Archive for September, 2015

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Do the ends justify the means? That’s the question that FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is forced to ask herself over and over again as she tumbles down a rabbit hole into the dark world of drug cartels in Sicario, a tense, uncomfortably realistic exploration of America’s ongoing war on drugs.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, already a master of the slow burn with films like 2013’s Prisoners and Enemy, Sicario opens with a violent raid on a cartel outpost in Arizona before whisking our heroine off to join a special task force ostensibly aimed at bringing down the number one drug boss in Juarez.

The first 30 minutes are disorienting, as Macer (and the audience by proxy) are kept in the dark about what’s happening, where she’s going, why she’s going there and who exactly she’s going with. We meet a cocksure DOD “adviser” named Matt Graver, played by Josh Brolin, who may or may not be a CIA agent acting outside the law, and Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, who is clearly capable of foul deeds and seems at every moment to be one second away from killing everyone in sight.

In time the picture becomes clearer, but until the final moments it’s apparent that things are not exactly what they seem. Alejandro and Graver are attempting to be a big enough thorn in the cartel’s paw that its leaders expose themselves, and why they need Agent Macer is ambiguous at best.

Villeneuve slowly tightens the screws for two hours, as the team leapfrogs the U.S.-Mexico border in a series of dangerous and violent operations. At every moment the illusion of safety is suspect, with sporadic gunfire serving as white noise for otherwise quiet moments, and every face in the crowd a potential killer.

Del Toro is menacing and Brolin is bombastic, but its Blunt who really stands out, continuing the action star streak she started with last year’s Edge of Tomorrow but dialing up the fear and vulnerability. Unlike EoT, she’s not a super-warrior battling fantastic aliens, instead, she’s a very mortal FBI agent in a very real world where death potentially hides around each corner.

Villeneuve proves once again that masked killers and elaborate effects aren’t necessary to scare an audience. The world we live in, and the monsters there, is terrifying enough.

Grade: B+

*Sicario opens nationwide on Friday, October 2.

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*Portions of this review were originally published during coverage of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

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Director Leslye Headland showed her chops for raunchy R-rated comedy with 2012’s Bachelorette, but in her follow-up, Sleeping With Other People, the filmmaker proves she can balance the belly laughs with a surprising amount of heart.

More than a decade after meeting and losing their virginity together at college, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) reconnect at a sex addict support group. Neither are true addicts, but both are in a bit of an emotional rut and they form a platonic relationship over their mutual taste for romantic self-sabotage.

That their friendship evolves into something more complicated comes as no surprise, but the way that the film handles the emotional evolution of its comedic stars is surprising. Sudeikis, in particular, dials down his typical shtick to deliver a pseudo-dramatic and genuinely nuanced performance as a man looking for something in all the wrong ways.

The result is a charming and spirited take on modern romance that defies genre and isn’t afraid to poke at big ideas without sacrificing laughs.

Grade: A-

*Sleeping With Other People opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 2.

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Did you miss week 1, or need a refresher on what we’re doing? Then click here.

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Quantico (ABC)

Quantico kicks off with a bang, literally. We fade in on our heroine Alex Parrish lying in the rubble of the now-decimated Grand Central Terminal. But before you can get too comfortable, we zip back to 9 months earlier to when Alex and a diverse cadre of new recruits arrived at the FBI’s Quantico training academy.

There’s the Mormon and the Muslim, the beefcake and the blond, the gay guy (or is he?) and the hipster. All of them are harboring a secret and their first assignment to pair up and expose each other. This matters because one of them is a traitor who, in 9 months time, will evidently blow up GCT and pin it on Parrish.

It’s implied that the story will track along both timelines as the series continues, which raises some fairly obvious questions about what a future beyond season 1 would look like (it’s the Prison Break dilemma). There’s also a healthy layer of melodrama caked on top of the pilot, with every line seemingly read through pouty lipss and arched eyebrows.

However, it’s a relatively out-of-the box premise for broadcast television, allusions to 24 and Homeland notwithstanding. I’m willing to award it a few points for trying something different.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Blood and Oil (ABC)

ABC’s latest primetime soap opera is confused and chaotic. Ostensibly about the oil industry (or blood, I suppose), the pilot follows newlyweds Billy and Cody who set off to a North Dakota boomtown with the dream of owning a laundromat. That dream is derailed, however, after Billy runs their truck off the road and destroys their merchandise, landing them in a shanty town of sorts while Billy wheels and deals and ends up a millionaire by the end of the first episode.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, except for the clunky dialogue, nonsensical character decisions and plot points that are, quite simply, baffling. The show feels more like a made-for-tv movie, except those productions have the decency of ending after two hours. No such luck here.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

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Grandfathered/The Grinder (Fox)

Normally I wouldn’t review two shows at once, but Grandfathered and The Grinder make it hard not to. Besides the similar alphabetization of their titles, both series are half-hour comedies, airing back-to-back on Fox, starring Men Of A Certain Age as lovable yet juvenile man-children.

They’re also the most promising shows I saw this week.

In Grandfathered, we have John Stamos as Jimmy, a successful restaurant-owning playboy bachelor who learns abruptly that he has an adult son and an infant granddaughter. His world is shaken, obviously, but after some scolding from his staff he leans in to the challenge, embracing his new family as best he can.

Across the street we have The Grinder, about an imbecilic actor (Rob Lowe) who *played* a lawyer on a popular television show and who is inspired to become a real lawyer after visiting his attorney brother (Fred Savage) in Boise, Idaho.

Both shows provide some genuine laughs during their pilots, which is no easy feat. And they show promise in contradictory ways. Grandfathered has the more polished premiere, but is also more likely to run out of creative steam moving forward. On the other hand, The Grinder’s pilot is sloppy (a shot meant to establish the scene as Boise, Idaho is actually Park City, Utah) but it has the potential to be quirky fun once the rough edges are smoothed out.

They also get bonus points for their supporting casts, namely Paget Brewster in GFd and The Waitress in TG (and before you make the jokes, “Grinder” is a common term for lawyers).

Grade: B (Grinder)/B+ (Grandfathered)

Class: Subscribe

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Code Black (CBS)

In hospital vernacular, a “Code Black” designates a critical medical emergency and in the context of Code Black on CBS, it means a point at which the show’s ER staff are effectively overrun with patients.

The drama, starring Marcia Gay Harden, is like a mix of Scrubs and ER, in that it focuses on a cohort of medical residents and their supervisors but is not, even remotely, funny. Also there’s Luis Guzman, who is awesome.

It’s a good cast, and effective narrative drama, but at the end of the day it’s just another hospital show where patients come and patients go and the doctors fight and/or sleep with each other. The main set is also burdensome in its claustrophobia, packing several trauma patients and their attending hospital staff in a space the size of a New York studio apartment.

If you like this type of thing, I suppose it’s better than most.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Dr. Ken (ABC)

Ken Jeong is a great supporting player, but he is not a leading man. After 6 seasons (and hopefully a movie) of Community, he’s landed at the center of his own show on ABC, where his strategy is apparently to waive his hands and overreact for 22 minutes.

Jeong plays Ken, a California doctor with a wife and two children. In the pilot, his daughter receives her driving license, sending Ken into a fit of over-protective anxiety that briefly lands him in lockup. But don’t worry, the omnipresent laugh tracks clues us in that everything will turn out ok.

It’s weird to me that these cheaply-made multicamera sitcoms still exist. I suppose we have The Big Bang Theory to blame. Were it not for TBBT’s untold millions of inexplicably loyal viewers, the whole format would have been sent to a farm upstate where it has room to run and play and never be sad ever again.

Grade: D

Class: Kill and Bury

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There’s a scene at the start of The Walk‘s second act (and featured in the film’s trailer) when Joseph Gordon-Leavit, as high wire performer Philippe Petit, arrives in the United States and passes through customs.

He explains, in great detail, the myriad equipment in his luggage, prompting the officer to ask what all of it is for.

“I’m going to hang a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walk on it,’ JGL says in a winning, if not completely authentic, French accent.

“Ha!” the officer chuckles. “Good luck.”

It’s a great bit, capturing the joyful impossibility of Petit’s story. Because how could it be true? How could a French visitor to the United States sneak up to the top of the world’s tallest building, attach a tension wire and walk across the void? He couldn’t; except he did.

Petit’s walk was already told to perfection by Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning 2008 film that is essential viewing for anyone with even a mild interest in documentary cinema. Arriving seven years later, Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization feels at first glance to be an unnecessary addition, but it compensates by using modern movie technology to go where a documentary can’t: onto the wire in the sky with Petit some 1,300 feet above the cold concrete below.

Zemeckis’ film is not for the vertiginous, as the director is prone to gleeful leaps and dives over, around and down the twin tower’s facades. But where the filmmakers attempts at CG wizardry have stumbled in the past (exhibit A: the haunting dead eyes of Polar Express), the bulk of his tricks in The Wire work like magic, particularly in the optional IMAX format where the film begs to be displayed.

But ones and zeroes will take a movie only so far, and its the synergy with the film’s writing and cast that makes The Walk sizzle. The accents are often questionable, and the movie relies heavily on narration from Gordon-Levitt, but the joie de vivre running through Petit’s veins as he first plans and then executes his “coup” is intoxicating enough to sweep the quibbles aside.

Like the documentary before it, The Walk is a one man show, relying heavily on Gordon-Levitt and leaving little room for the supporting cast to operate in. Fans of Man on Wire will notice a few inconsistencies with Petit’s firsthand account, and Zemeckis errs by not paying the customary photo tribute to the real-life team as the credits roll.

But he also makes the wise decision to end his film with a coda that serves as a love note to New York City and the twin towers, acknowledging the tragedy of 9/11 from a loving and cathartic standpoint and elevating the poetry behind Petit’s feat.

The director sustains the tension of the film’s climax, crafting a heist film that mixes playful and peril. There’s never any doubt that Petit will succeed, because there wouldn’t be a movie if he hadn’t, but despite that knowledge Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt fill the artists’ steps with dread, fear, confidence and finally, triumph.

Grade: A-

*The Walk opens nationwide on Wednesday, September 30.

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Every year it gets a little harder to review the fall premieres. The repetition is mind-numbing, like Sisyphus cursed to watch the same tired plotlines roll down the hill of broadcast television ad infinitum.

Just this week, we have the premieres of Blindspot, Minority Report, Limitless and Rosewood, all variations of the crime procedural that pairs a traditional cop with an unconventional partner to solve weekly mysteries.

And there’s a reboot as well, as if attaching the word “Reborn” to Heroes will suddenly make us all forget how terrible the original series became during its four-season run.

Suffice it to say, we’re one week into the season and I’m feeling confidently pessimistic. But we soldier on.

As always, I’ll be reviewing the pilot episodes of each new series on the major broadcast networks (that means NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox). Each episode will be given a letter grade based on its standalone quality, as well as a classification based on what it suggests for the upcoming season.

Together, we’ll make it through this. And if you get depressed just remember, we still have cable and Netflix.

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Minority Report (Fox)

Minority Report, the movie, is great. Minority Report, the television show, is not.

For the uninitiated, MR takes place in a not-too-distant future, where three psychic pre-cognitives or “Pre-Cogs” are used to catch and convict murderers before the crime of murder was actually committed.

The program is ultimately shut down (Spoiler alert for the movie), resulting in the release of the Pre-Cogs to normal civilian life. Enter the TV show, where Dash, Pre-Cog number 3, has returned to Washington, D.C. with an itch to fight crime.

He quickly teems up with an attractive detective, who waxes nostalgic for the pre-crime days, and together they go about checking off the case-of-the-week box while planting seeds from an ominous “Big Picture” looming on the horizon regarding Dash’s twin brother and Agatha, the remaining two Pre-Cogs.

The series’ makes a brave attempt at paying homage to its predecessor, but the cheap CG and prop gadgetry is no match for the dynamic future world that Steven Spielberg created for his film. It’s formulaic and tiresome, especially considering the novel concept and goodwill handed to them by an established franchise.

Grade: C

Grade: Kill and Bury

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Blindspot (NBC)

NBC clearly pumped a lot of money into its newest high-concept cops and robbers thriller, going so far as to shut down Times Square in March so that Jamie Alexander could crawl out of a duffel bag shivering and stark naked save for the freshly-inked tattoos covering her from head to toe. It’s a satisfactory cold open, using carefully placed arms and lens flares to obscure Alexander’s PTC-offending naughty bits, but any hope that Blindspot would be more than the soft-boiled amalgamation of Blacklist and Prison Break immediately evaporate after the credits roll.

The generic FBI agent called in to untangle the mystery is played by Sullivan Stapleton, aka Discount Gerard Butler from 300: Rise of an Empire. He glowers and broods in just the right tones, setting up the obvious romantic subplot with Alexander’s Jane Doe and demonstrating his devil-may-care machismo by tearing an explosive device apart with his bare hands.

After saving the day, the pilot ends with the predictable tease of restored memories for Jane Doe, and the more predictable reveal that she may not be who she seems (Gasp!). But the showrunners apparently spent so much time concocting the tattoo treasure map on Alexander’s objectified body that they forgot to provide us with a reason to care about what happens to her character, or any character for that matter.

Grade: C+
Class: Kill and Bury

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Life in Pieces (CBS)

Think of it as a version of Modern Family, only one that is told as four separate vignettes and isn’t even remotely funny.

The four-part structure is clearly designed to distance LiP from it’s ABC counterpart and it’s a terrible creative choice, giving the various narratives so little breathing time that it feels like a series of long setups to punchlines that don’t land. And without narrative cohesion – an awkward first date, a college visit, childbirth and a  mock funeral – each commercial break ushers in a jarring tonal shift and a change of character and scenery, like a showcase of one-act plays written by high school seniors for their required fine art credit.

And the cast is all over the map, with a rogues gallery of supporting actors from better series thrown into a bowl with an against-type James Brolin and a seemingly lost Collin Hanks. In time the family dynamic could provide some through-lines, but for now Life In Pieces plays like a craven attempt to put a fresh gimmick on old tropes.

Grade: C-
Class: Kill and Bury

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Limitless (CBS)

A funny thing happened while I was watching Limitless. I realized I was actually invested in the plot, so I pushed pause and poured myself a drink so I wouldn’t have to interrupt the flow later.

Unlike most pilots, which collapse under the gravitational pull to save the world in 44 minutes, Limitless was taking its sweet time setting up a story and it was doing so with an unexpected amount of showmanship for a CBS drama.

Like the movie of the same name, Limitless deals with a drug named NZT which grants to its consumers a quasi-superhuman level of brain function. Our protagonist is Bryan Finch, a stunted musician who stumbles upon the drug after reconnecting with an old bandmate while temping at said bandmate’s investment firm.

Limitless was a C+ movie elevated to a B by the star power of Bradley Cooper, he who is all that is man. And in a particular coup for CBS, Cooper drops into Limitless, the TV show, midway through to provide some connective tissue. The moment is handled well, classing up the joint without being too distracting and leaving the door open for future appearances.

All would be well, except the episode ends with an unfortunate suggestion of lesser things to come. Having sorted out most of the complications of the pilot, Bryan is appropriated by the FBI to serve as a super-powered consultant. That likely means a case of the week, in which our hero pops a pill and is gifted with the mental tools necessary to bring down whatever murderer/thief/kidnapper/etc is causing trouble. In other words, that likely means bad television.

Still, there’s enough pieces in place to do something interesting. Here’s hoping CBS doesn’t do what they do best and ruin it.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Scream Queens (Fox)

Scream Queens, the latest from the Ryan Murphy dream machine, is painfully bad. Centered around a college sorority targeted by a Devil-costumed serial killer, Murphy has created a world wholly populated with unlikable characters who simply can’t die quickly enough.

Jamie Lee Curtis seems to be having the most fun, and Abigail Breslin the least, but at some point the novelty of watching Ariana Grande get stabbed in the head while tweeting or Nick Jonas getting his throat slit just aren’t enough to prop up two hours – TWO HOURS! – of inexplicable character motivations and dated references.

Grade: D+

Class: Kill and Bury

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The Muppets (ABC)

ABC’s reboot of The Muppets had the slickest promotional campaign of the fall season, but the actual finished product is chock full of rough edges.

Constructed as a mockumentary, The Muppets sees our felt favorites relegated to backstage status as they grind out a late night talk show hosted by Miss Piggy. That means shoehorning in Sam The Eagle as the network censor and the Sweedish Chef as craft service, and a litany of sexual innuendo and dating subplots replacing the musical numbers we expect from Jim Henson’s creations.

There’s enough charm to earn a second viewing, but The Muppets needs to find its voice quickly if this gamble on an “adult” tone is going to pay off.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Rosewood (Fox)

Morris Chestnut is Beaumont Rosewood, a man who solves crimes because his extremely lucrative private pathology business isn’t fulfilling enough. Or something. I honestly don’t understand what this show is about. It’s like Bones, only male-centric and set in Miami.

Everything about Rosewood feels like it was created by committee, from the ambiguous legality of the title character’s legal consultations to the prominently displayed sexual orientation of his sister-slash-assistant. It’s “hip” and “fun” with a hidden darkness lurking in the past of our smiling sun-kissed protagonist.

Snore.

Grade: C-

Class: Kill and Bury

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Heroes Reborn (NBC)

Resurrecting a series is a tricky web filled with fan expectations and critical skepticism. And when you lost your fans years ago, as the original Heroes did, the job is even harder.

The latest incarnation sees a world in which the existence of super-powered humans, or “Evos,” is public knowledge, resulting in paranoia and fear. A few key faces from the original series return (notably Jack Coleman and his horn-rimmed glasses) but by and large this is the story of a new generation of Heroes.

There’s a big bang to set things in motion before the premiere skips through more characters and plot lines than I can count or keep track of (there’s a masked vigilante, a young teleporter, a guy with a suitcase full of pennies and an angry Zachary Levi). All-in-all its a slick episode promising plenty of disparate plot lines to slowly connect, but it can’t escape the creeping dread that we’ve been here before, with disastrous results.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye on

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The Player (NBC)

When the pilot opened with Wesley Snipes overlooking a dead body, then flashing to a foreign diplomat getting a security briefing I thought “Woah, is this a network procedural about a hit man?”

I would watch that show. The Player is not that show, but it is willing to take some unconventional risks, like showing a character death (or did they?) in the cold open that normally would be parceled out as pre-pilot flashbacks, hinting at our hero’s tortured soul.

One part The Fugitive one part Person of Interest and one part Las Vegas, The Player centers on Alex Kane, a former FBI agent turned private security consultant who gets looped into an organization that uses algorithms to predict (and bet on) crime.

The cat and mouse is fun, and the action scenes arrive quickly and frequently. But the pace is mired by occasional bouts of clunky dialogue and a premise that is, to put it mildly, unconventional. For now I’m intrigued, but I’m far from sold.

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye on

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