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

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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)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Levitt Reviews “The Intern” (C)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Psychological Themed Films- The Ah-Ha Moment

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Over the years it has become commonplace for films that depict psychological or psychiatric themes to feature a dynamic “Aha!” moment of emotional clarity for their heros. In films like Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting, and even the broad Analyze This, the suffering protagonist finally discovers the secret of their inner turmoil during an intense role-play with their shrink.

In Ordinary People, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) begins to relive the horrible boating accident and his shrink (Judd Hirsch) is there there to act the part of his stubbornly drowning brother. the epiphany is dramatic and neat, he blamed himself for his brother’s drowning”. Thanks doc, all better now. Therefore In the minutes after his cathartic session, Conrad is able to hug his cold-fish mom (btw so convincingly portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore In the film, I had a hard time believing that she wasn’t just acting”) and plan a healthy date- redo with his new girlfriend.

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Good Will Hunting’s shrink (robin Williams) similarly takes on the role of Will’s (Matt Damon) father in the dramatic role play which shows that Will blamed himself for his father’s beatings and culminates in the cathartic phrase, “It’s not your fault”. Soon, with a clean bill of psychological Health, Will is able to finally re-connect with his estranged girlfriend.

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So, In both of these situations, the hero quickly realizes that they have been doing a
number on themselves psychologically and, finally after some soul-cleansing gasps/tears, they end up in the warm healing arms of their psychiatrists.

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The role play device is definitely compelling film device but a hollow/ineffective strategy for anyone to follow in real life. Its not like a situation will suddenly present itself wherein We can spontaneously start role playing with our alcoholic dad or that woman that cut in front of us in the Starbucks line; have a real thrashing out of a list our grievances both real and imagined and end up by hugging it out at the end. for, even if your parents/enemies actually made themselves available for these kind of “hashings out” or “emotional exorcisms”, I doubt whether most of the results would be that revealing or satisfying. Ultimately you (the offended party) and the other person (the asswhole) would probably just end up blasting eachother. No, in reality, despite how others in life mistreat or disappoint, your daily perceptions are really the most powerful factors in keeping these negative feelings alive.  Furthermore, despite what movies would have us believe most of our real emotional breakthroughs take place when we are alone and most real psychological change only takes place through concerted/sustained effort and practice.

Also, where are all these kindly/caring shrinks we keep see in the movies? Do they
advertise online? Does my health insurance cover their services? psychologists, by profession have to keep a professional detached distance from their clients in order to be effective and not get sucked into their drama. simply put, they insulate themselves from all the shit they have to hear all day. The last thing they do is go around hugging their clients. You are more likely to get a sloppy kiss from your emotionally withholding protestant mother. Forget about the notion that your kindly neighborhood shrink will be available for that suicidal phone call at 2:15 in the morning too. You better get ready to spill your guts to their service or their less than empathetic answering machine. Plus, with the modern-day limitation of a psychiatrists hour-long appt (actually only 50 minutes), you have to pity the poor fool who will get their aha moment of emotional clarity at minute 51!

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Levitt Reviews The Good Wife Finale

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The Good wife was one of my favorite shows.  The adrenaline fueled legal-political plot-lines seemed always topical (internet piracy, spitzer-esque hooker scandals, and law-firm wranglings) and top flight actors (often on-loan straight from Broadway Nathan Lane) never failed to surprise and intrigue.  Not that the show didn’t have its weak points:  The show never met a court judge who wasn’t “pissed” or an legal assistant who wasn’t power hungry and corruptible, and who could ever forget (even though they always wanted to) the never interesting sub-plots feature Peter Florrick’s  mother?  I also had to work a bit to overcome some of my innate jealousy/prejudice to become a good fan of the show.  The Good Wife’s casting agent, Mark Saks, was formerly my drama camp counselor (when I was 16) and while  directing  me in a production of  Mame,  once shouted at me and called me once a “Disgrace to the theater!” because I did not have my lines down for the first rehearsal. In retrospect being a disgrace to the theater might have been an overstatement for a simple camp play.  Not to impugn his character or choice of expression in any way, though. Its probably best not to re-burn already burned bridges. In addition, I also played Josh Charles (will Gardner’s) father in the same camp’s (stagedoor Manor) production of Oliver. His career in the arts has, very obviously, surpassed my own.  Although, its really neck and neck 🙂  So, in a way, I had a separate and even more complex history  with the show and  a couple of it’s characters.

It would have taken a lot to create a totally satisfying conclusion to the show.  To give each character closure, resolution, or at least a poignant epiphany might have taken a good 3-4 episodes instead of one.  But there were more than a couple of predictable beats to the final episode that I could see a mile off.  I knew, for instance that  would enjoy a few ghost-like visitations from Will Gardner who apparently had nothing better to, from the great beyond, than return to Lockhardt Gardner to offer Alicia some handy relationship advice…oh, and tell refer her to some obscure law case that’s immediately relevant to her husband’s legal case. What a guy!. He seemed more helpful in death than he was in life!    I also predicted Eli Gold would look to Alicia Florrick and the new shining beacon in American Politics.  They had only been hinting at her political viability for at least the past 3 seasons and blatantly shadowing the suffering spouse/martyr plotline of real-life  presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton.

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I was dissatisfied with the show’s ultimate decision to have the formerly ambitious “Carrie Agos” wind up as merely a generic college proffesor.  It would have been a more interesting resolution if he had wound up as some kind of an embittered alcoholic ambulance chaser.   But I guess I shouldn’t ultimately be all that surprised.  Through the years, the writers have slowly demasculated and de-fanged Carrie and made him the obligatory whipping boy of his father, Kalinda, Alicia, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if they had ultimately demoted him to working for Lockhardt Garner in a strictly janitorial capacity.

I was also frustrated with the fact that a good portion of the last episode was about Alicia’s dilemma on picking a man.  I’m not sure there was really all that much dramatic tension left there since Will (despite being available for occasional ghostly visitations and Bar Mitzvah’s) was quite dead and Peter Florick now being a twice convicted , scandalized ex-governor probably lost any of his last remaining sex appeal.  So then there’s just the (always grinning-for-no-reason) whiskey- voiced investigator, Justin.   Unfortunately, the show ended without any true resolution to Alicia’s romantic future since at the tail end of the episode Justin  was conveniently m.i.a. I would have been more satisfied if, in a bizarre twist Jason’s character had suddenly run off on a romantic tryst with fellow investigator, Kalinda Sharma to the Virgina Islands.  At least it would have been a clever nod to her character and her famous rivalry (both in character and in real life) with Juliana Margulies.

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I also felt that when Diane vengefully slapped Alicia seemed too soap opera-like and worthy of Dynasty.  Sure, Alicia had made Lucca torpedo Diane’s husband but, even so, lawyers don’t usually physically strike each other…unless they are performing the Heimlich.  In fact, a lot of lawyers famously use fancy statutes and legalese because they are no good with their fists. But  I would have preferred a good old fashioned tongue lashing to a predictable slap in the face any day.

The finale was also fated to be anti-climactic because a good portion of the show’s best characters had already been killed (Will) or sidelined (Elsbeth Tascioni, Kalinda Sharma) but still the show left me cold because there were too many loose strings.  What ever happened to Alicia and Diane’s all female firm,  Did they hire Gloria Steinem to do TV Ads?  Did Alicia go onto to run for the presidency?  Whatever happened to those swingin’ NSA Wire tappers, did they go on to form an acapella singing group? Well,  Perhaps some plot threads are best left dangling after all.

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Levitt Rips Apart Classic Films Part Deux

 

Bull Durham-  Bull Is Right!bull

In the film, when  Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) asks Crash Davis (Kevin Kostner) what he believes in. He responds with a speech that is overwritten, out of character, and obviously crafted by a writer.  He Says:

“Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

Yipes, what a potpourri!  and that reference to Susan Sontag is completely out of the blue.  Why would a ballplayer be reading, and subsequently form a quick disgust the works of a feminist author, Susan Sontag anyway?  Did he take some kind of a “Women’s Studies” class at NYU’s School Of Continuing Education or something?

Ultimately, if  Kostner’s character Crash Davis minor league catcher, was truly smart/gifted enough to come up with this whole speech off-the-cuff, I think he should have given up baseball to work the nation-wide lecture circuit like Will Rogers.

The Sound Of Music (Nice film but don’t taunt the Nazis)

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During the escape from Austria, the Von Trapp Family is suddenly confronted by Rolf (the letter carrier/Nazi Wanabee ).  Just when it looked like Rolf might have took pity on the fleeing brood and set them all free, suddenly Captain Von Trap thought it was a good time to start needling the youth, He said  “You’ll never be one of them”. Needless to say, Rolf’s pride was hurt  and he defiantly blew out his whistle to alert the other German Officers.  As a former naval officer, Von Trapp should have known to approach the youth with caution and gratefulness. Instead, he acted like basically a dick.

 

Thelma And Louise (Men suck, lets drive our car off a cliff)

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The Film Thelma and Louise’s central premise is that men suck.  Therefore, they begin a spur-of-the-moment interstate trek to prove that very fact .  Their road-trip, though, is a bit, one sided.  Its  not like the girls happen upon the likes of fem-friendly Alan Alda or Phil Donahue on their sojourn. Instead, they meet sex crazed deviants and other road-side lowlifes to prove their men-bashing premise.

Ultimately, Thelma and Louise drive themselves off a cliff in some last impulse of “We’ll show them” bravado.  I’m not sure what suicide (even when holding the hand of your best friend) really does to further female empowerment.   It did make an exciting ending though.

For those interested in reading  my first, “Levitt Rips Apart Classic Films”  Article:  Click this link:

https://marklevittblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/levitt-rips-apart-classic-films/