Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

Bill Maher: Bitingly Funny No Matter the Venue—Comedy

September 15, 2014

Bill Maher enjoys such a devoted fan base that people (including me) will come to his show even when they’re not exactly sure what show they are seeing. Do we have tickets for HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” or our tickets for a live taping of an HBO special of his stand-up? In the September 12 crowd in which I stood outside DC’s Warner Theatre, we finally realized we were to be a part of Maher’s comedy special following his also live “Real Time” at DC’s Sidney Harmon Hall. Confused? No matter as long as you‘re entertained and boy were we ever.

Maher1

Turns out Maher’s warm-up act was Maher himself as we watched his  “Real Time” show on the television provided by the theatre. Once that concluded our audience was treated to a play-by-play account of Maher’s motorcade/foot race to the Warner Theatre by none other than Keith Olbermann and filmmaker Michael Moore. Moore had a very funny line referencing Maher’s donation in the 2012 presidential election, by commenting that a “million dollar donation to the Obama campaign evidently buys one a police motorcade.” Whatever. On stage, Maher seemed no worse for wear from doing back-to-back shows. He opened his act with, “I had to run three blocks at breakneck speed to get here. Thank, God, I’m white.” And with that we were off.

Keith and Michael

Despite Maher’s liberal leanings, no one is safe from his caustically funny routine…not Democrats, the President nor the Clintons. But he saves his special bites for Republicans, Congress, racists and religion. Surprisingly, the only person to come out relatively unscathed was the Pope, referring to him as the “Joe Biden of Catholicism”…affectionately calling him, “Frank.”

One line that brought the house down was about the Republicans wondering how they could have lost twice to “Cedric the Entertainer.” But then he went on to say how hard it was to feel sorry for them when they “nominated the world’s oldest man for President who then chose the world’s stupidest woman for his running mate.” The partisan crowd absolutely lost it at that point. Some of Maher’s best small bits were about Donald Trump’s feud with him and John Boehner’s evident hormonal problems which cause him to cry.

Maher admits to showing his age when it comes to social media and taking and posting pictures of one’s private parts, saying he “associates typing with term papers, not sex.” His hour of levity ended with what else—a not to be repeated penis joke.

A Bill Maher comedy special comes with no applause signs. None are needed. The man is smart, energetic, and most important of all, hilarious. The next time his show comes your way, should take every opportunity to go see him…even if you are a religious Republican. Just bring your sense of humor and you’ll have a terrific time. For now, check your local listings for both his HBO shows—”Real Time” and the “Live From DC Special.”

4 nuggets out of 4

The Returned: They’ll be Back and So Will You—TV

December 18, 2013

If you’re a fan of the creepy…if you enjoyed “Bates Motel” and “Lost”…then “The Returned” (“Les revenants”)  is the show you should now be watching. This French series gets under your skin from the first episode and stays there.The Returned

Set in a small French village in 2012, the series’ main premise is fairly straightforward, but beautifully executed. People who died and were buried during different years and places start coming back to life, making their way back home looking exactly as they did the day they died. They have no idea of what happened to them or how they have arrived in their present state. The reactions to their re-emergence by those who loved and buried them are all over the map. In the series’ first season we spend the most time learning about the recently returned Camille, Simon, Victor and Serge and their respective families and friends.

Camille is introduced first. She is 15, on the school bus for an outing, when her bus stops short to avoid hitting a little boy standing in the middle of the highway, and crashes into the water. We later learn this boy is Victor. Four years have passed since her death from the crash when she returns home. Camille has a twin sister, Léna, who stayed home from school the day of the deadly accident. Since Camille’s death their parents have separated and Léna still feels guilty about missing school that fateful day.

In another episode we learn more about Simon. Simon was a young man making plans to be married to Adèle. The day before his wedding, Adèle tells him that she is pregnant. She’s waiting at the altar when she learns of his death.

While all stories are horrific, little Victor’s is especially heart-breaking and the way it is shown will leave you gasping. Upon his return he is found and taken care of by Julie, a nurse with her own very complicated back-story.

Finally we learn more about Serge. His story is pretty grotesque and hard to watch at times. He was a serial killer—attacking women who were making their way home through a tunnel. His method of attack and the aftermath requires a strong stomach for the viewer. Miraculously, not all of his victims died.

Everything about “The Returned” works—from the opening music to the notes played at episode’s end. In between there is terrific casting and some great acting. The two actresses playing the twins Camille and her now older sister, Léna, (Yara Pilartz and Jenna Thiam), are astonishing in their physical similarities. Both are great in portraying resentment, pain and sibling love. Pierre Perrier as Simon and Guillaume Gouix as Serge have difficult roles to play but do them well—Simon in his perseverance to find love again with Adèle and Serge, trying to change for the better with this new life. But it’s hard not to be astounded by Victor. Where, oh where did they find Swann Nambotin, the actor who plays him? He has very little dialogue, but with those huge brown eyes and enigmatic smile, he doesn’t need to say much.

Some reviewers of “The Returned” refer to the returnees as zombies, but that would not be entirely correct. Aside from being hungry non-stop for food, they currently display no abnormalities. That is part of what makes this story so unusual and haunting. Because the series is subtitled, you can’t turn away from the screen. This is not a bad thing since you won’t want to miss a single second of what is occurring on that screen.

There is one more episode to go in this first outing of  “The Returned” and from previews, it looks like we’ll be meeting more of the “undead.” The series has been renewed for another season. I, for one, can’t wait.

You can catch up on this year’s airing of “The Returned” with video on demand or by going to http://www.sundancechannel.com/series/the-returned for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4

Six by Sondheim: More, Please—Documentary

December 15, 2013

Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.Six by Sondheim

This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.

Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how  magic happens.  What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.

In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over

Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday”  from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary  film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?

At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man.  I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.

“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/six-by-sondheim# for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4

Sharkapalooza: The Curse of Boredom—Movie

August 1, 2013

Boredom can induce one to do things one wouldn’t ordinarily do—it can open one’s eyes to new vistas… to new means of entertainment. That is what brought me to the Syfy channel’s Sharktopus” and “Sharknado.

I heard all the hoopla when the Sharkathon aired in mid-July, culminating with the premiere of “Sharknado.” I believed myself to above this lowly fare. But then boredom intersected with a second airing of the marathon and there I was…home…plopped in front of my television…snacks in hand…ready to watch the 2010 “Sharktopus,” followed by the 2013 “Sharknado.” I limited myself to just these two, fearing that viewing any additional movies would render me unable to ever eat fish again. As an avowed pescatarian, this would leave me in dire straits.

One might think that since “Sharktopus” (directed by Declan O’Brien and written by Mike MacLean) was produced by the king of the B-movies, Roger Corman, and starred Eric Roberts, that it would be the better of the two. One would be wrong.Sharktopus

Eric Roberts is Nathan Sands, a scientist working on a new defense project for the government. With his daughter, Nicole, he has created a mega-fish—half shark, half octopus. They believe (especially Nathan) that they can control the creature’s ability to attack and retreat at will. Because of a major hiccup in their testing, Nathan is pressured to rush the completion of this project without the normal safeguards. In so doing, a beast is unleashed and havoc ensues.

No one associated with this movie comes out unscathed. Eric Roberts is hysterically bad as the full-speed ahead mad scientist with a weird fixation on his daughter who has an unexplained English accent. Most of the special effects are horrific. However, there is one fabulous “stunt” involving a bungee jumper and Sharktopus, and it literally makes the movie.

“Sharknado” was produced for the Syfy channel. Directed by Anthony C. Ferrante and written by Thunder Levin, the film stars Ian Ziering, aka Steve Sanders from the original “Beverly Hills, 902010” TV series, as well as John Heard and Tara Reid. Ziering was never give much to do on the series—Jason Priestley and Luke Perry got the bulk of the storylines and publicity (it is horrifying on a whole other level that I know this), but man, he has come ready for action. With his stint on “Dancing with the Stars” and his current gig as a Las Vegas Chippendale, he is buffed, more than fine and has upped his game considerably.  “Sharknado” gives him a lot more dialogue than his entire 10-year run on “90210” and, shockingly, he delivers. He’s actually good.Sharknado

But, oh yes, the plot. Ziering portrays Fin Shepard, a former champion surfer who now owns a bar on a Southern California beach. One day, out of nowhere, there is an influx of sharks and before you can chug a beer, it seems to actually be hurricaning and raining sharks. And these sharks are vicious and hungry.

As everyone tries to flee the beach for higher ground, including Fin and several of his friends, we get some terrific overpass scenes. There are spectacular effects with jumping sharks, sharks on land, sharks in the sea, sharks in the air and so much more.

Fin’s group is heading for Beverly Hills (ironic, I know) to check on his estranged family—ex-wife April (Tara Reid) and his daughter and son. The storm has hit Beverly Hills and the action in the home is pretty terrifying. Ex-wife and daughter in tow, the group now moves in search of Fin’s son who is spending time at a nearby flight school. There we are treated to some spectacular effects involving helicopters, tornadoes, guns and sharks.

“Sharknado” is full of some amazingly cheesy dialogue, but let’s face it–one isn’t expecting Shakespeare. One is expecting sharks and “Sharknado” delivers.

“Sharktopus” (saying that never grows old) and “Sharknado” provide some valuable life lessons:

  1. Forget about the East Coast.  “Jaws” seems to be an anomaly. You should reconsider that trip to Mexico or a Southern California beach. Those areas seem to be the first place hungry sharks attack.
  2. Sharks are equal opportunity killers. They care not if you are black or white, young or old, pretty or ugly, rich or poor.  They just care that you are human.
  3. Most importantly, if a shark jumps up at you, do not stop and stare. Run…run for your life.

The Syfy channel will be premiering “Ghost Shark” August 22, so set the DVR. I am hooked (ooh, bad pun). Can “Vampshark” or “Sharkombie” be far behind? The possibilities are endless.

Gideon’s Army: Mounting a Righteous Charge—Movie/Television

June 25, 2013

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” How often have we heard these words on television and never given them a moment’s thought? Perhaps, like me, you believed, “Great…if I get into trouble and don’t have money for a lawyer, I’ll still be able to get one.”  As the sobering, but inspirational  documentary, “Gideon’s Army,” points out, if you are an indigent, you better hope that you run into trouble in DC and not in the South or other parts of the country, because not all public defender offices are created equally.Gideon's Army

“Gideon’s Army,” produced and directed by Dawn Porter, tells us that in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright, that in felony cases people who could not afford a lawyer must be provided one.  As a result, public defender offices were created to defend poor people charged with serious crimes. Unfortunately, the conditions that many public defenders face on a daily basis have lessened the promise of that ruling. According to the film the DC culture expects the best from public defenders, whereas in other areas, the poor are just processed through the system.

Screened during the AFI Docs Film Festival, “Gideon’s Army” follows three public defenders practicing in three different offices in the South. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick represent most public defenders in that part of the country—practicing extremely long hours for very low pay.  The caseload for each is unbelievably high—as many as 180 clients at one time. Against this backdrop Gideon’s Promise, formerly known as the Southern Public Defender Training Center, was founded by Jonathan Rapping, to provide training and support for public defenders. We learn from Rapping and the other lawyers that every year hundreds of poor people are crammed through a justice system stretched to the max. In addition, many innocent people spend years in prison.

While the three featured lawyers and their respective clients each have compelling stories, I found Travis’ personal story to be the most gripping. Although he has a girlfriend, he seemingly has no life. He lives next door to his office. His office wall is filled with his acquittals. And the losses? The names are tattooed on his back, so that, in his words, “they are always with me.” Right now his back has five names. Because he does much of his own investigative work he believes that he “is more like Matlock than F. Lee Bailey.”  Even though Travis seems to take his life as a public defender in stride, an anticipated meeting with his biological father throws him for a loop and gives us better insight into what makes him tick.

We watch as just the emotional support of Gideon’s Promise can mean so much to lawyers dedicating their lives to represent the poor. As someone who has served on several DC juries, I have witnessed firsthand the terrific work of  public defenders. I assumed all jurisdictions provided the same remarkable service. I know now that my assumption was wrong. The hearts and commitments of the lawyers are equal, but the support from the jurisdictions is not. One can only hope that changes. By highlighting the work of Gideon’s Promise, “Gideon’s Army” is doing all it can to make change happen sooner, rather than later.

“Gideon’s Army” can be seen on HBO beginning July 1.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

Rectify: Haven’t Watched; You Should Fix That Mistake—Television

May 31, 2013

If you love character-driven stories and haven’t watched “Rectify,” you should start NOW.  Although “Rectify” just wound up its first season, you can still watch it via On Demand and several websites, including Sundance, and be ready when the second season begins (date yet to be determined). Rectify poster

What makes “Rectify” so special and unique? Story,writing and acting are the easy, but true answers. However, “Rectify” takes each one of these attributes to the enth degree and then some.

Set in a small town in Georgia,“Rectify” is about Daniel Holden, who as teenager went to prison, convicted for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend. He sat on death row in solitary confinement for 19 years. We meet Daniel just as he is being released on a technicality, although not completely exonerated for the crime.

Aden Young as Daniel is a revelation. It would never have occurred to me to portray Daniel as he does, but his performance makes absolute sense and is sheer perfection. We’re told Daniel was a “little different” as a teenager, but not told what made that so. Whatever it was, nearly 20 years in solitary has only served to accentuate that “differentness.” The Daniel we and his family meet is a wide-eyed innocent who speaks slowly and softly. It’s simple to say that he’s a modern Rip Van Winkle come to life, but to some extent that is true. The world in general is completely changed…as well as his intimate, smaller world. His father is dead…his mother has remarried…he now has a step-brother and a much younger half-brother. Finally, his beloved younger sister has become a woman and his chief defender and protector. How would you—how would any of us cope with these developments?

Through some remarkable flashbacks to Daniel’s prison life, we learn his imprisonment was no walk in the park. Horrific doesn’t begin to describe what he went through. Thankfully, not all of those scenes are violent…some of the scenes with a fellow prisoner are heartbreakingly deep and poignant

Perhaps it’s the ying and yang of emotions, for us and for Daniel, that make “Rectify” so special. Is he guilty of the crime? We’re not really sure. Some of his town residents are welcoming, others are fearful or fear-inducing.  Daniel’s step-father believes Daniel is innocent while his step-brother does not.  We love how his sister stands up for him, but worry that her love will get them both in trouble.

Actor Ray McKinnon is “Rectify’s” brilliant creator. He has assembled a fantastic cast headed by Young, but every other character has just the right actor playing him or her. Especially terrific are J. Smith-Cameron as his mother, Abigail Spencer as Daniel’s sister Amantha, Clayne Crawford as Daniel’s step-brother, Ted Jr. and Adelaide Clemens as Ted Jr.’s wife, Tawney.

“Rectify,” with very little buzz or fanfare, is one of the best shows on television this year, or any year for that matter.  Get yourself to a television or computer screen and be prepared to be blown away.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Bates Motel: You Should Check-in Immediately—Television

April 2, 2013

It’s as if Alfred Hitchcock said to the producers of “Bates Motel,” “Make me proud.” He needn’t have worried. Full-fledged entertainment doesn’t get any better than A&E’s “Bates Motel.”   “Bates” is creepily disturbing on every conceivable level–I haven’t gotten this much pleasure from a television series since the first season of “Lost.”

Bates Motel” is a sort-of prequel to “Psycho”…set in today’s times, not yesteryear. That might cause a little confusion at the beginning, but the rest of the story is so compelling and the acting so good, it’s a teeny, tiny hiccup.Bates motel 1

Freddie Highmore as Norman and Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates are absolutely fantastic as son and mother. Highmore, so adorable in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is all grown up and sensational as Freddie. Perfectly cast, there aren’t enough words to describe how good he is. Highmore conveys fragility, innocence and toughness in just the right tones. Episode 3, “What’s Wrong With Norman,” by Jacob Clifton, gives Highmore the opportunity to shine and boy, does he. At one point he keeps asking himself over and over, “What’s wrong with me?” It’s heart-breaking and eerie at the same time.  While his performance is strictly his own, it is easy to picture him turning into Anthony Perkins’ Norman. Farmiga’s Norma is a little more showy, but she never goes over the top with the character. Farmiga is able to keep an air of mystery about her. That mysteriousness turns into chemistry with every male actor with whom she interacts.

Carleton Cruse, one of “Bates’” executive producers as well as one of its writers, was also a writer and executive producer for “Lost,” so he knows all about weirdness and how to keep an audience interested. Of course what also makes “Bates” so compelling is that we know how it all ends, but the characters don’t. That gives “Bates Motel” a tinge of impending doom and sadness. We understand that no matter how hard Norman tries to make friends and be “normal,” it won’t happen for him. It’s no small feat that the writers, directors and most especially, the actors, make us hope in spite of ourselves.

In a television year full of new kinky killers and killings–“Cult,” “The Following” and “Hannibal”–“Bates Motel “stands head and shoulders above them all. It is not to be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4


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