2018 in Review: 10 Good Things That I Saw On Television


Moving right along with my look back at 2018, here are 10 good things that I saw on television.

Please note, I did not say that these were the ten “best” things on television in 2018.  Instead, these are ten things that I enjoyed enough that, in January of 2019, they still pop to my mind whenever I ask myself, “What did I enjoy last year?”  As always, this is just my opinion and you’re free to agree or disagree.

Got it?  Okay, let’s go!

  1. Showtime reran Twin Peaks: The Return

Okay, so maybe I’m cheating a little here.  Twin Peaks: The Return originally aired in 2017.  You may remember that, for about 6 months, the Shattered Lens essentially became a Twin Peaks fan site.  Still, I can’t begin to describe how excited I was to discover that, over the course of a weekend, Showtime would be reairing the entire series.  I binged every episode and I discovered that, even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s still one of the greatest shows of all time.  Unfortunately, the Emmy voters did not agree.  Bastards.

2. The Alienist 

It took me a little while to really get into The Alienist but, once I did, I found myself growing obsessed with not only the sets and the costumes but the mystery as well!  Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning all did excellent work and I can’t wait for the sequel!

3. Jesus Christ Superstar Live

I was skeptical.  I had my doubts.  I thought I’d spend the entire two and a half hours rolling my eyes.  Jesus Christ Superstar proved me wrong.

4. The Americans

One of the best shows on television went out on a high note.

5. Barry

Barry premiered on HBO and it quickly became a favorite of mine.  While I agree that Bill Hader and Henry Winkler deserve all of the attention that they’ve received, I’d also say that Stephen Root continues to prove himself to be one of our greatest character actors.

6. Big Brother

The reality show that so many love to hate finally had another good season.  Since I get paid to write about the show for another site, that made me happy.  Seriously, some of the previous seasons were painful to watch so Big Brother 20 was a huge relief.  (Plus, BB 20 inspired everyone’s favorite twitter game: “Will Julie Chen Moonves show up tonight?”)

7. Maniac

As much fun as it is to complain about Netflix, occasionally they justify the price of their existence by giving us something like Maniac.

8. You

Sometimes, I loved this show.  Sometimes, I absolutely hated it.  However, I was always intrigued and never bored.  I can’t wait to see what happens during season 2.

9. Trust

For all the attention that was given to The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Trust was the best FX true crime series of 2018.  Along with an intriguing story, it also featured great performances from Donald Sutherland, Hillary Swank, and Brendan Fraser.  (Yes, Brendan Fraser.)

10. Westworld

I know a lot of people didn’t care much for the latest season of Westworld.  I loved it and, in the end, isn’t that what really matters?

That’s it for television!  Coming up next, it’s the entry in Lisa’s look back at 2018 that we’ve all been waiting for, my picks for the best 26 films of the year!

Lisa Looks Back At 2018

  1. Ten Worst Films of 2018
  2. Best of Lifetime
  3. Best of Syfy
  4. 10 Favorite Novels
  5. 12 Favorite Non-Fiction Books
  6. 10 Favorite Songs

 

 

6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!


Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


School Ties

For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

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* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

Embracing the Melodrama #53: Crash (dir by Paul Haggis)


crash-2004-poster

For the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, some of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.   We started way back in 1916 and now, after 52 reviews, we’ve finally reached the year 2004.  And that can only mean that it is time to review the worst film to ever win an Oscar for best picture of the year.  I am, of course, talking about Crash.

Crash is an ensemble piece that follows a multi-racial cast of characters as they deal with issues of race, crime, and — well, that’s about it.  In Crash, everyone’s life revolves around race and crime.  Well, I take that back,  There is at least one character whose life revolves around being a good maid to the white woman who employs her.  But otherwise, it’s all about race and crime.  The film is set in Los Angeles which, from what I’ve read, is actually a pretty big city but you really wouldn’t know that from watching Crash.  All of the characters in Crash are constantly and randomly running into each other.  I think director/screenwriter Paul Haggis is trying to make a statement about the power that coincidence plays in the world but, often times, it just feels like lazy plotting.

Anyway, here are the characters who are meant to bring Los Angeles to vivid cinematic life:

Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock play rich white people Rick and Jean Cabot.  Rick Cabot has just been elected District Attorney of Los Angeles County.  (Because when I think of a successful urban politician, I automatically think of Brendan Fraser…)  Jean is his materialistic wife.  At the start of the film, they’re carjacked by two young black men, which leads to Jean suspecting that every non-white she sees is secretly a gang member.  Later, Jean falls down a flight of stairs but she’s helped by her maid, who happens to be — surprise, surprise — not white!  Apparently, this teaches Jean an important lesson about tolerance.  The message, I guess, is that white people can be redeemed by interacting with their minority servants.

And then there’s Cameron (Terrence Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) who are upper class and black.  Cameron directs sitcoms for a living and, at work, he has to deal with Fred (Tony Danza) constantly double guessing him and demanding that he reshoot scenes.  One night, as they leave an awards ceremony, Cameron and Christine are pulled over by two white cops — the racist Ryan (Matt Dillon) and his idealistic partner Hansen (Ryan Phillippe).  Ryan proceeds to molest Christine while giving her a pat down.  The next day, Christine is involved in a car accident on the freeway and is pulled from the burning car by none other than Officer Ryan.  The point here, I suppose, is that the same pervert who finger rapes you one night is just as likely to be the same guy who comes across your overturned car on the freeway.  For that scene alone, Crash deserves the title of worst best picture winner ever.

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But that’s not all!

There’s also Detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle), who has been assigned to investigate a police corruption case that would not be out of place in an episode of … well, just insert your own generic cop show title here.  Graham also visits his mentally unstable mother who demands that Graham find his younger brother.  Now, of course, as soon as we hear this, we know that Graham’s brother is going to have to turn out to be one of the other characters in the film.  Since there are only three other black males in this film (and since Cameron appears to be the same age as Graham), it’s not difficult to figure out who it’s going to be.

It’s either going to be Anthony (Ludacris) or Peter (Larenz Tate), who also happen to be the same two men who carjacked the Cabots’ car at the start of the film.  Larenz Tate probably gives the best performance in this whole sorry mess of a film, even if his role is ultimately a thankless one.

There’s also a locksmith named Daniel (Michael Pena), who finds himself being stalked by an angry Middle Eastern man.  Daniel’s story contains a hint of magic realism, presumably because Paul Haggis was reading something by Gabriel Garcia Marquez while writing the script.

Crash

You can fault Crash for many things but you also can’t deny that it’s far more ambitious than the typical bad film.  In the space of 112 minutes, Paul Haggis attempts to say everything that needs to be said about race and class in America.  Unfortunately, while watching the film, it quickly becomes obvious that Haggis really doesn’t know much about race and class in America.  Hence, the film becomes a collection of scenes that think they mean something while actually meaning nothing.  Crash is less about race in America and more about how other movies have traditionally portrayed race in America.  Unfortunately, director Haggis does not have the self-awareness to truly bring the subtext of screenwriter Haggis’s script to life.

The main theme of Crash seems to be that everyone has a good side and a bad side and that you can the hero of one story while being the villain of another.  That’s not a bad theme, it’s just an incredibly mundane one.  The film illustrates this theme by continually having a character say something racially offensive just to then have him do something heroic in the very next scene.  As a result, the characters don’t come across as being so much complex as just incredibly inconsistent.  Crash is never as deep as it thinks it is.

Reportedly, Crash was inspired by Paul Haggis’s own experience of getting carjacked.  Haggis has said that being a victim of crime led to some intense soul searching on his part.  Hopefully, Haggis got something better than just Crash out of the whole experience.

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