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FX's Baskets still in the throes of its miseries, but also keeping some slivers of hope alive

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Chip gets a new gig as “Noodles” in Season 2 of Baskets. FX photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Sad sacks and bleak prospects again abound in Baskets.

Could it be true, though, that this dourest of FX comedies also sucker punches its loyalists with a little heart and humanity? Yes, that’s right, particularly in Episode 4 of Season 2. That’s not until Feb. 9th, though, in an episode subtitled “Ronald Reagan Library.”

Baskets otherwise ups its misery index with a Season 2 launch on Thursday, Jan. 19th at 9 p.m. (central).

Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) has jumped into a boxcar and fled Bakersfield, California after the rodeo where he worked as a clown shuts down. His insolent French wife, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), previously had been run out of town by Chip’s long-suffering mother, Christine (Louie Anderson). And his condescending twin brother Dale (Galifianakis) is hitting on Chip’s only real friend -- hangdog, monotonic Martha (Martha Kelly) -- after his marriage to Nicole (Ellen Williams) goes sour. So there’s not much left for Chip -- not that there ever really was.

Baskets, whose co-creators include Galifianakis and Louis C.K., primarily is one big slice of the human underbelly in already dispiriting times for many. And it mostly stays that way in the new season’s early going. Vagabond Chip is befriended by a group of street performers who likewise hop trains and scrape along. The troupe already has a clown in Trinity (Mary Wiseman). But the leader of this pack, known as Morpheus (Tobias Jelinek), soon discovers that Chip, dubbed “Noodles,” has a way of being ineptly entertaining.

It makes for a tolerable little “family” for a while, until the inevitable dark sides kick in. Meanwhile back home, Christine frets about Chip’s safety and whereabouts, as does Martha. Anderson, who won a best supporting actor Emmy for playing a woman, remains remarkably in sync with Christine, who’s trying to eat better and actually even exercise a bit. The only truly unmitigated louse of Baskets is Dale, who’s basically hatable in Episode 3 after he manipulates Martha into going on a date with him.

But Episode 3 also starts hitting a few sweet spots before Episode 4 actually gets touching. It works on several levels, but primarily via the friendship struck up by Christine and Ken (Alex Morris), an African-American carpet store owner whose daughter, Cypher (Eva La Dare), also has been a constant challenge. Christine remains a devoted admirer of Reagan while Ken backed Jimmy Carter in the 1976 and ’80 presidential elections. Their inclination to get along anyway is part tonic, part straight-ahead jab at the country’s seemingly ceaseless polarization on the eve of the most fractious “peaceful” transfer of power in our country’s contemporary history.

Baskets will never be a walk in the park. And it no doubt remains too dark for many. Some rays of light are showing, though, by the end of Episode 4. Nothing overly warm and toasty, mind you. But some welcome little thaws.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

HBO has the damndest thing in The Young Pope

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Puffs of smoke are not only from the Cardinals’ conclave in The Young Pope. Jude Law otherwise goes defiantly unfiltered. HBO photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 15th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, Javier Camara, James Cromwell, Scott Shepherd, Ludivine Sagnier, Cedile de France, Marcello Romolo
Created, directed, written, produced by: Paolo Sorrentino

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Holy smokes, what will American audiences make of The Young Pope, which already has been underway in Italy since late October?

Beginning Sunday, Jan. 15th, HBO is the U.S. carrier of this distinctly different and sure to be controversial vision from Paolo Sorrentino, its creator, writer, director and head executive producer. Contrary to what the promotions might imply, though, 47-year-old Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) is no amoral hell raiser running scandalously amok in Vatican City. The new guy, end result of a Cardinals’ conclave compromise gone very awry, is rigidly insular and determined to return the Catholic Church to a straight and narrow conservative path. Hunkering down in the Holy See, he’ll wait for the truly faithful to buy in. Proselytizing is for the weak and compromise for the weaker.

“I don’t appear. I don’t explain,” he proclaims in Episode 3, one of five made available for review. “This Pope won’t be wasting time roaming around the world.”

All of this unfolds in mystical, at times comical ways, with various Cardinals now scheming to overthrow what they’ve wrought. But Pope Pius XIII, abandoned by his parents as a seven-year-old and dropped off at an orphanage run by the nurturing Sister Mary (Allison Case in flashbacks, Diane Keaton in the present), seems wholly above their pedestrian machinations. Instead they’re his putty while he forces them to wait a seeming eternity for his first encyclical. The men in red end up getting far more than they bargained for in a rousing Episode 5 that also poignantly spotlights the longtime platonic friendship between the Pope and fellow orphan Andrew (Scott Shepherd), now a Cardinal. Their wayward night on the town is primarily one of reflection, in part sparked by a lady of the night who sees through them, even though they’re in track suits.

As The Young Pope’s central figure, Law lays down his laws in the manner of a Frank Underwood on a G-rated religious bender. In fact, it’s easy to see Kevin Spacey in this role, were he 10 or so years younger. Pius XIII (born Lenny Balardo) smokes as a way of exhaling, demands breakfasts of Cherry Coke Zero and no more, doesn’t do “friendly” while on the job, spurns all efforts to merchandise the new papacy and refuses to be seen by the masses. He instead addresses them in silhouette at night. His Catholic flock heretofore must be “exclusively” devoted to God and no other. Free will, liberty and emancipation are gone and to be forgotten.

Law plays this difficult role with a precise panache. He does unto others what they do unto him, with a particular distaste and disdain reserved for Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who had expected to mold the new Pope to his liking. Orlando plays this role perfectly, and with a mole on his cheek so prominent that it could be a supporting character.

Redoubtable James Cromwell plays another pivotal Cardinal, former Archbishop of New York Michael Spencer. The new Pope’s longtime mentor had expected to become Pope himself. Now he’s seething with contempt, rebuking the pontiff as “a vindictive little boy” who doesn’t know how to love and is compensating for his parents’ abandonment of him by retreating within himself.

There’s also Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), barren wife of a likewise sterile pontifical swiss guard. Can the Pope help her to conceive through the pure power of his being. Or might Cardinal Voiello be successful in blackmailing her into seducing him and therefore destroying his papacy?

Keaton’s Sister Mary primarily steels the new Pope for the job ahead. So far she’s willful only in proclaiming him an instant saint whose previous sorrows must now be put to rest. “One billion people will depend upon what you say and do,” she tells the boy who became a young man under her guidance. But hey, no pressure.

The Young Pope is replete with imagery, including what, in future episodes, may be HBO’s best ever opening credit sequence. The music can be hypnotic at times, purely pop at others. I’m still not sure whether it was too much to set up Pius XIII’s ringing address to the Cardinals with lyrics that include “Girl, look at that body” and “I’m sexy and I know it.” OK, I’ve made up my mind. Indeed it was too much.

Intellectually challenging while arguably also going off the rails more than a few times, The Young Pope has its work cut out in luring a sizable audience. There’s no violence, next to no sex and power struggles that so far are purely without physicality.

“A Cardinal works in a collegial manner while a Pope is an absolute sovereign,” Pius XIII says before asking what he sees as a rhetorical question: “What truly made our church great? Fear or tolerance?”

This former Catholic altar boy grew up under priests and nuns who preached both the former and the latter. In The Young Pope, a papal mafia seems to be at hand by the end of Episode 5. Don’t stop believing -- or else.

GRADE: B+

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Carrie-ing on with Season 6 of Homeland

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Claire Danes again stands out in Homeland. Showtime photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Since he’s been prominently “outed” in Showtime photos and other publicity materials, it’s no spoiler to first note that Rupert Friend’s Peter Quinn has joined TV’s growing Legion of the Undead.

At the close of Homeland’s Season 5, CIA heroine Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) seemingly pulled the plug on him after reading the comatose Quinn’s love letter to her. But the room brightened as she did so, signaling something or other. And Season 6 doesn’t mess around on the “Is he or isn’t he?” front. The series’ Sunday, Jan. 15th return (at 8 p.m. central) almost instantly establishes that Quinn is alive and limping in a hospital rehab wing, where he’s self-destructive and thoroughly resistant to Carrie’s daily visits.

Having renounced the CIA and all its evil ways, Carrie is now working for a Brooklyn foundation that specializes in protecting Muslims’ civil rights. A case quickly presents itself when teenager Sekou Bah (J. Mallory McCree) is arrested for making videos that allegedly promote terrorism.

“I know what protected speech is. I can say what I want,” he defiantly says from his jail cell.

But hardline special FBI agent Ray Conlin (Dominic Fumusa) is determined to waylay any suspicious activities by any means at his dispoal.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m not taking any chances,” he tells Carrie. “Not here. Not in New York.”

There’s also a new president-elect, former New York senator Elizabeth Keane (Elizabeth Marvel). Her son was killed while serving in Afghanistan. And longtime CIA schemers Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham) worry that she’ll compromise and/or end their operations upon taking office.

Carrie otherwise lives in a tidy Brooklyn two-story with her little daughter Frannie, to whom she finally seems devoted. The downstairs unit primarily is rented out via Air B&B. But it also could be used to house a certain somebody with severe physical and emotional problems.

The two episodes made available for review (the first one is already streaming online) have eased off the throttle of previous seasons. So far this is a more domesticated Homeland without any explosions or other immediate crises. Carrie also looks to be as stable as she’s ever been, without any off/on bouts with her meds.

Saul, of course, has new suspicions and concerns about her. They come to the fore in Episode 2, as does the much-parodied Carrie “cry face” in a cathartic closing scene.

It’s a solid enough re-start to a series that Showtime already has renewed for two more seasons beyond this one. Homeland has “proven it can reinvent itself year after year,” Showtime president/CEO David Nevins told TV critics last summer.

But Dexter, which ran for eight seasons on Showtime, proved that a show can fall apart, too, judging from the heavy condemnation of its final episode.

Homeland also is beset, as is HBO’s Veep, with jarringly head-smacking real-life events that set a dauntingly high bar for fictional storytellers. So much so that Quinn’s resurrection not only is same-old, same-old, but almost banal. A true shocker would be to see him unequivocally dead and buried. Imagine fiction being stranger than truth. What a concept that is these days.

GRADE: B

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

FX's Taboo does a very slow boil

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Stay out of his way. Tom Hardy as revenge-taker in Taboo. FX photo

Premiering: Tuesday, Jan. 10th at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Tom Hardy, Oona Chaplin, Jonathan Pryce, David Hayman, Michael Kelly, Jessie Buckley, Jefferson Hall, Ruby-May Martinwood
Produced by: Steven Knight, Ridley Scott, Kate Crowe, Tom Hardy, Dean Baker

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Tom Hardy conveys menace with the ease of Jimmy Fallon conveying love to any and all of his late night guests.

So that’s certainly not the problem with FX’s explicitly profane Taboo, a BBC One co-production that has its U.S. premiere just three nights after launching abroad. For an intended eight-episode limited series, it tends to be exceedingly slow-paced in the first three hours made available for review. Dark secrets and past treacheries lurk and abound, but getting around to them might require more patience than many viewers are willing to expend.

Still, there remains something of an abiding interest in what might happen and what did happen to James Delaney (Hardy), a blunt-spoken, uncompromising, presumed dead prodigal son whose very unexpected return to dank 1814 London sets events in motion while also tending to plod in place. Not everything has to move at breakneck speed. But Taboo at times can feel like a tedious rush hour commute. Or to put it another way, it’s the frenetic, Hardy-starring Mad Max: Fury Road on a grease rack.

As Delaney, he returns from Africa after a mysterious 10-year absence to gaze upon a just-deceased father who seems to have been thoroughly despised by one and all. “Forgive me, father. For I have sinned indeed,” Delaney tells him over his corpse.

Horace Delaney’s will has left his only son with a small but coveted strip of land known as Nootka Sound. The nefarious East Indian Company, chaired by a cutthroat named Stuart Strange (fine work as usual from Jonathan Pryce) very much wants to buy him out. But Delaney emphatically resists all offers while his half-sister, Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), resists his entreaties. Clearly they had something taboo going on years earlier. But Zilpha now is married to Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), who wants Delaney dead, as do a lot of other people.

Machinations and manipulations proceed, but definitely in no big hurry. The 1814 London depicted in Taboo is convincingly dark and grimy, which suits Delaney’s disposition, even if he rides a clashing white horse. His only confidante in the early going is an older guy named Brace (David Hayman), who doesn’t have much luck in trying to temper his extremes.

“I’ve made some coffee. It’ll be stone cold,” Brace tells Delaney in Episode 2. “Aren’t we all,” he replies.

Targeted by would-be assassins -- who seem to have little sense of urgency -- Delaney also is tormented by occasional visions of his traumatic times away from London. We learn he was held captive on a slave ship that sunk. But how and why he got there, and what the amoral Stuart Strange had to do with it, remain very much an open question after the first three hours.

As an actor, Hardy clearly is in his primal element. He’s constantly on-screen, moving about town and snarling his contempt for those he doesn’t like -- which is pretty much everyone. Episode 2 introduces another adversary, but no need to ruin what this could mean to him and his revenge-taking plans. This person’s arrival provides a bit of a jolt, but Taboo seems little inclined to seize the momentum.

Three episodes deep, there’s an appetite for more, but not a ravenous one. Taboo could develop into a whale of a tale once Delaney is fully seen in his earlier element. The official trailer shows him in an all but naked previous tribal mode, brandishing a spear with a knife attached to his loincloth. It stirs the juices, even if the broth too often congeals in these first three hours.

“I do know the evil that you do, because I was once part of it,” Delaney assures Strange in the early going.

Good to know. But now let’s get on with it.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Double requiem: HBO's Bright Lights shines upon Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher

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The loves of their lives: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s highly unfortunate, to say the least, that startling events prompted HBO to move up the premiere of this intimate documentary. It’s also commendable to do so.

Originally scheduled for a March air date, the 90-minute Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds can be seen for the first time on HBO at 7 p.m. (central) on Saturday, Jan. 7th. Directed by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens, it earlier received deservedly positive reviews at several prominent film festivals.

Fisher died at age 60 on Dec. 27th and an inconsolable Reynolds expired the next day at age 84. They thoroughly come alive in this instant classic about show biz addiction and rejection.

The daughter, best known as Princess Leia in Star Wars, still smokes, mainlines non-diet Coca-Colas, battles bouts of manic-depression and for the most part remains unfailingly sardonic. Her mom, famously jilted by husband Eddie Fisher in favor of Elizabeth Taylor, was from the old show biz school. A smile was her umbrella and keeping up appearances has been a way of life ever since her formative years at MGM Studios.

They were a decidedly odd couple, but also made for one another. Carrie lived next door to her mother and increasingly doted on her. “I usually come to her. I always come to her,” she says in the film’s early minutes while delivering one of her homemade soufflés from a very eclectically furnished home.

Debbie gradually came to understand her daughter’s demons and accepted her rebellious nature. She became a mommie dearest without any of the Joan Crawford trappings.

Bright Lights deftly sets the stage in the opening sequence.

“Hello. We’re here with a woman who alleges to be my mother” and has the home movies to prove it, Fisher says.

Happy together shots of mom, little Carrie and her littler brother, Todd, accentuate the positives -- because Debbie literally has the negatives.

“You have to try to concentrate on the fact that you did have sometimes -- good times,” she tells Carrie.

“I know that I did,” she retorts. “I had a very good time!”

To which Debbie has the perfect playful answer: “See how you yell -- at your muh-thuh.”

The film has “moments” in abundance. Film clips of Reynolds underscore what an appealing Hollywood persona she had -- and not only in Singin’ In the Rain. She could never quite give up her sequins or her public. And so Fisher both grudgingly and gladly accompanied mom on impulsive road trips to venues such as Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun resort and casino. The decidedly elderly faithful still turned out in large numbers to hear her sing “Tammy” and joke about her bad choices in men.

“I should have married Burt Reynolds,” she says. “I wouldn’t have to change my last name. And we could share wigs.”

She always wanted Carrie to showcase her voice as a stage performer. And her own voice still breaks, offstage, when talking about how great her kid sings.

“My mother wants me to be an extension of her wishes -- an extension of her,” Carrie says.

As a teenager, Fisher occasionally would join her mother onstage. In an old clip, she belts out “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” an eerie foreshadowing of her brief marriage to Paul Simon, of whom little is said in the film. No mention at all is made of Debbie’s third husband, Richard Hamlett, whom she divorced in 1996.

Carrie reluctantly gave in to what she calls “lap dances” that traded on her enduring fame as Princess Leia. She’s shown signing autographs for $70 a pop at fan shows before doing some pricier “photo ops.” But people clearly think those are small prices to pay, and Fisher seems willing to sign anything and everything while agreeably bantering.

There’s never a dull moment, really. Even brother Todd makes his presence felt, both by showcasing his tell-a-story sequence of framed movie posters and by noting “it’s important that you marry inside the entertainment ‘race.’ “

His wife, Catherine Hickland, formerly married to David Hasselhoff, is a peripheral actress whose credits include three episodes of Knight Rider. She now owns both a car from the show and a chicken as a carry-around pet. Fisher and Reynolds prefer the more traditional company of inseparable dogs.

Carrie eventually made peace with her dad, Eddie Fisher, an admitted louse of a father who preferred drugs to the company of his children. She’s shown at his bedside three months before his death in 2010. Eddie bears no resemblance to the matinee idol he once was. He’s just an infirm, lonely old man.

“I became his parent, and it was a way to have a relationship,” she says. Decades earlier, his leaving of Debbie for Liz was dubbed “Hollywood’s Most Shameful Story” in a magazine headline.

Reynolds later renewed her friendship with Taylor and even bought the makeup chair she used in Cleopatra as part of her multi-million dollar collection of show biz memorabilia. She sought to preserve Hollywood’s past in a grand museum, but could never find a financial backer. The collection finally was auctioned off, with Debbie still torn about parting with the Rat Pack wardrobe she’d assembled. “I love having my ghosts,” she says tellingly. “And I love having my memories.”

There’s also a particularly haunting quote from Carrie, who tells her manicurist during a rough patch, “You know what’d be so cool? To get to the end of my personality and just like, lay in the sun.”

In 2014, Carrie had to help her mother every step of the way on the night she received the Screen Actors Guild’s Life Achievement Award. Reynolds was shaky and intermittently confused. Carrie made the introductory speech and then got her through the rest of it.

The closing minutes of the film find them celebrating at Reynolds’ home during the Christmas season. Debbie is still aglow at receiving such an honor. Carrie sings to her. Mom’s last words off-camera -- “You know I love you” -- also mark the end of Bright Lights.

It’s a long way from Postcards From the Edge, which Fisher wrote in 1987 before Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep played approximations of Debbie and Carrie in the 1990 film adaptation. It likewise had a happy ending, but also a number of fractious moments between them during Fisher’s full-blown addiction to drugs.

Bright Lights is a much better way to remember them. It wasn’t supposed to double as a requiem, but who knew at the time?

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon. net