Archive for September, 2014

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Gotham (Fox)

For the second year in a row, the most anticipated release of the Fall is an ambitious comic-book based serial. Except where ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of Shield landed with a somewhat muted thud and took months to become interesting, Gotham arrives with what appears to be a fully-realized aesthetic and a world populated with an expansive cast of interesting characters just begging to be explored further.

The Batman show without Batman centers on Ben McKenzie’s Det. Jim Gordon and it’s great to see McKenzie back on a mainstream series after a critically lauded but largely unseen stint on Southland. He’s an optimistic boy scout hoping to remain a decent man in an indecent time, aided/hindered by his morally ambiguous partner Harvey Bulloch (Donal Logue). Logue does a little scenery chewing in the pilot but in the pseudo-noir Gotham it fits, rather than distracts, from the subtly stylized vibe of the show.

Cracks begin to show in the form of Gordon’s seemingly plastic fiance, who looks like she stepped step off the set of Michael Bay’s latest Carl’s Jr. Commercial, and the casting of both a young bruce wayne and his surrogate father Alfred Pennyworth have me thinking that the less time spent at Wayne Manor the better.

No worry though, with Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and even Poison Ivy waiting in the wings, the show shouldn’t get bored anytime soon.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

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Madam Secretary (CBS)

Madam Secretary, which finds Tea Leoni as an overtly Clintonian Secretary of State is the perfect Exhibit A in a discussion about the failures of broadcast television. You can practically see the money that CBS dumped into this show, from the enormous cast peppered with veteran screen actors to the setting of governmental Washington, D.C.

And yet all you get is a poor-poor man’s House Of Cards, a glaring truth underscored by the presence of several HOC veterans. But where Frank Underwood is a dramatically fascinating character who solves his problems by throwing women in front of train, Leoni’s Secretary McCord is a bureaucrat who saves the day by making phone calls to men who do the dirty work off screen and then gets a makeover. Seriously that’s her Ace in the whole, a new dress and highlights. Compelling stuff. 

With neither the wisdom of West Wing, the comedy of Veep or the intrigue of Cards, Madam Secretary is the political drama with seemingly nothing to say.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

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Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC)

Interesting how now that are heroes are on the run and their organization in crumbles, this show seem to have more room to breathe than ever. No longer confined to their fancy airplane, the team has a secret base, a seemingly endless supply of Patton Oswalt clones (thank you very much) and a slew of new faces.

The show picks up after a brief time jump since the finale, when the Clairvoyant was defeated and the seedy Agent Ward was taken into custody. Skye is now in full-Jedi mode thanks to the training of Agent May and Fitz is back to work, albeit with a few lingering side effects from his near drowning.

Best of all, this season waists no time getting to its new big bad via flashback to the Captain America 1 days with Agent Carter and the Howling Comandoes storming a Hydra operation and taking possession of a deadly obelisk, the original 084. It makes a reappearance, as does our villain, and in the interim the team is tasked with a mission that reintroduces Adrian Pasdar’s Col. Talbot, who will hopefully be a more regular presence on the show and who will hopefully shave that awful mustache.

All in all, the show seems to still be capitalizing on its creative resurgence in the back half of season 1. Hopefully the writers keep the cylinders sliding but there’s always the possibility that longevity will slide the show back into bad habits.

Grade: B

Class: Subscribe (cautiously)

PILOTScorpion (CBS)

I was prepared to absolutely despite Scorpion, which perhaps explains why I was pleasantly surprised. Centered on Elyes Gabel’s Walter O’Brien (how this character has an Irish surname is beyond me), Scorpion is about a rag-tag group of misfit geniuses who are called up by Uncle Sam to help solve crises of national security (watch for the laughably bad “young version” of Robert Patrick’s Cabe Gallo in the opening minutes).

Walter has a complicated history with the U.S. Government, which we learn piecemeal throughout the pilot, but he is compelled to put that aside when the air traffic control software at LAX go haywire threatning  thousands of airplane passengers with a grisly and fiery death. Luckily his team happens to have the necessary expertise — computer programming, statistical calculations, psychoanalysis and mechanical engineering — to save the day, oh and they rope in Katherine McPhee, whose ability is that she’s pretty and has a smart kid or something.

The pilot reaches levels of laughable implausibility, particularly in the climax which sees our heroes driving on a runway beneath an airliner, and the just-in-the-nick-of-time shenanigans are going to get old quick. But the show also has a certain charm that I imagine pairs well with the soft sell thrills of CBS’ NCIS-loving audience. It’s a very adequate show, which sadly puts it ahead of much of the fold on today’s networks.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

800x533Modern Family (ABC)

At this point what can really be said about Modern Family. In its 6th season, the powerhouse sitcom is so firmly comfortable in its ways of expertly polished 22-minute comedy that the viewer can arrive, confident of experiencing a few genuine belly laughs with little surprise, before turning in for the night.

The premiere is a strong episode for the series, particularly the Dunphy storyline which sees Phil, Claire, Luke and Haley enjoying an ebullient summer while the more pessimistic Alex is away on some humanitarian endeavor. Elsewhere, Gloria and Jay play a game of sartorial chicken and Mitch and Cameron spat (once again) over their differing levels of romantic energy.

Nothing particularly daring, but still a great way to spend half and hour.

Grade: B+

Class: Whatever you do with Modern Family, keep doing it.

MARSAI MARTIN, MARCUS SCRIBNER, YARA SHAHIDI, ANTHONY ANDERSON, MILES BROWN, TRACEE ELLIS ROSSBlack-ish (ABC)

Black-ish has been marketed and scheduled as a companion to Modern Family but the show, in tone and subject matter, is truly a modern update on The Cosby Show. Centered by Anthony Anderson, the series revolves around a black family in white suburbia and particularly Anderson’s challenge as patriarch to “Keep It Real.”

It’s a good-looking show, shot in cinematic single-camera with no laugh track and popping with bright colors. But the dialogue is a little stilted and tries to hard to make a point about race in 21st century middle class America.

I think the show would benefit by dialing down the politics and focusing on its characters, but either way its a pleasant addition to the sit-com lineup (albeit one that makes me worried about Lawrence Fishbourne’s continued involvement in the best-show-you’re-not-watching Hannibal).

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

how_to_get_away_with_murderHow To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Confession: I’ve never watched a single episode of Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal. My awareness of Shonda Rhimes is limited only to what I hear of her work and the reasonable understanding that I am not part of her target audience.

So my viewing of HTGAWM was my first visit to Shondaland and it was not unpleasant. Viola Davis plays a law professor/defense attorney who runs her classroom like a tournament of champions and who keeps a few skeletons in her closet.

Her students, including Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch and OITNB’s Matt McGory, are willing to cut throats to succeed, perhaps literally, as the opening scene finds them plotting to bury a dead body? Whose, you ask? Well you’ll find out by the end of the episode but it will only the answer to one of several questions teased out by the pilot.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Forever (ABC)

ABC Executive no. 1: “Man, Sherlock Holmes is sure having a good year right now. Too bad we missed the boat on that won.”

Executive no. 2: “Yeah, CBS bagged Elementary. We can’t do another modern New York City-based Holmes story.”

Executive no. 1: “Well what if we named him something else, and had him be a medical examiner in stead of a detective?”

No. 2: “Would he still use deductive reasoning and notice minute details about people?”

No. 1: “Of course.”

No. 2: “Still seems too close.”

ABC Executive no. 3, listening but so far offering nothing: “What if he was immortal?”

No. 1: “Sorry?”

No. 3: “He’s immortal. He’s lived for centuries. Every time he dies he washes up naked in the East River.”

No. 2: “Brilliant. We get a hot actor and it sells itself.”

No. 1: “A hot British actor, way hotter than that Cumberbatch guy. What happened to the stretchy dude from those Fantastic Four movies?”

No. 2: “Ioan Gruffudd? He’s been dark for years. Book it. This is it boys, we’re going to print money.”

Nope

Grade: C+

Class: Who cares

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Every year the fall TV season becomes slightly less important, as summer series, cable programming and online services chip away at the once-Herculean dynasty that is broadcast television.

If you’re like me, you’ve been too busy watching Married, You’re the Worst and The Strain to be overly concerned with the new slate of Big Four shows that will, in large number, not survive long enough to see the calendar turn on 2015. But alas, here we are, networks at the door, advertisers in the wings, ready to fall in love and hate all over again.

As a refresher, we at Wood’s Stock (read: me) will be watching all the new shows and our (my) returning favorites and each week we will issue a letter grade based on the quality of the premiere and a rating of either “Subscribe,” “Keep an Eye On,” or “Kill and Bury” based on the outlook for the new season.

Let’s begin.

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A to Z (NBC)

Technically A to Z hasn’t premiered yet but the pilot has been available online for more than a month and I’ll take every chance I get to stay ahead of the unyielding tide of new premieres.

Andrew works at a highly successful online dating website and believes in love and destiny. He meets the more cynical Zelda and is immediately smitten, asking her out to drinks only to blow it by suggesting they were fated to meet each other after a chance passing at a concert years earlier. Zelda is overwhelmed by this, states emphatically that it was not she at the concert and then after a brief separation the pair are reunited by the end of the episode to establish the premise of the show, in which we see the evolution of their relationship from beginning to end, ominously predicted to arrive sometime at the end of the 1st season by voice over narration (the inevitable fact that the “end” won’t be an “end” makes the framing device all the more obnoxious).

If the archetypes sounds similar to (500) Days of Summer it’s because they are, as are many of the other elements of the show to the general tone, in which a whimsical narrator coos about opposites attracting while dulcet tones play.

It’s a little thin, but not without potential. The shows stars, Mad Men’s Ben Feldman and HIMYM’s Cristin Milioti, are likable in spades and if the writers can begin loosening the reigns on structure and let the funny come in there’s a chance A to Z could turn out to be one of the season’s pleasant surprises.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

red-band-society-review_article_story_largeRed Band Society (Fox)

That Fox is teeing up RBS as its next Glee is apparent, even while great pains have gone into crafting an original and interesting show. Set in a children’s ward of an implausibly beautiful hospital, Red Band Society focuses on a group of children suffering from a range of physical ailments. It’s a grimm subtext, made all the more apparent by the omniscient and potentially supernatural narrator, but it’s also awash in bright cinematic colors to keep things from getting overly dreary.

The adult cast is superb (particularly Octavia Spencer), and used well throughout the pilot, but the children who make up the show’s core range from cloying saccharine caricatures to aggressively off-putting annoyances. The production quality is highly cinematic, making it one of the best looking pilots I’ve seen in years, but the final product is a tonal quagmire with a vague target audience.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

lauraThe Mysteries of Laura (NBC)

Where to begin. Mysteries of Laura is what happens when you take a sitcom about an exhausted single mother and fuse it with the rotted carcass of whatever hour-long police drama that failed during last year’s TV season. It stars Debra Messing as what is intended to be a charmingly sloppy New York Detective who plays by her own rules, taking down bad guys before running home to extinguish the likely literal fires lit by her two hyperactive spawn.

Problem is, it fails as a crime procedural, fails as a family comedy, fails as a workplace comedy and just fails, fails, fails.

The tonal shifts in the pilot alone are enough to give you whiplash, playing blood-drenched walls as a sight gag and cracking wise about death and murder before halting the plot for a heart to heart about love and parenting with the ex, Josh Lucas, who is shoehorned into the plot in a groan-inducing 11th hour twist in order to maintain relevance for the character. Also, the native advertising for Target hasn’t been this egregious since that Christmas episode of Modern Family.

Everyone in this show, as well as the audience, deserves better.

Grade: C-

Class: Kill and Bury

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New Girl (Fox)

New Girl took a bit of a stumble during its 3rd season. I was never particularly interested in seeing Nick and Jess as a couple and it became pretty clear after a few episodes, and maybe during that initial horror of a premiere in season 3 when the pair ran off to Mexico, that the writers had run out of ideas for the relationship, instead electing to kick it to an early death by the time the final episode aired.

What makes the fourth season’s premiere so brilliant is that it is not trying to be a grand arrival but instead accepts the show as being several years into a sitcom about a group of misfit friends. It ships our characters off to a wedding where they can stumble into comedic pratfalls and shenanigans that are cozily wrapped up in 22 minutes. If you didn’t know any better, the episode could have been the 1st, 5th, 15th or even last of the season.

And that’s ok. It’s more than ok, it was pretty great. Also, “hooves.”

Grade: A-

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Milk Bath

Last month’s Treat Yo Self was, to put it mildly, unpleasant. It’s been an entire month and my torso still has not fully recovered (or regrown, which I do admit is impressive).

So for this month’s adventure I was adamant that the activity in question be on the relaxing side of the Treat Yo Self spectrum.

Since the beginning of this project I’ve had the idea for some form of bath on my list of ideas. When I lived in New York I remember people talking about the weird Turkish Bath Houses, and pop culture is rife with references to mud baths, but as you can imagine Utah isn’t exactly a hotbed of holistic diversity.

But in my search, I did happen upon the Beyond Spa in Layton, which offers a Coconut Milk Bath either as an add-on to a massage or as a standalone service and which is apparently excellent for your skin.

To be honest, my only frame of reference for a milk bath was that scene from Snow White and the Huntsman so I didn’t really know what to expect. But intrigued, I booked it.

Milk BAthFirst things first, a milk bath (at least at Beyond Spa) is not a bath tub full of milk. Instead it is a typical bath mixed with a coconut milk powder, which is added to the water with a reaction akin to dropping a bocce ball-sized Alka-Seltzer into a really large glass.

The tub itself was a little smaller than I would have liked, requiring me to either sit with my torso out of the water or go diamond legs to slide my shoulders down. I also expected it to be in a bathroom-esque location, with tile or something, but instead was just tucked into the corner of a two-bed massage suite.

photo(22)The friendly staff at Beyond Spa showed me to my room and set a timer for 30 minutes. They had also set up a pitcher of ice water, towels, and a small package of coconut M&Ms, which actually turned out to be the perfect snack to compliment  a coconut milk bath.

photo 1(3)For this month’s Treat Yo Self I invited along my brother Jake, who longtime Wood’s Stock readers may recognize from our occasional Two Wood Uke music videos.

Jake is 9 years older than me and, as I’ve written before, is often described as my elder, wiser, more successful and more charismatic duplicate. (“Your brother had so many friends in high school,” my mother said to me once, “You should be more like him.”). In a past life he was lead-singer in the band Dishwoody and the Burritos and after a short stint as an architect (or drafter, whatever) he pivoted into sales.

He’s the original model, as it were, and I’m the off-brand imitator with cheap parts from Kuwait.

He’s OK.

photo 3(2)Properly pampered, we made our way over to the Cantina Southwestern Grill to conduct our interview over tacos and a particularly robust amount of chips and salsa.

photo 4(2)Wood Stock: Who are you and what do you do?

Jake Wood: I am Jake Wood, I am 36, I sell professional beauty supplies and I have done that for 10 years now.

WS: Have you ever had a milk bath before?

JW: No

WS: What did you think?

JW: It was pretty relaxing and I don’t know if it was that I was exhausted before I got there but when I left I was about ready to get into a coma.

WS: Walk me through the experience. Paint me a word picture.

JW: I rinsed off reel quick in the shower, hopped in the bath, threw in some coconut..what was it, salts? Crystals?

WS: It was like a powder.

Milk Bath coconutJW: Yeah, like a powdered coconut crystal. Dumped that in there. It started fizzing like Pop Rocks and then I just sat there and soaked it in for half an hour and got my relax on.

WS: What was the actual bath like and was it different than what you expected?

JW: I don’t bathe much. I mean I shower but I don’t take baths, ever, so I’m not sure what my expectations were but it definitely exceeded them. It was far more relaxing than I would have thought. The water was nice and hot, I was kind of sweating if off like sitting in a hot tub.

WS: But without the chlorine.

JW: Yeah without the chlorine because instead of that chlorine coming off of the water it was coconut coming off the water and it smelled really good.

WS: Could you tell there was something in the water as far as milkiness or was it just water?

JW: I couldn’t really tell as far as consistency of the milk but I could tell they’d added something. It wasn’t creamy but you could tell they added something.

WS: It wasn’t soapy, but it was like a non-soapy soap.

JW: Yeah it was slick, likely slippery water. Does that make sense?

WS: How does your skin feel, can you tell?

JW: Oh yeah. I played sand volleyball for six hours before so I exfoliated the crap out of my skin and now I’m soft as a baby’s butt.

WS: So you are a music fan.

JW: I am.

WS: You were born in the late 70s so you’ve lived through several decades of music.

JW: That’s messed up.

WS: Walk me through your musical life. What was your favorite band when you were 15, 25 and 35.

JW: My first favorite band that I remember was Counting Crows. Their debut album was one of my first albums. I was probably a sophomore in high school when the first album came out. I had been exposed to some U2, some stuff that was on the radio. I really at the time liked a lot of early 80’s alternative like Oingo Boingo and Violent Femmes and Midnight Oil. I wasn’t big into radio bands but I did like REM and U2 but early REM and U2, they still had some respect back then.

WS: Yeah I still love Automatic for the People.

JW: And Out of Time was fantastic and Document and the eponymous album. Their early work was fantastic.

WS: Let’s flash forward to your mid-20s.

JW: Mid-20s was all about Jack Johnson. (My wife) Becca was just saying the other night, we used to just sit there and turn on some Jack Johnson and that was our jam and just…

WS: And just what Jake?

JW: None of your business. But that was our jam. I liked a little more Emo, I liked Jimmy Eat World and crap like that. I would say now I’m more into indie rock but I don’t think at that point I really was. I was just leaving the radio land but hadn’t completely left it so I was more in alternative world.

WS: And now your mid-30s?

JW: I don’t turn on the radio ever. We were driving last night with some couples and that song “All about that bass, bout that bass…”

WS: I hate that song.

JW: I had never heard it before 2 days ago and in a 20 minute car ride I heard it 7 times. I’m not kidding. He was bouncing stations a little bit so he’d bounce and it would be on but they kept listening to it because everyone in the car loved it. Then some song called, what is it, Fancy?

WS: Yeah, Iggy Azalea.

JW: He cracks a joke about something being Fancy and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d never heard that song in my life and apparently everyone  else has.

WS: Yeah, it’s out there.

JW: So I’m a little off the grid right now. Top 40 means nothing to me. I feel like the best music right now, no one knows about. I feel like in 20 years when people talk about music from right now, they’ll be talking about people that right now nobody even knows exists. I mean Jeff Tweedy, Jack White, the people who are influencing music right now, nobody listens to. And 20 years ago nobody listened to them either: the Velvet Underground, bands that really influenced music 20-30 years ago…

WS: They weren’t necessarily the ones that were on the TV shows.

JW: But they were the ones influencing the people writing music. No band says, “Man, I want to be like One Direction.”

WS: Musically no, but I’m sure there’s 12 year old kids right now that wish they were in One Direction.

JW: Yeah but it’s different. It’s different than saying “this artist pushed music.”

WS: Yeah, and no one is going to say “My music was inspired by Justin Bieber. He was  a real influence in my musical evolution.”

JW: People want to be the next Justin Bieber because he makes millions of dollars. But that’s what they aspire to be, the Millionaire.

WS: Not the musician.

JW: Yeah.

WS: It often seems to me that radio really sucks now more than it used to but I’m young and haven’t been around the block. Does it suck now or has it always sucked?

JW: It sucks more than it used to, I swear it does. One of the couples last night had never heard of the bands I grew up listening to. Those bands were on the radio but they deserved to be. It’s still music. What was on the radio when I was younger was REM, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Radiohead, but those bands all deserved to be on the radio and deserved to be bands.

WS: I think Radiohead is a good example because you hear a lot of bands today talk about how they grew up listening to Radiohead. They’re not going to be saying that about T. Swift.

JW: Nobody that matters musically. Maybe matters to the charts but nobody that matters musically is going  to say “Man, Taylor Swift, that’s what got me into music. I picked up a guitar because of her.”

WS: So the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the millennium and now the millennium teens. Of the 5 decades that’s you’ve had some living awareness of, what’s the best decade of music?

JW: The best or the best to me? Like Arcade Fire. When Arcade Fire puts out an album it’s fantastic, but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to it. It’s not my favorite album, it never is. They have what, 4 albums now? They’re all fantastic. I don’t need to listen to them but if you’re just breaking down musical ability and skill and songwriting, they put out a fantastic album. They’re album should be the best album of the year every time they put out an album.

WS: And it was once.

JW: Yeah. But that doesn’t mean I want to listen to it. So when you say best are you asking me best or are you asking what entertained me the most.

WS: However you want to answer it.

JW: That’s hard. In the 90s I listened to 80s music. Right now I listen to music that comes out now. I feel like, as far as skill and songwriting and ability, the music that’s coming out now is fantastic.

WS: Assuming you’re able to find it.

JW: Yeah. The sub-genres are fantastic. Your alt-folk and your freak-folk and your beard-rock.

WS: I’ve got a friend who’s really into Baby Metal.

JW: I don’t know what that means.

WS: I don’t know exactly either. He tried to explain it to me and it was bizarre.

JW: Like babies playing metal?

WS: No like Japanese pop stars playing metal. It sounds so weird. Look it up.

JW: But that kind of makes my point in that there’s so many sub-genres that are mixing elements. Like, I hate country music, but I love country elements.

WS: Yeah, I love bluegrass, I love folk, I love Americana.

JW: Exactly. If somebody wants to pick up a banjo or mandolin and start twanging something, I love it. But I’d rather die than listening to country music radio music.

WS: I can handle Top 40 way easier than I can handle pop country.

JW: Which is funny because I remember one time having a conversation with a coworker and I cracked a joke how no country singer writers their own music — granted pop singers don’t either – but she says “Whatever, George Strait does, Garth Brooks does.” No they don’t. We opened the album and they didn’t write a single song. I don’t know why to me that diminished the value of the music if they can’t write it themselves.

WS: It absolutely does. I’m the movie guy and a lot of times people want to give the actor credit for what the writer wrote and it’s not the same thing. There’s good actors and there’s good writers and there’s a good blend. But some things are well-written and some things are well-acted. In music if you’re not writing your own music all you’re doing is karaoke to someone’s song.

JW: I respect a good voice, but I’d rather have some lyrics that are emotionally tied to the artist. It meant something at one point, that’s why it was written. I’ve been known to write a song here and there and…

WS: Should we get into that era?

JW: We could.

WS: Are we announcing a Dishwoody and the Burritoes reunion tour on this blog post?

JW: We are not. Not yet.

WS: It would be fun one day for you guys to get together and play a gig for the families.

JW: Oh it would be a riot. It would be an absolute riot.

WS: Back to the milk bath, would you recommend one to someone?

JW: Yeah. I’m sitting there soaking, milk-bathing, and I’m thinking Becca would kill for this, she’d love it. Just to be able to sit there and soak it up and enjoy that.

WS: With some Enya playing.

JW: The only thing I probably would’ve changed was substituting their music for mine. I would probably throw on some The National. Something moody.

WS: Not sitar music form the Mediterranean?

JW: Well I do love me a lute-like instrument, the sitar being one of my favorites.

WS: Anything you want to promote?

JW: I have to promote it now or forever hold my peace?

WS: Just if there’s anything you want to give a shout out to, or if you’ve got an album dropping.

JW: My personal album? Dishwoody’s Greatest Hits that is coming out any day now?

WS: You are not on Twitter correct?

JW: Nope.

WS: Well, I guess no one will ever find you.

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This is Where I Leave You is not a particularly good movie. It relies on a cloying sentimentality, arbitrary conflict and leaves much of its significant potential wasted.

And yet, it is not unenjoyable viewing, largely due to the incredible talent of its assembled cast that paradoxically leads to unattainable expectations.

Truthfully, if you were to assemble Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Cory Stoll, Adam Driver, Kathryn Hahn, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne and Connie Britton for a dramatic reading of Technotronic’s “Pump Up The Jam,” I would likely rise to my feet in applause. Yet that performance, just like This is Where I Leave You, would be a tragic squandering of what this ensemble could have achieved.

The film is largely centered on Judd (Bateman) who is cuckolded by his man-child of a boss and whilst growing an impressive breakup beard learns that his father has passed away. His father’s dying wish was that his children sit Shiva, a week-long mourning ritual in Judaism that involves the immediate family of the deceased sitting and receiving guests during each of seven days.

And so the Altman children gather: namely eldest son Paul (Stoll) and his child-starved wife (Hahn); frenzied sister Wendy (Fey) and her prop of a family; Judd, who immediately reconnects with an old crush (Byrne); and youngest son Phillip (Driver) the immature screw-up dating his much-older former psychiatrist (Britton).

The family is dysfunctional in a textbook movie way, with outrageously explosive scuffles never steering the plot away from the inevitable group hug at the end. But while that saccharine reconciliation is a foregone conclusion, its unclear how most of the characters have achieved any sort of emotional evolution by the time the credits roll.

These are argumentative family members who maintain a lovingly distant relationship, thrust together by tragic circumstances only to again separate and argue, lovingly, when the credits roll. Any progress is incremental and in the case of Fey it’s unclear what transformation, if any, has taken place during the story.

And yet. And yet.

This is one of the best casts ever assembled and the sheer joy of watching them squabble is delightful despite the sometime asinine plot. Driver especially brings an unpredictable mania to the roll, further cementing his status as a national treasure, while the always excellent Stoll and Britton are unfortunately sidelined to make way for other toys.

It’s a bit of a shift for director Shawn Levy, who of late has been mostly consumed with the Night at the Museum franchise, short shift comedies The Internship and Date Night and, of course, the robot Boxing Movie Reel Steel. Levy never quite hits the dramatic notes required by the films more emotional moments, but handles the comedic elements with a breezy ease that almost makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

Grade: B-

*This Is Where I Leave You opens nationwide on Friday, September 19.

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The Maze Runner

When I first heard that a film adaptation of James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner” was forthcoming, I reacted to it with the same sanctimonious ambivalence with which I have welcomed most of the recent attempts to spin gold from young-adult fiction.

But then I saw the trailer, with its hints of Goldingesque mores and Lindelofian enigma and began to feel genuine excitement. Why are these boys trapped in a maze? Who are they and who put them there? What lies beyond the monolithic walls?

These were questions that I didn’t even know I had but after two minutes of carefully-curated images I needed answers.

In large part, my anticipation was rewarded and my (admittedly low) expectations were exceeded. The Maze Runner preserves a healthy sense of mystery throughout it’s 113-minute running time, carefully pacing its revelations and building to a climax that is both emotionally rewarding and deceptive.

It’s not without it’s faults, clearly. Convenience plays a large role in getting the plot from A to B to C and the *ending* is little more than an exposition dump setting up a far-from-guaranteed sequel (see: Ender’s Game, Beautiful Creatures, Mortal Instruments, Eragon, etc.). But the action is tense, the plotting is tight and best of all, the film gives us a YA-adaptation with more on its mind than who our protagonist will choose to date.

The film starts abruptly, almost jarringly so, as our as-yet-unnamed hero awakens to find himself rapidly ascending a dark elevator shaft with no memory of how he got where he is or any other detail about himself.

Reaching the top, he finds himself thrown into a rag-tag band of a couple dozen young men (including the adorable kid from Love Actually) who arrived in the same manner he did over the space of roughly three years and who have built themselves a relatively prosperous society, albeit one that is confined to the interior courtyard of an enormous labyrinthine enclosure.

Eventually he regains his name, Thomas, and learns the lay of the land: every boy is expected to contribute to the well-being of the fragile society, and each day a select group of “runners” explore the maze looking for a way out. At sundown the gate to the interior courtyard, or “glade” automatically closes and anyone trapped outside has historically never been heard from again.

Naturally curious, it doesn’t take long for Thomas to venture beyond the safety of the Glade, with his actions triggering a break in the status quo that will either lead to long-sought answers or the demise of everyone trapped in the maze.

Director Wes Ball makes a number of wise decisions in his creation of the film, particularly that the audience never knows more than our protagonist — with the exception of one final scene that asks more questions than it answers. Readers of the book series may anticipate what’s ahead but newcomers will find themselves dropped into a wholly unfamiliar and unexplained world where any outcome seems possible.

The computer generated effects are presented with a light-handed touch, keeping a sense of eerie claustrophobia while giving the action room to breath and creating a daunting scope for the Maze without sacrificing tangible environments for the characters to interact with.

The performances by the almost exclusively non-adult and unknown cast members are also particularly good, anchored by Dylan O’Brien (Teen Wolf) and We’re The Millers’ Will Poulter as a de facto antagonist.

With so much of the story’s secrets kept hidden in a mystery box until the potential sequels, it’s difficult to say whether The Maze Runner is a clever creation or a bundle of nonsense. But if this first film is all we ever get, then it’s an satisfying tale of survival that leaves you wanting more.

Grade: B

*The Maze Runner opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 19

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The Drop Movie (5)

Many actors are drawn to similar characters throughout their careers, but perhaps no one is as symbiotically fused to an onscreen identity as the late James Gandolfi, who captured every class of criminal during his career from the mob boss to the corrupt politician to the assassin to the neighborhood tough and every shade of low-life in between.

It’s fitting then, in a poetically nostalgic way, that his final film role is not the tenderhearted divorcee Albert in last year’s excellent Enough Said but instead Cousin Marv, the down-and-out Brooklynite who oversees a watering hole for the mob and watches the last shades of his rambunctious skull-cracking youth fade away.

Although “The Drop” is technically a film about Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy, adopting yet another vocal tenor in his ever-expanding chameleon gallery of on-screen affectations) Gandolfini’s Marv is the commanding presence when he’s on screen and the haunting shadow when he’s not. The bar where the action is set has Marv’s name on the door, and the methodical, slow-burning story creeps forward on the back of Marv’s past sins.

As explained by Bob, a night in Brooklyn is one where clandestine money is constantly changing hands. That money eventually reaches its final destination, a “Drop Bar,” selected seemingly at random, where all the dirty bills of the burough are collected for final delivery.

One night while closing up, Bob and Marv are ripped off for five grand by a couple of punks casing the bar as practice for a later Drop night when they can net the big score. But money is money and the mob wants their five grand back, so the family starts turning the screws on Bob and Marv to make amends.

Bob’s got other problems too. One night while walking home he notices an injured dog discarded in a seemingly random garbage can, leading him to adopt it as his own with the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), whose ex-boyfriend doesn’t take to kindly to the interest that Bob is taking in his girl.

And there’s John Ortiz (Silver Linings Playbook) as Detective Torres, who in the process of investigating the robbery begins to think that there might be more foul deeds connected to Cousin Marv’s Bar.

That may sound like a lot of disparate elements, but The Drop exists in a pulpy crime world where everyone in the neighborhood and all their baggage are at least partially aware of and constantly running into one another. There’s a lived-in history to the story, as though the audience has arrived late to a movie that’s been playing for years and leaves well before the action truly ends.

These are characters for whom a different set of rules apply, where wrapping a severed arm is plastic is treated with mute indifference and where acts of violence are expected but still leap out unannounced.

Hardy’s Bob is a particular and engaging enigma, a man for whom past is past and the present is handled one decision and crisis at a time. His chemistry with Rapace’s Nadia is probably the weaker link in The Drop’s chain, but neither seems out of place as blue collar Brooklynites.

Much like Hardy’s previous film Lawless, the individual performances are perhaps better than the actual material. But the combined effect of Hardy, Gandolfini, Ortiz and Rapace, who all play it cool while subtly tweaking expectations, takes what could have been a bargian airport-novel whodunit or a campy-grit Guys and Dolls and instead delivers a rich character piece that hums with moral ambiguity.

Grade: B

*The Drop opens nationwide on Friday, September 12.

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