Archive for August, 2013

malcolm-in-the-middle-malcolm-in-the-middle-14593011-1024-768Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Malcolm in the Middle is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Masterson, Justin Berfield, Erik Per Sullivan

Sometime in the late 1980’s, television decided that it was far more funnier to show dysfunctional families (Married With Children, The Simpsons) than to portray well-balanced ones (Growing Pains, The Cosby Show). I do not know the impetus behind this move, but it should be worth noting that both Married With Children and The Simpsons (and later, Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development) were ALL made by Fox, the company with the conservative news network. There is a never-ending debate between those who view such shows as a negative influence on children and the rest of society and those who regard these shows as a more realistic portrayal of the American family. I fall somewhere in the middle – shows like The Simpsons and Married With Children certainly show the frictions and tensions that every family experiences, but these shows do not exist because they want to accurately portray families. At some point, network executives felt that nastier, negative humor was simply funnier and it would get bigger ratings.

Malcolm in the Middle is a cross between Married With Children and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Wilkersons are Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), the take-no-shit mom who rules the family with fear; Hal (pre-Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), the severely lax father who acts more like a kid than an adult; Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), the eldest son who attends a military school; Reese (Justin Berfield), a bully who likes to hit people; Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest son; and the star of the show, Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), who is the show’s Ferris Bueller.

Muniz doesn’t quite have the same appeal as Matthew Broderick, but he does well enough in an ensemble cast of six characters. Like Ferris Bueller, Malcolm frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly with the audience and he uses his intelligence to either get into trouble or get out of trouble. The character is also egotistical – he blames his family for everything that is wrong in his life. He is in a constant state of frustration by not being able to do whatever he wants, having parents who are unable and/or unwilling to understand him, by not being as cool as his brother Francis, and, ultimately, not having anyone share his global point of view. The character is in this constant state of anxiety and conflict that he ceaselessly whines about. In a way, Malcolm marks pop culture’s first portrayal of the Me Generation.

Malcolm in the Middle is sort of like a live-action version of a cartoon – every character and situation operates on a heightened level of zaniness and exaggeration. The scenarios are not as far-fetched as what you would find on The Simpsons, but that’s the beauty of animation – you can come up with situations that are not possible in a live-action setting. In a way, Malcolm in the Middle could be something imagined by the director Terry Gilliam if he set out to portray the American nuclear family. Whatever characteristic defines a character is pushed to its extreme limit. For example, Lois, the mom, is the disciplinarian of the household, but she wields that power in a tyrannical and maniacal way in which she is frequently seen screaming at and chasing her children for something they have done. Hal, the immature man-child father, is always trying to get away from his parental and spousal (unless it involves sex) duties. For a half-hour show, the show’s zany bombardment to the senses is an entertaining and often very funny escape. However, I can’t imagine my attention and patience being able to handle anything longer than that.

One of the show’s more fascinating aspects is despite the Wilkerson’s suburban lifestyle, they are not financially well off and their penny-pinching lifestyle looms over every situation. In one episode, Lois gets fired from her grocery store job and the family is forced to accept food donations from people. Its ironic that the family depends on Lois’ low-skilled and low hourly wages instead of Hal’s white-collar, presumably higher paying and presumably salaried position. The show never deals with the family’s near poverty in a serious way and it doesn’t portray it realistically either (when you can’t put food on the table for your family, you’re probably not going to keep one of your son’s in an expensive military academy) like you would find in a show like Roseanne. Instead, the family’s financial status is used as a comedic device to create hilarious setups.

I have never seen the show Breaking Bad (I know, sue me) so it is difficult for me to appreciate the drastic turn of character that Bryan Cranston pulled off from switching from the affable, lazy, immature Hal to the some sort of badass person that he is on Breaking Bad. Here, Cranston is just like one of his boys. Imagine having Peter Pan as your father and that is Hal Wilkerson. I don’t believe the show ever established what in hell he does for a living, but its obvious that whatever he does, he hates it and it pays him nothing. In this show, Cranston pretty much plays second fiddle to the children and to Jane Kaczmarek, who is excellent as the mom and who is the most interesting character in the show.

Malcolm in the Middle didn’t really break any new ground in television. Sure, it had no laugh track and it was shot on film, giving the show a higher quality look. However, what made this show memorable was its excellent writing. Whether it’s the situations or the lines of dialogue, I rarely found myself not laughing during any given episode. I think this is especially rare for a first season of a show when the writers are still getting warmed up to the show and its characters. Malcolm in the Middle came swinging right out of the gate and it is no surprise it managed to earn so many accolades and awards during its run.


570x320_magnum_pi-1Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Magnum P.I. is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant only.

Starring: Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti

I’m sure the first question any of you are asking is why the hell am I reviewing a TV show when my blog is about movies. Especially a show that is so old. Well, longtime readers will know that I have reviewed shows in the past, but aside from that, Magnum P.I. has left me with many questions that I hope you the reader will have more inside knowledge and insight to fill me in on (or to at least tell me to check my brain at the door before watching a show like this).

Growing up in the 1980’s, Magnum P.I. was not a show I watched as a kid nor was it something I had any interest in watching. My general rule of thumb was that if a show did not have kids in it or was not about science fiction or fantasy, then it was not a show worth watching (although strangely, I somehow got hooked on the first season of Wiseguy). I was especially disinterested in anything that had law enforcement, lawyers, and doctors in it because, after all, why watch heightened reality on screen when you have V and Star Trek: The Next Generation, right? I did have one unusual caveat that my warped childhood brain somehow found logical – The A-Team and Knight Rider, shows both similar to Magnum P.I., both passed the Bechtel test. The A-Team had a man named Hannibal (my name) and a black man with chains, a mohawk, and who had one of the most memorable lines in the Rocky series (where he says, “Pain”). As for Knight Rider, can anyone argue with David Hasselhoff and a fucking bad ass of a car that pre-dated Siri by a few decades?

Magnum P.I. starred Tom Selleck in the title role of Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam vet who left the Navy and became a private investigator in Hawaii. Its not really explained in the first season, but somehow, Magnum knows the famous novelist Robin Masters (voiced by Orson Welles), who has allowed Magnum to stay in the guesthouse of his beautiful beachside estate (Magnum mentions something about doing a job for Masters, but no further details are provided). Magnum also has two friends, Rick and T.C., who are Marine vet buddies from Vietnam. Although Magnum seems to have the dream life (he comes and goes from the guesthouse on the estate; drives Robin Masters’ Ferrari 308 GTS; and seduces beautiful women), he also has to deal with a constant thorn on his side: the rigid, upper crust, British head of security of Robin Masters’ estate, Higgins. He does not like Magnum being allowed to stay on the estate, but he is forced to abide by Masters’ wishes.

So why Magnum P.I.? Why should you spend your precious evening hours after a long day of work watching a show about a private investigator who beds lonely housewives and who deals with such seat-grabbing cases like kidnapped dogs, missing long-lost lovers, and protecting valuable pieces of art? And Tom Selleck? I bet most young people either have no clue as to who he is, think he’s their dad’s golfing buddy from the club, think he’s someone they’ve seen on a sex offender list, or remember him as that old guy who stars in that Stone show their grandma likes to watch.

Allow me to dispel all these silly notions. In the 80’s, Tom Selleck was the dude guys wanted to be and the man ladies wanted to cheat on their husbands with. For one, had it not been for his scheduling obligations on Magnum, Tom Selleck would have been forever immortalized as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Selleck was Steven Spielberg’s first choice, but due to the scheduling conflicts between the first season of Magnum and Raiders, Selleck had to turn the role down. Although his career may not have skyrocketed to the extent that Harrison Ford’s did, Magnum P.I. turned Selleck into a household name and one of television’s biggest stars.

So what was the appeal? For the ladies, Thomas Magnum was a laid-back, charming, and sensitive guy who wore pornographically short shorts, frequently showed off his body during his daily ocean swims, and had a mustache that made him the object of every cop’s envy. For the men, Magnum was their good humored drinking buddy who watched your back, who drove around in a cherry red Ferrari, and whose name sounded like a porn star nickname. Although it may be impossible to imagine anyone else playing Indiana Jones other than Harrison Ford, I can totally see why Tom Selleck was Spielberg’s top choice to play the character. Selleck obviously had the athleticism to play that role, but even more importantly, the character of Thomas Magnum practically shares the same exact qualities as Indiana Jones. Both approach danger with a mixed sense of humor and confidence, but without taking anything too seriously. They both have a gift for seducing women. Both characters also make mistakes and this is a trait that was rarely seen in adventure heroes. Originally, Thomas Magnum was conceived to be a macho kind of guy who kicked ass and got the job done without fail every time. However, Selleck insisted in having his character be more complex by giving him his own personal demons (e.g. dealing with his Vietnam past), not having an answer to everything, and making mistakes. I have always believed this to be the key element to making a character connect with an audience because it makes them more like us.

A great show is usually less about the plotlines (although a bad story can easily kill your series) and more about its characters. After all, if you intend to have your audience come back every week to watch the same characters on their television, those characters better be damn interesting to watch. Magnum P.I. has three characters – two of them are underwritten and forgettable while the other is as identifiable with the show as Tom Selleck (and you can probably immediately guess who that is). Thomas Magnum has two Vietnam vet buddies, Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger E. Mosley). Rick runs the King Kamehameha Club, an exclusive club that Magnum frequents despite not being a member. T.C. runs a helicopter charter service, but he usually finds himself at Magnum’s service any time Magnum has a case. Rick is the least interesting character of the series. He doesn’t serve much purpose for Magnum and he’s mostly there to be a sidekick from time to time and to provide the show’s comic relief, which is not very good. As for T.C., his character has an obvious purpose, but its limited (he flies Magnum from one destination to another in his helicopter) and aside from that, I suspect he was cast mostly to inject some diversity into the show. Beneath T.C.’s constant complaining, you’re just ready to see him turn into the ‘angry black man’ raging against the system and the white man.

And then we have Higgins, played by Texas-born John Hillerman. I say Texas-born because Higgins is a British character and Hillerman does such a convincing job in portraying the character, that I was seriously shocked when I later discovered the actor is from Texas. As head of security for Robin Masters’ Hawaii estate, Higgins is a constant annoyance to Magnum. The character is wonderfully conceived and his noble, rigid, and English proper demeanor perfectly counterbalances Magnum’s laid back, come-what-may attitude. The scenes these two characters share are absolutely classic and its what I look forward to in every episode. Not surprisingly, both actors won an Emmy and Golden Globe for their performances.

Magnum, P.I. is a guilty pleasure and when something is a ‘guilty pleasure,’ it also means that the show is not a high quality, intellectual or thought-provoking show. Most TV snobs do not consider the show as among the best shows ever and it is frequently dismissed as shallow entertainment that provides nice scenery, action, a nice car, and a chance for women to see Tom Selleck shirtless. With the exception of John Hillerman, the acting is far from stellar and the writing tends to be cliché, cheesy, and over-the-top. But I don’t think anyone who is familiar with 1980’s TV shows or the company of similar shows Magnum, P.I. fell with (Knight Rider, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, & Hardcastle & McCormick) could realistically expect anything more from this show. Television viewers today are fortunate to see shows that are written just as well, if not frequently better, than most films out there. This was not the case in the 1980’s. TV writing was usually at a lower standard than screenwriting, but this was to be expected.

On a final note, with the Vietnam War being such an unpopular war, very few TV producers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s wanted to feature Vietnam veterans in their programming. Premiering more than 5 years after the end of the war, Magnum, P.I. was the first American prime-time drama to feature Vietnam veteran characters. It was quite a departure from network entertainment to have a show in which the title character is a Vietnam vet. More notably is the fact that the characters of Thomas Magnum, T.C., and Rick did not portray vets as psychologically scarred, homeless, and drug-addicted (although there is one episode in which one of T.C.’s Vietnam buddies is a heroin addict) people who were unable to reintegrate into civilian society. These characters are portrayed as positive role models, but at the same time, they also deal with the PTSD effects of the war.

The Abyss (1989): Grade: A-

936full-the-abyss-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? When The Abyss is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime, then you have to wonder why this problem is not getting the sort of attention that world hunger receives. The rumor is that the film is set for release on Blu-ray in 2014 so if you have never seen The Abyss it would be best to wait until then.

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, & Michael Biehn

Directed by: James Cameron

Written By: James Cameron

[NOTE: This review is of the director’s cut, not the theatrical cut, of The Abyss] In my not so humble opinion, the finest science fiction stories are those that have something to say about the state of our current society. They show us what society can be if we head down a particular, usually destructive, path. War of the Worlds; Brave New World; Fahrenheit 451; I, Robot; A Clockwork Orange and more recent stories such as Children of Men; Wall-E; and the upcoming Elysium, all have political and social themes interweaved into their stories. After the success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron finally earned the clout to tell an original story in the way he wanted. The concept for The Abyss had been brewing in his head for a long time and, in the epic and grand fashion that characterize all of Cameron’s movies, The Abyss was no exception in both the ground-breaking and extreme fashion it was made and in the scope of its story. With The Abyss, Cameron also began introducing us to his political and social views, in particular to humanity’s wanton and destructive nature, which have further been explored in Terminator 2 and Avatar. The Abyss also introduced us to James Cameron’s growing obsession with exploration of the ocean – something he seems more interested in than in making movies.

The Abyss is basically an underwater adventure involving a nuke, a psycho Navy SEAL, and a sort-of benevolent alien species. The film stars a then relatively unknown Ed Harris, who plays Bud, a gruff but charming oil worker who leads a motley group of roughnecks on an underwater oil rig called Deep Core. The film starts out with an American nuclear submarine that encounters an underwater alien. Its mere presence causes all electrical devices to shut down, which basically means the submarine gets royally fucked. It ends up crashing into a rock wall, killing its entire crew and sinking into the abyss. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nuclear sub contains nuclear warheads (duh), which the American government doesn’t want the Russkies to get its hands on. So they send a team of Navy SEALS, led by Cameron regular Michael Biehn, to retrieve the nukes. Since Bud and his crew are located near the sunken sub and they have expertise and the equipment to operate at huge depths, the oil crew is recruited to assist the SEALS in getting the nukes. However, Biehn ends up going batshit crazy, thinking the aliens the crew has just seen is a new threat (possibly Russian) that must be eliminated.

Directors frequently come out with “director’s cuts” of their movies and they do so for various reasons, length being the main reason. Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott are two filmmakers who are probably best known for coming out with their own cuts of their movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out with longer editions after the films’ theatrical release. The films were not a major improvement over the theatrical version and you would not be missing out on anything by not seeing them. On the other hand, Ridley Scott has released a seemingly endless number of versions of Blade Runner and it is arguable whether they improve upon the original theatrical cut. However, both the LOTR trilogy and Blade Runner were already considered to be great films in their original cuts and the director’s cut merely improved upon them. The Abyss is the only film I can think of where the director’s version turns a decent movie with a very problematic ending (the theatrical cut) into a far better movie that substantively changes the motivations and story. Does The Abyss still have problems? Yes it does, but Cameron’s version makes those problems a little less noticeable.

I remember seeing Prometheus last summer and thinking how little chemistry and character development the ensemble cast had. With the exception of Michael Fassbender’s robot character, none of the other characters were interesting or believable and the actors playing them were not very good either and felt miscast. In watching that film, you can’t help but be reminded of The Abyss and how perfectly cast its actors are and how well Cameron developed their characters. Cameron had already proven with Aliens that he could tell a story with many characters and he uses that skill even more effectively with The Abyss. In those first 20 minutes of the movie, you are immediately introduced to Bud and his crew and see some of their key characteristics at display. But most importantly (and this is something that Prometheus spectacularly failed at), you totally buy into the fact that these characters are oil rig workers. Part of this is the pitch-perfect casting of actors who look like they could be found working on an oil rig. The actors in this film are all experienced, but they are not well known and they don’t look like beautiful Hollywood actors. You can tell that Cameron carefully researched not only the technology involved in having an underwater oil rig, but also the day-to-day lives and the lingo of oil rig workers. This shit is important – otherwise, you get what we saw in Prometheus.

Many of you will probably not appreciate this because you may be unaware of what skill it takes to be an efficient screenwriter. However, for the majority of The Abyss, especially during its first 30 minutes or so, Cameron does not waste a single frame of film. The film starts right off with the nuclear submarine encountering an alien and sinking. Boom. We then go to the oil rig and get introduced to Bud and crew. Boom. From the conversations between the characters, we learn Bud is going through a divorce. Boom. The oil rig crew is then told they have to help the SEALS investigate the sunken sub and accompanying them is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). BOOM. We also notice that Michael Biehn’s character is already displaying the shakes, indicating that he’s suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome. Right away Cameron establishes two points of major conflict in the story: Bud having to deal with his estranged wife and Michael Biehn being set up to be the crazy antagonist.

The action sequences in The Abyss are similarly well placed throughout the film. Each action sequence progresses the story forward – not a single sequence is put in for the sole sake of providing the audience with eye candy and thrills. And although the film has plenty of action, you never feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of the film (like say in Man of Steel). Like all of James Cameron’s films, The Abyss was made to be enjoyed on a very large screen and the action sequences particularly looked spectacular when seen blown up. However, it is a testament to how well the action is set up when you can still experience the edge-of-your-seat suspense that audiences did in theaters. Two sequences in particular are pure genius: One is where the oil rig is being dragged to the edge of the abyss by a fallen crane and the other is when Bud and his wife, Lindsey, are trapped in a mini-submarine that is filling with water and they only have 1 wetsuit between them (I have posted the clip from this scene below).

There is no doubt that Ed Harris gives a wonderful performance in The Abyss and if it wasn’t for that film, I don’t know where his career would have ended up. But as great as he is, I was most impressed by what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio brought to the screen. She is an absolute revelation and perhaps with the exception of The Color of Money, I think her performance as the hard-nosed and passionate Lindsey is the best performance of her career. This is not a surprise when you consider James Cameron’s habit of creating strong women characters (Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Kate Winslet in Titanic, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere in True Lies, and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in Avatar). Lindsey is not your typical damsel in distress who is waiting for Bud to come to her rescue. In fact, she is the one who sacrifices her life in the mini-submarine by allowing herself to drown so that Bud can swim them both back to the oil rig. In that scene and in the later one where she has a heart-to-heart conversation with Bud as he descends into the depths of the abyss are compelling and raw performances that Mastrantonio gives.

Lets not give Ed Harris short shrift either. As the grizzled, tough, but compassionate leader of the oil rig team, no one but Harris could have played this role. With a friendly-looking face, a good sense of humor, and an everyman blue collar demeanor, it is impossible to not want to be working for Bud. Harris had a rich and challenging role to take on because his character not only comes to reconnect with his estranged wife, but he finds himself in the position of having to basically save the world (oh, and take on an insane Navy SEAL). Speaking of which, Michael Biehn does a commendable job playing the antagonist who decides to set off a nuke. At times his performance is a little hammy and over-the-top, but I suppose a trained killing machine suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome would begin to act a bit extreme.

Another interesting aspect of The Abyss is the film’s recognition of the end of the Cold War. During the movie, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of a nuclear war and events are played out in the same fashion as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Michael Biehn’s character represents the whole “us vs. them” mentality of the Cold War and by making him go crazy, the film comments on how outdated and insane this way of thinking had become by 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell and one year before the fall of the Soviet Union.

During its theatrical release, The Abyss was criticized for not explaining why there were aliens at the bottom of the ocean. In the director’s cut, however, previously deleted scenes were put back in that finally give us a reason for the aliens’ presence. I appreciate the fact that the aliens are accounted for and I thought the giant tidal wave scenes looked pretty cool back in the day. However, I remain unconvinced by why the aliens want to destroy humanity for its destructive ways – why would they give a shit? Furthermore, I found it totally unconvincing that the aliens decided against destroying humans based on a little text Bud sent Lindsey basically telling her that he’s going to sacrifice himself by plunging into the abyss. Let us not even go into the very end of the movie where the aliens raise the oil rig to the surface – I guess alien technology magically made decompression unnecessary. I’ve wondered if Cameron simply ran out of time and money to make a better ending because it stands in such stark contrast with the rest of the movie. That whole climax feels like it was rushed and hastily put together.

Nevertheless, The Abyss remains a highly watchable science fiction adventure film that gives us that rare combination of suspenseful and non-stop action, strongly developed characters, and wonderful performances. The film remains one of James Cameron’s best efforts. If you cannot wait for the blu-ray to come out and you want to see this now, watch the special edition version of the DVD and check out the 1 hour documentary on the making of the film. You will gain a much deeper appreciation for this movie when you see the grueling conditions this movie was made under.