Friday, January 23, 2015

TV Review - The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore

Comparisons have been made to Politically Incorrect or subsequently Real Time with Bill Maher in that this is a comedian doing round-table discussions of issues in the news. Larry Wilmore doesn't quite have the bite of Bill Maher, but he's cool to watch.

Wilmore's show fills the void that Stephen Colbert recently left. The Colbert Report ran from 2005 to 2014 and at times bested The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on which Colbert started. Wilmore was similarly a correspondent on The Daily Show, but Wilmore isn't playing a character here. He isn't doing satire or skits, at least not in this first week. He does have a point-of-view. He's black and all of the issues he tackles relate to African-Americans or other minorities. Originally, the show was going to be called The Minority Report.

This is in itself a great move as the past year or two has shown a significant shift in the number and level of TV shows with predominantly black or diverse casts. Wilmore even helped to create the sitcom Black-ish on ABC, which is currently a hit for that broadcast network. How to Get Away with Murder on ABC, Being Mary Jane on BET and now Empire on FOX have all diversified the TV landscape.

If you've not heard of Larry Wilmore, he has an impressive résumé. He doesn't reveal much about himself right away. Hopefully, he will as the weeks and months go on, but he was born in October 1961 in Los Angeles. He is a comedian and has done some acting work, but he mainly worked as a writer and producer on many sitcoms for 25 years now. Ironically, he got his start on a late night talk show in 1990. Wilmore is credited on IMDB as a writer for Into the Night with Rick Dees.

Wilmore was nominated for 3 Emmy Awards. His first was in 1992. He was up for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for In Living Color. From that, he got gigs on some of the best sitcoms, not only for black people but for everyone. He worked for Sister Sister in 1994, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1995 and The Jamie Foxx Show in 1996. Wilmore was Emmy-nominated for Outstanding Animated Program for creating The PJs in 1999. He was nominated again for creating The Bernie Mac Show. He won that nomination and took home his first and only Emmy for Outstanding Writing in 2002. He became a correspondent for The Daily Show in 2006.

His new show as host or anchor premiered on Monday, January 19, 2015. Wilmore had a great joke at the top of having to work on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The show looks like it's filmed in the same studio as The Colbert Report. Like that series and The Daily Show, there's three segments. The first has Wilmore doing a similar shtick as Jon Stewart. He comments on the news or certain headlines, providing a somewhat fresh black perspective. He doesn't come out the gate swinging. He's rather tame, witty but again not with too much bite.

The second segment is the panel of four doing a brief round-table discussion. Based on the first week of these panels, so far there's only been one person each day who is interesting or compelling or seemingly controversial. The first day was white comedian Bill Burr who challenged if the recent protests like the ones in Ferguson were effective. The second day had Keith Robinson side and support Bill Cosby when everyone including Wilmore condemned Cosby as guilty. Hopefully, this segment continues to bring in these people to be controversial because it's been the only interesting thing about the show.

The third segment is called "Keep It 100" in which Wilmore asks his panel one question and the questions seem designed to prompt or provoke the panelists into giving racy or comical responses. They're actually topic-related "Would You Rather" options. For example, in Wednesday, January 21's episode, Wilmore, following the State of the Union speech, asks a panelist who is a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama if that panelist would have voted for Obama back in 2008, if like in House of Cards, that panelist had realized that Obama had murdered someone. It's funny, but in a way still feels rather tame.

On Tuesday, January 20's episode, Wilmore had a contributor named Mike Yard and Yard's aggression and militancy were a better approach at moments. Yard has a kind of fire that Wilmore doesn't. There's simply no edge to Wilmore. He's more round and cuddly, but it's good to have a black face in late night television.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14.
Running Time: 30 mins.
Airs Monday to Thursday at 11:30PM.

TV Review - The Fall: Season 2

The first season was only five episodes. Each was about a hour, and ultimately I thought the series dragged and had a lot of unnecessary stuff. That unnecessary stuff added atmosphere but ended up being not much more than padding.

Written and directed by Allan Cubitt, Season 2 has six episodes. Five of which are 58 minutes. The last is 89 minutes, and unfortunately Cubitt is guilty of the same thing as the first season. The series drags and has a lot of unnecessary things that stretches the narrative beyond believability and really takes things nowhere, making it at the end of the day boring.

Gillian Anderson stars as Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, the woman sent from England to investigate a number of crimes that she believes is the result of a serial killer in northern Ireland. Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time) co-stars as Paul Spector, a bereavement counselor who is the aforementioned serial killer. There is no question of that. Paul is guilty. The first season is all about watching him commit his crimes in methodical detail. This second season is all about watching him try to cover-up his crimes, while Stella and her team continue to methodically track him.

Season 2 picks up a week after where the first season ends. The first two episodes are good in that regard, but things start to go downhill in the third and by the fourth the show goes off the rails completely. Granted, I'm no expert on police procedure in the United States. Let alone in Ireland, but by the fourth episode Stella has gathered enough evidence to arrest Paul. Yet, she doesn't. She even knows exactly where he is, but she doesn't arrest him. Instead, Cubitt chooses to drag things out for two episodes when it doesn't seem credible.

Cubitt tries to justify the dragging out of the episodes by crafting a kidnapping. In the first season, Paul's ex-girlfriend from a decade ago, Rose Stagg, identifies him as the potential serial killer. This season, Paul goes after Rose and kidnaps her. Why he does so or what it gains him is unexplained. His actions seem contrived so that Cubitt can drag out this series and continually pit Stella and Paul against each other.

Cubitt puts in Stella's head a ridiculous reason for them not to arrest Paul right away but ultimately it's stupid and a waste of time. What also ends up being a waste of time is Paul's relationship with his children's babysitter Katie, played by Aisling Franciosi. Like with Dexter, Katie is the woman who learns Paul is a serial killer but yet falls in love with him anyway. She also wants him sexually.

Speaking of sexual things, there are a lot of threads that are picked up and dropped. There's controversy that breaks out when it's revealed in the newspapers that Stella had an affair with a married cop named James Olson who was then murdered. It's a sub-plot in the first season that's mentioned in passing here but is totally dropped.

For a woman who is so intelligent, still and controlled, a veritable ice queen, Stella can't seem to control herself from having sex with people with whom she works. She didn't seem to learn the lesson from the newspaper controversy because she then attempts to jump into bed with her pathologist, a woman named Reed Smith, played by Archie Panjabi, and she succeeds in bedding a young detective assigned to her case named Tom Anderson, played by Colin Morgan (Merlin).

In Season 1, exploring Stella's sexuality was interesting and compelling, but to have it compounded here almost has her coming across as a slut. To be clear, she's not a slut because she has multiple or potentially multiple sex partners in less than a week's time. She comes across as a slut because those multiple partners are people with whom she works or work for her. She could have gone to any bar and picked up any number of people, male or female who weren't employed in criminal investigation, and it would have been fine. Either Cubitt is lazy as a writer or he's trying to compound a point he shouldn't have.

It also makes her seem dumb for her to go there after her affair with the cop was so scandalized. That cop is referenced briefly but as a storyline, it's dropped in a rather clunky way. What it says about her character is potentially interesting, but delving into Stella, her history and her psychology, is something that's held all the way till the final moments of the final episode and by then, it's too little, too late.

Again, Cubitt spins his wheels and drags things out, sapping out the tension and drama. Cubitt introduces two new characters like Tom Anderson that further muddle the narrative, instead of focusing on the characters he already had, which could have helped to delve into Stella. For example, two characters from last season were Glen Martin and Gail McNally, two detectives who have been on the case with Stella since the beginning and thankfully Cubitt gives them both way more to do this season than last but still not enough.

Emmett J. Scanlan plays Glen Martin. Scanlan is an amazing Irish actor who made a name for himself on the British series Hollyoaks. Since then, he has had great roles in shows like In the Flesh or appearances in blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy. In one brief scene, Glen proves he has great chemistry with Stella and instead of having Glen be the one with whom Stella goes to bed, Cubitt wastes a great actor in favor of the boy that is Colin Morgan, which again culminates in a bedroom scene that's too little, too late. Side note is that Bronagh Waugh plays Paul's wife Sally who is interviewed by Glen. That scene marks a Hollyoaks reunion because Waugh also played the sister of Scanlan's character in Hollyoaks. It was nice to see them playing together again.

Using the babysitter to delve into Paul's character could have been good too and there are some scenes between Paul and Katie that are well-done, but ultimately it goes nowhere. By the end, Paul is simply spewing sadistic and nihilistic crap that straight rips off David Fincher's Seven.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated in U.S.
Rated 15 in U.K.
Running Time: 6 episodes.
Available on Netflix.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Movie Review - A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

This film feels like Let the Right One In but only if the protagonists were adults and Iranian. The problem is that unlike Let the Right One In, this movie feels disconnected from the world, not just the real world but any world. Something simple as seeing the characters at a hospital in Let the Right One In helped tremendously. This film by Ana Lily Amirpour doesn't do that. It's hyper-insulated. Aside from the protagonists and supporting characters, this film might as well be occurring on a deserted island or at least a desert town in the American west. Yet, there are echoes of Iranian culture that reverberate here. Echoes of the patriarchal and borderline misogynistic culture reverberate, and perhaps the best way to make those echoes is by being so disconnected, but the scant dialogue and lack of world-building or world-connecting had me shrugging my shoulders and not caring about anything in this narrative.

It's not enough that Amirpour doesn't make her character likeable. She doesn't make them interesting. At least, Jim Jarmusch's recent Only Lovers Left Alive had interesting and likeable vampires. Arguably, Amirpour wanted her story to be creepier and scarier. Yet, a large chunk of this film is devoted to a love story, so if we are to buy into that, we need to buy into the characters and root for the coupling or feel like their courtship makes sense. I never felt that here.

The film was either shot or converted to black-and-white. There are certain things that feel like it's taking place in the 1950's. At one point, a character uses a cassette tape, a relic of the 90's, so the character might be of the now and using a cassette tape might be the movie being ironic or kitschy, but it just further confuses as to what the actual time and setting of this movie is.

For a movie titled what it is, it's less about the so-called girl, played by Sheila Vand. It's more about a boy named Arash, played by Arash Marandi. Instead of learning anything about this girl, the movie is really all about the boy. This would have been fine, if the boy wasn't a dull cliche, a young man trying to be Marlon Brando, something so many young boys have tried to be. It was lame.

Two Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.

For limited screening dates and places, go to http://films.vice.com/a-girl-walks-home/#screening
It's playing until Jan. 22 in DC at the Angelika Pop Up at Union Market.
It opens on Feb. 27 in Philadelphia at the Landmark Ritz Bourse.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

DVD Review - Keep On Keepin' On

On January 15, the film Whiplash received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons who is the presumptive winner. Simmons plays a bandleader for a Jazz ensemble and a teacher at a prestigious school. He is then revealed to be a brutal and possibly sadistic music mentor. The sadism has been somewhat of a criticism as to how effective that would be in real-life. The fact that he's white is another. Yet, it's upper middle-class and well-off white people who are the audience and benefactors of Jazz concerts or orchestras. To me, Whiplash instead commits the crime of feeling disconnected from history, the history of Jazz, which it uses as a highfalutin crutch. This documentary by Alan Hicks doesn't commit that crime.

The music mentor at the center here is Clark Terry, Jr., a Jazz musician, a great trumpet player who in 2010 won the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement at the age of 89. Hicks profiles Terry from the time he was a young boy, even incorporating pencil-drawing animation, showing how he came to be involved with Jazz and how he rose to prominence. Hicks proves why Terry is a mentor one would want and does so factually, which Whiplash doesn't do.

In Whiplash, the young man being mentored sadistically is a white drummer named Andrew, played by Miles Teller. Here, the young man being mentored lovingly is an Asian boy, a real-life, piano prodigy named Justin Kauflin. Kauflin is an amazing pianist, a handsome, smart, sweet, funny, loving and beautiful boy. He meets Clark Terry because Terry was a professor at William Paterson University where Kauflin was his student.

What Hicks shows is that the teacher-student relationship persists and in fact blossoms into a wonderful friendship. What bonds the two of them is the fact that both are legally blind. Kauflin lost his vision in elementary school and is now totally sight-less. Terry just recently started losing his vision due to the on-set of diabetes. Besides being blind, what also bonds them is their attitudes about it. Both take it in stride and in fact both remain upbeat and positive. Kauflin is understandable because he's been dealing with blindness all his life, so it's normal to him, but Terry is new to it but still he's always smiling and happy.

Hicks lets you know from the opening scene what the overwhelming message of the movie is. The opening scene shows the two hands of Kauflin and Terry holding one another. It's principally a blind-man thing. We see Kauflin constantly using his hands to help guide him as he walks around. Kauflin lives in New York City and he navigates so effortlessly. However, the embracing of hands is also a very loving act for them as well.

Obviously, being dedicated or tough on yourself or pushing yourself to do or be better is important. Yet, what comes through even more is the love and compassion between the two as well as those who surround them. Both Kauflin and Terry are so attractive on a spiritual and emotional level, and that's what makes the movie one of the best of 2014. It's a shame that it didn't get nominated whereas Whiplash did.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 24 mins.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Movie Review - Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

Matt Shepard and Michele Josue in
'Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine'
Matthew Shepard died on October 12, 1998, at the age of 21. He was beaten to death and left tied to a fence in a desert field in Laramie, Wyoming. The two men who killed him did so because Shepard was gay. A decade later, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matt Shepard Act of 2009. The full title is the Matt Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Byrd was a black man killed the same year as Shepard simply because he was black. The law is meant to protect minorities like black or gay people from these kinds of murders.

This documentary culminates in the signing of that law, but the movie isn't really about the passage or the intricacies of it. This documentary goes beyond simple acknowledgement and delves deep into understanding of who this young man was and relating the details of his too brief life.

Directed and edited by Michele Josue, the movie immediately reveals that Josue was, as the title suggests, a friend of Shepard. She knew and loved him. This movie is clearly in tribute to him and Josue does a great job of gathering everything about him, photos and home videos, boxes and boxes of his personal belongings, including Shepard's diary. She also gathers everyone who ever knew him to speak on camera with the exception of Shepard's brother, "Logan."

Of course, Shepard is praised to high heaven. Everyone describes him as a people-person, the center of crowds with lots of friends and a veritable saint. He was well-traveled, having been to Saudi Arabia, Italy, Japan and Morocco. What's interesting though is the revelation that the attack, which ultimately killed Shepard, was not the first time that he was brutalized.

Josue is able to evoke plenty of pathos and tears diving into Shepard's final moments where he lay near death in a hospital bed. She does genuinely address those final moments with Shepard's parents and it's absolutely heart-breaking, but a less emotionally-manipulative scene comes when Josue talks to the priest who met with Shepard's killers.

The priest calls for a kind of compassion for those killers, which sends Josue reeling. It leads to an act of compassion that isn't new for those of strong Christian faith, but it's a great contradiction to see Josue have difficulty with it. Josue doesn't really reveal too much about herself, but her meeting with the priest is an eye-opener about her and for her.

Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for mature audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 28 mins.
Opens in select cities - February 6 in New York City.
Opens February 13 in Los Angeles.

Monday, January 19, 2015

87th Academy Awards and Best Original Song

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine
in a scene from 'Begin Again'
On December 12, 2014, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced 79 tracks that were eligible for Best Original Song at the 87th Academy Awards. Like Steve Pond from TheWrap, I listened to all of them. Of the 79 songs, I only enjoyed initially 20. When I whittled those 20 titles down to the ones that I really liked or loved, my absolute favorites that I wished got an Oscar nomination, I had 7 songs. On January 15, 2015, the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards were read. Of my 7, only one actually got nominated.

That one song was "Lost Stars," written by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois, from Begin Again and performed in the film by Keira Knightley and Adam Levine. The other nominees included "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," written and performed by Glen Campbell, and co-written and produced by Julian Raymond. The most popular choice was "Everything Is Awesome," written by Shawn Patterson, Joshua Bartholomew, Lisa Harriton, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, and performed by Tegan and Sara. The other songs nominated were "Glory," written and performed by Common and John Legend, as well as "Grateful," written by Diane Warren and performed by Rita Ora.

All of these people are first-time Oscar nominees. With all the talk about the lack of diversity among this year's Academy Awards, it is noteworthy that this group of nominees do have somewhat of a diverse background. For example, Common and John Legend who made "Glory" from the film Selma are both African-American. Common whose real name is Lonnie Lynn is 42-years-old, a hip hop artist and actor who has conversely done television and films like American Gangster (2007) opposite Denzel Washington. John Legend aka John Stephens is 36 who attended the University of Pennsylvania and who has won nine Grammy Awards.

Diane Warren wrote "Grateful," which is featured in the film Beyond the Lights, a romantic movie about two black people. Rita Ora who performs it isn't black, but she is a British singer of Albanian descent. Ora is also reportedly a Muslim. That's some diversity. The rest of the nominees are less so.

Gregg Alexander is the former front-man for the alt-rock band New Radicals, a one-hit wonder. Alexander stopped performing and started writing for other artists. Danielle Brisebois is a former child actress on All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place who was also a member of New Radicals.

Glen Campbell is a country singer who had a CBS variety show in the 1960's. He has 12 gold albums, 4 platinum albums and 1 double-platinum album. He also had nine #1 songs, including "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights." Campbell has won many awards, including the 2012 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Interestingly, Campbell performed at the 42nd Academy Awards or 45 years ago, singing the then-nominated "True Grit." Now, he'll be back possibly to perform nearly a half-century later for his documentary Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me.

Shawn Patterson started out as a production assistant and sound editor for The Ren & Stimpy Show in 1994. He's now been the composer for Robot Chicken since 2010. He teamed with Joshua Bartholomew, Lisa Harriton and the three guys known as The Lonely Island, a musical comedy group popularized on Saturday Night Live with digital shorts, in order to craft the theme song for The Lego Movie.

Yet, I wasn't taken with any of these other songs, except "Lost Stars." I hope "Glory" wins the Oscar as it recently won the Golden Globe for Common and John Legend because it's probably the only real recognition that Selma will get on Oscar night. Selma is in my opinion the best drama of the year. However, here is my list of the six songs that I thought were better.

"The Only Thing" by Moby from Third Person.
"Heavenly Father" by Bon Iver from Wish I Was Here.
"Not About Angels" by Birdy from The Fault in Our Stars.
"Ordinary Human" by OneRepublic from The Giver.
"Way Back When" by Grizfolk from Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
"Miracles" by Coldplay from Unbroken.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Looking - HBO - Season 2, Episode 1 - FAN FICTION

Is it just me, or is anyone else shipping Patrick and Dom? According to Season 1 of HBO's Looking, Patrick and Dom did hook up but decided to become friends, much like Noah and Ricky in the TV series Noah's Arc.

In Season 2, Episode 1, "Looking for the Promised Land," there is a scene where Patrick talks to Dom in the bedroom of Lynn's cabin in the woods. Dom is flipping through a photo album that has pictures of Lynn's ex-boyfriend. Here is how I envisioned that conversation.

PATRICK: What are you doing?
DOM: I was trying to respect Lynn's privacy, but then I saw this photo album of Lynn with his ex-boyfriend and I said, "Fuck it!"

[Dom is standing by the closet where he's pulled the album from a top shelf. He walks over to the bed where he sits and continues flipping through the pictures. Some of which are decades old. A couple are in black-and-white. A younger Lynn is seen with his ex-boyfriend. Patrick joins Dom on the bed to reminisce.]

PATRICK: Is that Lynn?
DOM: Yup!
PATRICK: He was so cute.
DOM: Yeah! Hot too!
PATRICK: Yeah!

[Patrick lays back on the bed.]

PATRICK: You know, I was thinking.
DOM: Thinking about what?
PATRICK: I was thinking about us back in the day, back when we first hooked up.

[Dom realizes the irony, as he then lays back on the bed too.]

DOM: Funny, I was thinking about that too.
PATRICK: (Surprised.) You were? Why?
DOM: Looking through Lynn's album and pictures of his ex-boyfriends made me think of mine. Not that we were ever boyfriends, but still!
PATRICK: You ever think about what would have happened if we did become boyfriends?
DOM: Sometimes, I guess. Knowing me I probably would have found some way to fuck it up.
PATRICK: Oh, trust me, when it comes to fucking things up...

[He raises his hand.]

PATRICK: ...I am the king of that.

[Dom laughs.]

PATRICK: We probably figured right that it wouldn't have worked out.
DOM: I don't know.

[Dom closes the photo album. He looks at Patrick, almost as if the next line is a suggestion.]

DOM: Maybe it would have!
PATRICK: (Pause.) Maybe, but... you wouldn't have met Lynn.
DOM: No, probably not, but, I'm starting to think that it's less about fate and finding "the one" who's my soul-mate or whatever and more about finding someone who I care about and just making it work with that person however I can.
PATRICK: You never believed in soul-mates.
DOM: (Laughing.) No, I guess not. But, what about you?
PATRICK: What, soul-mates? I don't know. I think for me right now, I just need to look at the people in my life and decide which ones I need to push away, and, which ones I need or want to pull closer.
DOM: Really?
PATRICK: Yeah!
DOM: (Considering.) So, what about me? Am I someone you need to push away or am I someone you want to pull closer?

[Patrick now takes Dom's suggestion a bit more seriously. They both stare into each other, wondering about their relationship in this moment. Agustín bursts into the room, interrupting what might have led to more than a consideration and possibly a kiss.]

AGUSTIN: What up bitches?

[The moment between Patrick and Dom quickly fades, as they revert back or at least pretend to do so in front of Agustín.]