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Monday, August 15, 2016

11.22.63 Blu-ray Review

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: '11.22.63' on Blogcritics.

Recently released on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD is 11.22.63, a Hulu original miniseries in which a man goes back in time to try to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Based on the novel of the same name by horror master Stephen King, produced by the great J.J. Abrams, and written by the terrific Bridget Carpenter (Friday Night Lights), 11.22.63 touches on a number of moral concepts as the characters struggle with how much they should try to change time, and as time fights back. It’s an intriguing premise, though one surprisingly unevenly executed, given the talent involved.

When I first reviewed Hulu’s 11.22.63 pilot, I had a few problems with it. I thought there were scenes that would be better in book form, lacking the insight audiences need into the thinking process of a character or two. I thought the general scenario was cool, but the actual way in which the adventure was approached was too simplistic, squandering rich, deep ideas, favoring instead immediate actions. I also thought it was a bit of a copy of the Final Destination movies, albeit not nearly as bloody.

Having now watched more of the eight-episode miniseries, I’d say two of the above three complaints hold steady throughout. The last one, comparing it to Final Destination, no longer seems all that fair. There are elements the two works have in common, but the parallels lessen the more you watch of this program.

Instead, my main problem is just how the series skips around and glosses over the issues I really want it to explore. For instance, the pilot finds our protagonist, Jake Epping (James Franco, 127 Hours, This Is the End), pushing against the course of history and he is smacked back for it. But in the second episode, Jake pushes even further, and nothing seemingly of consequence happens any time soon. It’s puzzling what the rules are of the world, and rather than dig into the mythology, the focus is just on Jake’s mission and whatever side trips he briefly makes.

Speaking of side trips, Jake decides not to go things alone. Knowing he will be in the 1960s for several years, he reluctantly takes on a sidekick, Bill Turcotte (George McKay, Pride), and a girlfriend, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon, Total Drama). It doesn’t quite seem fair to these two, especially the latter, that Jake would involve them in his life. Yet, 11.22.63 doesn’t even attempt to address that, pushing instead ever onward as Jake spies on Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber, K9) and his possible governmental cohort, George de Mohrenschildt (Jonny Coyne, Alcatraz).

I don’t want to get into the ending at all because if you’re watching 11.22.63, that’s probably what you’re most anticipating, and I hesitate to spoil anything. Overall, though, I think it’s strangely paced, a little random in the parts of the story it tells or doesn’t tell, and Franco is a bit miscast. He’s not a bad actor in the right role, but I don’t think this is the right role for him. That being said, the rest of the ensemble, which also includes the likes of Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity), Cherry Jones (24), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), Nick Searcy (Justified), Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas), Kevin J. O’Connor (Chicago P.D.), and  Lucy Fry (Mako Mermaids), is pretty solid. So I like this miniseries, but don’t love it.

As far as extras go, there is a single featurette entitled “When the Future Fights Back.” Funnily enough, that’s a topic I wanted more of in the series itself, and so it feels a little dissatisfying here, especially because this is a general “Making Of” and not specifically about the query.

11.22.63 is available now.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Get Down With THE GET DOWN

Article first published as THE GET DOWN Review on Seat42F.


From Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rogue) comes a brand-new period drama on Netflix entitled THE GET DOWN. Set in 1977 (except for a brief framework bit in 1996), the series portrays the creation of hip hop in Bronx, New York through the eyes of a group of youngsters. Teeming with music and style, it’s an impressive drama.

Personally, I don’t care for most modern hip hop, but when the genre is performed well, it’s amazing. THE GET DOWN serves the style in the best of ways. In a world where disco reigns, that is, the minority neighborhoods in a run-down part of the city, the beat feels fresh and exciting. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the characters, and root for them when they grab the mics.
Specifically, I’m talking about rooting for Ezekiel (Justice Smith, Paper Towns), the central protagonist of the program. Having lost both his parents, Ezekiel turns to poetry and rhyme to help him cope. He naturally drifts towards a style that will become a musical movement, and his friends and teachers, or at least one teacher, are suitably impressed.
But, if not for a quirk of fate, it might go no further than that. Ezekiel is afraid to express his feelings, afraid of what his peers might think of him. He’s a kid who’s struggling, considering dropping out of school, and certainly not ready to expose his soul to the public. Multiple characters in the series call this cowardice, and Ezekiel almost lets his fear get the best of him.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything at all to say Ezekiel overcomes this. If he didn’t, there would be no story. The kid meets Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore, Incredible Crew) one night, and inspired, finds his voice. Which, while serving as the climax of the ninety-minute pilot, will only be the beginning of Ezekiel’s story.
Baz Luhrmann worked with Nas to make this series, and that influence shows, lending authenticity to the piece. He also chooses to depict the music in the context of larger society, with a politician, Francisco “Papa Fuertre” Cruz (Jimmy Smits, Sons of Anarchy), possibly fighting to save the neighborhood, and possibly just trying to line his pockets. Combined with street art and some other cool design elements, what is painted is a complex portrait of individuals in a time and place that they are not just a product of, but help shape the environment themselves. Taken all together, it’s very cool.
Of course, this being a drama, there’s a love interest; there’s always a love interest. Ezekiel is all about a girl named Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola, Runaway Island), who is talented in her own right and dreams of being a singer. Mylene doesn’t let others define her, resisting Ezekiel’s advances not because she doesn’t return his feelings, but because she is determined to let nothing keep her from our career goals. In episode one, most of her story is shown in how it relates to Ezekiel. Hopefully, this will not be the case as the show goes on, with Mylene deserving of the spotlight in her own right.
There were a few things about THE GET DOWN that seemed off. The pacing moves a little slow in places, and the great Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) seems pretty wasted in the first installment. But overall I thought this series was well-made, well-performed, and while the initial description didn’t appeal to me all that much, I find myself wanting to view the additional five episodes that are set to release this Friday.
THE GET DOWN premieres August 12th on Netflix, and a second half dozen episodes are already ordered.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

SUPERGIRL Takes Flight

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

Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home entertainment provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.
The first season of CBS’s Supergirl arrives on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download this week. The 20 episodes set up the titular character just as she becomes a superhero, introducing us to her life both with and without the cape. It’s a rollicking fun time, and while it doesn’t quite hit the quality of some of the other DC Comics shows on the air right now, it is far better than what the comic brand is churning out for the big screen.
Glee‘s Melissa Benoist stars as Kara Danvers, a.k.a. Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Supergirl, a young woman who has been living on Earth for awhile after her home planet was destroyed. Having had plenty of time to adjust to her new home, Kara is an adult as the series begins, working as an assistant for media mogul Kat Grant (Calista Flockhart, Brothers & Sisters, Ally McBeal) and trying to start a career. This is somewhat derailed when Kara finds she can no longer sit still, creating a costume with the help of her best friend, Winn (Jeremy Jordan, Smash), and saving the day. These actions gets her noticed by the DEO, a military organization devoted to protecting the planet from aliens, and which secretly employs her sister, Alex (Chyler Leigh, Grey’s Anatomy). But even after joining up with DEO leader Hank Henshaw (David Harewood, Homeland) and his crew, Kara manages to balance both lives, a modern woman who can have it all.
The girl vs. woman issue is addressed head-on in episode one. Supergirl is a show to which no feminist should object. Kara is strong, independent, and fierce. She’s also brave and loyal and very capable. The only other character that even comes close to her level of accomplishment is Cat herself, so strong females are well represented on the series, lest anyone think the title is a step backwards for the fairer sex.
Sadly, since production is moving to Canada, Cat will be a less frequent presence in season two, which is a shame because Cat and Kara’s relationship is pretty much a linchpin of the show.
Unlike Superman, her already famous and successful cousin, Kara was old enough to remember their world of Krypton when it was destroyed, which influences the way she sees the world, as well as her hopes and dreams. Due to a flight into the Phantom Zone, Kara’s arrival on Earth (and waking up for her pod to begin aging again) was delayed awhile. Unfortunately, when she arrived, she brought the horrible prisoners of Fort Rozz with her, including her Aunt Astra (Laura Benanti, Go On) and Uncle Non (Chris Vance, Transporter: The Series). This sets the stage for the baddies Kara will face in her new crusade.
There are a lot of fun bits for those already familiar with the world of Superman. While the Man of Steel himself only makes fuzzy and at-a-distance appearances (though he has recently been cast for season two), we see the likes of The Martian Manhunter (no spoilers), Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli, Nurse Jackie, Twilight), Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan Tatum, Witches of East End), and Sam Lane (Glenn Morshower, Bloodline) in this series. Not to mention, Jimmy, sorry, James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks,Necessary Roughness) is a main character and love interest. There are also tributes to previous Superman and Supergirl incarnations, such as casting former Clark Kent, Dean Cain, and former Kara Danvers, Helen Slater, as Kara’s parents. So I appreciate the tributes paid.
But Supergirl is also its own world. It’s very clearly not the same universe as the recent DC films are set in, nor is it on the same Earth as the CW shows take place on. Thanks to a multiple Earths theory, DC has the freedom to portray lots of different versions of the same characters and places at the same time. Which doesn’t prevent a guest appearance from The Flash‘s dimension-hopping Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), nor preclude more crossovers with its small screen peers after Supergirl moves to the CW this fall.
So, while the series starts out as too case-of-the-week, and while it ends with some exaggerated and easy outs, most of this run is pretty good. It’s easy to root for Kara and her friends, and I like the positive approach and outlook the series supports. I look forward to seeing where future seasons go, and can recommend this first season without hesitation.
On The Complete First Season, we get a fair amount of extras. A pair of ten-minute featurettes reveal how the show approached their version of Krypton and The Martian Manhunter, two wonderful elements in the story. We also get a too-short look at the cast attending Comic-Con, a gag reel, and deleted scenes for almost half of the episodes. My complaints are the very outdated menus and the extra padding at the start and end of every deleted scene. But other than that, it’s a decent batch of bonus material.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

CONFIRMATION Of Belief

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

HBO’s recent television movie, Confirmation, will be available on Blu-ray and DVD August 2nd, and has already been released for digital download and streaming. It’s the story of Anita Hill accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court nomination hearing in 1991. Or, it tells a relatively one-sided, focused version of a small part of the story with a clear message and point that the film’s producers are trying to get across.
That may sound like a condemnation of the movie, but it is not. I merely want to state what this is before moving forward to talk about it. It is completely fair for someone to make a movie with a specific purpose in mind; many movies fall into that category. What is unusual is for a piece like this to come out when public opinion is still divided, at a time when our country has rarely been more partisan, with racism having been brought back to the forefront yet again, and many of the players involved are still in positions of power. Confirmation itself is a narrow story, but the issues it brings up are many, varied, and still very relevant.
Played by Scandal‘s Kerry Washington, Anita Hill is a sympathetic woman who did what she had to do in order to pursue a career in her chosen field, but who also has strong principles she cannot ignore when this man she was harassed by is given the chance to join the highest court in the land. She takes a little urging to come forward, but she refuses to lie even before that, and she does believe Clarence Thomas (Wendell Pierce, Treme, The Odd Couple) doesn’t deserve a job on the Supreme Court and should be stopped.
Despite it being clear where the writers think the truth lies, Confirmation does a pretty decent job of showing the different viewpoints various individuals involved have, providing a more complex story than the above description indicates. There are the female staffers like Ricki Seidman (Grace Gummer, Mr. Robot, The Newsroom) and Carolyn Hart (Zoe Lister-Jones, Life in Pieces) who are frustrated at the limitations their bosses follow. There are the white men on the judiciary committee like Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine), Ted Kennedy (Treat Williams, Chicago Fire), Jack Danforth (Bill Irwin,Interstellar), Orrin Hatch (Dylan Baker, The Good Wife), and Alan Simpson (Peter McRobbie, Lincoln) whose own actions and political positions color how they see the situation, and whose race and class makes it hard for them to fully understand all sides. We see Thomas’ wife, Ginni (Alison Wright, The Americans), and how she believes what she has to. And there are others, played by the likes of Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Jeffrey Wright (Boardwalk Empire), Malcolm Gets (Caroline in the City), Erika Christensen (Parenthood), Kimberly Elise (Close to Home), and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) that each bring a little something to add to the overall picture, too.
So while the movie itself is, at its core, quite biased, because of a very strong cast and good writing, the characters make the world seem more complex. It isn’t quite as straight forward as it might be. Add to that a very strong message of gender equality, how the race card can be misused, good historical context, and an empowered hero, and the result is something that, while not the most entertaining film made by this network, feels important and engaging. Because of what this movie says about our society, past and present, it is worthy of our attention.
The extras are sadly few and shallow. There are one-minute interviews with Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce, and a thirteen-minute series of quick bios about each of the major players. That’s it. I really wish some documentary-style featurette were present to talk about the real events and the consequences of them, but that is left to a sequence in the end credits that, while satisfying for the viewing of the feature, is disappointing in fully fleshing out what Confirmation is. What’s missing most is a discussion about the angle that the movie takes and why that choice was made, as well as why other directions were not gone in.
Still, it’s a good film, so check it out. Confirmation can be bought digitally now, and will be out on disc on August 2nd.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Return to THE KNICK

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

I don’t have a high opinion of shows on Cinemax in general. I find them too bloody, too action-oriented, lacking character and plot depth. There is an exception to that rule, however, and that is the excellent drama The Knick, the second season of which will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 2nd (It is already available digitally).
The Knick is from the great Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, The Girlfriend Experience), and takes place at a New York City hospital known as The Knickerbocker, which actually existed, though the version in the show is fictionalized quite a bit. Set more than a century ago, the program follows Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen, Children of Men), a genius of a man who struggles with a cocaine and opium addiction, and his co-workers at the facility. Far from the soapy drama of Grey’s Anatomy, the period drama is intense, engaging, and is a little bit informative about a bygone era, even though it is not, nor does it pretend to be, a true story.
Season two opens amid much strife. Those who watched the first year will recall (spoiler alert!) that The Knick itself has been shut down, Thackery hospitalized due to his substance abuse issue, and the hospital in dire financial straits, lacking backing from those with means who could keep its doors open. Contributing in no small part is the mismanagement of money by hospital manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb, The Wolf of Wall Street), who is indebted to the mob. Instead, a plan moves forward to construct a brand-new building uptown, and this in of itself allows for plenty of conflict, as greed and corruption enter into the proceedings.
The staff itself is undergoing no less an upheaval. An early front-runner to succeed Thackery is his temporary replacement, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland, Selma, 1600 Penn), though his path is not without his challenges, not least of which includes the color of his skin. Of course, it is no surprise when Thackery returns, but is he in any shape to take his job back, or should it pass on to his assistant?
Amid this, there is plenty of suspense around abortions, retinal reattachment, eugenics, divorce, a subway explosion, conjoined twins, hypnotism, blackface, blackmail, and more.  You cannot say the ten hours contained in this set are boring. With a terrific ensemble cast that includes Eve Hewson (Bridge of Spies), Juliet Rylance (American Gothic), Eric Johnson (Rookie Blue), Michael Angarano (Will & Grace), Cara Seymour (An Education), and Chris Sullivan (The Normal Heart), there is always a lot going on, and pretty much all of it exciting, culminating in a heck of an ending to the year. I definitely recommend watching this series.
The Complete Second Season does an excellent job putting together a large batch of extras, too. I really liked the walking tour of the set, which reveals some of the hidden details of the wonderful designs, and the behind-the-scenes vignettes with the cast and crew. There is also a feature on the costumes, and a look at how the extravagant charity ball came together for episode seven. The medical procedures shown on screen are discussed more fully, there are recaps of each episode, “Knicktoids” facts, and three of the hours even have audio commentaries. All in all, the bonuses are worthy of the series, which is becoming more and more of a rarity in recent releases.
I liked The Knick right from the pilot. I’m glad to go along for the ride of season two, and I am very intrigued about the possibilities for the third outing, which has not yet been scheduled, the series taking a break as they plan the next two years of story. If its return is anything like what’s come so far, it’ll be worth the wait.
The Knick: The Complete Second Season will be available on disc on August 2nd, and is already available for pre-order on Amazon and other sites, as well as digitally.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Full Of VICE PRINCIPALS

Article first published as VICE PRINCIPALS Review on Seat42F.


I recently was asked to review HBO’s next comedy series, VICE PRINCIPALS. Set at a high school, the half hour weekly series follows two men who hold the job mentioned in the title of the show, and whom both want to move up to full-blown principal if given the opportunity. Of course, they are not given such a chance, and the laughs are supposed to come from their antics as they try and fail to reach that goal, sabotaging themselves as much as one another.
In case you couldn’t tell by the tone of the first paragraph, I did not enjoy VICE PRINCIPALS. Admittedly, I did not enjoy Eastbound & Down, either, which I assume is the closest series the network has had previously to this one. Both were created by Jody Hill (Observe and Report) and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), and star McBride. Both feature an obnoxious lead that is hard to like, who does things that are rude to others. It’s not my cup of tea.
I say this right out front because humor, unlike drama, is very subjective, and there is clearly an audience for McBride’s work. And it’s not like that I don’t enjoy the actor; I liked him very much in This Is the End. I just don’t get his point of view in these series.
I also chafe at poor depictions of schools. As someone who has worked as an educator, it bums me out that, aside from dedicated pro-teacher movies like Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus, staff members in academia are often treated so poorly in television and film. The vast majority of those who dedicate their lives to helping children are committed to their work. The behavior of McBride’s character, Neal, would never, ever be tolerated in any institution I’ve been in, and he would be promptly fired long before he reached the point of vice principal. I know cop and medical shows aren’t portraying the reality of those jobs, either, but at least they aren’t so negative on the professions.
Besides that, there isn’t a lot I can point to that is valid criticism of the show. It is well constructed. There aren’t any easy plot holes to pick on in the pilot. The cast, which includes Justified’s Walton Goggins as Neal’s main rival, Cougartown’s Busy Philipps as Neal’s ex-wife, Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham as her new man, The New Normal’s Georgina King as a teacher at the school, Devious Maids’ Kimberly Herbert Gregory as the new principal, and Know Thy Enemy’s Sheaun McKinney as a cafeteria worker, is great. The legendary Bill Murray (Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Zombieland) even guest stars in the pilot! Technically, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with the show.
When I see fare like this, it makes me sad for the actors in it, hoping they can find better work soon. Or, selfishly, I’m sad for myself, missing seeing their talent as long as they dedicate their time to a project I’ll never watch when I’ve enjoyed them so much in the past. This is certainly the case with Goggins and Philipps, both of whom I adored in their last works. But if they’re happy and the show does well, then I guess that’s all that matter. Plus, it’s already been announced that VICE PRINCIPALS will only be a two-season show, so their tenure will be relatively brief.
So it will all come down to where you get your sense of humor. I find it hard to pigeonhole exactly what McBride’s is, other than it’s definitely his own. It isn’t overly gross or slapstick or witty or LOL-worthy. It’s just what he finds funny, and it’s good that he gets to represent it on television. I hope he finds his audience, though it clearly does not count me among them.
VICE PRINCIPALS premieres Sunday, July 17th at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.

Monday, July 18, 2016

I've Seen STRANGER THINGS

Article first published as STRANGER THINGS Review on Seat42F.


Do you remember the movie genre that is uniquely 1980s about a bunch of kids getting over their heads in an adventure? It’s a bit campy, but can also be a bit scary, and when the young actors are well chosen, it’s among the best of film for those who grew up in that era and hold a special nostalgia for it in their hearts.
If so, then Netflix’s newest series, STRANGER THINGS, created by twins Matt and Ross Duffer (Hidden), (appropriately for this piece) credited as The Duffer Brothers, is going to seem very familiar to you. Set in the 80s, the story is that of four RPG-playing boys, one of whom, Will (Noah Schnapp, Bridge of Spies), goes missing early on in the pilot. While the adults, including Will’s single mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder, Edward Scissorhands, Black Swan), go looking for Will, his friends, against their parents’ orders, join in the hunt, unable to just sit on the sidelines and wonder what happened to their pal.
It’s funny, most television shows and movies, unless made specifically for children, don’t allow the youngest members of society to act on their own and with peers in a big way. Generally, in stories like this one, the focus would be on the parents and the law enforcement officers who are trying to solve the case. Yet, in STRANGER THINGS, the plotline is divided, allowing us to see Will’s mom and the local police chief’s, Hopper (David Harbour, The Newsroom, The Equalizer) side of things, but giving at least equal time over to the kids.
Make no mistake, that is a plus for STRANGER THINGS, which has assembled a very talented group of youngsters, the best-known of which is Schnapp, who will be the least seen. The leader and best friend to missing Will is Mike (Finn Wolfhard), whose sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer, I Believe in Unicorns), is the boy-crazy outsider who will presumably get drawn into her little brother’s journey, eventually. Dustin (Gaten Matarazo) is the awkward one who feels like the funny, chubby guy, but without being chubby, and whom harbors a crush on Nancy. If STRANGER THINGS were truly made in the 1980s, then the last member of the group, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), would be the token minority. While less developed in the pilot than the others, I hope that the show has more in store for Lucas than that.
Now, up to this point, I’ve only laid out the program as a missing child story, but it’s more than that. Like the best of the 80s flicks, there is an unearthly bend. In this case, it’s a secret lab led by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine, Weeds, The Dark Knight Rises), which has other-wordly things in it. There’s also a strange child named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, Intruders) who has a connection to it. STRANGER THINGS doesn’t jump the gun by giving us much information at all about this lab, but it’s certain that Will’s disappearance will tie into it.
Which leaves the overall tone creepy, like the best of Netflix’s little-watched Hemlock Grove or a classic horror film, while serving the fun-loving attitude of the era. It’s a period piece that really does feel, so far, like it was made in the period in which it is set, and is thoroughly enjoyable. This type of story has been begging for more than two hours to explore itself in, and STRANGER THINGS finally delivers on that. Combined with a couple vintage-style comedy series, the streaming service is setting itself up as a destination for taking risks, as I wouldn’t expect any other network to pick up something like this, and this risk is worth taking. I think Netflix may very well have a hit on its hands.
STRANGER THINGS’ eight-episode first season will be available on Netflix on July 15th.