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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Amen, PREACHER!

Article originally published as PREACHER Review on Seat42F.


AMC’s newest drama is PREACHER. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, the series follows a Texas minister in a small town where danger and the supernatural seem to exist in abundance. It is shocking and action-packed, while also being a compelling character study of a man who is trying to do good and frequently failing. In short, it is worthy of being on this top-quality network, and makes a good addition to AMC’s morality-questioning slate.
The protagonist and titular man of the cloth is Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper, Agent Carter, Fleming). Ingrained in him by his ill-fated father is a drive to do good in the world. But in a position he doesn’t want in a place that, for the most part, doesn’t want him, and with a past he isn’t proud of, Jesse is struggling to feel like he’s living up to his potential. As the story begins, he’s about at a breaking point and must decide what his path forward would be.
There is no shortage of others who either want to help him or hurt him on his path. Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun, Misfits) is a vampire lying low who is drawn to Jesse’s violence. Tulip (Ruth Negga, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is his ex who seeks to involve him in her latest scheme. Emily (Lucy Griffiths, True Blood) is the busy mother who is devoted to the church. Sheriff Root (W. Earl Brown) is the lawman who doesn’t put up with Jesse straying, while Hugo’s son, Eugene (Ian Colletti, Rake), is devoted to a God he thinks may have abandoned him. And there’s also Donnie (Derek Wilson, In the Now), the abusive husband that Jesse confronts.
Each of these play a role, most of them quite loud and large. Cassidy and Tulip, in particular, are introduced in extreme scenarios that reinforce the graphic novel roots of the source material and certainly keep things exciting. This is a show that will not shirk from its action sequences, and has no qualms about showing death and destruction.
Yet, for the run of the pilot, Jesse himself is the calm center of the storm. He doesn’t react largely. He doesn’t do anything too crazy. He exists in the midst of everyone else’s drama, which is not what one typically expects from the main character of a series such as this. It’s unlikely he will stay that way for long, probably taking lead in the bigger sequences going forward, especially given what happens at the end of the episode. But it’s a very interesting choice to make to introduce him in the way that he is.
There’s also a phenomenon not yet explained that will play a very large role in PREACHER. Seen at the beginning and during a few interstitials, a being of energy has arrived on Earth looking for a host. After some false starts, it chooses Jesse as its vessel. Neither obviously good or bad, it’s the nth embodiment of Jesse’s own internal conflict, and promises more than just a slow-burn character-driven drama that would likely be good, but what we get is even better. With two mysterious men (Boardwalk Empire’s Anatol Yusef and Pirate Radio’s Tom Brooke) on the hunt for it, Jesse won’t just be able to live the life he’s been living.
I found the first episode of PREACHER to be terrific. It draws you in appropriately, feels fresh and original, despite a few familiar elements, is amusing in a sly way, and lacks the types of plot holes or gratuitous things that bog down most new series. Each moment seems carefully calculated to build towards something, and with fascinating characters populating the world, I look forward to seeing where it goes.
PREACHER airs Sundays at 9pm EST on AMC.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Pick Some FLOWERS

Article first published as FLOWERS Review on Seat42F.


Premiering stateside on May 5th is the British sitcom FLOWERS. A very dark, very off-beat comedy show about a messed up, three-generation family, it will make you both uncomfortable and amused, though the balance between the two may vary moment to moment. It’s an original work that is hard to compare to any existing show, despite the familiar family format, and while I don’t yet know if I should recommend it or not, two episodes into the six episode run, it is certainly something worth taking note of.

The patriarch is Maurice Flowers (Julian Barratt, The Might Boosh), a children’s author who tries to kill himself in the opening moments of the show. This in of itself is a startling beginning, with the strange verses of his literature serving as voiceover to the events. And while we’re told Maurice is a successful writer, the content of the stories we hear seems questionable and certainly speaking to much deeper levels than most works geared towards kids.

Maurice’s wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch, The Night Manager), is completely oblivious to what her husband is up to, but she willfully goes that way through life. It looks like she’d rather be happy than knowledgeable, and in dealing with her family and friends, looks at the bright side rather than the honest one. Her attitude is obviously a fa├žade, clearly failing to convince even herself of her rosy perspective, and there is always the sense she is barely a few seconds away from losing it.

Around this couple, who are celebrating an anniversary, revolve their grown-but-still-living-at-home twin children, egotistical inventor Donald (Daniel Rigby, Flyboys) and musical lesbian Amy (Sophia Di Martino, Casualty). Donald and Amy both happen to be interested in the same girl, Abigail (Georgina Campbell, After Hours), whose plastic surgeon father, George (Angus Wright, Maleficent), will not stop his inappropriate flirting. Plus, there’s Maurice’s senile mother, Hattie (Leila Hoffman, How Not to Live Your Life), Maurice’s almost-servant-like assistant, Shun (creator Will Sharpe), and a handful of other bizarre personalities that flit in and out of the story.

If this sounds like a lot, trust me, it is. Watching FLOWERS makes it feel like even more, the constant fast pace and dense plotlines making your forget each installment is a mere twenty-three minutes in length. It’s like walking into a crowded room where everyone is talking loudly and trying to sort out exactly what is going on and who everyone is.

And yet, the more I watched, the more I liked it. Behind all the weirdness is a group of complex human beings with rich emotional layers, and they are all hurting in their own ways. Each is doing their best to get along in life, or end it, with little idea of how to do so. They (mostly) keep chugging along anyway, despite constant setbacks. The FLOWERS family, while not exactly likeable, become very sympathetic in a short amount of time.

Mixed with this is zany, madcap comedy, often of misunderstandings and errors, which makes their existence seem like hyper-reality despite the grounding. This is what happens when various mental illnesses collide, often more disturbing than funny, even though the situations themselves are humorous. This structure makes it hard to process or binge watch FLOWERS, and yet, also makes it so unique that I am drawn to continue viewing, if only to reward the huge risk making a show like this is.

Well, that and I would watch the excellent Colman in anything. This is off-type for her, and it’s rewarding to see her rise to the occasion.

FLOWERS will be available on Seeso (NBC’s new streaming comedy channel, available through Roku and Amazon) in the United States beginning Thursday, May 5th.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Take Home THE REVENANT

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'The Revenant' on Blogcritics.

While watching the Oscars each year, there are always films near the top of the pack that really don’t feel like they’re good enough to me to be honored with a nomination. However, The Revenant, winner of three Academy Awards, does not fall into that category; it is worthy of every distinction given to it. And it has just been released on Ultra 4K, Blu-ray, and DVD,

The Revenant tells the story of fur hunter Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, who finally and deservedly won Best Actor Award), mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness, and his revenge-fueled tale of survival. (I don’t feel it’s giving anything away to mention the bear because if you speak of this movie to anyone, the bear is the first thing they know about it, and it happens very early on.) Despite his severe injuries, Hugh hunts John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road) across snow-covered forest and mountains, trying to get to the man who wronged him in the deepest of ways.

At the edge of the story is another fascinating character, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn). Henry is the leader of the expedition on which Glass gets injured, and comes back into the story later on. His morality and character are noteworthy, managing to stand out in an otherwise narrowly focused narrative. While Glass and Fitzgerald take most of the screen time, along with Will Poulter’s (We’re the Millers) Bridger, Henry is always on the fringe, and perhaps not equally interesting, but definitely notable. Gleeson, first making his mark in the Harry Potter series, has had an arguably unparalleled year in film, but I’m glad he had time to squeeze this one in, too.

In my opinion, this movie is incredibly hard to watch, and you likely will not yearn for a repeat viewing anytime soon. But it’s also one of the most impressive, well-made films I’ve seen. The story is wonderfully crafted, and while the main thrust is basic, it manages to keep the details unpredictable. The acting is superb, of course, and you really feel what the characters are going through, which is rough enough to spur the discomfort mentioned earlier. It’s a very visceral thing to sit through, making it more an experience than a passive watching, and there is little to nothing to complain about in the film itself.

The direction and score are spectacular. Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) took the directing Oscar for good reason. From the sweeping visual landscapes to the close ups in the most dramatic moments, there is no choice made that will leave you questioning Inarritu’s abilities. This is all enhanced, of course, in high definition, which really makes the trees and rivers and snowflakes pop into being, feeling real, and the music sing crisply in your ears. Most of the action takes place outside, and the ambient noise is excellently balanced. Watching at home made me wish I had a 4K set to truly get the most out of the presentation, but blu-ray is satisfying enough, too. The mixing is flawless, and no shot is bad.

Where this release utterly fails is in extras. There are two on the disc – an unnecessary photo gallery and a 45-minute documentary called “A World Unseen” that is light on insight and heavy on environmental protection arguments. Previously released on YouTube, “A World Unseen” doesn’t give us much about how the film was made, but does have a strong, clear message as to what it wants to say. I’m not saying the message is a bad one, but it’s not what one is looking for to learn more about The Revenant. In a film that has so many interesting elements and that does things no other movie has done, I expected a boatload of material on locations, special effects, story development, and the like, and am utterly disappointed by the lack of offerings.

Despite that, though, I still recommend The Revenant; it’s just that good. I feel like it shows us things about what film making can do that many of us didn’t realize before. For that reason, it’s worth a watch.

The Revenant is available to own now.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Avoid CONTAINMENT

Article first published as CONTAINMENT Review on Seat42F.


Beginning this week, the CW is broadcasting a miniseries (remade from the Belgian program Cordon) called CONTAINMENT. It tells the story of a viral outbreak in a major city, as seen through the eyes of individuals in law enforcement and the medical field, as well as a few who just have been unlucky in their timing and location. Things spiral out of control as the horrific disease spreads, and panic ensues.

While CONTAINMENT probably most closely resembles Outbreak or its like, it will most likely be compared to The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, given the popularity of zombie programs right now, which are often caused by a virus. To make the parallels even more clear, CONTAINMENT is set in Atlanta, Georgia, the same place The Walking Dead begins, and goes inside a hospital. Plus, there are riots and fences and panic in the streets, much as in the first season of Fear the Walking Dead.

These comparisons will not do CONTAINMENT any favors. While The Walking Dead is focused on serious character development, the zombie outbreak really being secondary to the story, CONTAINMENT’s plot is driven by the illness, with the characters coming secondary. Although there are a lot of varied personalities, none are anything new on television, and the ensemble could easily be pulled from almost any soapy serial drama. The relationships are needlessly complicated, and characters are artificially separated as events unfold.

CONTAINMENT features an ensemble with no true leading man or lady, a number of them getting roughly equal screen time, and no high-profile actors steal focus from the others, either. There’s Lex (David Gyasi, Interstellar), a cop who early on makes the decision to send his best friend, Jake (Chris Wood, The Vampire Diaries), into danger. Lex’s girlfriend, Jana (Christina Marie Moses, Odd Brodsky), also happens to be Jake’s ex, and turns to Jake for advice when she gets cold feet about moving in with Lex. It’s this trio, in particular, that make the entire series feel contrived, unoriginal, and not at all grounded in reality.

Besides that trio, Katie (Kristen Gutoskie, Beaver Falls) is a school teacher whose class, which includes her son, is visiting the ground zero hospital as events go down; Sabine (Claudia Black, Farscape) is a CDC honcho brought in to manage the situation; and Teresa (Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Spartacus: War of the Damned) is a pregnant, unmarried young woman who plans to run away with her boyfriend. There are also a few others, but none that I can recall enough to name at present, and the CW’s website, lacking a cast page most networks have, doesn’t really make it easy to look up the main players.

In short, though, from the batch you see, I think it’s pretty clear that CONTAINMENT is not going for something deep and moving and realistic, but rather, pure entertainment. Like other disaster movies and broadcast network shows before it, CONTAINMENT is forcing situations to spark emotional reactions at moments where there should not be. Instead of focusing on dealing with the crisis as they need to, the main players will have their attention split by friends and loved ones who should either be out of the way or completely cut off from communication. It just doesn’t make for a very high quality show, and since the archetypes are so familiar, probably a pretty predictable one, as well. I’d call this one a skip.

CONTAINMENT premieres Tuesday at 9/8c on the CW.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Check In With THE NIGHT MANAGER

Article first published as THE NIGHT MANAGER Review on Seat42F.


AMC recently co-produced a six-episode miniseries with the BBC, and beginning this week, less than a month after it completed its run in England, Americans will get their first look at the tale. Titled THE NIGHT MANAGER, it is based on the novel of the same name by John le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), first published in 1993, and updated to seem more timely. Essentially, it presents a cat-and-mouse game of two vastly mismatched partners who just might somehow be a perfect pairing.

The hero of the piece is Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), a former British soldier who now handles things after dark at a very upscale hotel in Cairo, Egypt. An accidental run-in with a woman who is connected to the seedy underworld sparks feelings of protectiveness in Jonathan, and it isn’t long before he becomes involved in international espionage, given face by MI6 agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, Broadchurch).

Cue the villain, Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie, House), who values money above people. Traveling with an entourage, which includes girlfriend Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) and protector Corky (Tom Hollander, Rev.), Roper comes in contact with Pine, who knows Roper is responsible for some unfortunate things Pine cannot get over. Thus begins their competition.

Hiddleston and Laurie are absolutely phenomenal in the leading roles, as one would expect. Hiddleston is the star, with his Pine as every bit as sympathetic and heroic as Loki, the character he is best known for playing, is scheming and twisted. Laurie has the smaller role, especially in the first hour, but that makes his screen time even more powerful, grabbing attention the moment he shows up.

With two such talented performers leading the story, it’s little wonder that the series is incredibly captivating. They’re the type of men who could carry a single-set, small drama, and given the larger world stage (THE NIGHT MANAGER hops countries a few times), they still steal focus from the impressive scenery.

I mentioned in the opening that the story has been updated, but not to worry, the changes are not startling nor distracting. The televised version of THE NIGHT MANAGER plays upon Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis. Since the novel came out more than two decades ago, those weren’t elements in the original work. But while I have not read the book, I think it’s smart to make the surrounding details more relevant to the moment, giving easily understood context to the larger picture, even though the main points are the characters, whom could exist the same in any number of settings.

Besides our leads, the three other main players are amazing as well, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Tobias Menzies (Outlander), David Harewood (Homeland), Alistair Petrie (Rush), and Russell Tovey (Being Human). If these are the kind of people coming in to play the smaller roles, I think that’s a sure sign the program is heading in the right direction.

Pretty much every direction THE NIGHT MANAGER takes is correct. The pacing is slow enough to dwell in the appropriate moments, but stays far ahead of boring. The locales are sweeping and beautiful. The hotels that Pine works at are extravagant masterpieces. The score accentuates without distracting. Honestly, other than the fact that the story being told is longer than would fit, THE NIGHT MANAGER could make a very well-regarded motion picture. After only viewing a single hour, I am totally hooked and convinced the entire half dozen installments will be well worth your time. I’m putting them on my schedule.

THE NIGHT MANAGER premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on AMC.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

VEEP Not Second-Choice Release Today

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Veep - The Complete Fourth Season' on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Veep is about to begin its fifth season, so, not coincidentally, The Complete Fourth season arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week. The series is a hilarious send-up of an inept politician who is in the job below the one she wants. With a stellar cast and sharp writing, somehow the program gets better with each subsequent year, and the fourth season is no exception.

As this run begins, Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is Veep no longer, having taken the Oval Office after the president’s resignation. Despite getting to the job she wants, things do not get any easier for Selina as she bumbles through having actual authority and faces stiff primary challenge in the upcoming election. Unlike what she’d hoped while aspiring to the highest office in the land, everything doesn’t fall into place and she finds her difficulties to be greater than ever. Which makes for ripe comedic ground, this show relying heavily on mistakes and errors.

With Selina’s elevation, the staff is in disarray, too. Dan (Reid Scott) and Amy (Anna Chlumsky) struggle for control of the agenda, and while one gains an early lead, that is far from the end of their drama. Mike (Matt Walsh) may not be suited to the larger spotlight, while Gary (Tony Hale) feels edged out. Jonah (Timothy C. Simons) continues to hang on the fringe, looking for his in. Kent (Gary Cole) and Ben (Kevin Dunn) continue to attempt to do what’s best, but they aren’t always right, and aren’t always listened to when they are. Only Sue (Sufe Bradshaw) remains relatively unfazed, but that’s the role she plays in the crazy group.

Veep likes to bring in fresh faces, and why not? Any comedy actor should love to get on a series with this high a profile and this much acclaim. Sam Richardson (Spy), who has appeared on the series before as Richard, is given a larger presence in The Complete Fourth Season, being promoted to a full-time player. The terrific Patton Oswalt recurs throughout the season. Most notable, though, is Hugh Laurie’s (House) amusing turn as Tom James, Selina’s running mate who keeps overshadowing her. Is it on purpose or by accident? Is Tom angling to edge Selina out and take over, or is he just not as good as she hoped he’d be? You’ll have to watch to find out.

As usual, there are plenty of comedy-of-error moments and slapstick intermixed with witty dialogue and clever bits. Veep is both smart and dumb comedy, excelling at all levels of humor, and providing constant entertainment. It is certainly one of the most consistent series in the genre, rarely having a lesser episode or scene.

As with most sitcom television shows, there isn’t a huge difference in quality between high definition and standard. Obviously, the picture and sound are a lot crisper if you go for the Blu-ray version, but with few special effects or sweeping vistas, it’s not very noticeable. That being said, standard definition is starting to look like it’s from another era and it’s not something I’d ever recommend for a modern show when HD is available.

Where this set fails is in bonus features. Besides some deleted scenes and digital copies of the ten episodes, there is nothing else in this release. With such a phenomenal ensemble and all the Emmy wins, one would think somebody would sit down and talk to those involved about the series. There have got to be some good stories about things that happen on-set. Sadly, though, nothing along those lines is included, making this one of the worst groupings of extras I’ve seen. It’s not enough to sway me into not recommending The Complete Fourth Season; the episodes are still plenty worth it on their own. But it it regrettable.

Veep: The Complete Fourth Season will be available next Tuesday, April 19th at retailers everywhere.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Blu-ray Review: 'Silicon Valley - The Complete Second Season'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Silicon Valley - The Complete Second Season' on Blogcritics.

HBO’s Silicon Valley is releasing The Complete Second Season next week, just before the third run begins. Although not a novel approach to home video, it is certainly appreciated, as Silicon Valley is a hilarious comedy ripe for binge-watching, and had I not already seen all of the episodes on this release, I would likely be plowing through them. As it is, I am tempted to watch again anyway because the show is particularly good.

If you’re not familiar with Silicon Valley, it takes place in the tech mecca mentioned in the title, and follows a small group of programmers and their start-up company. Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) is the brains, developing a compression algorithm better than anyone else ever has before. Along with his pals, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), landlord and loudmouth Erlich (T.J. Miller), organized support man Jared (Zach Woods), and the advice of Monica (Amanda Crew), who works for their first investor, Richard founded a company called Pied Piper to sell his creation.

Season two begins with the Pied Piper team shopping around for new investors, wanting to scale up their product. At first, they’re riding high from a big win at the close of the freshman year. But then Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), the villain of the piece, CEO of huge corporation Hooli (think Google), shows back up and sues Pied Piper, claiming it was developed on his computers. Belson also has Richard’s friend Big Head (Josh Brener) in his employ, a useful pawn in the competition.

The rest of the second year becomes a back-and-forth struggle as Richard and company try to keep control of their invention, while those with a lot more money than they have try to wrest it from their grasp. It’s a classic David-versus-Goliath battle in the world of geeks, and only one of them can win. Will it be our heroes? Or will Silicon Valley show them struggle through defeat and have to come up with something else to rise from the ashes? Honestly, it’s quite uncertain through most of the ten episodes.

Complicating matters are two new faces for the sophomore season. Suzanne Cryer’s (Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place) Laurie takes over Peter Gregory’s company. Gregory’s portrayer, Christopher Evan Welch, sadly passed away last year, and his character is similarly written out. Cryer does a good job, but definitely brings a different energy than Welch had. Chris Diamantopoulos (About a Boy, The Office) enters as eccentric rich man Russ Hanneman, who soon involves himself in Pied Piper’s affairs, both as a help and a hindrance. 

Silicon Valley is a geeky look at a niche subculture that everyone knows about, but few venture into. The actual Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, and it’s great to get a sneak peek inside, especially with this very talented cast of humorous performers, who make dark situations look fun; there are laughs to be found in their misery. I cannot recommend the show enough.

As far as extras go, there are six audio commentaries that are very welcome, featuring creator Mike Judge (Office Space), the hilarious T.J. Miller, and others. There are also the obligatory deleted scenes, and a brief featurette about “The Art & Science Behind Silicon Valley.” In all, not a lot, and I couldn’t help but wish for more. But at least what is present is solid.

I can’t say there are strong, specific reasons for choosing Blu-ray over DVD. There aren’t a lot of special effects, outside of the very cool theme song, and the soundtrack is pretty basic, as it usually is for most sitcoms. But things just look so much better in HD, why would you want an inferior quality if given a choice?

Silicon Valley: The Complete Second Season will be available next Tuesday, April 19, at retailers everywhere.