Sunday, November 27, 2011

Homeland and Boss - a review

Not having to sit through, or fast forward though commercials is just about reason enough to give premium cable programs a shot.  That these programs are usually well written and even better acted is just gravy.  Here is my take on two new premium cable series.

Homeland, (Sundays, 9pm, CST, Showtime)

This taunt psychological thriller is a perfect look into the fears and work of the post 9/11, American intelligence community.  The shades of gray in which agents live and work has to be as something they deal with on an everyday basis.  How much of this program’s story lines are possible or probable is not for me to decide.  I just know I am thoroughly entertained each week.

The two leads make this show.  I have never been much of a Claire Danes fan but I am converted.  Danes’ passionate, bi-polar CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, truly cares about her country and job.  The problem is that she is such a loose cannon in just about every sense of the word and makes horrible decisions, both personally and professionally, at every turn.  As a viewer, you care about Carrie and you want her to be right, yet you cringe as she puts herself in terrible situations needlessly. 

Damian Lewis portrays a marine, Nicholas Brody, who spent eight years in captivity, is rescued, and reunited with his (cheating) wife and family.  He is not the same man his family knew before his capture and everyone struggles to adjust.  Lewis (best known for his roles in Band of Brothers and Life) is perfect as the twitchy, ill-at-ease, angry Brody.

The main premise is that Carrie believes Brody was turned in captivity and is now a terrorist.  She believes this with all her heart, even when she is the only one.  Carrie and Brody play a sort of cat-and-mouse game with each other as Carrie tries to prove her theories.  Both actors have hit the nail on the head with their portrayals.  Carrie’s passion never seems false and Brody’s simmering anger never seems far from the surface. 

The writing keeps the viewer always guessing about what is around the corner without being stingy with details.  Mandy Patinkin is also brilliant as Carrie’s mentor and supervisor.  The writing keeps us suspecting and guessing if there is more to this character than meets the eye. 

Homeland is a terrific character study with more than one subject to watch.  Keep in mind this isn’t your parents’ Cold War spying either.  The threats this program deal with are all too real and they are laid out with gritty reality.  I find myself anticipating this show more and more.

Boss (Fridays, 9pm, CST, Starz)

How weird is to see Kelsey Grammer as a less than jolly politico?  Give Grammer credit for accepting and pulling off a character so far from the beloved Frasier Crane.  Grammer’s Mayor Tom Kane is dying but that hasn’t slowed his heavy handedness or his Machiavellian control over those who serve him. 

While I like the show, I often find myself wondering, maybe naively, how much of this highly illegal activity still goes on in this era where it takes very little for anyone to get caught doing anything.  Kane parades around the city meeting with a drug dealer and his very flawed reverend daughter right out in the open.  Surely his enemies know about his daughter’s life and would have eyes and cameras on him at all times, ready to exploit whatever weakness exists.

Sometimes I cringe at the mayor’s shenanigans.  There aren’t many laws Kane and his minions don’t break, bend, disregard, or ignore.  The program has a whole I-need-a-shower-after-watching feel to it.  Still, I am intrigued as to how Kane will conquer his disease and enemies.  Kane’s personal life is shadowy and mysterious and we are fed information slowly and I want more.

The show does have a scene stealer in the form of Kitty O’Neill, played perfectly by Kathleen Robertson.  Kitty is Kane’s protégé and personal assistant.  She seems to do some of his dirty work but as yet, we are not sure if it his dirty work, or if it is her own.  Robertson is smart and sexy and dominates whichever scene she is in.

Boss isn’t as good as Homeland and it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Scene after scene of politicians behaving badly doesn’t lend confidence in our leaders in real life.  Still, it is interesting with plenty of mysteries for us to ponder and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

Catch my views on different sports topics at and get twitter updates @jawsrecliner

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Network Fairy Tales

Unless their call letters are CBS, networks seem to be having a harder and harder time producing hit television shows.  As the networks continue to decide just how many singing shows and dancing programs audiences will watch, they also have to try to develop scripted programs people will actually care about.  ABC and NBC, the third and fourth ranked networks, have gone down a road both familiar and yet original in their attempt to gather viewers.  Both are bringing us programs based on childhood fairy tales, with completely different takes.

Once Upon A Time (Sundays, 7pm, ABC)

Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Logan Morrison, Lana Parilla, Robert Carlyle

ABC is bringing us this little gem about a modern New England town basically locked in time although its residents are unaware.  With familiar characters such as Snow White, Prince Charming, Jiminy Cricket, and or course, the Wicked Queen, Once Upon A Time, flashes between these favorites’ lives now and their past.  The kicker is that no one (but the Queen) remembers their shared past.  The program bounces back and forth, giving us the back story of some of our favorite characters and what is unfolding in their lives now.  We get to see what really happened after happily ever after. 

Of course, there is a chosen one – a person who is the key to unlocking the secrets and memories of times long pass and how everyone got to the modern world.  The Wicked Queen (the town mayor in the present) has no interest in her townspeople learning about their past.  It is her curse that set the whole thing in motion in the first place.

Well acted and well written, this show is entertainment at its best.  I actually enjoy the back story more than the present setting.  It looks to me as if the actors also enjoy the fairy tales times. Information is slowly doled out about the past folk lore so we get to know our beloved characters at a far better depth than any of the written stories.  The present day story is unfolding to set up the memories when they return to Snow White and Company. 

Once Upon A Time is definitely worth a look.  It has a comfortable feel that is fun and interesting.  I find myself more entranced that I care to admit.

Grimm (Fridays, 8pm, NBC)

Starring David Giuntoli, Russell Hornsby, Silas Weir Mitchell

Grimm has a darker overall tome than its ABC counterpart.  It is a cross between a normal police procedural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It integrates normal crimes and beloved stories like Red Riding Hood and The Three Bears.  The lead character is a detective and a grimm, someone who hunts and kills creatures like wolves, bears, and bees, much like Buffy hunted the undead.

The tone was especially dark and stiff in the pilot but has lightened up slightly in subsequent episodes with a nice dab of levity here and there.  It was a good change.  The cops are likeable and are growing into their roles with each episode.  This show could have been much campier than it is and I guess it could slip to that level if the writers aren’t careful.  For now though, think of it as a cop show with a cool twist.

As long as NBC keeps the camp factor at a minimum and the show keeps improving, NBC could have a keeper.  The main story line needs to be constantly developed and moved forward.  The program could easily be messed up and NBC needs to be constantly vigilant but it is mysterious enough to keep me entertained for an hour.  If you like cop shows, give Grimm a chance to show you that investigations can be more than what you are used to.

Check out my sports blog at and get twitter updates @jawsrecliner

Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar

How the movie going public will take to a historical period piece is always iffy at best.  For people like me with a great historical interest, the decision to go see these movies is an easy one – I’m always excited.  For the normal movie lover, I imagine it is a tougher sell.  There has to be hook to gain the interest of the general public.  Sometimes, it is the person or event being portrayed.  Sometimes it is the actors or director that brings in the crowds.  It is never a sure thing.

J. Edgar boasts some real heavy weights.  Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead actor and Clint Eastwood runs the show from the director’s chair.  Naomi Watts and Judy Dench hold major roles.  In addition, J. Edgar Hoover himself is an intriguing subject.  Only time will tell if modern audiences will have enough interest to make this film successful.  I find it hard to believe that younger audiences will have much interest in a movie about a man many probably have not heard of or know anything about.  Of course, DiCaprio made The Aviator a hit.  Can he duplicate the feat with this film?

It is time for everyone to accept the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably our greatest leading actor.  He is certainly in the conversation.  I admit I have been slow to recognize his massive talent and work ethic.  I think his portrayal of Howard Hughes was the performance that made me forget DiCaprio got his start on Growing Pains.  I know most actors work extremely hard at their craft but I find it hard to believe that many work as hard as DiCaprio.  He has been willing to work under, and learn from, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, namely Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and now, Clint Eastwood.  Leo seems to really love the characters studies, the roles where he can due his homework and research, and his love of his work translates beautifully to the big screen.  His work as Hoover is no different.  He plays the man with subtle precision, maybe even under playing the man.  Leo seldom overacts any character or scene, and I think that is his genius.

There is a reason though, while Hollywood has not attempted a bio pic on Hoover before.  While much of his public life is now a matter of record, his private life and secretive nature and work is the matter of much speculation.  J. Edgar concentrates on his early career and his private life.  The film covers his career from 1919-1935 and in the 1960’s through his death in 1972.  He is portrayed as a man obsessed with fighting Communism as well as a man who abused his power to gain information on politicians.  These themes can be accepted as fact.  The movie touches on, without much depth, his battle against the glorified bank robbers of the 1930’s.  It also completely ignores the World War II years and the McCarthy years.  It speculates on his relationship with his mother and his deputy, Clyde Tolson and most of the movie focuses on these relationships, as well the Lindbergh case.

I don’t have any problems with Eastwood’s take on Hoover relationship with Tolson.  There is no positive proof Hoover had any kind of homosexual relationship with Tolson although many believe that to be the case.  Eastwood chooses the middle road.  Hoover and Tolson have a love affair without consummation.  Eastwood uses Hoover’s strict but  pampered upbringing as a wall that Hoover just can’t get beyond.  It is a subtle battle within himself but he fights it constantly.  Since Tolson was Hoover’s nearly constant companion and heir tends to point to a relationship more than chief and deputy, or even best friends.

The relationship between Hoover and his mother is also speculative but possible.  Hoover lived with his mother well into his forties until her death.  She is portrayed as strict morally but she constantly builds him and props up his confidence.  Hoover himself is portrayed as often lacking in self confidence and courage.  His public image was a façade and those close to him knew him to be socially awkward.  He obviously is an enigma within himself.

The film does give Hoover his due as a pioneer for using forensic science in criminal investigations.  Hoover revolutionized investigative methods and Eastwood rightfully spends some time on this subject.  The director also delves a bit into Hoover’s illegal information gathering and blackmailing, as well as hints at a possible gambling problem.  Eastwood practically ignores Hoover’s lack of enthusiasm for going after the Mafia.  It is mentioned briefly that Hoover doubted the Mafia’s existence but considering he was the primary criminal investigator for more than four decades, this little idiosyncrasy was not developed.

To be honest, the film had a few problems.  When dealing with such a shadowy, much speculative, and controversial figure as J. Edgar Hoover, it is a mighty big task.  While I question some of the omissions, what is covered is dealt with conservatism and responsibility.  DiCaprio is brilliant and Armie Hammer (The Social Network) portrays Tolson with care and subtlety.  The dialog and filming (much of it in black and white) are well done.  While I’m not a huge fan of the constant flashbacks and forwards, the directing was just fine.  I enjoyed the film and was intrigued throughout.  This film won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but it does a fine job taking a close look at one of the most important figures in the twentieth century in this country. 

Check out my sports site at and get twitter updates @jawsrecliner