Thursday, July 28, 2016


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


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


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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE NIGHT OF Excellent Drama

Article first published as THE NIGHT OF Review on Seat42F.

The premise of HBO’s excellent new series THE NIGHT OF is simple enough. A man parties a little too hard, does a few too many drugs, and wakes up to find a girl he just met and slept with stabbed to death. (That’s in the show description, so I don’t feel it counts as a spoiler.) Where it goes from there, though, remains to be seen, and based on the gripping pilot, I can’t wait to find out.

As THE NIGHT OF begins, we are introduced to Naz (Riz Ahmed, Four Lions), a college student in New York of Pakistani origin on his mother’s side. Naz seems like a pretty good boy, obediently still living with his family and working hard to get through school and build a life. But one night, he really wants to go to a party. Along the way, he meets a pretty girl, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia, The Messengers), who tempts him even further from the path. And by the end of the night, due mainly to a series of bad decisions, Naz ends up probably having his life ruined.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for the young man. Who hasn’t had their head turned by an attractive member of the opposite sex? Who wouldn’t push their boundaries at the promise of sex? Who doesn’t like attention focused on you, even if it’s from someone who may just be a bit (or a lot) crazy?

Yet, it’s also super frustrating as Naz keeps making poor decisions. Sure, some can be blamed on the elicit substances he ingests, but from the start, he enters into these activities willingly. Naz isn’t kidnapped or forced into anything; he’s young, dumb, and full of… well, you know. It’s as understandable as it is infuriating.

Although we do not bear witness to Andrea’s death itself (again, thanks to the show description, we know it’s coming from the start), it seems extremely unlikely that Naz murdered her. The audience spends enough time in his perspective to get a sense of who he is, and a killer, he is not. At the same time, there is no likelier explanation presented to us, and certainly not to the (surprisingly well developed) police that show up. The verdict is rendered in their heads just as surely and immediately as Naz’s innocence asserts itself in ours.

This makes THE NIGHT OF a compelling drama. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be bad. The pilot itself is a thriller, constantly keeping viewers guessing as to what might occur next. Will Naz be caught? Will any evidence support his claims? Where is this going?

Buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, most notably John Turturro (O Brother, Where Are Thou?), who steps in for the late, originally-cast James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as sympathetic defender Jack Stone, each scene is magnetic. I was hooked about ten percent of the way through the pilot, and never looked back.

I do wonder how this show would be different if Ganoldfini has starred (or Robert DeNiro, for that matter, who signed on before the role was recast again for Turturro). Stone would be a very different person in the hands of another actor. Yet, Turturro feels so perfect, as if the show was written just for him, that any speculation is merely a thought exercise and surely doesn’t affect the finished product.

HBO graciously released the pilot of THE NIGHT OF on their streaming service early, so anyone who is inclined can go ahead and view it. My only complaint with this strategy is that we’ll be waiting weeks for episode two, and I would gladly watch it immediately after the premiere, if that were an option.

THE NIGHT OF officially premieres July 10th at 9/8c on HBO.

Friday, July 8, 2016

MARCELLA Without Marcella Would Be Better

Article first published as MARCELLA Review on Seat42F.

CAUTION: Since this series has already been released, this review contains spoilers from the first hour. It does not spill anything past that, as the reviewer has not yet watched any further.

Netflix’s newest drama, MARCELLA, is actually a British series that is just getting its stateside release through the streaming service. Like many crime dramas from the UK, it has a small number of episodes, is relatively slow-paced, and the protagonist is kind of a mess, her chaotic personal life bleeding over into the case and vice versa. With mixed reviews, is MARCELLA worth checking out?
First, the good stuff. There is a pretty strong ensemble, each with their own little subplots that are certainly building towards a bigger whole. Of particular note are siblings Henry (Harry Lloyd, Game of Thrones, Manhattan) and Grace Gibson (Maeve Demody, Serangoon Road), who rebel against their step-mother, Sylvie (Sinead Cusack, V for Vendetta). Sylvie is a greedy Trump-type mogul, married to an age-inappropriate piece of arm candy, and out to screw over whoever she can to make the most money. Perhaps not as bombastic as the presidential candidate, preferring to exert power in subtler ways and exuding a friendliness until you cross her, Sylvie is just as self-centered and ruthless, definitely putting her business interests ahead of her family.
Besides the novelty of seeing a female in such a role, which is very much appreciated, there is also a depth to this clan. Henry cares deeply about the environment and helping people, but he won’t fight on his step-mother’s level, so his war is over before it’s begun. This has me wondering what his purpose is in MARCELLA, and I look forward to finding out. Grace, on the other hand, tries to make peace in her family, sticking by step-mom, but fighting for her brother’s cause. At first, this makes her seem like a good person. But then, when we see her with the titular character’s husband (Nicholas Pinnock, Fortitude), who happens to work for the company, it changes my opinion of her. She is a pleaser to the point of ignoring what she wants and what is right, also making her weak.
I am much more interested in the Gibson family than the central character and plot. As such, I hope there’s a lot of them moving forward, and I assume they will somehow be connected to the serial killer story, directly or indirectly, allowing them plenty of story.
So, now for the not-so-complimentary part of this article. I do not like Marcella herself. My problem isn’t really with Anna Friel, whom I adored in Pushing Daisies. Instead, it’s the totally unrealistic way in which her role is presented. She’s a stalker detective who gets extremely violent and has blackouts. Yet, somehow she is allowed to work for law enforcement, even after a many years’ absence, with little oversight and complete trust. What the heck?
There is a scene in the first hour in which her boss (Ray Panthaki, EastEnders) is encouraged to be even more lenient with Marcella by (secretly blind and deaf?) co-worker and old friend, Laura (Nina Sosanya, Last Tango in Halifax). Look, I get that Marcella has proven herself in the past, despite failing to catch the big serial killer who has suddenly shown back up at a pivotal moment in Marcella’s life, but isn’t anyone going to make sure she’s up to returning to work? Or question her when she acts strangely? It just doesn’t feel right to me.
Despite how much I hated Marcella’s story, I did end up liking MARCELLA. There’s enough going on that any single plot that isn’t working can be minimized and overlooked, even that of the title character. Were MARCELLA more focused on Marcella, I wouldn’t keep watching. But since it has balance, I likely will eventually see what else is in store for the rest of the intriguing cast.
MARCELLA’s first season is available now on Netflix.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


Article first published as IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS Review on Seat42F.

Coming to Discovery this week is IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS. Starring the English actor Idris Elba, who is known for his role in the Thor movies and for leading the award-winning drama series Luther, NO LIMITS finds Elba going faster than most people will ever go, both on land and in the air. The four-episode program is a reality documentary, showing us the steps that the actor goes through in order to compete with those that do it for a living.
Sometimes show like this recruit a famous face who is a fan of a sport or industry, but has no real-world experience of knowledge, having always only been a casual spectator. IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS is different because Elba has been very interested in rally racing, the first challenge he tackles, from a young age. His father, and later he himself, having worked for Ford, he has a history with the automobiles, too. This isn’t the first time he’s gotten behind the wheel to challenge himself, and while the premiere episode finds him getting licensed for rally racing the first time, he doesn’t quite feel like as much of an amateur as most hosts would be.
Elba is supported by some of the most notable names in the game. While these type of experts may sign up to be on a television series, I just can’t believe they’d humor him enough to ride with him if they didn’t have a certain level of confidence in Elba’s skills. Driving this fast is extremely dangerous, and they are putting their lives in Elba’s hands. He also is allowed to compete as part of a team, and I don’t think his teammates would have been anxious to have him if they thought he’d drag down their scores. So there’s a level of authenticity that most reality television often lacks, especially when triumphant, happy endings aren’t guaranteed.
Where some American audiences might struggle is deciphering the differences between rally racing from the UK and our own races stateside. Obviously, the drivers themselves probably aren’t as well known over here, unless you follow British racing. There’s also no attempt to American-ize the jargon, with stats stated in terms of kilometers, not miles.
I don’t think this is super important, as one can see the speeds the cars achieve in the video and the tone lets you know how impressive things are. But if might be a bit of a difficulty for those who really want to know what’s going on and have no frame of reference for it. However, this does feel relatively minor, and if anything, it gives you a chance to learn a few things, expanding your worldview.
There are some interesting graphics in this show. When describing turning, animation with colored arrows get into the science and technique of the competitive driving. There is also a very cool sequence when the car Elba will be driving is taken apart so we can see a bit of the inner workings. I wish there were a few more of these, but the ones they have are well used.
Personally, I am not a fan of cars or racing in the slightest. It holds no interest to me at all, and so I probably won’t watch any further episodes of this show. The show, including the fact that it stars an actor I very much respect and enjoy, did not manage to overcome that aversion, so I don’t recommend it for those who would only tune in because of Elba. But for those that do have an interest in speed sports, I think IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS will probably be quite satisfying, and certainly feels better made than a lot of its peers in the genre.
IDRIS ELBA: NO LIMITS airs Mondays at 9/8c.