Monday, August 14, 2017

TV Show Review: I'm Dying Up Here

This Showtime dramedy takes a familiar premise of looking at the lives of comics, pushes it into the past to the 70s so it's a period piece and develops some interesting characters. I'm not sure if the show will get another season as I don't see it being very popular but I found it strangely appealing when I watched it and the humor mixed well with the tough lives of these individuals who pursue their hilarious dreams. Two big actors, Alfred Molina and Sebastian Stan, only stick around for the pilot episode as other characters take up the greater part of the ensemble cast led by the brilliant Melissa Leo. Leo plays Goldie, the owner of the comedy club, who decides the fate of the up-and-coming comedians. She deals with the sexism prevalent during the time period and the industry with a class that the veteran actress pulls off with style. She persistent when she has an idea and protective of her comics though she'll never let them know that and deals effectively with the big egos. 

Bill Hobbs (Andrew Santino) hopes to make it to the big time but his ego is the biggest of the comedians and when he talks poorly to a patron of the club during his set, he loses his big shot at Johnny Carson. Adam Proteau (RJ Cyler) is a young black comedian who hopes that Goldie will help him open doors after his agent sends him her way and he helps him do chores around the house. Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) is the female comic who tries to be one of the boys, though they always single her out. Cassie and Bill dated for a while but their professional aspirations get in the way. Eddie Zeidel (Michael Angarano) and Ron Shack (Clark Duke) head out to Los Angeles from Boston but when the comedian who promises them a place to live ends up dead, they have to struggle to survive, living in a closet and only eating rice they won at a game show. 

There are so many characters all with hilarious jokes. Edgar Martinez (Al Madrigal) deals drugs and changes his name to Manny to garner attention and survive in the business. Ralph King (Erik Griffin) has returned from Vietnam to work the stage. Sully Patterson (Stephen Guarino) struggles to decide whether he should pursue a professional life or continue to work towards his dream. His dedication causes friction with his wife who takes care of their newborn while he stays out late cracking jokes. Barton Royce (Obba Babatundé) poaches talent from Goldie and has an eye for Proteau as he manages a top black comic, Richard Pryor. Proteau works for Barton at his brothel doing laundry and helping the prostitutes get rid of angry Johns. 

Each one of the comedians hopes to move up from the open mic to the big stage but risk the possibility of bombing and their order is at the whim of the doorman Arnie Brown (Jon Daly). It's easy to get lost in the lives of these characters and interspersed with their stories are the stand-up acts that are always good for a laugh. Goldie pursues a chance at television promoting women comics but clashes with the studio executives. Nick Beverly (Jake Lacy) comes out a few episodes in with a great act that he takes to television but his addiction to heroin causes problems when he tries to land an agent. Bill Hobbs has his father Warren (Glenn Morshower) come out to stay with him after he loses his job but becomes a burden on his comedian son who he feels like is a disappointment. The dynamic between father and son come to a head when Warren kills himself in a car that he then gifts Bill. 

Jim Carrey produced the show reflecting back from his own experiences at the clubs before his rise to fame. I have enjoyed most of the shows I've seen about striving comedians mostly because I'm not brave enough to take that risk and I enjoy watching stand up comedy so these shows have a nice mix of story and funny. It was cool to be introduced to a bunch of new actors amidst the veterans like Melissa Leo, who is extraordinary, and to see a few comedic actors get bigger roles that are little more serious while still showing off their talent. While I don't think the show was a critical success or achieved enough viewers to stay on, I would be curious to see where the show goes for a second season.  

Sunday, August 13, 2017

TV Show Review: TURN: Washington's Spies (Season 4)

The television show based on the saga of Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and the spy ring he built to help the American colonies defy the British Empire in the Revolutionary War came to an end. The final season moved the timeline towards the end of the war and saw the death of major characters and the final relaying of information that proved crucial to the British defeat. I had given up on this show back in the second season finding the acting a little corny and the dialogue strange, but when I decided to catch up on it, I found myself enjoying the dramas of the characters alongside the pressures of war. Anna Strong (Heather Lind) finds herself in the refugee camp after refusing marriage to Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman). She conspires with Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) to root out the spies in the camp who seek to betray General George Washington (Ian Kahn).

Woodhull has been so close to being exposed on numerous occasions especially as he was hunted by John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin). The plot at the beginning of the season sees Woodhull parting from his wife Mary (Meegan Warner) who has taken resistance into her own hands before including shooting Simcoe, and pretending to be captured with his father Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally) by the rebels in order to free Caleb. This plot goes terribly wrong when the Judge is shot during the prisoner exchange and Abraham is nearly shot too if he wasn't saved by Akinbode (Aldis Hodge). The murder of his father gives Woodhull the chance to disguise his motivations for joining the British army. 

In the army, Woodhull works to discover information about the traitor Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman). Arnold's wife Peggy (Ksenia Solo) has turned against him and eventually conspires with her maid Abigail (Idara Victor) to betray her husband. Anna Strong becomes aware of a rebellion growing in the ranks of the soldiers and pleads with Alexander Hamilton, who makes a brief cameo, as she also grows fond of Talmadge. Woodhull works to traffic in information but is hindered by the appearance of Simcoe's battalion though he goes unrecognized for some time. Major Hewitt reemerges as head of intelligence for the British and threatens to expose Woodhull but his hatred for Simcoe overpowers that and leads him to conspire with Woodhull to kill the man. Their plan struggles to take off as Simcoe take precautions against assassination.

Woodhull is able to transmit information back to the rebel army through his contact in New York, Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate). Woodhull is distressed to discover that he will be marching to fight instead of staying in the barracks. He finds himself in the middle of battle and during one of the most exciting episodes confront Simcoe just as Caleb Brewster on his march to find Abraham, spots them in battle. Caleb shoots Simcoe just as he is about to strike Woodhull allowing Abraham to knock him down and gravely wound him. Major Hewitt has a chance to kill Simcoe but exhibits mercy and allows him to head up to Canada to begin anew. The war winds down in the final episodes as Woodhull is captured by rebels only to strive to prove he was working for America all along. He then seeks to get paid for his work as the final fighting ensues. Everyone moves on to an unsure future as the war has taken its toll on the characters.

TURN takes an interesting look at history with exciting stories and different perspective to the common story of American independence. The key players are interesting to look up in reference material to see how they did influence the Revolutionary War, something that is not fully taught in history and almost forgotten. Jamie Bell does a decent job leading the series and Samuel Roukin is an impressive villain that so great at being unlikable. I found the last two season a little more exciting than the slower second as the drama ratcheted up near the end of the war. My review can hardly capture all the various stories that weave together for such an exciting tale about the spies and deception that assisted the American army in outsmarting the much larger British one. It's a show that I'm glad I took the time to revisit and give a second chance with a solid ending. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Book Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

From a larger world comes E. Catherine Tobler's story about Jackson, a mysterious orphan who harbors a dark and slithery secret. Jackson never knew his parents but is excited to find a new life taking a train across the country after spending much of his childhood in an orphanage under nuns. In a brief stop in Chicago, he visits a fair and sees strange sights that cause the tentacles writhing beneath his skin to come out. He has to be calmed by Sister Jerome Grace, the only motherly figure he knows. She is able to get him back on the train and they continue the journey to San Francisco. The other children are adopted by families but Jackson is taking by a woman named Cressida who runs an establishment called MacQuarie's. 

Cressida's assistant, Foster, watches over Jackson as he takes them to the city. Jackson sees the circus and feels welcome in this place, a place where freaks are not unusual at all. Jackson also becomes intrigued by a girl named Mae who dances at a competing show. Witnessing this spectacle enchants Jackson and he risks crossing Cressida to go back again. Jackson uses his ability to survive the mean streets as he works with Foster to carry out the strange orders from Cressida. He also meets the baker girl Gussie and charms her for his purposes, though his affection always remains for Mae.

The novel goes in an interesting direction as the rivalry between Mae and Cressida puts Jackson in the middle. Cressida has some strange dark objects that she keeps locked away in a chest and she battles to keep her territory from rival gangs. It helps that she has a squad of superhumans to fight off aggressors. Mae knows that Cressida is up to no good but Jackson feels he owes this woman because she has given him a home, even if it also feels like a prison. Cressida feels her grip on Jackson slipping and leverages her power by threatening Sister Jerome Grace. Jackson does not take kindly to threats.

I was a little confused by the finale but realized that it was something extraordinary as I read it. The titular kraken rests below Macquarie's and Jackson has to use Gussie to access it with Mae. The final fight pits Jackson versus the Kraken and his certain kind of tentacles win out. Cressida is defeated and killed in the process and there is a passage to the underworld that is sealed off. Jackson inherits the circus with no one else to own it and this leads to the series that E. Catherine Tobler writes in a series of short stories. 

I am looking forward to reading some of these and think I've encountered one before without actually realizing it. I'm not sure if The Kraken Sea is the best starting point but it certainly stands on its own as a clever novella that brings a strange new world to life. Apex Book Company has some great work and I'm almost always impressed when I pick up one of their books. 

Book Review: Gray Widow's Web by Dan Jolley

Dan Jolley rockets back into the world of the Gray Widow with a wild and awesome adventure that ups the stakes and delivers a pulse-pounding action adventure. The Gray Widow's greatest challenge yet comes from the vicious new enemy Aphrodite Lupo. Jamie Sinclair is still dealing with the repercussions from the first novel and the fight with Simon Grove. Janey's boyfriend Tim Kapoor recovers from the injuries he received from the fight with Simon though he still tries to play tough. The Gray Widow is occupied by the increased presence of enhanced individuals including one girl who has similar powers to Janey in teleportation but uses them for wicked purposes like responding to a high school bully. 

Nathan Pittman tried to imitate the Gray Widow and nearly lost his life. He becomes obsessed with the Atlanta superhero and acquires as much knowledge as he can treading close to the true identity. He also meets an otherworldly attractive woman who takes a curious interest in him. Janey also finds comfort in her fried Sha'Dae Wilkinson, her neighbor who shares a strange connection with her. The first part of the book does a lot to set up how life has moved on and expands the world as Janey and Tim investigate the appearance of augments. All of those who experienced enhanced abilities saw a strange light in the sky before they were able to do extraordinary things. The children of these people have even more enhanced abilities and this explains how Janey got her amazing powers because her father saw a light once before.  

Aphrodite uses Nathan to learn more about Janey as she suspects that she is the true identity of the Gray Widow. She uses her ability to change appearance to pretend to be Janey and interrogate Sha'dae. The set up pays off when Aphrodite reveals herself and the fight between her and Gray Widow begins. The friends are caught in the middle as Nathan realizes he helped a villain and Tim still wants to help her. Aphrodite gathers a team including a racist man with super strength and another teleporter. Jolley does not hold back on the action once it gets started with Janey using everything in her power to stop Aphrodite though she seems to be unstoppable. The villains attack her friends putting them in danger and leading to tragedy.

All seems lost when Nathan, Janey, Sha'dae, and Tim retreat but find that something is different about them too. Tim has healed from the altercation and his old injuries while Sha'dae can sense everyone's thoughts and see through their eyes, and Nathan has super strength, much to his excitement. There is some humor as the friends learn their abilities but Janey wants to get to the bottom of the mystery. An unidentified flying object has crashed and is being stored in a secret military facility. On the run, the friends hide at a motel as Janey heads to the military based to get to the bottom of this augmentation. She sneaks in and discoversan alien lifeform known as the Plowman in the base. Aphrodite shows up to cause more problems but they manage to escape and get to the bottom of this alien intervention. One more climactic battle wraps up this exciting adventure but adds plenty more setup for the final part of this very cool trilogy. 

Dan Jolley is a fun writer to read from this series of novels and graphic novels to his video game writing. The Gray Widow is an exciting new hero and the sequel grows the world in an epic way. There are some very cool scenes to read as Janey tests her powers to the extreme, transporting high into the sky and creating explosions in the heat that she leaves behind. Aphrodite Lupo was a vicious villain that I thought would never be stopped and it looks like this won't be the end of whatever caused this fight. I am anxiously looking forward to the finale of this series and whatever Dan Jolly puts out in the future.  

Friday, August 11, 2017

Movie Review: Annabelle: Creation

Delving further back into the history of the cursed doll, the latest addition to the Conjuring Universe provides plenty of creepy scares and quality filmmaking that has become a feature of these films. David F. Sandberg directs the haunting tale of a family whose bargain with evil turns into a harrowing experience for the young orphans they invite to stay. Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto) and her doll maker husband Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) raise their daughter Bee (Samara Lee) out in an isolated house on a country road. When Bee steps out into the road in front of a speeding car and dies, they are overcome with grief. Twelve years later, they host a group of orphan girls who disturb the precautions they've taken to keep the forces of evil at bay.

Janice (Talitha Bateman) is crippled from polio and has trouble using the stairs but a convenient chair helps her climb. They do all sorts of setup for various horrors to come as Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) and the other girls explore the house included a dumbwaiter that continuously slams open and a creepy farmhouse full of doll parts. Janice's best friend Linda (Lulu Wilson) suspects something up as Janice becomes more enthralled with the locked room that used to belong to Bee. Janice opens a door to reveal a closet coated with Bible pages and containing the Annabelle doll locked away. Things start to go bump in the night and mysterious occurrences haunt the girls including a sheet mysteriously moving and the doll shifting around.

Esther hides away in a room wearing a doll-like mask and lying in bed, using a bell to call for help. In an especially scary scene, the older girls Nancy (Philippa Coulthard) and Carol (Grace Fulton) tell spooky stories about their host until a specter bursts out at them. Annabelle is only the conduit as in the previous film to a much more terrible looking entity, a black demon that crawls and terrorizes the girls. The creature always takes the shape of Bee that it used to trick the parents into allowing it to inhabit their house. After several scares, a strange figure pushes Janice into the barn and the demon in the form of Bee crawls on top of her and does the possession move that is common for the Conjuring franchise, vomiting black goo into the mouth of the victim. Janice becomes possessed so Linda tries to dispose of the Annabelle doll that she believes is the source of the haunting in a well only to find it popping back up. 

The demon grows stronger eliminating Mr. Mullins by rotting his body gruesomely. Sister Charlotte finds out the truth from Esther who reveals how they were fooled into letting the demon inhabit the doll and her scarred face from an attack twelve years ago. Charlotte tries to evacuate the house but the demon picks her up and tosses her aside. The other girls call for help and check on Esther who has been ripped in half. They try to escape but the monster attacks them, using a scarecrow as a conduit as well. Janice goes after Linda who escapes into the dumbwaiter but the demonic presence chases after her. Finally, Charlotte intervenes to stop Janice and the girls make it outside as the house goes crazy. Janice goes missing and the rest of the girls move on with their lives. Janice reappears as Annabelle and is adopted by Mia's neighbors from the first film tying it together. 

I like the ideas of these prequels and how they tie to a greater universe. Unfortunately, I did not stick around for the post credit scene that hints at the origins of the creepy Nun that made a brief cameo in the film. I look forward to more of these films and hope we get a third Conjuring film to round out the trilogy and plenty more horrific monsters to haunt the cinema. While a step down from the original film and its sequel, Annabelle: Creation out does its previous film and shows promise for the series to come. I'll also look forward to these young girls future roles especially Lulu Wilson who has done a great job in other horror films. Sandberg is also a clever director and his craft enhances the film. Annabelle as a series has life but I would be interested to see how they continue it from here. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Movie Review: Annabelle

The creepy doll gets its own horror movie and somewhat of an origin story. Mia (Annabelle Wallis) is an expectant mother and doll collector who is given the porcelain figure as a present from her husband John (Ward Horton). He doesn't believe her when she says she hears a scream from the neighbors but investigates to find the neighbors bleeding. Mia is attacked by followers of a satanic cult and the woman cultist, Annabelle Higgins, kills herself when the cops arrive, bleeding into the doll's eye. Mia recovers from a stab wound to her stomach, though her child is still alive inside her. Strange noises start to sound in the night and weird occurrences like the sewing machine coming on as the doll shifts.

John throws the doll in the garbage when Mia is disgusted by it being held by the murderous woman. When all the stoves mysteriously turn on starting a fire and something grabs her leg, Mia is taken to the hospital and has the baby. They move to a new apartment and attend a church service with a congregation led by Father Perez (Tony Amendola). Somehow, the Annabelle doll shows up again much to John's concern but Mia wants to keep it. She meets her neighbor Evelyn (Alfre Woodard) but is also haunted by a strange woman walking around her house while she sleeps. She sees strange things and tries to convince her husband who turns to the church.

The demonic presence continues to haunt her, chasing her in the basement of the apartment and up the stairs. When Detective Clarkin (Eric Ladin) informs her of the cult's purpose, she researches the demon the cult had hoped to summon. Evelyn helps her discover the truth and Mia demands help from her husband who brings in Father Perez. The priest takes the doll with him but when he tries to take it inside the church, he is thrown back and injured. Evelyn helps Mia care for the baby and reveals how her daughter died. Father Perez awakes to warn John of the demon's intentions to take her soul. John hurries back to the apartment as strange things happen at their home. 

The demon destroys Mia's doll collection and pushes Evelyn out of the apartment. Mia desperately searches for her crying baby as doors slam shut and the doll stares on wickedly. She hallucinates the doll and tries to destroy but then thinks it is her child. The demon tempts her to take her own life. She is ready to give her soul but John stops her from jumping out the window with Annabelle. Knowing the demon requires a soul, Evelyn sacrifices herself by jumping with the doll and ridding the curse of the demon. The doll goes missing in the ensuing investigation. 

Annabelle is a pretty decent horror film with plenty of quality scares. The film fills in the background of what happened before the nurses were gifted the doll and introduces another demonic creature. The black crawling demon is pretty scary and though the doll looks pretty weird, it doesn't generate quite the same scares. I liked the film a little better on the second watch and was still pretty shocked by some of the sudden jolts of the film. I look forward to seeing the sequel tomorrow night that will expand on the story and some how give us another origin tale.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Movie Review: Detroit

It has been clear long before I was born that something is wrong with the country and the souls of those in authority are corrupt. Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit exposes another terrible chapter in dramatic fashion that feels a bit off in its depiction of horrific violence. The story gives a brief background of the tension through a cartoon that feels far too simplistic for a nuanced view of a centuries old struggle and growing corruption in law and order. There is a short scene that plays no real significance in the rest of the film except to introduce the supposed cause of the riots but then it jumps to the major characters of this sickening story. 

The character that is most interesting and takes the role of protagonist in this harrowing tale is Larry (Algee Smith), a singer whose attempt at fame and a chance at the stage for his Motown group is cut short due to the riots. He and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) flee the angry police and raging fires to hide out the night in the Algiers hotel. Dismukes (John Boyega) works private security for a grocery store trying to help black men escape the brutality of the patrolling officers and national guard. Krauss (Will Poulter) is a racist police officer whose trigger happy nature with a shotgun earns him a homicide investigation before the events at the Algiers hotel. Larry and Fred flirt with two white women Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) who bring them to meet some friends. 

Carl (Jason Mitchell) is fed up with the way white people treat them and plays a prank on Larry and Fred to scare them off with a fake starter pistol. He later uses this pistol to pretend to shoot at the cops while Dismukes serves them coffee. This leads an assault crew including Krauss and his fellow officers Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O'Toole). The vicious nature was already apparent but tension rises almost immediately as the police believe the threat is real and pull the men and women from their rooms. They line them up against the wall including Greene (Anthony Mackie) who is caught in a room with the women. Krauss leads an awful death game pretending to kill each man to coerce a confession only after killing Carl and planting a knife on him.

The hotel scene plays out in sickening fashion and is unpleasant, unenjoyable, and nowhere near entertainment. Big stars like Mackie and Boyega, superstars in a just world, are sidelined with no great dialogue or emotional resonance as the filmmakers somehow decide that the guilt of this inhuman officers is a more compelling focus for the camera. Even Algee Smith is put in a role where he merely whimpers and uses his great singing voice briefly while Poulter's Krauss sneers and tortures the men and women. Forced to cover up the foolishness of Demens, they coerce the men to deny what happened, before letting the survivors free but kill Fred in the process. If the horror wasn't enough, the investigating officers lump Dismukes in as complicit with the white officers.

Detroit goes on to the show the court case but the verdict is clear before the trial starts and five decades later the same awful story plays out on the news. The movie is cynical, rightfully so, but tries to end on a hopeful note as Larry's career is destroyed by the time at the hotel and he finds solace singing for the church choir. The film dramatizes a true story taking liberties with some of the details as it states at the end to make for one of the more disturbing films of the year. The story is compelling but it looks like the creators might not have been the right choice to relay the tale. Bigelow's style is evident but there is a distance to the material that deadens the emotional impact.