Game of Thrones: Should I Stay or Go?

Now that I am 30 episodes and 90 bucks into it, I’m having a tough time deciding whether to keep binge-watching “Game of Thrones.” True, it is made with all kinds of skill and talent, but Jayzuz, this is some grim bloody TV, folks.

I’m not against make-believe violence in service of great drama by any means. I got through “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” just fine, in fact I watched them both more than once. But this? Never lets up.

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I did not enjoy seeing this; does that mean I’m turning into a wuss?

I don’t know how much of it is my tastes evolving with time, and how much is just the nature of the show. It has so many great strengths. And yet …

Let’s look at some pros and cons:

PRO: PETER DINKLAGE

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I love this guy, totally. As an actor, he is mind-bendingly good. If only he could speak in a convincing British accent …

Peter Dinklage is a genuinely great actor. We kinda knew that before, but this role has given him the chance to prove it beyond all doubt. He owns the screen every time he is in a scene.

CON: PETER DINKLAGE’S BRITISH ACCENT

He sounds like what he is, an American faking a Brit accent. It is crazy distracting.

PRO: BRILLIANT CAST

Diana Rigg? Charles Dance? Rory McCann? Michelle Fairley? Lena Headey? All those kids? They’re gobsmacking great. I could not name one performance in the first three seasons that could even be called mediocre. These cats know what they’re about.

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CON: THEY KILLED SEAN BEAN

Those bastards.

PRO: HIGH DRAMA

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This character is one of the reasons I might keep watching.

Story-wise, they leave no stone unturned. If it has ever happened anywhere in real life or make-believe literature, it’s in this series.

CON: MURDER PORN, TORTURE PORN,THREAT PORN, BURNING ALIVE PORN

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And sometimes it seems it has never happened anywhere except (presumably) the imagination of author George R.R. Martin. Whom, all due respect, I hope never to meet IRL.

I had been given to understand many people find the show very rape-oriented. I was braced for that and was a little surprised to find not so many actual depictions of rape, but lots and lots and lots of threats and predictions and talk of rape. Plenty disturbing on their own, of course.

PRO: EYE CANDY

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Bonus points: His British accent is great.

 Naturally, I disapprove of valuing people solely on the basis of their appearance and of reducing living, breathing humans to mere physical commodities. That said, I will not kick up any dust about looking at, say, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau or Jason Momoa, while they go about their highly skilled and professional business in front of the camera.

CON: THIS GUY

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Poor Jack Gleeson may never get another acting job.

I can’t even think about watching the show any more unless I know for a fact this one gets gone.

PRO: EXCELLENT FEMALE CHARACTERS

The females in this show really are tremendous. They’re complex and fascinating and unpredictable and move the story as definitively as any of the boys. I like the dragon lady, I like the plotters and schemers, I like the heartbroken teenagers. I’m especially fond of that little girl with the sword. If they kill her, I might have to break my TV.

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I could watch these characters a long, long time. If they lived.

It’s a conundrum, friends. I don’t know, I just don’t know.

Food and Romance

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“The Hundred-Foot Journey” is a sweet, very pretty, feel-good movie that suffers badly from the fact that you can’t taste the food shown on screen.

It revolves around the clash of cultures that erupts when the Kadam family arrives in southern France to open an Indian restaurant across the road from a Michelin-starred institution. They fled Mumbai after their restaurant was destroyed in a politically motivated fire, and are struck by the beauty of the small town where haughty restaurateur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) reigns supreme.

Director Lasse Hallstrom casts the French countryside as a kind of virtual character; it is so exquisitely picaresque and bathed in such golden light that you’d want to move there too, whether you can cook or not.

As it happens, the Kadam family  includes young Hassan (Manish Dayal) who has rare culinary gifts that his stubborn father, delightfully played by Om Puri, is determined to exploit. Despite Madame Mallory’s opposition, the new Indian restaurant does well – thanks in part to some educational assistance from a young cook from the competitor’s staff.  Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) is every bit as adorable as Hassan, so you won’t be surprised when they sorta, kinda fall in love.

Two things delay the arrival of the inevitable happy ending (and you know it’s coming because co-producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg tell you so before the movie starts): Politics and ambition.

When politics cause something bad to happen, mettles are tested and true colors revealed. When ambition frustrates true love, you won’t be shocked at how things work out eventually. You won’t mind waiting because in the meantime all kinds of gorgeous food is being prepared and you will be thinking about where you can get something like that near where you live. Good luck.

The movie is comfortable and comforting and lovely as it wants to be.  It may even inspire you to move to France, if you can get Lasse Hallstrom to go along to film you in that perfect light.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Blech

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I know, I know. You grew up watching these guys, with the pizza and the katanas and the wisecracks. They were fun, they were silly, they were powerful, they were weirdly inspirational to every kid who ever felt awkward or freakish or out of place  (i.e., every kid on earth).

And you desperately hoped that this new movie version would be an entertaining update that combined nostalgic spirit with modern big-screen thrills.

Sorry, folks. It didn’t happen.

What you have here is a big mess that is way too loud, violent and confusing for little kids who are the new generation of TMNT fans, and way too stupid for sentient adults.

It is mostly a blur of dark, grim and ugly action, interspersed with boring generic action-movie plot devices. Sprinkled over this unappetizing mix is a weird new-age version of the turtles, musclebound steroid cases who randomly voice “funny” remarks that often make no sense in the moment. That is, when they can be heard over the painful crashing, crunching, booming, screaming soundtrack that serves as the movie’s substitute for suspense and drama.

I counted two honest turtle-based laughs over the course of the movie’s one-and-three-quarter-hours (which is of course too long).

Hard pass.

 

 

James Brown Would Approve

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

“Get On Up” is a worthy, surprisingly candid, portrait of the great James Brown, whose unique approach to music ripples through rock, pop, R&B, rap, even jazz, to this day.

The movie does not sugarcoat the difficult parts of Brown’s story. His dreadful childhood, his youthful brushes with the law, his problematic relations with women and substances, his prickly personality and his demanding ways even with the people closest to him.

Yet, overshadowing all those human issues is the man’s stunning, ambitious and super-charged musical energy. He drove himself and those who worked with him to forge new sonic forms and to deliver them with astonishing intensity. Producer Mick Jagger repeatedly credits Brown with shaping his own understanding of what a showman should do and how to do it. Those shuffling feet of Jagger’s did not invent themselves.

For all his personal problems, Brown was a force of nature in the music world. He was edgy, he was driven, he was independent — all qualities that in his time were not necessarily well received by the movers and shakers of the entertainment world. The movie portrays him as a true original whose dedication to his music cost him dearly even as it established the reputation that has only grown more exalted since his death in 2006.

Jagger’s involvement as executive music producer presumably helped ensure the glorious quality of the musical scenes, which are abundant and lovingly shot. Director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) makes the performance scenes the tentpoles of the sometimes chaotic story unfolding around them. His decision to time-jump constantly is the one significant weakness in his approach; it can be a struggle to keep track of what is happening to whom where and when.

The cast is rich with talent — Olivia Spencer, Viola David, Dan Aykroyd, Lennie James, Craig Robinson and Jill Scott grace the proceedings. But Chadwick Boseman owns the movie. He is on screen for most of the movie and in every scene is purely magnetic. The movie calls on him occasionally to speak to the audience directly, or sometimes to convey his meaning with a wordless look into the camera. That is a tough job for any actor, and Bosemen handles it with confidence.

Boseman was terrific as Jackie Robinson in “42,” but this performance,  in a just world, would make him a major star.

Thank you, Marvel. Thank you very, very much.

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Yes, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is just what we have been wanting. It’s just what Marvel does best and it is just what we have been missing since, say, “The Avengers.”

It is fast and full of whiz-bang effects, fights, stunts and battles. Some of them are even surprising and entertaining in ways that boom-crash rarely achieves.

But most of all, the movie is a ripping good yarn. Chris Pratt, who is adorable on “Parks & Recreation,” is equally so here PLUS heroic and subversive and romantic and broken-hearted and vulnerable and crazy. In other words, just about perfection on the Movie Hero scale, as written by females.

This is not an arbitrary observation. Action movies can do pretty well with mostly male audiences, but they can only become monster megahits when women like them too. And women generally like real stories and interesting characters. Also, wit. (See the aforementioned “The Avengers.”)

“Guardians” has all of that and more. Pratt as leads a quintet of misfit jailbirds that includes a tree-like creature vvoiced by Vin Diesel,  a vicious raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, a mysterious female butt-kicker (Zoe Saldana) and a surprising tough guy played by wrestler Dave Bautista. As an example of the movie’s sense of humor (via screenplay credited to Nicole Perlman and director James Gunn), Bautista nails a funny scene built around his tendency to take ordinary figures of speech literally.

Many of the players, including some of those on screen only briefly, get at least one memorable moment. Michael Rooker, as a bright blue hooligan, gets several.  Amidst the backdrop of more or less continual sci-fi warfare, all those laugh lines, slapstick and clever references keep the proceedings fresh and buoyant.

 

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Most of all, the movie  sails on the charm of Chris Pratt. He so understands the character that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. The story, like all the best Marvel stories, grows out of intense childhood drama. Yet, the first time we see Pratt’s character (who calls himself Star Lord), he breaks into an extended solo dance through a ruined landscape. It’s riveting, it’s unexpected, and it more or less tells us everything we need to know about the guy. It may also make you want to take him home and feed him soup.

Well done, Marvel. Seriously, you got this.

 

You Can Take The Boys Out Of Jersey …

John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi in "Jersey Boys."  © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac Entertainment.

John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi in “Jersey Boys.” © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Ratpac Entertainment.

The first thing you need to know about Clint Eastwood‘s movie version of the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” is that it looks and feels nothing like a Broadway musical. Only in its closing moments does Eastwood pay tribute the movie’s source by rolling the whole cast into a classic ensemble song-and-dance number. It’s a lot of fun and a fitting capper to an old-fashioned biography of a character who happens to be a musician.

Songs — and there are plenty of them and you know all the words, trust me — arise organically. These characters sing while writing songs, rehearsing, recording and performing. Eastwood has held onto the play’s technique of letting  band members take turns talking to the audience directly. It’s a revealing way to tell a story that has at least as many versions as players on the field.

Frankie Valli, played on screen by the same actor who originated the role on Broadway, is unquestionably the center of the movie as he was in the band. John Lloyd Young does a skillful job of recreating Valli’s extraordinary voice, capable of reaching intense, high registers without so much as a hint of screech. Young brings warmth and complexity to a role that requires him to age 30 years with minimal help of the movie-magic variety.

The script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice takes its time getting Valli and his bandmates from scrambling teens to makers of hit records. The leisurely pace pays off by giving the Valli and his bandmates time to emerge as distinctive personalities.

Most vivid of the bunch is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, the kind of guy whose charms keep his friends attached even while he mistreats them outrageously. Tommy remains most deeply bound to the mob-infested neighborhood where the boys grew up, even though Frankie’s voice wins the lifelong loyalty of the local boss. Christopher Walken has a blast playing this character, equal parts menace and sentiment and high-priced suits.

Walken is probably the most famous member of the cast; most roles went to accomplished actors unburdened by distracting amounts of fame. Key among them are Mike Doyle as Bob Crewe, the ebullient record producer who helped create The Four Seasons,  and Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, the self-possessed songwriter who understood  how to turn the quartet’s unusual vocal talents into an astonishing string of hits (some co-written with Judy Parker). Adding to the fun are Michael Lomenda as band member Nick Massi and Joseph Russo as Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci.

(Perhaps you have deduced the movie lacks female characters. You would be correct. Renee Marino shows a lot of personality as Valli’s first wife, but soon is consigned to quick cuts as the marriage falls apart. Most of the other females in the cast don’t even have names, and barely enough screentime to warrant listing in the credits.)

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Ultimately, none of the skill on display on screen would matter without the music. The songs all arise organically, in writing sessions, rehearsals, recording studios and performances. And they’re terrific. I went into the movie thinking of Four Seasons songs as mostly corny fluff, and while there is some of that, for the most part the songs are still full of fun and energy, not to mention hooks that grab the brain and don’t let go. There is a reason they sold so many records, not counting whatever (alleged) help they may or may not have received from certain, um, businessmen in the old neighborhood.

This is not a face-slapping drama or a trip to hell and back. One suspects some rougher edges have been buffed and polished from this story (Valli and Gaudio are executive producers), yet it ends up feeling like more than the sum of its parts. By the time that big production number arrives at the end, you just might feel like dancing.