Levitt Reviews,”Miles Ahead” (C)

davis

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”

nancy

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

tape

 

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!

marquee

 

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…

View original post 284 more words

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)

 

 

 

Levitt Rates One Man Movies

island

I have to begin by saying that I am not the biggest fans of these types of movies .  Other than the fact that the film’s scheduling and wardrobe are a breeze, they are much more problematic on a dramatic level .Its simply hard to create suspense when you’re just  one actor screaming into a vacuum.

Its also an extremely tall order for one actor, no matter how skilled, to interesting for at least one hour and 45 minutes.  Even hyper Stand-ups like Chris Roc find it hard to capture my attention for their full set.

Despite their limitations and weaknesses, however, here are a list of notable one man movies I have compiled and why they films sometimes fail when their actors/producers make the decision to go solo.

When Nice Actors meet Boring plotlines.

hanks

The Castaway-  Come for the tropical breezes stay for the soccer-ball.  You know its a bad sign when a soccer ball has more personality than anyone else in the film.  With a blood splatter on its face, the famous Wilson soccer ball at least appears to  be spending large stretches of the film smiling.  Hanks’ dour stoicism in the face of nature,  however, makes for an earnest but ultimately less than fully compelling result. I find Hanks  best when he can riff on frustration or be goofy with other actors.  Although frequently cast in films as an everyman, he’s a social everyman.   More Cary Grant than Gary Cooper to use a somewhat less than perfect comparison. I’ve never thought of Hanks (despite a few moments in Philadelphia) as a particularly emotive actor.  The long stretches of non-speaking scenes on the Island also don’t do the usually gabby Hanks any favors either.  The soccer ball- proving it had more bounce- proves a more sympathetic character as it helplessly floats away from Hanks’ makeshift boat after a storm.  Here the visual image is more moving than anything Hanks ever does acting-wise in the film  The film’s main bullet-points:  Hanks can make fire, hanks can find shelter, Hanks can perform his own root-canal using an ice skate proved ultimately more interesting in a documentary way than compelling as drama.

 Legally Blond Tames “The Wild” In Wild, Witherspoon’s trek to “find herself”while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail  also seemed somewhat random and puzzling and offered no real resolution to her inner psychological turmoil except for a sense of “I did it” achievement in braving the elements  The plot doesn’t little to really test Witherspoon other than provide some roadside inconveniences (low rations, no shower) rather than than any real life-death struggles.   Furthermore, even without make-up,  Witherspoon is too cute and spunky to convince the audience she’s ever in any real jeopardy.  The plotline doesn’t help things by constantly paving the roadside with kind Johnny-the-spot sojourners who help Witherspoon with an occasional leg up.

reese

 

127 hours and The Martian.Left to die never felt so Good!   127 Hours and The Martian  fit into the category where in a film featuring man against nature, I find myself rooting for nature.  In this kind of survivalist flicks, having sympathy/empathy for the character is crucial to the films success. Unfortunately,  Similar to presidential candidate, Donald Trump, You just can’t root for Damon and Franco because their negatives are too high. I’m ultimately blase about their ability to survive in harsh terrain when they are so pampered as celebrities.  Damon’s the golden child of film. He always plays the unflappable, always-in-charge hero, assassin, card player, or math genius. So,  in “The Martian” when Damon was trapped on Mars, it had a a ho-hum vibe. I thought  There’s  Damon trying to rough it for a few weeks on Mars. Big deal. I wonder how long it will be before he can go back to his hotel room and crash.  in 127 Days, with James Franco’s never ending list of accomplishments:  actor, poet, professor, artist,  I honestly felt it would be dong a public service if his arm were  really caught in a cave. Then, with Franco literally stuck between a rock and a hard place,   Maybe  it would give a true shot to a more deserving actor, poet, artist a chance in the already very competitive creative arena.

franco

The End Of The World Was Better The first Time Around

Say what you want about Charleton Heston, the man sure knew how to leave a mark. (no direct pun on the carving of The Carving Of The Ten Commandments).  In films like Planet Of The Apes and Omegan Man,  Omega man.  Charleton Heston (because of his rugged looks and abrasive demeanor) seems like, through sheer stubbornness he would be the last man on the Earth. Simply, he has a good  personality for a misanthrope. He disdains mankind; randomly pistol-shooting mutants or brow-beating simians…. In I Am Legend, Wil Smith is a much harder sell in the sole survivor role.  With his  jocular people-pleaser personna, Its hard to conceive of Smith him spending five minutes alone much last the man standing on a dead planet. With that goofy laugh, big ears, etc.  Surely he has at least “Carlton” or Kevin James (“Hitch”) stashed away under a rock someplace.  He’d no sooner survive a deadly virus than a weekend without a card game with his actor buddies.  Indeed, if wil Smith found himself caught as the last man on a dead planet, he could just always find a way to easilly joke himself out of the problem.

hestonsmith

Levitt Reviews “The Intern” (C)

red

I think if you asked Robert De Niro if he thought he’d be spending the twilight of his career playing kindly father types to the likes of Anne Hathaway he’d probably flash you one of his patented looks of disbelief and say, “What are you crazy?!”

Not that it isn’t a testament to De niro’s versatility, staying power, and work ethic that he’s still around and still a bankable star.  Still, whenever I see him in a light comedy/rom-com, I feel like I’m dining in The Palm or Ruth Chris Steakhouse and order the chicken Parm.  Sure, the chicken parm is nice but its not really their specialty.

gun

De Niro’s true talent is when he is allowed to “embrace his darkside”.  In films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Godfather movies, De Niro is able to be full of rage and reckless. Its exciting to see him explode. He had both a commanding physical  and the acting chops to play all the varying frequencies of anger and frustration. Now, though, De Niro more often is forced to show a reserve and restraint on film more worthy of a cuddlier actor.

In the just released to cable film, “The Intern”  De Niro is a  retired/widowed businessman who decides to put his foot back in the waters of industry. So, he quickly enough gets a job as an intern at a online fashion site.  Soon, through dint of his calm demeanor and hyper helpfulness he soon becomes the errand boy/driver to his workaholic boss, played by a buttoned up, Anne Hathaway.  Gradually  in a series of scenes that play out like a slightly less southern/stately version of Driving Miss Daisy, De Niro’s character wins Hathaway’s confidence through his pleasant people skills and his 40 year business background.  De  Niro’s character always shows the proper restraint and says the exact right thing in a “Dear Abbey” way that soon made me nauseated. De Niro proves a very boring actor when he shows tact and restraint.  The Deniro of the 70’s and 80s would have hijacked his boss on a wild vehicular tour of the mean streets of the city and if she didn’t end up, at the end of the evening strung out on dope or find herself the newest member of some underground prostitution ring, DE Niro would have counted the day a gigantic failure. He would have sourly disdained Hathaway’s work ethic and needled her to take more walks on the wild side.  Instead, Hathaway is trapped in the car with a toned down, muzzled, seemingly drugged version of De Niro more reminiscent of Michael Landon’s character in Little House On the Prairie.

Contrastingly, Anne Hathaway’s character in the film is closer to form and her hyper, put-together (if a touch frazzled) character in films like “The Devil Wears prada” or “The Princess Diaries”.  She rarely plays characters that are true fuck-ups and in “The Intern” she’s no different.  She’s a top flight executive but without any of the nastiness or bite that make for more interesting boss characters on screen.

Hathway’s scenes with De Niro are pleasant and they do gradually form a deeper bond than just co-workers to best friends.  To me, the progression of their relationship had all the earmarks of a romcom just (because of the big age difference) without the romance or obligatory awkward sex scenes. Maybe because we are so trained as movie-goers to expect a big sex payoff or at least a passionate kiss payoff with a man and a woman bonding so well on screen, part of me wanted their relationship consummated.  It wouldn’t have taken much for these buttoned up, insanely respectful PC People to suddenly lose it and, throwing caution to the wind, take their relationship to the next level.  The screenwriters also seemingly stack the deck to make you want De Niro and Hathaway to “get busy”.  De Niro’s character is a widower and he quickly develops a deep respect for Hathaway and even frequently babysits her precocious daughter.  The writers even construct a scene where De Niro And Hathaway are conveniently in a hotel room together (in their bathrobes because of a surprise fire-drill) and Hathaway tearfully reveals that her husband is having an affair.  In any other romcom or even general garden variety movie, the robed, sensitive couple would have realized their chemistry and spent a passionate night and ordered room service the next day.  Alas, in this story, the characters are way too proper and respectful of each other to let anything untoward happen and the scene ended with the two just closer as friends, yuck!   Platonic love…is there anything more truly satisfying?  Yep, plenty!

waldorf-astoria

The film moves along in a nice, uneventful way.  Certain minor ripples in Hathaway’s business and private life are gently smoothed away.  and De Niro even finally finds his own peace emotionally and in his private life.  In the begining of the film we had two nice un-edgy people who were a tad dissappointed in their lives and in the end we have two equally un-edgy people who are a bit happier/ well-adjusted.  Not exactly the stuff of great drama but pleasant enough to warrant a C Grade.

gray