Midnight in Paris

One of the best Woody Allen films in years. Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a lovable doofus like the ones Allen himself used to play in his movies (but without the neuroses) is in Paris with his irritating fiance, her awful parents, and her insufferable former boyfriend, having a lousy time. He walks the streets by himself, searching for echoes of the 1920’s era he loves. One night, sitting on a lonely staircase, he gets offered a ride by a fashionable couple in a vintage auto, and taken to what he assumes is a 1920’s costume party. But it’s not — he has traveled through time, and that guy playing the piano really is Cole Porter.  Gil’s life will never the be the same.

The movie is like a collection of bonbons — actors having a ball doing sendups of famous artists of the last century. Kathy Bates is particularly good as Gertrude Stein, Corey Stoll talks like Hemingway wrote, and Adrian Brody is a demented Salvador Dali.  But the emotional heart of the movie is Marion Cotillard, who seems to be everyone’s favorite Frenchwoman these days.

There’s not much plot here, and the movie’s “life lessons” are not particularly profound.  Allen plays with the cliches of time-travel movies as though he’d been making sci/fi films his whole life, as Gil makes “suggestions” to famous artists about ideas they haven’t had yet. But the movie has a good heart,  is blessedly free of the snark and meanness that has marred so much of Allen’s recent work, and says one or two true things.

Don’t be late though — you don’t want to miss the first three minutes, a montage of Parisian street scenes without words or actors, kind of a love letter to the entire city.

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The Tourist

Sure the plot is flimsy enough to be lingerie. But it’s wonderful fun to watch Angelina Jolie march through this film like the tremendously hot woman she is, fully cognizant of the effect she has on men. Johnny Depp, in an uncharacteristically understated performance, is enjoyable too.  There are stronger-than-usual actors in the feature roles (Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell) and most of the film is shot on location in Venice.  What’s not to like?

My favorite scene occurs not long after the beginning of the film. Jolie enters a railroad car, looking for her mark.  She spies one guy sitting by himself, his tongue hanging out, and walks towards his seat. Suddently, his wife shows up, and sits down next to him.  The wife looks first at Jolie, then at her husband, his face now buried in a newspaper, then back at Jolie, with a “yeah, right” glance. Jolie gives an ever-so-slight shrug, by way of apology, and moves on to another likely target.

That whole scene took longer to describe than it took on the screen, so watch for it — it’s a small gem.

Camelot (2011)

The story of King Arthur is one of the founding myths of the English-speaking world, and it’s such a good story it’s hard to screw it up. But these guys managed it. There are many ways to play the tale — Knights Tale, feminist tract, Wagnerian tragedy, or even the story of the a 6th C knight only slightly less grimy than his age. But casting as Arthur a guy that looks like he stepped out from a photoshoot at GQ, with dialogue cadged from a 1920s drawing room comedy, is not a successful approach.   It’s hard to overstate how bad this is.

The Borgias

Only two episodes, and already I hate it. There is a good story to be told here — the late 15th / early 16th C Popes invented modern Rome by getting its water supply under control, and patronized some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen (Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo) to boot. And Cesare Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI) was the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince.  But the people responsible for this program couldn’t resist the soft-core porn — sex! poison! Sultans!  Lucrezia!  — which is a shame.

Jeremy Irons is good, and there are some fine actors in smaller roles (Derek Jacobi, Colm Feore).  But the real story would have been far more interesting.

The producers either couldn’t afford or couldn’t get permission to shoot in the Vatican (which wouldn’t be surprising), so much of the show is shot in Hungary — very disconcerting if you’ve been to Rome and know what these places are supposed to look like,

Game of Thrones

If you’re not familiar with the books by George R. R. Martin, this is the first book in a fantasy series that is one part War of the Roses, one part Dragonriders of Pern, and one part Helliconia , with some ancient Greeks and Mongols thrown in for extra variety. Two young knights overthrow an evil king — one becomes the new king, the other goes back home. Seventeen years later, the king, now older and drinking too much, asks his friend to be his prime minister and rescue his reign. Things don’t go well.  Meanwhile, the remnants of the last dynasty are preparing an invading army from across the sea, and White Walkers and dire wolves (harbingers of the Long Winter to come) are seen in the land.

So far, the series seems to be following the book pretty faithfully, which is no small trick since the plot is pretty complicated. The cast of mostly unknown British actors is very strong, and the visual representations of the fantasy world (shot in Ireland and Malta) are stunning.

Three episodes into this series, it has already been renewed for a second season, so if you start watching at least you won’t get left hanging.

Maybe now Martin will finish the books. (Although the series was originally designed as a trilogy, three books clearly weren’t enough for the world he built.  The fourth book came out in 2007.  The fifth book, which may or may not be the last one, will be published in July.)

Treme

This series, which takes a look at how various residents of New Orleans deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, uses interlocking stories in a manner that will be familiar to viewers of David Simon’s The Wire.   

The stories concern people in all walks of life, from lowlifes in and out of prison, to restaurant chefs, carpenters, college professors, lawyers, small business owners and, of course, musicians at all success levels. All of the stories are told against the backdrop of the city preparing for its first Mardi Gras after the storm, an event much more important for the recovery of the city than its reputation as a tourist spectacle would indicate.

The strong cast includes some old favorites from The Wire (Clarke Peters and NOLA native Wendell Pierce), as well as John Goodman and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo. The first couple of episodes are kind of slow (it takes time to introduce all the characters), but once it gets going it the characters will take hold of you, and you won’t be able to let go. You don’t find out how the characters weathered the storm until the last episode, by which time the characters seem like old friends, and their various fates (and those of their loved ones) are surprisingly affecting.

The music is great throughout.

The second season is currently underway on HBO, but I think the first season DVD is now available.  Don’t watch Series 2 without having seen Series 1 — there’s almost no exposition.

(and more about Series 1)

Fans of The Wire will likely love this series about post-Katrina New Orleans.  Katrina destroyed not only homes, but whole communities, and in some cases, a way of life — much like what is probably happening in the Gulf right now. The series follows about a dozen characters, from all over the socioeconomic spectrum, as they try, with varying degrees of success, to rebuild their lives.  The characters are diverse, complex, and recognizable as human beings.  Many of the actors here will be familiar from other Simon/Mills enterprises, and they do fine work here. Wendell Pierce (“Bunk” on The Wire and a native NewOrleanian) plays a jazz trombonist, Clark Peters (“Lester Freeman”) is a Mardi Gras Indian, and Khandi Alesander (“The Corner”) is the owner of a small bar.  But the emotional heart of the show is John Goodman, who plays a Tulane English professor motivated by the storm’s aftermath to rant on a then-new technology called YouTube.

The first few shows move slowly, as we are introduced to all the characters and the interlocking plot lines are set up.  But the payoff comes later, as the plot lines slowly resolve and you find yourselves totally immersed in these characters fictional lives.  In the last half hour of the final episode, we suddenly meet a character who has offscreen for the entire series, but we’ve learned so much about him from everyone else that he is instantly recognizable. The series ends at the beginning.  We finally see the storm that has changed everyone’s lives, but only after knowing how things turn out — which does nothing to detract from its dramatic power.

Many well-known musicians participated in this series, as well as many more who should be better known.  Not surprisingly, the music is terrific.

As an extra added bonus, after watching this series, you may finally understand the lyrics to Iko Iko:

Look at my King all dressed in red
Iko! Iko! an de’
I bet you 5 dollars,  he kill you dead!
Jackomo fe nan e’
Takin bout …..  hey now, hey now
Iko! Iko! an de’
Jackomo fe no an e’ , Jackomo fe nan e’

My flagboy and your flagboy,  sittin by the fire,
My flagboy  told your flagboy, I’m going to set your flag on fire,
Takin bout …..  hey now, hey now
Iko! Iko! an de’
Jackomo fe no an e’ , Jackomo fe nan e’