True Blood, Season 4 was too much, too fast, too many people, and too many storylines. Generally, HBO shows know how to pace itself. Often the first couple of episodes of a new season of an HBO show are so slow that some viewers get bored. This slow, ramping up pace is done deliberately for proper story development. The first three seasons of True Blood followed this model to the letter; however, Season 4 did not.
This season introduced more characters and each character has a special talent of their own. I think we are up to eight different forms of the supernatural since the show began. Vampires are the least of our worries these days. True Blood also went very soap opera this season with lots of relationship drama. Of course, Sookie was in the middle of all it, solving as many problems as she created. To date, Season 4 is my least favorite season of True Blood, but there is a payoff at the end that sorta makes it all worth it. Sorta. Grade: B-.
Treasure Island (B). This is the old 1934 version, starring Lionel Barrymore (Grand Hotel), Wallace Beery (Grand Hotel), and child star Jackie Cooper (Superman). Although some of the acting is overripe, especially Cooper’s, the story is so good that even this old-fashioned film is a pleasure. Young Jim Hawkins is helping his mother run a seaside inn in England after the death of his father. A mysterious old sailor named Billy Bones moves in, and after misfortune befalls him, Jim finds himself in possession of a treasure map. Some family friends get together and hire a ship and crew, including a one-legged cook named Long John Silver. But it turns out that Silver is a pirate and so are many members of the crew, and once the ship reaches Treasure Island a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues. I haven’t read the book in years, but I remember thinking it was very clever, as the winds of fortune favor first the pirates, then the honest folks, and alliances are made and broken. This film captures the spirit of the book pretty well—and without all the special-effects wizardry of The Pirates of the Caribbean. Definitely worth watching.
Scrubs: Season 2 (B-). I didn’t watch this show when it originally aired, but a couple of years ago I bought and watched season one out of curiosity, and I liked it pretty well. I finally got around to watching season two, and I discovered that . . . I liked it pretty well. The three interns from season one are now residents, so they are a little more adjusted to life as doctors, but generally things are pretty much the same. Drs. Kelso and Cox continue to make life hard on them. Dr. Turk and Nurse Carla take the next step in their relationship and get engaged. J.D. and Elliott have another fling, but it doesn’t last. All in all, reasonably entertaining, but not as fresh as season one. There’s still way too much reliance on casual sex to keep things interesting. I will say the show had a remarkable run of guest stars during season two, including: Heather Locklear, Dick Van Dyke, Rick Schroder, Jay Leno, David Copperfield, Ryan Reynolds, Amy Smart, Rerun from TV’s “What’s Happening,” and the lead singer from Men at Work.
A guest review from The Movie Snob’s sister, Kentucky Rose.
Into the Abyss (D+). I really like 48 Hours Mystery type shows, and this documentary that my fiancee found on Netflix seemed like it would be similar. It wasn’t very good, though. The interviewer/reporter (Werner Herzog) who talked to the police, victim’s families, and murderers was European and was sooooo awkward in the interviews. Plus, he seemed more fascinated by the redneck lives of the people than the actual story. I have to admit, the redneck stories were pretty interesting. It’s hard to believe people live like that!
King Arthur (C-). This 2004 film is a very different version of the Arthurian legend from any I have seen before. In fact, it’s more of a Roman epic like Centurion or The Last Legion (although much better than either of those turkeys). In the mid-400s A.D., the Romans are pulling out of Britain, but Roman commander Artorius (Clive Owen, Children of Men), is sent north of Hadrian’s Wall to rescue a handful of Roman citizens from an approaching Saxon army. He takes his handful of comrade knights, including Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) and Galahad (Hugh Dancy, The Jane Austen Book Club), on his quest, and against great odds they succeed. They also pick up a rather fetching local pagan named Guenevere (Keira Knightley, Never Let Me Go) along the way. She persuades Artorius to stay and help her people, the Woads, oppose the wicked Saxons, who are led by the evil Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard, Thor). As you may have gathered, this movie is completely unlike Excalibur (Merlin is barely in it, and there’s no magic at all), but like Excalibur I give it credit for trying to have some decent fight scenes (although they go on and on a bit too long in the “director’s cut” that I watched). Oh, I should note that, in Hollywood fashion, the movie makes the few Roman Christian characters out to be villains and it associates Artorius’s relative benevolence and love of freedom with his adherence to the early Christian heresy of Pelagianism. Anyhow, it’s not a very good movie, but it’s a tolerable one.
Excalibur (B). This was my first time to see this 1981 version of the legend of King Arthur. I have to say, I thought it was pretty good. The special effects were a little cheesy, as befits a movie of that era, but I thought the numerous battle scenes were generally well done. Nowadays, directors so often fudge big battle scenes (or even little fight scenes) by editing them into a jumble of quick cuts so that you have no idea what is going on. But there are no such shortcuts in Excalibur, and you get the feeling this is something like how battles were back in the day—clamorous and confusing affairs, with men staggering and stumbling about in their armor, and hacking and bludgeoning about almost blindly. Director and co-writer John Boorman (Deliverance) crams the whole Arthurian legend, including some backstory about Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon, into 2 hours and 20 minutes. I had heard the movie was pretty racy for its time, and there is a bit of sex and nudity. What’s shocking is when you listen to the director’s commentary and find out one of the young ladies involved is his own daughter! And it is a little gruesome in parts, so the R rating is even more fully justified. The guy who plays Merlin (Nicol Williamson, Robin and Marian) is kind of a kick, seeming only about half serious most of the time. Another fun aspect of the movie is seeing all the actors who went on to become famous, such as Liam Neeson (Wrath of the Titans), Patrick Stewart (X-Men: The Last Stand), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Ciaran Hinds (John Carter), and Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects). I enjoyed it.
Pride and Prejudice (B). This is the 1940 version starring Greer Garson (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) as the spitfire Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier (Clash of the Titans) as the dashing but aloof Mr. Darcy. I’m a Jane Austen fan, and I enjoyed this film just as I have enjoyed most films based on her novels, but I have to say this version of P&P didn’t really capture me the way the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley did. Garson was fine, but she seemed a little old for the part, and Olivier was a little too reserved even for a stiff like Darcy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie. Note that the screenwriters included Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame, and that the filmmakers noticeably changed up Austen’s portrayal of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Across the Universe (C). This 2007 flick is a trippy trip through the 1960s, set, of course, to the tunes of The Beatles. A working-class lad from Liverpool named Jude (Jim Sturgess, The Way Back) migrates to America to find the father he never knew. Once he gets to the States, Jude falls in with a group of soon-to-be hippies, including a college drop-out named Max (Joe Anderson, Becoming Jane) and Max’s lovely little sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, The Ides of March). Jude and Lucy fall in love, but their relationship is threatened when she gets involved with a bunch of anti-war radicals. Meanwhile, poor Max gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. The movie plays like a regular movie that is constantly being interrupted with psychedelic music videos. It’s okay, but I never really got vested in the Jude–Lucy love story, and the climactic (and inevitable) “Hey Jude” sequence near the end didn’t really feel earned.
A Hard Day’s Night (B). This is a strange, almost surreal movie. Of course it stars The Beatles, and the film was made in 1964 as they were on their rise to superstardom. It is largely plot-free, and the camera just kind of follows The Beatles around England, documentary-style, over the course of a couple of days leading up to a big television appearance. Some small incidents are provoked by Paul McCartney’s grandfather, whom Paul is supposed to be looking after, and by the Fab Four’s general fondness for sneaking away from their managers and showing up late wherever they are supposed to be. I didn’t care for the film at first, but gradually I started to find it somewhat charming. And of course there are some good songs to be enjoyed, like “I Should Have Known Better,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “She Loves You,” the title track, and more. My copy of the DVD has two discs, and I watched a few of bonus documentaries and thought they were pretty interesting.
Trespass (F). Why? Why did Nicole Kidman (The Others), who is probably the most beautiful and talented actress the world has ever known, agree to be in this truly horrendous movie? Not only is the movie terrible, but she plays the wife of the unappealing Nicolas Cage (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and even has to kiss him a couple of times. She must have owed somebody a really huge favor is all I can think of. Anyway, Cage plays a high-stakes diamond broker, and he and his family live in a fabulous house with a high-tech security system that is comically ineffective against the four masked robbers that take Cage, Kidman, and eventually their teenaged daughter hostage. The lovely Kidman spends pretty much the entire movie screaming, cowering, and occasionally getting manhandled by the robbers. There is no suspense, and the numerous plot “twists” are universally inane. Only Kidman’s luminescence saves this turkey from an even lower grade. When you celebrate Kidman’s birthday on June 20, I suggest you see one of her other movies instead.
Bernie (B+). Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) reunites with Jack Black (School of Rock) and Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused) for this half-dramatization/half-documentary about a 1996 murder in the small east Texas town of Carthage. Black plays Bernie Tiede, a middle-aged mortician who moves to Carthage and becomes the toast of the town for his kindness. Shirley MacLaine (Steel Magnolias) plays Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow that Bernie befriends after her husband’s funeral. Marjorie is a mean old snake who is estranged from the rest of her family, and she gets her hooks into Bernie good–treating him to a high life of travel and culture, but also mistreating him as her personal slave. Until one day he finally snapped, shot her dead, and hid her body in her own deep freezer. Oh, the documentary aspect of the movie is that interspersed throughout the movie are numerous clips of interviews with actual citizens of Carthage who knew Nugent and apparently still know Bernie (and the county D.A., Danny Buck, played by McConaughey). Some of the things they have to say are priceless. You have to wonder how true to life the dramatized parts of the movie are, but they felt very authentic to me. Fine performances and a really interesting movie about a bizarre crime.
All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (Free Press 2011). How’s that for a mouthful? But the big title is appropriate to the big questions the authors (who are philosophy professors) grapple with. In our secular age, is there any plausible alternative to the practical nihilism that seems to increasingly dominate our culture? Is there any firm basis for saying that any particular choice is better than any other? As they promise in the title, the authors do take a quick glide through some of the big guns in the Western canon–Homer, Aeschylus, Augustine, and Dante to name a few–and they wrap up with a long chapter on Melville’s Moby Dick. The tour is always interesting, and I thought the study of Moby Dick was really fascinating. In the conclusion, the authors turn back to the big questions. As I read them, they seem to argue for letting go of the traditional Western quest for some Big, Unifying Something (like a monotheistic god) behind or beneath the reality we perceive, because that quest is played out and hopeless. Better to accept that the universe is full of partial meanings that play out on the surface of reality, rather like the Homeric Greeks supposedly did, and try to be sensitive and receptive to those partial meanings or “moods” as they often refer to them. We should look for moments to get caught up in, like the performance of an exceptional athlete or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on the National Mall. But we also have to train ourselves not to get caught up in bad moments, like a Nazi rally. How we are supposed to distinguish the good moments from the bad ones in our very open, receptive state of being is still not entirely clear to me. Anyway, the book is easy to read (especially considering that it is by two philosophy professors), and the analysis of the Western classics, especially Moby Dick, is worth the price of admission.