Thursday, April 28, 2016
There are two points where Rueda circles back on his narrative, creating two flashbacks. Each point involve the two, teenage boys either coming together and clashing in some way. The first point is an incident at a nightclub and the second point is a potential, drug deal. It makes the narrative a bit confusing and I don't see the need for it. It only works to add a feeling of deja vu but not much else. Rueda basically jumps forward and back in time because he can.
Adil Koukouh stars as Ibrahim or Ibra, a tall, gorgeous, teenager from Morocco who finds himself in Spain. At first, it seems as if he's homeless, an immigrant who just arrived in the country. A fellow, Arab named Youssef who's probably from Morocco too gives Ibra shelter but Youssef appears to survive through petty theft and drug dealing. Ibra does get legal help and is able to go to school. Yet, the threat of deportation does loom over him and his fellow Arabs, but his main problem seems to be xenophobia or just plain bigotry from the white Spaniards.
Germán Alcarazu co-stars as Rafa, a teenage, white Spaniard who is friends with those who are bigoted or xenophobic toward guys like Ibra. Rafa isn't bigoted and xenophobic himself, but he has to pretend to be because he's trying to hide or deflect his true feelings. Rafa falls in love with Ibra, but he doesn't tell his friends because of the aura of homophobia that hangs in the air.
Beyond that, Rueda doesn't employ much of a plot. It's more about teenage self-discovery, expression of masculinity and the gay-male gaze. Much of this is Rafa staring at Ibra. Rueda does much to accentuate Ibra's beauty, as Koukouh looks like he could be a male model. Rueda takes several opportunities to show off Koukouh's body, even making him a water-polo player for no reason.
Despite the homoerotic romance that blossoms here, Rueda never has the two boys kiss or have sex. One could praise this decision as the promotion of same-sex attraction or same-gender love without the need to debase with that physical aspect. One could praise this depiction as more about the emotional connection. However, the criticism could be that there's nothing that really distinguishes this from a friendship or what could be called a bromance between two straight males.
Even though it's never stated directly, there are plenty of context clues to suggest both Ibra and Rafa are gay. Rafa does confess his disinterest in girls to his friend Guille, played by Joseba Ugalde. Ibra doesn't deny when bullies basically tease him for being gay. However, any lack of declaration of sexual orientation isn't the problem. Ibra being a kind of cipher is the problem. Rueda avoids revealing Ibra's back-story, which is frustrating.
It makes the ending a bit hollow because that's when Rueda kicks in a kind of plot. Ibra is threatened to be deported, or sent back to wherever he originated. Yet, Rueda doesn't give us much to know what that origin was or why we should be with Ibra not wanting to return there. The performances from the two boys is good enough to convince us that he does have a reason to stay. It's just not properly counter-balanced.
Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Based on the autobiographical play by Alan Bennett, this film is really about putting two clashing personalities together and watching as they form an unlikely friendship. In this case, it's a grown man paired with an elderly woman. On the surface, it's a dynamic similar to Philomena (2013).
Two-time, Oscar-winner Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and California Suite) stars as Miss Mary Shepherd, a very elderly woman who is homeless. She lives inside of her van. She parks her vehicle along the streets in front of various homes in the area of Camden Town, which is part of northern Greater London. The people in the neighborhood are aware of her and tolerate her. They occasionally try to help her, but Mary is too prideful and stubborn, and seems content to live out the rest of her life in the van, fueled by nightly prayers.
Alex Jennings (The Queen and Belle) co-stars as Alan Bennett, an actor-turned-writer who moved to Camden Town in 1970 where he met Mary. He lives alone but he does talk to himself in a Charlie Kaufman-kind of way, a la Adaptation, except Alan doesn't have a twin, although it seems like he does.
Director Nicholas Hynter who is probably best known for directing The History Boys has Jennings literally playing double. It's a device that couldn't have been pulled off on-stage. I don't know how it could have been pulled off instead, aside from having Jennings monologue or speak directly to camera. It's clever perhaps, but it's time that could have been spent with other actors.
What's great is that this film is not short on talented actors. Hynter employs the entire, living cast of The History Boys in this movie. Unfortunately, each one is only used in one scene briefly. Each one is basically a cameo. It's fun to see all the great, young actors, but quite frankly, it's a waste of their talents. Instead of having Jennings talk to himself, he should have had more in-depth conversations with the cast of young actors.
For example, it's revealed, yet never said out loud, that Alan is gay. Obviously, he has a thing for handsome, young men, an echo to a story line in The History Boys. Alan has mommy issues. Exploring that with the young men is something the movie could have done. Dominic Cooper and Russell Tovey are two actors from The History Boys who cameo and using them more is a road this movie should have traveled. Tovey in particular plays one of Alan's lovers and Cooper played a crush.
Maggie Smith of course gives a great performance. Watching her is a joy and a pleasure. Yet, there's not much more to it that the film engages or confronts. The final scenes suggest more but then the movie sweeps over it. Mary has a history and an incident that made her a homeless woman, but Mary's past is only a mention. That's not enough to invest me in her character or make me care about her.
Two Stars out of Five,
Rated PG - 13 for a brief unsettling image.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Amy Poehler stars as Maura Ellis, a perky, upbeat, overly positive nurse in Atlanta who learns from her parents that her childhood home is being sold. She's upset at the prospect of having to clean out her old bedroom.
Tina Fey also stars as Kate Ellis, the older sister who works as a stylist. She's a single mom to a teenager named Haley who acts more like an adult than Kate. Kate has been fired from her job and she's getting kicked out of the place she's living.
Maura and Kate hop on a plane and go to Orlando to clean out their, shared bedroom before it becomes the property of someone else. They're reminded of epic parties that they used to throw. They're inspired to throw one last shindig in honor of their epic parties of yesteryear, inviting a lot of childhood friends.
The majority of the film from that point takes place all in one night as the two sisters host this party. A rivalry with a former friend named Brinda, played by Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live), and a potential romance with a new neighbor named James, played by Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project), form the basis of a lot of the action and the comedic set-pieces.
Of course, there are a lot of guest stars who push things along. James Brolin and Dianne Wiest play Maura and Kate's parents. The two seem to be playing the exact, same characters as Brolin and Wiest do in CBS' Life in Pieces. Various Saturday Night Live or SNL, cast members appear and do shticks they've normally done on SNL. John Leguizamo does a similar shtick he's done before in films. John Cena's physicality is again the source of his comedy.
However, Brinda and James occupy a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Paula Pell, a writer on SNL, only uses these two characters in the service of jokes. Many of which don't fly too high or far. Brinda is too much of a cartoon villain and James is just an object of desire, although fairly normal. It's an imbalance of tone. The actors, Rudolph and Brinholtz are essentially in two, different movies here, two that don't quite mesh.
All of a sudden, Pell throws in a conflict that's supposed to put the two sisters at odds with one another. Except, it literally comes out of nowhere and feels so contrived and unnecessary. That conflict should have been introduced earlier and developed more. It would have helped to make the characters feel fully-fleshed out, rather than SNL sketches.
Further developing the dynamics between Brinda and James would have helped too. I never felt the rivalry between Brinda and Kate. I also never felt the romance between James and Maura. Those dynamics perhaps are not the overall point, but because they take up significant time, I should care more about them, but I didn't.
Directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) who is also a Tony-nominee for Avenue Q, this movie hasn't the flair or the fun of the shows written by Fey and Poehler. It begs the possibility that maybe the two should always write their own material, unless it's something like Inside Out.
This film doesn't come close to other films involving sisterly relationships like Hannah and Her Sisters, which won Dianne Wiest her first Academy Award. It doesn't even come close to recent sisterly films like Trainwreck or Bridesmaids. It's certainly not as funny as any of those films. It's not even funnier than Frozen (2013).
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
If you don't know the premise, it's about a teenage girl who is kidnapped and held hostage with other girls in an underground bunker, held there by a cuckoo, cult leader. After spending many years down there, she's rescued and has to start her life over in New York City and discover the world in a lot of ways but with an undeniable optimism. She is embodied with all constant, upbeat glee by Ellie Kemper (The Office).
The first season was in a lot of ways just establishing the environment and the characters. Yet, it's also about Kimmy reconciling what happened down in the bunker and eventually seeking justice against the cult leader who kidnapped her. The first season also had her reconnecting with her father and her sister, and dealing with their roles before and after her abduction.
This season, Kimmy has to reconnect with her mother, played by Lisa Kudrow, and deal with her role before and after. Yet, this is just the cap to a journey on which this series takes us. This truly is a character study. There are feelings and behaviors that Kimmy experiences. This season is about peeling back and understanding why she's acting the way she does. She might seem one-note, but Kimmy has layers and the writing here is rich and nuanced, as well as extremely smart, and Kemper's performance is the glue that holds it together.
However, you couldn't have a great character study if there wasn't a great supporting cast. Kimmy doesn't lean on these characters as much, but they support the show in a myriad of ways. Fey and her co-creator Robert Carlock spin off the characters and give them interesting story lines separately.
Emmy-nominee Tituss Burgess who received his first nomination last year for originating this role co-stars as Titus Andromedon, an aspiring Broadway star who hasn't been very lucky in making it to the stage, not like his comparable contemporary, James Monroe Iglehart who famously won the Tony Award for playing the genie in Aladdin. Both Burgess and Iglehart are African-American. Both are similar in body type. Iglehart guest stars as a version of himself named Coriolanus Burt, and Titus and Coriolanus are rivals in this series, but there is this meta-aspect where the two comment on each other's real-life careers and personas.
What separates them in real-life and on this show is that Titus is a gay black man, a pretty flamboyant one, but only slightly more flamboyant than Coriolanus who is straight. Titus isn't straight, but he does have a past where he was seemingly heterosexual. This show, like any and all great shows, connects the past with the present and even the future.
Titus Andromedon isn't his real name. We learn that Titus' birth name was Ronald Wilkerson and he was married to a woman named Vonda, played by Pernell Walker (Pariah). In Season 2's first episode, there is the question of whether Titus runs away from his problems and ditches people when the going gets rough. This informs the new relationship he begins in the second episode.
Emmy-nominee Jane Krakowski (30 Rock and Ally McBeal) also co-stars as Jacqueline White, a recent divorcee who has to think up ways to maintain the illusion to all of the wealthy Manhattanites that she's still uber-wealthy herself. This is after her spiritual retreat to her family home out on a Native American reservation. Her waspy nature, her privileged and materialistic nature just doesn't jive with her parents who are members of the Sioux tribe.
It provides this series unlike any other series an opportunity to give voice to Native American characters. It doesn't make them the butt of jokes. It makes white privilege the butt of jokes, but in a slightly satirical way. By making Jacqueline a family member of the Sioux tribe, though nonsensical, also provides an empathetic link where that Native American voice can't be ignored.
While the show gets the Native American representation right, not only this season but last, unfortunately the show dropped the ball when it came to Asian representation, particularly last season. Criticisms last season of this show was that its one Asian character was somewhat offensive. The character was tantamount to Jar Jar Binks in its offensive regard.
Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner and The Stanford Prison Experiment) plays Dong Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who fell in love with Kimmy when they were in the same class trying to get their G.E.D. While his character and his behaviors are justifiable and could be found in real-life, they were stereotypical and over-the-top in a way that echoed the same negatives of Jar Jar Binks. Luckily, Ki Hong Lee is so handsome and charming that he could overcome those negatives, but the show did receive a backlash.
Instead of avoiding it, this season, the show addresses the criticism head-on. In the third episode, the character of Dong Nguyen disappears and other Asian characters are introduced. Each collectively give voice to the complaints. Most were online comments. The show is therefore personifying those Internet comments. The show also double-downs in a way that doesn't lessen the offensive material but almost increases it. The character of Dong returns and remains the same in his speech and behavior, but he's so adorable that one could conceivably forgive it.
Other guest stars of note include Anna Camp (True Blood and The Good Wife) who plays a rival to Jacqueline named Dierdre Robespierre who is rich, snooty, stuck-up and waspy to the nth degree. There's also Mike Carlsen who plays Mikey Politano. Carlsen is a relatively new actor. He had a brief role in 30 Rock as a construction worker, probably because he looks like a stocky, Italian boy from Queens, cute and sweet if a little juvenile, the kind of guy who would catcall women on the street.
Carlsen also had a brief role as seemingly the same construction worker in the first season, catcalling Kimmy but feeling guilty about it. Fey and the writers bring him back as the same character, now called Mikey Politano, to explain perhaps those guilty feelings, boasting comparisons to the construction worker from the Village People, and Carlsen is great when he's unleashed, he becomes a ball of energy. His eyes light up and he becomes verbose in almost manic joy. It's almost comparable to Kimmy.
Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winner Carol Kane (Taxi and Gotham) co-stars as Lillian, the kooky landlord of Kimmy and Titus' tiny and crappy apartment. She's a funny third-wheel, but at times her character feels extraneous. She gets great one-liners and is funny.
It's not to the degree of something like Arrested Development or Community, but the show is layered with a lot of jokes with a lot of sight-gags that are simply laid out without too much pointing. There's a reference to the "pizza rat," a viral video from New York that made the news this past year. There's a background running gag of a white robot walking around, asbestos and films like My Girl (1991).
The final episode of Season 2 is great, and it's great for two reasons. The first is its inclusion of Josh Charles who ever since leaving The Good Wife has really stretched his comedic muscles. He was great on Inside Amy Schumer and Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. He appeared in Fey's recent film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which is probably why he was placed here. Yet, the final episode is great because it pulled off a cool gag. The show went to Universal Studios theme park in Florida and had its emotional climax on a roller coaster. It's amazing.
Five Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 30 mins. / 13 eps.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.
Monday, April 18, 2016
|Aldis Hodge (left) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell|
Yet, for any one who perhaps thought the Underground Railroad from which this show takes its name was an easy thing, this string of ten episodes puts its difficulty and all of its intricacies on stark display. It's perhaps not as visceral as 12 Years a Slave or even the ABC series Roots (1977), but it does have its rough moments.
As many critics have already pointed out, the show itself is essentially a prison escape or a kind of reverse heist. There are interesting and even exciting thrills to be had scene after scene as the narrative, driven by writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, barrels to the inevitable freedom of the slaves trapped in a cotton plantation in Georgia, 1857.
Of course, the American Civil War would drastically change the landscape, but for some slaves, they had little to no more patience and needed to make freedom for themselves. They didn't want to wait for liberation or some outside salvation. Some were born with no patience for it. Some had to have it run out.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell stars as Rosalee, a girl who works as a slave in the main plantation house. This is a privilege that only certain slaves get, and mostly only slave-girls or women. There comes some comforts or luxuries, but yet, she still is looked at as dirt and most times treated as such.
Aldis Hodge (Friday Night Lights and Leverage) co-stars as Noah, a slave who most likely was born with no patience. If he had any, it was probably quickly used up, as evidence with the scars on his back. The look in his eye at times screams a life of pain and dehumanization. Noah is one of many male slaves who works the cotton fields or other outside, physical labor, but he becomes the leader of a group planning to escape and go north.
The comparison to heist movies starts here. Noah is not unlike the titular character of Ocean's Eleven (2001). He gathers a team of other slaves and they plan step-by-step how to steal, not necessarily money or jewels as Ocean did, but instead to steal their freedom.
Reed Diamond (Homicide: Life on the Streets and Franklin & Bash) plays Tom Macon, the plantation owner. He seems very much like Michael Fassbender's Oscar-nominated role in 12 Years a Slave. Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Necessary Roughness) plays John Hawkes, the brother of Tom. John is very much like Brad Pitt's character in 12 Years a Slave.
Christopher Meloni (Oz and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) plays August Pullman, a single father it seems who appears to be a good man just trying to raise his son. However, it becomes evident that he's not as good as he first seems. At least, he works as a kind of bounty hunter of slaves.
Because it's about a slave fighting back and perhaps more than just his release, because Green and Pokaski's narrative involve this kind of thrust, it treads on similar ground as Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Yet, it's absent the ridiculous humor and sometimes satire. This series dabbles more in realism rather than comedy, which Tarantino can't help but indulge.
This series doesn't have that kind of entertainment value, but it's not the slog that 12 Years a Slave was. There is the thrill of the prison escape or heist elements. The show also has aspects of survival, of endurance through this human atrocity like some films of the Holocaust have been. There was a moment in the third episode that reminded me of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, involving Noah having to hold a heavy object over his head for hours on end.
Once Noah and Rosalee escape the plantation and go on the run, the series is injected with a decent amount of adrenaline and action. It also allows more powerful interactions for the characters and better development of them. That development is not just for Noah and Rosalee but also for the characters who tag along on the escape.
Alano Miller (Jane the Virgin) plays Cato, a guy who is face-scarred and who is analogous to Samuel L. Jackson's character in Django Unchained. Mykelti Williamson (Boomtown and Justified) plays Moses, a one-eyed father. Renwick D. Scott II (Treme) plays Henry, a teenage boy who looks up to Noah, and Theodus Crane (The Walking Dead) plays Zeke, the overweight one.
With the exception of Zeke and Henry, a lot of the characters are well-established in the first, four episodes. Yet, it does set-up what could be a great back-half run.
Four Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 10PM on WGN America.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Mirielle Enos (Big Love and The Killing) stars as Alice Vaughan, a lead investigator at a private firm in Los Angeles. She's the head of a team that does personal detective-work as well as corporate security. It's not unlike Olivia Pope's gladiators at OPA. She's engaged to a man named Christopher Hall. She balances planning her wedding with her current case, which is chasing a thief called "Mr. X."
Peter Krause (Six Feet Under and Parenthood) co-stars as Ben Jones. Yet, that name isn't who he's introduced as. He's first introduced as "Mr. X" and then immediately he's introduced again as Christopher Hall. Ben is both men and neither. He's a tall, handsome, hirsute con-artist, and the audience is aware of his deception, only moments before Alice is.
Alice comes home one day and finds out he's gone and she's been robbed of money and secrets from her job. Once Alice realizes her fiance was manipulating her, she sets out to find and arrest him. She continues to take on cases-of-the-week, while he continues to be a con-artist and steal from people.
Last year, Will Smith was in a film called Focus where he played a charismatic con-artist who led a team of con-artists. It started off with him duping a beautiful woman and it followed the romance between them. This series could have been like the film just spread out over three months. Yet, Focus made both people con-artists. This series only has Ben be the con-artist, while Alice is basically the cop.
This already handicaps the series, meaning it can never be truly as fun. Alice as a female detective isn't as uninhibited as Kalinda in The Good Wife or Jessica in Marvel's Jessica Jones, so the chase will never be as intriguing or as morally grey. She's more like Joan Watson in CBS' Elementary, but Joan is freer than Alice because she's not romantically linked to the male lead.
It's not to say that a female protagonist shouldn't be romantically linked to a bad guy who's also a protagonist. It's not to say that it's sexist or anything. It was actually one of the most compelling things about Showtime's Homeland. Unfortunately, this series might run into the same problem as Homeland. It's doubtful the series will turn Alice into a con-artist, so either they'll have to turn Ben into a good guy or eliminate him by jail or death.
The question is how long will the series drag this out. Maybe the series will find a balance the way Dexter did, but if the series ends several seasons later or whenever how Dexter did, then it will be the worst Shonda Rhimes show thus far.
Like all Shonda Rhimes shows, it has a very attractive and very diverse cast, including Rose Rollins as Valerie, the African-American founder of Alice's private-eye firm, Anderson Investigations. There's also Jay Hayden who plays Danny Yoon, a half-Korean employee of Alice. Alimi Ballard plays Reggie, an African-American thief working with Ben, as well as Jacky Ido who plays Agent Dao, an actual African who is also chasing after "Mr. X."
The cast isn't the problem. The writing is. The first, two cases in the second and third episodes are the lamest things ever presented in a Shonda Rhimes show. The second episode features an incredibly weak, murder mystery. The third episode features an even weaker drug-company scandal. Both only invoke yawns and extreme disinterest.
It simply doesn't have the energy of How To Get Away With Murder or Scandal. It's not that every Shonda Rhimes show needs to be hyper or super twisty from moment-to-moment, but there's nothing here otherwise that grabs me. If it survives to a second season, I might be curious to see where it goes.
Two Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Thursdays at 10PM on ABC.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Chris Hemsworth (Thor and Vacation) stars as Owen Chase, the real-life whaler who became the First Mate to the Essex, the whaling ship that set sail from Massachusetts in February 1820. It hunted the huge, aquatic mammals in order to extract the blubber or the fat under their skin, which was squeezed into an oil that people at the time used as a source of fuel. Owen has a wife and a child-on-the-way but none of that matters in this film.
Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The War Boys) co-stars as George Pollard, the Captain of the Essex. He's given command of the whaling ship over Owen, which is a source of tension. George is younger and less experienced than Owen. George is also a little stubborn and a little arrogant.
The events that occur with the Essex inspired Melville to write Moby-Dick, which is about a man's obsession to pursue an infamous whale that he had battled previously. Given that premise, one would assume that the Essex also battled a great, white whale, and in the least, Hemsworth, action-star as he can be, would fight a whale in this film. Yet, that's not really the case.
Much like Life of Pi (2012), All is Lost (2013) or the middle-half of Unbroken (2014), this movie is really about a man or men being stranded at sea. Yes, there is an interesting, initial sequence that shows how a whale is captured and then dissected for its blubber. This sequence is enlightening and enervating. It was also engaging, funny and a bit disgusting. However, the rest of the movie is those men stranded in tiny boats without much food or water for 90 days.
This is when the movie becomes a depressive drag. Unlike the other films mentioned, this one gets to grapple with the idea of cannibalism. Except, Howard doesn't really grapple with it. It's mentioned, or rather hinted in dialogue, but it's not shown. Howard can show a whale being torn apart and its flesh and guts spilled everywhere, but he can't show cannibalism. It's a kind of cowardice.
Other than Hemsworth and Walker, the only other actor who stands out is Tom Holland (The Impossible and Wolf Hall). Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, the teenage crew-member and the youngest person aboard the Essex who is taken under Owen's wing. However, the framing story around Holland's character is a waste of time. The framing story is Thomas as an old man, played by Brendan Gleeson (Cold Mountain and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), telling what happened to the Essex to Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw (Skyfall and Cloud Atlas). It's a completely unnecessary framing that adds nothing but only detracts from the immersion.
Two Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for intense action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.