“Orange is the New Black” Peaks in an Epic, Intense Fourth Season

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Original article: http://bit.ly/28Oa3Aw

When “Orange is the New Black” debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2013, the main narrative focused on the journey of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”), a privileged white woman who adapts and tries to survive a 15-month sentence in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison. However, since then, the series has gradually broadened from a raunchy prison dramedy into something much more humanistic. Throughout each season, we’ve learned about almost all the individual prisoners via flashback sequences, giving us their backstories that are as engrossing as they are tragic. By humanizing these women as victims of circumstance rather than simple criminals, “OITNB” brings a nuanced perspective to the criminal justice system, which continues to be showcased in its fantastic fourth season.

While season four can feel overstuffed at times, it stands out against the previous seasons of “OITNB” by diving deeper into the lives of its characters and how they have developed over their time in Litchfield.

Reeling in from last season’s glorious finale, the season four premiere, “Work That Body For Me,” is a stunning return to form, as every facet of the show’s storytelling — the character work, the dialogue, the drama and the humor — comes into full throttle. After the Litchfield inmates bask in some fleeting moments of freedom in the nearby lake, they’re quickly rounded up back to the prison, where the aftermath of their euphoria is met with overwhelming terror. New arrivals are brought to Litchfield, causing a lack of resources, commotion and overcrowding. Included in the throng of new inmates are two of season four’s most interesting new personalities: Judy King (Blair Brown, “Fringe”), a TV personality cook, and Alison Abdullah (newcomer Amanda Stephen), a Muslim woman who becomes the roommate of recent Jewish convert Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, “30 Rock”). Both Brown and Stephen play their characters marvelously, with the former evoking a sinister mix of Paula Deen and Martha Stewart and the latter generating an engaging, refreshing presence within Litchfield.

With these new introductions, the burgeoning racial and socioeconomic class divides among the Litchfield prisoners are also highlighted and subsequently provide a sharp social commentary. Racial dynamics have always played a large role in “OITNB,” considering its large cast of Latina, Black, and Asian characters. But a bitter semi-race war between Piper and the Latina prisoners, led by Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel, “Person of Interest”), and a petty, mean-spirited quarrel between Alison and Black Cindy prompts a thought-provoking discussion about how the grittiness of prison life can reflect the world around us. Particularly gripping is the show’s handling of racist beliefs, which attribute to the relationships between the horrible security guards and the Litchfield inmates. The prisoners are already treated terribly with the conditions they’re living in, but with the addition of Litchfield’s racist and misogynistic head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke, “Fury”), things get very ugly.

Even with large improvements on plot and character development, the fourth season still struggles with some flaws, one being that the flashback sequences aren’t as emotionally potent as the ones from seasons before. The season somewhat glosses over some of its more compelling characters, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, “Grandma”) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne, “Portlandia”), who are demoted to recurring roles, most likely due to other commitments — Alex (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show”) had a similar situation in the show’s second season. Regardless, the fourth season keeps on pushing boundaries with its absorbing storytelling and provocative plots.

At this point, “OITNB” has cemented its place as one of the most complex, well-crafted and entertaining television shows of the 2010s — and season 4 is its highest point. With its diverse array of characters — women of color, women with mental illness and women who are on the LGBTQ spectrum — the series is a defining example of how modern television shows should represent people who aren’t normally seen on TV. Yes, there’s still plenty of sex, drugs, violence and cursing. But the newest season of “OITNB” has demonstrated the show is less about one woman struggling against the harshness of imprisonment and more of a microcosm of our imperfect, messy cesspool of a society.

Grade: A-

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The Work of Alexander Payne

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In the past few years, two-time Oscar-winning indie filmmaker Alexander Payne has made noteworthy strides with his remarkable filmography. With only 6 films under his belt, Payne is a masterful storyteller whose perceptive eye makes his movies entertaining, thought-provoking, and brimming with realism. Like other auteur writer-directors, Payne has retained a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style. With the exception of “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” almost all of Payne’s films take place in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Most of his films’ plots focus on people living in contemporary American society, specifically middle-aged male protagonists reaching a breaking point in their life, either by struggling to maintain relationships or making personal decisions that could drastically change the course of their lives. His films depict these characters through a mostly satirical but undeniably authentic lens, balancing both comedic and dramatic elements. Other recurring themes/motifs in Payne’s films include existential crises, familial ties, infidelity, and road trips. Visually, Payne’s films capture the starkness of the American landscape with expansive cinematography, as physical settings play a huge role in connecting with and influencing the characters (i.e. California wine country in “Sideways” and the Hawaiian islands in “The Descendants”). Almost each Payne film is adapted from a book except for “Citizen Ruth” and “Nebraska.” 4 of Payne’s films are written by Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (Bob Nelson wrote “Nebraska, while Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash wrote “The Descendants”). Here are my thoughts on Payne’s movies:

“Citizen Ruth” (1996)

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Clearly aiming to be a biting social satire on the abortion debate, “Citizen Ruth” is instead a juvenile, bizarre, heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and laugh-free “comedy,” where almost every character is an obnoxious caricature of their respective stereotypes. Ruth (a young Laura Dern) is the dumb, homeless paint huffer/alcoholic protagonist, who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. During a legal hearing, the judge asks that she abort her unborn child in order to avoid a long jail sentence. Norm (Kurtwood Smith) and Gail (Mary Kay Place) are the holier-than-thou, aggressively pro-life Christian fanatics, who bail Ruth out of jail. They attempt to coerce her into keeping the child, sending her to pro-life doctors who diminish Ruth’s desire for abortion. She ultimately finds herself taken in by one of Gail’s friends, Diane (Swoosie Kurtz), who happens to be an uber-feminist, pro-choice lesbian in disguise. Accompanied by her lover Rachel (Kelly Preston), Diane helps Ruth to get her the abortion she wants. Unfortunately, the pro-lifers get in the way of that, when an anonymous donor gives $15,000 to the “Baby Savers” foundation in order for Ruth to not get the abortion. Ruth changes her mind, until Diane’s Vietnam vet friend Harlan (M.C. Gainey) offers her $15,000 for her to have the abortion, believing in personal freedom and not sponsorship money. Ruth can’t seem to make up her mind (or her own decisions), constantly being swayed by both sides. The charismatic leader of the pro-life movement, Blaine Gibbons (Burt Reynolds), offers Ruth $27,000 and so on. After attracting local news and more protestors from both sides, Ruth suffers a miscarriage and decides to secretly take the money Harlan offered her. Once she sneaks out of the abortion clinic where she was supposed to have an abortion, Ruth nonchalantly saunters past all the commotion outside the clinic and runs away with glee. Perhaps I’m reading into the too much, as “Citizen Ruth” was made out to be a critique on both sides of the abortion debacle, in that both people who consider themselves extremely pro-life or pro-choice tend to make these kinds of situations more about themselves than about the actual woman carrying the baby. But even Ruth isn’t moral or responsible enough to make her own choices. She already has four kids, whom she cannot see. She gulps any liquor and inhales any patio sealant she can find. So what is the point even? Reynolds and Kurtz had arguably the best performances, making their characters somewhat bearable. However, Laura Dern’s totally unhinged, over-the-top performance is almost unbearable, her vulgar insults and temperamental behavior making Ruth into an unlikable character. It’s also unfortunate that “Citizen Ruth” doesn’t have any characters whatsoever to root for, as each person is deemed to be crazy in their own way. Smith and Kay Place certainly play their uber-religious characters well, but so much so that it becomes irritating. Some might say “Citizen Ruth” is daring, considering that it defies plot and story conventions completely — and they might be right. But other than the film’s slightly thought-provoking resolution, “Citizen Ruth” struggles to make its message clear. The only really positive aspect I will acknowledge from “Citizen Ruth” is its cinematography, the most well-developed part of the entire film. Below, you’ll see three great shots from “Citizen Ruth” that deserved some recognition. But other than that, “Citizen Ruth” was not a fun viewing experience.

(Note: I watched the “Citizen Ruth” trailer before seeing the movie. The producers marketed it to be this odd, hilarious comedy, but it’s actually an extremely dark movie, since it tackles a lot of heavy subject matter, such as abortion, miscarriages, addiction, and fanaticism).

Grade: C-

Favorite shots:

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“Election” (1999)

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Payne’s first film may not have been fantastic, but his second one, 1999’s “Election” definitely was. Featuring extremely clever writing and electric performances from Matthew Broderick and a young Reese Witherspoon, “Election” is a hilarious, enjoyable, and occasionally raunchy venture into high school satire. Though it may not appeal to some for its frank depiction of inappropriate romantic relationships, “Election” triumphs as a bold film about infidelity, fantasy, school politics, and the drive to succeed, more specifically to win a stupid high school student government election. Broderick plays the movie’s antihero Jim McAllister, a beloved high school civics and history teacher who’s kind of like a grown-up version of Ferris Bueller: likable and charming but mischievous and slightly deceptive. His normal routine is interrupted by the annoying presence of Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), an aggressively friendly and ambitious overachiever, who will pretty much do whatever it takes to get to the top, starting with running for school president. In addition to being the advisor for student council, Jim feels threatened by Tracy’s goals to be student body president, especially after she had a covert affair with another teacher (one of Jim’s best friends). Determined to make sure Tracy doesn’t succeed, Jim gets dim-witted but popular football quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein, who would star in “American Pie” that same year) to run against her. At the same time, Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run as well, in hopes of getting back at her love interest Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), who rejects Tammy for mistaking “experimenting” for actual love. While Jim thinks his situation has only improved, things subsequently get worse. Underneath Jim’s facade as a well-liked teacher is a deeply flawed, insecure man, suffering through loneliness in his unhappy marriage and anxiety in his quest to defeat Tracy once and for all. Unlike Ferris Bueller, Broderick’s Jim McAllister doesn’t get away with everything. Seeing through this ploy, Tracy doesn’t go without a fight and though the two never really “duel it out,” their battle is a hard fought one, filled with twists, turns, and manipulations. In addition to being a genuinely creative and entertaining film, “Election” is inventive for its unflinching look at the personality types of its characters and the absurd situations they encounter. Both Broderick and Witherspoon own the screen as Jim and Tracy, both in individual and collective performances. Witherspoon is especially great as Tracy Flick; she gives her a much-needed emotional weight instead of simply drawing her as a caricature. Tracy isn’t very likable, but she’s not completely unbearable. Payne directs “Election” with graceful poise and ease and his screenplay with Jim Taylor deserved to win for Best Adapted Screenplay, which it was nominated for at the 2000 Academy Awards (it lost to “The Cider House Rules”). Depending on the audience, “Election” can easily win people over, as it is arguably Payne’s best film and greatest cinematic achievement.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“About Schmidt” (2002)

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The melancholic “About Schmidt” is just as brilliant as “Election,” but on a much more understated level. Balancing existential drama with darkly funny undertones, “About Schmidt” is a wonderful tragicomic character study, with its plot focused on the story of Warren R. Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a man suffering through an intensely lonely and dull life. After his anticlimactic retirement from working 20 years at a mundane sales job, Schmidt has almost nothing to do except wallow in his newfound boredom. He has very little hobbies or interests and would likely be the most ordinary human being on the face of the planet, yet we are drawn to him. This is most likely due to Nicholson’s magnetic lead performance, crafting Schmidt to make him interesting and captivating even when he’s not. After watching a commercial guilting him into contributing to a foster program in Africa called Plan USA, Schmidt decides to write to a letter to a Tanzanian boy named Ndugu, realizing that he has nothing better to do. But as we see throughout the film, Schmidt’s letters are a way of releasing some catharsis from his daily frustrations, while trying to build a connection with someone like Ndugu. Through these letters, read aloud via voiceover, we learn of Schmidt’s alienating wife Helen (June Squibb), his adult, soon-to-be-wed daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis), and how his retirement has affected him. Prompted to make some changes, Schmidt ventures out to Denver to see Jeannie and her deadbeat, mustachioed fiancée Randall Hertzel (an unrecognizable Dermot Mulroney). He drives there in his slightly too big Winnebago Adventurer, which Helen bought him as a retirement present, but Jeannie doesn’t want him to come to Denver until two days before her wedding. Reluctantly, Schmidt obliges, traveling to nearby spots instead, including his old childhood home (now a tire shop) and his frat house at the University of Kansas. During this excursion, however, Schmidt doesn’t feel the nostalgia that he so desperately yearns for. Rather, he is constantly caught in moments of self-loathing, mostly because of his guilt over despising his deceased wife and coming to terms with how empty his life is. When he eventually gets to Denver, Schmidt quickly knows what he must do (or at least, thinks he must do): stop his daughter from marrying Randall and subsequently from joining his whackjob of a family, which includes his eccentric mother Roberta (a hilarious Kathy Bates). But Jeannie immediately stops Schmidt from doing so, questioning his sudden interest in her life and urging him to not make such a rash decision. Once again, Schmidt must do what makes others happy and not for himself. While “About Schmidt” is primarily a drama, there are some really funny, lighter moments, particularly during the infamous hot tub scene between Nicholson and a nude Kathy Bates. But for the most part, Payne demonstrates Warren’s self-affliction through both a satirical and sympathetic lens. Like the protagonists in “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” Warren isn’t necessarily likable, but he has a certain quality to him that gives him an emotional, very human edge. This is especially evident at Jeannie’s wedding reception, where Schmidt gives what may be the saddest and most human wedding toast of all time — and Nicholson, of course, makes his searing performance even more compelling. The only minor flaw of “About Schmidt” is that it is a little slowly paced, with the film taking some longer detours than expected. But ultimately, “About Schmidt” is yet another spectacular work from Payne.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“Sideways” (2004)

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It’s strange to see in 2016 how “Sideways,” Payne’s most iconic film, was such a huge deal when it came out 12 years ago. It opened to wide acclaim, was nominated for several Oscars (winning one for Best Adapted Screenplay), and even influenced wine consumerism. In that sense, “Sideways” would fall under the category of slightly overrated, but I found the film to still be very charming, dynamic, and unconventional, even for such a conventional plot. Bolstered by strong lead performances and writing, “Sideways” overcomes its deliberate pacing with a shimmering blend of deft comedy and poignant drama. The story follows two best friends, depressed English teacher and wine connoisseur Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and womanizing voice actor Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), who don’t actually seem like they would be friends. Their personalities are polar opposite, with Miles’ high-functioning alcoholism making him cynical and Jack’s ease with women making him optimistic. Yet when you pair the two together, they seem to balance each other out. As a fun getaway present for Jack’s upcoming wedding, Miles takes him up to California wine country, where the two get to enjoy some good ‘ol fashioned bro time, which includes drinking pinot noir, eating great food, and playing some golf. But Jack has other plans in mind as well; he wants both Miles and himself to get laid before the wedding. During their time in the Santa Ynez Valley, they meet two beautiful women who both seem to take a liking to Miles and Jack. Waitress Maya Randall (an excellent Virginia Madsen) develops a romantic interest in Miles, while wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) becomes sexually acquainted with Jack. During one night where the four get together, Maya and Miles have a beautifully intimate moment together, sharing their love for wine and how it makes them feel. I figured this part would make my eyes roll, considering how wine is often a subject of pseudo-intellectual conversations. But the way they express themselves, particularly Madsen, is totally honest and even eloquent. Of course, Jack’s fling with Stephanie doesn’t last very long, once Miles accidentally mentions Jack’s impending wedding, which upsets both Maya and Stephanie (this is in the movie trailer, by the way, so don’t blame me for giving plot details). In addition to the great writing and acting, “Sideways” includes lush cinematography and a sweet score from composer Rolfe Kent, who scored most of Payne’s movies. What “Sideways” also does well in is its ability to humanize Miles, in that the film de-stigmatizes depression and how it affects Miles. He drinks often as a way of coping with his inner turmoil, but also to escape from his painful, crippling self-loathing. Giamatti does a superb job of portraying this and I’m surprised he didn’t get an Oscar nom from that (yet Haden Church and Madsen did). The plot primarily centers on friendship, but it also takes note of how friendship can be a both positive and detrimental thing. Miles and Jack have a complicated relationship and “Sideways” showcases how their relationship unravels as they make mistakes and see each other’s flaws. Though “Sideways” is made as a comedy (which it is, for the most part), there are several dramatic components to the dialogue and the characters. That being said, if “Sideways” can pull off being comedic and dramatic, then it can easily work as a whole.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“The Descendants” (2011)

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After a 7-year hiatus, Payne returned to film with “The Descendants,” another emotionally heavy dramedy that explores the complicated dimensions of family and parenthood. Considering that this follows “Sideways,” Payne does a pretty admirable job with writing and directing a film that continues to demonstrate his artistry as a storyteller. Set in the beautiful landscape of the Hawaiian islands, “The Descendants” tells the tale of land baron Matt King (George Clooney), a man whose recently been grappling with several newfound issues in his life. His distant Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) wife is comatose from a boating accident and must deal with being the primary parent for his two daughters Scottie (Amara Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley, in one of her first film roles). Simultaneously, Matt is also the sole trustee to a large family inheritance that is considered to have lots of monetary value, prompting him and his cousins to discuss selling the land to make money. At first, Matt has no clue how to handle anything. But as the film moves along, he gradually becomes a better, more self-aware, and much wiser person than he was before. With these unfortunate circumstances, Matt is determined to make things right with Elizabeth, but soon learns from Alexandra that she was cheating on him with popular realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). Together, Matt and his daughters, along with Alex’s simpleton friend Sid (Nick Krause), travel to Oahu to track down Brian and confront him about the affair. But even more so, Matt believes Brian deserves to know what happened to Elizabeth and that she is eventually going to die. For the most part, “The Descendants” is genuinely touching and well-written. However, even though the film’s screenplay won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne’s second consecutive Oscar win), the dialogue can be a bit too forced at times, especially during the confrontation scene between Matt and Brian. Perhaps that’s just the acting and delivery, but “The Descendants”‘s reliance on expositional voiceover can be tricky too, as most of what we learn about the characters come from Matt’s omniscient words. It parallels to “About Schmidt,” but there’s an iffy quality to the way “The Descendants” uses voiceover. Fortunately, “The Descendants” still delivers, thanks to great performances from Clooney and Woodley, some gorgeous cinematography, and its depiction of the themes of pain and death, which “The Descendants” handled relatively well by not making things too dramatic. The subplot with selling the inherited land was interesting, connecting back to the whole overarching theme of Matt’s emotional and physical bond with the place where he and his family enjoyed being in. Beau Bridges makes an appearance as one of Matt’s cousins, who sort of seems like a villain since he doesn’t want Matt to screw him and the rest of their family over by not selling the land. But as Matt understands during the course of the movie, family precedes money and that is something worth valuing (that may sound a tad cliché and sentimental, but trust me on this one). The last scene of “The Descendants” was especially heartwarming, as Matt, Scottie, and Alex sit together on the couch, covered in the floral blanket that Elizabeth wore in the hospital. It’s a subtle but really beautiful moment that signifies their literal and figurative thread as a family and how far they’ve come from being estranged and distant.

Grade: B+

Favorite shots:

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“Nebraska” (2013)

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You could say that “Nebraska,” Payne’s sixth and most recent film, is the culmination of all his work. It’s another road trip movie and his first film based off of an original screenplay since “Citizen Ruth” (and much better written). But “Nebraska” also feels like a pointed dedication to the state Payne grew up in. Omaha had been the setting for most of Payne’s movies, but “Nebraska” explores other realms of the state, more specifically in the city of Lincoln. That is where Montana resident Woody Grant (a brilliantly solemn Bruce Dern) is headed to collect $1 million after allegedly winning a sweepstakes contest. His adult son David (Will Forte, taking on his first big dramatic role) denies that his father won anything, as he notices quickly that the “sweepstakes” was an advertising scam. Nevertheless, Woody is relentless, prompting David to drive him all the way from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect the money. Like Payne’s other road trip films, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” “Nebraska” isn’t necessarily about where they are headed, but how they get there and what they encounter along the way. We also get to learn more about Woody and David as individuals and their complex relationship as father and son. During the trip, they see estranged family members, most of whom are just old white people who do nothing but eat, drink, and watch the football game on TV. At a bar, Woody sees his old pal Ed Pigrim (Stacy Keach), who used to co-own a mechanic shop with Woody. Despite David telling Woody not to talk about the money, the “truth” eventually comes out and Woody becomes the talk of the town. Luckily, two more Grant family members swoop in to intervene on the father and son’s quest: the blunt matriarch Kate (June Squibb) and David’s local news anchor brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Those two try to bring some sense into their pointless journey, causing even more familial tension to erupt — and so does Woody and David’s relationship. David doesn’t understand his intensely quiet father, who barely utters a word and denies being an alcoholic, despite being a consistent consumer of beer. David challenges Woody’s reasoning for what to do with the million dollars, as Woody believes he wants just buy a pickup truck and a new air compressor. However, as some troubling truths unravel, David begins to understand Woody’s condition and that his bitter quietness is really just an external cover for his loneliness. The million dollars wasn’t just meant for Woody, but for David and Ross as well. Sympathizing with him, David trudges on to Lincoln with Woody and though Woody doesn’t actually win anything, they are enriched by their experience together as father and son. What makes “Nebraska” another fantastic entry into the Payne canon is that it doesn’t veer too heavily into sentimentality, something that most family bonding films overuse. Payne trusts the audience enough to know the complexity of Woody and David’s relationship and subsequently provides authenticity to their dynamic. In addition to having fantastic performances, “Nebraska” is also aesthetically compelling. The cinematography uncovers the plain beauty of the Nebraskan landscape, which is complemented by the film’s black-and-white visuals. At times, the film can seem a little long (this seems to be a recurring thing for Payne), clocking in at almost 2 hours. “Nebraska” can be occasionally boring, but it surprisingly manages to keep its simple story from becoming too bland. As low-key as “Nebraska” may be, it remains a poetic, low-key, and well-acted story and probably one of Payne’s best.

Grade: A-

Favorite shots:

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“Casual” Season 2: Wipes the Slate Clean, Starts Fresh

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The last time we left off on the Hulu original series “Casual,” things ended on a seemingly light but deeply tense note.

The show’s protagonist, Valerie (Michaela Watkins, “Transparent”), gets caught in a whirlwind of emotional dysfunction after recklessly sleeping with both her brother’s girlfriend, Emmy (Eliza Coupe, “Happy Endings”), and her daughter’s photography teacher, Michael (Patrick Heusinger, “Frances Ha”). Reeling from this crippling truth, Valerie’s brother Alex (Tommy Dewey, “17 Again”) decides to end his relationship with Emmy. After a period of bitterness and distance, Valerie’s precocious teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr, “God Bless America”), decides to forgive her mother for her actions. What “Casual” essentially teaches is no matter how chaotic things get, family is the only thing that stands above everything else. That may sound clichéd, but “Casual” depicts that lesson with a sharp grittiness that’s uncommon in most TV shows about dysfunctional families.

After its impressive first season, “Casual” returned to the drawing board with exciting new developments and a shift in its thematic focus — while still retaining its deliberate, low-key execution. Coupled with its dark, deadpan humor and tender heart, the second season of “Casual” continues to showcase a refreshing, authentic take on familial and relationship dynamics.

Even with some positive changes on “Casual,” Valerie, Alex and Laura are still dealing with problems beyond their control. In the season opener “Phase 3,” Valerie can’t seem to evade everyday nuisances, whether it’s early morning noise from a throng of loudly chirping birds or the construction next to her office. Simultaneously, Alex attempts to exercise and do yoga in hopes of turning a new leaf from his hedonistic lifestyle. Anxious about going back to school after the events from season one, Laura looks for a new place to learn, reluctantly checking out the district’s public school.

Despite trying to make healthier life choices, the three central characters of “Casual” are completely drained, knowing that they can’t fix the huge messes they’ve made all at once. Fortunately, by helping one another, they seem to deal with their issues much more easily and directly. After making his timid friend Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, “The Ghost Writer”) stand up to Leon’s ex-fiancée, Mara (Karishma Ahluwalia, “Savages”), Alex realizes that he must also face his personal, repressed demons with his relationship to Valerie. “Tell [Mara] how it feels to be betrayed by the person you love most in the world,” Alex says to Leon in front of Mara, signifying his own inner turmoil over Valerie’s betrayal against Alex for sleeping with Emmy. This situation prompts Alex to take matters into his own hands and decides to make the healthiest choice not for himself, but for his niece Laura; he home-schools her, much to Valerie’s chagrin. “You can teach psych,” Alex smugly tells Valerie, who is a licensed therapist.

Like last season, Watkins, Dewey and Barr’s individual performances are still deserving of praise, balancing their roles with edginess and gentleness. Through show creator Zander Lehmann’s acerbic writing and executive producer Jason Reitman’s noteworthy direction, “Casual” continues to build these inherently unlikable people into three-dimensional characters and mundane scenarios into interesting plot set-ups.

The season’s second episode, “Trivial Pursuit,” is also another admirable effort from the producers, writers and actors, as it highlights the second season’s central focus on friendship in the digital age. Valerie is still tackling big life obstacles, both literal — trying to climb over a couch in the middle of her office hallway — and metaphorical — experiencing the effects of the muddled divorce from her ex-husband Drew (Zak Orth, “Wet Hot American Summer”). Alex grows frustrated at Laura’s disinterest in homeschooling and seeks to ignite her academic curiosity through a game of pop culture trivia at a college bar. Of course, things don’t go as planned, which the show spotlights through the hilarious nature of awkward, uncomfortable situations.

Yearning for some connection, Valerie appears unannounced to a birthday party hosted by estranged high school friend Karen (Pell James, “Zodiac”). It’s also where Drew happens to be, causing a series of cringe worthy (and darkly funny) moments once Valerie shows up unannounced. Meanwhile, Laura doesn’t want Alex to force a heavy-handed education on her, but rather to have her stick to a curriculum that’s easiest for her. However, these events eventually fall into place for the three characters, with Alex accepting Laura’s wishes and Valerie meeting a friendly new office neighbor (Katie Aselton, “The League”).

“Casual” makes it hard for these characters to live happy, functional lives, but ultimately satisfies by showing how Valerie, Alex and Laura don’t let their love for one another get in the way of their problems.  

Grade: A-

The Work of Ava DuVernay

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Though Black female writer/director Ava DuVernay has only made three feature films (plus a documentary), she has already established herself as one of Hollywood’s boldest successes. In fact, DuVernay has already made several firsts in her short career. She became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her second film, “Middle of Nowhere.” She was also the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and for Best Picture for her breakthrough, “Selma.” Despite a small filmography, DuVernay possesses a distinctive aesthetic and thematic style in her movies. She highlight issues of race, womanhood — more specifically, Black womanhood — uncertainty, family dynamics, and resilience, while utilizing warm visual palettes, intimate close-ups, almost all-Black casts, an R&B-esque score/soundtrack, and extended scenes of silence (something that fellow director Martin Scorsese uses in several of his films). Even though she’s only directed a meager amount of movies, DuVernay has been involved in the industry for a long time, first starting out as a journalist covering the O.J. trial and then transitioning to being a publicist/distributor for films made by Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, and more. In addition to directing an episode of ABC’s popular “Scandal,” DuVernay has been outspoken about the disproportionate amount of recognition directors/actors of color receive from studios and the Academy, especially since “Selma” was only nominated for two Oscars and robbed of other prominent awards. Her passion for filmmaking and social justice is something that certainly makes DuVernay stand out, which is why I decided to watch her body of work, and here are my thoughts:

“I Will Follow” (2010)

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DuVernay’s feature debut “I Will Follow” is a simple, relatively short, but emotionally stirring melodrama that follows a day in the life of Hollywood makeup artist Maye Fisher (a great Salli Richardson-Field) after the death of her beloved aunt Amanda (“Lean on Me”‘s Beverly Todd). Considering that “I Will Follow” had a small budget, I was impressed by DuVernay’s use of space and environment, despite the film’s low production values and 15-day shooting schedule. During the movie, Maye spends the day cleaning out items, nooks, and crannies, which ignite memories that are shown through interspersed flashbacks of her time with Amanda, who was experiencing breast cancer. Though the story is touching and really compelling at times, “I Will Follow”‘s greatest weakness is its pacing and tonal shifts. Throughout the day of cleaning and packing, there are several tense moments between Maye’s three biggest relationships — her irritable rich cousin and Amanda’s quietly grieving daughter Tiffany (Traci Thoms), her teenage nephew Raven (Dijon Talton), and her sort-of crush Troy (Omari Hardwick) — that ultimately change during their time together. Tiffany and Maye lash out at one another, with Tiffany accusing Maye of coercing Amanda into staying home in order to be with her, instead of having Amanda go to the hospital for chemotherapy. Tiffany and Maye’s scenes together are somewhat histrionic, but there are some deep-seated truths behind the two’s relationship. Despite Tiffany’s unlikability, her feelings of subordination to Maye during her mother’s time of need feel real. But at the same time, Maye recognizes Tiffany’s lack of spending time with her mother, causing an even greater rift between the two. Ultimately, their argument isn’t really resolved, making for an unsatisfying subplot. Nevertheless, “I Will Follow” has some other good moments, especially the scenes between Maye and Raven. In the beginning of the film, Raven is made out to be an angsty, unhelpful teenager, but later becomes more open once he talks with Maye during a lunch break about their favorite NBA players and the Jay-Z/Nas feud. Their scenes are sweet and fill the film’s melancholic tone with levity. In the film’s last big sequence, Maye deals with two former love interests, first from her bitter ex-boyfriend Evan (Blair Underwood) and then from Troy, whom she contemplated having a relationship with while taking care of Amanda. Ultimately, the two men seem to have certain qualms about their individual relationships with Maye. Like Tiffany, Evan is angry with Maye over her letting Amanda slowly die from breast cancer, instead of getting proper treatment. In a completely different and more intimate setting, Troy explains that he is seeing someone at the moment and therefore cannot be romantically involved with Maye. These situations only add more emotional weight to the film and to Richardson-Field’s enchanting performance as Maye. “I Will Follow” was unique in that it was considerably a more low-key drama about mourning than one would expect. It wasn’t profound, but nevertheless an admirable first effort from DuVernay, especially with her depiction of strong female characters. Strangely, the film’s title derives from a U2 song, most likely due to Amanda’s fondness of the music of the Irish rock group in one scene. That type of characterization is something not normally represented in films with predominantly Black characters. I believe Roger Ebert perfectly exemplified that idea of race representation in “I Will Follow” with his review of the film. “This is a universal story about universal emotions,” Ebert wrote. “Maybe I mention [race] because this is the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for actors who remind us here of their gifts.”

Grade: B

Favorite shot:

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“Middle of Nowhere” (2012)

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Like “I Will Follow,” DuVernay’s second film, “Middle of Nowhere,” is also a film about grieving, except not for a deceased loved one, but for an imprisoned loved one. With improved production values, amazing performances from perfectly-cast actors, beautiful cinematography, and sensitive direction (which DuVernay won a prestigious award for at Sundance), “Middle of Nowhere” is a story about promising medical student/nurse Ruby (Emaytzy Corinealdi) and her fight to get her husband Derek (“I Will Follow”‘s Omari Hardwick) out of prison. The film also had a low budget of $200,000 and was shot in a small period of time (about 19 days), but that barely shows. “Middle of Nowhere” is less about Ruby’s relationship with Derek, though it spends some time focusing on their journey together throughout his eight-year sentence. Rather, the film is more about Ruby’s self-discovery and the events and people who shape who she is and becomes. In the film’s beginning, Ruby is solely focused on getting Derek a shorter sentence and vows to stay devoted to him during several jail visits. In the meantime, she hangs out with her financially struggling sister Rosie (Edwina Findley Dickinson), her infant nephew, and her temperamental mother Ruth (“Orange is the New Black”‘s Lorraine Toussaint). Eventually, she meets friendly bus driver Brian (a phenomenal David Oyelowo), who becomes entranced by her. Ruby knows not to cheat on Derek while he’s incarcerated and makes that clear to Brian, who respects her choices. But things take a dark turn after Derek gets demerited for being involved in a prison fight. That’s not the bad part, actually. During a hearing regarding Derek’s actions, Ruby and Derek’s lawyer Fraine (Sharon Lawrence) provide enough evidence and alibi to justify Derek’s good behavior and circumstantial involvement in the fight. However, the judge at the hearing states that Derek has had a past sexual encounter with a female prison guard, which is a shock both to Ruby and the viewer. This particular scene is especially well-done, as the camera faces Ruby’s back during her reaction. We don’t see her facial expression, but we understand immediately her emotional torment over this crippling new truth. Derek is regretful and apologetic for this, but Ruby realizes she can no longer handle feeling imprisoned herself and shackled to their slowly crumbling marriage. Afterward, Ruby meets Brian again and the two flirt, dance, have sex, and ultimately begin a relationship together. In addition to Ruby and Brian’s mesmerizing, tender chemistry, “Middle of Nowhere” does a great job of showcasing Ruby’s journey as a woman who is attempting to find meaning and purpose in her life, based on her own terms and not from what others tell her. Her anxious uncertainty becomes visible in a dramatic and well-acted sequence between Ruby, her mother, and her sister. As the three sit down to eat dinner, Ruth unearths the growing tension between her and her two daughters, who have grown to resent her and one another. Ruth and Ruby’s scenes are especially heart-wrenching, as Ruth angrily berates her daughter for not being able to stand up for herself, in terms of giving up med school to take care of her husband and letting her life pass her by. Again, the camera doesn’t show Ruby’s face (only her profile), yet her seething rage is palpable, slowly unraveling in one climatic moment. The rest of the film channels those same emotions of pain, as Ruby grapples with ending her relationship with Derek in order to start a new one with Brian. Both Ruby and Derek share a sad but passionate final encounter, knowing that their love for one another is unfortunately not strong enough to last. “Middle of Nowhere” makes Ruby’s turbulent emotional journey into something spellbinding, thanks to DuVernay’s writing and direction, as well as Corinealdi’s fantastic central performance.

Grade: A-

Favorite shot:

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“Selma” (2014)

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Films like “Selma” are painful, vivid reminders that America has a difficult and often ugly past. It’s similar in subject matter of other 2010s films about racial inequality, such as 2011’s “The Help,” 2013’s “The Butler,” and 2016’s “Race.” Yet “Selma” is the rare historical film that neither sentimentalizes its plot nor lionizes its characters, but instead sends a powerful, uplifting message about the long journey towards freedom. “Selma” isn’t so much of an MLK biopic as it is a portrait of MLK’s relentless drive to get Black people the individual rights and political autonomy they deserved. It’s also a film where DuVernay’s cinematic vision is fully realized, making it her best effort yet. Despite a few historical inaccuracies (which will inevitably occur in films that dramatize history), “Selma” is a gorgeously shot, extremely well-acted, and unflinching depiction of one of the darkest times in American history, particularly for African-Americans in the South. David Oyelowo makes his second DuVernay appearance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., playing him during 1964-1965 (3-4 years until his untimely death). Oyelowo’s performance as MLK is amazing, not only in mastering King’s Southern accent, smooth cadence, and methodical mannerisms, but also in portraying his ferocious passion for social and racial justice. What surprises me most about “Selma” is how it also recognizes both the quirks and faults of its protagonist. The film observes MLK’s gentleness, personality, smoking habits, and alleged infidelities. That last part is especially jarring, as many do not know that MLK apparently had some quiet affairs, which causes friction between him and his loving wife Coretta (British actress Carmen Ejogo) in one intense, blistering scene. Nonetheless, this makes MLK’s character all the more nuanced and flawed. “Selma” is mainly concerned with MLK’s marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which he helps lead with James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), and Diane Nash (“Creed”‘s Tessa Thompson), all of whom are deserving of praise for their performances. Along with some inspiring scenes of marching, protesting, and preaching, most of “Selma” is filled with heartbreaking, often uncomfortable moments, particularly in one opening jump-scare sequence, in which several young girls are instantly killed by an explosion inside a church. Other hard-to-watch scenes include the rejection of Annie Lee Cooper’s (Oprah Winfrey) voter registration; MLK’s peaceful protest against racist Sherriff Jim Clark; a shootout scene in a restaurant where civil rights protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (“Short Term 12″‘s Keith Stanfield) gets killed, and so on. These moments are punctuated by the stinging racial slurs and discrimination that still exist in some parts of our country today, which is troubling but nevertheless should be watched and heard. A problem I initially had with “Selma” upon my first viewing in theaters was its demonization of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), who stunted MLK’s demand to allow Black people the right to vote unencumbered by police. History would say otherwise, but it should be noted that these kinds of limitations made it even harder on MLK, leading him to create the Selma-Montgomery marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The first march is unsuccessful and violent, with state troopers beating protestors and blinding them with tear gas. The march and its aftermath are televised, leading hundreds of viewers to go out to the South to march with Dr. King and others. The second march — the film’s climax — gathers everyone together, both Blacks and whites, giving the state troopers the OK to open up the bridge. However, in a bone-chilling moment of silence, Dr. King kneels, with everyone following him, almost as if they’re praying for this madness to truly be over. When MLK stands back up, everyone follows, and the civil rights leader pushes his way through the crowd, turning the march back around. Perhaps, as interpreted by some characters in the film, Dr. King was asking for God’s help and God did not answer. It’s unfortunate even for the viewer not to relish in what could have been an incredible groundbreaking moment in American history. But later, it seems as those King’s prayers were indeed heard. Southern judge Frank Johnson (a surprising cameo from Martin Sheen) allows the march to happen without fear of endangerment; President Johnson subsequently creates and signs a bill that eliminates restrictions on voting. “Selma” concludes with a hopeful, if slightly harrowing, takeaway about the Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to attain its long-standing goal of freedom. Even with all the progress made in America today since that time, “Selma” is a strong reminder that we still have a long way to go to in terms of combating racism against Black people.

Grade: A

Favorite shots:

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“Feed the Beast”: An Uneasy Mishmash of Sex, Drugs, Crime, and Cooking

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Considering AMC holds a relatively high standard after producing three critically acclaimed series — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” — it makes sense why “Feed the Beast” has received dismal reviews. Based on the Danish TV show “Bankerot” and developed by “Dexter” showrunner Clyde B. Phillips, “Feed the Beast” is missing the “it” factor that made those three aforementioned programs so successful and distinctive among the rest of television. In the show, there aren’t any colorful yet deeply flawed characters, slow-burning drama or tantalizing dialogue — at least, not yet.

While “Feed the Beast” possesses some potential as a fast-paced melodrama, it suffers from middling writing, wooden acting and a lack of chemistry between its two leads. Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) overperforms as the arrogant, cocaine-snorting chef Dion Patras, who gets out of prison after setting his restaurant on fire. His former partner Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”) is an alcoholic sommelier-turned-wine-rep and recent widow, his deceased wife Rie (Christine Adams, “Pushing Daisies”) having been part of the duo’s restaurant business. Together, Tommy and Dion are (apparently) a great team, but tensions and past mistakes immediately fuel friction between the two once they reunite.

In terms of its plot, “Feed the Beast” can actually make for an engaging, ambitious story. However, the first episode, aptly titled “Pilot Light,” doesn’t ignite a strong enough fuse to set the story in motion. Within the first 10 minutes of “Feed the Beast,” there’s already a lot going on, especially because it involves sex, drugs and even some violence to boot. After being released from prison, Dion soon finds trouble when he attempts to outrun an angry mob boss named Patrick “The Tooth Fairy” Woichick (Michael Gladis, “Mad Men”), to whom he owes money. Despite Gladis’ best efforts, his character remains bereft of any personality or threatening presence, a bland villain with a ridiculous nickname — is there anything more menacing-sounding than “The Tooth Fairy”?

Meanwhile, a sullen, wine-drinking Tommy attempts to be a caring single parent to his only son T.J. (newcomer Elijah Jacob), who has become silent after witnessing his mother’s tragic death. T.J. is the most interesting character so far on “Feed the Beast,” not just because he doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, but also because his quietness provides an authentic firmness to the show’s shaky emotional core. Schwimmer’s dramatic chops portraying lookalike and O.J.’s ex-confidant Robert Kardashian on “American Crime Story” were decent enough and are again on display in “Feed the Beast.” However, Schwimmer’s individual performance struggles to develop his troubled character into something profound and three-dimensional. Similarly, Sturgess resorts to making Dion into a loathsome, hot-headed chef stereotype, like Bradley Cooper in “Burnt” or Catherine Zeta-Jones in “No Reservations.” His scenes with Schwimmer also feel as disconnected as their characters, the two flatly and often unnaturally delivering lines to one another, as if Schwimmer and Sturgess were just placed next to one another having met only a minute before shooting.

Other than T.J., the most intriguing aspect about “Feed the Beast” is the food itself. Thanks to some sumptuous cinematography and stylized, quick-cut editing, the food made on the show is almost too savory and mouth-watering to look at. There’s a great fantasy scene at one point, where Dion holds up a plate and describes an eclectic dish of grilled octopus topped with cherry tomatoes, which can only Tommy (and the viewer) sees. In a later sequence, after a spontaneous moment of inspiration, Dion cooks up some heavenly pasta for Tommy and T.J., a sweet gesture that highlights the duo’s complicated, close relationship, only for a fleeting moment.  

Unlike other AMC first-season competitors “Preacher” and “The Night Manager,” “Feed the Beast” hasn’t found its footing right away. It bounces around thematically and tonally, juggling between a mediocre crime subplot, a character study on grief and loss and a food-centric story about the cut-throat environment of high-class cooking. At the moment, “Feed the Beast” seems unsure of itself, focusing on which of the three storylines could be the strongest, instead of how each storyline can prove to be compelling on their own, as well as blending easily with one another. If you come hungry before watching “Feed the Beast,” don’t expect to be full by the end.  

Grade: B-/C+