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It’s a pretty good time to be Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, co-creators of HBO’s unconventional family comedy “Togetherness”. Having made their bones in independent film, the Duplass brothers are now in demand on TV both in front of the camera and behind it. This year, Mark will wind up his stint on FX’s “The League”, and Jay will return into season two of Amazon Studios’ acclaimed comedy “Transparent.” The pair also play the memorable. insufferable male midwives Brendan and Duncan Deslaurier on Fox’s “The Mindy Project.”

“We never planned any of this,” Jay admitted. “We honestly just thought that we would just make stuff on the side, that we would just probably be editors or something. That’s what we did in our early 20s.”

“Or teachers, even,” Mark added.

“We just feel crazy lucky!” said Jay.

Their latest project, “Togetherness,” premieres 9:30 Sunday, January 11. Jay executive produces while Mark, also an EP, stars as Brett Pierson, a sound editor living in a lovely Los Angeles house with two kids and a solid, if sex starved, relationship with his wife Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). When his best friend Alex (Steve Zissis, who co-created the show with the brothers) decides to give up on his stalled acting career and head back to Detroit, Steve coaxes Alex to move in with his family instead. At the same time, Michelle’s sister Tina (Amanda Peet) decides to stay on indefinitely.

Sounds like, say, “Full House”. But it does not play out that way, not by a longshot. “Togetherness” is one of the most thought-provoking new shows on television and a stand-out among new comedies, with characters who are as hilarious as they are flawed and heartbreaking. It may also be one of the most relatable portrayals of human connection, and disconnection, that TV has shown in a long time.

We sat down with Jay and Mark Duplass at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour, currently underway in Pasadena, California, to talk about what inspired the stories viewers will see playing out over the show’s eight-episode first season.

IMDbTV: This is one of those shows that if you walked it into a broadcast network pitch meeting, they’d say, “Oh! This is like ‘Modern Family’!”

Mark: All of the elements on paper technically could make for the sh-ttiest network sitcom ever. But Jay and I talk a lot about how we make things. We actually try not to reinvent plot and story. We tend to think, ‘Use those to your advantage.’ What we like to do is pick out the chess pieces inside of the plot and replace them with different kinds of elements and let them interact in a way that’s more unique. So you’re still sending the viewers on the rollercoaster that they’ve gone up before, but hopefully the way we deliver it is unique.

IMDbTV: The last time that HBO did a show that had the same kind of typical network comedy conceit was…do you guys remember “Lucky Louie”? In retrospect, it was very much underappreciated for what it was. When you two were conceiving the show, was there any trepidation about using these frameworks that have been used previously, as Louie did?

Jay: Not really. We are so insanely picky about what excites us and what we want to be doing. We only realized later that we conceived something that could be pitched to a network, when we start talking about it objectively. The way that we talk about things is way non-conceptual.

Mark: It’s a little more myopic.

Jay: I’ll come to Mark, and I’ll say things like, “Steve (Zissis)’s” life should be a TV show.” Think about Steve, he was the guy from our high school who was the president of our high school. He got all the girls. He was the lead in all the plays, just like he says in the show. And now, he’s chubby and bald, and he’s dying in Hollywood. He’s afraid that he’s going to die with his magic inside of him, and no one’s going to get to hear or see what he’s capable of.

…Our style is documentary and verite. The stuff that we write about tends to come from our lives. At the time, we were in our late 30s, and we had young kids, and we were getting our asses kicked by these kids. But everyone was looking and us like, “You have everything. You have a house, and you have wonderful wives and family, and you have an incredible career.” But at the time…we were trying to find some kind of balance where we could be great dads and good husbands, and also keep our careers going, and we felt like we were drowning the whole time.

The more we talked about it, the more we started laughing about it. And then other people, we’d start talking to other people and they’d start laughing at us and say, “Oh yes, same stuff happened to me.”

… It was the type of thing where we were just like, “Oh my god, this is a phenomenon that’s happening to us right now, and everyone we talk to about it can relate to it.” You know, normally we would do a movie but this thing just kept going on and on. There was so much material. We were like, “Maybe we should go back and talk to HBO again.”

IMDbTV: The extraordinary thing about “Togetherness” is that there are so many comedies on right that are either about people just starting out in adulthood, or about the family. There’s not really any other situation comedy on that speaks to the mud that gets into relationships, the muck of knowing other people and having them be integrated into one’s life.

Mark: Yeah. There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that your average show either shows the beginning of the road trip, where everyone’s packing, or the last five miles of the road trip. But you don’t often get to see mile 250 of the 500 mile trip, which is kind of what our show is to a certain degree… It’s hard to describe this, but when you’re taking this sort of approach we’re discussing, which is a like, a naturalistic, honest and ideally realistic approach in portraying relationships, that storytelling is normally 100 percent dramatic and almost didactic at times. …It really felt like, there’s really not much out there that is a “hard-hitting,” naturalistic, realistic portrayal of this time in life, that also has a sense of humor about it too. That’s kind of how we see the world, so it isn’t like we had to fabricate that. It’s, luckily, what we kind of like doing.

IMDbTV: Shows that start out like “Togetherness” does – as in, there are lots of laughs, and you’re really getting to know these characters and falling in love with them through humor, and then it becomes serious without growing heavy – it seems to be very difficult to pull that kind of thing off on TV. When some shows do that, the audience almost feels betrayed.

Jay: “Hey! I’m coming to have fun on a Friday night, dude. Don’t f—k with me!” Yeah, that’s our obsession in general. We want to laugh, but we also want to go deep. That’s where tons of our energy goes. We don’t have to talk it that much, but when we start talking about tone and riding that right line, that’s when Mark and I really start to dial in exactly what we want. It’s interesting, because we don’t have to do it that much on set. On set, we’re just trying for truthful performances and we’re trying to create scenarios that are going to make people laugh after the fact. In editorial, that’s when we really start talking about, how do we dial in the right amount of pathos and the right amount of comedy here?

Because sometimes, you just want to stick the knife in and let it sit there for a little while.

Mark: Well, and sometimes the knife is funny, too. That’s when it’s the best, you know, when the moment encompasses both these things and you don’t have to think: “Time for a little comedy here!” “Time for a little drama!” Where there’s a moment where you’re like, “I know that this is sad and hard for them, but I don’t know why, I want to laugh. That’s my favorite stuff.”

IMDbTV: Yes, and I think the idea of comedy of coming from pain can be hard sell on network television.

Mark: It’s certainly celebrated in independent film, which is where we come from, so it’s not strange to us. But I don’t disagree with you – it’s not easy to find, particularly on network television. Look, TV is an enormous investment. They want to know what they’re getting. They want it more f—king dialed in, because they’re scared to lose money on it. That’s why it’s great to be at a place like HBO, where they believe in us, and support us, and let us cast our friend from high schooland make the show that we want to make — which is unheard of, really.

IMDbTV: And this year, you may find yourselves competing against each other when the Emmys roll around. Are you two ready for that?

Jay: We talked about it.

Mark: We each brought our own therapists into the room, and we decided to just let our therapists have a boxing match and figure out what would happen. (Laughs.) I honestly have not even thought about that. Honestly, my first instinct is that it would be horrible if Jay and I were nominated in the same category for different shows, so that can’t happen. But at the same time…

Jay: If we’re both nominated, it’s like, what are you talking about? It would be the coolest thing in the world! I mean, honestly, the fact that I’m going the Golden Globes is insane to me. I’m going to be sitting with Jeffrey Tambor this year.

Mark: And you’re going to watch him in a Golden Globe.

Jay: I hope so. It would be amazing.

IMDbTV: Last question: If anyone were to sit down with you and ask you to recommend a TV series – besides the obvious answer – what would you tell them?

Mark: Go buy – immediately – “The Staircase”. It’s a 2004 series from the Sundance Channel. For those of you who are fans of Serial, get ready to have your minds blown wide open.

Jay: I agree with that. That was huge.

IMDbTV Pick: Fox’s “Empire”

January 7th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

Out of all the new series premiering in midseason, Fox’s “Empire” may be one of the best bets and the biggest gambles. Though set in the world of the hip-hop industry, and buoyed by an infectious soundtrack produced by Timbaland, the show is less about rap and R&B than it is about power and deep-seated family conflict, played out in a very glamorous, high-profile arena. These are familiar themes to anyone who has ever been hooked on a primetime soap like “Dallas.” If that’s your bag, you should definitely check out “Empire.”

But it’s been a very long time since Fox or any network backed a drama led by an African-American cast for an extended amount of time. As diverse as the 2014-2015 season may be — and most of the credit for that goes to ABC, let’s be honest — “Empire” feels like one of those terrific shows that premieres with a splash but face an uphill battle in the ratings after that. That said, I sincerely hope that this show wins over an audience that’s passionately fascinated with it.

“Empire” does have a lot working in its favor. The show’s pedigree is impressive, with auteur director Lee Daniels helming the series and Emmy-winning screenwriter Danny Strong co-executive producing beside him. (The pair previously worked together on Lee Daniels’s The Butler.) Hip-hop also is one of the most lucrative cultural products on the planet, permeating the further flung corners of the world in various forms, from Banksy’s murals to Jay-Z’s stadium shows. But it all comes back to the music, which is at its best when its poetry is raw, philosophical and speaks to every layer of society.

“Empire’s” pilot examines dichotomy between the deep soul and shallow excess existing within hip-hop through the prism of one man, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who rose from his start as a street hustler to become the CEO of Empire Records. At the height of his game, Lucious is diagnosed with a debilitating disease that will leave him a shell of his former self within three years. So he turns his focus on deciding on which of his sons will inherit the company, and this threatens to spark a war between the three of them.

Lucious has hunger and genius in him, and so do his sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray). But while Andre, the eldest, channels his business acumen into growing the family business, his youngest brother Hakeem is living the rich rapper stereotype – drinking, spending tons of money and sleeping around.

Even so, Lucious favors him over Jamal, the child who displays profound musical talent and production skills, even saving his wayward brother from recording a terrible track that could end his career before it starts. Jamal’s gifts are where the money can be made in the long run, but Lucious is too blinded by his shame over Jamal’s homosexuality to cultivate his career.

Another wrinkle arrives in the form of Lucious’s ex-wife and former drug dealing partner Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who took the fall for Lucious. She gets an early release from prison and returns to claim a financial stake in the label – one of many secrets is that it was built on a foundation of drug money — and to bring Jamal under her wing as his manager. But Cookie is as mercurial and cunning as Lucious, and shows signs of being less interested in protecting and nurturing her son than using him as a tool to destroy her ex and take over the company.

Henson and Howard are still great together onscreen. The pair previously won acclaim for their work in Hustle & Flow, and each brings a signature fire “Empire”. The scenes they have together are more of a tense, electrified tango than a dialogue exchange, capturing the spirit of a pair of exes who still respect one another but hide knives in their sleeves just in case.

“Empire” has a winning cadence, and like any good nighttime soap, it’s probably about as accurate a portrayal of the music industry as “Falcon Crest” was about the winemaking business, but that’s beside the point. What’s novel about this show is the way that it uses the family drama hook to examine some of the uglier aspects of one of pop culture’s most lucrative and celebrated platforms. Hip-hop culture has taken its knocks (rightly so) for its cavalier promotion of sexism, materialism and excess, but although discussions about the culture’s tacit acceptance of homophobia bubble to the surface now and then, this may be one of the most public arenas in which it plays out.

One devastating scene in the pilot shows Lucious’s rage-filled reaction to seeing Jamal, shown as a young boy, emerge from his parents’ bedroom to show off in front of houseguests while wearing his mother’s heels and a scarf on his head. Making it particularly shattering is the fact that it’s based on a real event from Daniels’ life when he did the same thing, leading to his father angrily tossing him into a garbage can.

That this is something that we’re seeing this is a primetime show, along with a number of other details that ring true, is a small revolution in itself. How intelligently and effectively these issues are explored in subsequent episodes will be the real test – and I hope Fox gives this show time to develop these stories as well as all the Lyons’ family drama.

Empirepremieres at 9pm Wednesday, January 7 on Fox.

Review: ABC’s “Agent Carter”

January 6th, 2015 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)


Anyone who delighted in seeing Jason Bourne do serious damage to a knife-wielding opponent while armed with nothing but a pen, knows how satisfying it is to watch an expert fighter work magic with mundane devices. One can savor a similar thrill tonight during the first of two episodes of “Agent Carters” eight-episode run on ABC, when the determined Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) efficiently beats a villain senseless with a stapler. I should mention that she does so while wearing a platinum blonde wig and full length evening gown. What’s that famous quote from the late, great Texas governor Ann Richards about women being just as capable as men? Ah yes: “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards, and in high heels.”

After World War II and Captain America’s disappearance, Peggy Carter dances as nimbly as ever… though the world is no longer playing her tune. Sidelined within the boys club that is the Strategic Scientific Reserve, aka the SSR, Agent Carter is relegated to answering phones and fetching coffee. But watching our heroine grapple with sexism isn’t the main thrust of this show. Rather, we’re invited along for the ride as Peggy Carter demonstrates all of the ways that she refuses to let a dour manly man’s world keep her behind a desk, or from saving the day. Seeing Peggy get her fire back as she resumes her life as an operative, unbeknownst to her clueless co-workers, makes “Agent Carter” exciting television.

Remember how shakily “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” began? That show struggled to find its identity at first, striving to balance its role as a bridge between the Avengers theatrical releases and working as a freestanding vehicle. It only began to find its footing until late into season one. “Agent Carter’s” vision is much clearer out of the gate, and her story stands on its own brilliantly. Although snippets from Captain America: The First Avenger appear in tonight’s opener, the Chris Evans cameos woven into these episodes serve as the nylon on the show’s legs. No, this is Atwell’s vehicle to drive; the confident, sly smile on her face after Peggy pulls off a particularly jolting escapade is enough to make a person commit to seeing this limited series through to the end.

Her undercover work is at odds with her day job however; this time, she’s battling to clear the name of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role from Captain America). In 1946, Captain America has been transformed from a flesh and blood hero into a cartoon character at the center of his own radio serial. In the same way that his exploits have blurred into legend during the deep exhale of peacetime, Agent Carter’s colleagues think of the woman who guided Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos as nothing more than the Captain’s girlfriend. Chad Michael Murray, Kyle Bornheimer and Shea Whigham play Carter’s less enlightened peers, although one of her fellow agents, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) treats her with a level of respect and chivalry reminiscent of the Captain. That could have something to do with the fact that Sousa’s co-workers have all but kicked him aside too, thanks to a crippling injury sustained in the war.

The only person who truly prizes Carter’s know-how is Stark, and he enlists her assistance after a few of his deadliest inventions are stolen and begin popping up on the black market, making him as public enemy number one. While he’s on the run from the authorities, Stark lends Carter the services of his manservant Edwin Jarvis (a well-cast James D’Arcy) who, like Miss Carter, maintains a sense of propriety even in the most life threatening situations. D’Arcy and Atwell play off of one another quite well, particularly as it becomes clearer that Stark’s woes are only part of a deadlier master plan woven by forces that may be beyond their ken.

Perhaps not: One clear mission that “Agent Carter” embarks upon is in showing the heroism in normal people with nothing superhuman about them. Peggy Carter wears a mask and costume every day in the office, and in one gorgeously staged scene, she’s neatly dressed up in her lost hero’s red, white and blue while the world around her hums along in pale jackets and beige uniforms. Her pulse-racing adventures in espionage happen when she’s off the clock and in the dark, making her the secret weapon nobody expects. She works the fact that her colleagues underestimate her at every turn to her advantage.

This also is the case, one suspects, when it comes to wider expectations for this show. ABC hasn’t scored a decisive win out of midseason for some time, and spinoff can be tough to sell to winter-weary audiences. But if the remaining episodes of “Agent Carter” are as tightly executed as the first two, one hopes Marvel fills Peggy Carter’s dance card with more adventures in the future.

Agent Carter” premieres with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday, January 5 at 8pm on ABC.


 

There’s a curious frustration I reserve for a show like ABC’s “Galavant,” a musical comedy that gets pretty much everything in the prescribed formula right, yet still comes up agonizingly short of being recommendable. Granted, two words in the previous sentence disqualify this fairy tale…spoof? Parody?…outright, and that is the phrase “musical comedy.” Said term makes some viewers itch at the very reading of it, and if you’re one of these people, nothing that anyone says will convince you to watch this show.

But those viewers are less of a concern to ABC than whether “Galavant” will connect with everyone else — particularly those of us who, for reasons we can barely remember now, used to be head over heels in love with the only other musical series in recent memory to find success in primetime, “Glee.” If this odd comedy fails, it won’t be for lack of trying. That, at least, deserves appreciation.

If nothing else, you should watch Sunday’s premiere if only to appreciate the fact that something as out there as this show made it into the primetime line-up at all. One could guess that somebody sprinkled too much of Tinkerbell’s pixie dust into the water at ABC’s offices during last year’s pilot season, but we’re talking about a network that’s desperate to find any new comedies that work. Why not “Galavant”? Why not, indeed? We’ll get to that soon enough.

First, let’s explain “Galavant”: The title character is a brave hero (played by Joshua Sasse) whose exploits are celebrated in song and lyrics throughout the land. “Square jaw and perfect hair/cojones out to there!…Yay! He rules in every way! A fairy tale cliché!” Galavant’s greatest challenge arises when his lady love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen) is kidnapped by the evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) who intends to force her to be his queen. Therefore Galavant rides to the rescue of Madalena, only to discover that she doesn’t really want to be rescued.

As demonstrated by the kidnapping business, King Richard is kind of a rhymes-with-Rick whose most recent exploits include conquering the nearby kingdom of Valencia. That kingdom’s princess, Isabella (Karen David), seeks out Galavant to help her reclaim her land and free her people. Unfortunately by the time she’s found Galavant, he’s a sedentary drunk who can’t even be moved to rise from bed by his squire Sid (Luke Youngblood, recognizable to “Community‘s” fans as Magnitude). Eventually he manages to stand up again, and they take the fun on the road.

On paper “Galavant” reads like a show with promise; on the screen, it looks like the loony love child of “The Princess Bride” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each musical number also is filled with crisp humor that’s family friendly yet rich with double entendres, many not particularly subtle, brought to us by combined talents of executive producer Dan Fogelman (who wrote “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and co-wrote “Tangled“), lyricist Glenn Slater (also of “Tangled”), and celebrated Broadway musical composer Alan Menken. Most of the cast is a hoot, as are the guest stars; it’s a treat to see Vinnie Jones hamming it up as King Richard’s muscle Gareth, and Ricky Gervais shows up to play a magician in a future episode. This Sunday, John Stamos makes an appearance as Galavant’s nemesis, an equally handsome and skilled knight named…Jean Hamm. Get it?

All of this sounds like a bounty of fun, right? As successful as most of the punchlines are, though, they land with the subtlety of an artillery assault — and behind all of these zingers, you’ll find very little heart or real warmth. Even the most sugary meringue of a successful Broadway musical is tethered to Earth by genuine emotion; it’s the ingredient that gives rise to all of those catchy melodies that sell soundtracks. “Galavant,” though, is so set on winning over the skeptical primetime audience with its wild uniqueness that it forgot to fill its colorful settings and armor with a dose of humanity and soul. The jokes grow old very quickly.

At the moment the series is only eight episodes long. That may be tidy enough for a number of viewers to stick around and see if “Galavant” eventually arrives at some version of happily ever after. But don’t be surprised if you get to the end of the first episode, or maybe the second, and find yourself willing to close the book on this brave little comedy with a succinct and simple, “Good luck with all that.”

Galavantpremieres 8pm Sunday, January 4 on ABC.

 

IMDbTV Pick: Syfy’s “Ascension”

December 15th, 2014 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

In an industry where an 80 percent failure rate is pretty much the norm, every TV project is an experiment.

But a miniseries like Syfy’s “Ascension” is a grand experiment on several levels, from subject to the viewer’s interpretation. Especially this viewer’s interpretation — the first hour made me ask myself, many times, exactly what it was that I was watching. Was it supposed to look like the love child of “Mad Men” and “The Love Boat“? Did half the cast attend a workshop at the William Shatner School for Drama? Is this thing for real?

Yet I didn’t give up on the hour that Syfy made available to me, either. I saw it through to the finish and was glad for the payoff. The end of that first episode changed a number of my initial impressions.

“Ascension” is a space adventure with a retro twist. As the story goes, President John F. Kennedy commissioned a classified military study called Project Orion, which examined the possibility of creating a gigantic vessel capable of launching into deep space and propelled by the force of detonated atomic bombs. It sounds interesting, if more than a little nutty, and apparently was never declassified.

In “Ascension’s” alternate reality the launch actually did take place, in secret, sending 350 souls on a deep space odyssey that began in 1963. The miniseries drops us into the journey more than half a century after launch, at the point of no return. The ship is populated by the children of the initial voyagers, and William Denninger (Brian Van Holt) is its Captain, with his wife Viondra Denninger (Tricia Helfer) serving as the equivalent of the ship’s first lady. Not an inaccurate description, considering the political nature of the ship’s social structure: Everyone is born into their roles. Pregnancies must be approved, marriages arranged. This also means discontent boils beneath the surface; being a faithful spouse, for example, is less important than maintaining order and political supremacy. And the guys who do the dirty work understandably are not thrilled with their lot in life.

Ascension’s closed society works for 51 years until it has to deal with its first murder, spurring an investigation by First Officer Aaron Gault (Brandon P Bell), who has no idea of how to take on a homicide case. This is where “Ascension” gets interesting from both a performance and a storytelling perspective. You see, the ’60s-era launch means the architecture, interiors and fashion on the ship are stylistically frozen in the mid-20th century. So, too, are Ascension’s inhabitants, to a certain degree; its society is multicultural, which is a science fiction ideal and a welcome aspect of this presentation, but perhaps not in keeping with the actual sentiment of the time period. This does not strain credulity any more than the idea that a gigantic ship propelled by nuclear explosion could launch secretly anywhere on Earth does.

But it bears pointing out because it’s obvious that other values and mannerisms on display in Ascension’s society evolved within a space that never witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act or the Feminist movement, never experienced the end of the war in Vietnam or saw the Berlin Wall come down — and did not live through the cultural shifts that happened because of these historic developments.

And here’s the interesting idea within “Ascension,” one that might develop further over nights two and three, or might not. What happens when a segment of the human population is encapsulated at a specific point in time and completely removed from a larger world? Is that a benefit, or to its detriment? At the very least, the visuals fascinate. As I stated above, some of the performances in the miniseries suffer from a pulpy flatness, which makes more sense when Gault turns to an old timey noir detective film to get tips on how to investigate a homicide. If they’re getting life instructions from old movies, it’s no wonder that the acting of everyone we see on Earth — yes, there’s an Earth-based contingent — comes across as more believable and lifelike than that of the wooden deep space folk.

Maybe this is one science-fiction fan trying to find excuses for flaws in a show that she really wants to love, and those flaws hold no deeper meaning. It could very well be that “Ascension” represents another of Syfy’s swings for the fences that ends up being a whiff. Or this three-night miniseries could ultimately be considered successful enough to launch into a fully-realized weekly drama. Like I said, it’s a tricky experiment.

Whether I’m on to something or just fooling myself, it’ll be interesting to find out where this mission goes, and whether it sticks the landing.

Ascensionpremieres 9pm Monday, December 15, continuing at 9pm Tuesday, December 16 and 9pm Wednesday, December 17 on Syfy.

IMDbTV Pick: HBO’s Olive Kitteridge

October 27th, 2014 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks - (Comments Off)

While a person probably would not want to spend much time with a real-life version of Olive Kitteridge, a woman who sums up the state of her supposedly golden years by declaring that she’s just waiting for her dog to die so she can shoot herself, visiting her over the course of four hours in HBO’s superb miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” is a moving, unforgettable experience. This is particularly true if you’re in the habit of keeping track of award contenders; it’s nearly a guarantee that the dour and plainspoken Olive will have a heavy presence in upcoming awards shows.

Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) is a stubborn woman, intolerant of impoliteness and bad behavior in children. She observes the goings-on in her New England town with the air of self-imposed exile; at times, she appears to be downright spiteful. But her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) balances out his wife’s moodiness by overflowing with patience and a generosity that, in turn, magnifies the truth of Olive. She is, in fact, a deeply sensitive and caring soul masking her shriveled aspirations and broken heart with a permanent scowl.

Elizabeth Strout’s stunning Pulitzer Prize winning novel spun thirteen different narratives into one story, an ambitious feat by itself. But she also wove these tales through an initially unlikable character’s life, raising our estimation of Olive in the process. That’s a level of storytelling mastery that tough to replicate on the screen. Fortunately HBO and McDormand, who optioned the novel for the screen, made a terrific choice in director Lisa Cholodenko .

Cholodenko specializes in bringing uniquely complex character studies to life, as if opening tight shutter slats to allow the audience a peek into the minds and hearts of difficult souls. Her rendering of Strout’s creation is spare and unblinking, and as perfect as McDormand’s nuanced, tender portrayal of Olive. An eleventh-hour storyline featuring Bill Murray gives him the chance to flex his singular ability infuse deep pathos with light comedy, but watching McDormand and Jenkins together will break your heart, and mend it, over and over again.

Olive Kitteridge airs over two nights, 9pm Sunday, November 2 and 9pm Monday, November 3, on HBO.

Taking Aim on “Arrow’s” Third Season

September 29th, 2014 | Posted by Melanie McFarland in IMDb Picks | Uncategorized - (Comments Off)

All successful genre series are build on a strong foundation of deep character development and credible mythology. When a show does those things well and manages to survive its first two years, then everyone involved in making it can relax — theoretically — into a more adventurous third season.

The wise ones only relax a little, though. While a third season renewal usually indicates a certain level of confidence on the network’s part, it also means that the creative stakes are higher than ever. One imagines a sort of freedom in that; writers can swing for the fences by expanding into ever more complex storylines and stickier moral challenges. Consider that the third season of “Buffy” gave us Faith, the dark side of the Slayer personified. The third season of “Battlestar Galactica” explored humanity’s occupation on New Caprica. Season three of “The Walking Dead” introduced us to the prison, Woodbury and The Governor.

All signs point to The CW’s “Arrow” following a similar trajectory, thanks to the thoughtful stewardship of the Green Arrow’s origin story by executive producers Greg Berlanti,  Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg. They, and the rest of “Arrow’s” writers, have molded Oliver Queen into a believably human figure, albeit one with outstanding aim, near-superhuman fighting abilities and the kind of athleticism extreme sport champions would sell their souls to have. That’s all wonderful, and Heaven knows many a viewer drools during scenes that require star Stephen Amell (and his similarly sculpted co-stars David Ramsey, Manu Bennett and Colton Haynes) to go shirtless. But if “Arrow” relied on the eye candy of this world, allowing its characters to be rendered in the 2-D heightened emotional style of a comic book, we would be talking about what it might have been as opposed to musing upon what it is becoming.

Oliver is a tortured man — no shortage of those in the world of superheroes. He bleeds, he sweats, he is fallible. But he also learns from his mistakes in a way that the average soul watching at home can relate to.  That bears pointing out in a fall television season that will have three comic book-related titles on the schedule before Christmas (“Gotham” has already premiered, with “The Flash” and “Constantine” making their debuts during October) and another, “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” due in midseason. So many great options for superhero fans, and so many opportunities for the TV renderings of these characters to go wrong. Already I’m noticing evidence of directors nudging their actors to color their performances like the fantastical characters inked onto pages, tinging their dialogue with campy lilts that belong in quote bubbles.

Wrong.  Stop.

Take a page from “Arrow’s” playbook instead. Amell’s Oliver plays the arrogant rich boy as his mask, but there was an arrogance to his vigilante mission as well… until that quality lost him almost everything, Starling City included. Amell played out that struggle superbly in season two, which wouldn’t matter a bit if his co-stars Ramsey, Katie Cassidy, Emily Bett Rickards and Paul Blackthorne did match his even-keeled performance with their own. They make a world where villains in masks and thugs hopped up on a mystical drug from an island can terrorize the streets seem absolutely plausible. Why? Because although they’re in fictional Starling City, everyone acts as if they’re in any other real world urban environment… as if Starling City were just a short train ride away from, say, Boston.

Again, this is the foundation and the ground floor. In the story Guggenheim and Berlanti have been constructing, Oliver is still navigating the fallout from his failure to stop Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) in season one, and the near destruction of his city in season two at the hands of his former ally Slade Wilson (Bennett). Without spoiling the story for viewers who still haven’t watched “Arrow”, circumstances have forced Oliver to grow up and accept his family’s mantle as the head of Queen Consolidated, while his alter ego The Hood has established himself as the force of good holding Starling City together.

Oliver also may be looking to ditch his playboy image, if what Amell told reporters in July is true. “Oliver has one woman this year. That woman is Felicity,” he said, giving hope to ‘shippers everywhere who are rooting for the rich boy to finally give his heart to the very able but meek, bespectacled tech nerd on his team. Don’t get your hopes up too much — our understanding is most of what happens involves tying up loose ends from the season two finale. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll end up being together. “We talk about some pretty important stuff in the premiere, and if Oliver were to have a fling, it would undermine some of that,” Amell explained to reporters. “So I think that the cavalcade of women is going to slow down, or stop.”

But it’s not the heroes, or the ‘shipping, that makes “Arrow” and shows like it such fun to watch — it’s the villains. Already we know that Malcolm Merlyn is back and has taken Ollie’s sullen sister Thea (Willa Holland) off to places unknown to exert his influence over her. At Comic-Con, Amell teased that certain characters we’ve encountered in passing during seasons one and two (along the lines of Amanda Waller, known to DC Comics fans as the head of Project Cadmus) will return. We’ll find out more about the circumstances under which they crossed paths with Oliver.

The main lure for season three, however, is its Big Bad: The Arrow will be tangling with one of DC’s most fearsome characters, Ra’s al Ghul, memorably played in Batman Begins by the Liam Neesons.  Neeson is busy with other projects,  not to mention that he’s probably too expensive to fit The CW’s budget, so in “Arrow,” the role will be filled by Matt Nable. Amell hinted that a few unlikely alliances must be formed to defeat him. The writers obviously kept Merlyn alive for a reason, right?

This is the time of year when viewers get their hopes up for a lot of shows, both new and returning, only to have them dashed by November sweeps. Fortunately the CW’s “Arrow” is one of the few surer shots on the schedule. Oliver Queen never fails his city, or his fans. We can’t wait to see what the show’s producers have built for us this time.

Arrow” premieres at 8pm Wednesday, October 8 on The CW.

Venice Announces Awards

September 6th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)


Well, you gotta give Venice points for originality. Two years ago the Golden Lion went to the odd Korean film, PIETA. Last year it went to the Italian film SACRO GRA (which also won best film at the Seville Film Festival). This year, instead of handing out the awards to BIRDMAN, including Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for the Silver Lion and Michael Keaton for Best Actor, as I would have, well, take a look for yourself.

Regret in Venice

September 5th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

Any time you leave a festival there are twinges of regret. You chose this film from a filmmaker you love over another by an unknown, only to find that your director has stumbled while hearing the roar of the crowd as the critics applaud the other work rapturously.

There’s also the films you never even had a shot at in the first place because these films screened late (or early) in the festival’s run.

That’s where I find myself now that PASOLINI has debuted. The film made by Abel Ferrara, depicts the final days in the life of the infamous Italian filmmaker and provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini and stars Willem Dafoe in the title role.

The Hollywood Reporter called it “more interesting in theory than achievement.”

Catharine Bray of HitFix said it was a “biopic-as-arthouse-collage, strictly for those willing to dive headfirst into an immersive, bitty, talky, messy and bold scrapbook of Pasolini’s final days”

I’m also missing out on:

Oh well.

Capsule Reviews: OLIVE KITTERIDGE

September 4th, 2014 | Posted by keithsim in Venice - (Comments Off)

There are many reasons to applaud what HBO has done for us, the audience, and for filmmakers wishing to make quality work. One only needs to look to OLIVE KITTERIDGE for the proof of that. The story, based upon a book by Elizabeth Strout, does not have the epic scope nor the “gottcha” cliff-hangers too often the norm now with popular television series. It’s too short, too complex and too intimate to fit the standard definition of a mini-series so networks would avoid making it. The subject matter, mental imbalance and disease and marital and parental discord, doesn’t seem to fit well with habits among the movie-going public so it’s unlikely a studio would have greenlit it. Caught between two worlds the story needed something like Home Box Office.

But it also needed the principal filmmakers. Director Lisa Cholodenko may have produced her best work yet with KITTERIDGE. She has also enabled the best performances from Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, no small feat considering their respective filmographies.

The story is done in four parts and recounts, by going back and forth in time, the marriage of Olive and Henry Kitteridge in their seaside town in Maine. Henry is a positive, easy-going pharmacist who is polite and conforming to a caution. That’s in stark contrast to Olive, a tense, judgmental school teacher. She berates Henry and, originally, appears desperately unhappy in her marriage. They have raised a surly, smart-mouthed boy, Christopher (played, as a teen by Devin Druid), who has picked up his mother’s trait of delivering acerbic and cruel responses. Life looks bleak for all involved and, not being familiar with the book, I wondered when the DOLORES CLAIBORNE stuff was going to start. It never did.

Instead what unfolded was a tender examination and rich character study of what makes some people, and some couples, function or not. Wonderful and complicated no one is given one-note characters. Each has moments of weakness, of pettiness, of vindictiveness but also of kindness and even heroism. This is especially true of Olive.

McDormand delivers the performance of her life. Olive is a scold, a termagent, the kind of woman that other people talk about in hushed tones. She’s the bad mother-in-law, the mean teacher and the hen who pecks her husband in one package. Yes, she’s blunt but she’s also attuned to the lies and niceties of society, put in place to keep people from talking about and acknowledging the real problems, of depression, insanity, hopelessness and cruel fate. In spite of all this she is truly loved by Henry and, eventually in KITTERIDGE, we understand why.

Richard Jenkins’s Henry is another quality creation by the actor. The pharmacist, so utterly cheery, is obviously not a fool, and Cholodenko and Jenkins dig into what makes a man like Henry behave the way he does. Is he so afraid of confrontation and chaos that he’s unwilling to challenge her? Or, is he so attuned to what she’s feeling, knowing her history, that he understands what drives her radical mood swings. In this series, it’s a bit of that and more.

There are also numerous surprises here, of the best kind, both unexpected and organic. To give but one example, when Cholodenko takes us to meet the grown up Chris we expect a petulant, entitled adult. He turns out, however, to be a caring, tender man, a podiatrist by trade, who has worked through therapy to heal the wounds his mother inflicted on him.

To make these revelations work Cholodenko has gotten great performances from all her other players as well. Of particular note is Cory Michael Smith, who plays Kevin Coulson, an abused child who comes back as a haunted young man, and the grown up Christopher, played by John Gallagher Jr.. You can watch Gallagher’s Chris tamping down his genetic inheritance, rage and retribution, in nearly every frame.

Though I would have loved more resolution (there are some characters, such as Kevin Coulson, who essentially disappears) this is a series to be cherished, like a beloved novel, where we are given insight into lives we would dismiss in real life and are richer for it.