don, for example, but that’s just not the case with Megan.

This season especially, the show appears to be changing who she is week by week, according to the needs of the story rather than the (admittedly indistinct) personality of the character. For a few seasons, she seemed like a sensible and smart young woman, but out of nowhere, she became a semi-crazed director-stalker out in L.A. She was righteously furious at Don’s deception about his job suspension and his refusal to join her on the West Coast, but this week she’s got rid of Stephanie, tried to make Don jealous with another guy and had a three-way in a desperate attempt to keep him interested.

All these things don’t strike me as different facets of her character: They seem to me like evidence of the fact that the writers don’t have a great grasp of who she is or what makes her tick. It also says to me that the writers have story needs they need her to fulfill and who she is changes from week to week based on the plotting needs of the moment.

Regardless of the inconsistent writing for Megan, it’s clear that Don and Megan’s marriage is extremely shaky. As I’ve said before, Don’s first and only real love is his work, and it’s clear that that interests him once again, and he’s merely going through the motions with Megan. Now that he scents a huge account and sees a possible new role for himself at the firm, he can barely sustain a morning-after conversation with Megan, let alone her pal Amy.

Also on shaky ground: The relationship between Betty and Henry. The only real reason I think Betty wouldn’t consent to a divorce is because she’s already been divorced once and she couldn’t handle the social ostracism that would come from being twice divorced. That said, she herself put her finger on the problem that I’ve complained about forever when it comes to Betty: She’s too passive, too reactive. If she’s is so fond of thinking for herself, she should do something with those opinions and that knowledge. Giving Gene baths, turning Bobby into an anxious wreck and threatening her daughter with physical harm don’t appear to add up to a full-time job, and she certainly appears to want more in her life than she currently has.

Don wanted an attractive, capable accessory when he went after Megan — what he got was a woman with her own wants and interests, and thus he eventually lost interest. Not unlike Don, Henry wanted a woman he could save — a pretty blonde doll who would look good on his arm and who wouldn’t have ideas of her own. Henry also didn’t get what he wanted, but he also knows that divorcing Betty would likely end his political career. Somehow those two, I think, will find separate orbits for themselves and remain together on paper and emotionally very far apart.

For his part, Don couldn’t wait to leave Los Angeles — which he knows is not the place for him — and get back to the one place that has always made sense to him: the office. Amongst all these disconnected, lost people who failed to make real connections in this purposely disjointed hour, Don stood out. As he stood on that curb, he knew exactly where he belonged.

“You’re incredible.” “Thank you.”

Oh, Don Draper. You may have your faults but I can’t wait to see you stick a (metaphorical) knife in Lou Avery’s back. Or his front. Whichever you prefer.

Hail of bullets:

  • It’s so weird to see Caity Lotz on “Mad Men” after two seasons of seeing her as Sara/The Canary on “Arrow.” I kept expecting her to ninja-fight somebody.
  • Scout = Don Draper. Both can take anything but an order!
  • A fairly standard sub-theme in the episode: The clash between the Establishment and Those Irreverent Young People (i.e. the “flag-burning snots”). Lou couldn’t stand the fact that his employees thought his comic was corny and outdated (he really lost them when he compared his work to that of Dylan. You may have miscalculated a bit there, Lou). But his disgust was reflected in Betty’s condescending remarks about the Young People Today and their lack of respect for authority, etc.
  • Now that Anna’s gone, Stephanie’s the only person left in Don’s life who has the right to call him Dick. I think that means a lot to him, for complex reasons. By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Don only cares about Stephanie because she ignites his savior complex. I also think he sincerely likes having “family” in the sense that other people do. There’s not much about Don/Dick that feels normal, and having a “niece” allows him to feel more like other normal family folk, I suspect.
  • This week in Lou is the worst: Keeping Don late and then not looking at his work until Monday anyway.
  • I think Amy was into having a three-way because she’s actually in love with Megan. Just a theory.
  • Just to go micro for a second, I loved one subtle moment in the bar between Don and Harry. A semi-drunk, nervous Harry started sharing work gossip with Don, but Harry closed up again when Don didn’t treat him like a friend. Don instantly sensed what Harry needed and clapped him on the back, acted friendlier and ordered more drinks. He went from Batman to work pal in the blink of an eye. What Harry didn’t realize was that it was all an act. Don just had to know what Harry knew about the new account Jim Cutler and Lou Avery were going after. In any case, in that moment, he read Harry perfectly. When Don’s on his A-game, there are few who can touch him.
  • I really thought Lou was going to fire Stan when Stan said, “You?” That whole scene in Lou’s office was a classic moment of “Mad Men” comedy in an episode that really needed it. Because none of us can unsee what was in Ginsberg’s box.
  • Speaking of Ginsberg, I know I’m not the only one who detected signs of psychosis or schizophrenia not long after he made his first appearance on the show. I always had a feeling he was going to lose it some day, but that didn’t make the pathos of his breakdown any easier to bear. I don’t know if Ben Feldman will be back, but if not, here’s to a really wonderful performance as Ginsberg. The character could be quite dryly funny at times, but there was always a deeply rooted humanity about him — an intensity and a wellspring of compassion that lurked just below the surface. Part of the reason the breakdown was so sad was because Ginsberg was always just a little to sensitive. He always felt things too much. That fed his creativity, but it also fed his madness, which overtook him in the end. Poor guy.
  • Speaking of great performances, Elisabeth Moss did a wonderful job showing Peggy’s range of reactions to Ginsberg’s descending madness. I laughed out loud at the way she said “Time to go” in her apartment, and her horrified reaction to Ginsberg’s gift was quite memorable as well. But what sticks with me most is the mixture of fear, revulsion, shock and sadness that washed over her face as she edged out of the room and away from Ginsberg. She truly liked the guy, and in that moment she knew that his life as he knew it was over.
  • Nice of Stan to go to the hospital with Ginsberg. Stan’s always up for a joke and a toke, but he’s also a really good friend.

Ryan McGee and I talked about “Mad Men” (as well as “Penny Dreadful” and other shows) in last week’s Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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‘Mad Men’ Review: Man Versus Machine In ‘The Monolith’

Don’t read on unless you’ve seen “The Monolith,” the fourth episode of “Mad Men’s” final season.

“Are you just going to kill yourself? Give them what they want?” — Freddy Rumsen

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s hobo time!

What does a person do when confronted with an image of themselves they don’t like? What does a grown adult do when things get difficult and confusing? Why, you just leave, of course! Effort, compromise, hard work and just showing up — who has time for such trivialities? Not Don Draper. Not our good friend Marigold.

Presented with the ideas that the Don Draper of the past is now irrelevant and that he must now compete while occupying a subservient position, Don did what he does best — he rebelled. He resorted to all his old tricks, one after another. During his meeting in Peggy’s office, he gave her such a glare of acerbic fury that I thought her clothing might spontaneously combust. Next, he ostentatiously didn’t do his homework, making a point of playing Solitaire instead of attending Peggy’s meeting a few feet away.

The end run was always popular with Don as well — what if he could pull in a new piece of business and be hailed once again as the conquering hero? Nope, Bert Cooper wasn’t buying it. Don was reminded that he was sitting in the office of a dead man and that just about everyone in a position of authority at the firm expected — no, hoped — that Don’s time with them would expire as well. Don protested, Don fired off pleas and insults, but nothing worked. Cooper was Not Having It. How dare he?

How dare Peggy try to boss Don around? How dare Cooper regard him as an outmoded piece of garbage — something to be cleared out of the creative bullpen and replaced with a gleaming, monstrous machine? How dare Roger be absent and unavailable for an old-time “Why Don’t These Fools Appreciate Us” commiseration party? Well, Don would show all of them!

Yes, they’d be sorry, wouldn’t they, after Don got stinking drunk in his office and had to be dragged him (not before insulting his erstwhile new friend Lloyd). Don was so caught up in his drunken, self-serving tantrum and his desire to hobo out of his responsibilities that he one basic fact didn’t even register: The only person in Manhattan who was willing to meet him for a mid-afternoon date was not a sexy lady but, well, Freddy Rumsen.

Thank God for Freddy Rumsen. Once he got Don home and sobered up, Freddy drove home the point of the episode: At some point, all of us have to get over ourselves. Even Don Draper has to get over himself. Don was angry that the version of himself from the past — the slick, more-or-less reliable version of him that used to kick ass back in the day — had been forgotten. Rather than re-earn his place at the table after an egregious series of errors, he wanted to kick the table apart and use it for kindling. That’s mature!

One mystery has been solved, anyway. We now know that when Don said “Okay” to the partners’ demands, he really didn’t have a plan, aside from riding in on the non-existent reputation that he’d spent the past few years shredding. Don made the mistake of thinking that he had some credit in reserve with these folks, when in fact, his account has been overdrawn for some time. It’s humiliating to get smacked in the face by the truth, and we all know how well Don deals with humiliation and shame. An empty bottle is usually just the start of that spiral.

As for Roger’s daughter Margaret, her crisis stemmed from the past as well. She blew up her life and that of her family, because her parents weren’t there for her in consistent and helpful ways when she was young. Her father let her down by being absent and her mother was too lax, and her idea of learning from the past was to repeat those mistakes with her own child. That would sure show Ellery! All things considered, Margaret’s sojourn at the farm was just a different version of Don’s foot-stomping hissy fit. Both she and Don wanted their lives to be different, but rather than getting buckling down and changing things the hard way — keeping other people’s needs in mind all the while — they both preferred to just up and leave and/or make scenes. Margaret at least made a show of outer placidity, but her deep well of anger roiled just below the surface.

For all we know, Margaret stayed down on the farm (which fits this season’s less-than-encouraging pattern of female characters frequently making very selfish, short-sighted and even out-of-character decisions, as Sam Adams pointed out). But this is the season of Don learning from his mistakes, sort of. He’s learning to the extent that he can.

The opening image of the season showed Freddy giving Don’s pitch about the preciousness of time, and, in a manner of speaking, Freddy gave that pitch once more to Don in “The Monolith.” Don was encouraged to forget the past in which he was the monolith that everyone worshiped — the one thing that made his agency distinctive. As Don was reminded several times in this hour, he is not regarded as a singular genius anymore, and even if he were, genius may no longer be required. He does have qualities that set him apart, but regardless of what his talents are, he has to compete now. He can’t phone it in, he can’t have tantrums and he can’t be unreliable. If he had any doubt about where the future was heading, he just had to ponder the fact that the machine parked 20 feet from his desk wasn’t ever going to sleep or consume a bottle of vodka in the middle of a workday.

What luck that Don’s secretary, Meredith, is as dumb as a box of rocks and never realized how drunk Don was. What luck that Peggy didn’t know that imbibing on the job was a huge no-no for Don. She didn’t really even pick up on the fact that he was wasted, given how consumed she was by her own problems.

The elaborate Cold War dance between Don and Peggy was by far the high point of the episode — you’re damn right that there’s a hierarchy, and the one that used to be etched in stone at the agency had been turned on its head. Don reporting to Peggy? Taking orders from her while sitting next to a guy who is half Don’s age? It was delicious to see how much Peggy recoiled from giving Don orders and how much she relished the experience as well. Revenge is a dish best served cold and with a side of Scotch, eh, Pegs?

Don and Peggy are cut from the same cloth: Neither of them wanted to give in, yet neither of them could afford an all-out war, so their interactions often consisted of skirmishes involving meetings, messages, secretaries, absences and Deeply Significant Glares. Creator Matthew Weiner knows we want to see Don and Peggy side by side in the creative trenches again, but he’s going to make us wait for it. Oh, how tantalizing that wait can be.

Regarding the power struggle, I’m not sure Peggy “won,” as such, but, thanks to Freddy’s advice, Don kind of gave in. It’s a miracle that all his tantrums and drunken antics didn’t get him fired, but it’s always taken Don a long time to realize just how privileged and lucky he is. Don can tuck in his shirt, take a shower and stride into the office looking like an unassailable monolith, even if he feels afraid and hungover and tired. He can, if he chooses, fake it until he makes it. Freddy doesn’t have that kind of luck or looks, and he knows just how valuable it is to get one more chance. And here’s the kicker: Rather than act petulant and angry about the fact that Don is getting another shot, rather than be instinctively vindictive like so many other characters on this show, Freddy responds like a generous, decent human being. Rather than leaving Don to twist in the wind, he preps Don to get back into the game (sure, this benefits Freddy’s freelancer income, but Freddy’s actions benefit Don much more).

Miracle of miracles, Freddy’s advice actually sinks in — some of it, anyway. Life’s about showing up every day and trying your hardest even when you don’t feel like it, and one of these days, Don may just learn that lesson.

Late in the episode, Peggy gets some advice from Joan (and who doesn’t love it when those two share some bonding time? It’s never not awesome). The thing is, Joan doesn’t really have a great grasp on the power plays that are going on all over the firm. She may know Cutler’s out to isolate Roger — she’s not blind, after all — but Lou Avery is playing a very deep game, and I don’t think Joan sees that. Lou has thought this through and he absolutely wants either Don or Peggy to fail — though his ideal situation would probably involve both of them flaming out. Lou knows their history, he knows that Don has an ego and will hate working for his former protege, and Lou only gave Peggy that raise in order to distract her from his real purpose — to get her out of his way once and for all.

Make no mistake, Lou means business. Lou got an iconic back-of-the-head shot in this episode, in a scene in which he wore a suit, not his grandpa-chopping-firewood sweater. If you ask me, this Burger Chef gambit represents Lou’s last stand. He wants to force Don and Peggy go to war, and then he hopes to sweep in and consolidate his own position once the smoke clears.

It’s not a bad gambit, but, let’s face it, Don and Peggy are dynamite team, even when they’re not getting along. The irony is, he may have done them both a huge favor, given that they often produce their best work when there’s a spark of conflict between them. I know I’m not the only one hoping Don and Peggy nail the Burger Chef pitch and leave the partners wondering why they have three creative chiefs, and whether Lou needs to be one of them.

All in all, the office plot ticked along nicely, thrumming with the tension that came from wondering if Don would self-destruct just a few weeks into his refurbished career. We’ve seen Don go down in flames before, and there was every chance that might happen again. And Roger and Margaret’s storyline was thematically linked in was that felt, dare I say it, organic. So many characters were obsessed with how things had been years ago, but the past is deeply irrelevant now. All that matters is what people do in the present day, and those who don’t recognize that will be left behind.

Roger’s a fossil too, one who has no time for self-examination or true growth, despite his fondness for pot, debauchery and half-dressed hippies. Margaret left her Junior League life behind, thinking being close to nature (and close to a shaggy, bearded dude) would bring her to a place of mature self-awareness, but like Roger’s acid trips, her country refuge was just an escape from the workaday grind of living. Margaret and Roger remain carbon copies of each other, right down to the way they crooked one elbow while staring at the stars. They are both, paraphrasing Mona’s words, perverse children who think only of themselves (a description that also fits Don pretty well).

What makes Roger unique, irreplaceable by another man or even a machine? Hard to say, but his hypocrisy and cavalier attitude toward everyone else have made him all but irrelevant in his personal and professional lives. For all his adventurousness, Roger’s always been too cowardly to live up to his biggest responsibilities, and it’s too late for him to change now.

What makes Peggy unique? Well, she’s sharp, smart and works hard, but I don’t for a minute think that the partners would stop Lou from shoving her out and replacing her with a more compliant and less creative copy chief. Peggy isn’t a coward — she’s very brave, in fact — but she’s unfortunately dependent on the goodwill of others for her upward trajectory, and she’s running very short of helpful mentors at the moment.

What makes Don unique? What does he bring to the party? Will any of those skills — if he’s still got them — still be relevant? We’ll have to wait until next week to see if he’s still got the goods. Maybe he’ll never catch up to where Peggy is on the carousel.

Hail of bullets:

  • Speaking of carousels, the final song of the episode was a nice callback to Don’s legendary Season 1 Carousel pitch. Remember back when Don was The Man? Those were the days!
  • I am a little disappointed that Roger’s Stolichnaya bottle doesn’t sing every time someone takes the cap off.
  • Somebody write a term paper on the God imagery as it relates to the new computer at SC&P, the computer as the tree of knowledge (Don even referred to Lloyd as “the apple” dangling from that tree), the danger the computer’s infinite knowledge presents, the way Don (a.k.a. the God-fearing Dick Whitman) called Lloyd the devil in all but name, the worship of monoliths in ancient cultures, etc.
  • Adding to the sense of tension and dislocation in “The Monolith” — the constant noise and hammering of the construction crew. It doesn’t take a genius to find ominous meanings in the replacement of the sloppy creative lounge with a black and white behemoth that will spit out numbers all day. “It’s not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal.” Indeed.
  • Last time Don came to the office, he floated through it like a ghost or a spectral presence. This time, it was as if he was guesting in an episode of “The Walking Dead” — when he arrived, the office was a ghost town, even to the point that a phone was left dangling in a creepy, horror-movie way. As if there weren’t enough reminders of death and mortality, Don found poor Lane’s Mets banner. Lane’s absence was all over this episode, up to and including Freddy’s warning to Don about committing career (or actual) suicide.
  • Pete can’t help but hate that Bonnie sees them as career equals and feels empowered to comment on his job performance (even in a positive way). Remember how undermining he could be to Peggy? (“I don’t like you like this.”)
  • “They’re trying to erase us!” Michael is not wrong about SC&P, in the form of Harry, Cutler and Lou, trying to minimize and freeze out the creatives. Why not take profitable, reliable mediocrity over mercurial, unreliable brilliance? Don has a long way to go before he can convince anyone that he and a truly powerful creative team present the better option. So again I wonder, maybe he and Peggy go out and establish their own agency eventually?
  • “Margaret’s run away.” “To where, Bergdorf’s?” Never change, Roger.
  • Speaking of quality Death Glares, the one Don gave Harry when Harry referred to the agency’s three creative directors was brief but delightful.
  • I definitely think Lou heard Peggy’s gibe about him, and he’s absolutely plotting her downfall.
  • Don’s face when Peggy was giving him orders regarding the Burger Chef tag lines. DON’S FACE! Such burning rage. Terrific acting by Jon Hamm.
  • “I saw that they have got a great product, but they don’t trust it.” A little bit of meta-commentary on Artists vs. Suits, or perhaps Showrunner vs. Network? Perhaps.

Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Zaki’s Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Read my 2012 review of The Amazing Spider-Man here

In 2012, after a creative roadblock halted development on a planned Spider-Man 4 that would have re-teamed director Sam Raimi with star Tobey Maguire, and with the loss of the whole franchise to Disney a very real possibility, Spider-Man rightsholders Sony Pictures chose to reboot the Marvel Comics’ webslinger’s big screen series from the ground up just ten years after it started, and a mere five years after its last unfortunate installment. As a result, a lot of folks came down hard on The Amazing Spider-Man, with much of that resentment stemming from what they perceived as a wholly unnecessary razing-and-restart.

And as far as the necessity of the reboot, I’ll offer no argument. There was really no reason to see awkward loner Peter Parker get bitten by a genetically engineer spider again, to see his poor old Uncle Ben get fatally shot again, and to see him learn to master his spidery powers again — with the filmmakers twisting themselves into pretzels all the while to be different without being too different. That said, taken on its own merits, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. And I can now say the same thing about The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which is the fifth Spider-Man film overall, the third Spider-Man sequel, and the first sequel to the reboot. Still with me?

Directed once again by Marc Webb (who feels a lot more confident at the helm of a mammoth superhero spectacle), we pick things up very shortly after we left the story last time, with Peter (Andrew Garfield) freshly graduated from high school, still struggling to find that balance between power and responsibility as his spandex-suited alter ego, while also doing the on-again/off-again dance with long-suffering gal pal Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), even after vowing to her dying dad in the first flick that he’d protect her by keeping her out of his world.

In his second spin through the title role, Andrew Garfield has really found his groove as Spidey, showing both his scientific know-how and propensity for witty banter in ways that were lacking in the Raimi-Maguire iteration of the franchise. Of course, this being a Spider-Man story, we know that things have to get more complicated. Thus, we’re introduced to new baddie Electro (Jamie Foxx), not to mention the return of Peter’s millionaire chum Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, taking over for James Franco from the previous series) to reclaim his family’s company.

Ultimately, if these movies live and die by their villains, then we’re kind of at the shallow end of the baddie pool with Electro (created in the ’60s by comic creators Stan Lee & Steve Ditko). We all know what a compelling actor Jamie Foxx is, but the underwritten role (courtesy of the script by Star Trek‘s Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) sets him up as warmed over version of Jim Carrey’s Edward Nygma in 1995’s Batman Forever. He goes from fawning Spider-Man fanboy to furious Spider-Man foe while pretty much hopscotching right over the beats to get us from point A to point B. Batman Forever did it better (which is just a weird, weird sentence to type).

The Osborn family plotline, which encompasses Harry’s dying dad Norman (Chris Cooper) as well as further revelations about the mysterious disappearance of Peter’s parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davitz) when he was a child, is also marred by a lack of focus. In the interests of preserving some of the film’s third act surprises, I won’t get into spoilers, but I’ll say that it seems like the producers (among them franchise vet Avi Arad) are determined not to do the same old thing with Harry-Peter dynamic given how much it was laced through (or weight down, if you like) the prior trilogy. I give them credit for the intent, if not the execution.

While this is starting to sound like something short of a ringing endorsement, endorse it I do, based almost entirely on the strength of the Peter-Gwen relationship, itself elevated by the easy chemistry between Garfield and Stone. It’s so, so good, and such a far cry from the creepy-weepy relationship between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst (which I never liked) in the other movies. That relationship felt forced and artificial, this one doesn’t. Not only do we believe in their affection for one another, we also buy Gwen’s integral role in both halves of Peter’s life, which in turn makes the climax (reprising a beat that should be familiar to longtime Spider-Man comic book fans) feel more consequential.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 really shouldn’t as work as well as it does. Because of Sony’s ambitious (read: risky) plans to spin-off (read: strip mine) the Spider-Man rights for all they’re worth, it’s tasked with not only furthering its own internal storyline, but also laying pipe for several other potential franchises. As a result, it has a few too many balls in the air, and a few too many plot threads randomly started or abruptly ended. It feels at times like two separate movies awkwardly scotch-taped together, which has me a bit worried about Sony’s big mega-franchise plans. But as far as this entry goes, despite its flaws, I left the theater feeling satisfied. Not amazed, but satisfied. B
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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‘Mad Men’ Review: All In ‘A Day’s Work’ For Don

Do not read on unless you have seen “A Day’s Work,” Sunday’s Season 7 episode of “Mad Men.”

Some wounds are so deep that they never go away, and you have to re-learn to how to accept them and maneuver around them again and again.

The look on Don’s face in the last scene was the highlight of “A Day’s Work,” which otherwise had some issues that I’ll get to in a minute. That short phrase that Sally uttered as she exited the car — “I love you” — transformed Don completely. All his defenses and masks were gone; he was just struck dumb. Floored.

Don Draper (and/or Dick Whitman) continually waits for the other shoe to drop. He’s always waiting for people to find out who and what he really is and then drop him, dismiss him, hate him. We’ve seen the cycle again and again: People find out his real identity or facts from his true past and he waits for that relationship to crumble. Personally and professionally, he puts up a confident front because he’s so very sure no one would ever love him or need him just because of who he really is. (That pretending will probably never end for him — witness how he dressed up for Dawn in order to lie to her about how he spends his days.)

So for Sally, of all people, to casually say she loved him — well, that was the last thing he expected. Few people have more of a reason to hate him, after all the crap Don’s pulled over the years. Sally finding him with his married mistress was just the last straw. The Don-Sally story line — the only “date” on this rather grim Valentine’s Day — wasn’t about the affirmation of a father-daughter bond, it was about Don paying his respects to his dead relationship with his daughter. He thought the one bond that meant the most to him was unfixable. He was wrong.

And please understand, I don’t think Don assumes people will reject him because he was the dirt-poor son of a prostitute or a guy who stole another man’s identity during a war. Don waits for people to reject him because he feels he is innately disgusting, contemptible, unlovable. He feels that something is sick and wrong in his soul, and he simply waits for others to find that part of him and then kick him to the curb. Sometimes he speeds the destruction along, because waiting for the inevitable rejection can be torturous.

When confronted with the fact that Sally’s willing to let him back in to her life and still loves him, he has to process the idea that maybe he’s not an intrinsically disgusting, unlovable human being. The seven-season arc of “Mad Men” may well be the story of Don’s journey from thinking he’s fundamentally incapable of and unworthy of love to his realization that he’s just another screwup, just another flawed mortal like the rest of us, just an average schmuck who makes mistakes and tries to fix them. He’s not necessarily exceptional in the height of his attainments or the depth of his mistakes. He’s just a guy who has at least one person in his life who loves him despite — and quite possibly because — of who he is.

The look on Don’s face is realization that he may be worthy of Sally’s love. But Don has to keep re-learning that it’s possible for him to be loved despite his lies, despite his past, despite his self-hatred. But I don’t expect this to be the last time he tells lies or drives his life into a ditch. But maybe he’s getting incrementally better at digging himself out of various holes.

Of course, however she feels about her dad, Sally is on to his bullsh*t like a laser beam. She knows he’s lying to himself and Megan about the state of their marriage. She knows the bicoastal thing will never work. She doesn’t quite see how he can fix the work situation. (Sidebar: Given that Don has a non-compete clause in his contract, how can that situation be repaired? If the firm doesn’t bring Don back, what can he do? Some have suggested he and Peggy start their own firm, but I don’t know if that would work, given the non-compete. Still, as Pete noted, breaking away to create an upstart is a favored strategy among Don’s cohorts.)

Bravado-filled lunches and afternoons in front of the TV aside, Don isn’t quite sure how to fix his life or move forward. And it’s a sign of progress that he doesn’t try to spin Sally or make things sound better than they were. The show might move at a glacial pace in some ways — it’s not unusual to see Don and other characters go around in circles over the course of multiple seasons — but it’s a sign of progress that Don told Sally that his actions and deceptions made him feel “ashamed.” The Don of Season 1 never would have admitted that to anyone — perhaps not even himself.

If Don’s progressed a bit, Peggy appears to have regressed, and not in ways that make a whole lot of sense to me. A lot of the contrived story line about the roses just did not work for me, and to depict Peggy as nearly unhinged over the floral misunderstanding left a bad taste in my mouth. Not great, Bob.

First of all, I know in the “Mad Men” timeline Peggy’s affair with Ted ended about three months ago, but for viewers, all of that occurred nearly a year ago. However deep the bond was between them during their relatively brief affair, to viewers, that relationship is kind of old news, and it’s just poor calibration on the part of the show to depict Peggy as still being this upset at this juncture. Yes, he promised to leave his wife for her, and yes, she was deeply hurt, but there needed to be more setup for this kind of behavior to seem plausible.

Peggy is someone who generally handles the tough things that are thrown at her in a considered way, and for her to flip out on Shirley in front of a big portion of the office just didn’t feel right. Her faintly hysterical messages for Ted, her quivering sulks, her rage at Dawn — they were all just too much. None of it quite tracked with the Peggy I’ve known for seven seasons, and though I can think of logical reasons for Shirley to avoid confronting Peggy with the truth, it was a little annoying that she never just told her where the flowers came from. It was one of those aggravating situations that would not have existed had one character uttered one sentence to another (what is this, “Lost”?).

Then there’s the whiff of something unpleasant around the fact that the more successful Peggy is, the more “Mad Men” appears to be determined to depict her personal life as a disaster. It’s almost as if the show feels it has to show her as successful but lovelorn, but that’s something of a cliche. For the longest time on TV, the most high-powered professional women were depicted as unhappy in love or incapable of sustaining relationships, because, Lord knows, it’s not possible for a woman to be successful in both arenas. Yeesh.

Yes, professional women in the ’60s faced many different kinds of roadblocks, but Peggy is a dynamic, thoughtful, attractive and intelligent woman. I find it hard to believe her entire social life would be sad, disappointing or constricted, but it always is on this show. The circles that Peggy is going in on the love-life front are starting to feel quite stale.

That said, it’s understandable that Dawn and Shirley would tread lightly around their bosses. There’s no doubt that they are under extra scrutiny and extra pressure due to their race (“Keep pretending. That’s your job.”). Bert Cooper is at least partially up front about his racism, but it percolates through almost every other interaction as well. It was certainly part of the reason the detestable Lou demanded a new secretary. No wonder Joan, dressed in appropriate fire-engine red, exploded at Peggy and Jim Cutler; having to put up with all the staffing whims of the senior staff as well as their prejudices and immaturity is just too much for one person. As Cutler pointed out, it’s more than time that the firm split her job into two positions.

Jim is one of the few people who seems to be acting fairly reasonably a good amount of the time, but at SC&P these days, ill will, sniping and pettiness is the order of the day. Truth be told, I found this episode a bit of chore at times, given that it could have been titled, “Sour People Being Mean to Each Other.” Secrets were rustled up, bonds were broken and various pairings didn’t quite match up; it was very “Mad Men”-esque but much of it felt almost too familiar. Perhaps, like Pete, we were meant to feel a bit out of sorts and disjointed. There were so many instances of people talking past each other or not quite connecting.

Roger tried to banter with Lou, but it didn’t work because Lou’s not a bantering guy. Pete tried to commiserate with Ted, but Ted wasn’t having it. The Los Angeles and New York offices tried to hash things out on the phone, but the connection kept failing and everyone ended up irritable and sore. Lou may have symbolized that dislocated feeling with his cry of “It’s not my problem!” That is the whole problem, in a sense: The firm isn’t pulling together as a team, and the enterprise is starting to feel vaguely unsustainable.

Yet despite all the obstacles in their path, Don connected with his daughter, so perhaps there’s hope left yet in this swirling morass of neurosis.

A few bullet points:

  • This week in Lou is the Absolute Worst: “I know you can’t fire her.” I love that Dawn fired many truth bombs in Lou’s direction after he was so awful to her — and how terrific is it that she she still works at the firm? She even got a promotion. That said, I do not think Shirley is going to have much time for Lou’s patronizing nonsense.
  • Sally smoking and talking smack about Betty is the scene we didn’t know we truly needed, right?
  • I’m not quite sure why Roger caved in to Jim Cutler regarding the situation with Pete and the car dealers’ association. Perhaps given that Roger’s fairly checked out of the office these days and is pursuing various naked activities outside the office most of the time, perhaps he can’t really mount an adequate campaign for power.
  • One of the few funny moments in the episode was Ted calling out, “Goodnight, Bonnie!” during Pete and Bonnie’s late-night office tryst.
  • By inviting his daughter to do a dine-and-dash with him, Don was literally asking Sally to be his partner in crime. He was joking about skipping out on the check, but there’s no doubt that Sally has picked up on many of Don’s quietly devious ways.
  • Don’s joke about the check worked better than comparing his daughter to Betty, which was certainly not the way to go. Good for Sally that she gave as good as she got, registering a direct hit with her poignant comment about Sylvia.
  • “Hard to believe your cat has the money.” Oh snap. Bearded Stan for all the win.
  • I cannot get over my love for Sally’s embroidered coat.
  • “It looks like you have a lot of work to do.” Oh snap. Nice zinger, Sally.
  • Another funny moment: Roger repeatedly apologizing to the secretary for his risque comments in the partners’ meeting. He’s evolved enough to know that his comments aren’t acceptable, but he’ll never really change.

Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Zaki’s Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Read my 2011 review of Captain America: The First Avenger here

Read my 2012 review of Marvel’s The Avengers here

For those of you keeping score at home, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the second solo flick from Marvel Studios featuring the shield-wielding Nazi-smasher created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, the third film to feature the character (not including this one, natch), and the ninth overall in their mammoth cinematic universe. What all that means is that while it has a particular story to tell and its own specific beats to hit, The Winter Soldier is also subservient to the larger brand that it’s comfortably nestled in, dutifully queuing things up for the next movie(s) in the pipeline (August’s Guardians of the Galaxy and next summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Ultimately, that sense of interconnectivity is both blessing and curse. It allows each entry to feel like it builds on the one previous as part of a larger mega-narrative, but there can also be a sense of static equilibrium at work as well, resulting in action without consequences, and movement without momentum. This is a problem that particularly afflicted the previous “Phase 2” sequels in the Marvel assembly-line: last year’s Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Both did their job well enough, and were far from bad, but they still felt more functional than exceptional. Like they were treading water until the whole gang can get back together and do something that matters.

Thankfully, static equilibrium is one phrase you can’t use to describe this one in the slightest. If The Avengers marked the culmination of the studio’s world-building efforts in the previous wave of movies (beginning with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in ’08), then The Winter Soldier is all about tearing down bits of that world just to keep us from getting too complacent. Based on one of my fave arcs from the comics, it’s focused from beginning to end on forward thrust, placing our hero at the center of a story that not only resets the chessboard in some pretty substantial ways moving forward, but it drives home Cap’s essential utility in a universe filled with super-folks whose power sets easily outclass him.

Picking up shortly after we left him at the end of Avengers, we learn that unlike his heroic teammates, who all have “normal” lives to return to, Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Chris Evans (who wears the role as comfortably as a glove his third time out) is still trying to find a sense of purpose some seventy-plus years removed from the World War II-era he left behind. As such, he’s signed on with super-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., serving as their secret weapon of sorts. As we join this entry, Cap is in the process of kiboshing a terrorist takeover at sea, and comes into possession of a memory stick containing the classified info that serves as our McGuffin.

Without getting too much into the weeds in hopes of preserving as many of the surprises as possible, that treasure trove of hidden data launches Our Man headlong into a conspiracy whose hydra-like tendrils threaten to ensnare not only his Avenging colleague Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, making her third Marvel appearance), but also S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, his sixth) as well as his superior Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford — yep, Robert Redford!). Along the way Rogers is joined by de facto sidekick Sam “Falcon” Wilson (Anthony Mackie), and oh yeah, he has to face off with the deadly Winter Soldier of the title, who may or may not have some connection to Steve’s previous life.

If you’ve been reading my reviews for awhile, you know I tend to enjoy all these Avengers flicks to some extent or another. Part of that may be that I’m still in the “honeymoon” phase of disbelief that we’re even seeing these things getting made, but I think another, more valid reason is simply how well the Marvel Studios operation, honchoed by uber-producer Kevin Feige, works at conceptualizing its storylines and picking the right creatives to pull them off. In this case, while writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return from the previous film, directors Anthony & Joe Russo step in for Joe Johnston, who ably helmed Captain America: The First Avenger.

Although the Russos’ list of credits, heavy on TV sitcoms like Community and Arrested Development, made them unlikely choices at best for a project of this sort, they display such a preternatural confidence in this genre that you’d think they’ve been doing this stuff for years. While I have my beefs with the overuse of CGI in many action movies of late (Marvel included), it’s perfectly deployed here to enhance and add-on to the practical effects in a way that makes both seem more impressive. There’s a concerted effort to show that when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, there’s no one more skilled than the good Captain. In fact, all the shield-slinging business here is at least as impressive as anything we see Thor do with his magic hammer just one franchise over.

This is demonstrated throughout, but most especially during a claustrophobic elevator-set fight sequence, and later in a no-holds-barred street brawl with the titular soldier. By film’s end, we’ve got several balls in play that we can be assured will develop in different directions across multiple platforms. I’m being coy about much of the story because this is an experience best imbibed with as little clue to its machinations as possible, but suffice it to say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is everything the Marvel Studios brand represents. It’s the best of the sequels, the best of “Phase 2” (thus far), and not only has it raised the bar for this year’s barrage of superhero flicks (Spider-Man and X-Men sequels, from Sony and Fox respectively, hit next month), but also for Avengers 2 next year. A
Entertainment – The Huffington Post
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Zaki’s Review: Need For Speed

Need For Speed has a plot that’s paper-thin, and dialogue that rarely rises above the level of “functional,” but it serves as an effective leading man vehicle for star Aaron Paul. More than that, the mid-budget adaptation of Electronic Arts’ blockbuster video game series (now celebrating its twentieth year on the roadways) offers up some of the most elaborate, well-staged stunt driving I’ve ever seen. For that, I’m willing to let it slide with a warning.

Directed by veteran stunt coordinator Scott Waugh (Act of Valor), Need For Speed casts Paul as troubled street racer Tobey Marshall, an ex-con who was (naturally) framed after a racing fatality. Following his release, Marshall and his motley pit crew (Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) transport a custom Mustang from New Jersey to California in hopes of entering a secret race organized by the mysterious “Monarch” (Michael Keaton), and having a long-saught reckoning with boo-hiss baddie Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), who he blames for landing him in prison in the pokey.

What do you say about a movie like this? It seems like any attempt to offer a critique on the basis of the perfunctory story (by George and John Gatins) and workmanlike performances is sort of missing the forest for the trees. Like a Kung Fu movie, the story and script are really just the thinnest of cartilage to string together action scenes, and like a Kung Fu movie, the ultimate qualitative measure rests on how memorable those action scenes end up. On that front, while I’m no expert on how closely it hews to its pixelated predecessor, as a purely cinematic experience it doesn’t disappoint.

Now, when it comes to madcap racing antics on the big screen, Universal’s road-tested Fast & Furious franchise has become the titan of the tarmac, but where this project finds distinction is in how Waugh went out of his way to avoid going the CGI route, staging all of his driving action practically. Now, don’t get me wrong, I dig the Fast flicks for the clever, crackpot ways it manages to reinvent itself with every outing, but there’s also no doubt that big chunks of that series’ action real estate resides in the central cortex of a computer.

Not so with Need For Speed, where Waugh employed real cars, on real roads, taking real risks, ending up in real wrecks. And oh, what a difference it makes. There’s a deliciously palatable, deliriously tangible feel to the racing stuff that’s impossible not to find enveloping, and which draws attention to itself by virtue of how rare a thing it’s become. Beginning with an early homage to Bullitt, and with several other nods to famous driving pics nested in along the way, it’s clear that this is meant to play as both homage to and continuation of that lustrous lineage.

Even though you don’t come to a film like this for the performances, I do think Paul comfortably takes the wheel after several years riding shotgun with Bryan Cranston. I also liked the rest of the cast, including requisite love interest Imogen Poots and Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi as Marshall’s ever-present eye-in-the-sky/comic relief. Cooper especially gets to burnish his “entitled douchebag” credentials as the sleazy Dino. That said, this is the second time in as many months that the great Michael Keaton has been underutilized in an underwritten role (it sort of feels like they got all his filming done in an afternoon).

While I doubt there’s enough gas in the tank to mount a franchise that can compete with Fast & Furious (much less match the video games’ distance record), Need For Speed is still a satisfying bit of here-and-gone sensory stimulation that delivers exactly the kind of high-octane, high-velocity thrills promised by the title. It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s fine. B-

To hear highlights from my panel interview with director Scott Waugh and star Aaron Paul, don’t miss the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast. Download at the link, or stream it below:

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Zaki’s Review: Non-Stop

In my discussion of 3 Days to Kill last week, I made note of how star Kevin Costner’s turn as an aging CIA hitman was essentially mimicking the Liam Neeson action model that’s served the Oscar-nominated Irishman quite well in the six years since the first Taken hit screens. Now here we are one week later, and the real thing is here to show us all how it’s done. In Non-Stop (or, as I call it, “Liam Neeson Action Movie 2014”), Neeson stars as air marshal Bill Marks, a harried, hard-drinking behemoth of a man who also (of course) happens to hate flying.

Settling in for a routine run across the pond to London, Marks receives an anonymous text message (on his secure phone) from one of the passengers, threatening to kill someone every twenty minutes until a $ 150 million deposit is made into a specific account. From there, a mid-air manhunt begins, with Marks trying desperately to track the killer, all the while keeping the passengers’ growing fears at bay and, in a variation on the hoariest of action picture cliches, being relieved of duty and handing his gun and badge over to the pilot (Linus Roache).

It’s a premise that’s about as Hitchcockian as it gets, and to his credit, director Jaume Collet-Serra does a very nice job of setting up the various characters/suspects in the opening reel so that we can sit there alongside Marks and try puzzle out who to eliminate from suspicion. There’s Jen (Julianne Moore), the free-spirited flyer with the mysterious scar on her chest. There’s Zack (Nate Parker), headed overseas to interview with a tech company. There’s Reilly (Corey Stoll), the overly-suspicious NYPD cop. And then there’s Dr. Nasir (Omer Metwally), the well-spoken Muslim doctor who’s scary because, y’know, Muslim.

With the tension winding ever tighter as time goes on, the mystery aspect of the story (with screenplay credited to three writers) plays remarkably well, and the filmmakers’ device of having Marks communicating with the baddie via text messages works a lot better than you’d expect. In fact, things whir along efficiently right up until the closing moments, when things sort of fly off course with a final act reveal that tries a bit too hard to make the whole thing be about something. Also, the need to satisfy the action gods with an explodey climax leaves us with an experience that’s neither fish nor fowl.

Lest that be read as me being overly negative, it’s not meant to be. I enjoyed Non-Stop a whole lot more than I expected to, and a big part of that is simply from Neeson being so imminently watchable in these kinds of roles. He has the vulnerability to allow us to sympathize with his increasingly desperate plight, and the raw physicality to make all the close-quarters fight scenes feel bone-crushingly authentic. Non-Stop is very much the quintessential February movie. It offers enough pulpy pleasures to keep audiences engaged and invested during its breezy 106 minutes, but they’re just as likely to leave it on the tarmac once the ride is over. B
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Zaki’s Review: RoboCop (2014)

From the very beginning, ever since MGM’s remake of 1987’s seminal action flick RoboCop was announced many moons ago, I’ve been rooting for it. Yes, that first film is a quintessential piece of ’80s arcana. Yes, its alchemy-like mix of satire and ultra-violence remains just as potent today as when it hit theaters. And yes, it’s one of my favorite movies. Ever.* Nonetheless, given that studios are rarely wont to let little things like “artistic integrity” stand in the way of exploiting extant IP, my philosophy regarding Robo redux was always, “If you’re going to do it, do it well.”

Thus, when the Lion brought in director Jose Padilha (of the cult favorite Elite Squad films out of Brazil) to helm the project, I was intrigued. When they signed actor Joel Kinnaman, a dependable presence on AMC’s just-canceled series The Killing, to embody the title role, I was onboard. And when they added a panoply of reliable players like Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton to fill out the secondary parts, I started to get downright optimistic. And yet, despite that considerable build-up, this one is a swing and a miss.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Padilha and Co. do a lot well, and they do a lot right. But after an intriguing setup and engaging first and second acts that nicely lay out for us how this version of the Robo story will differ from whatever came before, the whole thing collapses in a climactic blaze of explosions, gunplay, and action movie cliches. It’s entirely possible the new RoboCop will play well as its own thing to new auds, but by taking on that iconic title, it’s inviting comparisons it just can’t stand up against. As such, on the scale of unnecessary remakes, it lands somewhere in between the entirely redundant Total Recall and the surprisingly effective Karate Kid.

Following the general template of the ’87 edition (enough so for original writers Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner to retain a “story by” credit alongside Joshua Zetumer), the updated RoboCop sees Last Good Cop Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) attempting to uncover corruption in his Detroit precinct. When he gets too close to the bad guys, he’s targeted in a car-bombing that leaves him burned, limbless, and clinging to life. Enter conglomerate OmniCorp, whose chairman Raymond Sellars (Keaton) uses the promise of keeping Murphy alive to turn him into the prototype for a law enforcement robot he can then market to municipalities nationwide.

Now, let’s talk briefly about why the first RoboCop worked so well, and why it’s just as resonant today as it ever was. Beyond the effects and the bombast (and director Paul Verhoeven’s biting satire of American consumerism) is a compelling sci-fi fable about the nature of identity, and what happens when one’s sense of self is forcibly ripped away. As brought to life by actor Peter Weller, we got to see Murphy move from regular guy to soulless automaton and back to human being (in mind and spirit, if not body). That’s the kind of journey that doesn’t have an expiration date, and it’s a big reason why the original is still so compelling nearly three decades later.

This new version makes some moves toward a similar arc for its lead character, but doesn’t really do anything beyond the cursory. A considerable amount of time is spent on Murphy’s perspective as he’s coached by psychologist Dennett Norton (Oldman) on how to acclimate to his new metal body, but by showing him running and jumping like a superhero (a big upgrade from Robo 1.0), the essential tragedy of his situation is kept at arm’s length other than one truly disturbing scene where we see the full, horrific scope of his injuries — a moment well-played by Kinnaman (who’s solid throughout).

As I said, Kinnamon is fine. Keaton is fine. Oldman is fine. In fact, most of the cast is fine, as are the production design and effects. What makes this such a mixed review, then, is how the director’s sensibilities are sprinkled in so sparingly. The opening, with Jackson’s Bill O’Reilly-inspired TV host Pat Novak showing how military robots have successfully been put to use in Mid-East theaters of war has an edge of dark comedy that, while not in the vein of the first film’s boardroom massacre, at least signals a particular authorial voice. I wanted more of that. I wanted Padilha to give at least as unique a point-of-view to this RoboCop as Verhoeven did with his.

The first Robo did so well by wrapping a human story that’s both remarkably poignant and hysterically funny inside a big budget blockbuster. People bought their tickets to see effects and explosions, but they responded to the heart and the satire. Of course, the success of that initial film is what led to a seemingly-unending stream of increasingly terrible follow-on movie and TV projects, and that same success is the reason we’re here twenty-seven years later even talking about a remake. And to be fair, this new RoboCop is far closer in tone and execution to the original than anything that’s come after. Nonetheless, despite Padilha’s best efforts, his RoboCop‘s beating heart has been subsumed by the single-minded programming of MGM’s franchise-building machinery. C+

*To hear me and the MovieFilm gang discuss the original RoboCop in greater detail, check out the latest episode below, or download it here:

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‘Flowers In The Attic’ Review: Lifetime’s Gamble On The V.C. Andrews Novel Falls Flat

Ask any girl in her thirties, and she’ll likely have an inexplicable soft spot for “Flowers in the Attic,” that chilling V.C. Andrews novel passed around like a dirty secret at slumber parties and middle school playgrounds. What “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” are for millennials, the Dollanganger series was for girls who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s; the rags-to-riches story appealed to our fantasy, the brother-sister incest made it verboten. Yes, the incest. A curious hallmark of Andrews’ writing (and the books subsequently published under her name by a ghostwriter and the Andrews estate), brother-sister/ father-daughter/ cousin-cousin love felt every bit as stunningly taboo as young children murdering one another in a corrupt government’s version of the Olympic games. It still is.

Ironically, the premise of four children locked away in a dusty attic for years doesn’t seem as outlandish as it did when I first read the book, at age 12. In recent years, the media has been filled with numerous stories of evil men doing evil things like holding girls, some of them their own daughters, captive in basements for decades. Suddenly, a book featuring captivity, casual incest and generations of abuse in rural Virginia doesn’t seem so improbable. Andrews’ 1979 cult hit rings oddly prescient today.

All of this zeitgeist chatter is to say that Lifetime’s gamble on producing a made-for-TV movie adaptation of “Flowers” felt like a good one (the campy 1987 film adaptation, starring in Louise Fletcher and Kristy Swanson, is generally considered a flop). And a trailer for the movie, starring Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) and Heather Graham, was generally received with excited anticipation when it was released in November.

So now that the movie has premiered on the network on Saturday (Jan. 18), does it live up to expectations? Sadly, the answer is no. The acting is flat and the movie (directed by Deborah Chow), while aesthetically pleasing, keeps on dragging on and on until you wonder why you were so excited to watch it in the first place. Lifetime felt so confident that it had a winner on its hands that it has already green-lit a second movie, an adaption of the book’s sequel, “Petals on the Wind.” Perhaps they should have waited until reviews of the first came out. Below are my reactions to the movie.

Kiernan Shipka as Cathy
The precocious, 14-year-old Shipka appears to be fearless when it comes to more mature content (though she swears she’s still not allowed to watch “Mad Men” at home). And she looks exactly the part of Cathy Dollanganger, with her perfect doll looks and sad, wise-beyond-her-years demeanor. She’s a bright spot in the movie, but it’s an uphill battle with such little plot and a stiff script by Kayla Alpert. Cathy in the book is a drama queen and a dreamer, the ballerina who fights to survive. Shipka’s Cathy is more languid and lifeless. There is also zero chemistry between her and her older brother and future romantic interest, Chris (played by Mason Dye, an actor with Zac Efron hair and blindingly white teeth).

Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as Corrine and Olivia
It’s not surprising that veteran actresses Graham and Burstyn, as the children’s irresponsible mother and their evil grandmother, deliver the film’s strongest performances. Graham in particular is effective as the beautiful but ultimately evil mother. Her eyes are like wide, blank pools of immaturity; her porcelain but vacant beauty a mask for the kind of selfish mother who would rather see her own children waste away and die than give up trips to Paris and an inheritance. But I was left wanting more from Burstyn (whose performance as the gullible sweepstakes winner in 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream” I’m still haunting by) as the Bible-thumping, religious fanatic Olivia. Her pathetic cries for help at the end of the movie were Burstyn at her best; if the film had fully fleshed out her character’s vulnerability, we would have been left with a more memorable villain.

The Whippings
Both scenes involving Corrine and Chris getting whipped weren’t nearly scary enough. It’s not just the fact that Corrine’s lashes on her back were so obviously painted on, though that certainly didn’t help. There is a way to convey the kind of generational family abuse without resorting to the physical, and I’m not sure that the whippings were an effective medium to portray the kind of terror felt by the twins and Corrine at the hands of Olivia.

Not Enough Foxworth Hall
V.C. Andrews purists will tell you that much of her books’ appeal was the sheer fantasy of it all: Southern mansions and secret gardens, side rooms and libraries. Which is why it’s so disappointing that we don’t get to experience Foxworth Hall’s grandeur as we did in the books. Chow doesn’t allow the viewer to experience much more of the Foxworth family estate than the two floors of the attic. We see the mansion’s facade, we sneak down a set of stairs into their mother’s bedroom, we barely glimpse the library… and that’s about it. We never get a sense of the house’s structure, or for the opulence, the untouchable beauty of it all. Even Chris and Cathy’s escape to the property’s lake felt without view. C’mon, people. This is supposed to be the Foxworths, a family with tons and tons of money (“We’re going to be rich!” Corrine tells the children in the beginning of the movie, when she tells them about her plans). So why does the movie’s budget feel so poor?

Cathy Becomes A Woman and That Scene
One of the most pivotal scenes in the book is when Chris chops Cathy’s hair after it is mysteriously covered in tar. A moment of tenderness is meant to pass between them and — dear Lord, why is that hair so clearly fake? It sounds like metal shears are hacking into a whole head of straw. Not only was Cathy’s fake wig distracting in the scene, so were the rigid acting and dialogue. I mean, I suppose there’s no good way to convey that inherently creepy moment when a sexual relationships blossoms between a brother and sister (“So… you think of me, then?”), but Chow also failed to capture the sense of longing and girl-becomes-woman emotion of that moment. And while the director thankfully spares us unnecessarily graphic scenes between Cathy and Chris (considering Shipka’s age), she also kinds of just avoids the incest completely. The siblings kiss, then the scene cuts to black and there they are, waking up next to each other on a dirty mattress. And that’s basically that.

The Twins and Imprisonment in the Attic
Part of what made “Flowers” so haunting is the revelation that twin brother Cory died from being poisoned by donuts laced with arsenic, not pneumonia, prompting Cathy and Chris to escape the attic once and for all. In the book, the twins are stunted in growth, from the lack of sunlight and fresh air. In the movie, the twins Carire and Cory (played by Ava Telek and Maxwell Kovach) don’t play much of a part other than to say they’re hungry. Chow misses an opportunity to make more of an analogy about their well-being and suffering, general malaise and the obtuseness of a selfish mother… Or are we just reading too much into this here?

flowers escape
The Escape Scene
After spending an hour (or four years) with the children in an attic, it was pretty anti-climatic to see that the children could fashion an old-fashioned blanket-rope and casually climb out of their prison/house with ease. And then there’s the LOL moment when a man hunting for deer on the property allows three completely malnourished children claiming to be Corrine’s offspring run away. It’s like Chow was in a rush to finish off the movie; if she couldn’t be bothered introducing more believability into that scene, then it should have been cut from the script.

What did you make of Lifetime’s “Flowers in the Attic” movie? And will you be watching the network’s upcoming sequel, “Petals on the Wind”? Sound off in the comments below.

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‘Sherlock’ Review: ‘The Empty Hearse’ Finds An Emotional Reunion For Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman In Long-Awaited Return

The most highly-awaited show of the year returned, and within one sharp, mind-boggling minute in the company of Sherlock and Co, it was all explained away… apparently.

We had a far-fetched (but possible!) combination of bungee rope, a Sherlock mask over a Moriarty body, a big grateful kiss for enamoured lab assistant Molly… oh, and Derren Brown???? Hang on a minute!

Ah, that’ll be one big nod to the conspiracy theorists everywhere, then. No one listens to their fans like writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and plays with them a little in return. According to Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock on the roof, there are 13 possible outcomes in total. So looks like we might have to wait for the truth for a bit longer after all…


Sherlock’s return was greeted with a welcome less warm than he would have perhaps liked

Cut to… Gatiss as weary Mycroft having to tap some numbers into his international speed-dial, brush up his Serbian, engage in some tiresome ‘field work’ to locate his errant little brother, and return him to his Baker Street fold.

And that, expectant viewers, was very much that. Two years’ worth of all our wondering, tucked into a drawer for the time being. Onward…


Mary (Amanda Abbington) had (almost) replaced Sherlock in Doctor Watson’s affections, but proved crucial to the restoration of their bromance

Into the up-to-date world of Dr Watson (Martin Freeman), complete with fiancee Mary (Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington) and moustache, moving on with his life, much to the surprise of Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) – “So soon after Sherlock?” she asked guilelessly.

But this was a light appetiser for the serious business of his reunion with the much-missed Holmes who, despite his big brain, managed to misjudge such concepts as how grief can turn to resentment when it turns out to be misplaced for two sad, lonely years. Sherlock got a much warmer reception even from DI Lestrade (Rupert Graves), and that was even after Holmes got his name wrong.


Benedict Cumberbatch was on fine form as the loner detective

Fortunately for fans, it wasn’t too long before Holmes and Watson were reconciled to combat an underground terrorism network operating on the underground network. From then on, it was all torches in dark tunnels, upturned collars and lots and lots of nifty editing as Holmes homed in on quite a bit of a bomb, and Watson continued to prove his peerless Everyman acting stripes, equal parts confusion, good intention, and deep indignation when said bomb turned out to have an off-switch. That Sherlock fella, eh? Such a wag.

Because of all of Watson’s understandable, brooding resentment for much of the 90 minutes, a lot of the real pleasure in this episode in fact came from the jollier exchanges between the Holmes brothers, with both siblings proving that absence makes the heart grow more competitive… who can deduce more accurately? Who can say more more words in one minute? Who can enunciate more c-c-r-r-i-sply? Wonderful stuff from both Cumberbatch and Gatiss.

A challenge to keep up with, a joy to watch – there’s a reason this kind of telly takes two years to make. But oh, how we’ve missed it, and oh, how it was worth the wait.

How DID he do it? Let us know your thoughts below, and what you thought of Sherlock’s big return…

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The Year In Review

Remember the year? Well, now you can, with the help of this: this year’s Review of the Year, called “The Year In Review” – the year being This Year. This is the review, beginning now.

There is now more sport than ever. This is because sport has continued to happen and all of the sport from this year can be added to last year’s total of all sport, which was previously the up-to-date total. Team sports have enthralled a large number of fans, all of whom complained about the other teams and, to a lesser extent, their own. This year has seen the most recent sports results of all time, which has pleased those who follow sport and prefer it to be current. There is still no end in sight for any of the sports; this is because none of them has an inbuilt rule that dictates when or how they might end.

Have you got all day?! Just kidding, nobody’s got all day. Scandals popped up left, right and centre (inside joke!) this year, in the most unexpected places. In retrospect, we should have expected to find scandals in unexpected places, because that’s where scandals are usually found. Otherwise, they’re not considered to be quite as scandalous. There were scandals involving people on their own, people in pairs, groups of people and even people who were not there at all. There were scandals surrounding events and also a few scandals which precipitated events. At one point, there was a chain of scandals and events in which an event would prompt a scandal, which would in turn provoke an event, and it seemed as though the whole business would never end! It even made the News. Some scandals beggared belief, appearing to come from nowhere, in the middle of the night, while you were thinking about something else altogether, and threatened to discombobulate you and everyone you knew or were close enough to smell. If you’re a fan of scandals, this was a big year for you, unless of course you were involved in one of the scandals, in which case this was a huge year for you. If you died as a result of one of the scandals, please ignore this paragraph.

Economics is still a puzzle.

The amount of art increased this year, and we now “have” more art than what we began the year with. This was due in part to artists (people who art) creating art, rather than simply destroying the art they’d previously created, as many hoped would be the case. An overwhelming majority of people have not been in close proximity to this new art, as many artists ensured would be the case. Theatres remained the centre of “Theatre”, an art form which has traditionally been located in Theatres. Official figures relating to the Theatre have not been published; it is therefore hard to know whether there are any figures or whether those responsible just don’t care. That being said, several Books were published, in this and many, if not most, other countries. A tiny fraction of them were good and they were made almost entirely of paper. In the world of music, a similar good-to-bad ratio was observed. Music could be heard in the background on many television broadcasts, either on purpose or by accident. In some instances, music could be heard in the foreground. Many musicians worked on new projects, some worked on old projects and a small number of them died, either peacefully or peacelessly.

As we know, the wars have occupied several column inches in the newspapers and indeed onscreen. This year, the countries which previously were fighting have kept fighting, in some cases to a lesser degree. Huge numbers of people have died and/or become injured in the places in which the wars have been taking place. A vast majority of those people suffered as a direct or indirect result of those very wars – an observation in keeping with the patterns hitherto observed. Some of the wars are illegal. Many who are living in the places where the wars are not happening have voiced their disapproval, or at the very least appropriated the disapproval of a vocal majority and given it a go.

What a year for the celebrities, nude and otherwise! If you were a celebrity this year, it was quite likely a prudent career move. If you were a nude celebrity, even better! Celebrity was the place to be seen. Sadly, many of them ceased to be either famous or alive. You won’t remember all of them or recall their demises, but they were here when the year began and you have outlasted them, against the odds. What were the biggest celebrity moments this year? Who can say? That awards ceremony is surely a contender (remember the clothes thing? And the mistake?). Perhaps your celebrity highlight was one of the hairstyles (which were typical both in number and position)? Or one of the romantic entanglements (which were typical both in number and position)? Whatever your angle, the celebrities continued this year, and boy were we glad in some cases that they did! The most popular ways of enjoying them were:

1. Videos
2. Magazines
3. Television
4. Hiding in the bush
5. The Online.

Were you on the Online this year? If not, you missed all of it! Not to worry; much of it is still there in the place it happened, and in many cases, in other places too. If you see something that looks the same as another thing on the Online, you can be sure that at least one of them is not the original and was put there by someone who didn’t actually make it. There were some major topics exciting people throughout the year, but it’s extremely difficult to recall the vast majority of them, aside from the ones we’re excited about right now. This year, we have interacted on the Online in a manner befitting our mood, circumstance and understanding. Those who have been elsewhere have been heavily critical of Online communications. The “non-Online”, or Nonline, continue to exhibit ignorance, jealousy and decrepitude. Sadly for them, this year has been just as Online as previous ones. It’s a drama fit for the television!

A remarkable feature of this year’s television programming was its similarity to last year’s. If we could have predicted one trend in the media at the beginning of the year, it would have been Different Television. Regrettably, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months, it became apparent that we were in for another year of what we had already experienced, albeit in a different permutation and under another name. We were treated to the beginning of yet another show – yes, THAT one. The one we knew would finish finally did. Another one which finished unexpectedly, because of the event that happened relating to its cast, will no longer be broadcast as a new show but instead will be rebroadcast in the future in the order to which we’re accustomed, starting at the start. Bafflingly, the other one, which could have ended quite some time ago but kept going due to a host of mysterious reasons, is still happening. Several new shows used the central ideas of a number of successful shows from the past, which guaranteed their success – an excellent idea which has proven itself time and time again, and which we expect to be used with greater frequency in the coming year. Many believed that we would begin to watch televisions in a different way this year, but as it turned out, we’re still using the eye method. In the coming year, many television viewers can expect to be using their retinas, neurons and synapses; don’t trade them in just yet. However, advances in Online technology have enabled us to absorb television at an incredible speed using Synopses.


Happy New Year to one and all, from James Thomas (Astonishing Sod).


This piece also appears on Astonishing Sod’s website.
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‘Downton Abbey Christmas Special’ Review – Shirley MacLaine, Paul Giamatti Come Calling

It’s 1923 at ‘Downton Abbey‘, and Rose is to be ‘outed’, in the London 1920s fashion – the opportunity for Julian Fellowes to pick up his pen with a particularly jovial flourish, and put together all the usual suspects, together with some royalty, a conniving schemer and – most disturbingly of all – Americans.

downton abbey

The Americans come calling.. and cause ripples for the Downton regulars

That these New World interlopers came in the high-pedigree form of Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti only added to the fun. As brother Harold, Giamatti especially added an understated but effective presence to proceedings, as a playboy not easily persuaded to give up his hedonistic ways.

downton abbey

A right royal ‘outing’ for Lady Rose, in the arms of the Prince of Wales

Fellowes has form in pitting the family narrative against both social history and real-life luminaries – Downton has already played host to legendary diva Dame Nellie Melba – and this 2-hour special saw him expand his canvas to include the pleasure-seeking Prince of Wales.

The Crawleys got involved in a strange escapade, helping him to avoid a scandal with his real-life ladyfriend Mrs Dudley-Ward, courtesy of a completely invented card game and Mr Bates’ ‘street’ skills, i.e. forgery and pocket-picking. This provided the double bonus of some neat in-jokes – ‘when that Bertie gets himself into trouble next time, it won’t be the Crawley’s fault, tee hee’ – and reminding us that Mr Bates was once an interesting fella, and could be again.

Less fun was Lady Mary’s interminable dilemma over which earnest-browed bore she should encourage, Mr Blake or Mr Gillingham. Guess what? In the end, neither. Well, there is Series 5 to think about, after all. Which something tells me will include some reference to Mr Blake’s sizeable holding in Ulster…

downton abbey

Romance a-brewing for Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes – FINALLY!

Back in Yorkshire, it was all a bit quiet by contrast. It was pretty obvious Branson had plans a-foot, which turned out to be eating at the pub, bumping into Miss Bunting and taking her on a tour of the house, which was pretty awkward BEFORE they bumped, inevitably, into a lurking Mr Barrow – a vindictive valet sorely underused in this series, Christmas special included.

Home turf still afforded the best laugh of the night, however, when Lord Merton paid a visit to Mrs Crawley. Not only did he tell her, with a straight face – “I’m on my way to dine with the Scroops” – WHO? – but then, out of the blue, Mrs Crawley went all continental on him – “I’m much more serieuse,” she told him, with an equally straight face. Obviously a match made in heaven. Dear me, Lord Fellowes must have had fun writing that bit.


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Movie review: American Hustle


It’s not until two-thirds of the way through American Hustle that the word “Abscam” even comes up.

Because, while David O. Russell’s new film is about a fictionalized version of that FBI sting of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it’s less about the game itself than about the players. There are a lot of people with their fingers in this particular pie; the question is whether anyone will came away from it with more than a few crumbs.

At heart, American Hustle is about love among con artists – is it ever real? Or is it always a con? And how can you tell the difference?

It’s not easy, even for a seasoned operator like Irving Rosenfeld, the second amazing leap Christian Bale has taken as an actor this year, along with Out of the Furnace. Irving is a conman from way back, the kind of guy who runs small-time investment scams, like Bernard Madoff but on a penny-ante scale.

He thinks he’s died and gone to heaven when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a fellow con who affects a British accent to play an expatriated Brit who claims to have insider connections to the Bank of England. Together, she and Irving assemble a nice little illegal living from their Long Island office – and a sexy relationship, despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted her son.

Things get tricky, however, when Irv and Syd are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a mama’s boy with anger issues who is looking for the big takedown to advance his career.

This review continues on my website.

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‘Matangi’ Review: M.I.A.’s Fourth Album Delivers

— M.I.A, “Matangi” (Interscope)

Named after a ghetto Hindu goddess, M.I.A.’s fourth proper album pops with a relentless pounce and is filled with all the paradoxical imagery that the intro’s title “Karmageddon” conjures. On the call-to-arms title track she breaks it down as a tsunami of percussion mounts: “It’s so simple/Get to the floor.” Then sets it off simply by rhyming different places — “Gambia/Namibia/Bali/Mali/Chile/Malawi” — in her inimitable cadence.

But it’s never simple with M.I.A. because in her words she’s “Got a reputation/People see me as trouble.” She plays vocal acrobat on “Bring The Noize,” tabbing herself the “female Slick Rick” and unleashing spitfire bars like “Do you like my perfumes?/I made it at home with some gasoline and shrooms.” Her playful side rhymes “giddy up” with “light the city up” and boards Boeings eating bananas. On “atTENTion” she flips the syllable “tent” 50 different ways.

Production by Switch, Hit-Boy, Danja and The Partysquad is just as enigmatic. Take “Double Bubble Trouble” where a trap intro gives way to a Rastafari sway before hitting up the dancehall and riding out on a beat Omar Souleyman might floss over. On other tracks, The Weeknd samples, intermittent “ohmmms” and slinking woofers flit through stutter-step rhythms and furrowed bass. Picture fire alarms going off in Trinidadian clubs.

Songs like “Lights” and “Come Walk With Me” are nice encapsulations of the record’s split personality: part pop gold, part way out there. Even when M.I.A.’s feeling frisky it’s nowhere near a quiet storm. She’s either wondering “How come all this drama’s still trending?” or making “love like origami,” as guards set up outside.

At one point she mandates: “If you’re gonna be me you need a manifesto.” Based on the shrill stance here, hers might go something like this “Karmageddon line: “My words are my armor and you’re about to meet your karma.”
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