(On Cable TV, September 2015) At 45 minutes, this HBO sports mockumentary barely qualifies as a feature film, but to its credit, it doesn’t try to outstay its welcome. The joke seems simple enough: In 2000, two tennis players end up playing a seven-day match at Wimbledon. But from a Very Serious introduction featuring a mixture of comedians and real-life sport personalities giving mock interviews (and being inspired by the real-life 2010 three-day Isner-Mahut Wimbledon match), 7 Days in Hell soon turns sillier and sillier, leaving reality far behind as it portrays fantasy portraits of Sweden, raunchy streakers, an aggressive Queen Elizabeth II and more deadly violence than you’d expect in tennis matches. It’s not always even nor focused (there’s a curious diversion about Swedish courtroom cartoons that’s not unfunny, but seems completely out of place) but it’s decently amusing, even as it turns darker toward the end. Andy Samberg is pretty good as a wild-man of tennis, while Kit Harington has a remarkable turn as his dim-witted opponent. Sports personalities such as Serena Williams and Jim Lampley (this is an HBO production after all) help blur the line between reality and mockumentary, but both John McEnroe and David Copperfield get a few good laughs on their own. The absurdity of the humor is only topped by its crudeness, but it works and at 45 minutes 7 Days in Hell feels like something that will get a few more re-plays than longer traditional films. Best of all; you don’t need to know much about tennis to enjoy it.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Seeing this HBO documentary right after Zero Dark Thirty, I’m most struck by the way the fictional film isn’t nearly as interesting, dramatic or compelling as the real story. Manhunt isn’t much more than talking-head testimonials cleverly intercut by director Greg Barker with stock-ish footage and computer-generated infographics. But the talking heads are largely CIA analysts, case officers, high-level officials and expert journalists, so the true-life espionage drama they paint of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is fascinating. Manhunt starts by explaining that a group of CIA analysts (mostly women, hence “The Sisterhood”) started tracking down bin Laden in the mid-nineties, and their efforts intensified following 9/11. The film acts as a big primer on real-world espionage activities, underlining the mixture of signal interception and street-level human work required to track down bin Laden. While some linkages remain curiously elusive (I blame operational security), there are fascinating stories built in the narrative, including the fantastic almost-buried story of how al Quaeda consciously mounted an offensive operation against the CIA, killing a number of Agency operatives at Camp Chapman through a triple-agent. While Zero Dark Thirty does portray the same event, Manhunt does so in a more fascinating way, and ends up being far more effective in two hours than the fictional film’s nearly-three-hour running length. Nearly everyone interviewed for the film leaves us wanting more; in particular, people like Nada Bakos, Marty Martin, and Cindy Storer (who apparently wrote the infamous “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US” memo) seem endlessly fascinating: enthusiastic, reflective, knowledgeable and often funny. They bring a human face to a lengthy collective effort, and do so far more effectively than the fictional film. This being HBO, the film isn’t blind to the ethical implications of targeting an individual for termination –it ends on a fairly somber note far away from triumphalism: Sure, the man is dead and the symbolism is powerful, but the ideas live on. While Manhunt is worth seeing on its own, it becomes essential viewing for anyone who has seen Zero Dark Thirty.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Writer/director/activist Josh Fox made headlines in 2010 with Gasland, a feature-length documentary that exposed environmental concerns surrounding the rapid development of hydraulic fracturing gas extraction in the United States. Overnight, “fracking” became a cause célèbre, Gasland ended up nominated for an Oscar and environmentalists everywhere got a new thing to worry about. Gasland Part II pick up the story three years later, and the result is even depressing than the original: Practically everyone who had problems in the first film still has them in the second, fracking has actually increased and enough time has gone by to see the gas industry counter-attack its critics. Gasland Part II may sport Fox’s mixture of information and entertainment, but it doesn’t have much to say: much of its running time is spent either re-establishing the film’s points, or recognizing that there hasn’t been any significant progress on the issue. It feels rather more than an episode in a series (or a second film in a trilogy) than a wholly new documentary. Combined to the doom-and-gloom atmosphere of the subject matter, it makes for a documentary that’s interesting without being particularly pleasant. While the film isn’t without humor (there’s a moment, three-quarter through, where Fox essentially says “So, congress is corrupt. What else is new? Roll the credits!” and actually does so for a short time.) Gasland Part II is, perhaps paradoxically, definitely aimed at those who already don’t need to be convinced about its central thesis.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Given how little TV-as-TV I watch, I never expected to mark an entire Emmy category as “complete”, but in-between HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, Parade’s End, The Girl and now Phil Spector, I’m all caught-up with the 2013 “Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie” category even before it’s awarded. There’s certainly no finer reason to watch Phil Spector than to see good acting from Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, facing each other down as, respectively, a powerful music industry executive accused of murder and one of his defense lawyer. It’s based the true story of Spector’s first trial (although not really, as the opening disclaimer sort-of-clarifies), but it’s perhaps best appreciated as a standalone court drama, featuring a pair of highly unusual characters. Al Pacino is his usual intense self as Spector; he even gets a change to indulge in his signature rants late in the film. Meanwhile, Mirren is in a class of her own as a hypochondriac but steel-nerved lawyer with an uncanny ability to defend her client no matter the circumstances. (Phil Spector’s look at a high-priced defense, with war room and expert-driven strategies, is worth a look by itself.) The film may indulge in showing the most eccentric aspect of Spector’s personality, but it’s also somewhat sympathetic to him, creating reasonable doubt that he may not have actually committed the murder for which he was accused. Phil Spector remains a made-for-TV movie, but with David Mamet writing and directing for HBO, it features high-quality dialogue and decent production values: if nothing else, it’s a good way to enjoy good actors playing interesting people. Al Pacino as Phil Spector? That’s always worth watching.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Watching this HBO/BBC film docu-drama about the possibility of a terrorist “dirty bomb” detonating in central London occasionally feels like an educational obligation: Dirty War is a procedural thriller trying to stick closely to consensual reality, and the result is a gritty, down-to-earth depiction of things that could happen at the expense of more conventional suspenseful thrills. While the first half-hour is occasionally tedious, it does create an atmosphere of verisimilitude that becomes engrossing once the truly bad things start happening. There are only a bare number of heroics here, with a conclusion that seems as grim as potential reality once containment breaks down and everyone has to acknowledge the consequences of the detonation. Dirty War certainly isn’t feel-good film, and writer/director Daniel Percival’s grainy handheld cinematography sells the illusion of a quasi-documentary better than expected. The film also has the merit of reflecting, in a non-hysterical but still highly sobering fashion, an entire decade’s worth of bottled anxiety about nuclear terrorism –and the somewhat measured tone helps the film stay current and effective a decade later. (It helps that it’s somewhat ambivalent about the official government party line: hopeful about the abilities of the people involved, but somewhat skeptical about the ability of the government to manage a crisis) There are even a few remarkable performances here, most notably Alastair Galbraith as a street-level worker stuck in an impossible situation, and Koel Purie as a voice-of-moderation Islamic policewoman. Dirty War amounts to a slow-burn film that works quite a bit better than expected from the first few minutes… and certainly sticks in mind longer than the average shoot’em up Hollywood terrorist action movie.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) I like to think that I’ve got a pretty good mental encyclopedia of fantasy movies, but this one had completely eluded me until now: A made-for-HBO film taking place in late-1940s Los Angeles in which magic is real and a gumshoe works at preventing a monstrous apocalypse. Fred Ward stars as the tough-guy private detective (named Philip Lovecraft, ha), and he gets a few crunchy lines in-between his narration and his one-liners. Cast a Deadly Spell gamely tries to portray a suddenly-magical Los Angeles and blend it with noir aesthetics, but it’s hampered by a low budget and by a lack of internal consistency: it’s never too clear how magic is supposed to work, as the various fantastical elements blend together in a blur of self-contradictory events. Still, the film works relatively well as an unassuming hidden gem, and if the final gag can be seen well in advance, it’s still good for a laugh or two. Director Martin Campbell and femme-fatale Julianne Moore would go on to bigger and better films a few years later. Cast a Deadly Spell was followed by the barely-related Witch Hunt in 1994.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) This quasi-sequel to 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell brings us back to an alternate 1950s Los Angeles suddenly awash in magic, but nearly everything else has changed: The noir aesthetics have given their place to bright Hollywood glam, the lead Private Investigator role is now played by Dennis Hopper and the tone of the film shifts from criminal horror to social commentary. Recasting McCarthyism as literal persecution of witches, Witch Hunt does get to be a bit too obvious at times. Still, there are a few things to like here and there despite the limited budget, including the background details and emphasis on a glamorous era for Hollywood. Hopper isn’t too bad as the lead, while Julian Sands is arresting as an evil magician and Penelope Ann Miller has an eye-catching role as a threatened starlet. The ending is a bit weak and obvious in its hurry to denounce witch-hunting for political gains, but the real fun of the film comes before then.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s a lot to admire in the first half of The Pentagon Wars and, unfortunately, less and less to like as it goes on. This is a somewhat unusual film that dares tackle military procurement as a comedy (!) and the beginning of the film has to do a lot of exposition (in a relatively painless fashion) to get viewers up-to-speed with the basic premise. Cary Elwes isn’t too bad as the sometimes-bewildered officer who comes to learn the dirty history of the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, whereas Kelsey Grammer doesn’t break any typecasting as the fanatically right-wing general who slowly becomes the antagonist of the film. The Pentagon Wars is, at first, fairly clever and generally fact-based; unfortunately, this changes in the second half of the film, as it becomes increasingly slapstick based: the script becomes steadily dumber, to the point where characters start acting like buffoons in a broader and broader (read: stupider) military comedy… much like Down Periscope, also featuring Kelsey Grammer. The film’s visible departure from reality may lead a few viewers to investigate the real story behind the film, leading to further disenchantment with its liberties. As it turns out, not testing the vehicle to destruction is actually a good idea when dealing with multi-million-dollar items: you get more value out of each test vehicle. But the film’s insistence in painting everything in goofier shades of black and white ends up damaging what started out as a relatively more clever comedy. Let’s hand it to HBO, though, for producing a film with a relatively cerebral premise, and following through with a decent budget. The result may be disappointing, but it’s already more ambitious than many other.
(On Cable TV, May 2013) In the hands of HBO and Steven Soderbergh, made-for-TV movies clearly aren’t what they used to be: Here, with Behind the Candelabra, we get nothing less than two top-notch actors delivering a love story set against the flamboyant backdrop of Liberace’s career. Michael Douglas is a surprisingly good Liberace (embracing the skill and the generosity but also the pathos of the man), while Matt Damon plays Scott Thorson, the (much) younger man who was his lover between 1977 and 1981. (If the film has a flaw, it’s that Matt Damon is considerably older than Thorson was at the time –this softens much of the tension that an accurate portrayal of the story would have given.) The doomed love story may be predictable, but it’s well-executed to make it dramatically interesting. The two main actors are also fearless in their performances, openly embracing (and demonstrating) the romantic relationship between their characters, but there are plenty of scene-stealing cameos elsewhere in the film, whether it’s Dan Aykroyd playing a mousy manager, or Rob Lowe’s plastic-faced surgeon/dealer. From a directing standpoint, Soderbergh delivers his usual brand of audience-riling iconoclasm, making the most out of his budget and crafting a film that’s more engaging than many of his last few colder efforts. But the star of the show, frankly, are the set dressers, makeup artists and costume designers that bring to life the famed excess of Liberace’s work and personal life. The camera moves through a lavish re-creation of Liberace’s homes, dwells on his spectacular stage outfits and convincingly recreates his performances. It’s -to take up a theme of the film- a grand show, and it’s easy to just enjoy the film for its moments of comedy and pure surface sheen. There’s more to Behind the Candelabra, of course: a reflection of that type of content that TV (well, HBO) audience are willing to embrace, a bit of a late screed against the unfairness of repressing one’s sexuality, a look at the way the rich and powerful can sculpt other people… this is a Soderbergh film, after all, and there’s a bit more behind the surface. So it is that we’ve come to this: A pretty good film, with big-name stars and impeccable technical credentials, delivered by TV. Given that I’m an HBO subscriber, I can only applaud this.