Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "The Cosby Show"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

From November 2008: When The Cosby Show premiered in September of 1984, expectations were low. Star Bill Cosby had starred in hit shows, both major (I Spy) and minor (The Bill Cosby Show), in the 1960s, but his more recent attempts at TV stardom (the 1970s variety programs The New Bill Cosby Show and Cos) had flopped, loudly. The sitcom form itself was on the skids, having fallen hard from the heyday of classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All In The Family to the dreck of Three's Company and The Facts of Life. And it was the Thursday night anchor for NBC, television's lowest-rated network.

But by the end of its first season, all of that had changed. The Cosby Show was the #3-rated show of the year, and would top the Nielsens for the next five consecutive seasons. It lifted NBC (and particularly the network's Thursday night line-up) out of the ratings cellar and into the top spot. And it made Bill Cosby, again, one of the biggest stars in the world.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

In Theaters: "Cold Weather"

Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather is an unassuming little gem of a movie, deceptively simple, instantly relatable. Katz is frequently lumped in with the “mumblecore” movement, and while he shares their DIY spirit, his films are in a different kind of style; yes, he’ll play scenes in a minor key, and he’s not adverse to a handheld camera, but here (as in his previous film, the wonderful Quiet City) the look is deliberate, the visual choices carefully considered. And it’s the service of a story that is surprisingly sly.

In Theaters: "The Other Woman"

Dear Natalie Portman:

Well, hey, first things first: congrats on that Oscar nomination. It was richly deserved; I mean it, seriously, you were terrific in Black Swan. Plus, makin’ out with Mila Kunis, that had to be pretty awesome, right? I’m imagining? Sorry, you’re probably tired of talking about that. But yeah, kudos on the nomination. (Between you and me, I think there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna win it.)

But that’s not actually why I’m writing you. Frankly, I’m writing because I’m a little concerned about where your career goes next. You see, a couple of weeks ago, I saw No Strings Attached, and then a couple of days back, I saw your other new release, The Other Woman. I understand why they’re being released now—those distributors are pretty smart, cashing in on all your positive buzz. The reason I’m worried, Natalie (may I call you Natalie?), is that you’re not just the star of these two (let’s be honest) less than stellar motion pictures. You’re also credited as executive producer. This would imply that you had a hand in getting them made, that you saw each of them as positive forward steps in the cultivation of your screen image, that you looked at both projects and said, this is the next move. And that’s very worrisome indeed.

In Theaters: "Vanishing on 7th Street"

Brad Anderson is a gifted filmmaker, equally adroit at comedy (Next Stop Wonderland), drama (The Machinist), and suspense (Session 9). God knows why he’s wasting his time with a piece of horror hack-work like Vanishing on 7th Street, a thriller as dull and generic as it is forgettable. Anderson mates the expected elements—darkness, solitude, unreliable lights, things hiding in the shadows, a soundtrack of half-heard whispers and screams—with a kind of secular Left Behind plotline, then plants the entire enterprise squarely on the shoulders of two leads who seem locked in a competition to see who can be less convincing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

On DVD: "The Tillman Story"

Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is a complicated and nuanced story of heroism, pain, and deception that unfolds like a mystery and concludes like a tragedy. Moving and intelligent, powerful and (on occasion) darkly funny, it leaves the viewer both inspired and absolutely furious. This is documentary filmmaking of the highest order.

Monday, January 31, 2011

On DVD: "Welcome to the Rileys"

Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys is a great-looking movie, moody and evocative, anchored by a trio of fine performances. But there’s an emptiness at its center; it regards the desperation of its characters from the outside, almost anthropologically. Scott and screenwriter Ken Hixon mount the conflicts and anxieties of their primary characters without seeming to really understand them—the people are conceived as constructs, and only puncture their obviousness through the skill of the actors playing them. But they can only lend the picture so much of their own soul.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

On DVD: "Still Bill"

Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s documentary Still Bill begins with its subject, ‘70s soul singer Bill Withers, performing his most iconic song, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It uncoils slowly, just the strum of his guitar and that pure, luminous, emotional voice. Strangely, though it’s a song I’ve heard dozens—if not hundreds—of times, I’d never really noticed how spare it is. He’s almost all alone out there, naked and raw, baring his soul, and when the bass, drum, and strings ease in, they only increase his burden; he can’t hide behind them.