HBO

Temple Grandin (2010, Mick Jackson)

The best thing about Temple Grandin is Claire Danes’s performance. She even gets through the parts where she’s thirty playing fifteen. It’s a biopic, there a lot of flashbacks. Director Jackson tries to use a lot of visual transitions for them, but they really succeed because of the teleplay and the performances. To give some credit to Jackson though, it’s not like there’s a lot of de-aging attempts. Temple Grandin’s stylistically simple, but Jackson does seem to understand Danes is the whole show and do everything he can to facilitate her performance.

In a way, having Danes portray the character or is it person when talking about a biopic–anyway. Having her play in the flashbacks forces the viewer to think about the actor, think about her performance. Jackson’s so bland, you’re not even considering it as a creative choice. Instead, the film creates another narrative track. Where’s Danes performance going?

Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson’s teleplay has a lot of detail, but not a lot of exposition. The information dumps are sudden and big. There’s barely any time spent enjoying or appreciating. It’s functionally fluid, pragmatically plotted.

Then sometime in the second half, after all the flashbacks are done, Julia Ormond–playing Danes’s mother–comes back into the film. Even though Ormond and Danes don’t have any relaxed scenes together for the first third at least, gradually–after Ormond is off-screen for a bit–it becomes clear there’s a similar performance. Danes’s performance is off Ormond’s performance. And then when they’re together more often in the second half, there’s so much more of it to see. It’s really cool and, you know, phenomenal acting.

David Strathairn’s great as Danes’s mentor. Catherine O’Hara’s good as her aunt (and Ormond’s sister). They’re both functional parts, but Strathairn gets a lot more to do. By the second act, O’Hara’s only around to tell Ormond what Danes is doing or not doing. Like I said, it’s a functional film. Very functional.

There aren’t any other standouts in the supporting cast because there aren’t many distinct characters. There are likable caricatures and unlikable ones. No one has a role so much as a function–give Danes something good to play off. And they all do.

Temple Grandin is an superior television biopic. (It’s not TV, it’s HBO). But Danes, Ormond, and even Strathairn and O’Hara could’ve done a lot more if they’d had an ambitious director. Still, Jackson does understand how to showcase his actors. So the performances don’t suffer, they just deserve the same level of filmmaking. And, like any biopic, it helps the real Temple Grandin’s got a terrific life story.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mick Jackson; teleplay by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson, based on books by Temple Grandin and Margaret Scariano; director of photography, Ivan Strasburg; edited by Leo Trombetta; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Richard Hoover; produced by Scott Ferguson; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Claire Danes (Temple Grandin), Julia Ormond (Eustacia), David Strathairn (Dr. Carlock), and Catherine O’Hara (Aunt Ann).


Lemonade (2016, Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jonas Åkerlund)

A music video is not a short musical. Lemonade, identifying itself as a visual album, is not a music video (or a string of them) and it is not a musical. It borrows something from all of those mediums, with directors Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund instinctively understanding how to mix and match. Lemonade is a performance, but not a film performance. It is a spectacle, but never a garish one. It’s an event, meant to be experienced as one, meant to be shared as one; it initially aired on HBO. There’s just so much going on at once with it.

Lemonade runs just under an hour. Knowles narrates, the narration adapted from Warsan Shire’s poems. The narration explains, the songs explore. But there’s the other, visual layer. It’s not just a music video because there’s cohesion between the numbers (in some ways, Lemonade might be be described as a musical video essay). Knowles is working towards something beyond the “narrative,” which involves a woman discovering and reacting to her husband’s infidelity.

It’s not the story of her self-discovery; she’s already self-discovered. It’s about her rage and joy and sadness and thoughtfulness and compassion. Lemonade is all about compassion, it’s all about understanding. It’s about Knowles’s “protagonist” ruminating, through the songs, through the visuals, questions of her very existence. Except it’s not subtextual questioning. Lemonade isn’t about being a superstar and questioning that existence, it’s about Knowles exploring the questions of being an African-American woman in the United States. Lemonade takes itself very seriously, as it well should.

The directors employ multiple aspect ratios to fantastic effect. They’re guiding the viewers, presenting each song, each visual sequence, for the viewer’s intelligent consumption. It’s impossible to imagine not paying attention to Lemonade. But Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund know how to keep it inviting. Editor Bill Yukich does peerless work here–every cut is outstanding, whether it’s between aspect ratio, shots of the same sequence, shots from different sequences. It’s beyond graceful.

To put it in terms of film jargon, Lemonade is a little like if you made a musical version of a twenty-first century Terrence Malick movie, only employing mostly tone and narration devices from Badlands. The filmmaking has to hit a consistent level of precision in order for its sincerity to work. And the sincerity is the goal, which just makes the filmmaking more ambitious.

To be hyperbolic (but accurate), you don’t watch Lemonade as much as experience it. It captivates visually and narratively. Only the narrative turns out to be a lot different than what the first act implies. Though act isn’t the correct term, because Lemonade sort of creates itself as it goes along.

It’s very difficult to explain; you’d just have to see it. And you should.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Beyoncé Knowles, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jonas Åkerlund; adapted by Warshan Shire; directors of photography, Khalik Allah, Par Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Rimmasch and Malik Hassan Sayeed; edited by Bill Yukich; production designers, Jason Hougaard and Jc Molina; produced by Keenan Flynn and Jonathan Lia; aired by Home Box Office.


What’s Cookin’ (1992, Gilbert Adler)

The opening titles for What’s Cookin’ give a little too much away. They draw too much attention to Judd Nelson, who doesn’t fit with the rest of the cast title cards. Christopher Reeve, Bess Armstrong, even Art LaFleur. The episode has a certain type of cast member and a Judd Nelson “special appearance” is noteworthy.

Reeve and Armstrong own a restaurant. Nelson is the drifter who cleans up around the place. Do he and Armstrong run off together? No. But Judd Nelson in a “special appearance” as a drifter? There’s got to be something funny about that guy. A.L. Katz and director Alder’s script doesn’t get very interested in character. It’s not clear Reeve and Armstrong are even married until it’s needed in expository conversation. They might have a sort of sitcom chemistry, but Adler doesn’t ask them to have chemistry. He directs What’s Cookin’ like they never got to rehearse it.

Needless to say, Nelson proves to be trouble. There are two big twists–with only the first one forecast, though the second one is obvious, there’s no attempt at forecasting. Instead, the second twist is just a way to hurriedly tidy up all the plot threads.

The episode has occasional moments where the cast would be fully capable of doing something better, but Adler never goes for it. He relies entirely on the predictable plotting. What’s Cookin’ is a MacGuffin in search of its host.

And Nelson’s really bad. He’s supposed to be creepy. Instead, he’s just bad. Some of it is Adler’s fault. But not much of it.

Reeve’s passable, though clearly just cashing a paycheck. Armstrong comes off the best, though still significantly weighed down by Alder’s lousy direction.

The funny thing is–Katz and Adler miss the most obvious twist to explore. Reeve’s always the patsy. There’s too much emphasis on Nelson to explore the possibilities of the tired concept. The majority of the actors in What’s Cookin’ deserve better engagement from the director. It should’ve been much better with this cast.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Gilbert Adler; teleplay by A.L. Katz and Adler, based on a comic book by William M. Gaines; “Tales from the Crypt” created by Steven Dodd; director of photography, John R. Leonetti; edited by Robert DeMaio; music by Nicholas Pike; production designer, Gregory Melton; aired by HBO.

Starring Christopher Reeve (Fred), Bess Armstrong (Erma), Art LaFleur (Phil), Meat Loaf (Chumley) and Judd Nelson (Gaston).


Nightshift (1985, Phillip Noyce)

The big problem with Nightshift, an episode of “The Hitchhiker,” is how William Darrid’s teleplay handles the protagonist. Margot Kidder plays a retirement home nurse who preys on her charges–little mean stuff, stealing their jewelry. The script isn’t playful with its presentation of Kidder. If Darrid had made her true nature a reveal instead of setting it up in the ground situation, for example.

It makes Kidder a weak protagonist, letting Stephen McHattie (as her scummy boyfriend) take over the episode when he’s in it. But he’s not in it very much, just a lengthy middle sequence. Then it goes back to Kidder, but she’s even more ineffectual now.

Director Noyce is trying to play with the constrained environment, but it doesn’t come off. There’s some good editing from Stan Cole.

Nightshift could have been a lot better, but Darrid didn’t give Kidder a believable enough character. It’s unfortunate.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; teleplay by William Darrid, based on a story by April Campbell Jones and Bruce Jones; “The Hitchhiker” created by Riff Markowitz, Lewis Chesler and Richard Rothstein; director of photography, Reginald H. Morris; edited by Stan Cole; music by Michel Rubini; production designer, Richard Wilcox; produced by Markowitz and Chesler; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Margot Kidder (Jane Reynolds), Stephen McHattie (Johnny), Dorothy Davies (Mrs. Cranshaw), Enid Saunders (Mrs. MacDonald), Kenneth Gordon (Mr. Loring) and Darren McGavin (The Old Man).


Clear History (2013, Greg Mottola)

Besides J.B. Smoove, Clear History does not reunite Larry David with any of his “Curb Your Enthusiasm” costars. David and Smoove have their fantastic chemistry and it’s a little strange not to see them hanging out in the film. Instead, David hangs out with Danny McBride, who probably gives the film’s must mundane performance. He’s fine… he just doesn’t get any of the laugh lines.

The first third of Clear sets the scene. In an alternate reality where the electric car catches on like hotcakes, David’s character gives up a stake in the company. Destitute, he creates a new life in Martha’s Vineyard–unlikely location maybe, but it’s very pretty scenery. Everything goes well until Jon Hamm–as David’s former boss–arrives on the island.

Antics ensue. With a relaxed plotting structure, Clear feels a lot like three episodes of a TV show strung together. David and his co-writers, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, do put in a lot of subplots, but they’re all for joke payoff throughout. Heck, they even miss one involving Liev Schreiber, which is too bad. He’s hilarious.

Great work from Hamm, Kate Hudson and especially Michael Keaton. Keaton gets to do his wacky thing as a local mad at all the changes to the Vineyard. Very funny. Nice smaller turns from Eva Mendes and Amy Ryan. It’s perfectly cast and performed, it’s just slight.

Greg Mottola’s directorial fingerprints are invisible. Besides transition shots, he just lets the actors act.

Clear’s pleasantly mediocre.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Greg Mottola; written by Larry David, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer; director of photography, Jim Denault; edited by Steven Rausch; music by Ludovic Bource; production designer, Sarah Knowles; produced by Monica Levinson, David, Berg, Mandel and Schaffer; aired by Home Box Office.

Starring Larry David (Rolly), Danny McBride (Frank), Kate Hudson (Rhonda), Jon Hamm (Will Haney), Michael Keaton (Joe Stumpo), Bill Hader (Rags), J.B. Smoove (Jaspar), Eva Mendes (Jennifer), Amy Ryan (Wendy), Philip Baker Hall (McKenzie) and Liev Schreiber (Tibor).


The Best Legs in Eighth Grade (1984, Tom Patchett)

The Best Legs in Eighth Grade aired on HBO. Apparently, their original programming has gotten a lot better since the eighties.

It’s difficult to describe Legs. Bruce Feirstein’s script seems to be meant for stage–the biggest surprise isn’t just he’s had a career since, it’s discovering he was an in-demand writer at the time–director Patchett might be suited for a sitcom (but nothing as emotive as a soap) and there are only two (cheap) sets.

Annette O’Toole is responsible for every good moment in Legs, except for one Jim Belushi contributes.

O’Toole has some problems with Patchett’s direction, but she overcomes it. She’s outstanding. Sadly, she’s opposite Tim Matheson, whose performance is indescribably bad. Some of it’s the script, but a lot of it’s Matheson. Kathryn Harrold is tepid as the object of Matheson’s lust. Vincent Bufano, in a tiny part, is strong.

Besides O’Toole, Legs stinks.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Tom Patchett; written by Bruce Feirstein; edited by Ken Denisoff; music by Lee Holdridge; produced by Kenneth Kaufman; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Tim Matheson (Mark Fisher), Annette O’Toole (Rachel Blackstone), Kathryn Harrold (Leslie Gibson), Vincent Bufano (T.C.) and James Belushi (St. Valentine).


Perfect Witness (1989, Robert Mandel)

Perfect Witness is a standard TV movie, even if it was on HBO (I’m not sure what got it on HBO even… language, maybe?), even if it does have a great cast. During the opening credits, it’s names like Brian Dennehy, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, Joe Grifasi, and Aidan Quinn. Robert Mandel directed it. It should have been better, instead of just the standard TV movie (lengthy–four to five month–present action and more complicated plot, though I don’t know why legal TV movies have always had complicated plots… it’s not like TiVo has been around forever).

Mandel does a so-so job. He disguises Toronto quite well for New York, but the TV movie is not something he’s suited for. He’s only got one really nice moment in the whole thing, which is disappointing, especially since Brad Fiedel does the score and Fiedel can always deliver good moments. The score’s nice, better than the movie deserves, but there just isn’t the material for Fiedel to strengthen.

Quinn’s fantastic. The movie works because of his performance, nothing else. Dennehy is okay, good in parts, but his character is practically a villain, which Dennehy isn’t playing. Channing is okay too, but unimpressive in the emotional female role. Lindo and Grifasi both have small, nice parts. The only important lousy performance is Laura Harrington as Quinn’s wife. She’s real bad.

I suppose there have to be other TV movies like Perfect Witness out there, completely competent time wasters with better-than-they-deserve casts, but I was really expecting something from Mandel and Dennehy, who’d worked together just a few years before on F/X. And not having a Grifasi and Dennehy reunion (they played Mutt and Jeff cops together in F/X) is just tragic.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mandel; written by Terry Curtis Fox and Ron Hutchinson; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Wendy Greene Bricmont; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Richard Wilcox; produced by Elaine Sperber; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Brian Dennehy (James Falcon), Aidan Quinn (Sam Paxton), Stockard Channing (Liz Sapperstein), Laura Harrington (Jeanie Paxton), Delroy Lindo (Berger), Joe Grifasi (Breeze), Ken Pogue (Costello), Markus Flanagan (Woods), David Margulies (Rudnick), Nial Lancaster (Danny Paxton), James Greene (Paddy O’Rourke), Colm Meaney (Meagher), Tobin Bell (Dillon), Tony Sirico (Marco), Sam Malkin (Stefano), Kevin Rushton (Rikky), David Cumming (Kevin O’Rourke) and David Proval (Lucca).


The Pentagon Wars (1998, Richard Benjamin)

I can’t remember why I queued The Pentagon Wars. When it started, I kept waiting for the writing credits because I figured it must have been for the writers (it wasn’t). The Pentagon Wars chronicles a colonel’s efforts to get the Pentagon to responsibly develop an armored personnel carrier. It’s also an absurdist comedy. Kelsey Grammer’s the bad guy, the general who can’t answer a straight question and is just waiting for his cushy defense industry job post-retirement. The film alternates between being laugh out-loud funny (Grammer’s fantastic) and depressing. The military-industrial complex shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and the film actually skirts over that issue quite a bit. Instead, it concentrates on just how much the Pentagon brass is willing to sacrifice troop safety for fashionable accouterments.

The Pentagon Wars was an HBO movie (produced by Jersey Films, which explains some of the quality) and director Richard Benjamin never quite makes it anything more than a televised film. There’s no real character development, no real character arcs, no real character relationships. There’s a bunch of good acting–Grammer, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, and Tom Wright (actually, Benjamin’s fine in his cameo too)–and the film’s scenically constructed to allow these actors to amuse. As the straight man, Cary Elwes gives his standard wooden performance. While the script doesn’t involve itself too much with the depth of Elwes’s character, he’s still entirely incapable of giving it any. That arrangement works out, because no matter how many times Elwes fails, the film isn’t requiring him to do anything.

The film, though it never actually quite earns that descriptor, manages to endear itself (mostly due to Benjamin’s amiable handling and the performances). Watching the film–even appreciating it and its humor and its successes (it’s a safe quirky)–I kept wanting it to take itself seriously, as its subject is not a particularly frivolous one. When the seriousness finally did arrive, it came too late–and then the film called upon Elwes… and he couldn’t handle it (surprise, surprise). Still, the attempt was enough to hinder the experience.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Benjamin; screenplay by Jamie Malanowski and Marytn Burke, based on the book by James Burton; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Jacqueline Cambas; music by Joseph Vitarelli; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Howard Meltzer; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Kelsey Grammer (Maj. Gen. Partridge), Cary Elwes (Lt. Col. James Burton), Viola Davis (Platoon Sgt. Fanning), John C. McGinley (Col. J.D. Bock), Tom Wright (Maj. William Sayers), Clifton Powell (Sgt. Benjamn Dalton), Dewey Weber (Sp4 Ganger), Richard Schiff (Col. / Brig. Gen. Robert Laurel Smith), J.C. MacKenzie (Jones), Richard Benjamin (Caspar Weinberger) and Olympia Dukakis (Madam Chairwoman, Armed Services Committee).


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