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The thrill is gone: Lifestyles of TV's rich and famous now must come with consequences

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The thrill is gone: Lifestyles of TV's rich and famous now must come with consequences

The rich, to put a spin on a biblical phrase, are always with us. In business, in politics — but also pretty consistently on TV too. HBO’s “Succession,” after all, took home three of the last four drama series Emmys before it wrapped its run last year. The small screen is filled with a parade of characters cossetted, burdened and driven to extremes by excessive wealth and its associated power — but is it a story we’ve seen a little too often and one that cuts a little too close to reality lately?

The answers are yes and yes, which means many series (limited and otherwise) are finding success by tapping into the lifestyles of the rich and horrible with new ways to expose those tarnished, gilded cages, including “Loot” (Apple TV+); “Mary & George” (Starz); “Griselda” and “The Gentlemen” (Netflix); “The Regime,” “The Gilded Age” and “The Righteous Gemstones” (HBO); and “Feud” (FX). And in the process, their creators are reconsidering that their wealthy, fantastically awful protagonists not only need a makeover — they also require some comeuppance.

“‘Dynasty’ was popular when I was a kid,” recalls Matthew Read, executive producer on “The Gentlemen,” a show about a man whose newly inherited estate houses a marijuana empire. “But it would be hard to have an audience look up to those characters or enjoy their conspicuous consumption in the same way [today]. Something like ‘Succession’ let you enjoy how unhappy these rich people are.”

Watching the rich enjoy their privileges, at one point, was a way for the have-nots to peep into a life they’d likely never attain. “People are aspirational,” says Gillian Anderson, who plays a TV journalist whose interview with Prince Andrew forces the royal to retreat from public life in Netflix’s “Scoop.” “Everyone always imagines that when you get that rich or famous, that means everything is going to be OK.”

“It’s interesting to see what people do with those opportunities,” says Chloë Sevigny, who plays a wealthy heiress on “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.” “It’s something we’re all curious about: What would I do with that money?”

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And as Julian Fellowes (creator of class-conscious historical drama “The Gilded Age,” who writes the show with Sonja Warfield) notes, not all rich folk need to be portrayed as horrible: “Some people who have made a lot of money are really nice and see it as their job to pull their weight. Others feel they’ve done the work and they should have fun and everyone else should push off.”

But that’s the trick these days in focusing on characters with unimaginable wealth. With suggestions that an abundance of money actually affects people’s thinking — consider the “affluenza” criminal defensewriters are shifting tack. Will Tracy has been doing this for a few years now, writing for “Succession,” penning 2022’s “The Menu” (with Seth Reiss) and creating “The Regime,” a limited series about an out-of-touch ruler in a fictional country.

“There’s that madness that seeps through all [those] projects,” Tracy says. “You can see it in ‘The Regime,’ that that amount of power and access to material resources has allowed her to create her own reality, and everyone around that person has to pretend that her reality is reality.”

That vicarious, fantastic thrill that audiences once gleaned from stories of the rich and powerful takes on different meanings in TV series about them today. As billionaires proliferate and expand the ever-widening class divide in the real world, watching the super-rich slip away without real consequences can make a show feel hollow, not aspirational.

Some series are addressing this more directly: “Griselda” invites audiences to identify with a female drug lord — a gender shift Eric Newman (who co-created the limited series with Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard and Ingrid Escajeda) says puts a new spin on things. Retribution, in the end, is exacted on her through the deaths of her children, a consequence he’d insisted on.

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“As storytellers, we have an obligation to show that there is no happy ending when there’s this much trauma,” he says. “I look at criminals sympathetically, but if you’re telling a story that adheres to authenticity, these people don’t get away with it.”

Tracy’s fresh spin in “Regime” involves a political dictator who craves love from her constituency but is way too involved in her social media perception. “When shows like ‘Dynasty’ were on TV … the richest people in the country were ciphers, this black box,” he says. “Now the richest and most powerful people in the country are very visible … and they let us into their world through social media. They want us to be part of their thought process, and their thought process is, largely, insane. … We want to watch that freak show.”

“Mary” creator DC Moore says when he was putting together his limited series about a mother and son amassing wealth and status from King James I, he recognized there is an echo of the past in today’s real world. “I feel like we’ve come back to that sort of age, in the last 10, 20 years where absolute power and autocracy is on the rise and those leaders are everywhere,” he says. “I completely had that in mind when I was writing this.”

But not every show is aiming directly at a big, consequential ending for its characters. “We’re in an interesting time, and people have a greater understanding of behind-the-curtain [life] and that money doesn’t solve everything,” says “Gemstones” creator-star Danny McBride, whose show is about a family of wealthy televangelists. “But I don’t think consequences have to be the point of [my] show. That’s not how I view storytelling, that a certain show has to follow a certain payoff.”

Meanwhile, there’s “Loot,” which has gone all in on the concept of having billions fall into the lap of a protagonist who wants to do good with it — instead of spending it, say, shooting rockets into the air or stumping for autocracy.

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Co-creator Alan Yang (with Matt Hubbard) notes that the show “isn’t a polemic; we’re not trying to change everyone’s minds. … but this show is on the end of the spectrum where we believe change is possible. It’s not just one lone billionaire, it’s not even every billionaire — everyone has to pull together to fight stratification in society. Ten nice rich people are never going to change the world. But do you have any hope that people can change? That’s baked into the show. Ultimately, that’s at the heart of what we do.”

Movie Reviews

Fresh Kills (2024) – Movie Review

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Fresh Kills (2024) – Movie Review

Fresh Kills, 2024.

Written and Directed by Jennifer Esposito.
Starring Emily Bader, Odessa A’zion, Jennifer Esposito, Domenick Lombardozzi, Annabella Sciorra, Nicholas Cirillo, Ava DeMary, Stelio Savante, Franco Maicas, David Iacono, Anastasia Veronica Lee, Taylor Madeline Hand, Maya Moravec, Nicole Ehinger, Luciana VanDette, Amanda Corday, Annie Pisapia, Camryn Adele Portagallo, Colleen Kelly, Beatrice Pelliccia, Charlie Reina, and Bettina Skye.

SYNOPSIS:

Follows the story of the loyal women of an organized crime family that dominated some of the boroughs of New York City in the late 20th century.

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A film for anyone who wonders about the specifics of what goes on in the lives of the mothers, daughters, and granddaughters part of a mobster family household, writer/director/producer/star Jennifer Esposito’s Fresh Kills, for all its clunky pacing and overreaching ambition, is fresh and packs a cumulative punch about this inescapable lifestyle.

Spanning several points in time across the 1980s and 1990s while primarily fixated on tightknit sisters Rose and Connie, Fresh Kills homes in on how these girls, especially as they grow up, couldn’t be any more different from one another, especially when it comes to the privilege of wealth and the expectations of being born into a family dynamic where the women stay at home while the men are involved in the Staten Island Mafia.

Played by Anastasia Veronica Lee and Taylor Madeline Hand as young girls before turning things over to Emily Bader and Odessa A’zion upon growing up, the former, Rose, is the quiet one (you would be forgiven if you assumed she was mute during the first 15 minutes or so) whereas Connie is upbeat and playful. Connie is seen encouraging Rose to “fly” by spreading apart her hands while being boosted on top of her knees. It’s a silly game they play in front of their new home, still innocent of what their father, Joe Larusso (Domenick Lombardozzi), does for a living. Moments later, an unnerving dialogue exchange is overheard in the garage, somewhat clueing them int to different extents. Little do the girls know, it seems no women born into this type of toxic family dynamic truly get to fly, at least independently.

Then there is the matriarch Francine (Jennifer Esposito), aware and horrified by much of her husband’s actions. At one point, in hysterics, she exclaims that she needs to get away. Yet, much like Connie when she ages, she sticks up for this spoiled lifestyle, whether from fashion, a spacious home or simply being blessed with a healthy family. Once upon a time, she did dream of being something more, apparently approached to get into modeling, yet instead ended up around the arm of Joe. Naturally, Connie becomes her favorite since she is the one to embrace and carry on the more traditional roles, whereas Rose finds herself talked down to over having goals beyond marriage and motherhood.

There is the instinct to label Francine a bad mother for trying to enforce such a status quo, and even the screenplay from Jennifer Esposito never fully gets around fleshing out all of the multidimensional characters; she comes across as a complex figure. She is someone who gave up on her dreams and has not chosen to actively go against a daughter trying to make something of herself (Rose is interested in beauty just like her mother was) and escapes something that she knows has been dysfunctional, hostile, unhealthy, and traumatic for quite some time.

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The performances from Emily Bader and Odessa A’zion are also rich, going beyond playing two characters gradually transitioning into opposites. Connie is played with such tornado-like ferocity, preaching family first and asserting that she has made the right choice in getting married and having a child, one suspects that she is trying to convince herself just as much as she is verbally tearing her sister down. Meanwhile, Rose gradually tries to come out of her shell and embark on a different path, but at every turn, she is devastatingly and tragically reminded of what she has been born into and might never escape. Naturally, Domenick Lombardozzi is wisely kept off to the side (this is not a mobster movie about the crimes themselves), but is also part of an emotional scene with Rose that ends on such a powerful note you can’t help but pity him. It’s a vicious, towering toxic masculinity takedown.

As mentioned, the pacing in Fresh Kills is sometimes off, with jumps forward in time frustratingly undercutting other developing character dynamics. One also wishes Jennifer Esposito felt more confident as a filmmaker, doing away with unnecessary needle-drops to heighten the importance of certain moments. However, she does find cohesive, full-throttle momentum for her passion project in its third act, which is riveting, heartbreaking, and empowering, retroactively shading in more depth to what comes before.  

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embed/playlist

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In 'Hit Man,' Adria Arjona found the role of a lifetime

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In 'Hit Man,' Adria Arjona found the role of a lifetime

Adria Arjona went skydiving to get over the heartbreak of missing out on a coveted role.

“It’s a little extreme, but it worked,” Arjona, 32, says on the phone days before the crime-fueled romantic comedy “Hit Man” debuted Friday on Netflix. “While I was on the plane, I thought, ‘I’m going to leave all this negativity [here]. I’m going to jump off, ground myself and completely forget about it. What’s up in the air doesn’t belong to me anymore.’ ”

With “Hit Man,” the actor has certainly landed on her feet. The critically acclaimed crowd-pleaser is the latest from prolific Texan director Richard Linklater and has already become a breakthrough project for Arjona’s rising profile in Hollywood.

“I find her amazing,” said Linklater, describing Arjona as a “wonderfully smart and hard-working collaborator from the first rehearsal until her last shot of production.”

In the film, Glen Powell plays a psychology professor who works for a police department undercover, pretending to be a killer for hire. Arjona plays Madison, who seeks out his services to eliminate her abusive husband. The two become entangled in a high-stakes, morally complicated, fiery relationship.

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The daughter of famed Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona, she was born in Puerto Rico to a Boricua mother but spent her childhood in Mexico City when not on the road with her touring father.

The chemistry is palpable between Madison (Adria Arjona) and Gary (Glen Powell) in “Hit Man.”

(Brian Roedel / Netflix)

“It’s a funny little debate that happens online,” Arjona says. “Everyone is like, ‘She’s Guatemalan’ or ‘She’s Puerto Rican,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m very much both and I carry my two flags very high up. I can’t pick.”

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Despite growing up around music, Arjona was never inclined to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I can’t sing! I would’ve embarrassed our last name,” she said, jokingly.

“I’ve always thought my dad’s job is coolest job in the world, but I wanted to do something different. I rebelled against music, and got away from it. If I’m honest with you, it’s a pretty big regret of mine now.”

As a teenager, Arjona’s family relocated to Miami. Struggling to adjust to her new environment, she began taking acting classes on her father’s suggestion. Performing, she says, helped her come out of her shell.

“If I don’t hide behind a character, it’s really hard for me to perform or be the center of attention,” she said. “I feel comfortable putting on a costume and being on stage, but I could never, and I still can’t speak in public. I had to give a speech for Glen a couple of weeks ago when we were in Austin, and I was trembling like a chihuahua.”

As an adult, Arjona moved to New York to study at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, working as a waitress to pay her bills.

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“I feel really lucky that I have a father who gave me the biggest gift in the world, which is not giving it all to me. He made that a point in raising me and my siblings,” she said. “He grew up really poor in Guatemala and he had to work to get to where he is.”

Arjona initially tried to break into theater but felt there wasn’t much space for a Latin American actress. She decided to try her luck in film and television instead, landing a small part after her first audition. Over the last decade, Arjona has built up her resume by landing parts in high-profile productions.

Adria Arjona

(Brian Bowen Smith / Netflix)

Among her most notable films are the Netflix action movies “6 Underground” and “Triple Frontier” — in the latter, she shared the screen with another actor with Guatemalan roots, Oscar Isaac. Arjona was also cast as bride-to-be Sofia Herrera in the 2022 Latino remake of “Father of the Bride” and portrays mechanic Bix Caleen in “Star Wars: Andor.”

“Getting the jobs wasn’t hard, but it was getting the roles that really served me as an actress that’s been the struggle,” she said. “I want to show the world that a Latin American woman has so many dimensions and we can be so many things.”

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Arjona says she is now at the point in her career where she is being offered opportunities she wouldn’t have gotten a few years back. She recalls Linklater telling her she was the only person he spoke to for the role of Madison in “Hit Man.”

“We were nervous because Madison demanded so many qualities in one person,” said Linklater. “Smart, funny, vivacious, mysterious, and of course so smoking hot you’d totally believe somebody would risk everything they had and had worked for all their life, including their potential freedom, just to be with. Adria is all those things.”

After meeting Arjona over video call, the filmmaker arranged for her to connect with Powell, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The two actors got along so well that by the end of their five-hour dinner, they had broken their “dry January” vows by drinking tequila.

“Glen was like, ‘Can we please do this together? I want you to be Madison,” she said.

Within days Arjona was on Zoom with Linklater and Powell writing Madison’s part.

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“That’s how Rick works. He invites the actors into the collaborative process and you’re in the writer’s room with him and you’re creating your character with your director, and your co-star. You’re writing lines, you’re pitching ideas,” she said. “That’s never happened to me.”

The process gave Arjona a creative autonomy and ownership over her character that she believes were crucial for her to craft and ultimately understand Madison’s personality.

Adria Arjona and Glen Powell flirt with each other in a bar scene in "Hit Man"

“I loved the idea that she was constantly role-playing,” says Adria Arjona of her character, Madison, in “Hit Man.” In a scene with Glen Powell as Gary.

(Brian Roedel / Netflix)

“I loved the idea that she was constantly role-playing. She’s this woman that is seeking reinvention at every turn of the page. She’s her own idea of a femme fatale, but she’s not a femme fatale,” Arjona said. “She’s playing a character within being a character. And that I found really interesting and had a lot of fun playing that.”

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For Arjona, “Hit Man” represented an opportunity to truly show off her acting chops.

“Thanks to this movie I feel just so much more confident of what I can bring to the table,” she says. “Rick and Glen did that for me.”

And what’s next? Arjona is slated to star in “El Sobreron,” the new genre tale from Guatemalan auteur Jairo Bustamante. Later this year, she can also be seen in the thriller “Blink Twice,” opposite Channing Tatum. Her strategy of not having a set plan seems to be paying off for her, successfully avoiding being pigeonholed by an industry that still has a limited view of who Latinos are.

“I’m so much more than where I was born. I have it in my veins. I carry that with me proudly, but I’m also a human,” she said. “You are your experiences, and being a Latina is definitely part of my experience, but there’s also a lot more. I’m just a woman.”

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Movie review: 'Inside Out 2' updates emotional complexity, humor – UPI.com

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Movie review: 'Inside Out 2' updates emotional complexity, humor – UPI.com

1 of 5 | Joy (L) meets Anxiety in “Inside Out 2.” Photo courtesy of Disney/Pixar

LOS ANGELES, June 12 (UPI) — Inside Out imagined the human mind as a vast, expansive Pixar world run by five basic emotions. Inside Out 2, in theaters Friday, applies that world and those emotions to the next stage in life.

Riley (voice of Kensington Tallman), who was 11 in the first film, turns 13, and her emotions grow more complex as she approaches high school. Joy (Amy Poehler) still leads Riley’s brain with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale) and Disgust (Liza Lapira).

As Joy catches up the audience on Riley, she explains Riley’s new interests and developing beliefs that form her sense of self. Just when that sounds way more organized than human personalities really are, puberty turns it all into chaos.

The sorts of issues Riley has at 13 are universal and relatable. Though she is attending an ice hockey camp, trying to impress high schoolers, the specific situation speaks to general tendencies to hide parts of ourselves to impress new people or overthink our interactions.

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Those tendencies are represented by brand new personified emotions. Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos) and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) vie for control of Riley’s brain and cause her to act out.

Personified emotions have emotions and character arcs of their own. Joy is actually not happy when Anxiety succeeds at helping Riley anticipate negative outcomes.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that anxiety can overtake other emotions in teenage years, sometimes for the rest of life. But Joy has to learn that denying other valuable emotions also can make things worse.

Inside Out 2 has a sophisticated take on anxiety. While a healthy amount can protect Riley, making too many projections on possible outcomes can make her spiral.

Anxiety alone cannot produce confidence. That Anxiety learns that lesson at age 13 bodes well for Riley’s future.

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The film uses the Inside Out milieu to address a new stage of life. The Toy Story films did that, too, as each sequel was really about what happens when children outgrow their toys, or their actual childhood.

Those are the themes but the story is that Riley trashes her sense of self to fit in, making Inside Out 2 a literal quest for Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust to rescue Riley’s sense of self from volatile new emotions.

Like the imaginary friend in the first film, the emotions encounter some other remnants of Riley’s childhood. Those artifacts make fun references to children’s shows and video games without overstaying their welcome or usefulness to the story.

The catacombs of Riley’s mind have changed since Joy last had to explore them and Riley’s imagination has been updated with new interests. The actual mechanism connecting Riley’s beliefs and sense of self looks like Avatar in the mind with bright lights and colors.

The physics of how the emotions traverse Riley’s mind work more at the behest of narrative convenience. They have fun encountering puns on sarcasm and brainstorms that manifest literally in her mind.

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Puberty also introduces a crew of construction workers handling the chaotic rebuilding, who are blatantly blue versions of the Minions. That’s fair, though, because Minions were blatant rip-offs of Pixar’s green aliens from Toy Story.

Perhaps the most impressive animation is the hockey scenes. Pixar artists animate ice skating and puck-handling worthy of the Mighty Ducks.

Inside Out is the franchise that could most naturally run forever, as there are intimate possibilities to explore pivotal life moments from this interior perspective. Follow Riley to college, postgrad life, her wedding, having kids, growing old.

Spinoffs then could explore other characters’ emotions because every single person’s life is unique.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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