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Culture Cafe

Movie, music, and television reviews from a select group of bloggers.

'Mad Men' protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) shopped for a Jaguar in the newest episode. (Ron Jaffe/AMC/AP)

'Mad Men' examines the Hare Krishna movement

By Kevin YeomanScreen Rant / 05.21.12

Considering how defined the characters on Mad Men are by their pursuit of achievement, it’s not hard to imagine any of them being done near irreparable harm by the realization that perhaps they’re not fit – or no longer fit – for the world of advertising. Given the effort the likes of Don (Jon Hamm), and especially, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) have put in to attain such a career, seeing them stumble, as they have of late, is particularly worrisome when the end result of consistent failure is so dreadfully realized in the return of Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis).

Thankfully, the more fragile personalities of SCDP are largely spared the vision of a Hare Krishna Kinsey – which is a good thing, taking into account that the ego-battering of work of Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), and the effortless, drifting success of Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) have already taken a rather sizeable toll.

‘Christmas Waltz’ moves Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce a little closer to the end of 1966, but with little to show for it. Mohawk is ceasing its advertising in the wake of a mechanics strike, and the agency’s only claim to fame is Don’s letter to Lucky Strike – which inadvertently steered most of the really big fish away from the agency. In addition, none of their work is seen as revolutionary enough to warrant mention in a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece. In essence, the company’s creative side has a stagnation problem – which would normally mean no Christmas bonuses, but since Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) owes some back taxes to England, he figures passing off a new line of credit as a surplus will justify the bonus he uses to pay the sum off.

Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) seems to be the only one finding success – in work, anyway – and manages to get the agency another shot at Jaguar, following the dismissal of the poorly behaved Edwin Baker. As is the case with Pete, the response to his achievement isn’t what he’s looking for, and so he barks at Don, “Yes, you may have to stay past 5:30,” after Don mentions landing Jaguar will be a lot of work.

Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) isn’t the only one who’s noticed Don’s lack of productivity. It seems work just isn’t what it used to be for Don, and his performance on Sno Ball proves it. Making matters worse, Don and Megan attend the play American Hurrah, where a character goes on about the evils of advertising – which later causes a row between the couple, ending with Don telling Megan, “No one’s made a stronger stand against advertising than you.”

Like the deadly smog keeping Don from opening his patio door on Thanksgiving in ‘Dark Shadows,’ there is a cost for what they’ve built. Whether it’s a company, a reputation or a relationship, the taxes are coming due – so to speak – and it’s becoming clear that not everyone is going to have what it takes when the time comes to get square.

Poor Paul Kinsey has to be made the example in this case. Since being left behind following the slapdash formation of SCDP, Kinsey apparently fell down the advertising ladder and was spit out to become a Hare Krishna with dreams of settling down with a woman going by the name Lakshmi (Anna Wood) and writing for Star Trek. Paul wrangles Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) into attending a group chant, so that afterward, he can ask his friend to pass along his spec script to NBC.

Unfortunately for Paul, his writing’s no good, and worse yet, Lakshmi shows up at Harry’s office, seduces him, then tells him to stay away from Paul – the group’s best recruiter – so as to not turn Kinsey into a “gross materialist.” Following that encounter, Harry decides it best to pay Paul’s way to Los Angeles, where he can fail thousands of miles away from him and the Hare Krishnas.

Joan (Christina Hendricks) is served divorce papers at the office, and following a semi-violent outburst, is taken to test drive a Jaguar with Don. If Don found it easy to get what he wanted from people before, with Joan on his arm, the world is definitely his oyster. The two whittle away the afternoon in a bar, where Don reveals he doesn’t get a thrill out of the Jag, and Joan tells him it’s because he’s happy. On the other hand, Joan is terrified that she’s destined to be a single mother now that she’s being delivered divorce papers at work when she’s so used to getting flowers.

Amidst a discussion of the struggle that comes with starting over, Joan wonders why Don never put the moves on her, explaining, “My mother raised me to be admired.” Don tells her he was afraid of her, and jokingly thought she was dating Ali Kahn. Don deflects Joan’s attention toward a guy sitting by himself at the bar. The pair does a good job psychoanalyzing the man, assuming he’s married, but bored – his wife having committed the sin of familiarity. Don opts out at that point, giving Joan some “Mad Money” in case the guy at the bar doesn’t work out.

Taking the Jaguar back to the dealer, Don drives it rather furiously, suggesting he may need a thrill more than he thought. He arrives home drunk to find Megan itching for a fight – a state she seems in more and more, lately – and she reminds him he loved his job and had it long before he ever met her.

At the office the next day, Roger delivers Joan some flowers with a card that reads: “Your mother did a good job. Ali Kahn.” Don’s not done there; he rallies his troops, telling them they’ll be working non-stop until they land Jaguar – as an agency’s first car is how they tell the world they’ve arrived. It looks as though Don may finally be ready to start over.

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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Robin Gibb (center) and the other members of the Bee Gees were masters of the romantic ballad. (AP)

Robin Gibb was a great musician, not just a leader of a fad (+video)

By Power PopaholicPower Popaholic / 05.21.12

Bee Gees member Robin Gibb lost his battle with cancer Sunday at the age of 62. Yeah I was never a disco dude as a boy, but I later appreciated The Bee Gees and what they did accomplish.

Like another recently deceased member of the disco era, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees are often remembered as the leaders of a musical “fad” and not great musicians. It's so not true. They were prolific songwriters with harmonies that rivaled The Beach Boys. Even in my “disco hater” days I considered them the masters of the romantic ballad. Only Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Paul McCartney have outsold the Bee Gees.

Listen to the 1969 album Odessa and you’ll hear what I mean. For the whole enchilada, listen to The Ultimate Bee Gees.

The Power Popaholic staff blogs at Power Popaholic.

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'Thor' actor Chris Hemsworth says the relationship between Thor and adopted brother Loki was always one of his favorite storylines of the comics. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

'Thor 2': Chris Hemsworth talks about the super-sequel

By Sandy SchaeferScreen Rant / 05.18.12

Now that The Avengers has been unleashed on the viewing public and production is getting underway on the next component of the Marvel movie universe, Iron Man 3, fans can begin shifting their attention over to the various components being brought together and/or reuniting for Thor 2.

Expect more casting updates in the near future, along with information about whether or not side players like Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) will indeed have expanded roles in Thor 2, as director Alan Taylor gears up to start production on the God of Thunder’s next solo adventure.

In the meantime, we can bring you up to speed on Chris Hemsworth’s thoughts about the Thor sequel – including the state of the Norse God’s relationship with his sibling Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in the aftermath of what went down in The Avengers – and how Thor 2 will differ tonally from its predecessor, now that Taylor (Game of Thrones) is in charge.

Here’s Hemsworth talking to MTV about the Thor-Loki dynamic:

“It’s what I loved about the comics. It was never clean and cut and that’s it. It was always like, Thor would forgive him, they’d be friends, and Loki would betray him again. ‘You idiot, Thor! Again?’ But it was different than your normal good guy, bad guy scenario. They’re brothers, you know? Anyone with siblings understands that. ‘That’s it, I’m never talking to you again… want to play football?’”

Hiddleston has already confirmed that Thor 2 will see his Asgardian counterpart deal with the consequences of his dastardly deeds in The Avengers. As to the exact nature of Loki’s redemption: Hemsworth is keeping quiet (as naturally he would):

“He’s got to apologize, doesn’t he? Baked goods. Muffins or something. That would be a bribe we could start with. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

Back in April, Hemsworth also expressed his excitement about having Taylor as director on Thor 2 (via /Film):

“Ken [Branagh] did such a wonderful job and, with scheduling or what have you, he didn’t end up doing this one, but I’m a big fan of the GAME OF THRONES series, which is Alan’s latest work, and I think that is what’s exciting about the second one: making it sort of more tangible and having a more organic feel to Asgard and that world.”

The actor went on to emphasize why he envisions a more naturalistic portrayal of Asgard as a good thing:

“I think the science fiction element to THOR… the danger is it falls a little bit into the world of it’s “tough to throw a light to.” I think of big waterfalls and mountains and a Viking influence, where the Norse mythology kind of grew from. Having that in Asgard is going to make it all the more special and that’s what Alan wants to bring to it. I think that would be the new aspect to this one.”

Avengers‘ mid-credits scene alluded to Marvel’s plans to branch out further into the realm of cosmic comic book adaptations, while also crafting more adventures based in (sorta) realistic science fiction world (Iron Man 3, Captain America 2). If the fantastical proceedings in Thor 2 are grounded with more relatable material – such as brotherly conflicts and tangible worldly designs, that would help the two branches of the Marvel movie universe to better mesh together and eventually converge (possibly, in Avengers 2).

Sandy Schaefer blogs at Screen Rant.

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'Glee' will follow both students at Lima High School and three characters who will be living in New York. (Adam Rose/Fox/AP)

'Glee' adds guest stars Kate Hudson and Sarah Jessica Parker for next season

By Scott StouteScreen Rant / 05.17.12

The shining star of Glee is looking to remain just as bright next season by adding the glamorous Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson as the latest A-listers to appear on Fox’s hit musical comedy. Fox is not saying much about what roles the two actresses will be taking on – but Parker let the news slip to Kelly Ripa this morning on Live! that she would be playing a “mentor of sorts.”

No word on whether either will sing – but Hudson has been confirmed for a six-episode arc, with Parker also appearing in a yet-to-be disclosed muti-episode arc. Hudson and Parker will join a star-studded list of guest stars that includes Whoopi Goldberg, Jeff Goldblum, Ricky Martin, Idina Menzel, and Gwyneth Paltrow – who has also expressed interest in reprising her role as the beloved substitute teacher Holly Holliday.

While details on Glee’s season 4 are still very limited – Show star Lea Michele has described creator Ryan Murphy’s ambitious plans for the upcoming season as “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary for television.” Next season Glee will convert into “show-within-a-show” style format that will bounce between McKinley High in Ohio and the performing arts school NYADA in New York City. The Ohio storyline will feature a set of new characters as well as those returning who did not graduate yet – while the NYC arc will center on returning cast members Lea Michele (Rachel), Chris Colfer (Kurt) and Cory Monteith (Fin).

Glee will also give its third season finale a star-studded send off. The finale titled “Goodbye” is set to air May 22nd and will contain guest-appearances from everyone’s favorite human train wreck Lindsay Lohan and internet loud mouth Perez Hilton. Lohan and Hilton will portray judges for Nationals along with Entourage’s Rex LeeGloria Estefan will also make a special guest appearance as the mother of Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera), with Estefan stating “I’m a big Gleek myself!”

Besides a new show set-up, Glee will also be moving to a new night. Fox will be creating a more music-centric Thursday night line-up this Fall by pairing Glee with both The X Factor (in the Fall) and the American Idol results show (in the Spring). President of Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Co, Kevin Reilly calls the shows “culture-driving hits” and “strong returning tentpoles.” – and has announced that Britney Spears and Demi Lovato have been confirmed to sit on the judges panel alongside L.A. Reid and Simon Cowell on X Factor this fall.

Fox’s Tuesday nights will now stick to comedy, with returning series New Girl and Raising Hope alongside freshmen shows Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project, starring Mindy Kaling of The Office.

Scott Stoute blogs at Screen Rant.

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The cast of 'La Boheme' features husband-and-wife team Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez. (Joe Kohen/AP Images for Los Angeles Opera)

'Follies' and 'La Boheme' take Los Angeles by storm

By Staff Writer / 05.15.12

The elegant Los Angeles Opera production of the consummate classic “La Boheme,” anchoring one end of the downtown Los Angeles Music Center, is matched at the far end by a classic in the making, the sumptuous and much-lauded revival of Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 groundbreaking “Follies.”

The yin-yang contrast of these two vibrant musical events throws a neat spotlight on both the forces that keep a chestnut fresh and the challenges facing a work that is only belatedly being recognized as a theater landmark.

Both shows are constructed around the trials of two couples in the throes of passion and  inevitability. In La Boheme, of course, Mimi’s impending death becomes the engine for Giacomo Puccini’s rhapsodically romantic melodies, tunes that have left audiences humming for more than a century. In the case of Sondheim’s angst-filled duos, the clash of adult reality falling short of youthful dreams becomes the setting for two hours of what many at its debut thought was the demise of the American musical.

As Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty put it, many initially said musical theater had been hijacked by Eugene O’Neill after viewing the dyspeptic, snarky and often laugh-out-loud hilarity of 20th century realism exploding the expectations of song-filled love affairs. The song “Could I Leave You?” may be one of the most satisfying deconstructions of a broken marriage in the musical theater. This production launched last year in Washington, played on Broadway and has been nominated for eight Tony awards, including Best Revival. 

Real-life husband and wife team Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez – dubbed the fastest-rising husband and wife opera team – sing the star roles in the Puccini work, itself a rethinking created by film director Herbert Ross.

Both works spotlight the factors that keep an established classic fresh and allow a new classic to emerge. The story of the dying Parisian seamstress nearly always teeters on the verge of parody, it is so well-loved and referenced. Yet, in this production, the hot young stars bring a verve and youthful vigor to the roles that make you believe all over again, although it should be noted that this is done without a shade of irony. This is a traditional yet compelling rendition of the chestnut and audiences were breathless in their bravo, bravoing. On the other hand, the Sondheim work, with its 41-member cast and 28-member live orchestra  -- nearly the largest to ever grace the Ahmanson’s capacious stage --  as well as multiple dance numbers and fantastic costumes, is a work that is only belatedly taking its place in the annals of music theater history as a seminal masterwork.

This is due in part to the complicated, moody music and lyrics, but in no small part to the sheer size of the production. TV’s "Glee," with its delicious ironic take on the musical form, may certainly owe at least a wink to Sondheim – and the budgeting power of a broadcast network is nearly what it takes to mount a show this ambitious. This is not a show for the faint-hearted to undertake. And yet, for a work to take its rightful place  as a classic, this full-throated, pedal-to-the-metal production is what it requires.

Many in the theater lobby at intermission commented that they had never seen a production of the show before. Critics have nearly universally applauded moving Sondheim’s early work that much closer to its rightful place in theater history, at the same time noting that in these hard times for arts groups everywhere, this kind of serious yet ravishingly entertaining theater is harder than ever to find.

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'GCB' was one of the shows axed by ABC. (Karen Neal/American Broadcasting Companies/AP)

Cancelled shows 2012: ABC and the CW announce what won't be returning

By The TV Addict / 05.15.12

Good News: According to co-creator Josh Schwartz, GOSSIP GIRL’s next 11 episodes are going to deliver in a big way. Bad News: Primarily because The CW has announced that the show’s sixth season — consisting of a paltry 11 episodes mind you — will be its last. [Source]  

Good News: An average of 1.3 million viewers per week were enough to save fan favorites HART OF DIXIE and NIKITA, both of which will be returning to The CW next fall for a second and third season respectively. Bad News: 1.3 million viewers per week were not enough to save THE SECRET CIRCLE and RINGER. #RIP [Source]

Good News: In an effort to keep their license to print money happy, ABC has rewarded both Shonda Rhimes’ SCANDAL and PRIVATE PRACTICE with somewhat surprising second and sixth season renewals. Bad News: THE RIVER and MISSING were not produced by Shonda Rhimes, and thus, will not be joining SCANDAL and PRIVATE PRACTICE on ABC’s sked next fall.

Good News: ABC just announced the surprise renewal of an hour long drama many thought was perilously close to cancellation. Bad News: No, GCB did not get a last minute reprieve (#RIP), but rather the write-by-numbers procedural that is BODY OF PROOF. #GROAN.

The TV Addict staff blogs at The TV Addict.

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'30 Rock' will be one of the NBC comedies returning for an abbreviated season next year. (Ali Goldstein/NBC/AP)

NBC's '30 Rock,' 'Community,' and 'Parks and Recreation' will be renewed, sources say

By Scott StouteScreen Rant / 05.11.12

For those who are big fans of NBC’s Thursday night comedy line up, the news is good as the network is close to smoothing out deals for 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Community to return next season—but there’s a catch.

In what will be the seventh (and most likely final) season of 30 Rock, the Emmy-winning comedy series has been cut down to an episode count of only 13 or 14 shows. NBC has secured deals with the series’ key writers as well as co-executive producers Jack Burditt, Josh Siegal, and Dylan Morgan. Community and Parks and Recreation are also expected to make a return for next season, also with reductions in episodes. Following a long midseason hiatusCommunity returned in March to complete its third season and will enter its fourth next fall with Parks and Rec back for a fifth.

No official word if either Parks and Recreation or Community will meet their ends next season—but rumors of 30 Rock’s swan song have been popping up for awhile – one of the most recent being from the unmuzzled mouth of  show star Alec Baldwin. After Twitter tirades about new time slots, and “stalking” from NBC’s Today Show, Baldwin stated that he will be back on the hit comedy next year, but 2013 will be its end. Baldwin then concluded his online outburst with “I think I’m leaving NBC just in time.”  The much calmer Tina Fey added to the claim last month on The View by saying the end is “visible on the horizon… We can’t do this for 35 years.”

NBC abbreviating its veteran Thursday night lineup may be a way of not only saving some money, but making room for the new comedies the network has planned – including Go On, starring former Friends alum Matthew Perry, which the network has recently picked up. With freshman shows Whitney and Up All Night not doing so well, it seems likely both will be added to the comedy cleanse – especially Whitney, as show star Whitney Cummings has landed a new talk show on E! called Love You, Mean It with Whitney Cummings, which is set to air this fall.

Scott Stoute blogs at Screen Rant.

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The 'Modern Family' cast, including Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and Manny (Rico Rodriguez), paid a visit to Disneyland in the newest episode. (ABC)

Sofia Vergara and 'Modern Family' cast go to Disneyland

By Richard M. SimmsThe TV Addict / 05.10.12

As a kid watching reruns of THE BRADY BUNCH, the one episode I was happy to watch over and over was the one in which the whole gang went to Kings Island amusement park. Other people wanted to see the mixed family hit the beach to watch Greg hang 10, but I was all about seeing them break every rule of theme park etiquette in their mad dash to get Mike’s sketches to the manager’s office before his butt could be fired.

Over the years, I’ve tuned into shows I’d never watch under other circumstances just to catch glimpses of parks I’ve been to, hope to go to or know I’ll only ever experience vicariously. For seven seasons, I checked out the opening credits of STEP BY STEP just to watch the Lambert-Foster clan (headed by Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers) frolic at Valencia, California’s Magic Mountain. Heck, I even suffered through a painfully unfunny episode of DINOSAURS in which the prehistoric family were forced to vacation at WeSaySoLand… a park so lame even I wouldn’t wanna go there.
  
Not surprisingly, ABC’s shows have a long history of visiting their corporate overlord, aka Mickey Mouse, at his various vacation homes. Long before last night’s MODERN FAMILY had Gloria teetering around Disneyland in high heels, we got ROSEANNE joking that an old man sitting on a bench at Disney World was clearly a robot (told they haven’t been called “robots” for years, she quipped, “Sorry. Animatronic Americans.”) and FULL HOUSE’s Danny proposing to the world’s most clueless would-be fiancé, Vicky via fireworks above Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom.

Even soaps have gotten in on the act, with both SANTA BARBARA and ALL MY CHILDREN among the sudsers to have storylines unfold at Walt Disney World.
  
Without fail, these vacation-themed jaunts wind up happening during sweeps, and to be honest, I get far more excited about them than I do about the more typical weddings, births and deaths that tend to take place in record high numbers during the months of February, May and November. And the ones which unfold at Disney’s parks are almost without fail not-so-well-disguised advertorials for the House of Mouse… and yet, when done right, they’re a hit not only with me, but regular viewers as well.

Why? Because it’s something we can all relate to. What typical family doesn’t plan a vacation to Disney or some other amusement park at some point? Doing so is as normal as many of the other things we never see TV families do… like use the bathroom or… well, watch television. So is it any wonder that watching MODERN FAMILY’s Dunphy/Pritchett clan — the very picture of upper-middle class America — taking the type of vacation we all dream of hits home? We see ourselves in them and think, hopefully, that even if we can’t take that trip this year, maybe we’ll do it next year.
  
And unlike Gloria, we’ll be sure to wear sensible shoes.

Richard M. Simms blogs at The TV Addict.

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For its third season, 'The Walking Dead' will have 10 more episodes than all of season 1, bringing its count to 16. (Gene Page/AMC/AP)

'Walking Dead' executive producer Robert Kirkman talks season 3

By Kevin YeomanScreen Rant / 05.08.12

It’s safe to say that the expectations for the upcoming third season of AMC’s The Walking Dead are fairly high, given the tease at the end of season 2 featuring not only the debut of fan-favorite Michonne (Danai Gurira), but the new season will also take the survivors off Hershel’s farm and have them set up camp in a rather ominous-looking prison.

In an an on-set interview with AMC, Kirkman offered a description of the prison set and spoke briefly on the subject of Michonne’s sword-handling skills. He also spoke about fan expectations with the inclusion of the villainous Governor (David Morrissey) and how he will play into the larger, more dangerous world that is expected to be unveiled during season 3.

According to Kirkman, the prison set is one of the most remarkable pieces of construction for a television series, and it largely works because of its faithfulness to the source material.

Kirkman said:

“The big change this season is we’ve got this amazing prison that we’re filming in. It’s absolutely stunning, and I never get used to being on set. They’ve taken a lot of what you see in the comic book series and brought it to life in ways that I didn’t think possible. This is going to be one of the most impressive looking things that’s ever been put together for a show.”

So far, The Walking Dead has been about small band of characters surviving together against the threat of the undead walkers, but in season 2, a potentially greater menace was revealed in the form of other survivors, hell bent on making the most out of the inherent lawlessness of a society in ruins. With that added danger, season 3 begins a new chapter where humans step up to the top of the food chain and once more become the primary hazard to the living.

“The plan was always to evolve naturally into a place were the zombies essentially become a manageable threat. You know the rules. You know how to deal with them. To a certain extent they become something to not really be scared of unless you mess up. Humans, however, do not follow any rules and will always do something that surprises you and are capable of doing things far worse than trying to eat you… We’re definitely going to be seeing a lot of horrible things.”

Of course, for fans of the comic, the prison storyline features horrible things done to and by the two newest members of the cast: Michonne and the Governor. To hear Kirkman say it, the adaptation of the key prison elements to television will set the standard for The Walking Dead series in terms of the scale and spectacle of the storytelling.

“When you think about The Walking Dead comic series, you think about oh, the stuff they with did the Governor, the stuff they did with the prison and Woodbury and Michonne. And that’s really a lot of the stuff that people remember the story for and that’s stuff we haven’t even gotten to in the TV show yet. So as much as people love the show, and as high as the ratings are, and as cool as the show is, I feel like we haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet. This season is absolutely going to blow people away.”

Although she was only teased at the end of the second season, Michonne quickly became one of the most talked about aspects of the finale and since then everyone seems to be fascinated with the sword-weilding mystery woman and her undead traveling companions. Although Kirkman confirms Michonne will be hacking some zombies, the show won’t lose its focus on the human drama.

“There’s been quite a bit of sword training going on and [Danai] is doing an amazing job. She’s going to do all of the hard character stuff and drama that The Walking Dead is known for, but she has tremendous physical capability and the sword training that I’ve seen is absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to see her hack up some zombies. She’s using a sword that we specially designed for the show…The origins of the sword will be revealed on the show.”

One thing fans can expect is more zombie madness when season 3 rolls around; mainly because the season has increased the episode count of season 2 - bringing the total number of episodes to 16. That’s 10 more episodes than the entirety of season 1.

“The actors and the crew and a lot of the producers would not be thrilled to hear me saying this, but I love doing 16 episodes a year. I think the more the better, and I think it’s a lot of fun. We are going to get to tell bigger stories, and tell more stories, and get into the characters a lot more. So the more the merrier.”

Kevin Yeoman blogs at Screen Rant.

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As part of the first annual Montclair Film Festival, several documentaries were screened in the town.

'First Position' and other documentaries wow at the Montclair Film Festival

By Brian GeldinThe Film Panel Notetaker / 05.07.12

Montclair, New Jersey, is a town in which I fondly spent some time working for a public relations firm a few years back. On Saturday, I returned to the happy hamlet to watch some extraordinary nonfiction films at the 1st annual Montclair Film Festival (MFF), which in full disclosure, is directed by my DOC NYC colleagues and dynamic duo Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen. According to the MFF’s Mission, it exists to nurture and showcase the talents of filmmakers from around the world, creating a cultural focal point in the Township of Montclair that unites, empowers, educates and celebrates the region’s diverse community and robust artistic heritage. MFF also has the distinction of being advised by one of its own residents, notable Comedy Central host, Stephen Colbert.

The Audience Award winner at DOC NYC, First Position, which coincidentally opened this past weekend in theaters in New York and Los Angeles via Sundance Selects, chronicles a diverse group of student dancers as they compete for scholarships at the Youth America Grand Prix. First time director Bess Kargman follows six students from varied backgrounds (including a Sierra Leone war orphan adopted by a New Jersey family) as they strive to achieve their dreams.

Festival co-director Raphaela Neihausen began the discussion after the sold-out screening by asking Kargman how the story came about. Kargman, a dancer when she was a child herself, said this was a film she knew hadn’t existed, and she doesn’t mean a “competition” film. What she means is a film that shows amazing things beyond the stage and the studio. She wanted to show how that this diverse groups of kids lead such fascinating lives when they’re not dancing, showing their relationships with their friends and their parents, and their hobbies, shattering stereotypes – not all ballet dancers are white or rich, not all male ballet dancers are gay, not all ballet parents are psycho. The parents are fulfilling their dreams for their kids, it’s really the kids’ dreams. Kargman said she kind of made this film for the haters of ballet to show them there is much more to ballet, calling it “half sport, half art.” One needs to have such strength and artistry, and can never show exertion. And it’s her hope that audiences feel that she has captured not only what it’s like to be a dancer, but also how it is to be young and to have this dream, and to be inspired by it even if you’re not a kid anymore. The audience applauded Kargman for that, and then the floor was open to questions from the audience.

Kargman was asked if she had determined from the get go which of the kids she would highlight as characters in the film, and if there were any others who didn’t make the final cut. She said she’s been asked this question before, and also how she could predict how well these kids would do in the competition. When she was casting the film, what she wanted besides incredible personalities and diversity were kids who step out on the stage and really do become different human beings. It is innate when a child possesses this level of artistry, grace and talent, which cannot be taught. She didn’t set out to choose winners and sort out the losers. It would not have been a problem if one of the kids did terribly and not made it to the final round, because it shows real life.

In terms of getting access to these kids and their families, Kargman said that when she was on her lunch break one day in Manhattan, she saw a banner for the Youth America Grand Prix. She snuck into the theater getting the last seat. She saw the most unbelievable dancer she had seen for that age. She was so taken aback, and determined that this would have to be her first film. She didn’t know who this girl was and couldn’t remember her name when they announced it. She went through the name of the hundreds of competitors that year. She eventually found the girl’s name, and saw that she also had a brother in the competition. They were the first two kids she knew she wanted to be in the film. In order for her to make the film, she needed to prove to the competition that it would be worth their while. They didn’t need the publicity, and wanted to know what would be in it for them. They wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to make them look bad like a reality-type show. She needed to earn their trust. She created a proposal and what her vision of the film would be. Particularly, she told them how she wanted the bodies of these dancers to be shot. They don’t like when reality dance competitions show just a close-up of the heads of the dancer, cutting off the rest of their bodies. It was always her intention to capture their full bodies, and they loved that.

After seeing the wonderful First Position at the Bellevue Theater in Montclair, I pliéd onto a trolley that gracefully rode me to the Clairidge Cinema where I saw two films with entirely different subject matter that was quite a bit more provocative and adult in nature. If First Position was a film about having dreams, no matter what age you are, these other two films were more cautionary tales about how your actions and behavior as an adult on what you either say or do can have serious ramifications on the rest of your life. It’s also ironic that last week I went to my first taping of a television talk show, The Anderson Cooper Show (airing Tuesday, May , which brings to mind these next two films. The show I went to, the guest was the husband of a woman who basically conned her whole town into thinking she had cancer so that they’d donate items to her for her wedding such as a wedding dress, and all the works totally about $13,000. The woman never had cancer, she deceived everyone, and is now in jail paying for her crime. This may seem like child’s play to Marc Dreier, prominent attorney who committed a Bernie Madoff-like crime by defrauding hundreds of millions of dollars from hedge funds.

Dreier is the subject of Marc H. Simon’s documentary, Unraveled. Simon, not only a filmmaker, but also a practicing attorney himself, who once worked at Dreier’s firm, intimately captures Dreier with unprecedented access in his last few months of house arrest awaiting his trial. How did he bridge the gap from being an attorney to making films, the moderator asked? Simon said in law school, he worked for The Innocence Project, which exonerates the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing. This was a project he was passionate about, and he wanted to bring attention to the issues. This first film, After Innocence, was about wrongful conviction, and Unraveled, his third film, is about actual guilt.

Simon said he had worked for Dreier’s law firm for six years when the implosion occurred. Before then, he would have called Dreier a mentor, someone he looked up to, he was loyal and supportive of Simon building his entertainment practice and allowing him to make his other films on the side, appreciating his entrepreneurial spirit. But when this happened, it was an ultimate betrayal. Despite losing out on deferred bonuses, Simon said he stayed on with the firm a few months longer, and during this time, he did not want to make a film about Dreier. It wasn’t until Stick Figure Productions approached Simon about making the film. At the time his film Nursery University was premiering. He said to himself, “if I don’t explore the opportunity to make a film about this, I’ll be kicking myself.” His friend as Stick Figure knew Dreier’s attorney, with whom he spoke and he in turn spoke with Dreier. Within 20 minutes of that call, Simon received a response that Dreier was interested in exploring the possibility of the film.  They had one preliminary meeting, and the next time Simon saw Dreier after that, he began filming.

There were no ground rules as to what Simon could ask. Dreier had no say over the edit of the film. Dreier was very open in terms of Simon allowing him to ask him whatever he wanted, but he didn’t know how Simon would edit the film. Simon said he used a process in the film that he calls the “unreliable narrator” by not relying on other talking heads to talk about him. It was just Dreier, who Simon said we know is a thief, a liar, and a fraud, and he’s challenging the audience to make up its own mind and decisions about Dreier. He didn’t know Simon was going to do it that way, but Dreier did have the ability to control his own story through this process, because he had the ability to say he didn’t want to answer something if he didn’t want to answer it, such was the case when Simon asked Dreier about his mother, which is included in the film to show that there are areas that Dreier wasn’t willing to reveal.

The moderator of the discussion said that Simon gave Dreier a platform to tell his side of the story, which seems to show that Dreier was showed remorse for himself and his family, but not so much for his victims, asking Simon if he felt that Dreier was being remorseful. Simon said that of the audiences who have seen the film who are challenged by that question, approximately one-third believe that Dreier is not remorseful at all. One-third of audiences catch themselves feeling some empathy for Dreier. And there’s a third who think that he is remorseful. Simon’s answer is that Dreier is not 100% a sociopath, because he does think Dreier has feelings for his family and that he is intellectually remorseful that he got caught, but not necessarily viscerally remorseful. Dreier is on the record for having remorse for his employees, and he never expresses remorse for the victims of the hedge funds. Simon said it would be interesting to see over time if that changes.

Going back to the irony of my first TV talk show taping, Anderson Cooper, a journalist for CNN, is as tame as a lamb compared to the original évocateur, Morton Downey, Jr., whose bite was as mighty as a lion. Dubbed the “Father of Trash Television,” Morton Downey Jr. pushed the boundaries of controversy and confrontation from his New Jersey studio and became a media sensation in the late 1980s. Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, shows never-before-seen footage and takes us behind Downey’s cult of personality while charting his rise and fall. Interviewees include Pat Buchanan, Sally Jesse Raphael, Alan Dershowitz, as well as Downey’s former colleagues, critics and fans. Their testimony brings new insight to a bizarre chapter of TV history. A segment of the film also reveals the behind the scenes of what happened when the Reverend Al Sharpton appeared on the show during the time of Tawana Brawley’s infamous false rape scandal. And the film later reveals Morton Downey Jr.’s own downfall after he made up a story that skinheads attacked him in an airport bathroom. Whether you loved or hated the right-leaning, cigarette smoking, in-your-face antics of Morton Downey Jr., the film is quite good, and is a provocative look at the making of a media machine, which has influenced much of television today.

Steve Adubato, a New Jersey broadcaster who worked at WOR Channel 9 in Secaucus, NJ, around the time The Morton Downey, Jr. Show began airing, moderated a discussion after the Montclair screening with directors Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller, starting by asking them why they made a film about MDJ. Kramer said he and Miller were fans of the show when they were teenagers in the late 1980s. They never went to see a taping of the show, and were just viewers, but had friends who went that are in the film.

Adubato asked the directing duo why they felt the original producers of the MDJ Show were so willing to share everything about Downey Jr. Miller said Downey Jr. sort of fell off the map in 1989 after the fake incident. Those producers had a lot of fun working on the show, but they didn’t get a lot of closure.  This film was an opportunity for them to open up about who he was and what he meant to them. Kramer added that MDJ had a dynamic personality, but he had let them down. Also, Lori, MDJ’s final wife and widow, didn’t want to be interviewed in the film. She lived the experience, and didn’t want to relive it again, and she hasn’t seen the film.

Adubato was curious to know from the fellas if they tried to speak at all with Al Sharpton. Kramer jokingly responded that they tried to speak to The Reverend Al Sharpton, and also Al Sharpton. “We have the distinction of being the only media opportunity that man has ever turned down,” Kramer said. He didn’t say, “no.” He said, “yes,” and when the date on the calendar came by, he had something else to do.

When looking at some of the loud, more obnoxious television of today with similar ideological points of view, Rush Limbaugh for example, how much of what MDJ did was a pre-cursor to today’s landscape, Adubato asked?Kramer said people were doing the MDJ act on the radio for many years, but he was one of the first people, not just to bring that act to TV, but to also to bring in younger people and male viewers. A lot of the people who were into Right wing talk before MDJ were old people playing cards. He said the most incredible passionate narrative in the world is the American story. People on the right talk about their politics constantly weaving in the American story. Downey opened the floor.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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