REVIEW: TRUTH BE TOLD – SEASON 1

Truth Be Told (2019)

Starring

Octavia Spencer (Ma)
Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)
Hunter Doohan (Your Honor)
Lizzy Caplan (Now You See Me)
Elizabeth Perkins a(28 Days)
Michael Beach (Aquaman)
Mekhi Phifer (Lie To Me)
Tracie Thoms (Cold Case)
Haneefah Wood (Schooled)
Ron Cephas Jones (Luke Cage)

Octavia Spencer in Truth Be Told (2019)

Recurring / Notable Guest Cast

Tami Roman (Saints and Sinners)
Rico E. Anderson (Hole In One)
Annabella Sciorra (Jungle Fever)
Brett Cullen (Lost)
Molly Hagan (Izombie)
Nic Bishop (Snowfall)
Barry Livingston (Argo)
Katherine LaNasa (The Campaign)
Lyndon Smith (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend)
Jeff Kober (Sully)
Laura Allen (The 4400)
Cheryl White (Major Crimes)
Tim DeZarn (The Cabin In The Woods)
Billy Miller (Suits)

Aaron Paul in Truth Be Told (2019)Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul and Lizzy Caplan star in this Apple TV+ mystery crime drama about a journalist who creates a podcast to exonerate an innocent convict. These stories always start with a jaded veteran cop who comes out of retirement for one final case: the case that made (or broke) his career. Except in Truth Be Told, the story starts with a jaded veteran reporter who leaves The New York Times to start a podcast: a retelling of the case that made her career.Creator Nichelle Tramble Spellman based this series on the novel Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber, which in turn was heavily inspired by Sarah Koenig’s juggernaut investigative podcast Serial. The plot centers on a decades-old murder case that may have convicted the wrong killer (what else is new?). Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer stars as a journalist who feels creeping guilt from having condemned a teenage boy accused of murder 20 years ago and publicly reinvestigates the case in order to redeem herself and exonerate him. Her podcast narration becomes our framing device, full of bon mots about truth and justice. Think of it as a gritty, long-game Murder, She Wrote.cristo-coolSpencer’s Poppy Scoville-Parnell made her bones publishing stories on the violent 1999 death of Stanford professor Chuck Buhrman and the weirdo neighbor kid eventually sentenced for the crime. But when a tape surfaces showing Buhrman’s teenage daughter being coached during her statement to the police, Poppy decides to reopen the case, putting herself at risk from her judgmental family, the sinister Buhrmans and the supposed murderer himself, played by Aaron Paul. (Can he please do a rom-com or something? This guy is bumming me out.) The timid teen has grown into a snarling prisoner covered in swastikas, which presents logistical and psychological challenges for Poppy, who grew up in a family of radical civil rights activists.MV5BODE2MjIzNDI4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk2OTIwMjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1489,1000_AL_The racial undercurrents of the show are one of its core strengths — how frequently do you get to see a successful, plus-size black woman on TV absolutely owning her writing career and intimidating the hell out of her naysayers? (Spencer nails this commanding role.) But so many people close to Poppy question why she would help a guy in the Aryan Brotherhood that you, too, start second-guessing her endeavor. As Poppy might tell you, something something justice, something something the truth will set you free. Watching the episodes, replete with weak coincidences and dopey plotlines, I did not care at all if Paul’s character was guilty or not, nor did I care who even killed this professor. (You literally learn almost nothing about him, anyway.) Instead, what occasionally thrilled me were the compelling family dynamics at play here, with prosperous Poppy returning home to the Bay Area — and her family’s biker bar — after living an entire other life out on the East Coast.MV5BODE2MjIzNDI4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk2OTIwMjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1489,1000_AL_We’re also treated to some delightfully creepy adult twin interactions here, thanks to Lizzy Caplan’s compelling dual performance as Buhrman’s daughters Lanie and Josie. It’s just too bad these nuanced relationships are stuck inside a mediocre murder mystery bound to a meaningless title. While Poppy reopens old wounds in Menlo Park, furtive Lanie and Josie play out their own psychodrama far from prying eyes. Lanie, a brunette hospice care doula and likely sociopath, raises alarms when Poppy comes sniffing around all these years later, but has no one to turn to but a protective aunt. Her twin sister vanished without a trace years ago, though the audience soon learns she’s now blonde, living in New York City under an assumed name and an assumed British accent. The mystery of why she disappeared is the only captivating question mark of the series, a credit to Caplan’s vacillating vulnerability and menace, which she infuses into both characters simultaneously. “You terrify me,” Josie tells her sister. (Josie narrates the original novel, where Poppy was a mere supporting character, so the switch-up here is a fascinating choice.)MV5BODE2MjIzNDI4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk2OTIwMjE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1489,1000_AL_I was most interested in Poppy’s relationships with her biker family, including her skeptical sisters, played by Tracie Thoms and Haneefah Wood, and her prickly father, played by Ron Cephas Jones. I appreciate the authenticity of Poppy and the Scovilles’ complicated connection, despite her stereotypically glamorous TV job. Wood particularly stands out during a brief but heartbreaking silent scene where her character is arrested and processed in jail, gradually humiliated as an officer removes all of the elements of her femininity. It’s a cold and powerful look into the dehumanizing experience of the American penal system. Jones is magnetic here, playing a former Black Panther who may be in the early stages of dementia. With his long face and daunting stare, he reminds me of a sea deity — a King Squid — and his patriarchal imperiousness chilled me, as though I were his daughter. Poppy, still traumatized by her mother’s early cancer death, struggles to know what to do about “Daddy’s” erratic behavior. When he speaks to her hatefully during a fugue state and later grabs her after a tense family moment, Poppy doesn’t just let it go and forgive. Instead, she holds on to her pain because of her self-respect and because she knows it might help save her dad. These are the moments when Truth Be Told sings. I would watch a version of this show as a biting family drama, but its gaze into the court of public opinion leaves it toothless.

 

REVIEW: SEE – SEASON 1

Jason Momoa in See (2019)

Starring

Jason Momoa (Aquaman)
Alfre Woodard (Luke Cage)
Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049)
Hera Hilmar (Anna Karenina)
Christian Camargo (The Hurt Locker)
Archie Madekwe (Midsommar)
Nesta Cooper (The Edge of Seventeen)
Yadira Guevara-Prip (Mad Dogs)

Jason Momoa and Archie Madekwe in See (2019)

Recurring / Notable Guest Cast

Mojean Aria (Aban and Khorshid)
Luc Roderique (The Dragon Prince)
Peter Bryant (Legends of Tomorrow)
Tantoo Cardinal (Red Snow)
Marilee Talkington (Upside Out)
Sharon Taylor (Smallville)
Hiro Kanagawa (Heroes Reborn)
Adrian Hough (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)
Lauren Glazier (Red Sparrow)
Franz Drameh (Legends of Tomorrow)
Timothy Webber (Cedar Cove)
Jessica Harper (Stardust Memories)
Joshua Henry (Sex and The City)
Aleks Paunovic (Van Helsing)
Gabrielle Rose (If I Stay)
Kyra Zagorsky (Arrow)
Dayo Okeniyi (Shades of Blue)
Alex Zahara (Horns)

Jason Momoa and Hera Hilmar in See (2019)Jason Momoa Slashes His Way Through Apple’s Weirdest New Series, Steven Knight’s action-drama is a strange-but-effective blend of its star’s burly warrior prowess and “Walking Dead” post-apocalyptic storytelling.
Hera Hilmar in See (2019)There’s a scene near the end of “See’s” hourlong, action-driven pilot where Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), the malicious ruler of one of Earth’s last civilizations with electricity, interrupts her advisers by bluntly shouting, “I wish to pray!” Retreating to an oversized footrest bathed in light, the blind leader of a blind world licks her fingers, starts speaking to God, and then masturbates until her prayer and orgasm climax together.Tantoo Cardinal, Alfre Woodard, Jason Momoa, Bree Klauser, Brianna Clark, Hera Hilmar, Mojean Aria, Marilee Talkington, Luc Roderique, and Yadira Guevara-Prip in See (2019)There’s no particular explanation for this — not in the first three episodes, anyway — and the scene highlights both the peculiar experience of watching “See” as well as the show’s early shortcomings. For as odd as creator and writer Steven Knight’s choices can be, they rarely evoke an intuitive consequence from his apocalyptic premise or a clever way to maximize the bold new world he’s trying to build.Set centuries after a deadly virus reduced the planet’s population to less than 2 million people — and left the few survivors without vision — “See” shows its characters reduced to early settlers’ way of life. Anyone who doesn’t live in or near the queen’s water-powered dam (known as Payan Kingdom) reside in small villages, spending their days hunting live animals and their nights sleeping in tipis. Some homesteaders are mystics, others have special abilities that allow them to sense people’s intentions, but most fall into the hunter or gatherer ways of life.Chief among the hunters — and Chief of the Alkenny Tribe — is Baba Voss (Jason Momoa), an unmatched, but reluctant warrior who befriends, courts, and marries a newcomer to town, all before the series begins. You see, Baba always wanted kids, but he couldn’t have them, and Maghra (Hera Hilmar) walked into the village already pregnant — coupling up was their destiny… even if it sounds like a relationship based on convenience. Even more convenient: When the pilot episode starts, a ruthless army has breached the edge of the village, hunting Maghra. These Witchfinders believe, you guessed it, she’s a witch, and, worse still, she’s carrying children sired by a man who can see. Paris (Alfre Woodard), the town’s midwife and spiritual leader, gleans as much while Maghra’s in labor and Baba is at the front of the line, defending his village.An episode-long battle ensues, and here’s where “See” starts to click — literally. As the Alkenny army approaches their enemy, they communicate with tongue taps and careful clicks, even commencing an attack by lightly clinking their weapon on a rock. Before that, Baba gives an inspirational speech that’s half mumbled English and half new-world gibberish, and Momoa’s vehemency nearly sells it. Directed with a clear eye for the natural beauty surrounding the battle (and a rudimentary vision of everything else), Francis Lawrence helps create a compelling, lengthy, and somewhat different melee. Later scenes feature more well-choreographed carnage, and the expansive sets and found locations add a beauty to the show that helps set it apart.And yet, some of it just feels silly. A certain suspension of disbelief is required for a post-apocalyptic fantasy titled “See” about an unseeing society — that much is obvious — and there are plenty of cool swordfights where a combatant will pivot and thrust into a precise spot without any explanation for how they knew where to stab, or even how they knew an opponent (not an ally) was standing there. OK, fine, but what about when Baba hears the slightest clunk of a ladder smacking against his ledge, and he wisely tips the enemy’s ladder back over — but soon after, he dumbly ignores an even louder attempt at the same attack. It’s as though we’re expected to believe everyone in “See” has heightened and dulled senses simultaneously.Alfre Woodard and Jason Momoa in See (2019)Also nagging: Why have these people regressed so much? What happened to indoor plumbing and solar power, let alone computers and cell phones? It’s as though the big picture concept requires disability equate to inability, and even if that’s not the intent — producers hired cast and crew members who are blind or have low vision, and also employed a blindness consultant — there needs to be more of an explanation for how, exactly, this society ended up living like it’s 200 years in the past instead of 200 years in the future.Sylvia Hoeks in See (2019)Momoa, meanwhile, fits the role well — so well, it’s like they named the character after him — but he’s still a far cry from multidimensionality; one can see how Momoa pulls from Drogo for Baba, building off the “Game of Thrones” favorite for fight scenes while imbuing the new guy with good dad instincts and a haunted past to help form a well-rounded lead. But Momoa isn’t a subtle performer, and scenes where he’s forced to wrestle with tough decisions or face his inner demons require Baba’s facial scars to speak for him. While Momoa is glorious to watch. Indeed, the characters can be irrational, but that is due to a return to Dark Age mentality of superstition and fear. Is it so far from our current era? I encourage viewers to stay with it, and be rewarded.

 

25 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS REVIEW: DICKINSON – There’s a Certain Slant of Light

Dickinson (2019)

Starring

Hailee Steinfeld (Bumblebee)
Toby Huss (Halloween 2018)
Jane Krakowski (Pixels)
Adrian Enscoe (Seeds)
Anna Baryshnikov (Manchester By The Sea)
Ella Hunt (Anna and The Apocalypse)

0

Recurring / Notable Guest Stars

Zosia Mamet (The Flight Attendant)
Gus Birney (Darcy)
Gus Halper (Cold Pursuit)
Jessica Hecht (Dan In Real Life)
Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager)
Matt Lauria (Kingdom)

 

There’s a Certain Slant of Light

2Christmas at the Dickinson household is — as I believe the kids still say — lit. We have: sexual escapades at the dinner table! Drunk Jane Krakowski singing Christmas carols! A cool aunt who got “widow’s euphoria” and took her husband’s death as an opportunity to clean up on a cruise to Spain with ham-eating gentlemen! Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott! Hair so tightly curled you could tug it at the bottom and it would BOING back into place! Everybody binge-reading Bleak House like it’s the streaming sensation of the day! It is the most wonderful time of the year. Unfortunately for Papa Dickinson, he has to miss all of these festivities because he has to go to Washington and insist upon the rule of law, decency, and the ongoing tolerance of slavery. He and Em have not made up. When he finds her inside refusing to bid him farewell at the curb, she threatens to be gone when he gets back. In a tender, patronizing voice, he replies, “Where would you go?”3Their relationship is one of the most intriguing of the show. His love for her is inextricable from his total control over her life. Every freedom she enjoys that most women of her station do not — to read and write (in private), to defy the pressures to get married and have children — are indulgences he is granting her and, at any moment, could rescind, and the only things he really lets her do are the things that align with his own interests. It’s his fear of having to live without her, not his respect for her desire for a life free from the drudgery of housewifery, that drives him to let her stay single forever. And he gets to let her have her “independence” because he knows there’s no real independence without financial independence, which she doesn’t have and never will. But also, he does love her and probably is a little bit in awe of her and her talents — so much so that he is terrified at the idea of the world finding out what a wonder she is.
4Mama Dickinson is so distraught at her husband’s departure that she takes herself to bed. But Christmas will go on, and Ben MUST stay, and Em, who has previously feigned an allergy to the fabric that makes aprons, will oversee the goose roasting and other such things. This allows her to flirt with Ben in the kitchen and cosplay as a housewife for a hot second because she is feeling, in her bones, the need to get out of her father’s house. Of course her only way out of one man’s house is into another’s, but at least Ben sees her as a peer and doesn’t hit her in the face when he’s feeling emasculated. Slim pickings in the mid-1800s!5Aunt Lavinia, Vinnie’s namesake, is here to talk about how invigorating it is to be around handsome ham-eating men in Europe. The Humphreys brought their friend from Concord: Louisa May Alcott, who just made $35 for her first book and will not not talk about the money, because that’s the whole reason she’s in this business. God bless her. On a pre-dinner run (“I love to run, that’s like an actual fact about me”), Ms. Alcott gives Em some no-bullshit talk about the publishing industry and working as a professional writer. This brings us the absolutely perfect line, “Hawthorne can eat a dick, am I right?” Yes, you ARE right! This will be my go-to response if and when it comes up that I never got around to reading The Scarlet Letter even though it was assigned to me twice. I should’ve been allowed to read The Handmaid’s Tale instead! The syllabus was totally sexist.
6So, Louisa tells Em to not be so precious and to write what sells. Sponcon is fine. Don’t worry about the disapproval of your family who may never speak to you again. “So what? You’ll be out there making a living on your own.” Her number-one piece of advice: Never get married. “In the time it takes you to raise one baby, you can write four or five novels and you can sell those novels.” (Em points out that she is a poet, not a novelist. LMA’s reply: Ah, that’s another problem.) Mama Dickinson rallies in time for dinner. She is sloshed. Christmas! Joseph is here and Vinnie, encouraged by her namesake’s declaration that “if you want something in life you have to reach out and GRAB IT,” takes Joe’s hand and pulls it up her skirt so she can have some hilariously timed orgasms at the dinner table. Louisa comes up with the idea for Little Women and considers, but drops, Moby Dick: “Like a dude chasing a whale? Nah, that’s fucking boring.” THAT IS TRUE. That is another book I did not finish. See above, re: sexist syllabus. Why didn’t I have to read any books by women in my senior year of high school? That’s RUDE is what it is.8Jane casually drops that she’s engaged to William Wilkinson, which makes Mama Dickinson lament that her daughter Em is “being left behind.” “Of course,” she drunkenly slurs on, “Getting married is no guarantee that you won’t be lonely.” Yikes, but also, show me the lie. As Mama Dickinson leads a round of carols, Sue, who is so jealous, tells Em to stop “throwing herself” at a married man. Em has not yet told Sue that this wife does not exist but I hope she does soon, because Sue is really bringing me down. Em puts her mother to bed, who in turn tells her daughter that it’s actually fine if she doesn’t get married because she can just stay here and take care of her parents forever! Em’s face pales. Back in her room, she and Sue are sharing a bed again. (Guess Austin got over that whole thing?) She puts it together that Ben isn’t really married, thank goodness, and she also is honest about her envy and how selfish it was of her to expect Em to just hang around and be available to her “like a pet.” I am impressed by this level of introspection. Em describes how she feels with Ben, how fully understood she feels by him, and Sue’s jealousy returns — since, you know, Austin barely understands her at all.8Happy Christmas morning! Vinnie tears into all the gifts before anyone else comes downstairs. There’s just one thing for Em that she left untouched: Plans for a conservatory, a gift from their dad. Supposedly this is so Em can “have roses all the time” but she sees it for what it really is: a bright and flower-filled prison, built and owned by her father, from which she will never escape. Sue’s Christmas gift to Austin is a very real hug and a loaded question: Can they be really honest with each other? She admits that she is afraid of having children because her mother died in childbirth. Austin says they don’t have to have kids, which is pretty progressive for a man of his day, but then they immediately have unprotected sex right there in the living room, so, we’ll see how that shakes out. Ben wakes up with this gross cough. Em walks him home and kisses him anyway because she doesn’t know about germ theory. (It wouldn’t be proven by Louis Pasteur for about 30 more years, which is bad news for everybody in range of that extremely contagious-sounding throat situation.) While this is all very sweet — Ben says he doesn’t want to get her sick, and Em says, “I’ve never felt better in my life” .8A great Christmas episode for this quirky comedy/drama show, and its defiantly worth a watch over the Christmas season.

 

REVIEW: DICKINSON – SEASON 1

Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (2019)

Starring

Hailee Steinfeld (Bumblebee)
Toby Huss (Halloween 2018)
Jane Krakowski (Pixels)
Adrian Enscoe (Seeds)
Anna Baryshnikov (Manchester By The Sea)
Ella Hunt (Anna and The Apocalypse)

Recurring / Notable Guest Stars

Darlene Hunt (The Big C)
Matt Lauria (Shaft)
Wiz Khalifa (Gangs of Roses 2)
John Mulaney (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)
Sophie Zucker (Late Night)
Samuel Farnsworth (Signing Time!)
Amanda Warren (The Purge TV)
Gus Halper (Cold Pursuit)
Robert Picardo (The Orville)
Jason Mantzoukas (The Good Place)

Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (2019)This is such bullshit. That’s how 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) feels – as Apple TV+ series Dickinson would have it – about being asked to fetch water at four in the morning. Never mind that the expletive wasn’t invented until nearly a century later. And never mind that “pretty psyched”, “nailed it” and “yo” weren’t exactly kicking around then, either. Dickinson is a peculiar, messy, anachronistic delight.Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (2019)Some reviews have taken issue with Alena Smith’s comedy series, one of the first batch of original shows from the newly launched Apple TV+, for its strangely contemporary language. But it makes a kind of sense, given that its hero was out of step with the order of the day. The real-life Massachusetts poet had her ambitions scuppered by a father (played here by Toby Huss) who did “not approve of a woman seeking to build herself a literary reputation”. In that respect, Steinfeld is perfectly cast. She has a face – and a set of elastic expressions – that feels both well-suited to a period piece (as first displayed in her Oscar-nominated role in True Grit in 2010), and resolutely out of place in it. Just as Emily Dickinson was. Steinfeld crackles with charm and impropriety.dickinson-hailee-steinfeld-orchard-600x311When we meet Emily, her mother (30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski, sweetly cruel as ever) is unsuccessfully attempting to marry her off to any man available. Emily is is as uninterested as her mother is desperate, partly because she wants to become a great writer, and “a husband would put a stop to that”, and partly because she’s in love with her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt), who is engaged to her brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) but who steals clandestine kisses with Emily in the rain.s-l300That part actually is historically accurate. Or at least, based in truth – the real-life Dickinson would write long, unmistakably romantic love letters to Susan: “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?” The solemn, elegant 2016 film A Quiet Passion, in which Cynthia Nixon played a far more timid version of Dickinson than Steinfeld portrays, omitted this relationship. Another recent adaptation (Dickinson’s having a comeback, it seems), 2018’s Wild Nights With Emily, made it its focus. It’s to Dickinson’s credit that it neither shies away from, nor ogles at, the affair between the two.1_o4tiFPgmX8XOsD7Wk_pliwBut there is another great love in Emily’s life – death. This is where things gets really weird. Making very literal the immortalised line, “Because I could not stop for death/ He kindly stopped for me”, Emily is visited at night, to the strains of Billie Eilish’s “Bury A Friend” no less, by a carriage containing the human embodiment of death. And who better to play the part than a gold-toothed, top-hatted Wiz Khalifa? Surprisingly, the rapper and Steinfeld shares a wry, roiling chemistry. “You’ll be the only Dickinson they’ll talk about in 200 years,” he tells her. I don’t think they’ll be talking about this Dickinson in 200 years. But it’s very fun nonetheless.