Amazon Prime…a great value for TV addicts

28 Jan

I stopped writing reviews for quite a while, partially because I was writing for Examiner.com which took up a large amount of time and paid pennies, literally.  When I wasn’t writing for Examiner.com, I was writing online lectures.  Then, when I wasn’t doing that, I was helping my friend set up a jewelry business, Chasing the Dragon Jewelry. When I wasn’t doing that, I was working on a book about writing film essays (half-way done at the moment), and finally, I was re-working two television pilots.  And getting a divorce.  It was a busy year.  Sadly, I do not have a mansion in Malibu to show for it, but there is always next year… The one thing I was doing, was watching a lot of television.  Because unlike lots of people, I do not believe that television is garbage.  Okay, I do believe some television is garbage, but I am not in the habit of watching what I define as garbage television, a definition, for now, I am keeping to myself.

Until last year, I got by on my Netflix subscription.  The problem is that I ran out of most of their British television shows that were streaming.  And I only have the two-dvds at a time plan along with the streaming, so I decided to give Amazon Prime a try.  What I liked about their deal was that not only did I get to stream a load of foreign shows in the yearly price, which is $79 per year, but I got the upgrade that allows me to order anything that falls under the prime rubric and it gets a shipping upgrade for 2nd day delivery for free.  Or, I should say, free shipping in two days time.  This has worked out well for me and I feel the membership has been worthwhile.

Amazon Prime offers a number of popular shows free for streaming such as several seasons of Californication, Downton Abbey (which I still haven’t watched, I know…I know…), Justified, The Walking Dead, Inspector Lewis, Sherlock (the British one), American Horror Story (Seasons 1 and 2), and so many children’s shows I am not even going to attempt to list them.  It also offers little gems, such as the actual Swedish version of Wallander, not the British version.  If you have not tried the Swedish version, you are missing a great show.  Over the last year, I have found that Netflix has stepped up its foreign TV game a bit and now these two offer a lot of the same shows that stream for free.

While Netflix has also gotten into the original series game, Amazon Prime is not far behind, although I will say that the Netflix product House of Cards is a far better quality product than Amazon’s Betas.  But that is only my opinion.  I am going to have to sit and watch all the original programming on Amazon Prime to give it a fair assessment.  The bottom line is that for about $8 a month, you get a lot of streaming product (I did not even bother with film but that is another consideration if film is your first love).  Right now, you can try Amazon Prime for a month for free and see if you like it.

 

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Episodes: some thoughts on the series and the Season 2 premiere

19 Jul

Episodes Season 2 Promo Poster

Last season, I was on the fence about the Matt LeBlanc comedy, Episodes.  I couldn’t decide exactly how I felt about it, although I found myself drawn to the show every week.  First of all, it was a mix of British and American television comedy which is, for American television, I would argue, a bold step.  I believe it was the shift in comedic sensibilities, between the British-ness of the UK leads Tasmin Greig and Stephen Mangan, the American-ness of Matt LeBlanc, and the overall satire of the television industry represented by the network honcho, Merc (John Pankow) and his pot-smoking creative exec who he screws, Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), that kept me a bit unbalanced.  I started wondering if the average American audience would even understand the subtleties at play.  Then I had to remind myself:  this is pay cable, they can take these liberties.  The fact I kept musing on this every week threw me.  That isn’t the show’s fault, that is a sad commentary on the state of many television shows. Second, any television show with any of the Friends actors has to contend with their former respective roles on the popular sitcom.  And yes, it took me a few weeks just to stop thinking of LeBlanc as Joey, even with the gray hair.  Note to Matt LeBlanc:  yes while you can pull off the gray hair, I honestly think you would look better with it gone.  Your face is far too young to have old hair.  It’s not a criticism, it is an observation.  After getting past that small hurdle (yes, I am that shallow), it was hard knowing that I was going to be watching a train wreck because that is the only plausible outcome that can happen when bringing British TV writers/producers, in this case a married couple, into the very screwed up Hollywood system.  Furthermore, it is clear their partnership and marriage would have to suffer as again, that seems to be par for the course for many couples in Hollywood when they first arrive and can’t help but be seduced.  Even when they dislike the individuals they work with.  I suppose, if nothing else, it should serve as a cautionary tale.  A kind of — this is how not to screw up your life if you come to Hollywood manual.

The storyline of the first season is simple:  Beverly (Tasmin Greig) and Sean (Stephen Mangan) get ‘invited’ to Hollywood to turn their hit British sitcom into an American television adaptation.  By the end of the first series, the entire subject has changed from an old headmaster at a boy’s school to a youngish hockey coach (Matt LeBlanc) who flirts with the female school librarian at a boy’s school.  And the title becomes Pucks!, one of the worst possible words for a title in the English language.  Things get crazy for Beverly and Sean as they negotiate network politics and Sean’s infatuation with the actress playing Morning (Mircea Monroe), the librarian.  By the end of the last episode, Beverly and Sean have a giant fight (row if you are British) and Beverly somehow ends up having sex with Matt LeBlanc even though she detests him.  Sean finds out which leads to another fight/row, featuring Matt LeBlanc spraying Sean in the face with his signature cologne.  It should not be missed as it is more of a girl fight and possibly the funniest scene in the first series. Just as the two might actually physically harm each other for real,  they get a call with the worst possible news, the network has picked up the Pucks! pilot for the next season so everyone now has to work together.  Just a note to anyone who hasn’t worked in film or television, you had better hope you like your co-workers because once something goes into production, you are looking at twelve to fourteen hour days at a minimum with those people and there is no escape.

Episodes is a joint financial venture between the BBC in the UK and Showtime in the US.  It was created by former Friends‘ creator David Crane and former Mad About You producer, Jeffrey Klarik. In several interviews, Crane and Klarik explain how the process of working with a premium cable network affords far greater creative freedom than the regular American networks.  Or even cable networks.  They credit Showtime’s freedom with giving them the ability to hone the story lines and character arcs they didn’t always have the time to think out so intricately when working for network television since they could actually write all the scripts before anything was shot, a luxury network shows never get.  This is also because there are far fewer episodes in premium cable shows (as well as all British series) so there is the possibility that some actual quality work can get done instead of pleasing focus groups and being slaves to ratings. And while we learn about the pilot process in the first series, since Showtime picked up the series for a second season, we get to learn about the pitfalls of producing a sitcom for a network, something Crane and Klarik have experienced — intimately.

In the Season 2 series premiere, we enter into a slightly more sedate world for Beverly and Sean when it comes to their marriage.  They are now separated.  Matt LeBlanc tries rectifying his friendship with Sean who wants nothing to do with Matt.  Merc (John Pankow) still knows nothing about his own shows and continues his blatant affair with Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins), the weed-smoking creative exec but Jamie (Genevieve O’Reilly), his blind wife, spices her life up a bit when she ends up deliberately giving Matt LeBlanc a hand job at the private screening premiere of Pucks! in their home.  While Beverly deeply regrets her romp with LeBlanc, Sean is about to get the opportunity to enjoy a bit of revenge when Morning offers herself as his birthday gift.  And yes, that really does happen in Hollywood.  It’s clear this season will hold yet another high learning curve for Beverly and Sean, as Pucks! premieres to outstanding numbers and they are on top of the world but in previews we see the numbers plummet and everything starts to go wrong including LeBlanc’s starring role in the show in jeopardy.  The real question will be what is going to happen with Sean and Beverly.  Crane and Klarik have done an excellent job of taking a happily married couple and throwing them back into a status of utter uncertainty.  I’m not on the fence any more, I enjoy the show thoroughly and can only hope for yet another cat fight between LeBlanc and Sean which I’m sure won’t happen but still… I can hope.

Watch the Episodes Season 2 premiere on Showtime while it is still available.

Showtime’s Summer Dramedy Hour is back: Weeds and Episodes premiere, part 1

10 Jul

Weeds Season 8 Promo Poster

I always like to wait a bit before I judge. I’ve spent time mulling over both of Showtime’s summer Dramedies:  Weeds and Episodes.  While Episodes can be thought of as an understated comedy that satirically examines the television industry, from concept of a series to its premiere, Weeds can be seen as a black comedy that looks at everything in the most pessimistic possible light.  It isn’t completely clear why Showtime decided to give Weeds one final season to wrap everything up since the end of Season 7 was satisfying in a Botwinesque way:  Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) gets shot and will she survive?  Sometimes it is better to leave an open ending.  American audiences hate open endings though.  They want closure.  In reality, closure is rarely something anyone gets to experience and that is most likely why the American television audience craves knowing a clear outcome. This is usually to the detriment of the storytelling process.  I hope it won’t be true for the final season of Weeds.

Shane (Alexander Gould) dealing with the neighbors after Nancy’s shooting.

In the Season 8 premiere of Weeds, “Messy,” we pick up right where we left off at the end of last season:  with Nancy having just been shot.  In the head.  Ironically this happened in her seemingly safe suburban mansion, in Old Sandwich, CT.  The title, “Messy,” comes from one of my favorite scenes of the episode, when two exceedingly old neighbors climb on ladders to snoop over the fence and see what happened at the Baldwin compound.  If Jenji Kohan got one thing right in this episode, it was the obnoxious behavior of the elderly wealthy residents of Connecticut.  I’m sure there are some very nice elderly people in Connecticut but my personal experience was almost the same while I lived in the uh, nutmeg state – I would sometimes find my landlords standing at the window staring inside trying to eavesdrop. I was brought back to that creepy experience as I watched the busybody neighbors from Old Sandwich comment on the “messy” lives of the Baldwins.  Connecticut hates messy.  Ironic that it is safer to walk around East Harlem than parts of New Haven and Bridgeport, but who am I to judge?  A disgruntled Californian, I guess.

I had pretty much given up on Weeds by the end of last season.  In fact, the only reason I watched it was because I was living in East Harlem at the time, and I could relate to Nancy’s plight of the halfway house, as I was job hunting and staying at a former friends’ condo (yes former, a story which I am sure I can relate to another cable show’s episode considering my life is surely as messy as any fictional characters’), when Weeds aired last year.  And as that bullet rang out at the end of last season, I thought it was a fitting and somewhat sophisticated way to end the series.  I will admit I was highly skeptical when I discovered there was going to be a final season of the series.

But I digress.  We quickly join Silas (Hunter Parrish) and Nancy in the ambulance witnessing Nancy make sexual references to the paramedic in front of her son while shot in the head, bleeding and possibly near death.  And that is the last we hear from her in the episode since she is put into a medically induced coma.  This episode is about Nancy’s family and friend’s reactions to her – tragedy.  Shane (Alexander Gould) at once becomes a predator and a cop, trying to chase down the gunman and then investigate the crime since he is secretly enrolled in the NYPD police academy.  I won’t reveal the shooter’s identity specifically, only to say, it is a former step-child of Nancy’s.  Someone I didn’t even remember existed and a bit disappointing for the triggerman.

Doug (Kevin Nealon) is inappropriate as always, hiding under the table after Nancy is shot (I secretly don’t blame him) and then later feeling her up while she is in a medically induced coma.  Very bad form, even for Doug.

Nancy’s sister, Jill (Jennifer Jason Leigh), inappropriately has sex with Andy (Justin Kirk) in the hospital room next to the bed where Nancy slumbers in her coma. Andy later has a conversation with a Rabbi in the hospital cafeteria.  Very Andy-esque.  Finally, Jill’s evil twin demon daughters post a picture of Nancy online after she has been shot.

Nancy’s (Mary-Louise Parker) shooter returns to her hospital room.

Nancy’s shooter comes back to the hospital to either finish the job he started or muse on his feelings about attempted murder.  Either way, he is interrupted by Nancy’s roommate’s daughter who has been walking in on inappropriate activities throughout the episode.  Nancy must sense danger as she seems to go into cardiac distress as the episode ends.

Will Nancy die? I doubt it.  Only nice people die young.  Evil people live to ripe old ages.  As my father said about one of my mother’s aunts, she was so mean, even the cancer couldn’t stand being in her.  I kind of see Nancy in the same light, though I still enjoy watching her mess up everyone’s life.

And if you think things are screwed up for the Botwins, they are not that much better for Beverly and Sean in Episodes which I will be happy to discuss in my next installment…

True Blood Season 5 Premiere: Turn! Turn! Turn!

15 Jun

ImageBy the time most shows make it to the fifth season, I find myself both pleased the show I like has survived but I dread that this might be the season the entire narrative falls apart. It tends to be a challenge by the time American television programs make it to the fifth season.  Part of the reason, I believe, is that the seasons are longer than in the UK and other countries and sometimes you can only drag out stories so far. Sure it is easy for me to criticize; I’m not sitting in the writer’s room struggling to see the overall season arcs and trying to keep the network executives pleased.  I felt the only redeeming element of True Blood Season 4 was the death of Tara (Rutina Wesley).  Why do I dislike the character so much?  It isn’t the actress, Rutina Wesley — she is doing the best she can with a severely flawed character.  It’s bad enough in real life when people don’t learn from their mistakes but on television shows, unless there is something extraordinary about their character that makes them a truly tragic figure (and this wasn’t the case with Tara), it is hard to keep excusing their stupidity.  Now, I will admit that Tara throwing herself between the bullet from Debbie’s gun and Sookie (Anna Paquin) did make her a hero, it also would have also potentially ended Tara’s tragic existence in Bon Temps on a high note.  And… it was time for Tara to meet her maker, so to speak.  It certainly wasn’t time for Tara to ‘meet her maker’ as the True Blood team intended for Season 5.   Thankfully, the evil Debbie Pelt had no opportunity to come back, of course, when you try to kill Sookie Stackhouse, you are almost guaranteed some sort of true death for your supernatural species.

Since I am never bowled over by the Season Premieres of True Blood, I am hoping things will pick up over the next couple of episodes.  Jason’s (Ryan Kwanten) fling with Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) seems to be going nowhere fast and while he might be developing true feelings for her, she can’t seem to settle down with anyone.  I actually felt sorry for Jason when she kissed that loser college boy in front of him.  What is more interesting is watching Jason grow into an actual human with feelings (yes he is human but he’s growing up…finally) and resisting a quick lay with a sorority slut for revenge.  It would be a welcome change to see Jason grow as a character and develop a bit more depth.  I’m not even going to comment on the creepy Gay Vampire American scene.  It wasn’t that he was a Gay Vampire American that made it creepy.  It was that he is creepy Reverend Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian) with fangs.

While the witches might be gone this season, there will be no shortage of werewolf angst.  At the forefront of this season’s first supernatural issue is Alcide (Joe Manganiello), the reluctant werewolf leader.  He is going to go up against the evil matriarch, Marcus’ mother, Martha (Dale Dickey).  I’m beginning to wonder why there are so many middle-aged to older evil women that dominate the stories.  While the evil Russell Edgington had a somewhat strange comical edge, none of the maniacal women have any comedic outlets.  They are always a deadly threat.  Marnie, Maryann the maenad, even Bill’s maker, Lorena is an out of control harpie.  Too bad she didn’t have an “M” name as well because I could use French film critic Raymond Bellour’s obsession with women in Hitchcock films whose names begin with the letter M to discuss how these women subvert the narrative through violence, and how, like in Hitchcock’s films, they must always be contained to keep order in society.  Lucky for me, Lorena begins with an L, but it is something to think about.  The truly violent women all suffer a true death while the other women in the show are actually contained because of their subservience to their need for love.  Even Pam (Kristen Bauer van Straten), who is by far the most violent female on the show, serves Eric (Alexander Skarsgård).  Now, we get to experience a woman who is not only slighty older, she is a scorned mother.  Will there be any redeeming features in her character? I’m hoping so because it would be a welcome change to see a threatening female who goes beyond the one dimensional threat they usually represent on True Blood.

It’s amazing what Pam is sometimes willing to do to get back into Eric’s good graces.  Pam is the type of character that shows there is some hope for adding depth the the villainous females on the show.  She mixes humor, violence and anger in order to convey her emotions – and love for her maker, Eric, her true only reason for living, both figuratively and metaphorically.  In some ways, Pam is the most admirable character on the show, since she demonstrates true loyalty to Eric even when he rejects her.  The only bright spot in the premiere is the moment Pam sees the two bloody bodies of Debbie and Tara and she declares, “Color me impressed, you guys know how to party.”

Finally, Eric and Bill (Stephen Moyer), Sookie’s rejects and vampires on the lam, are quickly loosing their luster.  Although, I felt that Bill was more of a doormat all last season, at least he does show some loyalty to his feelings for Sookie even when he is dumped which is better than Eric turning to the arms of his ‘vampire sister’, Nora (Lucy Griffiths), and screwing her as soon as he gets the chance.  Both vampires must face the Authority.  Hopefully that will at least entail some excitement.  Because we are going to need some if we are dealing with Sookie’s grief over Tara seemingly turning into a killing machine and Lafayette’s (Nelsan Ellis) grief over the death of his lover.

Although the premiere ratings were down slightly from last year, True Blood was still the most watched show on cable last Sunday.  Let’s see if it can hold it’s grip or at least sink its fangs into the audience with a bit more compelling storylines as the season progresses because honestly, I don’t give a shit about Jessica’s teen angst any more.  She’s had it for a couple of years now.  Between her feeling sorry for herself, then cheating on the guys who care about her, and Tara being a victim for four seasons, sometimes it’s hard going watching these episodes.  At least Sookie killed Debbie out of hate and admits it.  That gives me a tiny ray of hope.

I’m not convinced I’m going to love this season but I’ve been a fan for the previous four, so I’m hoping I’ll at least be entertained.  And I don’t think “bad Tara” will really do it for me.  Nor will the bromance of Bill and Eric.  Maybe I’ll go ahead and order Season 2 of The Glades because I might need something else to fill up my Sunday nights.

ABC’s Missing: soapy anger and violence

12 Apr

I decided to reserve judgment on ABC’s Missing.  Not because I didn’t like the pilot, I did.  It was slick, compelling and full of clichés, yes, but still, I didn’t get distracted or want to turn it off.  No I was drawn into the screwed up world of Becca Winstone  (Ashley Judd).  Who was this woman?  Why did someone blow up her husband, Paul Winstone (Sean Bean) in Vienna?  Why did her son, Michael (Nick Eversman) get kidnapped in Rome?  Most importantly, when she encounters her first bad guy, how the hell did she learn how to fight like that?  And she only had a clothes hanger for her initial weapon.  We also discover that housewife Becca Winstone isn’t actually a housewife, she’s a retired CIA operative and apparently had a hot affair with Interpol stud, Giancarlo Rossi (Adriano Giannini) and it seems that CIA Paris guy, Dax Miller (Cliff Curtis) has a soft spot for her as well.  They help her throughout the series, when they are not getting in her way.  Strangely, she does get passed between them for the sake of the plot, creating a love triangle without any sex (so far), but it still manages to work.

Gregory Poirier (Creator and Executive Producer) explains how the show got made, “This episode was never conceived as a stand-alone pilot. We already knew we had 10 episodes ordered when we wrote it, which gave us a lot more freedom. “ Poirier and his team were able to get the financing for the 10 episode order by explaining to ABC that it was cost-prohibitive to go shoot the pilot in Prague, then wait and go back and start over again if the show got picked up.  Instead he mapped out the entire 10 episodes for ABC and they green-lighted the project.

This approach allows the show a more organic feel.  The pilot was written knowing how it would be integrated into the next episode, which is usually not the case.  Sure, when pilots are pitched there is a series bible and a proposal about how the season should play out, what the character arc will be and the big plot points but things can change drastically between the shooting of a pilot, its subsequent pickup and the shooting of the rest of a television season.

The first three episodes of the show, the pilot, “Hard Drive” and “Ice Queen” flow seamlessly into each other.  We follow Becca as she bargains with heads of international government organizations, battles bad guys in gun battles and hand to hand combat.  She gets shot, falls into the Seine and still comes out alive.  And she seems to be able to drive anything with a motor.  Expertly.  Between Revenge and Missing, I’m beginning to like ABC’s drama again.  Yes, it is slick soapy drama but it is also network television.  And there is just something cathartic for me watching Ashley Judd kick someone’s ass every week.  She might be a pacifist but I’m not.

Missing airs on ABC, Thursdays at 8/7central

For streaming episodes, click here.

Romi Stepovich’s answer to What is the best french new wave film of the 60’s?

8 Mar

I never feel there is a “best” because there were so many different films made during the New Wave in such a short period of time, that I believe it is better to give a sampling of what could be considered the best.

First, there is Agnès Varda‘s classic, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962).  This film follows Cleo (Corrine Marchand) around Paris for 2 hours in real time as she waits to hear the results from a medical test.  While on the surface this might seem like a depressing film to watch, it is just the opposite – full of life, music, and drama that only an actress can bring to her own life.  She even meets a solider who is leaving for Algeria the next day.  It also makes you never want to get your Tarot cards read.  What makes this film new wave?  It was shot in the streets, on real locations, etc.  It has a cinema verite feel to it.  One other thing you will find cropping up in some of the French New Wave films is the topic of Algeria (and if not Algeria, Indochina) as that war was so important to France’s identity at that period in time and influenced many of the New Wave filmmakers.  Also Varda was the only woman director who was part of the French New Wave.  She was married to director Jacques Demy.

Louis Malle‘s Elevator to the Gallows (1958) might secretly be my favorite and it isn’t nearly as well known as the Truffaut and Godard films out there.  It follows two love stories that are intertwined:  that of Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet), the adult couple having an illicit affair, and Véronique (Yori Bertin), a girl who works in a flower shop and has a crush on Julien but is dating a young hoodlum, Louis (Georges Poujouly).  Complications ensue when Louis impersonates Julien (a war hero who fought in Indochina) to impress Véronique and inadvertently kills a rich German couple.  In the meantime, Julien is actually murdering Florence’s husband so they can be together.  It is a twisted and dark tale of murder, betrayal and my favorite, l’amour fou.  Like with other New Wave films, it is shot on the streets of Paris and in real locations.  American cars figure into the mise-en-scene heavily as owning a large American car was a mark of status.  Finally, Louis Malle managed to get Miles Davis to record the score of the film in one evening when he discovered Davis was in Paris.  The soundtrack is available, at least on CD.  French New Wave directors loved American Jazz and it usually features prominently in many of the films.

Jean-Luc Godard‘s Band of Outsiders (1964).  This is a very late example of a French New Wave film.  And I would argue that Breathless (1960) by Godard is a better example overall of the French New Wave in its heyday, but I prefer this film.  Odile (Anna Karina and for a time, Godard’s wife) must choose between two best friends, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and while the l’amour fou isn’t quite as crazy and irrational as it might be in Breathless, there is still crime, jazz, real locations, philosophical musings that only Godard can do and even a happy ending (which usually doesn’t happen in New Wave films).  Hence, why this film is a good example of the end of the New Wave.

Technically, the French New Wave lasted from 1958-1964 but you can find some New Wave films through the end of the 1960s.  Therefore, I cannot leave out my favorite French heart-throb from the 1950s and 1960s, Alain Delon, starring in Le Samourai (1967), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, an extremely important French postwar director.  This is a color film and features Delon as a hit-man for hire whose life seems doomed from the start. What is important about this film is that it characterizes what at least some French New Wave films incorporate into their narratives:  the doomed fatalistic characters you find in earlier French Film Noirs.

What is the best french new wave film of the 60’s?

Romi Stepovich’s answer to What are some great noir films based in Los Angeles?

8 Mar

Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer) – only part of this is set in Los Angeles but it is certainly a classic and worth watching.

Mildred Pierce (1945, Michael Curtiz) – while this is also a melodrama it’s definitely also noir.  The updated HBO version is far more melodrama.

In A Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray) – is Humphrey Bogart a homicidal maniac, and if so, can Gloria Grahame fix him?  A great film adapted from a great novel by Dorothy B. Hughes.

Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder) – what happens when a demented cougar (one of the original ones – far before Mrs. Robinson) falls for a second rate screenwriter?  A cautionary tale of younger men using older women in Hollywood.

Angel Face (1952, Otto Preminger) – spoiled rich-girl Jean Simmons toys with Robert Mitchum‘s life for fun while attempting to kill her step-mother and destroy any other female competition out there.  A great over-the-top performance by Simmons and a fun watch.

Dead Again (1991, Kenneth Branagh) – Scott Frank’s well-written script that feels and looks noir even though it’s set in the 1990s.

What are some great noir films based in Los Angeles?