Wednesday, November 22, 2017

TV Show Review: Better Things (Season 2)

Pamela Adlon's artsy family comedy returns for a second season of goofy antics and mother-daughter relationships. Sam Fox (Adlon) works to keep her daughters in line. Max (Mikey Madison) is dating a much older man but confesses to Sam that she doesn't want to date the man anymore. While she cares for her daughters including Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), she also tries to have a romantic life. She meets several guys but none of them really pan out for various reasons. One guy becomes too needy while friends try to set her up but she avoids going on dates. She does meet a nice guy who is a bit controlling but she gives him a chance. The relationship is never given an ending but it comes back around in later episodes.

Sam must also deal with her eccentric mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie) who lives down the street. She has a way of speaking her mind and finding out what is wrong with Sam. Phyllis is declining in health and Sam isn't sure what she should do about it. She isn't sure she can handle her declining mother on top of all the other things she has in her life. She reaches out to her brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) but he isn't much help. Sam does move forward in her relationship with Robin (Henry Thomas) by allowing him to meet with the kids but even though the dinner goes well, it doesn't work out. In Frankie's only major episode, she argues a lot with Sam and the two of them perform increasingly more outrageous pranks on one another. 

Each episode has a strange theme and often deals with her relationship with her kids. Sam puts on a fake funeral so she can hear how her kids think about her but Duke is also part of the funeral and cries when no one mentions her in their eulogizing. In another episode, she goes to the store with her friend's ex-husband Jeff (Greg Cromer) but she awkwardly runs into Robin. Jeff tries to come on to Sam but she soundly rejects him and even then he still proposes that they have sex. Sam's husband's father Arnold Hall (Rade Serbedzija) wants to see his grandchildren but Sam can't make the time work since they already had plans. Arnold also asks same to keep taking care of her ex-husband financially since he has proven to not handle money well.

Sam learns more about her extended family on a trip up to Canada as her family kept secret an aunt who was put way in a mental institute while Duke sees ghost around the cabin. In the finale, Max is graduating from high school. She throws a huge party that Sam has to stay out of. Max plans to see their father Xander (Matthew Glave) but he blows them off at the last minute. Sam has plenty of friends who step in to help take Max to her graduation. The finale ends with Sam, Duke, Frankie, and Phyllis all performing a dance for Max as her final graduation present.

Better Things is a cute show with some strange episodes and no real connecting storyline. The characters are great, Olive Edward as Duke is a highlight. Pamela Adlon delivers plenty of humor through the odd episodes making each one worthwhile. FX has a solid quirky comedy on hand and hopefully it will avoid the controversy of its co-creator Louis CK who was recently outed as a sexual harasser. It has been renewed for a third season so I look forward to seeing where it goes under the direction of Adlon. 

TV Show Review: You're the Worst (Season 4)

After a stunning end to the third season, Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) return for a hilarious fourth season. Jimmy left Gretchen right after proposing to her and it picks up this season with Jimmy hiding out in a trailer community for old people. Gretchen hasn't left the apartment of her best friend Lindsay Jillian (Kether Donohue). In Jimmy's absence, Edgar Quintero (Desmin Borges) has taken over his house and redecorated, something Jimmy would never let happen. Lindsay has found success at a fashion boutique while Edgar is writing for a comedy television show. The two of them meet to commiserate about their friends and end up in bed together but strictly as friends. Jimmy decides to return after he sees the life of a lonely old man but Gretchen does not take his return well. 

What also brought Jimmy back was the success of his romance novel, The Width of a Peach, which he wrote while dating Gretchen. Unfortunately for Jimmy, the book is being advertised by the publishers as erotica. Gretchen gets out trying to forget about Jimmy and ends up meeting Boone (Colin Ferguson). She also has to explain to Sam (Brandon Mychal Smith) and his crew about why she lied about being in another country during her three-month sabbatical in Lindsay's apartment. Gretchen also realizes that she doesn't need to let Jimmy off and decides that she still has a right to live in his house. She moves back in and works to sabotage his career. Lindsay worries that she doesn't have any real friends at work and when Gretchen throws her a divorce party none of them show up. 

Who does show up to Lindsay's party are her sister Becca (Janet Varney), Becca's husband Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson), and even Lindsay's ex-husband Paul (Allan McLeod) who has become part of a men's rights activist group. Jimmy searches for love in other places but hooking up with a fellow erotica author and an old friend only make him miss Gretchen more. Gretchen discovers that Boone has a daughter and works to be a part of their life. Edgar is unsuccessful in bonding with Jimmy so he turns to his new work friend, Max (Johnny Pemberton). Edgar tells Max about his past in the military and his struggles with drug addiction which only puts off Max and derails his career in various ways. Lindsay has revelations about her past with her sister Becca about their mother. 

Gretchen returns home, reconnects with an old friend Heidi (Zosia Mamet), and learns about herself. Jimmy embarrasses himself on NPR while Vernon struggles between taking care of the baby Becca has no interest in and his job as a surgeon. Gretchen tries to bond with Boone's daughter but finds things are off. Lindsay thinks about her past as she helps people and cautions Gretchen from getting involved in Boone's child's life. Jimmy and Gretchen try to figure out what their future will be when Vernon makes an awful mistake at surgery. Edgar thinks he got a promotion but he actually got a bad assignment. Lindsay helps Becca, Vernon, and Paul by coming up with a strange plan. Jimmy fights Boone for Gretchen and thinks he lost but then Gretchen runs out and decides to marry him.

You're the Worst is one of the most hilariously bizarre television shows with great characters and tons of one-liners. The show explores the difficult nature of relationships and surviving as a young professional in a competitive city like Los Angeles. The show veers off into weird stories sometimes but often is so funny that it doesn't really matter. The episodes are unpredictable but always falls back on Jimmy and Gretchen's rough relationship. The acting is great for these funny characters. FX has a great romantic comedy going strong through four seasons. 

TV Show Review: Vice Principals (Season 2)

This irreverent HBO comedy returned for its second and final season. Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) works to solve the crime of his shooting at the end of the first season. In his absence, Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) has taken over South Jackson High changing the mascot to a tiger and running the school the way he sees fit. Gamby played up his injury to make it seem much worse than it was but believes it is now time to return to his role as the vice principal. Lee Russell has a new assistant Nash (Dale Dickey) who tries to show deference to Gamby who is having none of it. Gamby continues to try to win over the affection of Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King) but she is dating a successful author who claims that he will help her get published.

With the help of Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney), Gamby tries to find a new suspect, a former student Robin Schandrell (Conner McVicker) and Snodgrass's new boyfriend Brian Biehn (Fisher Stevens). Gamby suspects anyone of killing him. He even confronts former principal Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Lee Russell suffers a revolt among the teachers and he learns about this from recording their conversations in the teachers' lounge. The teachers draw insulting caricature and post it on the school board for everyone to see. Lee Russell retaliates against the teachers by bringing in physical trainers to team build but Russell has to go to a funeral leaving Gamby to take over as principal. Gamby stands up to the trainers earning the respect of the teachers while Russell's wife Christine (Susan Park) realizes her husband is a liar.

Christine grows even more suspicious when an old boyfriend shows up talking about his wife and kids after Lee had claimed the man was gay. Russell throws a huge birthday party and Christine ruins it by getting drunk. Gamby goes home with Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson) and they start a relationship again. Gamby becomes popular among the teachers and relishes in the attention, undercutting Russell and making fun of him in private, but when Lee Russell invites himself on Gamby's spring break with his daughter, Neal allows him to come along. Trouble ensues especially as Abbott shows up at the house. Gamby finds the masks and gun of the murderer in Russell's car and suspects him of the murder.

Back at school, Gamby confronts Russell with his silly wrist ejector gun but can't shoot Russell. Gamby tries to come back into the school but Russell fires him. Gamby doesn't want to leave without a fight so the two of them battle through the high school in a hilarious scene. Gamby is let go from the high school but he works with Snodgrass and Christine to uncover secrets about Russell. Gamby forces Russell to step down and takes over as principal. Russell tries to figure out who really shot Gamby and discovers it was Abbott just as she confronts Gamby at his cabin. She shoots Russell in the head and leaves Gamby in a ditch while she heads to the high school to kill Snodgrass. Russell survives the head wound and helps Gamby out of the hole and they race to the high school where Snodgrass has fought off Abbott. Russell had rented a tiger which Abbott lets free. Russell tries to calm the tiger but it bites his hand so Gamby has to come in and save him. Everything works out as Lee Russell becomes a manager of a clothing store and Gamby a principal of a middle school. Gamby also gets to be with Snodgrass who publishes her young adult fantasy novel.

Vice Principals had its charms at a show but at times it felt like it had lost its wild momentum. Danny McBride has been hilarious in nearly all the roles he takes while Walton Goggins shows his talent as an actor by venturing into comedy. The show was always surprising with sudden twists and shocking images popping up in nearly every episode while McBride's Gamby is so dumb and rude that it is always crazy to hear him talking to high school students and teachers. Vice Principals felt like it could have gone on for a few more years but it looks like it was funny for its short term and didn't outstay its welcome. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh brings to life Agatha Christie's mystery novel and performs as the clever detective Hercule Poirot. The film begins with Hercule solving a mystery in Jerusalem with his amazing skills before he takes a ship to Istanbul on which he meets Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) who have a secret between them. He needs to return to London for a very important case and there is only one option, the Orient Express. Bouc (Tom Bateman) runs the train so he is able to arrange for Poirot to have a room. The detective is looking forward to a trip without any mysteries to solve so when Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) approaches him asking for help against a possible plot to kill him, Poirot refuses. 

However, when Poirot awakes, they find Ratchett has been stabbed multiple times in his bed. The Orient Express has been stalled by an avalanche so Bouc is desperate to solve the case before the police arrive. Poirot agrees to take the case and begins to interrogate each of the passengers aboard the train and search Ratchett's compartment for clues. The biggest clue is a partially burned note that reveals a connection to the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong. The film lost me a bit with this leap as Poirot is very familiar with the kidnapping and Ratchett is, in fact, the kidnapper John Cassetti. There was more than one victim as Daisy's mother died from a premature birth and her husband killed himself. The maid was accused and killed herself in police custody as the prosecutor's career was ruined by the false arrest.

Poirot interviews each of the occupants. Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo) is a man who had great success in the selling of cars. Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz) is a religious woman who has a dark past. Hector Macqueen (Josh Gad) worked for Ratchett and tries to cover up his money laundering of Ratchett's earnings by burning his accounting papers. Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi) also worked as a valet for Ratchett but was diagnosed with stomach cancer so had become disrespectful of his employer. Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) searches for a husband and claims to have heard someone that night rummaging around in her room. Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her helper Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) take care of their little dogs and claim to have slept through the murder. Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) is anxious to get to a convention until Poirot reveals that he is, in fact, a Pinkerton agent sent to protect Ratchett.

All of the passengers are connected to the Armstrong murder in various ways and Poirot steadily uncovers their relations. Dr. Arbuthnot takes a shot at Poirot but misses so Hercule uses his fighting skill to disarm the former sharpshooter. The Armstrong family had a profound effect, from funding Marquez's first business to being a close relationship with Dragomiroff. Hardman was in love with the nursemaid while Pilar had been taking care of Daisy Armstrong the night she was captured. Macqueen was the sun of the disgraced prosecutor while Dr. Arbuthnot was able to become a doctor due to Armstrong's recommendation. Mary Debenham was the governess to the Armstrongs. Caroline Hubbard is really Linda Arden, the famous actress, and grandmother to Daisy Armstrong who gathered them all together. Each one of them took part in the murder and tries to take the blame but Poirot refuses to blame any of them so he claims the killer escaped. 

Murder on the Orient Express was enjoyable for me because I had no clue what the mystery was but I very quickly realized the solution. Agatha Christie's novel sets up a great murder mystery to be copied. Branagh's Poirot grew on me throughout the film as I felt he looked a bit ridiculous at first but found him funny and clever throughout the solution of the mystery. The all-star cast elevates this film but they feel like they were underused for the most part. The film looks great and the cinematography was entertaining but the film does not push into greatness. I liked the film more than a thought so it was a pleasant surprise for a trip to the theater. 

TV Show Review: American Horror Story: Cult (Season 7)

One of the first shows to take on the disturbing state of our country, Ryan Murphy delivers another horrifying season of this anthology series. On the day of the election of Donald Trump, there are two very different reactions. Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) is terrified by the prospect of a complete buffoon taking over the presidency while Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is wild with excitement over the prospect of a new age in politics. Ally has a ton of phobias that creep back up with a vengeance as she confesses to her therapist Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson). Her reaction to the election also causes a rift between her and her wife Ivy (Alison Pill). They co-own a restaurant together and raise their son Oz (Cooper Dodson), but things have become more difficult with Ally's frequent freakouts so they hire a nanny Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd). She is Kai's sister and has a strange way of taking care of Oz.

A lot of strange happenings occur around their Michigan neighbor and when their neighbors are murdered, a new couple moves in. Harrison (Billy Eichner) and Meadow Wilton (Leslie Grossman) raise bees in their backyard and act strangely when they meet their neighbors. Kai grows his influence as he runs for city council, inspired by Trump. Anyone who gets in his way ends up mysteriously dead. Beverly Hope (Adina Porter) reports news stories that raise the fear in the town and with support from Kai, rises up in the ranks at the station. Detective Jack Samuels (Colton Haynes) investigates the threats to Ally and the nearby murders but he is secretly part of Kai's cult and forms a relationship with Harrison. A young report Serena Belinda (Emma Roberts) challenges Beverly until she is brutally murder on camera.

Ally is accused of causing a mass shooting when she actually tries to stop it. Kai is shot and uses his martyr status to recruit even more followers. Meadow was actually the shooter as she was trying to get out of the cult. She warns Ally and points her to Ivy who had taken away Oz after Ally's behavior grew worse. The show uses flashbacks to show how Kai grew his cult and the history of Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham) through her former lover Bebe Babbitt (Frances Conroy). Other cult leaders are revisited as Kai uses them for inspiration. It turns out that Dr. Vincent had been working with Kai since he was his older brother but had covered up their relationship after their parents killed themselves. With the help of followers like Gary Longstreet (Chaz Bono) and others, he makes awful plans. Ally returns and joins the cult since she feels she has no other choice but she secretly plots against Kai.

Winter tries to turn against her brother but Kai test the loyalty of all the women in the group as many of the tenants of his cult are from men's rights activists. Ally and Ivy fear that Kai may actually be Oz's father since he claims to have donated to the sperm back often. Kai's paranoia grows as he becomes more powerful and feels a backlash from the community. Ally kills Ivy by poisoning her and relies on Kai to help get rid of the body. Ally finally does find a snitch in the ranks of Kai's followers and uses him to get Kai arrested. Months later, Ally recovers and tries to use her fame to run a campaign but Kai plans to break out of prison and attack her. In a public spectacle, Kai confronts Ally but Beverly shoots him in the head. Ally wins the election in a landslide.

American Horror Story: Cult took on the awful political climate that affects this country but like other seasons, it goes off the rails in later episodes. Evan Peters is dynamic as the wild cult leader Kai and Sarah Paulson brings her usual talent to Ally and her constant mental breakdowns. The season defies reality in many ways and tries to predict the future in a highly unpredictable reality. I enjoyed catching up on the episodes weekly to see how the cult grew and Ally's plots against Kai and I learned a little bit of history about other cults and the assassination attempt on Andy Warhol. This season ranks around the middle of other American Horror Story seasons. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Movie Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos returns for a dark and disturbing film about revenge and consequences. Cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) has an odd relationship with a young boy Martin (Barry Keoghan), helping out the boy but lying to his family. It is later revealed that he was responsible for Martin's father's death during a surgery that Steven may have been drinking prior to performing. Martin starts to insinuate more into Dr. Murphy's life as he receives presents, shows up at his work uninvited, and eventually receives an invitation from his family. Steven's wife Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman) is welcoming to the strange boy but Martin has a bad influence on Steven's two kids Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Martin tries to return the favor by inviting Steven over to his house but when his mother (Alicia Silverstone) starts to flirt with him.

The film takes a sinister turn when Bob cannot use his legs and no medical tests reveal what is wrong with him. Martin drags Steven out of the hospital room and informs him that each one of his family members will exhibit the symptoms: loss of use of their legs, loss of appetite, bleeding from the eyes, and death. Martin explains that since he lost a member of his family, Steven must lose one of his family members. The symptoms will progress and worsen unless Steven chooses on his family to die. Steven is dismayed but skeptical of Martin's claim and tries to make Bob eat but his son refuses. They continue to run tests but the doctors are convinced it is psychological. Steven tries to push Bob to walk but has no luck. Meanwhile, Martin has struck up a romantic relationship with Kim. 

Kim starts to exhibit symptoms after she collapsing during choir practice. She is able to walk a little bit trying to catch a glimpse of Martin from her hospital room. She stops eating too and Steven confesses to Anna about what Martin said. Anna investigates the operation herself speaking with the anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) and offering him a sexual favor for files about the operation. Anna confronts Steven about his past drinking but Steven refuses to admit that he is at fault. As the kids come home, Steven takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping Martin and keeping him tied up down in their basement. Steven tortures Martin to make him stop his family's suffering but Martin refuses even making a display of his dedication by biting a huge chunk of skin out his arm. 

The situation worsens when Bob starts to bleed from his eyes. As Martin threatened Steven's whole family, there is a lot of suspense about Anna finally exhibiting symptoms but she continues to stand and walk around fine. Bob and Kim struggle to prove that they deserve to live while Kim offers to sacrifice herself. Anna allows Martin to go free so Steven must make an awful choice. The climax has Steven blindfolding himself after tying up his family around the living room. He spins around and shoots hoping to randomly take out one of his family members. He finally stops when he shoots Bob and kills him. The film ends with the family sitting in the diner while Martin watches them.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a terrifying and confusing film. All of the characters have a strange way of talking which creates a wild atmosphere that allows the odd scenario play out in a believable manner in this world. The shots are impressive and the mounting terror keeps the film constantly entertaining. I was not sure what to expect when I decided to see this film but I found it quite shocking and somewhat disturbing in an enjoyable way. There is a solid cast with Farrell returning for another Lanthimos film and Kidman adding her skill this indie gem. Based on a Greek play that I am almost totally unfamiliar with, the film posits an interesting scenario of an impossible situation.  

TV Show Review: Ray Donovan (Season 5)

Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) returns for a mournful fifth season as the death of his wife Abby (Paula Malcomson) has caused him an immense amount of grief. It is not immediately revealed how Abby died the season is split between present-day drama and flashbacks of Abby's last days. Ray is in a drunken daze for most of the season as he copes with his grief. He is forced to attend anger management class after an incident involved his brothers and father and his daughter calling the cops. As the story plays through multiple times, Ray has problems in the present even if he isn't totally there to deal with them. HIs family is still up to no good and finding themselves in over their head with a ton of intense trouble. Abby was a sobering force for the Donovan family so leaving them behind with a bar leads naturally to chaos.

Ray's daughter Bridget Donovan (Kerris Dorsey) seeks out a young man Smitty (Graham Rogers) who was denied treatment because Ray arranged it that Abby would receive the treatment. Something went wrong with Abby receiving the treatment but Smitty was pushed out so he is steadily dying. Terry Donovan (Eddie Marsan) has had his Parkinson assisted by a device that stops his shaking as he struggles with his own guilt over Abby's death. Bunchy Donovan (Dash Mihok) tries to make an investment with his settlement cash but ends up being robbed at a subway shop. Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) is being harassed by FBI agent Frank Barnes (Michael McGrady) to kill Avi (Steven Bauer) who is smuggling drugs. He also helps Daryll (Pooch Hall) when one of his clients Jay White (Brian White) accidentally kills his sensai.

Ray strikes up a relationship with the famous movie star Natalie James (Lili Simmons) who he may have started an affair with even before Abby died. Natalie has become pregnant after a separate affair with a producer Doug Landry (Michel Gill) who works with the ruthless mogul Samantha Winslow (Susan Sarandon). Samantha employs Ray to handle things but there is a competing fixer Vicky (Adina Porter) who tries to steal important information from him. Bunchy takes matters into his own hands since he can't find anyone to help him get his cash back so he goes to jail and meets one of the robbers, earning his trust. Mickey tries to take advantage of holding the clean up of a dead body over Jay White by getting his screenplay produced but White is hesitant to cooperate trying to change the movie into something Mickey doesn't like.

As the flashback slowly catches up, viewers learn that Abby decided she was going to kill herself just as Ray had arranged it for her to get the experimental treatment. Bridget threatens the doctor who performs the treatment to allow Smitty to receive treatment but ends up in jail. Ray has to step in and fix all the problems, faking Avi's death, helping Bridget out of jail, and helping Bunchy kill his robber and get his money. He eventually has to turn Mickey in to stop the FBI from pursuing his career but the spotlight is shined on Ray when Natalie James ends up dead. Ray helps Samantha undercut Doug Landry and kills the producer. The show ends with Ray finally returning to life still coping with the loss of Abby but able to handle his job.

Ray Donovan isn't a top show of the year but I always find myself enjoying the various stories of the Donovan family. It has confronted some tough issues and it is amazing to see how Ray gets out of seemingly impossible situations. The show looks like it is moving toward an end and I can't imagine that the show will go on for many more seasons after this one. Liev Schreiber is entertaining as the main character and his subtle performance as the fixer carries the show forward while a strong supporting cast keeps the story interesting. Without Paula Malcomson, the show will be missing a huge presence but this season was a solid send off for a great character.