Levitt Reviews HBO’s “Crashing” (B)

crashing

HBO has a penchant for introducing shows with juicy premises (Hung-The life of a gigilo) (Big Love- Bigamy) yet killing the fun by casting a bland, moralistic protagonist which strips the shows of much of their edge or escapist appeal. “Crashing” continues this tradition with the most milquetoast New York comedian I have ever seen.

Pete Holmes is an earnest christian who, it seems, just woke up one day with the notion to try stand-up comedy.  Most stand-ups, while not traditionally attractive per se, do have or at least try and cultivate a distinctive look/stage persona to either stand our or relate to their audiences.  Physically, Pete Holmes (Played by Pete Benedict) resembles an amorphous, pudgy mix of Ray Romano and Thirty Rock’s Jack Mcbrayer and dresses like your average middle-school gym teacher.

Holmes also lacks the often shifty/restless comedic energy present in many New York Comics. Pete’s face reads complacency or resignation. Not the most compelling qualities for a stand-up.  Furthermore, he’s a practicing Christian so he naturally and enthusiastically eschews many of the trappings (alcohol, drugs, easy sex) which many comics wear like badges in their acts and mine for material. In essence, he’s a bland wet blanket. If the show continues to want to keep Pete “Pure”, I think it would be a good idea to at least add a couple of idiosyncratic vices to keep his character interesting. By interesting, I don’t mean to make Pete collect the occasional Plush animals or have a sweet-tooth for salt-water taffy.  Give him a nasty little internet porn addiction or something!

The quality of Pete’s stand-up material is predictably pretty bad ( consisting mainly of either under-ripe or overly labored “Observations”) but, then again, the jokes in movies/shows about stand-ups are always bad.  Its like writers are unwilling to have the comedian deliver their “A level “material for fear of piracy, or the material is so censored/PC to make it digestible for middle-america or the stray 12 year old who checks out the show.

I also am not crazy about the character of “Jess ” (Pete’s Wife).  Pete catches Jess in bed with another man in the first episode. To me,  Lauren Lapkus,  The actress cast as his cuckolding wife, doesn’t even manifest like she enjoys sex.  Her demeanor is too sweet and helpful. Rather than proudly cheating on her husband, Jill looks like a woman who sells jams at the local farmers market. As a side note, I like how the name of the guy Jess is screwing is named “Leif”.  In sitcoms and movies, women always have affairs with guys with exotic names, “Paco” or “Leif”.  You almost never catch your wife in bed with someone named, “Bill”.

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Whereas the central character of the show is underwhelming, I do enjoy the featured guest comedians: Artie Lange, T.J. Miller, and Sarah Silverman as well as several cameos by noted New York Comedians.   The comics who guest are encouraged to play their nutty selves on the show and their dialogue seems real and not overloaded by “bits”. In fact, one of the cool perks of the show is discovering crazy windows into the worlds of the guest comedians: sarah Silverman runs a boarding house and collects comedians)  T.J. Miller collects clocks which are all set to the wrong time, Artie Lange needs the bathroom door open when he takes a dump.  Sure, it stretches the bonds of credibility that every comic Pete meets wants to adopt/befriend the boring Naive Pete. But, it does also “humanize” the guest comics more by showing their generosity to their comic countrymen.

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I’m sure George Carlin didn’t just spontaneously erupt into his famous, “Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV” Monologue during his very first open mike appearance. But, sadly Most shows/movies about the life of stand-ups skip the  early “breaking-in period” like most people want to quickly gloss over their first awkward/brief sexual encounter. But I like that “Crashing” openly embraces the freshman comic and bottom rungs of the club circuit.  There are, for instance, numerous scenes of “barking” ( Ray hands out pamphlets in exchange for stage time), crashes at fellow comics houses, and plays to empty houses.  More bios of comedians should tackle this early period for it helps inform their persona, passion, and career longevity.

In time, I hope the show relaxes Pete’s uptight image and, while keeping him essentially a good guy, lets him explore and indulge in a comic’s sketchy lifestyle with gusto.  If he lets himself go, I think his character and plot-lines will more vividly capture the comedian’s lifestyle. Who knows, he might even get laid.

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Levitt Reviews “The Affair 3rd Season Finale” Bonjour And Bon Debarras (*Spoilers)

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The 3rd season of Showtime’s “The Affair” captures Noah escaping his familiar Montauk/ Fishkill, haunts to…France?  I guess it was inevitable that by introducing a French Character to the show, they’d have to send him to France if only to allow the new French actress (Irene Jacob) to speak a few lines in her mother tongue.  True to the well-worn cliche,  Noah does do all the French touristy things…cafes…bookstores, and attending vagina-art gallery openings…the usual.

John Gunther, We Hardly knew Ya

Episode 303

Noah had a dark, grim, go of it this season: Pill addicted, hallucinating, and attacked by a sadistic prison guard (at least in his mind) with a chip on his shoulder.  A  sadistic prison guard?  how unusual.  You only see that in every single movie/TV show set in prisons! well,  At least this one, portrayed by a bloated, Weight-Watcher Skipping, Brendan Fraser, was also into chick-lit; lustily reading excerpts of Noah’s own book to him in-between beatings. What a guy!   But then, in a complete and cartoon-ish swicheroo,  the show decided to show that Noah’s perception of Gunther was influenced by drug addiction.  In the last episode, a drug-free Noah meets Gunther as a mild-mannered glasses-wearing dad  with a special-needs kid. I found the transition to extreme to be believable.  I’m surprised the show didn’t show Gunther  lovingly thumbing his well-worn copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” or binging on “The Bachelor” to make his full de-masculation complete.

When In France…Get Slapped In The Face!

Episode 307

I think the writers of the Finale must have just come off a Sex And The City Marathon. In the Sex episode “Set In Paris”,  Carrie gets slapped in the face by an angry artist, Petrovsky and “Big” threatens to punch the artist in the face.  , Noah’s daughter, in The Affair,  is punched in the face by her angry artist boyfriend, Furkat. My question is…Why? Is slapping your girlfriend part and parcel of the French Artist’s Creative process?  Is there something in the water over there? and Why do France’s best artists constantly ignore the obvious advantages of a good, old-fashioned, verbal beatdown?   Well, at least in Sex and the City, the artist had the good taste to create “light installations” (whatever the hell those are!) and not a full exhibit of framed vaginas. That’s just stupid.

While The Husband Has Alzheimers, The Wife Will Play

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I guess the writers of “The Affair” wanted to make French Professor, “Juliette” a tad more morally superior to Noah because, although she encouraged her affair with Noah, a former adulterer, convicted and imprisoned for murder, she had a good excuse…her husband had alzheimers.

In the prior season Noah didn’t need a good reason to have an affair with Allison other than she was a Montauk Local. However, since Juliette and Noah were more casual about their tryst because Juliette’s older husband had mentally checked-out, one wonders if they would their affair could have been as guilt-free and reckless if the hubby was just home with a bad head cold.

Reunited And It Feels So… Good?

Episode 310

One of the few positive notes this season was to reunite and reconcile Noah with his estranged children. Sure, he abandoned their mother, got himself locked-up for three years, and showed his interests leaned more toward fornicating more than fathering, but he was self-aware.  He knew he was a self interested ass-hole. He openly acknowledged his dick-dom in a couple of longish, soul searching monologues. Doesn’t that give him automatic closure with his kids?  With this show it does…the episode ends with Noah  acting lovey dov-y with his daughter and setting up a play date with his son.  Now, that’s just good Little House On The Prairie Entertainment right there!

 

 

 

Levitt Reviews,”Miles Ahead” (C)

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Doing a satisfying movie about Miles Davis seems impossible.

Davis himself was way too  cool, elusive (will-of-the-wisp) and too spontaneous a figure  to lend himself to easy description and standard narratives. His mountain of artistic output (from be-bop, Birth Of cool, to Electric Miles, Grammys, and Induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) defies a revisionist 2 hour treatment. Furthermore, his own often prickly/private personality fought examination and disdained easy labels.

Therefore, its understandable that the writers/creators of Miles Ahead decided against the predictable spectacle of a standard Hollywood boiler-plate rags-to-riches jazz biopic in favor of more modest slice-of life treatment. Yet, even in watching the film with smaller expectations, I still found “Miles Ahead” an original but ultimately unsatisfying cinematic tease into the rich life of Miles Davis.

The film spotlights a period during the late 1970s where Miles is a largely lazy, drugg-ed out hermit who spends his time calling into local jazz radio and complaining about them playing cuts of Sketches of Spain instead of Kind of Blue. The decision to set the film in the late 70s perplexed me.  Why would a film-maker would want to highlight a 24-48 hour period which was atypically fallow in the career of such a creative and prolific artist? it would be like doing a film on Mohammed Ali or  Evil Knievel while they were in the hospital laid-up after an injury. Interesting perhaps for a scene or so but not extended out into 2 hours!

If the writers wanted to use the film examine artistic block, they do Davis a disfavor by casting him as a sedentary hermit. He’s depicted as a man of leisure, drug-addled, lethargic and who only occasionally glances at his trumpet or fusses over some master session mix tapes. I would have preferred A more dramatic approach; Miles struggling with his procrastination, showing doubt or flashes of temper, hitting both bum-notes literally and figuratively in his creative inspiration. Frustratingly, in this film,his driving inspiration is more to get high than play great jazz.

The story begins with aspiring Rolling stone writer (portrayed by Ewan Mcgregor) shows up at Davis’ door in search of the story of Miles’ comeback.  The following few scenes offer several clever smart-aleck quips by Miles about music and celebrity.  Don Cheadle does a great job in embodying the prickly, fire-cracker personality of the Trumpeter. The voice (rasp), movement, and look also seem a pretty spot on match. Initially, the rapport of Davis and the reporter seems fun, (if with Macgregor’s accent more than a tad quirky) and spontaneous. Unfortunately, after some interesting set-up, and a few fiery gun-waving dust-ups at Davis’ local record label, the film veers wildly off course into a clumsy caper film. Scenes showing  Davis try to score coke at a local college, signing a few autographs, and a gun-toting car chase in quest of his stolen session master tapes seem worthier of a story about a more minor jazz figure and more sub-plot material than main action.

Along the way, are some flashbacks about a lost-love/muse and earlier “birth of cool” sessions which do serve to try and show some glossy perspective on the broader fabric of Miles life.  However, I found these scenes largely distracted and the nostalgic mood seemed out of place with the of-the-moment feel of the rest of the film.

There is also some scenes thrown-in with a young an up-and-coming jazz trumpeter for Miles to supposedly mentor.  The story could have done more showcased this relationship more (Miles as teacher and student as muse to get Davis’ spark back). Despite this, the narrative completely forgets the young jazz newbie at the end and I was left wondering what happened to him.

In the final frames of the movie, we are finally allowed into the secret of the stolen master tapes. We hear what we have been waiting for for 1:45 hours.  The result proves as auditorilly underwhelming and anti-climactic as the story which has lead up to his discovery.

Ultimately, I found the movie played more like a respectable character sketch than a full-treatment. To me, Davis is a towering figure in jazz. He had such high highs and low lows,  I wanted a film with more of an emotional journey and dramatic pay-off.  I guess I wanted a cinematic experience as inspired as   “My Funny Valentine” what I got instead was just a cinematic warm-up.

Levitt Reviews Masters Of Sex-Season Finale (spoilers)

masters

Masters Of Sex did tick-up in quality slightly this year from the Dan Logan-Centric previous season but unfortunately the year also doubled-down on soapy intrigue and melodramatic shenanigans.  The season finale had a rushed-up feel.  Subtlety gave way to easy closures and bizarrely unexpected detours.

Libby Masters JD-

libby

 When did Libby’s deep love of the law begin,  two episodes ago?. Libby was formerly the queen of domestic complacency; spending the past 3 seasons doing absolutely  nothing except smoking, and inwardly brooding about her condition.  This season, the staid former housewife however, suddenly decided to head on down to Woodstock and… eschewing the counter culture phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, instead decided to…become a lawyer. If you troubled to ask,  I’m sure people’s first impulse after dazedly emerging from the mushroom /mud infused grounds of Woodstock was probably not to decide to buckle down to 3 years of intense study and preparation for the Bar Exam.  Talk about your bad trip!

Johnny Masters- from neglected child to teenage martyr

johnny

In this hyper-melodramatic finale, Johnny Masters (estranged son of Bill) overhears his parents bickering and -apparently because he has an extremely low tolerance for parental discord- completely freaks; jumping into his dad’s Jaguar and driving off in some wacky vehicular tantrum.  I’m not sure why Master’s son (absent all season) was suddenly called in for this melodrama.  Maybe due to some child labor laws in AFTRA, kids must appear in at least one episode per season to be granted health coverage. Johnny’s sole scene depicted him overhearing that his mom (kids in tow) would move halfway across the country to attend law school. Its hard to believe that Johnny’s character, so long estranged and even insulted by his father, would get so worked up about the fight that Johnny would both freak and -in some bizarre  magnanimous impulse-volunteer to live with his dad to ease his fatherly loneliness.  Luckily, the still “paternally ambivalent” Bill Masters quickly put the kibosh to any “The Courtship Of Eddies Father” scenario by announcing that despite Johnny’s kind offer,  Dad would now be keeping house with former mistress, fellow sexpert, Virginia Johnson.  Music to any estranged kids ears!

Dr Nancy-  Going Off “Half cocked”

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After a whole season of sniping at Virginia and de-masculating husband Art, what was Dr Nancy’s exit strategy this season?  Just steal Master’s and Johnson’s Clients, move to another city and set up shop using their approaches? Great plan!  Good luck getting a good job recommendation/employer referral after that one! .   This year, Dr Nancy and Art already won my  award for least fun, open-marriage swingers ever. Nancy was cold blooded, stone-faced, and ambitious and Art was  devoted, ethical, and soul searching. Instead,  Masters could have tapped into the more casual, promiscuous vibe of this era and even added some “far outs” or “groovys” to add some tacky flavor and more of a smarmy groove.  Unfortunately, the show apparently wanted to end the season by making Dr Nancy, Betty Gilpin, the single least likable woman on cable; aborting her husband’s baby without his knowledge/consent and stealing her bosses clients. On the plus side though, she did like her some “open marriage sex”.

Masters And Johnson- How About A Wedding Quickie?

wedding

What do you get for the couple whose relationship was sizzling, bubbling, percolating for 4 seasons (spanning 10+ years)?   a quickie marriage in the clerk’s office of City Hall and presided over by a grumbly functionary. Yeah, that hit the spot!  Seems satisfying.  I guess the writers wanted to avoid any  needless romantic proclamations by Masters or any earnest love-filled vows by Virginia to keep female fans of the show happy. No, we don’t want that! Look, They got hitched.  Isn’t that enough?  The show didn’t even go to the trouble of throwing up any last minute roadblocks.  No last minute Dan Logan or “Dotie” objections to clog up the works and kill any remote dramatic tension. No last minute Barton Scully indignant meltdowns at the courthouse (always good for a laugh)  Bill was late to the ceremony. that’s it.  It would probably be a more dramatic payoff if Masters suddenly realized he forgotten his beloved bow tie.

Betty- What, Did Her Invite To the Finale/Wedding Get Lost In The Mail?

betty

Killing her lesbian lover in childbirth, losing custody of her new baby to her lover’s hateful, intolerant parents…They did everything to Betty this season but chuck her head-first down a flight of stairs.  What happened here? who’d she piss off?  Did she accidentally  drop a #2 in the Toilet of Lizzy Caplan’s private dressing room?   The show didn’t even have the courtesy to invite her to the courthouse nuptials of Masters and Johnson.  Screw Scully or Guy, Betty deserved to be there.

The Thumb Wrestler- A Film By Mark Levitt

dunk

I’ve been writing screenplays for comedy films for about 14 years now.  Before that, I loved to make comedy tapes.  You remember old cassette tapes?  You can still find them in some flea-markets/garage sales. Well, I made cassette tapes worth of comedy (short sketches, news bulletins, actual taped shouting matches with my family members etc).  I did sketches on pop culture (all self voiced, complete with dramatic musical scores/sound effects  Wierd Al, Eat your heart out! )which I would hand out to classmates, family members, and anyone else who had a spare 15 minutes in their lives to kill.  Although my tapes attracted a small cult following…really small, I never really took off commercially. I still have most of them in a shoe-box in the event that my career takes off late and fans rush to purchase/gobble-up anything Levitt.  Here’s a link to a youtube audio snippet:  Youtubecomedyaudio

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Then, when I hit about 36, I decided to try my hand at screenplays and found I had a knack for funny/absurd dialogue. Most of my screenplays were about my own experiences…work, family life, and were usually dark, therapeutic and chock full of my own neurosis.  They usually involved some sort of power struggle:  worker/management.  Family/in-laws.   But again, most of them were too low budget/niche to really appeal to a broader audience.  You can check out all of them.  Just google Mark Levitt in Mark Levitt on Vimeo or Mark Levitt On Youtube  if you ever have a spare  afternoon to kill.

Flash forward to now (2016) with my most recent comedy film, Thumb Wrestler. It was truly a blast.  I had a great time writing and editing and have just completed the major filming (locations in midtown and Greenwich Village New York Sept 10th/11th).   It includes a cast of 10 great actors and an extremely talented director and cinematographer.  I am really very proud of the writing and the talent of everyone involved. Hopefully, because of the popular sports theme, it will appeal to a broader group of people than those I can just nudge or bug into checking it out.   It will probably be another several weeks before the editing will be complete and the frenzied studio bidding war to begin 😉  But, I just wanted to take time out from my hectic TV Viewing, Facebook posting, family pro-bono psychiatric therapy schedule to reflect  and champion the merits of the Thumb Wrestler. Check out the facebook page: Thumb Wrestler Page  Stay Tuned Folks!

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Masters Of Sex- “You’ve Been Dan Logan’ed”

Let’s hope this season is better than last! : )

Mark Levitt on Entertainment And Pop-Culture

logan

Open A window- I’ve been a fan of masters of sex from the first season. The acting and dialogue is first rate and it has the simmering love story for the two central characters that is seemingly necessary for these kinds of dramas (ie “The Affair”).

However, now in its third season the show has taken a dip for the worse and the reason is the godawful stench of Perfume/scents mogul, Dan Logan played by The Good Wife’s Josh Charles.

Something smells fishy- On The Good Wife, Josh Charles played a pragmatic, cerebral quick on his toes, lawyer, “Will Gardener”. His innate unruffled, taciturn demeanor played well to the thoughtful and strategizing lawyer he played on the show. However, on “Masters” his strengths as an actor seem wasted on a character that is meant to be more of a suave worldly charmer.  It seems hard to imagine that this undemonstrative…

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Levitt Rates “The Duff” (B- On A Teen-Comedy Scale)

duff

On the surface, the plot of The Duff, follows in a long tradition of Boiler-Plate Teen comedies .  The recipe is: Take a misfit protagonist, a stuck up homecoming queen, the school jock, and sprinkle in some John Hughes teen angst  and stir.

The plot off “The Duff” is the most highly derivative teen comedy I have ever seen and, since most of these films borrow from each-other, that’s saying alot.  Here are some of the more copy-cat plot points:

The central character of the film is a social mis-fit who is just one make-over away from being attractive (in every teen flick): check

The embarrassing viral video (see “American pie”)

The pretty but dim friends (any teen comedy) check

The climactic prom scene where the jock must make a decision to choose love over social convention. (She’s All That)  Check

The cool girl’s come uppance (every teen comedy)

The central story of the film involves Bianca’s realization that she is the Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for her friend group to whom people approach who are more interested in her prettier friends. Once she realizes this less-than-profound fact, she is able to take a stronger ownership of her invisible social status:to act/dress different, confront her peers, ie get out of her comfort zone and take more risks. She quickly buddies up with jock, “Wesley Rush” who, in exchange for help with his science Class, agrees to help tutor her to confront her Duff Status and navigate through the tough social waters of high-school life ( you know,in between push-ups/making out with the homecoming queen).

Ulitmately, What makes these geek to chic teen comedies work is largely the likability/relatability of the central character. That’s where this film, for me, breaks above the average pack of this genre.  The writers make The Duff, aka Bianca Piper (played appealingly by  by Mae Whitman) a fully three dimensional character. Not too Goody-Goody, not too much of an angry outsider. She just seems real.  She’s casual and self-deprecating but also sharply critical of the people around her. Physically, Mae Whitman she reminds me as sort of a cross between Amanda Bynes and janeane Garofalo ( although with less real-life baggage than Bynes and less sardonic than Garofolo).  The writers also smatter-in plenty of witty social media references and pop culture references to keep things moving and entertaining.

But of course, “The Duff” is the most likable character in the film  The writers hardly give the other characters a fighting chance. The other actors are mostly  stock figures: pretty girls who take turns either preening or mercilessly bashing their underclassman.  The only other character who has a more singular personality is the 2nd lead of the film, The Jock/heartthrob “Wesley Rush”.  I like how the writers named a football character “Wesley Rush”. Get it? I guess the name “Scott Scrimmage” was too on the nose. The writers make him a decent guy but with raunchy streak that gives his character more depth/reality than your basic jock/good samaritan type which is pretty common in these types of films.  Less successful, though, is the odd addition of  actress  Allison Janey to play The Duff’s mother Its questionable why they cast Janney as mother since she towers above Mae and physically they barely seem part of the same species much less family members.  The film largely sidelines the talented Janney relegating her to just a sounding board for Bianca’s problems .

The film is obvious in its treatment of social groups. These types films never met a cliche’d teen niche they didn’t like/exploit.  From the original template of The Breakfast Club: you have your Jocks, criminals, nerds, wierdos etc.  Anyone who has experiences high school, knows that social groups that not very sharply delineated.  Its not like jocks or nerds telegraph their status that obviously:  “Look, I’m a jock and I can’t be seen talking to you.  Read the contract!”.  Social groups are, more often than that more varied;  weird melting pots of people who could probably and do hang equally with many different social groups.

The ending morality of the film, everybody is somebody’s duff.  We’re all nerds, blah blah is straight out of every other teen movie from John Hughes On. Not that earth-shattering.  But its still nice to see difference being embraced after the slew of body shaming/ cyber bullying that happens so frequently online and through social media these days.  Its also nice, if cliched, to see the heroine of the film achieve love and self-acceptance.  So, despite its extremely copy-cat, by the numbers plot-line and cardboard supporting characters, I liked the lead actors and some of the sharp/witty dialogue enough to give this film a B- (On a highly more generous Teen-Comedy Scale)