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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Vexed" a Good State for ORPHAN BLACK

Article first published as ORPHAN BLACK Review on Seat42F.

Orphan Black Season 2 Episode 1
BBC America’s excellent ORPHAN BLACK returned for a second season last Saturday night. While the premiere episode, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” is not a good installment for someone who hasn’t ever seen the show to jump in on, that’s part of why it is oh-so-good for the fans. The story picks up pretty much right where the first year leaves off, and hits the ground running from there.

Sarah (Tatiana Maslany), arguably the main character, is in a Matrix-esque environment. She is on the run, nowhere safe for her to go, with Daniel (Matthew Bennet) and his goons, who wear suits and dark sunglasses, on her tail. She isn’t sure who she can trust, reaching out to Paul (Dylan Bruce) even though he works for the enemy, and she doesn’t have a clue how to get her family back.

This isn’t much of an improvement over Sarah’s situation last year. She has gone from grifter barely scraping by to grifter barely scraping by with her loved ones in danger. The only advantage she has now is that there are actually a handful of people who might be of assistance, though none is as invested in the trouble as she is, and it’s always going to be especially hard for her, with her trust issues, to sort out who can be relied upon.

Alison (also Maslany) is playing by the rules Dyad, the sinister company Sarah is fleeing from, has set out for her. This means she is free to go about her life and is not closely monitored, which allows her opportunity to sneak around and help Sarah. Alison has no desire to paint a target on herself by publicly declaring war and threatening her suburban existence, but at the same time, she isn’t going to turn her back on a clone in need.

Cosima (Maslany again) straddles the line between the two. She still resists working for Dr. Leekie (Matt Frewer), despite his efforts to persuade her to change her mind, which leaves her hiding out. She is more willing to assist Sarah, but also not ready to rush in guns blazing. These clones may share a bond, but they are definitely not the same people.

Once more, the main draw of ORPHAN BLACK is the incredible talent of its lead actress in her multiple roles. Maslany differentiates each of the three listed above, plus calculating Rachel and crazy Helena (who, thank goodness, is still alive!), with what looks like ease. It’s interesting to study how even the default resting face of each woman is completely different. The changes, major and minor, are so complete that Sarah, Alison, and Cosima really do seem like distinct individuals, barely connected.

Even better, “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed” gives us one of the golden scenes where one of Maslany’s character pretends to be another one. As Sarah sneaks into the Dyad party masquerading as Cosima, Maslany creates something entirely new, Sarah’s version of who Cosima is, which is really startling in its complexity and authenticity.

Of course, ORPHAN BLACK does have an excellent plot, too, filled with a variety of players who may or may not be on our heroines’ sides. Does Art (Kevin Hanchard) really want to help Sarah, or is he playing a classic good cop / bad cop sting with Angela (Inga Cadranel)? Is Paul offering assistance, or only feigning such to do Rachel’s bidding? Is Delphine’s (Evelyne Brochu) act of handing over Cosima’s blood to Leekie an act of betrayal, or is Delphine just worried about her lover’s life?

We also get plenty of humor, mostly at the expense of Alison and Felix (Jordan Gavaris). When first the latter is glimpsed this season, he’s in the middle of an orgy at a fetish club. Still in costume, he rushes over to Alison’s in the middle of the night. She ought to appreciate the get up, working on the clothing for the musical she’s now starring in, which seems terrible, by the way. This kind of stuff lightens the mood when the action gets too dark.

Basically, ORPHAN BLACK has some of the best acting on TV mixed with a compelling tale of shifting allegiances and surreptitious organizations. Dyad isn’t the only threat in “Nature Under Constraint and Vexed,” and we still have the mystery of the clones’ origin to solve to boot. Where the show will go next is anyone’s guess, but it’s a thrilling ride and I’m happy to be along for it.

ORPHAN BLACK airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blu-ray Review: 'Ripper Street: Season Two'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Ripper Street: Season Two' on Blogcritics.

RSIt is 1890, East London, England. The Victorian era is coming to an end as the residents, fighting recession, unevenly stumble towards the modern age. England’s role in the world is falling and its government is failing. Jack the Ripper is long gone, but that doesn’t mean the Whitechapel district is safe. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen, Frost/Nixon), Detective Sergeant Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, Game of Thrones), and Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg, The Ex List) are the first line of defense for those who would be victims as Ripper Street releases its second season on Blu-ray and DVD.

Season Two brings all new problems to the Metropolitan Police’s H Division. An all-female gang wants revenge on those that would keep them down. A mad scientist looks for freaks in a circus for his eugenics experience. Corruption infuses the force, especially in the form of Detective Inspector Jedediah Shine (Joseph Mawle, The Tunnel), head of K Division, which is dealing with a rapidly-expanding Chinatown. Bombers escape and cults emerge. It’s not a pretty picture, to be sure, and the eight episodes that make up this run are chock full of interesting cases and dangerous challenges.

This is set against an historical backdrop, with real events playing a part in the stories. I don’t know if its entirely realistic that everything covered in Ripper Street makes it down to such a personal level, but it adds a layer of complexity that the War of Currents, matchgirls strike, Baring crisis, Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Elephant Man (Joseph Drake, Doctors), and other bits crop up over the season. It helps to define when and where the show takes place, and maybe teaches some viewers a little bit in the process.

The prostitutes of Long Susan’s (MyAnna Buring, Downton Abbey) are back, too. One, Bella (Gillian Saker, Misfits), has married Drake. Another, Rose (Charlene McKenna, Raw) has traded hooking for waitressing, trying to improve her standing. And Long Susan herself is deep in debt to a ruthless man, Silas Duggan (Frank Harper, This is England). So the whore house is undergoing a bit of a shakeup.

Thankfully, Ripper Street is not a simple formulaic case-of-the-week, with all of the above plus aspects of the detectives’ lives that aren’t completely concerned with work explored, too. Reid’s wife, Emily (Amanda Hale, The Crimson Petal and the White), has left him after the events of last year, and there are plenty of lingering emotional threads to be tugged on.  Reid is the leading man of the piece, and this part of him lends layers to his role as he goes through being accused of crimes and trying to stay out of the muck.

Visually, Ripper Street is quite interesting, so I do recommend viewing it in HD. The color palette may not be wholly realistic, but that’s a purposeful artistic choice, rather than a flaw, and it’s rich enough to warrant going to a high quality. In particular, deep blacks and reds are used very effectively, and to best see in the shadows, one will want Blu-ray. Though, admittedly, the tone and setting is not nearly as dark as in season one, so not every scene has that gloomy imagery. The audio takes a serious step up, going from stereo to full 5.1 in the second season, with dialogue, sound effects, and a neat score blending appropriately. Busy city street scenes are excellent in surround, crisp, clear, and layered.

While the first season had a number of extras, Ripper Street: Season Two has only one. It’s a disappointingly short behind-the-scenes full of spoilers you’ll only want to watch after having seen the episodes in the set. It’s more sound-bites than revealing discussions, so I can’t say there is much to be gotten from it.

Still, the series is engrossing and enjoyable. Although canceled by BBC America, it will get a third outing soon through Amazon, so it’s not in immediate danger of going away. As such, I can say it will not be a waste of time to check out Ripper Street: Season Two, available now.

Blu-ray Review: 'Earthflight - The Complete Series'

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Earthflight - The Complete Series' on Blogcritics.

EFHave you ever wondered what it would be like to see the world from a bird’s eye view? To soar high above the landscape, getting an entirely different perspective on everyone and everything around you? Who hasn’t? Birds are creatures that have a completely different experience than mammals down on the ground, and looking up into the sky, it’s easy to wish to glide among them.

BBC Earth’s latest release, Earthflight, allows you to do exactly that. Through a combination of technology, drones, tame birds, and other elements, one of the planet’s best nature documentary organizations brings us something new and fresh. Earth Flight shows us what it’s like to see down from the sky as our avian friends take flight over a variety of environments, both man-made and natural.

The series is divided into six hours. The first five, “North America, “Africa,” “Europe,” South America,” and “Asia and Australia,” divide up the territories in a familiar manner. Concentrating on one continent per episode, several individual species of birds are chosen in each region and profiled in depth. It’s an oft-used organizational structure, but one that continues to work here, as it has done for others in the past.

Earthflight isn’t just giving us a look through their eyes, but also how they live. We see the birds hunt for food and shelter, cope with predators, and interact with other species. This makes it similar to other nature specials, but the visual perspective is what gives it its uniqueness, so it still stands apart, even as it covers done-before material. Besides, given the huge range of different birds on Earth, there are still plenty of types left to be explored without repeating what’s come before it.

The sixth part, “Flying High,” is what amounts to a special feature on this release. Though aired as its own installment, there are no other extras, and “Flying High” covers much of what the expected bonus material would have. It shows us how the series is made, what techniques are effective in filming this way, and basically lets the viewer appreciate the sheer amount of work that went into the four years of filming.

Visually, as one might surmise, Earthflight is stunning. It is filmed in high definition, so the Blu-ray format is recommended even more highly than for other nature programs. The sheer quality of detail is very impressive, and the viewpoint is one audiences will not soon forget. To really appreciate the beauty of this vantage point, Blu-ray is a must.

As for the audio, well, that isn’t nearly as big a priority for the filmmakers. Earthflight is merely stereo, squandering opportunity to be completely immersed in this world. It’s hard to complain, given that we haven’t seen picture like this before, but even still, one wishes there had been a bit more put into capturing better sound. Can you imagine if the sound of flapping wings were all around you, really feeling like part of the flock, as the camera flew? That’s the one thing that Earthflight really lacks.

Still, it’s worth repeating that this is a project like no other, well worth your valuable time to check out. It may not have been possible, technologically speaking, to film something like this before now, and there may be future efforts that are even more spectacular. For now, though, Earthflight is the first serious contender in this arena, and given the total package, it presents a pretty stunning opportunity.

Earthflight is available now.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Levon" Shakes Up CALIFORNICATION Final Season

Article originally written for Seat42F.

Showtime’s CALIFORNICATION kicks off its final season with “Levon.” Hank (David Duchovny) leaves the road to fly back into the arms of the woman he loves, Karen (Natascha McElhone). But although the series gives us the storybook ending up front, that’s all in Hank’s head, and their actual first encounter is not anything like Hank had hoped for. Now, Hank must finally work on improving himself if he ever wants to win back Karen for good.

All of CALIFORNICATION has been about Hank’s arrested development. Time after time, Hank has screwed up. He’s screwed up with love, he’s screwed up with work, he’s screwed up at being a father to Becca (Madeleine Martin). Now, the end is nigh and Hank is tired of screwing up. Season seven might actually be the year in which Hank (gasp!) matures.

I really, really hope Hank gets the ending he wants. He’s a flawed man, to be sure, but he’s still the protagonist, and he never has done anything to deserve misery. Almost all of his mistakes are simple, forgivable errors, and circumstance plays as much as role as Hank’s own actions, though he doesn’t usually do himself any favors, either. Yet, there’s something earnest and sweet about Hank that makes one root for him, even when there’s not an overwhelming reason to do so. This part of Hank must be cultured so he can be rewarded.

Obviously, Hank is motivated to better himself for Karen’s sake. But Karen isn’t the only reason Hank needs to grow up. By Karen refusing to just get back with Hank, it takes away that immediate goal. This gives time Hank to improve for his own sake, and while Karen will always be in the back of his mind, he may actually find intrinsic motivation, too.

Step one of the New Hank is to find a job. Atticus has fired Hank and Charlie (Evan Handler) out of boredom, and because Aaron Sorkin became available, so Hank must find some bridge he hasn’t yet burned, a rarity in Los Angeles. Charlie points out that Hank has ruined writing jobs for books, movies, and Broadway shows, so there aren’t a lot of options left. The obvious experience still remaining? Television, the lowest art form in Hank’s mind.

Can Hank overcome his prejudices? His opinions and pride are things that have caused trouble in the past, and Hank isn’t much for being humble. Still, given the right carrot, perhaps Hank can find a way to get over himself, and maybe even come to like the medium.

Hank’s new boss, Rick Rath (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos), should be able to help him succeed. He admits to seeing a bit of himself in Hank, believes in a good redemption story, and won’t humor Hank if his behavior goes to crap. At least this is the right environment for Hank to do well in, so if he puts his mind to it, he’s got a chance.

In true CALIFORNICATION form, the opportunity that presents itself is tied to Hank’s past, no one in the show ever escaping what’s come before. I won’t spoil what the project is, but Stu (Stephen Tobolowsky) is involved, and the title will be familiar to fans of the show.

There is another element to Hank’s story that I haven’t mentioned yet. The name of the episode is “Levon,” and there’s a character named Levon (Oliver Cooper, Project X) in it, a college kid who wants to interview Hank for his newspaper. I will say, the twist concerning Levon, one sure to keep him around for the rest of the series, is easy to see coming from a mile away, and feels tacked on in the final season of the show. And yet, the music choice for the ending of the episode and Duchovny’s trademark sneer nails the emotion so damn well that I find myself excusing the predictability, and even seeing a way this could really be good for the show and the character of Hank.

Of course Charlie and Marcy (Pamela Adlon) have a bit of story in “Levon,” too. Their renewed marriage isn’t going so well because Charlie is haunted by their time spent apart, especially what they did with others during their break. It’s regrettable, but also not unexpected. At least they seem committed to making the union work, so getting back to a good place will give them a satisfying arc for season seven.

To be honest, it took a lot not to just marathon the whole seventh year of CALIFORNICATION in one sitting today (thank you, Showtime, for making them all available, by the way), and it’s an impulse I likely won’t be able to resist long. This is such a good, solid show, and the growth and exploration of the characters is very compelling. “Levon” not only continues that trend, but also really tees up what looks to be a near-perfect last year, so I am eager to watch it. I hope you will be, too.

CALIFORNIATION airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET on Showtime.

"Jolly" Time for ONCE UPON A TIME

Article first written for Seat42F.
In the latest installment of ABC’s ONCE UPON A TIME, “The Jolly Roger,” we catch up to what Captain Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) is doing during the Lost Year. He’s reformed his pirate band, Smee (Chris Gauthier) having turned human again when they came back to the Enchant Forest, and they’ve become land pirates, or common robbers. A chance run-in with Ariel (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) gives Hook a clue as to where his ship is, and he sets off to find it.

Hook is yet another bad guy the series is trying to redeem, at times unevenly. “The Jolly Roger” is his relapse, if you will, a return to the way he was before meeting and falling for Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison). Yet, we can tell right away that it’s a hollow existence for him. He turns away a whore and pines mightily over the hole in his heart.

Hook can be forgiven for, at first, thinking his ship might fill that void. That’s why when he and Ariel storm the deck and Black Beard (Charles Mesure, V, Desperate Housewives) tells Hook he can choose between The Jolly Roger and Ariel’s missing Prince Eric (Gil McKinney), Hook chooses the boat. He’s not trying to be cruel to the mermaid; he just wants to be happy again. He has convinced himself that he loves the vessel. Even killing Black Beard doesn’t seem so evil, despite the wasted guest star, because we know the pirate deserves to walk the plank.

However, because Hook is redeemed now, he carries a heavy guilt over not helping Ariel. This comes back up in Storybrooke when Ariel enlists the extremely reluctant Hook to help her track Eric. Hook could get away with what he’s done, but is instead moved to confess, yet another sign of his growing maturity and goodness. Hook may have done the wrong thing, but at least he owns up to it.

“The Jolly Roger” is a terrific character study episode. While it does pause the main arc of the spring run temporarily, it doesn’t feel like stalling because the writers really delve into the psyche of this man. O’Donoghue proves his acting chops, delivering his best hour to date, and the whole thing comes together nicely.

There is another missing chapter, though. We’ve now seen why being a pirate doesn’t work out for Hook in the Enchanted Forest. We don’t yet know what ultimately happened to The Jolly Roger and how Hook escaped the realm before the second curse, thus remembering what everyone else has forgotten. If the second Hook flashback this spring is as good as this one, sign me up!

The twist at the end, that Ariel is already reunited with Eric and that this is Zelena (Rebecca Mader) in disguise, using Hook to bring down Emma, whom Zelena sees as a threat, is great! ONCE UPON A TIME really keeps the secret well, Zelena playing a convincing mermaid, and thus surprises us at the end, always a good thing. Add to that the heart-breaking choice Hook is now faced with – make the woman he loves vulnerable or see those she cares most about hurt – is a rough one for the pirate, and more compelling pathos are a sure thing.

There are a couple of side stories this week, too. In one, Regina (Lana Parrilla) tries to teach Emma to harness her power without resorting to the cruel methods Rumple (Robert Carlyle) used on Regina. In the end, though, Regina gets an idea of what to do from Rumple, and helps Emma tap in through peril. This works and it proves Regina is smart, but did anyone else not buy Regina allowing Emma to actually plummet to her death. Where was Regina raising her arms, prepared for a last-minute save?

Secondly, the Charmings (Josh Dallas and Ginnifer Goodwin) are disappointed to learn their grandson-who-doesn’t-know-he’s-their-grandson, Henry (Jared Gilmore), finds them boring. While they shouldn’t try to compete with Hook for the boy’s affections, the sequence where David allows Henry to try driving, taking out a mailbox in the process, is funny. David and Mary Margaret are often the least interesting characters on the series, but give them more like this to do and they can be interesting again yet.

While some may consider “The Jolly Roger” filler, and technically it is, it is filler of the best kind, rich material that adds depth to current events and illustrates the journey of a lead character. If only all filler tasted this good, no one would have reason to complain.

ONCE UPON A TIME airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Whether to Watch FARGO is Not a "Dilemma"

Article first published as FARGO Review on Seat42F.

Fargo FX
FX’s new FARGO is the story of a pregnant police chief (Frances McDormand) tracking a pair of hit man (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) near the town of Fargo. The guys have been hired by a local failure (William H. Macy) to kidnap his wife in order to extort money from the woman’s father. But during the abduction, she is accidentally killed, setting off a series of dangerous, somehow funny, events. And bodies get put into a wood chipper.

No, wait a second. That’s the excellent 1996 film of the same name. Remarkably, pretty much none of what I said in the preceding paragraph applies to the story of the series, which goes in its own direction. I’m not saying that FX’s FARGO abandons the premise entirely. Although none of the character names have been changed, there are some very familiar character types.

Wimpy Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, Sherlock, The Hobbit) encounters by chance a hit man named Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon), who encourages Lester to find his inner man. The local police chief (Shawn Doyle, Big Love), who has a pregnant wife (Julie Ann Emery, Hitch), and his deputies, Molly (Allison Tolman, Sordid Lives: The Series) and Bill (Bob Odenkirk, Breaking Bad), are looking for Lorne, though they don’t yet know who he is.

By taking some characters that seem a lot like the ones in the movie and keeping the setting and the accents, FARGO ties itself to the earlier work enough to bring the fans of it in. Yet, in making some very different choices with the story from the first scene onward, it makes the action unpredictable, keeping viewers guessing what might happen and who could die next.

This FARGO expertly maintains the balance between blood and laughs that one might expect. Characters (yes, plural) that might be considered important die in the very first installment. At the same time, the dialogue and bumbling happenstances, especially when Lester is around, make the proceedings enjoyable and lighter than one may expect from a program with a high body count. There are numerous occasions when I could not help but laugh out loud, a distinction most sitcoms fails to reach on a weekly basis.

The pilot is titled “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.” For those unfamiliar with the logic paradox, this refers to a crocodile kidnapping a child. The croc promises the father that he can have the kid back if and only if the father is able to accurately predict whether the crocodile will give him back the boy. If the father states that the crocodile will not give back the son, then he has correctly predicted and the croc must hand over the boy, though then that means the father didn’t correctly predict because the crocodile didn’t keep him.

If that makes your brain hurt, I understand. FARGO isn’t quite as complex as all that. What it is, though, is a well-crafted series of events, some from cause and effect, others arising by chance, that intermix in such a way that there doesn’t seem to be an easy, logical way out for the main players. Since the show has ten episodes to tell their story, it isn’t obvious yet how unwinnable the scenario will be, but it does feel like this is the type of situation set up in “The Crocodile’s Dilemma.”

The cast is truly fantastic. Freeman and Thornton, of course, have a body of work that implies they can handle themselves, and they do, beautifully. But so do the rest of those named above, along with Kate Walsh (Private Practice), Colin Hanks (The Good Guys), Keith Carradine (Dexter), and numerous other guest and recurring roles, with a heck of a lot more famous folks signed to appear in later hours. Whoever put together this crew deserves major credit, as FARGO would not work without its cast.

Strangely, there are also a couple of parts that are left wanting, mostly because they are not played by big names, but seem like big names should have been obtained, meaning it feels like FARGO failed to get its first choice and settled for a replacement. The bully introduced in the first hour is definitely a “Tom Wilson type,” but is not portrayed by Tom Wilson. We also meet a “Stephen Merchant type” later on. I could be wrong about the second-choice standings, but these parts feel just too close to those performers to be played by anyone else.

Other than that, though, I have no complaints. FARGO is a compelling, highly entertaining masterpieces, crafted so intelligently, and executed in the best of methods. The tiny touches, such as a message spelled out on Lester’s refrigerator, kick the quality up yet another notch. I am already a firm fan of this miniseries. FARGO airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.