TV Series Review – “Bloodline” (Season 1) 5.9.15

I can count on one hand how many TV series that I’ve actually taken the time to watch more than just a few episodes of. Maybe because I just never bought in to the whole “binge watching” phenomena that seems to go hand in hand with watching them. In thinking back, the only 4 TV series that I’ve actually watched in their entirety are “Twin Peaks” (1990-1991 = still my favorite series of all time), “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000), “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), and “The Wire” (2002-2008). Beyond that I’ve tried to invest both time and effort into watching “Breaking Bad” (2008-2013) and last year’s “The Knick”. Both shows which for some unknown apparent reason I just couldn’t get into and hung the towel with after maybe half a season or so. I pretty much always skip over anything about TV shows or series that I see printed online or in some cases, are advertised for on TV.

Except for in the case of this little TV series that came along which I heard was being heralded as the best Netflix original series since “House of Cards” which I knew more about by reputation than anything itself as it’s yet another series that didn’t really interest me in the slightest. What caught my attention about this particular series was not only that it came highly recommended by two of my co-workers (which always makes for stimulating water cooler talk come Monday morning), but by its incredible cast consisting of 6-time Oscar nominee Sissy Spacek (you know the bar is being set and high for cable TV when they can enlist an actress of this caliber), Oscar nominee Sam Shepard, Emmy award winner Kyle Chandler (for 2006’s “Friday Night Lights”), Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (who I’ve recently declared as being the best character actor currently in the business), Linda Cardellini (ironically who starred in one of the series mentioned above = 1999’s “Freaks and Geeks”), and Oscar nominee Chloe Sevigny. At the time I was and am still awestruck of how a TV series could have possibly assembled such an amazing cast. Which was one of if not the main reason of how and why I got lured into it.

Netflix’s “Bloodline” originally aired back on March, 20th of this year, with all 13 episodes of its first season being available at once. The show itself is a family drama/thriller that revolves around a one Rayburn family. A wealthy upper crust family who own a very successful Inn down in the Florida Keys. The Rayburn’s consist of the patriarchal father Robert (played by Sam Shepard) and mother (Sissy Spacek), along with their four children; the eldest Danny (in what’s sure to be an Emmy nomination later this year by the mightily impressive Ben Mendelsohn), the second son John (Kyle Chandler, who should also garner a nomination for his strong work here), Norbert Leo Butz as the youngest son (an actor of great talent who I was previously unfamiliar with up to this point), and the youngest sibling, the sister, played by Linda Cardelliini. In typical family noir fashion everything looks good from the surface but nothing is as it seems. The show starts out by introducing us to the eldest brother Danny (Mendelsohn) who really acts as its central figure. Danny is the black sheep of the family, the one that got away, who happens to also have a bad drug habit but who comes back into the lives of his family when a celebration takes place in honor of their name in the season pilot. The events that transpire from this point forward examine the interpersonal dynamics of the family, as secrets and scars are revealed when layer upon layer of their family history unfolds and we are shown the inner depth and darkness of what happens to people when they try and leave the past behind but the past isn’t quite through with them yet.

This is a gritty, dark, and deeply probing psychological family drama that explores the inner depths of what lies underneath a family’s surface when their past resurfaces and the great lengths they try and take to cover them up after decades of secrets, deception, and lies. It works on just about every technical level from its stunning cinematography of the Florida Keys in both it’s sunshine paradise and murky swamps (nicely done metaphorically), to within its ability to grasp the viewer and engage them into its intricately woven plot, to its masterful writing, and what winds up surprisingly equaling the sum of its parts in the acting department (hard to do when you have this much talent on display). As already mentioned both Chandler and Mendelsohn give spectacular performances, particularly that of the latter, whose character seems drawn from something similar to that of the diabolical Robert DeNiro in Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991). The inner workings and pathos that Mendelsohn brings to his role is further proof that he’s one of the greatest character actors working in the business. I couldn’t think of any other actor who could bring this much depth to a part. Which I’ve always said is the greatest testament to an actor’s performance, when you can’t possibly imagine any other actor pulling it off as well as they do. It’s also consistently rewarding as no episode seems to go wasted and every one that proceeds the last plunges deeper and deeper and darker into the inner lives of the Rayburn family. Culminating in a great last couple of episodes where everything is brought to the forefront and a devastating and tragic event occurs which was both disturbing and shocking and left me foaming at the mouth for another season (which is already slated for 2016). As far as TV series’ go, this is one of the better shows I’ve seen, which even despite my admittedly limited palette, I can confidently say that anyone who chooses to take the time and invest themselves in it will be both highly rewarded and left salivating for more.

[A-]

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DVD Review: “Top Five” 3.15.15

I stumbled cross this movie after seeing a trailer way back in December before seeing another film in the theater. I’ve always liked Chris Rock – in not so much looking at his career as an actor, but more as a comic. He was part of some of my favorite years on Saturday Night Live (1990-1993),  and his HBO stand up performances were up there with some of the best from the list of some of the best Black comedians – Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy to name a few. I also thought he was perfectly cast in his role in the documentary “Good Hair” (2009). I’ve always looked at Rock and considered him one of the last few remaining Black comedians that can actually write. And it was interesting that just the other day, I was going back and forth with one of my co-workers, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Black entertainers, particularly those of the mid to late 20th century, who stated that he felt like the death of Black comedy ended with Richard Pryor. Which I think is true to some extent. While I like guys like Dave Chappelle and Rock, the majority of Black entertainers, especially comedians, in our current climate, just aren’t very funny (I’m looking at you Kevin Hart!). However I did bring up to said co-worker that I liked Rock, and considered him to maybe be the last in the short remaining list of Black comedians with real talent whose career has longevity (sorry Chappelle but you came onto the scene much to fast and left much too early). So when I first so the trailer for this film I took note of it when it said “written, directed, and starring Chris Rock” and was almost immediately sold. But what actually sealed the deal for me was that it looked like it was something that was clever, with real creativity, that separated itself from what you might expect of a Chris Rock film (and certainly that of any Tyler Perry movie). Given my being a semi fan of Rock as a writer, I decided to check this one out as soon as it became available on DVD.

Rock plays a fictitious film actor named Andre Allen (the last name being an overt nod to Woody) in an opening scene that involves a long tracking shot of him walking down the streets of New York City with a reporter (played by the always reliable Rosario Dawson). He spouts diatribes about the ever-changing times in America (his stabs at politics and president Obama are hilarious and only something that could come from the mind of Rock). The Dawson character is trying to convince Rock to allow her to do a piece on him for the New York Times, with him not really wanting or willing to commit. You see his career has hit a low point, and he strives to do something more dramatic but he’s been typecast into doing films like the “Hammy” franchise (imagine Smokey the Bear but with an AK-47!). He’s currently promoting his first foray into dramatic acting territory with a serious film called “Uprize” that looks like something Steve McQueen might have made if he set out to make “12 Years A Slave” a comedy. This on top of trying to juggle the press and his flailing career, as well as upcoming marriage to reality TV star (played by Gabrielle Union) and the days leading up to which is all going to air on the Bravo network. An obvious choice for his media hungry wife which he seems to be conflicted about but goes along with it anyway. Andre finally commits to allowing Rosario’s reporter to cover and do the piece, in hopes that maybe she’ll write something that will revitalize his career and give it some rejuvenation. Throughout this process she uncovers many truths about Andre that have yet to be revealed. Many of which involve deeply personal aspects of his life. That’s where the film really starts to build in terms of story, and much of what we learn about Andre’s deeply troubled past is shown in a serious of flashbacks (most of them downright hilarious) as the two of them stroll around the city working the press junket and getting ready for his big wedding.

There was a lot of strong elements encompassed in this film which as I expected, mostly came from within the writing and script departments. Rock gives us his version of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” (1963), Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” (1980), and something that clearly seems influenced by the Richard Linklater “Before” Trilogy. It starts off and mostly stays solid with one joke after another, with many (and I mean many) cameos from just about everyone we’ve seen Rock be involved with in the number of different projects he’s done over the years. Like the films of Woody Allen, there’s a cynical undertone to a lot of the dialogue in the script, but with more satire involved in what it means to be an entertainer in the increasingly demanding film industry. Some of the flashback sequences I spoke of above are simply hilarious, particularly the ones involving Rock with Cedric The Entertainer, Dawson’s journalist revealing her more brazenly honest sex life in some of her past relationships, as well as Andre’s bout with alcoholism. The latter of which takes on a funny but sad tone that comes across as a bit more honest even despite the confounding situations that it got him into. It maintains a serio-comic edge throughout its almost entire duration when even if at times it seems a little overstuffed with ideas. That and about two-thirds of the way through there’s a revelation that came across as being a bit contrived which takes place while another shift in plot is formulating that also seems cliché. Though to Rock’s credit the razor-sharp script and witty dialogue mostly make up for it falling into typical romantic comedy movie tropes. I also thought it handled and straddled the line between serio-romantic comedy and drama rather well. With a script that came across as both original and inventive. For those of you looking for a comedy with a bit more of an edge like one of Rock’s comedic contemporaries, Louis C.K., then this might just be the comedy for you. It’s smart, funny, and refreshing, and even if you don’t necessarily like the film’s feel or tone, I can assure you it will at least be worthwhile for the sheer amount of great cameos in it. Let’s hope that Rock has more tricks like this one up his sleeve.

[B]

Review: “Frank” 11.30.14

This film had been on my radar for quite a while as it had gotten a very strong reception while on the festival circuit this past year. That and almost everything I read for each of the festivals in which it was shown highlighted the fact that Michael Fassbender gives yet another strong performance in a series of Oscar worthy performances like the ones he put in in all three Steve McQueen films – those being 2008’s “Hunger” (how he wasn’t nominated for this was a major oversight on behalf of the Academy), 2011’s “Shame” (where he landed a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor), and last year’s “12 Years A Slave” (2013). A film in which he would pick up his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. I also thought he’s done some incredibly strong work in “Eden Lake” (2008), “Fish Tank” (2009), “A Dangerous Method” (2011), and “Prometheus” (2012). He almost always seems to pick good roles and is one of the most sought after young actors currently in Hollywood. I also liked the director, Ireland born director Lenny Abrahamson’s, previous film – “What Richard Did” (2012). A film which focused on a Irish teenager who is completely devastated when his once promising life gets thrown upside down. It’s an incredibly sad film which also happens to be a very good character study of a young man’s emotional disintegration following a tragic accident. Within it he showed a certain knack for feeling and emotion that is hard to truly capture in a lot of films from this genre. So given these two aforementioned reasons and the fact that it was also very favorably reviewed. I made it a point to seek it out as soon as it became available.

The story first introduces us to Jon, played by Brendan Glesson’s son, Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring musician type who seems to dislike his mundane computer job. That is until one day when he comes across a band manager, played by Scoot McNairy, who employs him last-minute to fill in for one of his band’s gigs. While at the gig he meets his soon to be band members, two of which include both Clare, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the titular character, Frank, played by Michael Fassbender himself. Frank seems to be some sort of enigmatic and incredibly gifted human being as we see him spout poetry like he’s channeling Jim Morrison of The Doors. Except one could make the assessment early on that Frank is far from your average, or “normal” human being. Frank hides under a blown up head that he wears like a mask, which according to McNairy’s band manager – “he never takes off”. None of the other band members have ever seen the man behind the mask, nor do they seem to care, as they seem to recognize his true genius. Gleeson’s character Jon seems to realize this to and is quick to say yes when they give him the offer to come onboard and join their band full-time. They then travel to the countryside to record a long gestating album. But because Frank is such a perfectionist they wind up over staying and go completely broke and wind up totally out of money. That’s when Jon steps in and offers to save them and the album, while also coming up what he sees as his own ingenious idea of capturing the process or making of the album. And soon after they become well-known across the country, and are asked to come play the prestigious South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. It is here where the story really starts to develop, and both Jon, Frank, and the rest of the band members try to take full opportunity of their first shot at fame.

“Frank” is one incredibly bizarre, subversive, weird, and quirky film even by art house and independent film standards, and plays out like some absurdist tragic-comedy. Though along with that it’s tender, touching, heartfelt, and undeniably human. The first third is like something straight out of a Wes Anderson or Richard Ayoade film. It is strange and whimsical and contains some very well choreographed shots and segments. As we the viewer are transported directly into Frank’s highly unsual world through the eyes of its main character Jon. Some of the musical segments here are downright hilarious, and seem to want to take a satiric stab at what constitutes itself as being indie music these days. It’s while during the recording and capturing of the recording of the album that some of “Frank’s” more funny, clever, and delightful moments take place. Then comes their “calling” by way of the South by Southwest music festival, and the movie takes a dramatic shift in terms of story. Which I can’t say I was really all that big of a fan of. The way in which Austin is portrayed is like something out of Portlandia – where everyone’s a hipster and are drawn out to be slightly cliché. As is with a lot of the indie music scene these days. I thought the whole Austin part of the film, while I understood it in terms of context, was also the weakest and most contrived part about it. Then comes it’s mostly compelling and thought-provoking part of the film, which in my opinion should have come a lot earlier. Even in a 90 minute film. It is here that we learn about the man behind the mask and his mental illness, and this is when the film shines through somewhat, if just for the mere brilliant turn from Michael Fassbender, who in both inside and out of Frank, shows a certain range and depth that only an actor of his caliber could possibly pull off. I would recommend the film solely for Fassbender’s performance alone, as the rest of it is filled with either moments of grandeur, or moments that seemed to ber lifted straight out of other films I’ve seen like it (cough cough “Lars and the Real Girl”). Recommended for fans of Fassbender and for something completely outside of the box. Everyone else might find this movie to be much too strange and bizarre, even for fans of films that are a more acquired taste.

[B-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Fury’ 10.25.14

I’ve grown quite find of Brad Pitt as an actor in the last almost decade or so. So much so that I consider him to be one of the top 3 best working actors in the business. If you think about the list of directors and performances he’s put in over the past 8-10 years or so there’s really nothing you can do but just admire the guy.  Since 2006 he’s worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu in “Babel” (a film he would go onto pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for), Andrew Dominik in 2007’s “The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (still one of my favorite Pitt performances), both the Coen Brothers and David Fincher in “Burn After Reading” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, to Quentin Taratino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), to 2011’s 1-2 punch of both Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (the latter of which would see him garnering his first Best Actor nomination), to working with Dominik again in 2012’s “Killing Them Softly”, to Marc Forster in last year’s highly entertaining and surprisingly very good “World War Z”. And finally topping it off the same year with a small but memorable role in Steve McQueen’s Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” (which he would also win his first ever Oscar for Producing). Pitt has gone on to reach such a status in my eyes that at this point in his career I will simply see a film solely based on the fact that he’s in it. And I can only say that about a very few actors.

David Ayer’s “Fury” follows a lot of the same movie tropes as a lot of American made War films. It involves a group of ragtag soldiers who are part of a tank unit led by Pitt. The group is deep in German territory at the height of the Second World War. Where at the point depicted in the film, the Germans are taking the upper hand. Pitt and this ragtag group of soldiers (including an always reliable Michael Pena and Shia LeBeouf, an actor who at least in my eyes, is gaining quite of credibility since his “Transformers” days). Their tank comes under fire and it’s on the brink of breaking down, only for Pitt and his company to escape and then meet up with whatever little reserves that are left where they wind up geographically in the heart of Nazi Germany. One of their men faces an untimely death, and they’re forced to take on a young, inexperienced, and afraid soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman), with little to no combat experience as his replacement. Essentially the rest of the film is shown through the eyes of him as Pitt, his company, and “Fury” (the name of their tank) as they try and take over one town to the next in a series of truly visceral and epic battle scenes. In fact, this movie contains some of the best scenes of war, particularly that of tank warfare, that I’ve seen since the all too often overlooked and underappreciated 2007 film “Lebanon”. A film about another group of soldiers confined to a tank with no way out other than to fight for their lives.

I found myself totally captivated by this film and thought the war scenes and depictions of battle to me were not only thrilling but top notch. It’s essentially a series of one battle after the next depicted in the utmost intense and and sense of realism. It really nails the horrors of war and while I’ve heard one of the criticisms of the piece is that it’s simply too violent, I didn’t find myself necessarily finding that to be the case. It’s violent because this was a violent period in history where the lives of many men were lost. My second accolade has to do with Pitt’s performance itself. It’s reminiscent of old classic Hollywood actors like a John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. So much so that at times I thought of Bogart’s 1943 War film “Sahara”. Where even though you know he is being depicted as this pro-American, patriotic, and mentally and physically strong leader. If like with that film you are able to overlook the stereotypes of the characters (which were intentional then and intention here) behind it you’ll see yet another bravura Brad Pitt performance. He totally envelops himself in the character which I found to be not only completely convincing but effective as well. Sure some of the men in his unit, specifically that of Pena and the other Hispanic man feel like blatient stereotypes. However I was able to overlook this because of the incredibly captivating scenes of tank warfare that had both me and the entire almost sold out audience I saw it with highly entertained, challenged, and brought on a visceral action packed thrill ride. Complete with what I found to be a brilliant closing shot “Fury” is one of those big budget, at first seemingly run-of-the-mill crop of American War films that turns out to be something much greater than it should have been.

[B+]