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Discovery Channel's American Tarzan merits a shout out

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Only one will be crowned “American Tarzan.” Discovery photo

Premiering: Wednesday, July 6th at 9 p.m. (central) on Discovery Channel
Starring: Seven adventurers vying to become “American Tarzan.”
Produced by: Matt Sharp, Dan Adler

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Hollywood and Vines: Has any superhero been the subject of more film and TV productions than the chest-pounding, ape-trained, Jane-mating, loin clothed, jungle-ruling he-man of few words?

Surely not. And here come two more. The latest feature film, The Legend of Tarzan, opens on Friday, July 1st. Then comes Discovery Channel’s American Tarzan, a grueling endurance test that begins its four-episode run on Wednesday, July 6th. Oh, and there’s also that ongoing Geico commercial, in which Jane is all over the big lug for refusing to ask for directions.

What’s at stake in American Tarzan? Well, there’s no monetary prize. Nor does the winner get a brand new car, a free trip to less taxing surroundings or even a pair of tickets to the movie. A Discovery spokesman confirms that “the main prize is getting the title.” Hopefully there’s at least a handsome plaque or a championship belt involved. Because judging from the premiere hour made available for review, the five men and two women involved will be subjected to more suffering than Johnny Depp’s latter day box office receipts.

Competitors are identified only by their first names on American Tarzan, although publicity materials name them in full. They include Tim Reames of Austin, TX, an “unbreakable Marine” who’s called “Reames” because there’s already another Tim -- “ultra runner” Tim Olson from Boulder, Colo.

Their proving ground is the “lost” Caribbean island of Dominica, which has remained “mostly uninhabited by man,” according to an unidentified narrator. In order to get there, competitors must paddle individual kayaks on a lengthy trip to the mouth of the Indian River. There they’ll encounter the first of four Biomes -- the Jungle Biome. Either conquer it and emerge at the “Colonial Ruins” finish line or admit defeat and drop out. Such is the fate of one contestant during the premiere hour.

Quickly establishing a rooting interest is “military mom” and now emergency room nurse Kim Liszka of Macungie, PA. After being a single mother for 18 years, “it’s my moment to shine” she declares before taking an early lead. In her mind, an imposing obstacle is “beautifully exhausting.” And an attack of bees, while disconcerting, is not going to be enough to stop her.

Besides Kim, Tim and “Reames,” the other hopefuls are “ninja master” Jeremy Guarino of Buffalo; “speed climber” Derek Knutson of Hayward, WI; “spartan racer” Maria Herrera of San Diego; and “strongman” Brandon Morrison of Seattle.

Brandon used to be something of a string bean, but decided to bulk up with both heavy weights and calorie intake. “I look like I ate the old me,” he says of the days when he was half the almost 300-pound man he is now. Furthermore, Brandon wants to prove that strongmen like himself aren’t just “lumbering oafs who pick things up once and go eat a pizza and go to bed.”

American Tarzan does a vivid job of depicting pain, exhaustion and determination amid the unforgiving geography and elements. Tim’s resourceful, though. His hunger pangs are deterred by a termite snack from a fresh nest of ‘em. “Tasty,” he says.

This is far more grueling than The Amazing Race, and with no rewards for completing one of the obstacle courses other than the satisfaction of a job well done. American Tarzan also is mercifully brief and to the point. Four episodes don’t seem like too much of a chore for viewers to endure. And none of the competitors comes off as a typical made-for-TV braggart or villain.

The eventual winner may not have the strength to let loose with a prototypical Tarzan yell. But perhaps the Discovery Channel in recompense could book a guest shot on one of the lesser TV talk shows. Given all the hardships involved, something more should come of this than a mere title and a free trip in coach back home.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Reviewing Orange is the New Black after viewing all 13 Season 4 episodes

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Showdowns abound in stark Season 4 of Orange is the New Black. Netflix photo

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Fittingly in this case, Orange is the New Black has set some high bars for itself during its first three seasons.

The Emmy-winning Netflix comedy/drama series, at its best when playing it more seriously, takes a decided turn back in that direction with a gripping and game-changing Season 4. During the course of all 13 episodes, look for a self-defense killing followed by dismemberment of the corpse; the death of a regular cast member; a branding triggered by an ad hoc race war and the arrival of a new force of security guards headed by an openly gay, uncompromising bearded giant named Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who’s aided and abetted by the sadistic Thomas “Humps” Humphrey (Michael Torpey).

If Season 3 struck a too frivolous tone, then Season 4 compensates with a much starker look at the rough-and-tumble of prison life. Comedy is still prevalent, particularly in the earlier hours. But a rose garden has little in common with prison life, save for the thorns. So OITNB re-calibrates itself in that direction, with well-meaning but ever-compromised Director of Human Activities Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) finally realizing the obvious after his good intentions are waylaid time and again.

“This place crushes anything good,” he tells a virginal new guard in hopes of persuading him to get out while he can.

Season 4 also is notable for the arrival of “Queen of Cuisine” Judy King (Blair Brown), who supposedly is loosely modeled after Martha Stewart but in time comes off as much more of a Paula Deen. Brown commands this role with an iron drawl, poo-poohing preferential treatment while at the same time reveling in it after being jailed on a tax evasion conviction. But of course she’s not a racist -- in her mind -- despite hosting an earlier TV puppet show starring dumb ol’ Chitlin’ Joe. Footage pops up on a prison TV set after it’s unearthed by a cable news network. Aw, shucks, everyone has a little transgression now and then. “I am the friendliest racist you’re ever gonna meet,” she declares to Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who had been star-struck.

Loopy Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty), who joined the series in Season 2, likewise is a standout. Her makeshift cardboard “time machine” is an escape from all those crazy voices in her head. Additionally, the former crusading journalist (as we see in flashbacks) thinks she can do considerable good by changing certain courses of events. “If I can go back in time, I can stop Jimmy Carter from starting FEMA,” she reasons.

Lolly also can be lucid. “Dead girl porn. Cosby dream shot,” she notes in the opening episode while participating in a coverup. Is she crazy enough to be dangerous -- or will no one take her seriously no matter what she says? Lolly’s eventual bonding with veteran prison guard Sam Healy (Michael Harney) is an oft-touching blend of two lost souls.

Charter inmate Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) also has some terrific moments, both comedic and tragic. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) comes to the fore as the leader of an increasingly aggressive faction of Hispanic prisoners who clash with series lead Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) on both business and racial matters. And Kate Mulgrew’s Galina “Red” Reznikov is terrific as always.

Episode 12 of Season 4, subtitled “The Animals,” is directed by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. So of course it’s extra eventful and most notable for a sudden death scene in the prison cafeteria. The episode also marks the return of a long-isolated inmate, the rekindling of a dormant relationship and the full realization by Caputo that the corporation now running the Litchfield prison is solely interested in profits at any cost.

Season 4’s finale ends with a jarring cliffhanger that’s the polar opposite of last season’s climactic, joyous romp in a nearby lake. Netflix already has renewed OITNB for fifth and sixth seasons. At the end of this one, the bite is back with a vengeance while the supply of story lines has multiplied rather than calcified. As with HBO’s Game of Thrones, the best seems yet to come after rejuvenating seasons that will leave many a faithful fan stoked for more.

GRADE: A

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Can't stop falling in love: Showtime's Roadies returns Cameron Crowe to his rock roots

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Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino are at the heart of Roadies. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, June 26th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots, Rafe Spall, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Peter Cambor, Ron White, Jacqueline Byers, Finesse Mitchell, Luis Guzman, Branscombe Richmond, Tanc Sade
Produced by: Cameron Crowe, Winnie Holzman, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Len Goldstein, Kathy Lingg

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Coming off some of the worst reviews of his career for Aloha, former rock journalist Cameron Crowe otherwise has been gradually re-immersing himself, at age 58, in what initially made him tick and throb.

The rock docs Pearl Jam Twenty and The Union were both released in 2011, well after the onetime Rolling Stone teen wonder tried to recapture those days in 2000’s semi-autobiographical and critically praised Almost Famous.

Showtime’s Roadies, for which Crowe is the creator, principal writer and co-executive producer, is his first weekly television series after a feature film career that also has included Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Vanilla Sky and the blockbuster Jerry Maguire.

Roadies is steadfastly determined, at times too much so, to celebrate “The Unsung Heroes of Rock.” A quote to that effect, from grandmaster rock tourist Tom Petty, serves as the opening act for Sunday’s premiere. “I think the general public has no idea what roadies do,” he once said. “Bless ‘em all. I just play the songs. They make the show happen.”

Crowe has a pair of estimable collaborators in Winnie Holzman (the landmark My So-Called Life but not much else of real note), and J.J. Abrams (seemingly just about everything, including Alias, Lost, and the big-screen reboots of Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission: Impossible).

They’ve put their heads together and come up with a behind-the-scenes look at a profession that steers far from TV’s four basic food groups of crimefighters, doctors, lawyers and befuddled sitcom dads. Principal among those who set the stage for the Staton-House Band are tour manager Bill Hanson (Luke Wilson) and production manager Shelli Anderson (Carla Gugino). He’s first seen in bed with a considerably younger woman before she pops in on him and isn’t surprised. The constant nakedness of Hanson’s latest conquest, whether she’s in bed or walking around, seems more than a little gratuitous if not voyeuristic on the part of the aging Crowe, who directed all three episodes made available for review.

It takes a while to introduce all the supporting cast members. Initially registering the strongest is Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), an aspiring filmmaker who’s planning to leave the crew and enroll at NYU after the band’s New Orleans stop.

“I don’t hear the music the same way. I don’t feel it’s mine anymore,” she rather pretentiously tells grizzled road manager Phil (Ron White), who’s seen it all and never tires of saying so.

Kelli has a crazed twin brother named Wes (real-life rapper Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker), who’s determined to rejoin the tour as a killer espresso maker. He also comfortably adapts to being a “manny” (just like Uncle Buck!) for the misbehaving, insult-hurling, pre-teen son of the band’s lead singer.

Also incoming is cost-cutting Britisher Reg Whitehead (Rafe Spall), who’s been ordered to fire people while finding more ways to make money. But he also has a soft side that’s never quite believable, and an attraction to Kelly Ann that appears to be grudgingly and sometimes gratingly mutual.

There’s a groupie, too, named Natalie (Jacqueline Byers). In Episode 1, she leads the skateboarding Kelly Ann on a ridiculous chase after stealing credentials from a weathered roadie with whom she has sex. So when is this thing going to jell? Well, not for starters. But it starts to get better in Episode 2, courtesy of a killer raw rehearsal by the real-life band Reignwolf, which has been hastily signed to be the opening act in Memphis. The power of their music has some of the roadies believably transfixed. And for this short burst at least, the occasional magic of their profession is self-evident without any clunky pronouncements from Wilson’s Hanson.

Episode 3 is stunt-casted with Lindsay Buckingham as the new temporary opening act on the Atlanta stop and Rainn Wilson playing a caustic, self-important music blogger named Bryce Newman. He’s just strafed the Staton-House Band as “relentlessly irrelevant,” and Roadies treats this as an Armageddon moment that must be immediately remedied by inviting Newman to the Atlanta show and thoroughly kissing his ass.

For one thing, no one has that kind of influence anymore. And if there were a Supreme Being of rock criticism, he or she presumably wouldn’t be sucked in so easily. But Wes comes to the rescue with a renegade tactic that further knocks this episode off-stride. Meanwhile, the thoroughly reverential treatment of Buckingham likewise becomes off-putting.

And yet . . . the worst of Roadies doesn’t negate its sweet spots. It’s almost as if the series is an ongoing collection of albums, some far better remembered than others. Wes is a possible breakout character while Kelly Ann is appealingly idealistic, although sometimes overly weepy.

Luke Wilson’s typically hangdog acting has never been more than capable while Gugino remains both crush-worthy and dependable. Her character is married, but not all that fulfilled, leaving the door open for Hanson if he can ever kick his proclivity for one-night stands.

So far, Roadies both shows Crowe’s age and showcases his never-ending love of the environment that once put many of his stories on the cover of Rolling Stone. He still goes home again by occasionally writing for the magazine. But if the thrill has never left, the execution is sometimes left wanting in Roadies, which is trying so awfully, awfully hard -- at times to the point of being awful. Perhaps, though, it can reverse the field of HBO’s newly canceled Vinyl, which got worse as it went along. Because when you get right down to basics, Cameron Crowe is still a guy worth rooting for.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

CBS tries again with American Gothic, which otherwise has nothing in common with the famous painting or the network's 1995 original

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All in the family. But who’s the killer in American Gothic? CBS photo

Premiering: Wednesday, June 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on CBS
Starring: Juliet Rylance, Antony Starr, Justin Chatwin, Megan Ketch, Virginia Madsen, Eliot Knight, Stephanie Leonidas, Gabriel Bateman, Jamey Sheridan
Produced by: Corinne Brinkerhoff, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, James Frey, Todd Cohen

By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Perhaps Leslie Moonves remembers this. Or possibly he’s chosen to forget.

Moonves first joined CBS in July 1995 as entertainment president. The last-place network already had its new fall lineup in place, so Moonves inherited the likes of Bless This House, Central Park West, Dweebs, Almost Perfect, Can’t Hurry Love, If not For You and -- the punch line -- American Gothic.

All were dismal failures, but CBS for some reason can’t seem to put the American Gothic title to bed.

The original starred Gary Cole as demonic, supernatural-powered Lucas Buck, sheriff of a small South Carolina town. The series otherwise is notable for introducing young Lucas Black, who went on to co-star with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and now is a regular on CBS’ NCIS: New Orleans. As 10-year-old Caleb Temple in the network’s first American Gothic, he had to fight off Buck’s repeated attempts to possess and corrupt him.

All these years later, with Moonves now running the entire CBS show, here comes an entirely different American Gothic originating from the big city of Boston and featuring a typically dysfunctional upper crust family. No one has supernatural powers, but there’s a pretty creepy kid in the cast. He’s nine-year-old Jack Hawthorne (Gabriel Bateman), who in Episode 2 tells the mourners at his grandfather’s funeral, “I’m mostly sad that grandpa was cremated and I never got to see his decomposing body.”

Little Jack is really into forensics, you see. And his father, illustrator/drug addict Cam Hawthorne (Justin Chatwin), hasn’t been of much help to him. Jack’s mom, Sophie Hawthorne (Stephanie Leonidas), is estranged from Cam and has also been a druggie. But they still see each other, and the sex remains hot.

We’re only scratching the surface of the Hawthorne family’s many trials and tribulations. They all swirl around new clues about a serial murderer dubbed the Silver Bells Killer because he left a silver bell next to his six previous victims, all of whom were strangled by a belt. But the killings stopped 14 years ago, which also happens to be the time that a very moody and darkly dispositioned Garrett Hawthorne (Antony Starr) left his family. Now he’s suddenly back after the father he despises, Mitchell Hawthorne (Jamey Sheridan), is hospitalized following a heart attack.

Mitchell’s wife is Madeline Hawthorne (Virginia Madsen), who turns out to be very conniving. Their two daughters are mayoral candidate Allison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance), who’s living something of a secret life, and the younger Tessa Ross (Megan Ketch), conveniently married to dogged detective Brady Ross (Elliot Knight). At issue: what, if anything, do the Hawthornes have to do with all those murders? Or is the mounting evidence all just purely (and pretty impossibly) circumstantial?

The two episodes made available for review are not without pulling power. But how much staying power will American Gothic have over a long haul of 13 episodes ordered for Season One? And how many times have viewers been down similar roads in dramas about powerful families with more skeletons than a Halloween haunted house?

We’ll leave you with this exchange, near the end of Episode 2, between Madsen’s seemingly malevolent Madeline and prodigal son Garrett, who underscores his potential malevolence by shaving with a knife.

“I think you should leave,” she tells him.

“Why?”

“Because you’re a grenade.”

“Well, then maybe you should handle me carefully.”

Guess I’ll keep watching.

GRADE: B-minus

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net

Two transfixing TV miniseries tackle O. J. Simpson hard

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By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
It’s been a very big year for a certain wealthy, internationally famous womanizer who’s built a wall around himself and people of color while getting away with murder in the minds of many.

This time it’s not about you, Donald Trump. O. J. Simpson, now 68 and still serving time in a Nevada jail on an armed robbery conviction, has been dissected as never before in two acclaimed miniseries that likely will be winning numerous awards before the year is out.

FX’s 10-part, 10-hour The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which concluded on April 5th, told the inside story of his polarizing acquittal in the 1994 murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A notable cast, including John Travolta, Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Nathan Lane and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, acted out an adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent 1996 book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson.

ESPN’s ongoing 5-part, 10-hour O. J.: Made In America documentary series at first brush had the air of redundancy. Instead it’s anything but. Unlike FX’s presentation, the smoldering racial buildup to Simpson’s exhaustively covered trial is detailed starkly and instructively. Simpson’s incredible on-field abilities also are recaptured, both as a Heisman Trophy-winning USC running back and as the first NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season while with the Buffalo Bills in 1973.

Through it all, the black community of Los Angeles never felt Simpson’s firm embrace. But years of police brutality and courtroom verdicts favoring the perpetrators served to elevate “The Juice” to a stature he didn’t deserve or want until it became his lifeline in a court of law. The man who lived in luxurious, almost exclusively white Brentwood had long distanced himself from even a semblance of civil rights activism. It made him an unlikely Lion King in the fight against white oppressors, but that role ended up transcending his guilt or innocence. Two decades later, there’s even less doubt that O. J. “did it.” But his win against “The Man,” aided and abetted by an oft-inept prosecution team, is still viewed through the prism of institutional racism as “payback” for decades of injustice. Made In America makes that side of the story perfectly clear while also judiciously telling both sides.

I’ve watched the FX and ESPN miniseries in their entirety and also read Toobin’s book, which adds even more layers of behind-the-scenes intrigue and commentary. Made In America doesn’t officially conclude until Saturday night on ESPN. But the complete production is now available via WatchESPN on the streaming device of your choice. I viewed Parts 3, 4 and 5 using the ESPN app on Roku. There are a lot fewer commercial breaks and they’re also of shorter duration. So you can save yourself an hour or two or more by using this option to watch the rest of Made In America or start from scratch. You also won’t have to wait until Saturday.

OK, that’s enough on the other tools at hand. Here’s some of what I took away from Made In America.

*** Simpson indeed was luminescent and even humble at the height of his athletic powers. When he broke the 2,000-yard rushing barrier on a freezing day on the road against the New York Jets, he insisted that the entire Bills starting offense be with him for the locker room interview. Post-game coverage shows him recognizing each of them by name while looking very happy to do so. It still comes off as an enduring, selfless act of generosity.

*** LAPD chief Daryl Gates, who died in 2010, is depicted as an imperial authority figure with an overall condescending view of minorities as deficient human beings. His troops were taught to wade into the black community with clubs and other weaponry at the ready. Drug busts, whether anything of any consequence was found, were excuses to go on property-destroying rampages.

The aftermath of one such forced entry remains astonishing. But after the 1991 exoneration of four police officers in the Rodney King beating, Gates instructed his officers to initially stand down while property in South Central L.A. was looted and torched. Live overhead pictures also showed white truck driver Reginald Denny being dragged from his vehicle and viciously beaten by a gang of black rioters. Two black civilians ultimately rescued him while the LAPD remained out of the picture. Again, the pictures are shocking.

*** Simpson appeared as Officer Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies. Given all that’s transpired, I felt uncomfortable still laughing at one of his comedic turns. But as a clip in Made In America shows, it’s hard to keep a straight face while watching Nordberg being riddled with bullets before staggering about and hitting his head, burning his hand in a furnace, soiling his jacket with wet white paint, getting his fingers crunched by a slamming window, falling face-first into a cake and finally stepping into a bear trap.

A more telling clip shows a tuxedo-clad Simpson soft-shoeing with a white, blonde girl (Melissa Michaelsen) in the 1981 NBC movie Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood. Simpson’s easy navigation of the white world -- a world he greatly preferred -- is starkly evident here. It’s also all too reminiscent of the pairing of tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and child star Shirley Temple in her vintage films of the otherwise segregationist 1930s.

*** Accused by Simpson’s defense team of railroading him, the Los Angeles Police Department in fact enabled “The Juice” for years. His continued beatings of Nicole, with the aftereffects shown in still photos, were largely dismissed with hand slaps. This was, after all, O. J. Simpson, the guy who often entertained cops at his posh Brentwood home. No one could or seemingly wanted to curb his growing sense of entitlement.

*** The crime scene photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, which come to the fore in Part 4, are hard to look at and certainly should be. Some might argue they’re also voyeuristic and unneeded in the re-telling of O. J. Simpson’s story. But they show the savagery of that horrific night in Brentwood, when two innocent people died at the hands of a killer who’s technically still at large, although almost assuredly behind bars again. Their blood still stains the many who in some way might have done something to prevent what happened to them.

*** In its final chapter, Made In America’s documentation of Simpson’s debauched Vegas years is both startling and revolting. He still needed the spotlight and adulation. And “Sin City” gave it to him in full measure while the outside world turned its back. The immensely talented, likable and effervescent star athlete of the 1960s and ’70s deteriorated into a bloated, self-absorbed Caligula who still laughed his laugh, drank his fill and never lacked for hangers-on.

Simpson continues to serve a maximum 33-year sentence but will be up for parole in 2017 after being convicted in 2008. Whatever his fate, 2016 will be remembered as the year when O. J. returned to the public consciousness in two disturbing and transfixing miniseries.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net