TV Review: Dynasty (The CW)

The first season of the CW’s Dynasty is salacious. It is also surprisingly sharp, even surpassing the original 1981-1989 ABC series in the caliber of its writing. Several key original characters, created by Richard and Esther Shapiro, are re-conceived. Several original costume motifs, plot lines and themes appear in this version, too. But the show’s first season (season two debuts on October 12) is its own combination of brisk, biting and usually interesting melodrama.

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The first major switch is from the original’s Colorado-based Denver Carrington business empire to the South’s Atlanta-based Carrington Atlantic. This allows for an engaging twist and the second major change from the old to the new Dynasty: Blake Carrington’s rival family the Colbys (and other characters such as the chauffeur) are black. Other flipping includes Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear in the original), a trailer trash tramp in the Eighties, as Sammy Jo the gay South American hustler.

Both characters bear familial connection to the second Mrs. Blake Carrington, Krystle (Linda Evans) who’s now Cristal (Nathalie Kelley). There’s a clever tie-in to almost every original character. This includes Matthew and Claudia Blaisdell, the middle class oil rig couple, butler Joseph and his mentally unstable daughter Kirby, hunky driver Michael Culhane and both Fallon and Alexis Carrington, formerly brunettes and now blondes who are each more diabolical.

But they’re bad in a more realistic way. All the Carrington mayhem, scheming and manipulation unfolds through the lens of plausible betrayal, family and business. The larger than life mythology remains. Steven Carrington’s still gay in the new Dynasty, though he’s less the strong, silent type that Al Corley portrayed and more like a modern version of Oscar Wilde with left-leaning politics. Also look for Ted Dinard.

The plot follows its own course, with some thematic and specific rebooting for fans of the original and plenty of sexual, interracial, intercultural points. With more socially and politically pointed, sometimes astute, commentary and snappy, often realistic lines and consistent characterization, this new Dynasty is worth checking out for “escapist” type entertainment, nothing more.

Production values include stunningly, beautifully shot scenes. I especially like that the show begins many episodes with rich, elegant details of the inner workings of the Carrington home, which adds a degree of authenticity to the more ridiculous plots.

The cast is generally outstanding, even Nicollette Sheridan as Alexis (not appearing until later episodes), playing the character with more humor than the iconic Joan Collins portrayal. Veteran actor Grant Show (Swingtown, Melrose Place) is excellent as Blake Carrington. Show makes the industrialist more human and believable in one season than John Forsythe did during the entire original series’ run.

Kelley’s Cristal is more convincing as the second wife than as the executive type but she’s fine. Rafael de la Fuente as Sammy Jo adds camp. Elizabeth Gillies as Fallon, a dominant character in the first season, carries quite a plot load and mostly pulls it off. James Mackay as Steven is also spot on. Sam Adegoke as Jeff Colby brings his own flair and stands opposite of John James’ original benevolence, Alan Dale as Joseph makes the butler a full-fledged character with distinction and Robert Christopher Riley as Michael steals every scene.

TV Review: The Looming Tower (Hulu)

Having partly reviewed and previewed, I’ve now seen every episode of Hulu’s 10-episode microseries based on The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. The program traces the rising threat of Islamic terrorism in the 1990s and the derailment of the FBI and CIA from preventing it. The title invokes the twin New York City skyscrapers destroyed in the 2001 attack on the United States. These buildings loom like giant ghosts.

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The Looming Tower dramatizes American appeasement, evasions and contradictions. This show is a docudrama, which is to say that it dramatizes key assertions, facts and documentary evidence of the federal government’s total corruption and incompetence, with the exception of the FBI’s John O’Neill (Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs). As such, this is pure naturalism, so don’t expect any happy endings or silver linings as have been depicted in previous Islamic terrorism-themed productions. As any proper series or movie about Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or the Holocaust must account for evil and maintain an appropriate tone matching mass murder, The Looming Tower projects the requisite seriousness for the subject matter. In every episode, the cumulative effect builds not on what will happen but how what will happen will be evaded by the U.S. government.

In this case, the fault lies chiefly with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which hoards its data collection, though the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice also bears culpability, as I already knew. The FBI and the rest of the Bush administration does, too, insofar as they deliberately acted with malice toward the very idea of national defense against Islamic terrorism. One of The Looming Tower‘s assets is its depiction of the entire government seeking to avoid, deny or ignore Islamic terrorism or, worse, use it to gain power. This problem has only gotten worse; they’ve dropped the ‘Islamic’ and thus avoid any admission of what moves the enemy.

Unfortunately, insidiously, this problem also infects The Looming Tower. By slowly but purposefully featuring dual tracks of religion in O’Neill’s conflicted Catholicism and his protégé’s occasional invocation of Islam — FBI agent Ali Soufan, portrayed by Tahar Rahim (Soufan also produced the series) — The Looming Tower minimizes the cause of 9/11: religious fundamentalism. The series would have been better off dropping the religious subplot, which adds nothing to the series, and sticking to the facts of what happened, what didn’t happen, and why. Observant Moslem agent Soufan’s using Islam and the Koran to send a terrorist on a guilt trip simply isn’t compelling. Even if, as portrayed, the terrorist Abu Jandal hung his head in shame at Soufan’s Islamic-themed lecture and inquisition, which I doubt, it’s beside the point. The more consistently preached and practiced version or interpretation of Islam is what motivated the hijackers to attack the Twin Towers. The Islamic jihad’s only spread farther since.

As depicted, the CIA’s Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) tries to stop the catastrophic attack in advance, as does O’Neill, who was murdered in the Twin Towers. O’Neill had just taken a job as the World Trade Center’s security chief after being pushed out of the FBI. Why? He had offended the American ambassador to Yemen during an investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole. Schmidt’s power-drunk protégé, icily portrayed by Wrenn Schmidt, lied to Congress about her knowledge and actions pertaining to the hijackers. Certain FBI agents, too, are contaminated by evasion of Islamic terrorism and lust for getting status and prestige from concealing data.

The hero of this horror story, O’Neill, went down with the collapse of the World Trade Center, which should have been portrayed and isn’t. Like any dramatization of the National Socialist or Communist mass murder, any honest depiction of 9/11 ought to show the carnage, suffering and horror of what nearly 3,000 Americans, including the man who all but predicted the attack, faced on Black Tuesday. As O’Neill, Daniels is excellent. He’s never out of character. His idealistic cop is always hard driving and thinking ahead, until the end of his life. As Richard Clarke, the only government official decent enough to admit failure and apologize to the American people, which is more than Bush, Rice and Cheney ever did, Michael Stuhlbarg (The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name) is good.

But Clarke, Soufan and O’Neill, who by this account sought a proper and meaningful defense of America, are a contrast to most of those working for the government as portrayed in The Looming Tower. By and large, and this is the impact of Legendary Television’s 10-episode series, the women and men of the FBI, CIA and White House lust for power. They do not choose to think. They chose to evade thought at every turn, in every moment, at each crucial opportunity to defend the nation against attack. As the final scene ends in this gripping portrayal of American appeasement of Islamic terrorism, whatever its flaws, I was reminded of the gloomy truth that the U.S. has become less free since 9/11.

Ayn Rand once said: “The human characteristic required by statism is docility, which is the product of hopelessness and intellectual stagnation. Thinking men cannot be ruled; ambitious men do not stagnate.” The Looming Tower captures this sense of despair, loss and nothingness. The series affirms that America is doomed to statism, and that, unless we put more men like O’Neill in charge, Americans have every reason to expect more mass death. In its lazy, unfocused, range-of-the-moment, partying, self-congratulating and shuffling law enforcement and national security complex, America’s government reflects the people Americans have become. Today’s is the government the people, if not O’Neill and those who go against the status quo, deserve. The Looming Tower rightly dramatizes this docility in stark, ashen gray.

Premiere: ‘Benji’ on Netflix

This will always be the week I met Joe Camp, who created Benji. That 1974 independent movie was a creative and commercial success, like last year’s marvelous The Greatest Showman, stunning detractors who rejected it for its virtues. Audiences loved Benji. They loved the scrappy mutt movie so much that a major movie series was born, making more cute dog movies, enjoyment and money. Today, Netflix debuts a remake of Joe Camp’s original Benji (read my thoughts on the new Benji here).

‘Benji’ creator Joe Camp at the March 11, 2018 premiere of Netflix’s ‘Benji’

Camp, whom I interviewed years ago when Bambi debuted on DVD, continues to indulge in his love for animals at his home in Tennessee. With his wife, Kathleen, who helped him formulate a new philosophy of horsemanship which became the basis for his book The Soul of a Horse, he took a trip to Hollywood to attend Netflix’s premiere of Benji with his filmmaker son, Brandon Camp (Love Happens), who co-wrote and directed the new Benji. We met for the first time.

Camp’s is a terrific, true Hollywood story. When major studios rejected his wholesome pitch for a movie about a mutt who brings joy to children, he went and made the movie himself, casting The Big Valley‘s Peter Breck as a single father (the new version involves a single mother) and reaping Benji‘s profit. Producer Jason Blum (Get Out, Whiplash), who also attended this week’s Benji premiere, teamed with Brandon Camp and Netflix to bring the dog movie back. Netflix bills today’s remake, which screened at the “paw-miere”, as a family feature film.

The new Benji, who goes in life by the name Benji, also debuted at the premiere. Brandon Camp, a talented director who recreates the onscreen dog cuteness and poignancy, walked Benji down the “paw-miere”‘s green lawn. When a Netflix promotional photographer asked them to stop for a photo opportunity, Brandon situated Benji, who mugged, barked and posed for the camera while Brandon answered questions — while his dad, Joe Camp, praised his son’s work and stilled Benji to near perfection like a master dog whisperer.

It takes effort and skill to work dogs and kids thoughtfully into film with stories that entertain. Lasse Hallstrom’s recent A Dog’s Purpose was a marvelous movie in this regard and, overall, I was impressed by the new Benji and look forward to more movies with the adorable pooch. Most of all, though, I admire Joe Camp for his independence, confidence and single-mindedness in making a movie which inspires audiences of all ages, instilling wonder, laughter and joy in today’s culture. He’s as frisky, resourceful and upbeat as ever and he’s never gone Hollywood if that means selling out. May the same go for Benji and dog movies to come.

New Movie and Blu-Ray Review: ‘Lady Bird’

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The 2017 movies were disappointing in general. Having finally seen the last of the Best Picture Academy Award nominees, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, my contention is affirmed. Read my new review of the film here.

As with every movie I see, I wanted to like and enjoy Lady Bird. Unfortunately, it ended up as dull as I’d expected. However, I found more to appreciate than I’d anticipated. I won’t be rushing out to see the next Greta Gerwig film but Lady Bird‘s not the worst navel-gazer I’ve seen. The Blu-Ray edition has merit, too, in the features, especially for those who like the movie.

Among last year’s movies I’ve seen, I, Tonya, also new to home video, is the best of the bunch. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Dunkirk — both available on disc or stream — are well made if lacking, though the latter is more moving and realistic, which to me makes it better. After the overdone onslaught of Marvel’s Black Panther and the overrated Wonder Woman, I am inclined to take a break from comic book movies. I’m continuing to see and write about classic movies and there are more to come. This weekend, I may also see and review a new gay-themed picture called Love, Simon, because the marketing looks like the movie may have an interesting character and story.

Movie Review: Benji (Netflix, 2018)

If you enjoyed Joe Camp’s adventurous Benji (1974) featuring Peter Breck as a single dad and an adorable stray mutt that loves kids, fights crime and saves lives, Netflix’s remake is probably worth watching this week. Benji, co-written and directed by Brandon Camp (Love Happens), debuts this Friday, March 16 on the streaming service.

Benji on Netflix

With a caveat, I enjoyed the new Benji. Director Camp, son of Benji‘s original creator, seamlessly captures the simple magic and joy of watching a scrappy little street dog try to get a home and a boy to adopt and love him. I think Benji’s fundamentally enduring appeal, and, as a movie series, it’s had several successful sequels, lies in its depiction of a dog that can think and act with a sense of purpose. Audiences like seeing these qualities on screen and dog owners and lovers know that dogs are often as amazing as portrayed.

The low-budget, independent charm of the 1974 picture carries into this version, too, with a few changes to the basic story but the same unaffected, family-friendly sensibility toward decent, hardworking people and the persistent dog that comes into their streets, shops, homes and lives. This means Benji bonds with a boy (Gabriel Bateman) and, later, his sister (Darby Camp, no relation) whose emergency medical worker single mother (Kiele Sanchez) nixes the idea of getting a dog on practical grounds.

The dog is the star of this show and Brandon Camp gets him from every angle, scampering about, climbing, pouting, bounding and jogging through the seasons and breaking into a full sprint to save the kids when they’re endangered. His expressive eyes work wonders on humans and his little black nose picks up clues, too. A terrific plot point comes with humor in enlistment of another dog when Benji’s luck runs out and local police stumble on the job. Add a pawn shop angle, a pair of nasty thieves, a prayer, a boatyard, found cell phone video, being named after Benjamin Franklin and being kicked out in the rain and Benji delivers.

He’s the cutest dog in pictures since the lifesaving dog in The Artist and a worthwhile successor to the original Higgins as Benji, if not quite as stray-looking as that unkempt mutt. What feats the new Benji (real name: Benji) accomplishes, leaping and balancing about, are as plausible or as implausible as other dog tricks in the series or films starring Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. I could watch him in almost any movie, though I also enjoyed the last movie in the series, Benji Off the Leash, so I’m admittedly a fan.

A heavy-handed plot twist puts a damper on the light, wholesome, 87-minute Benji. If you love dogs and watch, and you should watch if you subscribe to Netflix, you’ll know the faith-based twist when you see it in an instant. It’s not necessary, it goes on too long, which is part of what makes it too thickly laid on, and it breaks character. But the scenes of a dog bonding with a boy and trying to save him from harm are compelling on their own terms, especially the expression on Benji’s face when he first sees the boy, and young Bateman as the boy is likable and easy to watch. Almost as much as Benji.

TV Review: Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre (A&E)

The 84-minute Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre filters the horrifying and historically fascinating tale of what unfortunately became known as the Guyana tragedy through the lens of the women who planned, coordinated and carried out the 1978 massacre, which left 918 men, women and children dead. Though it aired on cable TV’s A&E, I watched it on Apple TV streaming. The program purports to focus on four women, Marceline Jones, Carolyn Layton, Maria Katsaris and Annie Moore, and their impact on the People’s Temple and its founder, the Rev. Jim Jones.

A&E marketing calls the massacre a “tragic end”.

But the November 18, 1978 act of mass murder and suicide was more of an attack than a tragedy, a distinction Americans still fail to make 40 years later. Though more detailed than advertised and not exactly focused on the women as much as it claims, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre certainly accounts for each of the four women, scattering clues, facts and segments across its run time. Drawing from key readings of highlighted documents, extensive audio clips with subtitles and exclusive interviews with Jonestown survivors and family members, including Jones’ biological son, as well as never-before-seen archival footage and photos, it retraces the timeline. I remember when this happened — days after Iran’s Moslem dictatorship seized the American embassy in Teheran — and followed various dramas and documentaries about this historic application of religion to reality. I learned new information, so this one is worth watching.

A&E’s Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre

Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre starts with an overview of the women’s roles within the church from its explicitly multiculturalist origins in the Midwest to its insidious spread and rise in the Sixties in Northern California, where so many death cults, such as the Manson Family, Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army, festered and originated. While it’s not included here, I recall reading that the era’s Jane Fonda had at some point declared herself an enthusiast for the People’s Temple, sharing the Reverend Jones’ faith in collectivism, socialism and social justice. These are their terms, not mine, and the most compelling aspect of this movement and program is how it made and tracks a religion out of the climax of the New Left, down to its environmentalism and multiculturalism. Forty years after their loved ones were slaughtered, Americans continue to equivocate about the evil of these ideals.

“[T]his [New Left] ideal had become instead this insular, paranoid, violent community”, Hearing the Voices of Jonestown author Mary Maaga asserts without accounting for her use of the word instead in this sentence. Of course New Left dogma became mass death but this documentary doesn’t identify, let alone examine, the philosophical roots of Jonestown.

Instead, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre delves into facts, withholding analysis and judgment, documenting Jones’ drug addiction and sex orgies, as the Church preyed upon the Midwest’s and California’s poor and black families and becoming a model for future cult leaders, sects and swarms of militant religious women and sister-wives. As the People’s Temple herd dodges family lawsuits and concerns with a move to Guyana in South America, Jones fights for custody of one of the children he may have fathered, which is a catalyst to media scrutiny. With complicit parents as pawns, believing in social justice as their children work in the Guyana commune toward mass death, the four women plan and coordinate the mass murder-suicide, which began on that black day with the socialist commune’s parents giving their children cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The women had ordered the poison and tested it on pigs before Congressman Leo Ryan’s constituent welfare check on Nov. 18.

With footage from the day of the massacre, which does not (and should) include video of the People’s Temple members’ military gun massacre on the congressman and practitioners (here, they’re called “defectors”) trying to escape the compound, Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre  shows that what one person calls “the most peaceful, loving community” suddenly, chillingly executes its highest morality: altruism. Another adherent praises Jonestown because there were “no cars”. Viewers should note that the preachings and practices at Jonestown are widely accepted today. Suicide and murder for the sake of earth, God, or others on a large scale was shocking in 1978.

It is not shocking now.

Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre reports on the women who strategized, schemed and made the massacre possible, reminding everyone 40 years after the People’s Temple’s mass death that, while it’s easy to overestimate Stalin, Hitler, Khomeini, Arafat, Mao and other mass murderers such as the Rev. Jim Jones, women (and men) who sanction, support and teach them are also guilty. A&E’s Jonestown: The Women Behind The Massacre, explicitly names the evil that these women did — they systematically conceived and activated the mass slaughter of innocents. That this account is predominantly made by survivors and scholars who are women is incidental.