Lights Out Review

It is such a shame when a television series begins to hit its stride only to be canceled at its strongest (artistically of course because it would not have been canceled if it was strong commercially).  Such is the case with Lights Out.

Lights Out follows Patrick "Lights" Leary (Holt McCallany), a former heavy weight champion who has been leaving well above his financial means and is now in debt.  Patrick now must juggle the jobs of keeping his financial instability a secret from his family and finding any way possible to get money.  At the same time, his former nemesis "Death Row" Reynolds (Billy Brown) announces he hopes to have a rematch with Patrick.  A rematch that might not be in the best interest of Patrick and his family.

Lights Out is created by Justin Zackham (Bucket List) and the main director for the series is Norberto Barba (Law & Order).  The series is at times poorly written.  Zackham and company struggle with the family drama that takes center stage in the early stages of the series.  Many of the actions taken by the characters in the first half of the series seem to be taken to advance the plot instead of staying true to the character.  Luckily the direction of the series is much better.  Barba and company stop the series from seeming like melodrama (which it easily could have been with this writing).  The fight scenes are also some of the best you will see on television.  The directors create a really realistic atmosphere (and is in this way the opposite of its fellow FX drama Justified, which purposefully follows a more literary style).  The real masterpiece in direction of the series is the series finale "War", in which Norberto Barba creates a worthy conclusion that lives up to the hype that the story lines of the season build up to.  The other highlight of the series is the second half which effectively relies on its guest stars to continue the momentum (Such as Eamonn Walker in "Head Games" and "Infight" and David Morse in "Rainmaker")

The acting on display is a realistic and subtle style.  It takes a while for the viewer to notice the complex work being done by most of these actors.  Holt McCallany is effective as the lead and is the best example of my previous point.  At first, he appears to have been casted because he looks like a professional boxer, but as the season progresses, you begin to realize that McCallany is creating a real and complex figure that you can see in his face is debating the pros and cons of every decision.  The highlights of the supporting cast are Stacy Keach  as Patrick's father and Ryann Shane as Patrick's middle-daughter.  Stacy Keach easily creates the necessary (and at times cliche) wise trainer.  Keach, however, is able to act past the cliches.  Ryann Shane, however, is the real surprise of the bunch as she displays (in both acting and character moments) an age beyond her actual years.  The only negative component of the cast is Pablo Schreiber as Patrick's brother.  Schreiber becomes annoying fast and never is able to create anything beyond a one-dimensional character.  The real highlight of the acting in this show are the guest actors.  Eamonn Walker is phenomenal as a yoda-like trainer.  He really brings the quirkiness and this quirkiness makes the viewer very uneasy as you never what he is going to do next.  David Morse is also great as a former heavy weight champion.  It only takes a scene for you to pity this man (even though the episode thought it would take more time) thanks to this man's great acting.

Behind the camera, the real triumphs are the editing and cinematography.  These two components allow for some exciting, fast-paced, and realistic fight scenes.  Just watch the big fight scene in the series finale to see the editing and cinematography work on this series is some of the best in television.

Lights Out was (I unfortunately have to talk about it in the past tense) a good series that tries to be the new Friday Night Lights but fell just short.  It is still a recommended watch.


Mildred Pierce Review

HBO is known for its big and lavish miniseries.  Band of Brothers is considered one of the greatest works of entertainment ever.  John Adams broke records for the most amount of Emmys won by a television program.  This year comes along Mildred Pierce.  In terms of quality, Mildred Pierce is more of a John Adams (an overrated and lackluster miniseries that is, however, still good enough to justify the HBO brand) rather than a Band of Brothers.

Mildred Pierce follows Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet), a California native during the Great Depression, as she tries to find a living now that her husband has left her.  She does have some things that will help her along the way such as her mastery of making pies.  However, she also has some thing that will hinder as well, her daughter Veda (played in early parts of the series by Morgan Turner and in later parts by Evan Rachel Wood).

The miniseries is direct and written by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).  Jonathan Raymond co-writes the script with Haynes.  Haynes direction of the miniseries is superb.  Haynes shows no worries about creating an entirely different atmosphere from the original Joan Crawford film version and never allows the film to indulge into boredom.  That is the major problem of the script.  Haynes and Raymond make the unwise choice of trying to stay to close to the book version of the story.  This results in a script that allows the miniseries to be over five hours long for a story that could have easily been told in two hours.  As a result, it seems that much time is wasted and characters are made to take actions just to waste time in the story.  The third act also should have had problems (and does in the script) and the major character choices shouldn't pack such a punch.  Luckily, with Haynes at the helm and some phenomenal actors in front of the camera a big moment at the end involving Mildred and Veda chills you to the core.

The acting really is the highlight of the miniseries.  Kate Winslet is her normal phenomenal self.  She creates a character that has many flaws and makes her like able (when her character easily could have come off as a naive idiot that you keep screaming at).  Winslet is also not afraid (as usual) to make her character sexy.  This performance is actually better than her Oscar-winning performance in The Reader.  Although that is as far as my praise will go for her.  This in the end is one of her lesser roles.  Evan Rachel Wood will also get much praise for her portrayal of Veda.  Unfortunately, she is not as great as they claim.  She does nail her pivotal scene (and proves how brave she is by appearing completely naked in the scene), but she has trouble creating a chemistry with Winslet and finding any common ground with the other actress portraying Veda earlier in the series.  The other big name in the series, recent Oscar champ Mellisa Leo, is largely disposable, but Mare Winningham is solid as a business first-friends second associate of Mildred.  Of the men, Brian F. O'Byrne and Guy Pearce (who is always amazing anyways) are great and easily create a chemistry with Winslet.

Like all HBO series, the behind-the-camera production qualities of the miniseries are lavish.  I could go on about how great all of it is but I really want to take note of the musical score.  The score is composed by Carter Burwell and it is such a delight to see film crew members not only work on television programs but treat it like anything else they do (instead of using the thinking that film is somehow a step above television).  Burwell's work here is some of the best you will see all year on any medium.

Mildred Pierce is a miniseries that could have achieved greatness if it didn't get so bogged down by a poor script.  Nonetheless Winslet, the supporting men and Carter Burwell's score are phenomenal in this.


Source Code Review

Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie, came onto the film scene with a loud bang with the amazing independent sci-fi film, Moon.  Jones follow up to that film is Source CodeSource Code is also the film that proves Jones is no fluke.  One part Groundhog Day, one part Inception, and (of course) one part Moon is a dazzling entry into the sci-fi film genre.

Source Code follows Captain Colter Stevens, an army helicopter pilot who last remembers being attacked by the enemy while on a mission, waking up on a train.  He doesn't know how he got there and he eventually realizes that he is inside someone else's body.  The rest of the film is filled with twist after twist and divulging anything further would get into spoiler territory (which is very similar to trying to discuss the plot of Moon).  Trailers and other promotions for this film have unfortunately gone a little too far in revealing the plot but I will not here.

Source Code is directed by Duncan Jones from a script by Ben Ripley (who is best known for writing Scifi Channel movie of the week Species III).  The script for the film is surprisingly adequate for a guy that wrote a scifi movie of the week.  My only complaint would be that it gets too bogged down at points in exposition.  The film (no pun intended) cruises along in the first act, but when it comes down to explaining what is going on, the script really weighs down the second act.  However, this only a minor complaint because Duncan Jones' amazing directions makes the film rise above the problems in the second act.  Jones' directing makes sure you know exactly what is going on in this crazy storyline until he gives us an ambiguous ending that perfectly fits the rest of the film.  Like Inception was Christopher Nolan's film this is Duncan Jones' film.  Jones style of paying homage to films of the past yet very willing to take major risks is very prevalent throughout the film.  Jones proves he is not just a one hit wonder and that is a man we have to pay attention to in the future.

The cast is nothing special beyond its charismatic lead.  Jake Gyllenhaal has always had a career of unfulfilled promise, but with Source Code, Gyllenhaal is finally putting his talent to use.  Gyllenhaal essentially has the DiCaprio from Inception role, and, yet he is able to out act his more talented fellow thespian.  Gyllenhaal quickly makes you believe in the hero of the film and from there on out you feel all of the confusion, heartbreak, and happiness that the character feels.  This is truly a career performance for Gyllenhaal (Just don't go in anticipating a performance of the same level as Sam Rockwell).  Only Michael Arden rises above mediocrity from the supporting cast as a possible terrorist suspect.  Arden makes it look easy playing a character that makes you believe in his innocence one moment and then believing in his guilt the next.  However, no one is bad within the supporting cast with the exception of Jeffrey Wright.  Unfortunately for Wright, he is given most of the exposition of the film.  However, Wright makes the unwise choice of taking what should have been a straight forward role into a campy one.  Wright almost derails the film in the second act (but Duncan Jones stops that from happening).

The behind the camera aspects of the film are pretty average.  The editing is impressive and very similar to Lee Smith's work on Inception.  The one difference is that Source Code moves at a faster pace.  The score is pretty impressive.  It is very bombastic but that is what you expect in a film with a lot of explosions.  Nothing else is of much interest there.

Source Code is a worthy follow up to Moon for Duncan Jones, and it would not surprise me to hear Jones' name be called with other greats of the genre in the near future.


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