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The Path Season One

One of Hulu’s first forays into original programming, The Path is a compelling journey. Tackling issues of what faith means to different individuals, and how perception shapes reality, The Path ends up being more than a showcase for peak television actors. While it stumbles a bit in the hazy details, and often has more ideas in its head than on screen, it still remains a complex Spring binge with more than a few tricks up its sleeve.

A show like The Path requires convincing world-building. We have to buy in to whatever its characters are buying into, otherwise everything falls apart. Luckily, The Path is provocative from the get-go, asking questions you may not get answers to at the end of each episode. Airing weekly instead of using the binge model proves to be beneficial for this series, from creator Jessica Goldberg and executive producer Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood).

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The show introduces us to the fictional religion of Meyerism. With its own lexicon and terminology, The Path wastes no time getting us acquainted with climbing “The Ladder,” as its called, to enlightenment. Its followers gather at a compound for worship and spiritual development led by the charismatic leader Cal (Hugh Dancy). Its easy to see why Meyerism’s followers are drawn to Cal – he’s appealling and enigmatic. Dancy’s performance draws you in, and you’ll fall for him and his words, but we quickly learn that Cal isn’t all that he seems.

Most of the conflict is mined from the characters of Eddie (Aaron Paul) and Sarah (Michelle Monaghan). Sarah has a tight relationship with leader Cal and is a powerful leader in The Movement in her own right. Her husband Eddie, while on a retreat in Peru completing another step of The Ladder, suffers a crisis of faith and begins to question the fundamental beliefs of Meyerism. His questioning is the catalyst for his psychological unraveling as Eddie’s relationships begin to crumble, with Paul channeling significant angst in a brilliant post-Bad role. He seeks out a Meyerism defector and this sets the stage for a spiritual brawl. The couple’s son, Hawk, ends up being more than just a teen-angst vehicle as well, as he completes the steps to become an adult in The Movement and take his vows. Like Eddie, he suffers a religious crisis of his own after he develops feeling for a girl at his school who wants nothing to do with The Movement.

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While its supporting characters are not nearly as convincing as its leads, they still add much to the world-building and character of the not-a-cult Meyerism. Mary (Emma Greenwell), a recovering addict, is our entrypoint into Meyerism as she is “saved” in a rescue effort and becomes devoted to The Movement. Greenwell is game and gives Mary many different shades as her character explores blossoming spiritual attraction as well as romantic attraction. Meanwhile, FBI agent Abe (Rockmund Dunbar) is investigating The Movement after their suspicious activity following a natural disaster in which they welcomed victims into their compound. Most of this conflict is external, as Abe gets closer and closer to the truth, but it remains the least compelling piece of the puzzle. We know the investigation won’t really lead anywhere, and seeing Abe stumble and face personal faith crises of his own grows repetitive and a tad inconsequential.

The Path accomplishes what it sets out to do, and more. It explores faith in a variety of different avenues – Sarah’s faith to both Eddie and Cal, Mary’s newfound faith, Hawk’s faith to his family and Ashley – and does so without feeling preachy or ostentatious. It remains a well-acted and beautifully produced show, leaving me anxious for its second season.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Sing Street

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Like John Carney’s previous films, Sing Street is immediately endearing. It has a certain charm and swagger that other films can only dream to achieve. Despite its predictable plot points that come with the confines of a coming-of-age film, Sing Street is an enjoyable romp, with a great cast and some great tunes.

Sing Street is at its best when it’s just the band jamming out. Protagonist Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms this eccentric group of kids after struggling to fit in at his new school. His parents are going through a divorce, and he wants to impress a model across the street named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). It’s cute, of course, but Sing Street prefers to delve deeper into Connor’s head and what songwriting means to him. Forming a band initially for selfish reasons turns out to be just what he needed.

The script goes through all the motions of a coming-of-age film, but that doesn’t mean Sing Street cannot stand out. For one thing, the soundtrack is immediately noticeable, featuring ’80s hits from Duran Duran, Hall & Oats, The Cure and more. It’s a treat, and these songs are introduced to Connor by his brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, a standout), and the film gets significant mileage out of his relationship with his underachieving stoner brother. The original songs, co-written by Carney himself (the film is semi-autobiographical) are also brilliant and follow the storytelling logically and musically. Beginning with “The Riddle of the Model” all the way to “Girls,” the songs are lyrically complex and easy on the ears.

Connor goes through all the ups and downs that come with growing up in 1980s Dublin at a Catholic school. He’s bullied, tormented by the school principal, but the band allows him to express his creativity and non-conformity. As the band films their first video, they’re a hot mess, aesthetically and musically. But seeing them grow as musicians and individuals throughout the film is endearing and a joy to watch. Little things, like band member Eamon’s (Mark McKenna) love for rabbits, or the school bully’s surprising developments toward the end of the film, keep Sing Street from falling into any storytelling traps.

While the main romance can be a bit groan-inducing and heteronormative, you’ll find yourself rooting for Connor and his band to crush their gig at the school dance and for Connor to get the girl. Fine performances from the young actors breathe hopes and fears into these characters, such as Raphina’s desire to model in London or brother Brendan’s desire to be more than just the stoner inspirational sibling. Sing Street may not be the most daring of films, but its eccentricities and fantasies turn it into a fine gift this spring.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Girls Season Five

Comeback seasons are difficult, yet Girls pulls it off in season five. If season four felt like the natural deconstruction of the main friend group, season five brings them back together in an assortment of different circumstances. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna have all matured in some capacity, and season five sets them on new paths as the show careens into its final season next year with heads held high.

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Season five saw the gang going in many different directions as they navigate careers, relationships, and hedonistic ambitions. Beginning with Marnie’s wedding in the season premiere, which we knew was doomed to fail, the first half of the season sees Hannah grow frustrated with her relationship with Fran (Jake Lacy). Hannah Horvath, possibly TV’s most detested protagonist, spends this season flashing her principal and satisfying Ray in a coffee truck, all while attempting to deal with her friend Jessa beginning a relationship with her ex Adam. And that’s not the worst that she does. I’ve always remained fond of Hannah despite her frustrating decisions and failure to learn from them. In season five, she does plenty of soul searching as she learns that Fran, the “nice guy” (despite his own misgivings), is not for her. She also grows as a writer, and delivers a knockout monologue in episode ten, a three-minute take that will leave you breathless. As the season closes, it ends with Hannah freed from Adam and Frankie Valli’s “I Love You Baby,” the “baby,” in this case, being herself.

These characters have all been so developed over the past four seasons, and it’s exciting to watch them grow and fail even more. The strength of Girls has always lied in the writing. Creator Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner know how to mine significant character development out of major life crises in their characters’ mid-twenties. Take Shoshanna, for example, who spends the first half of the season working abroad in Japan. While I would have loved to see her in Japan for the entire season, budget restrictions notwithstanding, sending her back to New York has forced her to put her always-bubbly personality to use. She breaks off a relationship and dives into Ray’s coffee shop with fresh ideas and a new work ethic and appreciation gained from immersing herself in Japanese culture. The third episode, “Japan,” is one of the series’ highlights, and Shosh will never be the same.

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Marnie, on the other hand, has always been the selfish one, yet this season that all changes. Marrying Desi may have seemed like a dream come true, yet it all falls apart in the brilliant “Panic in Central Park,” when Marnie spends a day with her ex Charlie, and ends with a dissolution of her marriage. Brilliant camera work and cinematography bring to life Marnie’s day of self-discovery, and it might be the best episode of the series to date. Following her breakup, she remains Desi’s music partner, and I’m excited the most to see how her journey comes to a close in season six.

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And then we come to Jessa and Adam. Jessa has always been the more carefree wild card of the group, but since she’s been seeing Adam, we see her struggle with reconciling her friendship with Hannah while dating her ex. Jessa is obviously aware of what Adam meant to Hannah, and while putting the two together might not make much sense in the scope of the show (there isn’t much chemistry at all) and we aren’t quite sure of what drew the two together, Konner and Dunham make significant strides in adding shades to Jessa while letting Adam remain relevant as Driver moves onto bigger and better things. I never particular cared for Jessa, but I’ve definitely come around following season five. A recurring theme of Girls has always been that the girls will always remain friends no matter where they are or what goes on between them. Jessa’s devotion to Hannah is significant because despite their nasty fights in ice cream shops, at the end of the day they’re still best friends.

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The big takeaway from season five of Girls, then, would be that creative renaissances can come at the most unexpected times. I’ve always thought of the show as under appreciated, as I’ve enjoyed the series’ take on femininity in a post-SATC TV world. Season five saw all the women growing from unexpected developments, whether its from a change in scenery in Shosh’s case or a more reflective change, such as Elijah’s refusal to be mistreated by his new beau Gil (Corey Stoll). As a show, Girls has matured significantly as have its performers, and the final season should wrap up the show neatly, wherever these girls end up.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Miles Ahead

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In a biopic about a legendary jazz musician, it can be tempting for the production to mimic the genre itself – carefree, improvisational, and loose. Miles Ahead is all of these things, but it goes the extra mile and remembers to be a cohesive film, taking two distinct periods of Davis’s life and weaving them together. The result is a confident film that knows what it wants to say, anchored by a powerful performance from Don Cheadle.

When production was announced on Miles Ahead, I was ecstatic, but the film isn’t quite what I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Director and star Don Cheadle has a very tight grip on Davis. He knows how he works, his inner psyche, and what music means to him. The care that Cheadle has put into the film isn’t unnoticed, and it makes the film all the better. Cheadle’s performance is brilliant. While there isn’t a scene where he gets to steal the show, and I doubt awards will flock to this understated turn, he still delivers fantastic results. Davis’s raspy voice, his bravado, his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, it’s all here.

Miles Ahead is structured like most music biopics, never comfortably sitting in one period of its subject’s life for too long. On one side is Davis’s drug-addled, improvisational period. Approached by reporter Dave (Ewan McGregor) to write a piece for Rolling Stone magazine, the two go on a wild goose chase when a session tape goes missing – this includes a last-ditch attempt to buy cocaine from a college student. Miles Ahead gets a bit zany with its set pieces, as Cheadle doesn’t seem confident in letting the plot breathe, but the banter between Dave and Miles is fun and one of the film’s highlights. We get to see how Davis worked (or didn’t work) with others, and his commitment to making a comeback in the late 1970s. The other half of this equation is Cheadle’s love affair with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the impact she had on his life that leads Davis to the reckless behavior. Corinealdi is brilliant in the role, and she stands toe-to-toe with Cheadle, keeping Davis’s ego in check and his feet on the ground.

Whether Miles Ahead tells a true story is a conversation for another day (there’s even a car chase with bullets flying), but it is always compelling. Cheadle’s direction and playfulness with tone allows us to see different shades of Davis, whether he’s in a meeting with the head of Columbia Records, or improvising with his famous trio. A layered performance from Cheadle himself leaves a lasting impression, and while the film might stumble and get lost in the details, it emerges as a fine portrait of a beloved musician.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Blending true crime within the anthology framework, season one of American Crime Story is riveting. It’s the best show of 2016 so far, with standout performances and a tight script throughout its ten solid episodes. Focusing on such a well-known media event as the O.J. Simpson trial allows Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to throw creative curveballs into a story in which we already know the outcome. The result is a staggering series that hits modern issues of race, sexism, and the American legal system.

We all know the story of the O.J. murders, so American Crime Story doesn’t waste time filling you in. The first two episodes, as thrilling as they are, serve to introduce you to the key players in what became the trial of the century. O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), acclaimed football hall of famer is accused of murdering his ex Nicole and her boyfriend Ronald. Family friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and litigator Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) step up to the plate to defend him, while Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) prosecutes Simpson on two counts of murder. We see the facts of the case, but there is so much underneath that is waiting to explode as the season progresses.

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Key to these explosive moments are the performances, standouts being Paulson but also Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who takes over as defense lawyer on the “dream team.” Vance is simply phenomenal, and he brings Cochran to life as a villain but also one within reason, never making him outlandish. I thought many times throughout the trial if Cochran actually believed O.J. was innocent, but that’s beside the point. He had a job, which was to convince the jury and the public that O.J. did not commit the crimes, and he damn well did it. The way he speaks to the jury, with his over-dramatic and flagrant ego, is less about convincing them of O.J’s innocence, and more about creating a discussion about race relations and police brutality.

As the trial gets more and more complex, witnesses include ex-cop Mark Fuhrman, who reportedly used the n-word in recordings, sparking the prosecution to turn the jury against the LAPD in general. Another pivotal scene involves Simpson placing the iconic black glove onto his hand to see if it fits. Another involves the prosecution and defense cherry-picking their jurors to stack the deck. All of these scenes serve a larger purpose, and are directed and acted with precision.

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A standout episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” turns the tables and focuses primarily on Marcia Clark, who was probably affected the most by the trial overall. Her evidence is sound, but public opinion toward her is not. As she walks in the courtroom with a fresh haircut following intense media scrutiny against her gender and allegations from her ex-husband, Paulson turns Clark into more than just a hard-ass prosecutor going through a divorce. She makes her a statement for women in the workplace everywhere, as the trial consumes her life and her family. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and Paulson nails the key moments whether she’s drilling Simpson on the stand or flirting with fellow attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling Brown).

There’s so much to talk about around American Crime Story. I glossed over Cuba Gooding Jr’s performance, as surprisingly he’s not the true star of the show, but he handles Simpson brilliantly, and it’s a career comeback of sorts. While Schwimmer and Travolta are difficult to remove from their most famous roles, they still handle the dialogue that can get a bit over-the-top and Ryan Murphy-esque at times. Production-wise, everything nails it, from the period music selection to the direction inside and outside the courtroom, it’s a marvel. I’m highly anticipating season two, which reportedly will focus on Hurricane Katrina, as American Crime Story expertly weaves a web out of historical events that shocked the nation.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in TV Reviews

 

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Everybody Wants Some!!

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Beneath the exuberant playfulness and full-on machismo, Everybody Wants Some!! gets surprisingly deeper than it needs to get. But that’s par for the course for most of Richard Linklater’s films. What sets Everybody Wants Some!! apart from the rest of the pack is its lackadaisical approach. The relaxed nature of the film keeps it from getting overbearing or prophetic, focusing on what the movie does best, which is being completely outrageous and hilariously fun.

Marketed as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! follows a group of college baseball players as they manage to find who they are and navigate college in the 1980s. The loose narrative structure is a character in many of Linklater’s film, and he allows the plot to breathe and gives plenty of room for character development. Freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) is our audience surrogate, as he arrives to the frat house and attempts to fit in among his teammates and also discover who he is and who he wants to be.

Linklater does this through a series of brilliant encounters and sequences in disco halls and party houses that rival Animal House, but the best scenes come from the group of guys simply hanging out. A looming “x number of days before class” reminds us that their time is limited, and they certainly make the most of it. The film explores identity, specifically group identity as the men often put on fronts and suppress themselves in order to fit in and “make the team.” It also beautifully explores the male psyche and bloodlust for competition, whether its a simple ping-pong game or courting women.

The performances are all-around excellent, and Linklater’s team of mostly-unknowns bring complexity and loads of laughs to the group. When Jake arrives, we are introduced to each of the gang individually, all with their own quirks and personal philosophies. The film feels “lived-in,” like we just stumbled upon this dirty frat house and are introduced to its zany denizens. The dialogue and chemistry among the group is dynamic and real, full of quips and smart-assery, but also admiration. Characters like Finnegan (Glen Powell, a standout) often waxes poetic as he tries to score, yet he comes across as no less delusional as his fellow teammates. Other interactions with his teammates allow Jake to play the straight-man, but his straight-man feels welcomed and ingrained in the culture of the group. His reluctance to participate in some of the rituals but also his enthusiasm for belongingness forces Jake to look outside of the team for fulfillment. As he chases after Beverly (Zoey Deutsch), we’re rooting for him to learn from his mistakes and get the girl, but also grow responsible for his education while still bonding with the team. It’s brilliant characterization.

If this is indeed another masterpiece from Richard Linklater, it definitely ranks among his best. It certainly earns its place, with witty writing and a script full of scenes packed with laughs and complexity. Scene-stealing performers all get their chance to shine, never feeling like caricatures or stand-ins, but as fully-developed, real individuals. The film’s low-key approach feels like you’re hanging out with your buddies, as you guys figure out life as square pegs who struggle to fit into round holes.

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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Midnight Special

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Midnight Special is part chase movie, part science fiction pulp, and the end result is fascinating. It’s simple sci-fi, but the depth within the material makes the film as complex and thought-provoking as the old classics. Director Jeff Nichols knows how to convey a moving and intimate story, filled with thrills and masterful performances, yet keep the more outlandish stuff grounded.

The film opens marvelously, and you’ll be hooked from the get-go. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run from the authorities with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who just so happens to have mysterious powers. He’s fleeing a cult with his pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the three reunite with Alton’s birth mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), while avoiding militia who intend to turn Alton into a weapon.

Midnight Special may not seem like deep science fiction, and initially it isn’t. With its limited budget only allowing a few knockout effects, Midnight Special is limited to big ideas on a small scale, and Nichols has his work cut out for him. He knows this, and the best part of Midnight Special is its intriguing mystery. Opening in the middle of a thrilling chase sequence leaves the audience in wonder, constantly asking why Alton is so important and what exactly he is. We continue to ask these questions throughout, and some become answered while others don’t. The beauty of the film is its layering of the story, going back and forth between Roy’s exodus with Alton and the investigation into the boy by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver). Each scene is meticulous in revealing details and relationships, Nichols’s dialogue growing a bit frustrating towards the end yet intriguing nonetheless, and not a second is wasted.

Michael Shannon leads a tremendous cast, in what is becoming quite a fascinating director-actor relationship between the two. Shannon brings Roy’s faith and love in Alton to center stage, crafting a believable and intimate father-son bond, but it goes deeper than that. Shannon is able to conjure up such powerful emotions with just his eyes alone, he doesn’t even have that much to say in the film, yet we go along for the ride. Dunst and Edgerton also do fine work, the former playing an ex-cult member who hasn’t seen her son in years, and the latter being an underdeveloped state trooper whose blind faith in Alton adds interesting layers to the chase narrative.

I could see Midnight Special being a tad frustrating to certain viewers. Many questions are left open-ended and the finale is a bit rushed. But the film isn’t traditional science fiction; the self-contained story allows the world-building to remain simple, as the film is essentially a chase sequence mixed with disaster elements. But Nichols goes above and beyond in his characterization and production, making a beauty of a film.

 

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in Movie Reviews

 

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